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The door always wide open

· Press conference of His Holiness Pope Francis in-flight from Korea to Rome ·

And he asks the international community to carefully evaluate the means to stop unjust aggression

During the return flight from Korea on Monday, 18 August, the Pontiff entertained representatives of the international media for over an hour, during which time he replied to a series of questions regarding the pilgrimage and other subjects. The conversation was introduced by the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi, sj. The questions were formulated by several journalists speaking on behalf of their respective language groups. In his greeting at the start of the conference, the Pope expressed his gratitude for their hard work. “Thank you so much,” he said, “for your work, which has been very demanding. Thank you for all you have done, and now for your attention to this conversation. Thank you very much”. 

(Sung Jin Park, Yonhap News) Holy Father, on behalf of the Korean journalists and our people I want to thank you for your visit; you have brought happiness to many people in Korea. And thank you too, for encouraging the unification of our country. Holy Father, during your visit in Korea, you spoke first of all to the families of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster and comforted them. I have two questions. First, what were your feelings when you met them? Second, aren’t you concerned that your gesture might be misunderstood politically?

Whenever you find yourself facing human suffering, you have to do what your heart tells you to. Then people will say: “He did it for this or that political reason...”; let them say what they want. But when you think of these men and women, these fathers and mothers who have lost their children, their brothers and sisters, of the immense pain of such a disaster, I don’t know, my heart.... I am a priest and I feel the need to draw near! That’s how I feel; that is the first thing. I know that the comfort that any word of mine might give is no cure, it doesn’t bring the dead back to life, but human closeness at these times gives us strength, there is solidarity.... I remember that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires I experienced two catastrophes like this one: a fire in a dance hall where a pop music concert was being held and 193 persons died. Another time, a trains disaster — I believe 120 people died. At the time, I felt the same way: a need to draw close. Human suffering is powerful, and if at these sad times we draw close we help one another greatly. As for that final question, I would like to add something. I took this [referring to a yellow ribbon worn by the families and by those who have been mobilized by the ferry tragedy]. After I wore it for half a day — I took it in solidarity with them — somebody came up to me and said: It’s better to take it off... You should be neutral...” — “But listen, where human suffering is involved, you can’t be neutral”. That was my answer; that’s how I feel. Thanks for your question.

(Alan Holdren, Catholic News Agency, aci Prensa in Lima, Peru and ewtn) As you know, United States military forces have just begun to bomb terrorists in Iraq in order to prevent a genocide, to protect the future of minorities — I’m also thinking of the Catholics in your care. Do you approve of this American bombing?

Thank you for your very clear question. In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I emphasize the word: “stop”. I’m not saying to drop bombs, to make war, but to stop the aggressor. The means used to stop him would have to be evaluated. Stopping an unjust aggressor is licit. But we also need to remember! How many times, with this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor, the powers have taken over peoples and carried on an actual war of conquest! One nation alone cannot determine how to stop an unjust aggressor. After the Second World War, there was the idea of the United Nations: that is where discussion is to take place, to say: Is this an unjust aggressor? It would seem so. How do we stop him?” This alone, nothing else.

Second, minorities. Thanks for using that word. Because people say to me: “the Christians, the poor Christians...”. And it is true, they are suffering, and martyrs, yes, there are many martyrs. But there are also men and women, religious minorities, not all Christians, and all are equal before God. To stop an unjust aggressor is a right of humanity, but it is also a right that the aggressor be stopped in order not to do evil.

(Jean-Louis de la Vaissière, France Press) Going back to the situation in Iraq: would Your Holiness be prepared, like Cardinal Filoni and Father Cadoré, the Superior of the Dominicans, to support a military intervention on the ground in Iraq in order to halt the jihadists? I have another question: Do you think you’ll be able one day to go to Iraq, maybe to Kurdistan, to support the Christian refugees who are waiting for you there, and to pray with them in this land where they have been living for two thousand years?

