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In an interview published Tuesday with La Repubblica journalist Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis added more meat to his previous critique of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics picturing a world without religious proselytism, calling for all people to follow their own consciences, and laying out a plan for reforming the Vatican.
In a phone call arranging the interview, scheduled as follow-up to a previous public exchange the two had on the pages of the Italian newspaper, Francis promised to embrace Scalfari, an atheist, with a hug during their meeting, an event that included jokes as well as heartfelt discussion of one another’s beliefs. Scalfari’s report, translated into English on La Repubblica’s Web site, shows a pope who rejects blind deference to hierarchy, one who is eager to engage with the world beyond the walls of the church, even when his words may make Catholics uncomfortable.
“I have the humility and ambition to want to do something,” Francis said, ”to be open to modern culture,” a mission that he said church had previously promised but failed to follow through on.
That vision, said Francis during the interview, includes a broad view of moral decision-making, outreach to non-believers and a restructuring of the church to make it more “horizontal.”
Below are some key quotes from the interview.
On atheists and believers trying to convert one another:
Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is criss-crossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.
On following your conscience:
Q. Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?
A. Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.
Q. Your Holiness, you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.
A. And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.
On a “Vatican-centric” view of the church and world:
Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.
It is what in an army is called the quartermaster’s office, it manages the services that serve the Holy See. But it has one defect: It is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it. The Church is or should go back to being a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God.
When I meet a clericalist, I suddenly become anti-clerical. Clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity. St. Paul, who was the first to speak to the Gentiles, the pagans, to believers in other religions, was the first to teach us that.
On a rare mystical experience after being elected pope:
Before I accepted, I asked if I could spend a few minutes in the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go away and relax, I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows. I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance.
On the role of the church in the modern world:
Our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope. We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace. Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.
On restructuring the church:
I am the Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic world. The first thing I decided was to appoint a group of eight cardinals to be my advisers. Not courtiers but wise people who share my own feelings. This is the beginning of a Church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal.
Read the full interview for more of Francis’s views on the value of liberation theology, and a fascinating exchange between Scalfari and Francis on how atheists and Catholics see reality.
Image courtesy of Semilla Luz.