By Stijn Fens and Jan-Willem Wits // Courtesy of INSP News Service www.INSP.ngo/Straatnieuws
Photo credit: Frank Dries, Straatnieuws
Pope Francis rarely grants interviews, but the opportunity to address international street papers was enough to persuade him that INSP was worth a spot in his busy diary. So, on Oct. 27, formerly homeless street-paper seller Marc sat down with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in the Vatican. The Straatnieuws vendor was accompanied by Dutch journalists Stijn Fens and Jan-Willem Wits. In a wide-ranging interview, the Holy Father opened up to them about his childhood in Buenos Aires, his life in Rome and his lack of football skills.
It is still early when we arrive at the service entrance of the Vatican, which is to the left of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Swiss Guards have been informed of our arrival and let us pass. We head to the Domus Sanctae Marthae, because that is where Pope Francis lives. The Domus Sanctae Marthae is in all likelihood the most unique three-star hotel in the world. A large white building where cardinals and bishops reside while serving in or visiting the Vatican, it is also the official residence of the cardinals during the Conclave.
Here, too, they are expecting us. Two ladies behind the reception desk, just like in any hotel, kindly indicate a side door. The meeting room has already been prepared. It is a fairly large space, with a desk, a sofa, tables and chairs, and it’s the Pope’s meeting room during the week. Then, the wait begins. Marc, the Straatnieuws salesman, is the most patient of us all, waiting, seated in his chair, for what will come.
Suddenly the Pope’s official photographer appears. “The Pope is arriving,” he whispers.
And before we know it, he walks into the room: Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. He is carrying a large white envelope. “Please, sit down, friends,” he says with a gentle wave of his hand. “How nice to have you here.”
Close up, he gives the impression of a calm, friendly man, who is at the same time both energetic and precise. Once seated, he apologises for speaking Italian, rather than Dutch. We forgive him immediately.
INSP: Straatnieuws interviews always begin with a question about the street on which the interviewee grew up. Holy Father, what do you remember about that street? What images come into your mind when you recall the streets of your childhood?
From when I was one year old to when I entered the seminary, I always lived on the same street. It was a simple neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, with one- and two-storey homes. There was a small square, where we played football. I remember that I used to sneak out of the house to play football with the boys after school.
My father worked in a factory that was just a few hundred metres away. He was a bookkeeper. And my grandparents lived within 50 metres. We were all just a few steps from one another. I also remember the names of the people when, as a priest, I went to give the sacraments, the final comfort for so many, who called for me and I went, because I loved them. These are the memories that first come to mind.
Did you play football, too?
Were you good?
No. In Buenos Aires, those who played football like me are called pata dura. Which means having two left legs! But I played anyway; often, I was the goalkeeper.
How did your personal commitment to the poor begin?
Yes, so many memories come to mind. A woman who worked in our home three times a week to help my mother comes to mind. She helped with the laundry, for example. She had two children. They were Italian and had survived the war; they were very poor, but they were very good people. And I have never forgotten that woman. Her poverty struck me.
We were not rich. Normally, we made it to the end of the month, but not much more. We didn’t own a car, we didn’t go on vacations or things like that. But she often needed even the most basic items. They didn’t have enough, and so my mother gave her things. She eventually went back to Italy, and then later she returned to Argentina. I found her again when I was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, and she was already 90. I was able to assist her until her death at the age of 93.
One day, she gave me a medal of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which I still carry with me every day. This medal—which is also a memento—is very good for me. Would you like to see it?
[With a bit of difficulty, Pope Francis manages to pull out the medal, now completely discoloured after years of use.]
With this, every day I think of her, and of how she suffered from poverty. And I think of all the others who have suffered. I wear it, and I use it to pray…
What is the Church’s message for those who are homeless? What is the concrete meaning of Christian solidarity for them?
Two things come to mind. Jesus came in to our world without a home, and he chose poverty. Then, the Church seeks to embrace us all, and says that it is a right to have a roof over your head. Popular movements work toward the three Spanish “t’s”: trabajo [work], techo [roof] and tierra [land]. The Church teaches that every person has the right to these three t’s.
