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The Pontiff’s conversation with journalists

The EU document on Christmas is an anachronism

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17 December 2021

Pope Francis’ press conference on the flight from Athens, 6 December 2021

During a press conference on his return flight from Athens at the conclusion of his Apostolic Visit to Cyprus and Greece, Pope Francis described EU’s document on Christmas as an anachronism, “a sort of watered-down laicity”.

Constandinos Tsindas, Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation: Your Holiness, your strong remarks on interreligious dialogue in both Cyprus and Greece have raised at the international level challenging expectations. They say apologizing is the hardest thing to do. You have done it in a spectacular way. But what is the Vatican planning to do in practical terms in bringing together Catholic and Orthodox Christianity? Is there a Synod planned?

Yes, thank you. I did apologize; I apologized before Ieronymos, my brother Ieronymos. I asked forgiveness for all the divisions that there are among Christians, but above all those that we Catholics provoked. I also wanted to apologize, because when we look at the war of independence — Ieronymos pointed this out to me — some Catholics sided with European governments to prevent Greek independence. On the other hand, on the islands, the Catholics of the islands supported independence, they went to war; some gave their lives for their country. But the centre, let’s put it that way, at that moment sided with Europe.... And also to ask pardon for the scandal of division, at least for those things for which we are to blame. The spirit of self-sufficiency. We keep our mouths shut when we feel that we should apologize, but it always makes me think that God never tires of forgiving, never. We are the ones who tire of asking forgiveness, and when we do not ask God for forgiveness, it will be hard for us to ask it of our brothers and sisters. It is more difficult to ask forgiveness from a brother or sister than from God, because we know that he says: “Yes, now go your way, you are forgiven.” Instead, with our brothers and sisters, there is shame and humiliation. But in today’s world, we need an attitude of humility and apology. So many things are happening in the world, so many lives lost, so many wars... How can we not apologize?

Returning to this, I wanted to apologize for the divisions, at least for those that we caused. For the others, it is their leaders who must do so, but I apologize for ours and also for that episode in the war where some Catholics sided with the European governments, and those on the islands went to war to defend.... I don’t know if that’s enough (to answer your question).

And one last apology — this one comes from my heart — an apology for the scandal of the tragedy of the migrants, for the scandal of so many lives drowned at sea.

Regarding the synodal aspect: Yes, we are one flock, it is true. This division — clergy and laity — is a functional division, yes, of competence. But there is a unity, a single flock and the interplay of differences within the Church is synodality, that is, (a process of ) listening to one another and moving forward together. Syn odòs: journeying together. This is the sense of synodality that your Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Catholic Churches have preserved. Instead, the Latin Church had forgotten the Synod, it was Saint Paul VI who restored the synodal path, 54, 56 years ago, and we are journeying towards the habit of synodality, of walking together.

Lastly, you referred to the European Union document on “Christmas”.... It is an anachronism. This is what so many dictatorships have tried to do throughout history: think of Napoleon, think of the Nazi dictatorship and the Communist dictatorship.... It is a sort of watered-down “laicity”.... It is something that historically has not worked. This makes me think of something that, speaking of the European Union, I believe is necessary. The European Union has to take in hand the ideals of the founding Fathers, which were ideals of unity, of greatness, and to be attentive not to open the door to forms of ideological colonization. This could end up dividing countries and lead to the failure of the European Union. The European Union must respect each country as it is internally structured, the variety of countries, and not seek to standardize. I think it will not do so, that was not its intention. But be careful, because sometimes they come and throw out projects like this one there and they do not know what to do.... Each country has its own peculiarity, but each country is open to the others. The European Union: its own sovereignty, that of brothers and sisters within a unity that respects the uniqueness of each country. And to be careful not to be vehicles of ideological colonization. This is why that statement about Christmas is an anachronism.

Iliana Magra, Kathimerini: Holy Father, thank you for your visit to Greece. During your speech at the Presidential Palace in Athens, you spoke about the “retreat” of democracy around the world and in particular in Europe.... Could you elaborate a bit on that and tell us which countries you were referring to? And what would you say to far-right leaders and voters around Europe who profess to be devout Christians while at the same time promoting undemocratic values and policies?

Democracy is a treasure, a treasure of civilization, and it must be treasured, it must be protected. And not only protected by a superior entity, but among countries themselves, protecting the democracy of others.

Against democracy, today I perhaps see two dangers: one is that of populism, which is here and there, and is beginning to show its teeth. I am thinking of one great populism of the last century, Nazism. Nazism was a populism that by defending national values, so it claimed, ended up annihilating democratic life, indeed even killing people, annihilating them, it became a blood-stained dictatorship.

