An interview on ‘the courage to look ahead’
The whole planet is experiencing a crisis. At this most serious moment there is a need for guidance to accompany us and help us understand the meaning of what we are living through.
In this situation we need voices that are able to speak to everyone, leaders able to understand what is happening, but also to point the way to the post-coronavirus future. The pope is “confined.” For a pontiff who from the beginning of his Petrine ministry has declared that the Church should be “outgoing,” the situation of being in “confinement” is paradoxical.
The liturgical celebration that ended with a blessing Urbi et Orbi in an empty St. Peter’s Square on Friday, March 27, was the image of a universal condition. The emptiness of the square absorbed into itself the voices of a world sick or at risk of illness, of those called to stay at home, in isolation or quarantine. Never has St. Peter’s Square been more crowded with people as on that Friday.
With discretion Francis does not cease to be profoundly aware of the sobering events of this world. He does so from his Santa Marta residence; he does so with gestures and initiatives, and also with other interventions and messages.
Francis’ voice resounds in a world thirsting for meaning. His voice is gentle, but also decisive and robust. Austen Ivereigh, a British scholar and journalist, the pontiff’s biographer and a reliable interpreter of his thought interviewed Francis for The Tablet and Commonweal Magazine.
This interview is important and should be read with care because it helps us to move forward in this challenging time. Pope Francis spoke about how he is living and contemplating the coronavirus crisis. In a world in isolation as Easter draws near, he is preparing himself practically and spiritually for the consequences, and inviting humanity to convert to a different and better way of being. The pope is deeply troubled and grieved by so much suffering and sacrifice. But what shines through is his confidence in the possibility of transformation that is now being offered to us.
Many questions were answered orally, with recorded voice. How is the pope living through the pandemic, personally, practically and spiritually? How does he see the mission of the Church at this time? What does he think of the policies of governments in the face of the crisis, and what is it revealing about society? Does he also see in the crisis the possibility of change? Is ecological conversion possible? What of a more humane economy? And a more missionary and flexible Church? How can we live this Easter and what messages in particular does he have for the elderly, the young and the impoverished? These are some of the questions that Francis answers.
How can we be ‘close’ to others? Radical pastoral conversion
This is clearly a favorable time for “pastoral conversion.” Those who travel with him on his journeys and audiences know how important direct contact with people is for Francis. I remember that at the end of his visit to Colombia he seemed really tired. The papal retinue was surprised and heartened to see him rejuvenated by the joyful crowd awaiting him at the Nunciature. And right there he made a spontaneous speech of great passion, accompanied by gestures that revealed an unsuspected strength. The pastor cannot be separated from the people.
The condition linked to the coronavirus crisis is one of “separation,” of painful but necessary distancing. How does the pope react? He says in this interview: “Thinking of people anoints me, it does me good, it takes me out of my self-preoccupation.” The very thought of the people of God confirms and reinvigorates pastoral conversion.
And Francis reflects on his Petrine ministry. He feels that now he must “accompany” the people; he must “stay close” to them. The passion to care is rooted in Francis. He sees the Church – as he told me in the interview for La Civiltà Cattolica in 2013 – as a “field hospital.” For this reason, Francis’ thinking stretches beyond the conventional. He does so by quoting from memory The Betrothed, a 19th century Italian novel set in a time of plague. He had already done so in Brazil, on his first apostolic journey, when he refused to travel in an armored car saying: “I couldn’t go to see these people, who have such a big heart, behind a glass screen.” The virus prevents physical contact for the good of all. And so Francis tries to understand how to be “close” now. This is the issue of the pontificate at the present moment.
The care of the future
But Francis also wonders what awaits him after the crisis as part of his “service as bishop of Rome, as head of the Church”? We feel all the drama of these words because of the awareness that the post-coronavirus period: “That aftermath has already begun to be revealed as tragic and painful.” He is living this moment “with great uncertainty,” like everyone else. And yet he knows that this is “a time for inventing, for creativity.” He had said this on March 27 in the empty square, declaring it is necessary “to give space to the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of arousing. It means finding the courage to open spaces where everyone can feel called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.” This is a time when we must prepare for a future that cannot be like the past. Uncertainty – which is the dominant feeling – must be combined with inventiveness in search of solutions. The Church herself must express “apostolic creativity, creativity purified of many useless things.”