You often call for heightened attention for the poor and for refugees. Are you not afraid that this might lead to a sort of overload in the media and in society in general?
We all have the temptation—when we have to face an issue that is not pretty, that is difficult to talk about, to say: “Oh, let’s not talk about this anymore: this thing is just too difficult.” I understand that the possibility of overload exists, but I do not fear it. I must continue to speak about the truth and about the way things are.
It is your duty?
Yes, it is my duty. I feel it inside me. It is not a commandment, but as individuals we all must do so.
Do you not fear that your support for the homeless and other groups plagued by poverty might be exploited politically? How can the Church speak out so that it has influence and, at the same time, manage to steer clear of political posturing?
There are paths that lead to errors at that point. I would like to call attention to two temptations. The Church must speak the truth and also with a testimony: the testimony of poverty. The believer who speaks of poverty or of the homeless but who lives a life of luxury: that will not do. This is the first temptation.
The second temptation is making agreements with governments. Certainly, agreements can be made, but they must be clear agreements, transparent agreements. For example, we manage this building but the accounts are all closely controlled in order to avoid corruption. Because the temptation for corruption is always present in public life. Both political and religious. I remember once that I saw, with great pain—when Argentina under the military regime entered into war with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands—that people donated items to charity, and I saw many people, including Catholics, who were responsible for distributing those things to the needy, and who instead took those items home for themselves. The danger for corruption is always present.
Once I put a question to an Argentine minister, an honest man. One who stepped down from his position because he could not agree with certain things that were not sufficiently transparent. I asked him: When you send assistance, whether it is in the form of meals, clothing or funds, to the poor and to the indigent, of what you send, how much of it arrives to those who need it, of the money and material items that are sent? He said to me: 35 percent. Which means that 65 percent is lost. That is corruption: a bit for me, another bit for me.
Do you believe that up to now under your pontificate you have been able to achieve a change in mentality, for example in politics?
I am not sure how to respond. I don’t know. I do know that some have said that I was a communist. But that’s a category that is a bit antiquated [he laughs]. Perhaps today we use different words to say that…
They’ve said all those, too.
The homeless have financial problems, but they cultivate their own freedom. The Pope has no material needs, but he is considered by some to be a prisoner of the Vatican. Do you ever wish you could trade places with the homeless?
I remember the book by Mark Twain, “The Prince and the Pauper.” When you can eat every day, you have clothes, a bed to sleep in, a desk to work on and nothing is lacking. You also have friends. But Mark Twain’s prince lives in a golden cage.
Do you feel free here at the Vatican?
Two days after having been elected Pope, I went to take possession of the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace. It is not a luxurious apartment. But it is wide and large… After having seen the apartment, it seemed to me to be a bit like an upside down funnel, so large but with only one small door. That means being isolated. I thought to myself: I can’t live here, simply for mental health reasons. It would not be good for me. At the beginning, it seemed a bit strange, but I asked to stay here, at the Domus Sanctae Marthae. And this is good for me, because I feel free here. I eat in the dining hall where all the guests eat. And when I am early, I eat with the staff. I meet people, I greet them and this makes the golden cage a bit less of a cage. But I miss the street.
Holy Father, [Straatnieuws vendor] Marc would like to invite you to come have a pizza with us. What do you say?
I would like to, but we wouldn’t be able to manage it. Because the moment I leave here, the people would come to me. When I went out into the city to change the lenses in my glasses, it was seven o’clock in the evening. There was barely anybody in the streets. They drove me to the optician, and as I got out of the car, there was a woman who saw me and cried: “It’s the Pope!” And then I was inside, and all the people were outside…
Do you miss contact with people?
I don’t miss it, because the people come here. Every Wednesday, I am in Saint Peter’s Square for the General Audience, and sometimes I go to one of the local parishes: I am in contact with the people. For example, yesterday [Oct. 26] more than 5,000 gypsies came to the Paul VI Audience Hall.
It is evident that you enjoy your appointments in St. Peter’s Square during the General Audience…
It’s true. Yes, it’s true.
