(Vatican Radio) From the possibility of the unification of the Koreas to the idea of “just war", from the situation of persecuted minorities in Iraq to the Pope’s upcoming journey to Albania: on the flight back from Korea to Rome, Pope Francis answered questions put to him by journalists travelling with him aboard the papal plane.
In what has become a traditional impromptu press conference aboard the papal plane, journalists spent more than an hour questioning the Pope about his recent visit to Korea for the 6th Asian Youth Day, about issues raised during the journey, his take on the ongoing violence against Christians and other minorities in Iraq, and about plans for future foreign trips.
The first question, put to him by a Korean journalist, concerned his closeness to family victims of the Se-Wol ferry disaster, in which more than 300 people lost their lives. There is much anger in Korea regarding the government’s response to that tragedy and Pope Francis was asked whether he was worried his attitude could be politically exploited.
“When you find yourself face-to-face with pain and sorrow, you must do what your heart tells you to do,” the Pope said. He pointed out that he is a priest and he feels close to those who suffer. His closeness, he explained, brings consolation, not solutions; and he recalled that when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was there to bring comfort to the many victims of two terrible disasters (in a discotheque fire, which killed 193 young people, and in a train accident, which killed 120). In Korea, when someone pointed out he continued to wear the yellow ribbon of solidarity for the victims of the ferry disaster. he answered: “You cannot be neutral before the pain of your brothers and sisters”.
Answering questions regarding the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by fundamentalists of the Islamic State (IS), the Pope said that “it is legitimate to halt the unjust aggressor”. And he underlined the word “halt” pointing out that does not mean to “bomb”. He said the methods used to halt the aggressor are to be evaluated. The Pope also pointed out that in these cases we must not forget “how many times with the excuse of halting the unjust aggressor (…) have powerful nations taken possession of peoples and waged a war of conquest!” A single nation, he said, cannot judge how to stop an unjust aggressor, and he pointed to the United Nations as the right venue to discuss the issue. Pope Francis also pointed out that persecuted Christians are close to his heart but he underlined the fact that there are also other minorities suffering persecution, and they all have the same rights.
Regarding his availability to travel to Kurdistan to be with the fleeing refugees, Pope Francis said he is ready to do so if it is deemed a good thing to do. At the moment, however, he pointed to the various initiatives undertaken by the Vatican, such as sending Cardinal Fernando Filoni, writing to the UN Secretary General, and writing a personal communiqué that was sent to all the nunciatures and governments in the area.
When asked about progress in dialogue with China, Pope Francis said he happened to be in the cockpit when the plane was about to enter Chinese airspace. He said he “prayed intensely for that noble and wise people”. He said his thoughts turned to the Jesuits and to Father Matteo Ricci and expressed his love for the Chinese people. He also referred to the letter written by Benedict XVI regarding relations with China and said this letter is still very up-to-date and it is good idea to read it again. “The Holy See," he said, "is always open to be in touch, because it has true esteem for the Chinese people”.
Speaking about his upcoming visit to Albania, he pointed out that he is not going there, as some have surmised, because it is in his style to start with “the periphery”. He explained that he is going to Albania for two important reasons: first, because it has a government of national unity, which gathers Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, thanks to an Inter-Religious Council that works and gives balance. And this, he said, is good: “The presence of the Pope is to tell all peoples that it is possible to work together!” The second reason he pointed to refers to the history of Albania, which was unique among the communist nations in that its Constitution foresaw practical atheism. “If you went to Mass, it was anti-constitutional” he said. And he recalled that 1820, churches were destroyed in Albania. So, today he feels the need to go there.
Pope Francis also mentioned his desire to travel to Philadelphia next year for the World Meeting of Families and said he has received a “shower” of invitations from across the world including New York, Mexico and Spain. But, he said, nothing has been decided yet.
Asked about his relationship with Benedict XVI, Francis said he visited him before his departure for Korea and they discussed theological questions. The Pope also said he considers Benedict’s resignation a noble, humble and courageous gesture. And he said that should conditions be such, he would pray but he would consider doing the same: “He opened a door which is 'institutional' not 'exceptional' ”.
Asked if he were planning to visit Japan and pray for that country’s “hidden Christians”, who historically suffered similarly to Korea’s Christians, the Pope said that yes, he had been invited by the Japanese government and the Bishops and that such a trip would be "wonderful".
Speaking about the historic suffering of Korea and the divisions afflicting it today, the Pope said: “The Korean people have not lost their dignity. (The Korean people) have been invaded, humiliated, suffered wars, and (are) now divided with much suffering.” Recalling his brief meeting at Monday’s Mass in Seoul with aged, so-called “comfort women” (women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II and who have been seeking an official apology), Pope Francis marveled that “they have not lost their dignity”.
