In a 2 March article published by the French Catholic magazine, La Vie, editor-in-chief Jean-Pierre Denis recounts parts of a private conversation between Pope Francis and a group of thirty Catholics engaged in the field of social Christianity – led by French Socialist Delegates – which took place on 1 March of this year at Casa Santa Marta, the residence of the Holy Father. In this account, there are several important aspects that help illuminate Pope Francis’ own deeper world-view and convictions, and which might thereby also assist us in understanding his papacy. I have therefore translated the most salient — and thus far ignored — parts of this revealing article, which garnered media attention specifically because of Pope Francis’s words about the “Arab invasion” of Europe. It was for this reason that the editor-in-chief of the German section of Vatican Radio, Father Bernd Hagenkord, S.J., wrote his own account of the article (in German) in order to bring out the fuller content of the La Vie report.
It is important to note on this point, however, that Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., the head of the Vatican Press Office, offered a correction, on 3 March, of Pope Francis’ words about an “Arab invasion” of Europe. Lombardi modified this statement, according to the French newspaper La Croix, saying that “the pope did not speak here of a violent or worrying invasion.” As one participant of the private audience points out, the pope did not intend to “pour oil into the fire in order to provoke a polemical discussion.”
But it is to the other themes of the private audience with Pope Francis, as recorded by La Vie, that I wish to draw our attention. Lost in the controversy over the “invasion” comments are some striking statements that give us an unusually clear glimpse into the mind of our pope. (All quotes that follow are translated from the original French report in La Vie.)
First of all, Pope Francis shows his appreciation for the French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Lévinas, when he says: “Emmanuel Lévinas has founded his philosophy on the encounter with the Other.” In the pope’s eyes, “the Other has a face. One has to leave oneself in order to be able to contemplate it.” Pope Francis also stresses his appreciation of the periphery from whence he looks upon the world: “Since [the time of] Magellan, one has learned to look at the world from the standpoint of the south. That is why I say that the world should better see itself from the periphery than from the center; and I understand better my Faith from the standpoint of the periphery. But the periphery can be human – i.e., linked to poverty, health, or to a feeling of existential periphery.”
Pope Francis also discusses the situation in Europe – and it is here that we find the sentence which has caused much media attention: “If Europe wants to rejuvenate itself, it has to return to and recover its cultural roots. Of all the Western countries, the European roots are the strongest and the deepest. […] But by forgetting its history, Europe weakens itself. That is where it risks becoming an empty space.” It seems to him that there is a link to the “Muslim invasion”: “One can speak today of a Arab invasion. This is a social fact.” Pope Francis continues: “O! How many invasions Europe has known over its long course of history! It has always known how go beyond itself, to move ahead in order then to find itself enlarged by the exchange between cultures.” For such a recovery today, one needs in his eyes “a Schuman or an Adenauer, those great founders of the European Union.” The pontiff now proposes to negotiate: “One confuses politics with circumstantial arrangements. Of course, one has to go to the table of negotiation, but only if one is aware that one has to lose something in order that the world may gain.”
When talking about France, Pope Francis explains that he does not know this country well. He continues: “In any case, France has a very strong humanistic vocation. It is the France of Emmanuel Mounier, of Emmanuel Lévinas, and of Paul Ricoeur.” The journalist, Jean-Pierre Denis, then comments: “One Catholic, one Jew, one Protestant!” Francis explains that he himself follows not so much the Spanish school of the Jesuits, but, rather, the French school of Jesuits, namely the authors Pierre Favre and P. Louis Lallemant. “My spirituality is French.” Francis also shows his admiration for Henri de Lubac: “In my theological reflection, I always nourished myself with Henri de Lubac, as well as with Michel de Certeau [the Jesuit founder of the Freudian School in France, together with the Jewish psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan]. For me, de Certeau is still the greatest theologian for today.”
In discussing the question of globalization, Pope Francis describes a good form and a bad form of globalization. The bad globalization has a uniformizing effect and “finally hinders him [man] to express himself freely.” The pontiff continues: “The better globalization would rather be a polyhedron. The whole world is united, but each people, each nation preserves its identity, its culture, and its richness. The aim for me is the good globalization which allows us to preserve that which defines us. This second vision of globalization allows us to unite the people while at the same time preserving their singularity – that which favors dialogue and the mutual understanding. In order to be able to establish a dialogue, there is one conditio sine qua non, and that is to start with one’s own identity. If I am not clear about myself, if I do not know my religious, cultural and philosophical identity, I am not able to turn to the other. There is no dialogue without belonging.”
Europe has, in the pontiff’s eyes, an important role to play in the world: “The only continent which can bring a certain unity to the world is Europe. China might be more ancient and more profound. But only Europe has the vocation of universality and of service.”
Pope Francis praises France for its Laïcité – the secularization and the secular state: “France has been able to establish within democracy the concept of secularization. That is healthy. In our days, the state has to be secularized, but please do not make public these words!” For him, the secularization is still incomplete in this country of France: “Your secularization is incomplete. France has to become a more secularized state. It needs a healthy secularization.” Francis explains: “A healthy secularization includes an opening toward all forms of transcendence, according to the different religious and philosophic traditions. By the way, even an atheist can have an interior life.” And he declares that the “search for the transcendence is not only a fact, but also a right.” For the pope, the secularization of France is defective in a certain way, in that it has been too influenced by the [secular] Enlightenment which “considered religions as mere sub-cultures.” In his eyes, “France has not yet overcome this heritage.”
Pope Francis shows himself to be suspicious of any ideology when he says: “Ideologies always gave me fear.” He also claims: “Ideologies are the poison of politics.” His answer to the problem of ideologies is “to foster friendship and the search for the common good, above all political affiliations.” In this sense, there should be a common ground for reaching out to people in distress. For Pope Francis, mercy – misericordia – is not only needed for Christians. He explains the roots of the word misericordia: “In Latin, it is the heart which bows down to misery. But if one follows the Hebraic etymology, it is not only the heart, but the viscera which are touched, the abdomen, the stomach of the mother, this capacity to feel in a motherly way, starting from the womb.” The pontiff then proposes to “leave aside the religious dimension”: “Mercy is the capacity to move us to feel empathy. It consists also – in the face of all catastrophes – in our ability for feeling responsible. Which means that one has to act. This does not only apply to the Christians, but to all humans. This is a call to humanity.”
One participant of the discussion with the pope agrees in this matter of mercy and empathy, saying that “in Islam, God is defined by Mercy.” Pope Francis immediately picks up on this point, having himself just visited Central Africa: “We are working much on the dialogue between Christians and Muslims. In Central Africa, there once was harmony. There is now a group which is, by the way, not Muslim but which started the war. The transitional president, herself a practicing Catholic, was once loved and respected by the Muslims. I went to a mosque. I asked the Imam whether I may pray. I took off my shoes and I went to pray. Each religion has its extremists. The ideological degenerations of the religion are at the root of war.”
Dr. Maike Hickson, born and raised in Germany, studied History and French Literature at the University of Hannover and lived for several years in Switzerland where she wrote her doctoral dissertation. She is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.
Her articles have appeared in American and European journals such as Catholicism.org, LifeSiteNews, The Wanderer, Culture Wars, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Apropos, and Zeit-Fragen.