Thank you. A little while ago I was with the President of Kurdistan and he had a very clear view about the situation, how to find solutions.... But it was before this last aggression. I have already answered the first question: I agree that when there is in fact an unjust aggressor, he must be stopped. Yes, I am open to the idea, but I think I can say this: when my collaborators and I heard about the plight of the religious minorities and the problem, at that time, of Kurdistan, which could not receive so many people — it is a problem, you know, it simply couldn’t — we said: What can be done? We thought of a number of things. First of all, we wrote the Communiqué which Fr Lombardi read in my name. Then this Communiqué was sent to all the Nunciatures to be forwarded to the governments. Then we wrote a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.... So many things.... In the end we decided to send a personal envoy, Cardinal Filoni. And finally we thought: if necessary, when we get back from Korea, we can go there. It was one of the possibilities. So the answer is: I am open to the idea. At this moment it is not the best thing to do, but I am open to it.

(Fabio Zavattaro, Italian journalist) You, Holy Father, are the first Pope ever to fly over China. The telegram you sent to the President of China was accepted without negative comments. Do you think that these may be steps forward in a possible dialogue? And would you like to go to China?

(Fr Lombardi) Are we presently in Chinese airspace? Yes, I can announce that we are in Chinese airspace, at this moment, so the question is pertinent....

When we were about to enter Chinese airspace, I was in the cockpit with the pilots. One of them showed me there a register and told me: “In ten minutes we will enter Chinese airspace, and we have to request authorization. This is normal: we always ask each country for authorization”. I heard them as they requested authorization, and the response they received.... I witnessed this. Then the pilot said: “Now we will send the telegram”, but I don’t know how they did it. So I left them, returned to my seat and prayed hard for that great and noble Chinese people, a wise people.... I think of the great Chinese sages, theirs is a history of knowledge, of wisdom.... The Jesuits too: part of our history is there, with Father Ricci.... All these things came to mind. Do I want to go to China? Of course: tomorrow! Oh, yes. We respect the Chinese people; it is just that the Church seeks freedom for her mission, for her work; no other condition. We must not forget that fundamental document about the Chinese problem which was the Letter to the Chinese written by Pope Benedict XVI. That Letter is still timely today. It is good to reread it. The Holy See is always open to contact: always, because it has genuine esteem for the Chinese people.

(Paloma García Ovejero, of cope) Well, your next trip will be to Albania. And maybe Iraq. Then, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.... But where will you go in 2015? Let me also say: Do you know that Avila and in Alba de Tormes, there is great anticipation; can they still hope?

Yes, yes.. The President of the Republic of Korea told me, in perfect Spanish: “La esperanza es la última que se pierde”. Those were her words, hoping for the unification of Korea. I want to say this: one can hope, but a decision has not been made.

But afterwards: Mexico, Philadelphia?

No, I’ll tell you why. This year, Albania was planned, that is true. There are those who say that the Pope tends to start everything from the periphery. But no, Why am I going to Albania? For two important reasons. First, because they have managed to form a government — we think of the Balkans! — a government of national unity between Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, with an interreligious Council which is very helpful and balanced. And this is working well, it’s harmonious. The Pope’s presence is a way of saying to everyone: “We can all work together!” I felt it would be a real help to that noble people. And another thing: If we think of the history of Albania, it was, in terms of religion, the one communist country whose Constitution enshrined practical atheism. If you went to Mass, it was a violation of the Constitution. One of the ministers told me that at the time — here I want to be precise in the figures — 1,820 churches were torn down. Torn down! Orthodox churches, Catholic churches.... And other churches were turned into cinemas, theaters, dance halls.... I felt I should go: It is nearby, it can be done in a day.... Then next year, I would like to go to Philadelphia, to the Meeting of Families; I have also been invited by the President of the United States to [address] Congress, and also to New York by the Secretary [General] of the United Nations: perhaps all three cities together.... As for Mexico, the Mexicans want me to go to Our Lady of Guadalupe and I could take advantage of that trip, but it isn’t certain. And finally, Spain. The King and Queen invited me, and the bishops have invited me... there’s a flurry of invitations to go to Spain; Santiago de Compostela... maybe it is possible, but I will say no more because it’s not been decided: to go in the morning to Avila and Alba de Tormes, and to come back in the afternoon.... It might be possible....