The key word is creativity, then. If one examines the writings of Jorge Mario Bergoglio one understands how this word is precisely a key for him. He often uses it, for example, when he speaks to educators, teachers and catechists. Creativity helps people to be with incomplete, open thinking.
In this interview the pope recalls “a verse from the Aeneid in the midst of defeat: the counsel is not to give up, but save yourself for better times.” There is here a very strong message of hope, which resonates in the interview: “The creativity of the Christian needs to show forth in opening up new horizons, opening windows, opening transcendence toward God and toward people, and in creating new ways of being at home.” Here Francis repeats in an updated form the adage of an anonymous Jesuit: Non coerceri a maximo sed contineri a minimo, divinum est, that is, “Do not be constrained by the greatest space, but be able to stay in the smallest space. This is divine.” He knows that it is “not easy to be confined to your house.” But this “prepares for better times.” “Take care of yourself for a future that will come,” he exclaims, “we must face staying at home with all our creativity.”
The opportunity for economic and ecological conversion
But how? The economic thoughts of the pontiff return here; he knows well that we must fight against the “throwaway culture,” which risks managing the emergency with criteria that do not protect the weak and which, on the contrary, seem to favor the promotion of the strongest. “A photo appeared the other day of a parking lot in Las Vegas where the deprived had been put in quarantine. And the hotels were empty. But the homeless cannot go to a hotel,” he says.
He is “worried by the hypocrisy of certain political personalities who speak of facing up to the crisis, of the problem of hunger in the world, but who in the meantime manufacture weapons.”
And in the end he says: “we must slow down our rate of consumption and production and learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. And to reconnect with our real surroundings.” The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity for social, economic and ecological conversion. In this situation we rediscover the significance of the encyclical Laudato Si’, his vision of the world.
Attention to the poor is central and they return to it again and again in this interview. Francis calls them the “deprived.” And he expresses himself by quoting Dostoevsky, who is very dear to him. The invitation is to descend into the “underground,” to turn to the “suffering flesh of the poor,” to pietas. This is an appeal for a more human world, which is the only one that can give substance to the future.
Francis’ gaze is rich both in direct pastoral experience and in the readings that nourished him. I note that they are the same readings that he mentioned to me in the interview he gave me in 2013: Manzoni, Virgil, Dostoevsky, Joseph Malègue. The last-mentioned, the so-called “Catholic Proust,” a French writer dear to him, lends the expression “the new saints next door,” who in this difficult moment are the “doctors, volunteers, religious, priests, workers who carry out their duties to enable this society to function.”
What about the Church? “The Church is an institution,” says Francis to prevent people from imagining – or even dreaming about – an abstract Church of beautiful souls. But what makes the Church “institution” is the Holy Spirit, who “causes disorder with charisms, but in that disorder creates harmony.” The Church is “a pilgrim and evangelizing people, always transcending every necessary institutional expression” (Evangelii Gaudium, 111). Spirit and institution for Francis never deny each other. The Church is institutionalized by the Holy Spirit and this avoids “ecclesial introversion” (EG 27) thanks to a “tension between disorder and harmony caused by the Holy Spirit.” This means that there is a fluid process of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization: what is needed remains, and not what is no longer needed. The future of the Church is neither static nor rigid. The Church lives “the freedom of the Spirit at this moment in a situation of crisis.” The ultimate criterion? Canon Law offers it: the salus animarum.
‘Go up to the mountain’
One of the tragedies of this coronavirus time is the social distance between generations. The young cannot stay with the old for fear of infecting them if they are asymptomatically positive. The old have to stay “separated” to avoid risks. The dying know that they are destined to leave this world in solitude, a tragedy that deprives the young of the wisdom of the old and the old of the future energies of the young.
The pope addresses the elderly as follows: “I know you feel death is close, and you are afraid, but look elsewhere, remember your children, and do not stop dreaming. This is what God asks of you: to dream.” And he asks the young people to have “the courage to look ahead.” He says that with Virgil. When Aeneas, defeated in Troy, had lost everything, he had two alternatives: either stay there and die, or – and this is what Francis is asking us today – “go up to the mountain.”