Pope Francis granted an interview to Mr Luciano Fontana, editor-in-chief of the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. He focused on the war in Ukraine, saying, “I feel that before going to Kyiv I must go to Moscow”. The following are translated excerpts from the interview.
Concern about war — about all conflicts, not just the one in Ukraine — because wars are waged essentially “to test the weapons we have produced”; the pain in his knee; Italy and in particular the Church in Italy. These are some of the topics covered in the interview published Tuesday, 3 May, that Pope Francis granted to Luciano Fontana, editor-in-chief of the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, and Ms Fiorenza Sarzanini, vice director of the paper, whom he received at Casa Santa Marta.
The interview focused primarily on the conflict in the heart of Europe which began this past 24 February, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, sowing death and destruction. “On the first day of war I called Ukrainian President Zelensky on the phone”, recalled the Pontiff. “Putin instead”, he explained, “I did not call. I had spoken to him in December for my birthday, but this time no, I did not call him. I chose to make a clear gesture that the whole world could see, and that’s why I went to the Russian ambassador. I asked him to explain to me, I said: please, stop”. It is the same appeal “to stop”, an appeal for a ceasefire, that the Bishop of Rome has repeated multiple times during the Sunday prayer with the faithful gathered in Saint Peter’s Square. “Then I asked Cardinal Parolin, after 20 days of war, to send a message to Putin to say that I was willing to go to Moscow”, continued Pope Francis, speaking with the two journalists and highlighting the role of his Secretary of State, whom he called “a really great diplomat, in the tradition of Agostino Casaroli”. The Pope described him as someone who “knows how to navigate in that world: I have a lot of confidence in him and I trust him”.
“Of course it was necessary”, the Pope affirmed, “that the leader of the Kremlin offer some window”. But, he said, “we have not yet received an answer, and we are still insisting; even if I fear that Putin cannot and does not want to have this meeting at this time”. The Pope wondered, “how can all this brutality not be stopped? Twenty-five years ago we experienced the same thing with Rwanda”, he commented, recalling the genocide in the African country, which was denounced by John Paul ii on several occasions.
Asked about the causes behind the tragedy in Ukraine, Pope Francis spoke about “an anger facilitated”, perhaps initially, by “ nato ’s barking at Russia’s door, an anger which I don’t know if it was provoked, but facilitated, perhaps yes”. He added that being “too far away”, he does not know how to answer “the question of whether it is right to supply the Ukrainians”. However, “the clear thing is that weapons are being tested there. The Russians now know that tanks are of little use and are thinking of other things”. Regarding the rest, he said that “this is why wars are waged: to test the weapons we have produced”, as “happened during the Spanish Civil War before the Second World War”. The Pope has no doubts about this: “The arms trade is a scandal, few people are combating it. Two or three years ago, a ship arrived in Genoa, loaded with weapons that were supposed to be transferred to a large cargo ship and transported to Yemen. The workers at the port chose not to do it. They said, let’s think about the children of Yemen. It’s a small thing, but a beautiful gesture. There should be many like this”, he said, again bringing up a topic that is important to him, that of “a world war being fought piecemeal”. He affirmed: “I don’t want to take credit for sounding the alarm”, it was “merely an observation of things: Syria, Yemen, Iraq, in Africa one war after another. There are international interests at stake in every one of them. It is unthinkable that a free state can make war against another free state”. And, he added, “in Ukraine, it seems that others created the conflict. The only thing that is blamed on the Ukrainians is that they reacted in the Donbas, but we are talking about 1o years ago. It’s an old issue. Of course, they [the Ukrainians] are a proud people. For example, when for the Via Crucis [on Good Friday at the Colosseum] there were the two women, a Russian and a Ukrainian, who were supposed to read the prayer together, they made a scandal of it. So I called Krajewski who was there”. The Cardinal, who is the papal almoner, had in fact been sent to Ukraine to represent Pope Francis during the Easter celebrations. “And he told me: ‘Stop, don’t read the prayer. They are right even if we cannot fully understand’”. So the two women “remained silent”. Because Ukrainians “are susceptible; they feel