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Church strong but bedevilled by graft, Francis tells Adnkronos

Church strong but bedevilled by graft, Francis tells Adnkronos
30 ottobre 2020 | 14.41
LETTURA: 11 minuti

by Gian Marco Chiocci

Speaking in a low voice and smiling, the Holy Father greets me in the Vatican rooms where he has agreed to talk about issues that are sending shock-waves through the Church, alarming cardinals, distressing devout Catholics, and polarising opinion among Vatican staff, who either worship or criticise the pontiff. "Good day, welcome," Francis says.

Meeting a pope is not an everyday experience and triggers unusually strong emotions, even if my host does his utmost to put his guest not just at their ease but - paradoxically - to make them feel an equal.  We sit down in a spartan room containing two chairs, a table and a crucifix. Meanwhile, outside in the wider world, as anxiety over the Coronavirus pandemic mounts, desire for hope and faith grow - faith that for some has been dented by scandal, waste, Francis's ongoing revolutions and even by the COVID-19 virus itself. These topics are the subject of the Pope's conversation with Adnkronos.

The meeting is a useful opportunity above all to address the long-running scourge within the Vatican which the Pope himself describes as "an ancient ill that is passed down and which evolves through the centuries". To a greater or lesser degree, each of Francis's predecessors has tried to tackle this moral problem with the means and manpower available to him, the pontiff says.

"Unfortunately, corruption occurs repeatedly through history. Someone arrives who cleans things up, but then it starts again, until another person arrives who stops the decay," says Francis.

It must be said that in the thousands of years of the Church's history, it is impossible to recall such a courageous Pope who does not fear the powerful Vatican bureaucracy (curia) and the business interests that surround it. Francis has vowed to root out clergy who put money before Christ's teachings.  

"The first Fathers of the Church called this the Devil's dung and so did Saint Francis," Francis underlines.

In keeping with Franciscan principles, the 'Vicar of Christ' is attempting what no one before him has had the bravery to do: to build a truly transparent Church like the original one, dedicated to the common people. In a missionary Church, one for the poor, there is no room for men of the cloth who line their pockets or those of their charmed circle, according to Francis's teachings.

"The Church remains strong but corruption is a deep-seated problem that we lost sight of over the centuries. When I became Pope, I went to see (Emeritus Pope) Benedict (XVI) and he handed me a big box," Francis tells me.

"Benedict said to me: 'This contains documents relating to the most problematic cases. I got thus far, I intervened in this situation, I removed these individuals and the rest now falls to you,'" Francis states.

"So all I have done is take the baton from Pope Benedict and to continue his work."

Traditionalists and conservatives tell of constant conflict between the emeritus and reigning Popes - disagreements, infighting, touchiness, differing views on everything and everyone, plotting and gossip. Is there any truth in this, I ask the Holy Father, who smiles and takes a few seconds to reply.

"To me, Benedict is a father and a brother. In letters, I write to him 'as a son and a brother'. I often go to see him up there," Francis states, pointing towards Mater Ecclesaie monastery in the Vatican gardens where Benedict has lived since his retirement).  

"If I have seen less of him lately, it is only because I don't want to tire him out. Our relationship is really good, very good, we agree on the things that need to be done. Benedict is a good man, he is the embodiment of sainthood," Francis continues.

"There are no problems between us, but everyone is free to say what they want. You know it has even been alleged that Benedict and I had quarrelled over who would get which tomb".

When he became Pope in 2013 and before he began managing the Vatican's murky finances, Francis had no idea of the ills he would uncover - from the suspected misuse of Peter's Pence donations to charity given by the Catholic faithful to controversial multi-million dollar property investments abroad. And the hardly charitable actions of shepherds of souls who turned into mercenary wolves.

"The Church has always been a casta meretrix, a sinner," says Francis, summarising the teaching of the bishop, theologian and saint, Saint Ambrose.

"Rather, a part of the Church, because the great majority of its members are the opposite of this - they are following a righteous path. But it cannot be denied that various kinds of people at various levels - clergy and many fake lay 'friends' of the Church - have helped squander assets that do not belong to the Vatican but to the faithful."

"Either you choose God or Mammon. Jesus tells us (in the Gospels ) that you cannot follow both."

Francis quotes his grandmother back in his native Argentina: "She was certainly not a theologian, but she told us as children that the Devil enters through our pockets. She was right."

Francis tells how he was on a bus going to visit a Buenos Aires slum when he learned of Pope John Paul II's death on 2 April 2005. After he celebrated mass and offered prayers for the late pontiff, he spoke with a woman who advised him to get a dog when he was elected Pope, which could taste his food for him.

"You give the dog a piece of your food first and if he's okay you can eat it," Frances cites the woman as telling him.

Asked if this is what people think in the Vatican - that the situation is out of control and that anything could happen - Francis replies: "That was obviously an exaggeration."

"But it shows how the people of God, the poorest of the poor, view the Church, which is riven by deep wounds and internal power struggles and riddled with embezzlement."

In his public and uncompromising fight against graft, Francis gives the impression of a highly concrete, practical and determined pontiff, a hero who stands alone within the Vatican's walls, who is venerated by the faithful masses but is being held hostage by an invisible enemy.  

Francis raises his eyebrows and shrugs slightly while meeting his guest's gaze. A few interminable seconds  pass.

"It will be as the Lord wishes. Am I lonely? I have thought about this. And I have decided there are two kinds of loneliness. One can say I feel alone because the people who should cooperate with me are not, because those who should roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty for others are not doing so, or because they don't follow my indications and so forth - and we can call that functional loneliness," Francis reflects.

