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ROME – One of Pope Francis’s closest friends and aides has said that after ten years, the pontiff has left an indisputably Jesuit mark on the church and has propelled Catholicism into a more open conversation with the world, eliciting criticism but also distinguishing himself as a pastor and a global moral authority.
Speaking to Crux, fellow Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, Editor in Chief of the Jesuit-run periodical La Civiltà Cattolica, said he believes that as the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election approaches, “it seems that a great parrhesia has developed in the church, which is exactly what the pope asked and is asking for.”
“Pope Francis is a popular figure, but I would say, beyond popular, he’s perhaps the only global moral figure that there is right now in the world,” Spadaro said, noting that the current Successor of Peter has a strong personality and clear pastoral approach that not everyone agrees with.
“Francis is a very strong and high-profile figure, he has a significant, ingenious personality, in his way, which can attract or push away,” he said, but insisted that, rather than concentrating on the specific personality of the man in office, “what counts is his message.”
Formerly the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the papacy March 13, 2013, taking the pontifical name Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi.
Spadaro, who since then has become one of Pope Francis’s most trusted friends and advisors, and who accompanies him on every foreign trip and has interviewed him several times, believes it’s impossible to determine right now what Francis’s full impact on the Catholic Church has been, and that only time will tell.
“This is a pontificate of fruits, yes, but also a pontificate of seeds, above all a pontificate of seeds. I think that with time, these seeds will grow, evolve and mature. We’ll understand later what the fruits that have been planted during this time are,” Spadaro said.
Please read below for Crux’s conversation with Father Antonio Spadaro:
Crux: Did you know Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio before his election in March 2013? What was your impression of him?
Spadaro: I didn’t know Cardinal Bergoglio very well. I heard talk of him and knew that in the Society there were different opinions of his work. I knew that he also had a very strong pastoral approach, a contact with the people that often brought him onto the streets, or traveling on the metro, but I didn’t have a very precise picture.
My first reaction was one of great surprise. I was in St. Peter’s Square, I was waiting for the new pope when I heard the name ‘Giorgius Marius’ in Latin and I asked myself who the other cardinal was besides Bergoglio, because I couldn’t imagine it was him, a Jesuit. When I heard them pronounce his name, I had a sense of deep emotion, for me it was something completely unexpected, unexpected, and unpredictable.
Then later, immediately after, I was touched by his first words, the first Mass with the cardinals. In that homily, from the beginning, he really moved me because I heard words of a Jesuit, someone formed in Ignatian spirituality, which I recognized a lot.
How has his Jesuit formation influenced his papacy, in your view?
As I said earlier, I was very touched by the fact that his approach from the beginning was recognizable for me as a Jesuit approach. On the other hand, the pope was radically formed by this spirituality, and he also had roles of great responsibility as a Jesuit, as rector of [Colegio Máximo and the Colegio de San José], master of novices, and as provincial. So, I have to say that his pontificate is influenced by his way of being, his way of living the faith, which is marked by the Ignatian spirituality.
What do you think are the most important moments of this pontificate so far?
I see Francis’s journey not as a path of unexpected twists and turns, but I see a continuous process, a development. I find it difficult to imagine in terms of scales, because I don’t see this as a moment of balancing, as if it were a company balance sheet. There is a path.
Of course, synodality, the importance that Francis has given to the synod, the synodal institution, to me seems relevant because he has spoken about it from the beginning, since his first interview in 2013. From there, this theme emerged clearly. I myself didn’t understand exactly how important it was, but I understand it now.
The Holy Year of Mercy is another very significant moment, because for me it’s as if Francis wanted to underline, beyond his ordinary magisterium, what the true face of God is, a God who welcomes, a God who is close. He also wanted to underline in this fragile moment in history that the face of God is mercy, mercy is precisely his name.
How is the church different today because of 10 years of Pope Francis?
Of course, the church today is different than a decade ago. We also have to understand how. When these processes are lived, often they are recognized with difficulty from outside, but to me it seems that a great parrhesia has developed in the church, which is exactly what the pope asked and is asking for. There is a capacity for free communication of one’s own position, which at times can meet with oppositions, which, however, if they respect the communion of the church, the importance of relationships, and clearly also the value of the pontifical magisterium, can be useful for a deeper debate and a fuller awareness of what it means to live the Gospel today, to be church today. So, a broader, more widespread discussion.
Then also, a great attention to the pastoral dimension and to welcome, there is a greater awareness of this theme. Then clearly, there are the big themes like fraternity that are immersed in politics, in the international political reflection, the theme of Laudato Si, if we want a church that feels like it is participating in the effort that the world is making to be more human.
I would say it’s a perspective that is absolutely conciliar, it follows the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Francis is still a very beloved figure throughout the world, but he has also drawn a lot of criticism, even from within the church. Are you surprised by either the affection or opposition Francis has elicited?
Pope Francis is a popular figure, but I would say, beyond popular, he’s perhaps the only global moral figure that there is right now in the world, so he’s recognized by everyone from a moral profile. Yes, of course he has generated criticisms and opposition, as well as great affection. I am not surprised, in the sense that Francis is a very strong and high-profile figure, he has a significant, ingenious personality, in his way, which can attract or push away.
I would say that rather than concentrating on the figure, the specific personality of the pope, what counts is his message, and he has a very rigorous, demanding, coherent message which can generate opposition, and which at times can cultivate economic and political interests. So, it doesn’t surprise me that he generated tensions of various kinds, but also deep attractions.
One thing that moves me is that the secular world has experienced this figure with great passion, so he’s a figure who through his evangelic capabilities attracts worlds that can seem far away from the faith.
What do you think is still misunderstood about Pope Francis?
I don’t think there are radical misconceptions. Perhaps his way of communicating. I think that Francis made a choice at the level of communications not to spread his message in very traditional, or closed ways. His desire to communicate, to express himself, also happens in interviews, which were absolutely unpredictable at the beginning.
I remember I asked him, for example, if he was available for an interview in 2013 and he told me no because it wasn’t his way of expressing himself, he didn’t know how to give interviews, but then he completely changed this. He probably realized that through the interview, he was able to reach people he wouldn’t be able to otherwise, the message reached them more directly.
So, a certain way of communicating can have been misunderstood by someone, but I think this playing, this being in the midst of journalists responding to questions without necessarily knowing them in advance, all of this is appreciated.
Do you have one or two personal moments with Pope Francis that you can share that express who he is?
Above all I remember the first time I interviewed him, it took place on three afternoons, and it was an experience at the same time extraordinary – extraordinary because I found myself in front of the pope, it was the first time, I’d never had an experience like this – and on the other hand, the perception was almost that of normality, of an ordinary conversation. I felt a great calm, but at the same time an almost volcanic magma that came from his words. This was a very, very strong experience.
Another experience is always the trips, because following the pope up close during trips means seeing things with his eyes, as he sees them on his side, and this is very exciting.
In 100 years, how do you think Pope Francis will be remembered? What will his legacy be?
I don’t think this is the right moment to respond to this question. I don’t think it’s a ten-year budget, I think the pontificate is evolving so we still don’t know, we don’t have a crystal ball of the magician who knows the future.
What I feel like I can say is that this is a pontificate of fruits, yes, but also a pontificate of seeds, above all a pontificate of seeds. Francis is reaching the tenth year of his pontificate and arriving at this point, he has planted a lot. I think that with time, these seeds will grow, evolve, and mature. We’ll understand later what the fruits that have been planted during this time are.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen