“I met with many children from Ukraine…. No one smiles; they greet you, but no one is able to smile; who knows what that child has seen”. It is the lost smile of the innocents who live in war zones, one of the strongest images brought forth by Pope Francis in an interview entitled, “The Christmas I would want”, by Fabio Marchese Ragona which aired on Italy’s Canale 5 television station on Sunday evening, 18 December.
The conversation between the Pontiff and the journalist, which took place at Casa Santa Marta, was punctuated by various symbols linked to the prepared questions. Thus, a small dove painted by a refugee girl was the starting point to speak about the tragedy of the Ukrainian people. “We are living a piecemeal third world war”, Pope Francis said. “The one in Ukraine stirs us up somewhat because it is nearby, but Syria has been at war for 13 years: terrible. And Yemen, how long? Myanmar, everywhere in Africa. The world is at war. It is a cause of great suffering”. And the memory goes back to 2014 when the Pope visited the military cemetery of Redipuglia where the fallen from World War 1 are buried: “I cried!”, he confided. “I could not believe this: the age” of the young soldiers. “But why are the lives of people that age destroyed? War is like a mysticism of destruction”, he added, referring to the Normandy Landings during the Second World War: “Thirty thousand young men were left there on the beach”; and one cannot but think about the mothers of those heroes. “War is madness; it always destroys… because one aggression leads” to others, and “then, hunger too, the cold… destruction” because of the “arms trade, an industry that instead of making humanity advance, does things to destroy”. The Pope then invited us to let ourselves be moved by this tragedy. “We have yet to cry today about these cruelties”.
Gas bills increase tenfold
The interviewer then referred to the discourses collected in a book that Pope Francis has described as “An encyclical on peace in Ukraine” and to the conflict’s consequences in Italy, showing the gas bill of an industrial laundry whose cost has increased tenfold compared to last year. “These are the effects of war”, observed the Pope. “Prices soar, we lose objectivity. There is no room to manoeuvre because everything is connected. There are some countries [such as] Yemen, where dying from hunger is a possibility, the children. And this (he points to the bill) is inflation typical of war. This is gas, then there’s light”, and then we reach hunger. “Neither you nor I understands what being hungry means”, he told the journalist. “Perhaps we will? There are many people who are already beginning to understand”.
Pointing to a blanket and some bread on a small table nearby, the interviewer noted that in fact there are also those who have no problems with their bills because they do not even have a home. “There is something that worries me”, Pope Francis said: “it is the attitude of indifference… The worst thing that can happen to us is to look the other way. Please be moderate with your Christmas shopping. This is a sad Christmas… one of war. There are people who are dying of hunger. Have a big heart and do not shop as if nothing were happening”. He warned that we must fight hard against indifference, “and you, journalists”, he said, “have the mission of rousing hearts so as to not fall into this culture of indifference. ‘I look the other way, I wash my hands of it, it is not my problem’. It is everybody’s problem”. Just like “waste. We have to be conscious of this moment in history, of poverty. That there are children who are hungry. There are people who are dying of hunger. Let us at least celebrate the Nativity because the Nativity is a beautiful thing, it is a beautiful message”. It is alright “to have parties but let us do so with moderation”.
Marchese Ragona then turned to the topic of corruption which has returned to attention on the European level. “This scandalizes”, the Pope observed. “We are all sinners… And we have to ask the Lord for forgiveness every day for our mistakes. I get scared. Sinner, yes, corrupt, never. Today, we slip from sin into corruption, and we should not tolerate this. How come, with the need there is in Europe for many things, these people who are in administration slip into corruption in this way?”. Each has his or her own weakness: “one because he is a liar, another because he has some anger, another has a bad character… but corrupt, no. This is corruption, it is not sin. It is worse because corruption rots your soul”.
Another topic addressed was that of falling birthrates, particularly in Italy. “There is a demographic winter”, the Pope stated without mincing words. “I once heard” a man wondering to himself, “who will pay for my pension tomorrow if there are no births?”. Unfortunately, there is a culture of procreation which says “better not to have children. Better to take a trip, purchase a villa. I know people who think like this”. And yet “some countries like France, have approved good measures that promote the family, and the birthrate increased quite a bit. But in Italy, at this time”, there is a need to “help families. Many women are afraid to get pregnant because as soon as the head of the company for which they work sees their belly, they send them away. And many women do not even find” employment “because the employers are afraid” that their employees might become pregnant. “A child is a threat at this time. Where are we? It should be a blessing. This is why I think that we have to resume. I say, Italians, please have children… Less selfishness”.