"Then there is the real kind of loneliness that I do not feel, because I have found so many people who take risks for me, who put their lives on the line, who fight with conviction because they know we are in the right and are on the right road, despite a thousand obstacles and the resistance we face."

"There have been cases of malfeasance, betrayals which wound those who believe in the Church. These persons are certainly not cloistered nuns," Francis adds.    

His Holiness admits he does not know if he will win the battle or not, but he is certain of one thing. "I know that I have been called to wage this fight - it will be the Lord who judges if I did right or if I did badly," he underlines.

"Quite honestly, I am not very optimistic, but I have faith in God and in those who are faithful to Him," Francis continues with a smile.

"I recall that when I was in Cordoba, I prayed, I went to confession, I wrote. One day, I went to the library and came across a six-volume history of the papacy, some parts of which were not exactly edifying."

Today, the Pope's sworn enemies' best form of defence is to attack Francis and his papacy, which they portray as already over because it is too divisive, politically incorrect and ideological, making continual references to what will come next and what they hope will soon be a kind of liberation and resurrection. 

Francis views with irony the speculation surrounding his possible successors. 

"I also think about who will come after me and am the first to talk about it. Recently, I spent a day doing a series of routine medical tests. The doctors told me that I could repeat one of the tests every five years, or once a year. They were inclined to have me do the test every five years, but I told them: let's do it annually. You never know," he says, smiling more broadly.

Pope Francis listens carefully to the list of criticisms that have been aimed at him over time but shows no sign of irritation at recent comments by Cardinal Camillo Ruini ("to criticise the Pope does not mean to be against him"). The pontiff seems to take note of the criticisms one by one - from civil unions to the agreement with China. He ponders for about 10 seconds before expressing his thoughts in a comprehensive reply: "To claim that receiving criticism is pleasurable would be untrue and would be an insult to your intelligence."

"No one enjoys criticism, especially when it comes as a slap in the face, when it is expressed in bad faith and spitefully," Francis says.

"I am certain however that criticism can be constructive. When it is, I take it all in, because it makes me reflect upon myself and examine my conscience, to ask myself if I did wrong, where and why. Or if I did right or how I can do better."

A Pope listens to criticism with the Christian concept of  'discernment' in order to understand what is right and what is wrong, Francis explains. 

"Discernment guides me on everything and everyone. And at this point it is important to communicate the honest truth on what is happening inside the Church. And while it is true that I must be spurred by criticism to do better, I certainly can't let myself be waylaid by every remotely negative thing written about me."

Francis is faster to answer my next question: "I don't believe there is a single person inside or outside the Vatican who is against rooting out the evil of corruption. There are no particular strategies, the way to do it is very simple - to keep going and never stop, taking small but concrete steps all the way."

"We began with a meeting five years ago on how to overhaul our legal system, then after the first investigations, I had to effect removals and faced resistance, We probed the Vatican finances, we renewed the people at the top of the Institute for Religious Works (Vatican Bank). In short we have had to make many changes and many more will things will soon change."

Given the highly visible good that Francis is doing as he walks a tightrope above a pit of widespread immorality engulfing various areas of the Church amid probes of suspects by Vatican magistrates,  is he afraid, I venture to ask the pontiff.

This time Francis's answer comes after more reflection and a lengthy silence during which he seems to be searching for the right words.

"And why should I be afraid?" Francis asks. "I don't fear reprisals, I don't fear anything, I act in the name of and on behalf of our Lord. Am I being irresponsible, reckless? I wouldn't know how to answer, I am guided by the Holy Spirit and by love for my marvellous flock of people who follow Jesus Christ. And then I pray, I pray a lot, for what is happening in the world."

The Holy Father makes as if to take my hand as he speaks - something one would not expect from a pope. "These are days of great uncertainty," he says as Coronavirus infections and deaths continue to surge in Italy and elsewhere.

"I pray a very great deal, I am very close to those who suffer. Those who help people are suffering for health and other reasons are in my prayers," he goes on.

Back in the Spring, when Italy was at the height of a dramatic outbreak of COVID-19, in an interview published on 8 April, Francis hailed doctors, volunteers, nuns, priests and shop workers as "saints nextdoor". Nearly two weeks earlier, on 27 March, he stood alone in an empty rain-drenched St Peter's Square at the foot of a crucifix and prayed for the end of the pandemic.

Asked if a new lockdown could have repercussions for the Church and for worshippers, the Pope replies: "I don't wish to meddle in the Italian government's political decisions, but I will tell you about an episode that displeased me."

"I learned of a bishop who claimed that 'people' had lost the 'habit' of going to church during the current pandemic and will no longer go to kneel before a crucifix or to receive Holy Communion. I say if these 'people' only went to Church out of 'habit' it would be better if they stayed at home.," Francis affirms.

"People are called by the Holy Spirit. Maybe after this tough test, with these new difficulties and the suffering that enters people's homes, the faithful will be truer believers and more authentic. Believe me, it will be so."

The meeting ends and our goodbye is simple but even more moving for the pontiff's guest than his initial greeting was. Saint Francis said that a single ray of sunshine is enough to cancel a thousand shadows. In a Vatican room that is suddenly empty, a ray of hope shines brilliantly from the only Pope who has taken the name of a humble friar from Assisi. And for an instant, the cloud cast by Coronavirus also conceals the darkness of the sins committed by priests.

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