It is possible...

Yes, but no decision has been made. And that’s the answer. Thank you.

(Johannes Schidelko, kna — German Catholic Agency) Your Holiness, what kind of relationship do you have with Benedict XVI? Is there a regular exchange of opinions and ideas, is there a common project after this Encyclical?

We see one another.... Before leaving, I went to visit him. Two weeks before, he had sent me an interesting article and asked my opinion about it.... We have a normal relationship because — I keep coming back to this idea which may not please some theologians (and I am no theologian) — I think that a Pope emeritus should not be an exception; after so many centuries, this is our first Pope emeritus. As he put it: “I’ve grown old, I don’t have the strength”. It was a fine gesture, noble yet also humble and courageous. My thinking is that 70 years ago bishops emeritus were an exception; they didn’t exist. Today bishops emeritus are an institution. I think that a “Pope emeritus” has already become an institution. Why? Because our span of life increases and at a certain age we no longer have the ability to govern well because our body is weary; our health may be good but we don’t have the ability to deal with all the problems of a government like that of the Church. I believe that Pope Benedict XVI took this step which de facto instituted Popes emeritus. I repeat, perhaps some theologian will tell you that it isn’t right, but that’s what I think. Time will tell if it is right or wrong, we shall see. You can ask me: “What if one day you don’t feel prepared to go on?” I would do the same, I would do the same! I will pray hard, but I would do the same thing. [Benedict] opened a door which is institutional, not exceptional. Ours is really a relationship between brothers. I have also said that I feel as if I have a grandfather in the house for wisdom: he is a man of wisdom, of nuance, and I find it good for me to listen to him. He also encourages me a lot. This is the relationship we have with him.

(Yoshimori Fukushima, Mainichi Shimbun) Pope Francis, first of all, thank you for your first visit to Asia. On this trip, you encountered people who have suffered. How did you feel when you greeted the seven “comfort women” at this morning’s Mass? As far as people’s suffering is concerned, as was the case in Korea, so too there were secret Christians in Japan, and next year will be the 150th anniversary of their “reemergence”. Will it be possible to pray for them together with you at Nagasaki? Thank you very much.

That would be very nice, very nice indeed! I have been invited, both by the government and by the bishops. Suffering.... You have gone back to one of the first questions. Koreans are a people who have not lost their dignity. As a people, they were invaded, humiliated, they experienced wars, now they are divided, with great suffering. Yesterday when I went to the meeting with the young people, I visited the Museum of the Martyrs. It is terrible, the suffering which those people endured, simply for refusing to trample on the Cross! It is an historic pain or suffering. This people has the capacity to suffer, and this too is part of their dignity. Today, there were these elderly women present at Mass. To think that in that invasion they were carried off as young girls into barracks to be used.... And they did not lose their dignity. Today they are showing their face, the elderly women, the last ones remaining.... [Koreans] are a people secure in their dignity. But turning to these instances of martyrdom and suffering, and these women: these are the fruits of war! Today we are in a world at war, everywhere! Someone told me, “You know, Father, we are in the Third World War, but it is being fought “piecemeal”. Do you understand? It is a world at war, where these acts of cruelty take place.

I would like to reflect on two words. The first is cruelty. Today children don’t count! We used to speak of conventional war; today, this does not count. I’m not saying that conventional wars are a good thing, of course not. But today a bomb is dropped and kills the innocent with the guilty, the child and the woman with him, his mother.... They kill everybody. But we need to stop and think a bit about the degree of cruelty at which we have arrived. This should frighten us! I don’t say this to create fear: one can make an empirical study. Today, the degree of mankind’s cruelty is frightening. The other word on which I would like to reflect, and which is related to this, is torture. Today, torture is an almost, I would say, ordinary means used in intelligence, in trials.... And torture is a sin against humanity, it is a crime against humanity. And to Catholics, I say: to torture a person is a mortal sin; it is a grave sin, but even more, it is a sin against humanity. Cruelty and torture. I would like it very much if you, in your media, would reflect on these things. How do you see these things today? What is the level of mankind’s cruelty? What do you think about torture? I think it could benefit all of us to reflect on this.

