Revisiting the Pope’s “Mexican interview”

Many of Francis’ remarks in a March 6th interview—on immigration, poverty, politics, and the Synod—are especially interesting in light of the approaching papal visit to the U.S.

(Photo: Valentina Alazraki | Facebook)

(Photo: Valentina Alazraki | Facebook)

I (Pope Francis) was thinking of doing it (visit Mexico) because I wanted to enter the United States through the Mexican border. But if I went through Ciudad Juárez, for example, and entered there, or from Morelia, and entered from there, it would have been a fuss, why is he going there, and not coming to see Our Lady, the Virgin Mother? What’s more, you can’t visit Mexico in little pieces. Mexico takes a week. I promise to make a trip to Mexico of the sort that Mexico deserves—not in a hurry or just passing through. That’s why I decided not to enter through Mexico.” — Pope Francis, Interview with Valentina Alazraki, for Televisa, March 6, 2015 (Interview on Mexican television, print in L’Osservatore Romano, English, April 3, 2015.)

I.

By chance, a few months ago, I happened to catch an interview with Pope Francis on the local Latino TV station. Fortunately (as I’m not fluent in Spanish), this interview, one of the best the Pope has given, was published in English in L’Osservatore Romano. Many of the Pope’s remarks in that interview—on immigration, poverty, politics, and the Synod—are especially interesting in light of the approaching papal visit to the U.S., so I am revisiting them here.

The Pope began by setting the interviewer, Valentina Alazraki, at ease. She first asked him why he had not yet visited Mexico. He replied that he thought about it and promised to do so later. Part of his reason had to do with the importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a reproduction of whose image was in the room where the two were chatting.

Basically, Mary had appeared to Juan Diego as a Mother. She bore the appearance of a mixed blood Mexican, not of a Jewish girl from Palestine. In this way, she was recognized finally as the Mother of the whole American continent. “She (Mary) appears as ‘mestiza’—of mixed race. It is all a prophecy, our American mixing of the races. A prophecy of our culture. That’s why she transcends Mexico….” She appears to a simple, humble married man, not to the great. No doubt there were a lot of “sins” in the founding of the Americas, but much holiness also.

This origin brings up the question of immigration. The Pope often refers to his own family’s background immigrant to Argentina to find a better life than they had in northern Italy at the time. People now immigrate because of hunger, war, and unemployment. The Pope frequently repeats his view that much immigration is caused by what he calls “the tyranny of an economic system centered on the god of money and not the person.” The Pope thinks Italy does a good job with immigrants, and that Europe is better attending to the problems.

The Pope mentions the drug problem as it is particularly a Mexican issue. However, “the United States is among the largest consumers of drugs in the world and the border through which the drugs enter is mainly the Mexican border.” No doubt, were there no “demand” for drugs, there would be no “business” of dope trafficking. Few seem willing to address the issue of this demand side where the real problem lies. They mostly want to deal with it as a supply or production problem alone. He mentions that he made the bishop of Morelia, Mexico, a cardinal precisely because his province is in the heart of this bloody trade. He wanted to give him authority and support.

The Pope affirms that much of his sensibility to issues of work and poverty come from his family’s experience of starting a new life in Argentina. His thinking is not “ideological”. Since it comes from his heart and experience, “sometimes I am a bit careless and my tongue runs away with me but it doesn’t matter.” Several times in the Interview, the Pope refers to his infelicitous way of expressing things—he talks later of the offense of his using the phrase “the ‘mexicanization” of the drug trade”. Though loose language probably makes more of a difference than the pope realizes, causing much confusion, still that is the way he is. He means well by it.

The Pope has thought much about Mexican history. Mexico went through moments of irreligious persecution, which produced martyrs. “I think that the devil is punishing Mexico in a nasty way. For this reason I believe that the devil can’t forgive Mexico because she (Mary) has shown her Son there.” This is a striking passage. Mexico is not just another country in the eyes of this Latino Pope. “I believe that the devil is making Mexico pay an historical price. That’s why all these things happen.” The Pope does not think that it is just the government that is at fault; everyone seems involved especially the indifferent. The Pope usually shows much sympathy for governments. “I know it is very difficult to denounce a drug dealer. Because you’re risking your life. It’s a kind of martyrdom.” The Pope is not naïve about these things. A policeman, judge, politician, or soldier in carrying out the law may well suffer a kind of civic martyrdom in the name of justice.