Today I will say — because you asked about right-wing governments — let’s be careful that governments — I am not saying right-wing or left-wing, I am saying something else — do not slip down this slope of populism, of so-called political populisms, which have nothing to do with “popularisms”, which are the free expression of peoples, who manifest their own identity, their folklore, their values, their art.... Populism is one thing, “popularism” another. On the other hand, democracy is weakened, it embarks on a path of slow decline, when national values are sacrificed, watered down in the direction — let’s use an ugly word, but I can’t find another one — of an “empire,” a kind of supranational government. This is something that should make us think.

Neither should we fall into populism, where the people — but it is not the people, but a dictatorship of “us and not the others” — think of Nazism; nor fall into watering down our identities in an international government. On this, there is a novel written in 1903. You are going to say “how behind the times is this Pope when it comes to literature!” A novel written by Benson, an English writer, “Lord of the World”, who dreams of a future in which an international government with economic and political measures governs all the other countries, and when you have this kind of government, he explains, you lose freedom and you try to achieve equality among all; this happens when there is a superpower that dictates economic, cultural and social behaviour to the other countries.

Democracy is weakened by the danger of populism, which is not “popularism”, and by the danger of these referrals to international economic and cultural powers... That is what comes to mind, but I am no political scientist, I am saying what I think.

Manuel Schwarz, Deutsche Presse-Agentur: Migration is a central theme not only in the Mediterranean, but also in other parts of Europe, especially in Eastern Europe these days, with so much “barbed wire”. What do you expect from the countries in this area? Poland, for example, and also Russia and other countries in Europe? For example, in Germany, where there will now be a new government.

On those people who prevent immigration or close the borders — now it is fashionable to build walls, to set up barriers of barbed wire, concertinas [curled barbed wire] — the Spanish know what this means — to prevent access. The first thing I would say is: “Think about when you were a migrant and they wouldn’t allow you to enter, when you wanted to escape your land… and now you’re the one building walls.” This works because those who build walls lose the sense of their own history, their own story, of when they were the slave of another country. Not everyone has this experience, but at least a large part of those who build walls have this experience of having been slaves.

You may say to me: “but governments have the duty to govern and if such a wave of migrants comes, you cannot govern”. I will say this. Every government must clearly say: “I can receive many.” Because the leaders know how much they are able to receive. It is their right, this is true. But migrants must be welcomed, accompanied, promoted, and integrated. If a government cannot welcome more than a certain number, it must enter into dialogue with others and let others be concerned, each of them. This is why the European Union is important, because it is able to coordinate between all governments for the distribution of migrants. Think about Cyprus or Greece or even Lampedusa. Think about Sicily. Immigrants are coming and there is no coordination among the countries of the European Union to send this one here, that one there, this one here … This basic coordination is missing.

And then, the last word I said was integrated. Integrated. Because if you do not integrate the migrant, this migrant will have a ghetto citizenship. I’m not sure if I have said it on the plane before, the example that strikes me the most is the Zaventem tragedy. The young people responsible for the catastrophe at the airport were Belgian, but the sons of migrants who were ghettoized, not integrated. If you don’t integrate the migrant — with education, with work, with care — you risk creating a guerrilla fighter, someone who will do these things to you. It is not easy to welcome migrants, it is not easy to solve the problem of migrants, but unless we solve the problem of migrants, we risk making a shipwreck of civilization. Today, in Europe — as things stand — not only are the migrants being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, but our civilization is too.

This is why the representatives of European governments need to come to an agreement. For me, a model of reception and integration in its time was Sweden, which welcomed Latin American migrants who were fleeing from military dictatorships — Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans, Brazilians — and integrated them. Today I was in a school here in Athens, and I looked over at the translator and said: “But here there is — I used a household word — there is a fruit salad of cultures. They are all mixed together.” And he said to me: “This is the future of Greece”. Integration. Integration is growing. It is important.

And then another dramatic situation I would like to mention. When migrants, before coming, fall into the hands of traffickers who take all the money they have and bring them on the boat. When they are turned away, these traffickers take them. In the Dicastery for Migrants [Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development — Section for Migrants and Refugees], there are videos showing what happens in those places where the migrants returning from those lands are sent to. Just as you cannot welcome them and then leave them, but welcome them, promote them and integrate them, so too if I send back a migrant, I have to accompany him, promote him and integrate him in his own country, not leave him on the Libyan coast. This is cruelty. If you want to know more about this, ask the Dicastery for Migrants that has these videos. And there is a film — you know of it, for sure — by Open Arms, which shows this reality. It is a horrific thing, this. But we are risking our civilization, we are risking our civilization!