The rag ball and amateur sports
Going back to the topic of children, somewhat the theme of the conversation, the journalist showed him the ball of rags so dear to Pope Francis. “Sports are noble”, said the Pontiff. “Sports bring nobility”, he said, referring to the Argentine film entitled Pelota de Trapo (rag ball). “I am speaking about 1945. I saw it as a child. It is a beautiful film of the time. It is a bit the mysticism of kids who play with what they have in their hands. Don Bosco used to say that ‘if you want to round up the kids, put a ball on the road, and they will come immediately, like flies to honey’. Children play. And there we get to something very beautiful which is the value of the game, of sport… It is a blessing to be able to do it well… We all need this gratuitousness of sport”. Therefore, “I am happy when I see people who are enthusiastic about sport”, and when it “does not lose that dimension of ‘amateurism’. There are now more commercial aspects, but that’s not bad if they are moderate. As long as sports do not lose that ‘amateurism’. True sport has to be gratuitous”.
Staying on the same theme, the journalist also mentioned the football world cup final. “Everyone congratulates the winners”, Pope Francis said. “May they live it with humility. And to those who do not win, may they live it with joy, because the greatest value is not winning. It is playing fair, playing well”. He expressed his hope that the football players of both contending teams — Argentina and France — “will have the courage to shake each other’s hands. When I watch the end of a match where they do not shake hands… We — I am speaking about 1946 — used to go to the stadium every Sunday also with Mom and Dad, all together. And there the worst word you heard against the referee was ‘sell out’, but then the match would end and they would shake hands. That savoir-faire of sports… I hope this world cup will help bring back sportsmanship”.
As the interview neared its end, Marchese Ragona recalled that Pope Francis will mark 10 years of his Pontificate in a few months. He asked him if there is anything he would like to achieve that he has not already. “When I was elected”, answered the Pope, “I took as a programme all the things that with the cardinals we had said in the pre-conclave meetings to the next pope who was there but who was unknown to all of us... There are also things that have to be done”, he added, but progress is being made. “The cardinals who were there helped me a great deal in making this change. One of the most visible things — it is not the most important but the most visible — is the economic cleanup, preventing bad things, economically speaking. Now that Institution is strong. The Council for the Economy held a meeting in these days; it is working well. They provided guidelines to carry this out. With everyone’s help, I began to do what the cardinals had requested. But, above all, the mission aspect, the missionary spirit, the proclamation of the Gospel. This is important. We may have a very well organized curia, a highly organized parish, a highly organized diocese, but if there is no spirit of mission, if there is no prayer in there, you do not move. Prayer is important”. And this, explained the Pope, is something Cardinal Pell, who began this change, saw clearly, especially at the organizational level. “Then he had to stay in Australia for almost two years because of this slander against him — and he was innocent — and he distanced himself from this administration. But it was Pell who made the framework of how things could move forward. He is a great man, and we owe him” a lot.
Marchese Ragona then asked Pope Francis which moment has made the greatest impression on him in the encounters he has had as Pontiff, and he replied without hesitation: “Sick children. When I see a child in a wheelchair, a child who is sick, when they bring him to me because he will die, this touches me. That question by Dostoevsky: ‘Why do children suffer?’ is a mystery. But this mystery draws you closer to God. One of the greatest joys is to caress children. I like this a lot. And caressing the elderly… They are a message, the elderly: the tenderness of the elderly” and that of children.
This was followed by a reflection linked to the Pontiff’s 86th birthday, which he celebrated on Saturday, 17 December. “I feel happy. The Lord accompanies me. I feel I am a pastor, I am living out my vocation. I am a sinner. Tomorrow the confessor will come. Every 15 days, the blessed Franciscan who forgives my sins comes round, but I am happy because I see that the Lord helps me to move forward”.
With the figurine of Baby Jesus from Bethlehem
The interview ended on a personal note on Christmas, on how Jorge Mario Bergoglio as a child, imagined the birth of Jesus, and whether a Nativity scene was set up in the Bergoglio home. “It was always made with chalk figurines”, the Pope recalled. “Simple. And it was well made. We would also put some grass for the Magi’s camels. The most beautiful thing was putting the Baby [in the manger] after midnight Mass, because he had been born. We were a very simple family, we were not rich. My Dad’s job was a good one, but that’s all. But there was always a small Nativity scene in the family home. Christmas for us was the Nativity scene, not the tree”. And as he held up a small statue of Baby Jesus that was brought from Bethlehem by a Passionist brother, the Pontiff concluded by encouraging us to look to the Baby and the Star. “One more child is hope. He brought us hope but he was born like this: poor, persecuted, he had to flee. A Baby without the star is no good; a star without the Baby is no good. Both are today’s Christmas message. I hope the Lord will give the tenderness of a child and the light of the star to each person”. Because “if you look at the star, you will know where the road is, like the Magi”, and “if you look at the Baby, you know how your heart should feel”.