The Confinement Pope
In the past few days, British writer and journalist Austen Ivereigh gave Pope Francis an extensive interview on the global situation caused by the current pandemic. Although previously published, the author sent the original version of his Spanish text to Palabra Nueva.
Towards the end of March I suggested to Pope Francis that perhaps it was a good time to head to the English-speaking world. The pandemic that had affected Italy and Spain had also reached the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. Without promising anything, he asked me to send him the questions. I chose six topics: each included a series of questions that he could answer (or not) as he thought best. After a week I received a communication that I had recorded some reflections around my questions. The interview was in Spanish.
The first question was about how he was living the pandemic and lockdown, both in the Holy Martha House and the Vatican in general, both practically and spiritually.
The Curia tries to get the job done, to live normally, organizing in turns so that not all people are together at the same time. A well-thought-out thing. We maintain the measures established by health authorities. Here at Casa Santa Marta two meal shifts have been made, which help a lot to alleviate the impact. Everyone works in their office or from their room with digital media. Everyone is working; there are no idle people here.
How do I live it spiritually? I pray more, because I think I should, and I think about people. It’s something I’m worried about: people. Thinking about people a unges me, it does me good, it takes me out of selfishness. Of course I have my selfishness: tuesday comes the confessor, so that’s where I fix the other things.
I think about my responsibilities now and for the after. What will be my service as bishop of Rome, as head of the church, in the after? This one then has already started to show that it will be a tragic after, a painful after, so it is worth thinking from now on. A commission has been organized through the Dicastery of Integral Human Development that works on this and meets with me.
My great concern – at least the one I feel in prayer – is how to accompany God’s people and be closer to them. This is the meaning of the seven o’clock mass in livestreaming, which many people follow and feel accompanied; of some of my interventions, and of the March 27 event in St. Peter’s Square. And a rather intense work through the Apostolic Alms, presence to accompany the situations of hunger and sickness.
I’m living this moment with a lot of uncertainty. It’s a time of a lot of inventiveness, of creativity.
In the second question, I referred to a 19th-century Italian novel much loved to Francis, and mentioned by him recently: “I Promessi Sposi” (The Brides) by Alessandro Manzoni. The drama of the novel focuses on the Plague of Milan of 1630. There are several characters of the clergy: the cowardly priest Don Abundio, the holy Cardinal Archbishop Borromeo, and the Capuchin friars who serve in the “lazareto”, a kind of field hospital where the infected are rigorously separated from the healthy. In light of the novel, how did the Pope see the Mission of the Church in the context of Covid-19 disease?
Cardinal Federico Borromeo really is a hero of that Plague of Milan. But in one of the chapters it is said that he went on to greet a people but with the carriage window closed, perhaps to protect himself. People didn’t like him very much. God’s people need the shepherd to be around, not to take care of himself too much. Today God’s people need the shepherd very close, with the selflessness of the Capuchins, who were nearby.
The creativity of the Christian must be manifested in opening new horizons, opening windows, opening transcendence towards God and towards men, and resizing in the house. It’s not easy being locked in the house. A verse from the Aeida comes to mind in the midst of defeat: the advice not to lower my arms. Save yourself for better times, because in those days remembering this that has happened will help us. Watch out for a future that’s coming. And when that future comes, remembering what happened is going to do them good.
Take care of him now, but for tomorrow. All this with creativity. A simple creativity that every day invents. Inside the home it’s not hard to find out. But don’t run away, escape in alienations, which right now don’t work.
The third question was about state policies in response to the crisis. While mass quarantine has been a sign that some governments are willing to sacrifice economic well-being for the benefit of the vulnerable, it also exposes the level of exclusion that was previously considered normal and acceptable.
True, some governments have taken exemplary steps with well-pointed priorities to defend the population. But we realize that all our thinking, whether we like it or not, is structured around the economy. In the world of finance it seems normal to sacrifice. A policy of discard culture. From start to finish. I think, for example, of prenatal selectivity. Today it’s very difficult to find people with Down syndrome on the street. When the CT scan sees them, they send them to the sender. A culture of euthanasia, legal or covert, in which the old man is given medicines to a certain extent.
The encyclical of Pope Paul VI, the Humanae Vitae, comes to mind. The great complaint of pastoralists at the time focused on the pill. And they did not realize the prophetic strength of that encyclical, which was to anticipate the neo-Maltianism that was being prepared for everyone. It is a warning from Paul VI to this wave of neo-Maltianism. We see it in the selection of people according to the possibility of producing, if useful: the culture of discarding.
The homeless are still homeless. A photograph came out the other day of Las Vegas where they were quarantined in a parking space. And the hotels were empty. But a homeless man can’t go to a hotel. That’s where the discard theory is already in operation.