Cécile Chambraud, Le Monde: On Thursday, when we arrived, we learned that you had accepted the resignation of the Archbishop of Paris, Archbishop Aupetit. Can you tell us why in such a hurry? And regarding the Sauvé Report on abuse, the Church had an institutional responsibility and the phenomenon had a systemic dimension. What do you think of this statement and what meaning could it have for the universal Church?

I will start with the second question. When making these studies, we have to be careful in the interpretations, which should be done by periods of time. When you do it over such a long time, there is a risk of confusing the way the problem was perceived in one time period, 70 years before the other. I just want to say this as a principle: A historical situation should be interpreted with the hermeneutics of that time, not our own. For example, slavery. We say: “it is horrible”. The abuses of 100 years ago or 70 years ago “are horrible”. But the way they were experienced was not the same as today. For example, in the case of abuse in the Church, covering-up, which is the way that is used — unfortunately — in families, and in neighbourhoods. We say, “no, covering up is not the way to go”. But always interpret with the hermeneutic of that time and not with ours.

For example, the famous Indianapolis study collapsed due to lack of a correct interpretation: some things were true, others not; they mixed time periods. At this stage, segmenting helps.

As for the report, I have not read it, nor have I heard the comments of the French bishops. The French Bishops will come this month and I will ask them to explain the thing to me.

With regards to the Aupetit case. I wonder: what did he do that was so serious that he had to resign? What did he do? Somebody answer me ...

We don’t know. A problem of governance or something else.

And if we do not know the accusation, we cannot condemn. Before answering I will say: investigate. Do the investigation … because there is a danger of saying: “He was condemned”. Who condemned him? “Public opinion, gossip...” “We don’t know....” If you know the reason why, say so, otherwise, I cannot answer. And you will not know why, because it was a failing on his part, a failing against the sixth commandment, but not total but of little caresses and massages that he did to the secretary: that was the accusation. This is sin, but not one of the more grave sins, because sins of the flesh are not the gravest sins: the gravest sins are those that have more of an “angelic” character; pride, hatred… these are the most grave. So Aupetit is a sinner, just as I am. I don’t know if you feel that way, but perhaps… as was Peter. The Bishop on whom Christ founded the Church. Why did the community of that time accept a sinful bishop? And that was with sins with such an angelic character, such as denying Christ! But it was a normal Church, always accustomed to feeling sinful, everyone. It was a humble Church. You can see that our Church is not used to having a bishop who is a sinner, and we pretend to say “my bishop is a saint”. No, this is Little Red Riding Hood. All of us are sinners. But when gossip grows, grows, grows, and takes away a person’s reputation, that man will not be able to lead because he has lost his good name, not because of his sin, — which is a sin, like Peter’s, like mine like yours: it is a sin! — but because of the gossip of the people responsible for reporting things. A man who has lost his good name so publicly cannot govern. And this is an injustice. That is why I accepted Aupetit’s resignation, not on the altar of truth, but on the altar of hypocrisy. This is what I want to say.

Ah, good for you! The successor of Alexey Bukalov ... He was good.

Vera Scherbakova (Itar Tass): On this trip, you have seen the heads of Orthodox Churches. You said some beautiful words about communion and reunification. When will your next meeting with Patriarch Kirill be? What are the common projects with the Russian Church? And what difficulties, do you see in this process of drawing closer?

A meeting with Patriarch Kirill is not far from the horizon. I think next week [Metropolitan] Hilarion is coming to me to arrange a possible meeting. The Patriarch has to travel, maybe to Finland, and I am always available to go to Moscow to talk to a brother. To talk to a brother, there is no need of protocols; an Orthodox brother whose name is Kirill, or Chrysostomos, or Ieronymos. And when we meet, we do not waltz around; we say things face to face. But as brothers. It is nice to see brothers arguing: it is beautiful, because they belong to the same Mother, Mother Church, but they are a bit divided. Some because of heredity, some because of a history that divided them… but we must go together and try to work, and walk in unity and for unity.

I am grateful to Ieronymos, to Chrysostomos, to all the Patriarchs who have this desire to walk together. In unity. The great Orthodox theologian Zizioulas, studying eschatology, once said jokingly that “we will find unity in the Eschaton”; that is where there will be unity. It’s a bon mot. It does not mean that we have to stand still waiting for the theologians to come to an agreement. It is what they say Athenagoras told Paul VI: “Let us put all the theologians on one island and we go somewhere else”. A witticism. But, theologians should continue to study, because this is good for us, it leads us to understand one another better, and find unity. But in the meantime, we move forward together, praying together, engaging in works of charity together. For example, I think of Sweden, of their Lutheran-Catholic Caritas, they work together. Work together and pray together. This we can do. As for the rest, let the theologians do it, since we do not understand how to do it.