(Deborah Ball, The Wall Street Journal) Our question is this: you keep a very, very demanding pace, a tight schedule with little time for rest and no vacations; it makes these trips gruelling! Then too, in the last few months we have seen that you have had to cancel an appointment here and there, sometimes at the last minute. Is there any concern about the pace which you keep?

Well, yes, I’ve been told that! I have taken my vacation, just now, at home, as I usually do, because... once I read a interesting book, entitled: “Be Glad. You’re Neurotic”! I have my own little neuroses, but you have to take care of them, these little neuroses! You have to serve them mate every day.... One of these neuroses is that I am a bit too attached to my habitat. The last time I took a vacation outside of Buenos Aires, with the Jesuit community, was in 1975. I do always take a vacation — really — but in my habitat; I change pace. I sleep more; I read the things I want; I listen to music; I spend more time praying.... And this makes me relax. In July and part of August, I did this and it was fine. The other question, the fact that I had to cancel [certain engagements]: that is true, true enough. The day I had to go to Gemelli [Hospital], just 10 minutes beforehand, I was there but I couldn’t do it, really.... Those were very busy days. And now I have to be a little more prudent. You’re right!

(Anaïs Feuga, French Radio) In Rio, when the crowd cried out: “Francesco, Francesco”, you responded by saying “Christ, Christ”. Today how do you handle this immense popularity? How do you deal with it?

Well, I don’t know what to say.... I experience it with gratitude to the Lord that his people are happy — I really do — and wishing the best for God’s people. I experience it as people’s generosity. This is true. Interiorly, I try to think about my sins and my mistakes, lest I have any illusions, since I realize that this is not going to last long, two or three years, and then... off to the house of the Father. Then again, it isn’t wise to ask yourself this, but I experience it as the Lord’s presence in his people; he uses the bishop who is the people’s pastor in order to make many things clear. I experience it more naturally than before: before, I was a little fearful.... I do these things.... I also say to myself: don’t make mistakes, because you must not hurt this people; and all these things.... It’s a bit like that....

(Francesca Paltracca, Radio rai) For the Pope who came “from the ends of the earth” and now finds himself in the Vatican, apart from Santa Marta — you have already spoken about life there and why you decided to live there — what kind of life does the Pope have in the Vatican? People always ask us: What does he do? Where does he go? Where does he take walks? We have seen that you go to the canteen, and you surprise us every day.... We have seen that you went to the Vatican canteen, for example.... You surprise us. So, what kind of life do you lead, apart from work, in Santa Marta?

Well, I try to be free.... There are official appointments, working meetings.... But then my life is as normal as I can make it. Really, I would like to get out, but it can’t be done, it just can’t be done.... And not for safety reasons, either. It can’t be done because if you go out, people flock around you.... It can’t be done, this is a fact. But inside, at Santa Marta, I have a normal life of work, rest, conversations....

So, all told, you don’t feel yourself a prisoner?

No, no. In the beginning, yes, but now... some walls have fallen... I don’t know.... “The Pope can’t go...”. An example, to make you laugh: I go to take the elevator, suddenly someone shows up because the Pope cannot take the elevator alone. “Go back to your place, I’ll go down by myself”. End of story. So it is, no? It is normal, altogether normal.

(Sergio Rubín, Clarín) I’m sorry, but I have to ask you, on behalf of the Spanish group, which includes Argentina, a question which requires your profound theological knowledge. Your team, San Lorenzo, for the first time became American champions! I would like to know your reaction to this event, and they tell me that you are also going to receive a delegation of the Sporting Association at this Wednesday’s General Audience....

