Pope Francis’ visit to North America “one of the more sensitive…of the pontificate”

Veteran Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli discusses the approaching apostolic journey to Cuba and the U.S., and why it is so important to Pope Francis

Andrea Tornielli is a senior member of the Vatican press corps, the author of scores of books about the Pope, the Vatican, and the Catholic Church, including Francis: Pope of a New World (Ignatius Press, 2013) and Fioretti: The Little Flowers of Pope Francis – Heartwarming Stories of the Gospel in Action (Ignatius Press, 2014), and he is the editor of La Stampa’s Vatican Insider, which is published daily in three languages. Recently, the Liturgical Press released his newest book, This Economy Kills: Pope Francis on Capitalism and Social Justice, which he co-authored with Giacomo Galeazzi.

As an accredited member of an elite group of journalists who cover the Vatican and the pope daily, Tornielli has accompanied Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis on numerous apostolic voyages outside Italy. This month, he will travel with Pope Francis during his nine-day apostolic journey to Cuba (Sept 19-22) and the United States (Sept 22-28), his first trip to North America as pope. Tornielli recently spoke with CWR about the pope’s upcoming trip.

CWR: in September, Pope Francis will visit three American cities as part of a six-day visit to the US. He will address a joint session of Congress and the United Nations’ General Assembly. Is this something unique for the Francis pontificate? Has the Pope addressed other bodies of government during his travels?

Tornielli: No. Usually the Pope meets representatives of political institutions, which happened in previous trips, but this will be the first time with the official Parliament of a single nation. We need to remember the speech at the European Parliament the last November too.

CWR: You are a veteran Vatican observer and the editor of a leading record of papal activity. How do you think Pope Francis’ visit to the US factors into his pontificate? Is it just “another trip on the list”, so to speak?

Tornielli: First of all, I really think that every trip, every pilgrimage, and every visit of the Pope never is “just another trip on the list.” There are trips with more geo-political appeal, and more journalistic comments, but I think that in the heart of Pope Francis, as in that of his traveling predecessors, every trip is important: the successor of St. Peter is going to meet his sheep, and is going to present in a very positive manner the message of the Gospel both to Catholic and Christian believers, and to non-believers.

But, it is also clear that the coming trip to Cuba and the United States is, in my opinion, one of the more sensitive ones of the pontificate. Not only because it is the first time for Pope Francis in the USA, but also because the part of his message focusing on social doctrine was misunderstood and badly presented by columnists and think-tanks in North America. Pope Francis and his message about poverty, his courageous denunciation of the economy that kills, are usually well understood by normal people, but rejected by some intellectuals who want to teach the Pontiff how to do his job and what the correct interpretation of the social teachings of the Catholic Church is.

CWR: As you well know, Francis is a pope who has a special concern for those on the margins of society. Since before his election, he has had the custom of celebrating the liturgy for Holy Thursday with those at the margins. In March 2013, shortly after his election, he celebrated that liturgy at a youth detention center. During his visit here, he’ll stop at an American prison. What might we expect from the pope’s visit there?

Tornielli: In my opinion, and from the experiences of previous visits, such as the visit at Palmasola prison in Bolivia, in which I participated, I think that it will be one of the most important moments of the trip in the USA. I was so impressed because Francis loves to be in the middle of people on the margins of society, and especially prisoners. He tried to share a message of hope, because there is no sin which could not be forgiven. And it is so important, in the Pope’s vision, to be close to people on the margins of society, not only for sociological reasons, giving a better chance to prisoners could mean restoring rehabilitated men and women to our society, but first of all because it is clearly indicated as the necessary attitude for Christians, as we can read in chapter 25 of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

CWR: Speaking of Pope Francis’ social message and appeal to society, do you think he will address global warming and immigration? What has his messaging on those themes been so far?

Tornielli: I don’t have any kind of anticipation about the Pope’s speeches. But I think that immigration will be one of the themes he covers, as of course it is an issue for the USA Bishops’ Conference. Concerning immigration, I want to recall that Francis chose to make his first trip in Italy to the island of Lampedusa in July 2013, commemorating dead immigrants. In that occasion, the Pope asked the people to break the bubbles of indifference, in which we are living. After the publication of the new encyclical “Laudato si‘”, I also think that the environment and the salvation of Mother Earth could be quoted, but not only global warming.

CWR: How will he balance his concern for these topics with American Catholics’ concern for topics like the Gospel of Life, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty? Is the pope concerned about these things too?