The following question prompted a long and thoughtful answer. I was curious to know whether the crisis and its economic impact could be understood as an opportunity for ecological conversion, to review priorities and our ways of life. I asked him specifically whether he saw the possibility of a less liquid and more humane society and economy.
There is a Spanish saying: God always forgives, we from time to time, nature never. Partial disasters were not addressed. Today, who’s talking about the Australian fires? That a year and a half ago a ship crossed the North Pole because you could sail because the glaciers had dissolved? Who’s talking about the floods? I don’t know if it’s revenge, but it’s nature’s answer.
We have a selective memory. I’d like to stress about this. I was impressed when the 70th anniversary of the landing in Normandy was celebrated. There were top-notch people from international politics and culture. And they were celebrating. It is true that it was the beginning of the end of the dictatorship, but none remembered the 10,000 boys left on that beach.
When I went to Redipuglia on the centenary of the end of World War I, you could see a nice monument and names on the stone, that’s all. I cried thinking of Benedict XV (useless strage, useless slaughter) and the same in Anzio on the day of the deceased; in all the American soldiers buried there. Everyone had a family, everyone could be me.
Here in Europe today, when you start hearing populist speeches or political decisions of this selective kind, it is not difficult to remember Hitler’s 1933 speeches, which were about the same as the speeches of some European politician today.
A verse from Virgil comes to mind again: Meminisce iuvavit. Recover the memory, because memory is going to help us. This is a time to recover memory. It’s not humanity’s first plague. The others became anecdotes. We must recover the memory of the roots, of tradition, which is memorized. In the Exercises of St. Ignatius, the first week, and contemplation to achieve love in the fourth week, they are totally signified by memory. It’s a memory conversion.
This crisis affects us all: the rich and the poor. It’s a call for attention against hypocrisy. I am concerned about the hypocrisy of certain political figures who talk about joining the crisis, who talk about hunger in the world, and as they talk about it they make weapons. It’s time to become that functional hypocrisy. This is a time of consistency. Either we’re consistent or we lose everything.
You ask me about the conversion. Every crisis is a danger but also an opportunity. And it’s a chance to get out of danger. Today I believe that we need to slow down a certain rate of consumption and production (Laudato si, 191) and learn to understand and contemplate nature. And reconnect with our real environment. This is a conversion opportunity.
Yes, I see initial signs of conversion to a less liquid, more human economy. But let’s not lose our memory once this happens, not archive it and go back to where we were. This is the time to take the step. It is to move from the use and misuse of nature, to contemplation. We men have lost the dimension of contemplation; we have to get her back right now.
And speaking of contemplation, I would like to dwell on one point: it is time to see the poor. Jesus tells us that “you will always have the poor with you”. And it’s true. It’s a reality, we can’t deny it. They are hidden, because poverty is modest. In Rome, in the midst of this quarantine, a policeman told a man, “You can’t be on the street, you have to go home.” The answer was: “I don’t have a house. I live on the street.” Discovering that number of people who are marginalized… and because poverty is modest, we don’t see it. They’re there, we pass next door, but we don’t see them. They’re part of the landscape, it’s stuff. St. Teresa of Calcutta saw them and was encouraged to begin a path of conversion.
Seeing the poor means giving them back humanity. They’re not things, they’re not discarded, they’re people. We can’t do an welfare policy like we do with abandoned animals. And the poor are often treated as abandoned animals. We can’t do a partial welfare policy.
I dare give some advice. It’s time to go underground. Dostoyevsky’s short novel, “Memories of the Subsoil”, is well known. In another shorter account, “Memories of the Dead House,” prison hospital guards treated poor prisoners as things. And seeing how they treated one who had just died, another of the prisoners said, “Enough! That man also had a mother!” Tell us many times: that poor man had a mother who raised him with love. After that, in life we don’t know what happened. But to think of that love she received, in the illusion of a mother, helps.
We depotence the poor, we do not give them the right to dream in their mother. They don’t know what it’s like, honey, a lot of people live on drugs. And seeing that can help us discover piety, the pietas that is a dimension to God and to others.
Descend to the subsoil, and move from hypervirtualized society, without flesh, to the suffering flesh of the poor. It’s a conversion we have to do. And if we don’t start there, the conversion isn’t going to go.
I think of the saints next door at this difficult time. They’re heroes! Doctors, volunteers, religious, priests, workers who fulfill the duties to make society work. How many doctors and nurses have died! How many priests have died! How many nuns have died! Serving.