After Brazil took second place, it’s a good bit of news. I heard about it here in Seoul. They told me and then they said: “Look, they’re coming on Wednesday”. Let them come, it’s the public audience, they’ll be there.... For me, San Lorenzo is the team my whole family supported: my dad played basketball for San Lorenzo, he was on the basketball team. And as children we used to go, our mom even came with us, to the gasometer... I remember it as clearly if it were today, the season of ’46, San Lorenzo had a brilliant team, they ended up as champions.... You know, with joy; I’m happy about it. But miracles, no! Let’s not talk about miracles!

(Jürgen Erbacher, German television) The question is: for some time now, there has been talk of plans for an encyclical on ecology. Can you tell us when it will come out, and what will be its main points?

This encyclical... I’ve spoken about it at length with Cardinal Turkson, and with others, and I asked Cardinal Turkson to gather all the contributions which have arrived. And before this trip, the week before, no, four days before, Cardinal Turkson handed me the first draft. The first draft is this big...! I would say that it is a third bigger than Evangelii Gaudium! It’s just the first draft. But now there is a rather difficult problem, because, up to a certain point, one can speak with some assurance about safeguarding creation and ecology, including human ecology. But there are also scientific hypotheses [to be taken into account], some of them quite solid, others not. In this kind of encyclical, which has to be magisterial, one can only build on solid data, on things that are reliable. If the Pope says that the earth is the centre of the universe, and not the sun, he errs, since he is affirming something that ought to be supported by science, and this will not do. That’s where we are at now. We have to study the document, number by number, and I believe it will become smaller. But to get to the heart of the matter and to what can be safely stated. You can say in a footnote: “On this or that question, there are the following hypotheses...”, as a way of offering information, but you cannot do that in the body of the encyclical, which is doctrinal and has to be sound.

(Fr Lombardi) We have asked 12 questions and all the groups have had two turns. Do you want to continue or should we break for dinner?

It depends on how hungry they are....

(journalists) We aren’t hungry, we aren’t tired....

(Jung Hae Ko, Korean newspaper) Your Holiness, thank you very much for your visit to South Korea. I will ask two questions. First, immediately before the final Mass at the Cathedral of Myeong-dong, you spoke with several “comfort women”. What thoughts went through your mind? That is my first question. The second is: Pyongyang says that Christianity represents a direct threat to his regime and to his leadership. We know that something terrible has happened to the Christians of North Korea. But we don’t know what has happened. Is there a particular commitment in your heart to try to change the approach of Pyongyang towards North Korean Christians?

To the first question, I would repeat: Today, these women were present because, in spite of all they have suffered, they have dignity: they wanted to be there. I was thinking about what I spoke about a little while ago: the sufferings of war, the cruelty which war brings.... These women were used, they were enslaved, and these are acts of cruelty.... I thought of all this: the dignity which they possess and all that they have suffered. And suffering is a legacy. We say, the early Fathers of the Church said, that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. You Koreans have sown much, so very much. Out of fidelity. And now we are seeing the fruit of what the martyrs sowed. About North Korea, I don’t know... I know that there is suffering... I do know one thing for sure: that there are some relatives, many relatives, who can’t be reunited, and this creates suffering, that is true. It is suffering which comes from the division of the country. Today in the Cathedral, where I vested for Mass there was a gift for me: Christ’s crown of thorns, made of the barbed wire dividing the two parts of one Korea. And we have brought this gift, I have brought it on the plane with me.... The suffering of division, of a divided family. As I said — yesterday, I think, but I don’t remember exactly when, perhaps in speaking to the bishops, I don’t recall — we have one hope. The two Koreas are brothers; they speak the same language. When we speak the same language it is because we have the same mother. And this gives us hope. The pain of the division is great; I understand this and I pray that it may end.