The Pope notes, when asked about his personal phone-calls and letters to friends, that the Argentines are a proud people. If a pope writes to someone, it is difficult not to talk about his papal conversation. The Argentines are “very conceited”. He tells Valentina Alazraki the following joke in proof: “You know how an Argentinean commits suicide?” “No.” “No? He climbs up on his own ego and throws himself off.” At this proud business, his countrymen are the champions of the world, along with their soccer team. Pope Francis thinks Argentineans are the best boasters in Latin America.

II.

The Pope next discusses the difference between sects and the evangelical movement. In general, he is sympathetic with the evangelicals. He has friends among them. He does not like sects, which often have no Christian roots. Pentecostals can be either real evangelists or also sects. He thinks that the success of evangelicals in Latin America is due, in part, to “clericalism”. He deplores bad sermons. He tells of a friend who told another friend that he was very happy because he found a Mass on Sunday with no sermon. “Well in general evangelical pastors have a kind of closeness, and they prepare their homilies well. I think that, in that matter, we are the ones who need to change.”

Pope Francis has a charming recollection of his becoming Pope. He intended to return immediately after the conclave to Buenos Aires. He had even written a sermon for Palm Sunday. “Moreover, I wasn’t on any list of ‘papabili’ or possible popes, thanks be to God. And it never crossed my mind. And in this matter, I want to be sincere, to avoid any stories and all that. With the odds-makers in London, I was, I think, number 42 or 46. An acquaintance of mine, out of kindheartedness, bet on me. He made a killing.” The Pope did not require his friend to return his winnings.

The Pope recounts his thoughts during the election process until he finally realizes that he will be elected. He thinks of a name. His friend, Cardinal Hummes, reminds him of the Pauline words “remember the poor.” So he chooses Francis. When asked if he likes to be pope, he replied that he didn’t “dislike it”. It has always been my impression that in fact that Pope Bergoglio enjoys being Pope. Watching him with crowds, it seems obvious that he enjoys the experience. He tells the lady that he does not like to travel, “his greatest penance”. He likes to stay at home.

Pope Francis chose to stay at Santa Marta because he liked to have people around to talk to and dine with. One has the impression that Pope John Paul II also liked to have people around and found ways to do it in another manner. The “one thing” that Francis would like to do, but cannot? “The only thing that I would enjoy is being able to go out one day without anyone recognizing me and go eat a pizza in a pizzeria.” For people in high places, doing such ordinary things is extremely difficult, if not impossible. They are, in a certain way, as Aristotle hinted, prisoners of custom and law.

The Pope explains that he does not expect to be Pope for more than two or five years, though he has already been Pope two years, which is the occasion of this interview. He does not, however, like to set an age limit for papal resignations. He thinks that Benedict did the right thing to resign when he thought he could not bear the heavy burden of office. He sees nothing wrong with having bishops and popes who are emeriti. He looks on Benedict as a “grandfatherly” advisor, though they are both old men by any standards.

III.

The reform of the Curia is largely a question of recalling the priestly nature of the men who hold power in the Church. They are needed and perform a service. The Curia is “the Last Court in Europe”. This status does not seem to be all bad, but Francis thinks it needs to change.

The Pope’s preference for riding a small car or going on a bus, he thinks, is a good symbol—no Mercedes or BMW. But perhaps a Focus, he thinks, is appropriate. After he severely criticized the Curia in his Christmas meeting, he had to explain that he was just being pastoral, that everyone, including members of the Curia, needs to reflect regularly on his life and how it proceeds. Francis admits that perhaps his advice “was not received well.” But “let us ask forgiveness from Jesus for the things we have done wrong or because we have offended others or because we have been unjust.”

In a reflection of a more general attitude of his, Pope Francis insists that he is open to listen to any criticism. He is rather harsh on those who are afraid to tell him the truth. “If one is not in agreement with the Pope, go tell him so. It’s beautiful.” In addition, “there are always different points of view. They are licit.”