defeated or enslaved” because “they paid so so much in the Second World War. So many men died; they are a martyred people. But let us also be careful about what may happen now in Transnistria”, warned the Pontiff, announcing also that a visit to Ukraine as a symbolic gesture is not possible at the moment. “I am not going to Kyiv for now”, he affirmed, noting that he had already sent Cardinal Michael Czerny, Prefect of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, to the country, as well as the aforementioned Konrad Krajewski, “who travelled there for the fourth time. But I feel that I must not go. First I must go to Moscow. First I must meet Putin. But I am also a priest, what can I do? I do what I can. If Putin would only open the door...”, he trailed off. Here the interviewers brought up the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. “I spoke with Kirill”, answered Pope Francis, “for 40 minutes on ‘Zoom’. The first 20 minutes, with a letter in hand, he read to me all the justifications for the war. I listened and I told him: I do not understand any of this. Brother, we are not state clerics; we cannot use the language of politics, but that of Jesus. We are shepherds of the same holy people of God. That is why we must seek ways of peace, make the firing of weapons cease. The Patriarch cannot become Putin’s altar boy. I had a meeting scheduled with him for 14 June in Jerusalem. It would have been our second face-to-face meeting, nothing to do with the war. But now even he agrees: Let’s call it off, it could be an ambiguous signal”.
The Pope asserted that “there is not enough desire for peace. War is terrible and we must shout this out. That’s why I published a book with Solferino”, a publishing house associated with the Corriere della Sera. The book’s subtitle is The courage to build peace. “When I met Orban”, the Holy Father continued, “he told me that the Russians have a plan, that on 9 May everything will end. I hope so. That would explain the speed of the escalation of these days. Because now it’s not just the Donbas, it’s Crimea, it’s Odessa, it’s taking away the Black Sea port from Ukraine, it’s everything. I am pessimistic, but we must make every possible gesture to stop the war”.
The focus then shifted to Italy, which according to the Pontiff, “is doing good work. The relationship with Mario Draghi is good, very good. Already in the past, when he was at the European Central Bank, I had asked him for advice. He is a direct and simple person. I admired Giorgio Napolitano, who is great, and now I have high regard for Sergio Mattarella. I gave great respect for Emma Bonino. I do not share her ideas, but she knows Africa better than anyone here. To this woman I say, ‘chapeau’”.
And regarding changes in the Italian Church, Pope Francis commented: “I have often found a pre-conciliar mentality disguised as a conciliar one. In countries like Latin America and Africa it was easier. It’s more difficult in Italy. There are good priests, good parish priests, good nuns, good lay people. For example, one of the things I’m trying to do to renew the Italian Church is not to replace the bishops too often. Cardinal Gantin used to say that a bishop is a Spouse of the Church, every bishop is a Spouse of the Church until his death. When there is a habit it is good. That’s why I try to appoint priests, as I have done in Genoa, in Turin, in Calabria. I believe this is the path of renewal for the Italian Church. Now at the next assembly the new President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference ( cei ) will be chosen; I’m trying to find someone who is willing to make significant changes. Personally, I would prefer it to be a Cardinal, someone authoritative. And that he would have the possibility of choosing the secretary; that he can say, ‘I want to work with this person’”. Maybe that’s why the Holy Father’s last thought was for the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. He was the Archbishop of Milan from 1979 to 2002, and died in 2012. Pope Francis reread a “perfect” article written by Martini after 11 September 2001 on terrorism and war. “It is so relevant today that I asked that it be reprinted on the daily L’Osservatore Romano”. He encouraged newspapers to continue “to investigate reality, to narrate it. It is a service to the country for which I will always thank you”, he concluded.
The interview began with a phrase that, unfortunately, has come up a lot in recent days: “Forgive me if I cannot stand to greet you, the doctors told me I have to remain seated because of my knee,” he said, explaining: “I have a torn ligament; I will have an operation with the infiltrations, and we will see. I’ve been like this for some time, I can’t walk. There was a time when popes moved around on the gestatorial chair. A little bit of pain, of humiliation are also necessary”.