(Philip Pulella, Reuters) A comment and a question: as an Italian-American, I wanted to compliment you on your English. You shouldn’t be afraid! And before you go to America, my second homeland, if you want to practice some, I’m available! Whatever accent you want... a New York accent? I’m from New York — I’m available. Here is my question: You have spoken about martyrdom. At what point are we in the [canonization] process for Bishop Romero? What would you like to see come out of this process?

The process was blocked “for prudential reasons” at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so they said. Now it is unblocked. It has been passed to the Congregation for Saints. And it is following the usual procedure for such processes. It depends on how the postulators move it forward. This is very important, to do it quickly. What I would like is a clarification about martyrdom in odium fidei, whether it can occur either for having confessed the Creed or for having done the works which Jesus commands with regard to one’s neighbour. And this is a task for the theologians. They are studying it. Because after him [Romero] there is Rutilio Grande, and there are others too; there are others who were killed, but none as prominent as Romero. You have to make this distinction theologically. For me Romero is a man of God, but the process has to be followed, and the Lord too has to give his sign.... If he wants to do it, he will do it. But right now the postulators have to move forward because there are no obstacles.

Céline Hoyeaux, La Croix) Holy Father, in your opinion, given the war in Gaza, was the prayer for peace held in the Vatican on 8 June last a failure?

Thank you, thank you for the question. That prayer for peace was absolutely not a failure. First, the initiative did not come from me. The initiative to pray together came from the two Presidents, from the President of the State of Israel and from the President of the State of Palestine. They had expressed this desire to me. Then, we wanted to do it there [in the Holy Land], but the right place couldn’t be found because the political stakes for each were quite high if you went to the other side. True, the Nunciature would have been a neutral place, but to arrive at the Nunciature the President of the State of Palestine would have had to enter Israel, and it was no easy matter. Then they said to me: “Let’s do it in the Vatican, and we will go there”. These two men are men of peace, they are men who believe in God, and they’ve experienced so many dreadful things, so many dreadful things that they are convinced that the only way to resolve this whole history is negotiation, dialogue and peace. But now your question: Was it a failure? No, I think that the door is open. All four, as representatives and I wanted Bartholomaios has to be there as the head of Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Orthodoxy — I don’t want to use terms which may not please all of the Orthodox — as Ecumenical Patriarch, it was good that he was with us. The door of prayer was opened. And we said: “We need to pray”. Peace is a gift, a gift which is merited by our work, but it is a gift. And to say to humanity that together with the path of negotiation — which is important, and of dialogue — which is important, there is also the path of prayer. Right. Then what happened, happened. But that was circumstantial. The meeting itself was not circumstantial: prayer is a basic step, a basic human attitude. At present the smoke of the bombs, the smoke of wars, does not allow the door to be seen, yet the door has remained open from that moment. And since I believe in God, I believe that the Lord is looking at that door, and he is looking upon all who pray and all who ask for his help. Yes, I like that question. Thank you. Thank you for having asked it. Thank you.

(Fr Lombardi) Holy Father, many thanks. I believe that you have spent more than an hour in conversation with us. So it is only fair that now you get some rest at the end of this trip. In any event, we know that this evening you will probably make a visit to Our Lady....

From the airport I’ll go to thank Our Lady [at St Mary Major]. It is a good thing to do. Dr Giani had made arrangements to bring a bouquet of flowers from Korea in the Korean colours, but then, as we were leaving the Nunciature, a little girl came up with a bouquet of flowers, roses, and we said: “Let’s bring these flowers from a child of Korea as a gift to Our Lady. From the airport, we will go there to pray a little and then return home.

(Fr Lombardi) Good. Know that we too will be with you, to thank the Lord for these extraordinary days. And best wishes as you again take up your ministry in Rome. We will continue to follow you and we hope that you will continue to give us, as you have done in these days, very beautiful things of which to speak. Thank you.

Thank you for your work, many thanks.... And I’m sorry I can’t spend more time with you. Thanks! Enjoy your meal!




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 20, 2020