Since Pope Francis appeared on the balcony over St Peter’s Square six months ago I’ve tried to read everything I can about him. After poring over thousands of articles and Paul Vallely’s outstanding biography, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of him. And then I read Fr Antonio Spadaro’s interview and realised how much more there was still to know. Here are 12 things I learned from the 12,000-word interview.
His top priority for the Church
When asked to say what the Church needs most at this moment in history, Pope Francis did not mention curial reform, a revitalised priesthood or the new evangelisation. He said that “the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful”. Healing wounds, warming hearts: that’s how he sees his mission as Bishop of Rome.
He wants Catholics to stop complaining about how bad the world is
In his morning homilies Pope Francis has often spoken of the futility of complaining, but I was still struck by how exasperated he is by Catholics who focus on the wickedness of the world. He thinks this attitude paralyses the Church. As he put it: “The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is – these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the Church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defence. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today.”
The roots of his empathy for gay people
I knew that Pope Francis had met a gay rights leader in Buenos Aires, but I’d never heard him mention the letters he used to receive there “from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the Church has always condemned them”. These contacts clearly moved him and help to explain what one commentator has called his “revolutionary empathy” with gay people.
He thinks the Church is emerging from a period of intellectual decadence
Pope Francis believes his own formation took place during a period of intellectual dryness in the Church. “Unfortunately,” he explained, “I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism.” It’s not clear when he thinks this decadent period ended. My guess would be the Second Vatican Council.
His vision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Although he never mentions it by name, Francis seems to be talking about the doctrinal watchdog when he addresses the problems in the Roman Curia. He says that when curial departments are “not functioning well, they run the risk of becoming institutions of censorships”. He then expresses amazement at the “denunciations for lack of orthodoxy” that reach Rome when they should be dealt with locally. He appears to be saying that the CDF should have a more narrowly defined role. “The Roman congregations are mediators,” he concludes. “They are not middle men or managers.”
His extremely long-term view of reform
The interview shows that, like Rome itself, Pope Francis thinks in centuries. He says the Church must focus not on obtaining positions of political influence, but on “starting long-run historical processes”, that “give birth to new historical dynamics”. It would be interesting to hear him speak at greater length about this.
His life was saved by a Sister
I knew Pope Francis almost lost his life in his youth, but didn’t know he credited a Sister, rather than a doctor, with saving him. “When I went through my lung disease,” he recalled, “the doctor gave me penicillin and streptomycin in certain doses. The Sister who was on duty tripled my doses because she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the Sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day.”
What happened during his exile in Córdoba
Fr Jorge Mario Bergoglio was so divisive that after he stepped down as regional superior of the Jesuits in Argentina he was effectively exiled from Buenos Aires. His years in the city of Córdoba remain something of a mystery. In the interview Pope Francis shed some light on that period. “My authoritarian manner led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultra-conservative,” he said. “I lived a time of great interior crisis in Córdoba.” Again, it would be fascinating to know more about this turning point in his life.
His devotion to Peter Faber
I knew the Pope loved St Ignatius of Loyola and St Thérèse of Lisieux, but Peter Faber was a bit of a surprise. When he listed the qualities he saw in Faber I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps he modelled himself on the Blessed: “[His] dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”
His in-depth knowledge of classical music
I was impressed by Francis’s ability to hold forth on the merits of various recordings. He singled out Furtwängler’s 1952 Ring at La Scala and Knappertsbusch’s 1962 Parsifal – showing his “superb taste” in music. He even dropped in a reference to Turandot when answering a question about Christian hope.
He keeps a daily Holy Hour
I thought his prayer life centred on the breviary. It turns out that Eucharistic Adoration is perhaps even more important to him. “What I really prefer is adoration in the evening,” he said, “even when I get distracted and think of other things, or even fall asleep praying. In the evening then, between seven and eight o’clock, I stay in front of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour in adoration.”
He is a Fellini fan
His favourite film is not, as previously reported, Babette’s Feast, but La Strada. But given his simple tastes, his love of Federico Fellini might not extend as far as Roma, which features an extravagant clerical fashion show.