The recent interview with Pope Francis on Latin America with the Rome correspondent of the Argentine news agency Telam is suprisingly short for a book — fewer than 200 pages, even with a generous layout and with an appendix of speeches that takes up more than a third of the text.
Latinoamérica: Conversaciones con Hernán Reyes Alcaide is therefore at the opposite pole from the exhaustive, and often exhausting, recent mega-interview, Politique et Societé, in which sociologist Dominique Wolton over many sessions got Francis to tackle the kind of high-flying questions for which secular French intellectuals are renowned.
Unlike Wolton, Reyes is a self-effacing interviewer, a reporter rather than a savant, and his questions are more direct and open-ended. Francis is far more relaxed as a result, which may be why there’s a surprising number of nuggets for such a short text.
(One indication of how relaxed he feels with Reyes is the way Francis uses — for the first time in his papal interviews — the informal vos of his local Spanish, as well as the odd bit of Buenos Aires slang, known as lunfardo. Speaking of poor people moving to the cities, for example, he describes how they lose direct contact with the land and end up with a changa — meaning a job in the informal sector, probably in the black economy, without any kind of social protection.)
The interview was to mark the tenth anniversary of the milestone meeting of the Latin-American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, for the so-called “Fifth Conference” of the Church’s continental body CELAM. The chief redactor of its concluding document was, famously, the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and its vision clearly underpins Francis’s first two teaching documents, Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’.
The Aparecida meeting in May 2007 took place two years after the conclave that elected Benedict XVI at which —as an Italian cardinal’s secret diary famously revealed at the end of 2005 — Jorge Mario Bergoglio had attracted many votes from pastoral and reformist cardinals. Bergoglio, according to that same diary, had implored them not to vote for him but for Joseph Ratzinger.
In my biography of Francis, The Great Reformer, I suggested that this was because Bergoglio believed that Latin America was not ready to assume the mantle of the universal Church. I had no way of confirming this directly, but Bergoglio’s friend and wise guide, the great Uruguayan historian and intellectual Alberto (“Tucho”) Methol Ferré, had said in a newspaper interview just before the conclave that it wasn’t the moment for a Latin-American pope and that Ratzinger was the most suitable candidate. People close to Francis told me that the two had agreed on this point.
Interestingly, Francis confirms to Reyes that he shared Methol’s view, and that when he had read the interview before leaving for the conclave, he thought it was “a superb insight.” He then added in his strongest terms yet his conviction that Ratzinger was the only real candidate in 2005.
“Notwithstanding the action of the Holy Spirit that acts in the conclave, at that moment in history the only man with the stature, the wisdom and the necessary experience to be elected was Ratzinger,” Francis tells Reyes, adding: “Otherwise there existed the danger of electing a ‘compromise pope.’ And electing a ‘compromise pope’ is not, let’s say, very Gospel-like.”
Reyes does not ask Francis why he did not think Latin America was ready, but the answer seems clear: Aparecida had not yet taken place. The last time the continental Church had gathered was Santo Domingo in 1992, widely considered a near-failure because of heavy-handed attempts to control it from Rome and a furious resistance from CELAM.
Francis clearly shares this view, telling Reyes that Santo Domingo “wasn’t a failure, but was very stressful,” adding later in the interview that following the great conferences at Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979), in Santo Domingo “it seems as if the thing gets stuck.”
What that meeting produced, he said, praising the role of the Brazilian Jesuit bishop Luciano Pedro Mendes de Almeida — who, he does not add, led a rebellion against the Rome-prepared speech — was “a document that some saw as a compromise, but which didn’t close doors.”
Aparecida, on the other hand, was where the Latin-American Church was able to bring to maturity the fruits of Medellín and Puebla. Francis suggests as much when he says, “Paul VI’s intuition for Latin America was kind of suspended, awaiting the maturing of the postconciliar process.”
That maturing bore fruit in Aparecida. Key to its success, Francis tells Reyes, was the way that the meeting took place in the basilica, close to the faithful people. Aparecida, he says, “was all for the people and all with the people.”
Francis sees Aparecida as a work still in progress, stating firmly that the Church has to implement the document before it can think about a sixth CELAM general conference.
Asked where the Church in Latin America has made least progress since Aparecida, Francis says: “pastoral conversion. It’s still very much halfway there.”
(“Pastoral conversion” is a key term in Aparecida, and for the Francis papacy. It refers to a move from maintenance to mission, and a pastoral focus on concrete people and their needs rather than taking refuge in abstraction and legalism.)
Asked why, he blames clericalism, telling Reyes that it remains pervasive in Latin America, where the lay vocation “has to be rediscovered and developed and given its proper weight” in the Church.
As ever, he attributes the Church’s failures to its distance. The rise of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, for example, is put down to the Church not being “close to the people. People look for God in a religious way, and want closeness …. The priest is not and cannot be the boss, but a shepherd.”
On the plus side, Francis sees the area of greatest progress since Aparecida in what he calls “awareness,” both “the people’s awareness of belonging” and “the awareness that gives you a capacity for critical analysis of the historic situation Latin America is now living through.”
He goes on to criticize previous “interpretative lenses” in the Church, which come from what he calls “1968 Paris or certain extrapolated German theologies” which “have nothing to do with the interpretation of Latin America.” The Latin-American Church, in other words, is getting better at discerning Latin-American realities using its own lenses, rather than foreign ones.
But despite a growing sense of self in the Latin-American Church, Francis sees a waning of the continent’s commitment to unity, a dream he — and CELAM — have long nurtured.
What he describes as “the true project of Latin America,” the patria grande dreamed of at independence in the early nineteenth-century, “is no longer seen,” he laments at one point, attributing it to corruption, drug-trafficking and what he describes as the continent’s subservience to “the international monetary system” which is undermining integration.
“Some say,” he adds, “that the best thing Latin America can now do is a tactical withdrawal rather than come out fighting. Go back to its roots, go back to thinking of itself, waiting for the moment to come out and mature from within.”
As ever with these interviews, there are little flashes that cast further light on the pope’s personality and character, or reinforce what we know.
One example of his famously prodigious capacity to remember names and details comes when he is speaking of the background to Laudato Si’, when he mentions a 1950 speech by then-President Juan Domingo Perón that mentioned the use of plastics and biodegradation. If that wasn’t enough, he goes on to name two ministers of health and agriculture in Perón’s second term, saluting their achievements in eradicating tuberculosis and locust plagues.
But my favourite character insight in the book comes when Reyes asks him about his use of technology, and Francis confirms that the furthest he has gone in that department was buying a second-hand electronic typewriter with one line of memory while studying in Germany.
“What saves me is intuition,” the pope adds. “And I say that in all earnestness, because it’s a gift.”
(Papa Francisco: Latinoamérica. Conversaciones con Hernán Reyes Alcaide is published in Argentina by Editorial Planeta, and will be on sale elsewhere in Latin America in coming weeks.)