“To think that in that invasion they were hauled away as girls to the barracks to be taken advantage of,” he said. The suffering of these women, martyrdom and other kinds of suffering, the Pope said, are “fruits of war”
“Today,” he continued, “we are in a world at war – everywhere!” Pope Francis then remarked on a comment someone once made to him that we are witnessing the Third World War. “It is a world at war where these cruelties are carried out,” he said.
He then highlighted “cruelty” and “torture” as hallmarks of the kind of war we see today. “Today, children don’t count. Once, one spoke of conventional warfare. Today, this doesn’t count. I am not saying conventional warfare is a good thing, no. But today a bomb goes off and you have an innocent killed with the guilty one, the child, with the woman, with the mother… they kill everyone.” “The level of mankind’s cruelty at this moment is a little frightening.”
The Pope said “today, torture is one of the most – I’d say – ordinary methods of behavior of the intelligence services, of judicial process. And torture is a sin against humanity; it is a crime against humanity. And to Catholics, I say: to torture a person is a mortal sin; it is a grave sin!”
Asked if his schedule has been too tiring for him so that he has had to cancel some appointments, Pope Francis said he has taken some vacation time at home where he read an interesting book about being “happy to be neurotic".
“I have some neuroses,” he quipped, “and you need to treat them well.” One of his neuroses, the Pope admitted, is that “I am a bit too attached to life.” The last time he had taken a vacation with the Jesuit community outside Buenos Aires, he added, was in 1975. When he takes time off now from his busy schedule, he says, “I sleep more, read the things that I like, listen to music, pray more…In July and part of August I did this and it’s ok.” Remarking on his cancellation of several appointments, including a last-minute cancellation of a June visit to Rome’s Gemelli hospital, the Pope said those were “very busy days” and that he needed to be “more prudent.”
Asked how he perceives his “intense popularity”, Pope Francis said he “thanks the Lord that His people are happy” and for “the generosity of the people.” “Inside,” the Pope added, “I try to think of my sins and my mistakes so as to not believe that [….], “because I know that this will not last long, two or three years, and then, to the House of the Father.”
Asked what he does every day apart from his working schedule while in the Vatican and the Santa Marta guesthouse, the Pope answered, “I think I’m free…There are the office, the work appointments… Sure, I’d like to be able to go out, but it’s not possible, not possible.” Within Santa Marta, he said, “I have a normal life of work, rest, chatting.” Pope Francis acknowledged that there are reasons for some of the constraints though “some walls have fallen.”
Asked about an encyclical on the environment long-said to be in the works, the Pope confirmed it has been written with much collaboration from Cardinal Peter Turkson (President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace) and others, and it is still being revised. He revealed that it is “one-third longer than ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ and that it posed many difficult questions, because, he said, it is possible to discuss the stewardship of creation and ecology with clarity “only to a certain point, but then scientific hypotheses come into play, some feasible, and others perhaps not”. He pointed out that an encyclical that must adhere to the Magisterium must be based only on certainties.
Speaking about the suffering caused by the division between North Korea and South Korea, Pope Francis said he is bringing back with him a crown of Christ’s thorns made with the barbed wire that marks the boundary. “A gift that speaks of the suffering caused by separation, the separation within a family.” And he reiterated he is praying for the end of that suffering.
To a question regarding the cause for the beatification of Bishop Oscar Romero, the Pope confirmed it had been put on hold “for reasons of prudence”, but is now going forward.
And speaking about the Invocation for Peace in the Holy Land that recently took place in the Vatican in the presence of the leaders of Palestine and Israel, Pope Francis said “it was not a failure”. He said the event sprung from the political leaders themselves, who could not find the right place to do it. He revealed that initially they wanted to organize it when the Pope was in the Holy Land in May in a neutral venue like the Nunciature. But that would have posed problems as the president of the State of Palestine would have had to enter Israel and it was not easy. So they said to me: “Let’s do it in the Vatican!” the Pope said. They are both men of peace, he said. They are convinced that the only way forward is the way of negotiation and dialogue. “And today that door is still open, he said, were there to open the door of prayer. Peace, Francis said, is a gift and it was important to show humanity that the way of negotiation and dialogue is important, and it is not possible without prayer. Today, the Pope said, we cannot see that door through the smoke of the bombs, but it is open.
Pope Francis concluded his chat with the journalists saying that upon his return to Rome he will be dropping in at the Basilica of St. Mary Major to thank Our Lady. The posy of flowers he will bring her as a gift, he said, was given to him by a little girl in Korea before his departure.