The Pope talks about how things change. He is a bit of a “progressivist”. “We have to get used to not categorizing things with old fashioned hermeneutics. Nowadays left and right is a simplification that has no meaning. Fifty years ago it made sense. Today, no.“ He is asked about Marxism. It has such a “variety” of meanings. “One must always interpret an historical fact, whether large or small, with the hermeneutic of the time. If not, we fall into simplification and error.” Historicism means that there is no truth but whatever they do or think in a given time and place.

The Pope is asked about his views on wealth. He thinks rich men and women can be good. He is in the process of canonizing one. “What I always attack is the security of wealth.” He again insists on paying just wages, however this is determined. The Pope refers to St. Ignatius’ discussion of how we go down from putting our end in wealth, to vanity, to pride. The Pope tells us that he is “scandalized” by a new development in Buenos Aires. It has 36 high-priced restaurants. It “serves only to make oneself fat.” Whether such developments that literally take place all over the world in every major and minor city, provide jobs, replace slums, cannot be also seen as ways to help the poor is not considered.

But what makes the Pope “most indignant are unjust wages.” How the Holy Father understands the relation of wages, labor, and capital along with supply and demand is not always clear. He sees unjust wages basically as exploitation—“one gets rich at the expense of another person’s dignity.” We have a new list of sins. “I would say that not paying a just wage, not paying someone’s pension, not paying their bonuses, is a sin.” Much in economic experience is left unsaid in this judgment.

The argument is not whether just wages should be paid. No one disagrees with this principle. But, granted that they should be paid, how are just wages fairly determined? Who determines them? What is their effect on the economy and employment of the poor? Poor people, as the Pope says, are “the center of the Gospel.” The question is how do they become not poor? By just wages? This takes us back at the original question. The Pope thinks this concern for the poor was something that was “stolen” by the Marxists, because Christians did not use it. But the Marxists, as it turned out, could not figure it out either and in fact made things much worse in the name of helping the poor.

IV.

The question of the Synod on the Family is brought up. Francis said that calling the Synod on this topic was not his idea. The original planners suggested as a topic: “What Jesus Christ offers man today?” As discussions went on, the answer seemed to indicate that it was necessary to begin with the family. The Pope knows about men in Mexico with two families, “a big home” and “little home”.

This situation indicates a “deeper” crisis. “It’s apparent that young people don’t want to marry, or that they cohabitate. And they don’t do it to protest anything, but rather they express things their way. Later some marry in the Church.” There is a “crisis” in marriage, part of which is proper preparation. Marriage is a sacrament. “How many marriages are social arrangements. They are null. For lack of faith.” One wonders if the use of this legal word, “null”, coming from lack of “faith” does not suggest the direction the Pope is going in the question of divorce.

The family itself needs to be recognized for what it is. In an obvious reference to the issue of Communion of those not properly ready to receive it, the Pope says: “There are those who want to receive Communion, and that is it. Like a rosette, an honorary reward.” The Pope seems to think, however, that divorced people can be godparents or teach catechism, even if their marriage is not validated, but a “Mafioso married to a Catholic” cannot. So he wants to make distinctions.

The Pope explains that he is for freedom of discussion in a Synod. He does not want any publication of proceedings, as it would hamper on-going discussions, as he sees it. The African and the Filipino bishops talk a lot of the “ideological colonization of the family”. The Pope saw this intrusion happening to him in Argentina. “I once witnessed a case where a minister of education, in which one receives certain credits, yes, but the teaching of ‘gender theory’. It’s something that is breaking down the family.” This remark, of course, brings up the whole of the content of what children are taught in schools and media about family, marriage, single-sex life-styles, abortion, sex, everything. It is precisely an “ideological colonization”.

The Pope is then asked about the case of the Legionnaires of Christ. “When I found out about the big scandal, I was very sad. I was scandalized.” He complimented Pope Benedict on how he handled this repulsive situation. “Even one priest who abuses a minor is enough to move the whole Church and take care of the problem.”

V.

Valentina Alazraki, in her last question, asks: “Do you want to be remembered for your language or your spontaneous, unconventional gestures?” Pope Francis replies: “I’d continue to do the same thing. I would speak as I speak, like a parish priest. I like to speak this way. I don’t know. I have always spoken like this.” Finally, she wonders if he had been to Mexico. He had, twice. However, in Argentina, they see many Mexican movies. He is especially fond of the Mexican comedian Cantinflas. The Pope ends by giving Alazraki his blessing and they recite the Hail Mary together.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.