Tornielli: He obviously is. He is concerned not only because he is a “son of the Church”, as he explained when he was answering a question during the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome in July 2013, but also because he often speaks about family, the Gospel of Life, remembering that life does not only mean the life of unborn children threatened by abortion or old men and women threatened by euthanasia, but it is also the life of the immigrants, the poor, the unemployed and so on.

CWR: At the Vatican, the pope has been overseeing the reform of the Roman Curia. Has real progress been made on that front?

Tornielli: Yes, even if the job is taking time and it is going slowly. It is necessary to evaluate and to take very pondered decisions, because it is neither simple nor easy to reform the Roman Curia. I’d like to highlight the reform of the economical structures of the Vatican State and the Holy See, and the new process for the work of the Synod. In the next year, I think that the reform of the Pontifical councils will be concluded.

CWR: You mention the Synod of Bishops. Pope St. John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America speaks of one America, as opposed to the Americas. And, certainly, this pope is concerned with peace and unity. What can you tell us about the role he played in seeking to re-establish diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba?

Tornielli: The most significant result achieved thus far is undoubtedly the “thaw” in relations between the United States and Cuba, with the leaders of both countries – President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro – publicly thanking Francis and the Vatican for his mediatory role. As Francis himself had stated, however, it was not so much the Vatican’s mediation that was the determining factor, but the willingness showed by the two presidents, both of whom were in need of truly neutral ground on which to negotiate. “The process between Cuba and the United States,” said the Pope last July “was not mediation. It did not have the character of mediation. It arose from a desire … and then three months went by during which I prayed hard about this … Then the Lord made me think of a cardinal, and he went there and spoke. Then I didn’t hear anything; months went by. One day the Secretary of State, who is here, told me, ‘Tomorrow we will have a second meeting with the two teams.’ — ‘What?’ — ‘Yes, they are talking to each other, the two groups are both talking, they are making progress …’ It progressed by itself … It was the goodwill of two countries. The merit is theirs, the merit is theirs for doing this.” 

Some are inclined to compare Francis’ role in Latin America to the role John Paul II played in the countries of Eastern Europe when communism fell. But this comparison does not hold water. First and foremost, geopolitics has changed and the world is no longer split in two. Secondly, because neither the Argentinian Pope’s Latin American cultural identity nor any structured political thinking are the main motivations for his actions. Rather, it is an evangelical and realistic approach to the world’s problems today that is the driver. The same approach Pope Wojtyla took when he refused to be pigeonholed as the chaplain of the West after the fall of communism, imploring – in vain – his old friends and allies in the anti-communist struggle not to go ahead with the two Iraq wars, which proved to be full of negative consequences for the region.

With his geopolitics inspired by the Gospel, Francis is giving a voice to those who did not have one or no longer has one. He is trying to involve everyone in dialogue and negotiation processes, regardless of the politically correct vetoes of Western gurus.

CWR: You speak of the thawing relations between Cuba and the US and the historic tensions that existed between the Communists and the US. But, even inside the Church there are tensions. When the pope returns to the Vatican after his visit to the US, he will have one week to finalize preparations for the Synod. Do you think we can expect any talk of the Synod or signals about it from him during his visit here to the US, especially since he’ll be taking part in the World Meeting of Families?

Tornielli: Yes, I definitely think so. The World Meeting is the meeting of families, and the Synod is dedicated to the family. But I do not know what the Pope is going to say about this. I could only argue that he wants to present the Gospel of Family in a positive manner, without forgetting the big challenges for the families in our times and the necessity to announce the message of the Gospel to people that are having difficulties and problems in their family life.

CWR: When he returned from South Korea to Rome in 2014, Pope Francis said he could maybe see himself renouncing the papacy, like his predecessor, in two or three years’ time. That would put his resignation around 2016 or 2017. Do you think that could happen?

Tornielli: I do not think that it could be possible to predict a scheduled date, because the Pope’s speech was so clear about this. After the historical decision of his predecessor Benedict XVI, now the door “is open”, there is this possibility. But I think that Francis could imitate Pope Ratzinger only if his health deteriorated and it would not be possible for him to continue in his pastoral ministry.

CWR: One final question. In the US, some people are talking about their desire to see Pope Francis declare Pope St. John Paul II a Doctor of the Church. Might that happen?

Tornielli: Pope John Paul II was proclaimed blessed in 2011, only six years after his death, and was proclaimed a saint in 2014, only three years afterwards. I do not have any information about this, but I think that the timing of the Church is usually slower.

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.