Your namesake Saint Francis embraced radical poverty and even sold his gospel book. As Pope and the Bishop of Rome, do you ever feel under pressure to sell the treasures of the Church?
That is an easy question. They are not the treasures of the Church but rather the treasures of humanity. For example, if tomorrow I wanted to auction off Michelangelo’s Pietà, I couldn’t, because it is not the property of the Church. It is located in a Church, but it belongs to all humanity. This is true for all the treasures of the Church. But we have begun to sell the gifts and other things that are given to me. And the proceeds from the sales go to Monsignor Krajewski, my almoner [Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, who is in charge of distributing money to the poor]. And then there is the lottery. There were some cars that were sold or given away with a lottery, and the proceeds were used for the poor. There are some things that can be sold, and these are sold.
You do realise how the wealth of the Church might create this type of expectation?
Yes, if we were to make a catalogue of all the Church’s possessions, we could think: the Church is very rich. But with the Concordat with Italy of 1929 on the Roman Question, the Italian government at the time offered the Church a large Roman park. The Pope at the time, Pius XI, said: “No, I only want half a square kilometre, in order to guarantee the Church’s independence.” This principle is still valid.
Yes, the Church possesses a great deal of real estate assets, but we use them to maintain the Church’s structures and to fund the many works carried out in needy countries: hospitals, schools.
Yesterday, for example, I had €50,000 sent to the Congo for the construction of three schools in poor villages; education is so important for children. I went to the administration, I made the request and the money was sent.
Let’s talk about Holland. Have you ever been to our country?
Yes, once, when I was the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. I was passing through during a trip. I went to Wijchen [in the east of the country], because that’s where novitiate was, and I was also in Amsterdam for a day and a half, where I stayed at a Jesuit house. Of the country’s cultural life, I saw nothing, because there was no time.
That’s why it might be a good idea if Holland’s homeless were to invite you to visit our country. What do you think, Holy Father?
The doors are not closed to that possibility.
So, when the invitation arrives, you will consider it?
I will consider it. And now that Holland has an Argentinian queen [he laughs], who knows?
Do you perhaps have a special message for the homeless of our country?
I am not well acquainted with the specifics of the homeless in Holland. I would like to say that Holland is a developed country with a great deal of possibilities. I would ask Holland’s homeless to continue to fight for the three T’s.
Did you dream of being the Pope even when you were a little boy?
No. But I will tell you a secret. When I was little, there weren’t many shops that sold things. What we had was a market, where there was the butcher, the greengrocer, etc. I went with my mother and my grandmother to do the shopping. Once, when I was quite little, about four, someone asked me: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And I answered: “A butcher!”
You were unknown to many until March 13, 2013. Then, overnight, you became famous throughout the world. How was that experience for you?
It happened, and I was not expecting it. But I have not lost peace. And that is a grace from God. I don’t really think about the fact that I am famous. I say to myself: “Now you have an important position, but in 10 years nobody will know you anymore” [he laughs]. You know, there are two types of fame: the fame of the “greats,” those who have done truly great things, such as Madame Curie, and the fame of the vain. But this second type of fame is like a soap bubble.
So, you say, “I am here now and I have to do the best that I can,” and “I will continue to work for as long as I can?”
Holy Father, can you imagine a world without poverty?
I want a world without poverty. We need to fight for that. But I am a believer, and I know that sin is always within us. And there is always human greed, the lack of solidarity, the selfishness which creates poverty. That is why it is difficult for me to imagine a world without poverty.
If you think of the children exploited for slave labour or of children exploited for sexual abuse. And another form of exploitation: killing children to remove their organs, organ trafficking. Killing children for their organs is greed.
That is why I don’t know whether we will ever have a world without poverty, because there is always sin, and it leads to selfishness. But we must always fight … always.
We have finished. We thank the Pope for the interview. He thanks us as well and says that he enjoyed our chat very much. Then he takes the white envelope that has been next to him on the sofa the whole time and takes out a rosary for each of us. Photos are taken, and then Pope Francis bids us goodbye. As calm and relaxed as when he arrived, he walks out of the door.
Ready for his next appointment.