A phrase said by the tailor, in my opinion, one of the simplest but most coherent people in “I promessi sposi” comes to mind. He said: “Non ho mai trovato que il Signore abbia cominciato un miracolo senza finirlo bene” (“I have never seen God begin a miracle and do not end it well”). If we recognize this miracle of the saints next door, of these men and women heroes, if we know how to follow these traces, this miracle will end well, for the good of all. God doesn’t leave things halfway. We’re the ones who left them and left.
It’s a place of methane (conversion) that we’re living, and it’s the opportunity to do it. So let’s take care of this and move on.
The fifth question was about the need in these months to rething the Church’s way of being: perhaps a more missionary, more creative, less institution-grabbing church. Are we seeing the emergence of a home-based Church?
Less clinging to institutions? I’d say schematics. Because the Church is an institution. Temptation is to dream of a deinstitutionalized Church, for example a gnostic Church without institutions, or subject to fixed institutions, that protect it, which is a Pelagian Church. Whoever makes the Church an institution is the Holy Spirit. Which is neither gnostic nor Pelagian. He institutionalizes the Church. It is an alternative and complementary dynamic, because the Holy Spirit causes disorder with charisms, but in that disorder it creates harmony. Free Church does not mean an anarchic Church, because freedom is God’s gift. Institutionalized Church means Church institutionalized by the Holy Spirit.
A tension between disorder and harmony: that is the Church that must emerge from the crisis. We need to learn to live in a church tensioning between the disorder and harmony caused by the Holy Ghost. If you ask me which theology book most can help you understand this, it is the Acts of the Apostles. There he will find a way in which the Holy Spirit deinstitutionalizes what no longer serves and institutionalizes the future of the Church. This is the Church that must come out of the crisis.
I was telephoned a week ago by a slightly distressed Italian bishop who told me that he was touring all the hospitals wanting to give acquittal to everyone inside, from the hospital hall, but had called some canonists who told him no, that acquittal is only allowed in direct contact. “What do you say to me, Father?” asked the bishop. I said, “Monseignether, do your priestly duty.” And the bishop says to me, Grazie, ho capito (“Thank you, I understand”). Then I knew I was handing out acquittals everywhere.
That is, it is the freedom of the Spirit at that time in the face of a crisis, and not a Church closed in institutions. That does not mean that canon law is not useful: it does serve, help, and please use it well, which does us good. But the last canon says that all canon law makes sense for the salvation of souls, and that is when the door opens to us to go out in times of difficulty to bring the comfort of God.
You ask me about home church. We have to face the lockdown with all our creativity. Either we become depressed, or we alienate ourselves – for example, by means of communication that can lead us to realities that take us out of the moment – or we create. At home we need apostolic creativity, a purified creativity of so many useless things, but with the longing to be able to express faith in community and as God’s people. I mean, I’m longing, that memory that longs for and provokes hope has to help us get out of our lockdown.
Finally, I asked him about how to live this extraordinary Lent and Easter. I asked him if he had a particular message for isolated elders, young people locked up, and those impoverished by the crisis.
You tell me about isolated elders. Loneliness and distance. How old are there that children won’t see them in normal times! I remember in Buenos Aires when I visited the geriatrics I asked them: What about the family? “Ah yes, all right, all right.” Come? “Yes, they always come!” Then the nurse would tell me that the children haven’t come to see them in six months. Loneliness and abandonment, distance.
However, the elderly remain roots. And you must talk to the young people. That tension between old and young has to always be solved in the encounter. Because the young man is an outbreak, foliage, but he needs the root; other hand, it can’t bear fruit. The old man is as root. I would say to today’s elders: I know they feel death close and afraid, but look the other way, remember the grandchildren, and keep dreaming. It is what God asks of them: to dream (Joel, 3:1).
What do I tell young people? Encourage yourself to look later and be prophets. May the dream of the elders correspond to your prophecy. So is Joel 3.1.
The impoverished by the crisis are those stripped of today, who add to so many stripped-ups of ever, men and women whose marital status is “stripped away”. They’ve lost everything or they’re going to lose everything. What is the point of stripping for me today in the light of the gospel? Enter the world of the stripped, understand that the one who had, today no longer has. What I ask people to do is take care of the elderly and the young. Let them take over the story. Take care of the strippers.
And another verse of Virgil comes to mind when Aeneas, defeated in Troy, had lost everything, and he had two paths left. Or stay there and cry and end your life, or what you had in your heart to go later, climb the mountain to get out of the war. It is a beautiful verse: Cessi, et sublato montem genitore petivi. “I gave in to the resistance, and carrying my dad behind my back, I went up to the bush.”
That’s what we all have to do today: take the roots of our traditions and climb the mountain.
Invited by the American University of Notre Dame to participate in the symposium “The Search for God in America”, held in Havana between October 16 and 18, 2016, Dr. Ivereigh gave a lecture at the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center with the title “The Pope and the Great Homeland…” Read conference