ROME — To mark the two-year anniversary of his pontificate Friday, Pope Francis gave an exclusive interview to a group of youngsters from a slum of Buenos Aires, answering written questions on such disparate topics as drug trafficking, derailed lives, faith, and the possibility of a terrorist attack against him.
“My life is in God’s hands,” Francis told the young people in response to one of the questions they submitted Feb. 7 and published this month, this one about “fanatics who want to kill you.”
“I told the Lord: You take care of me,” Francis said. “But if your will is for me to die or to be hurt, I ask you only one favor, that it doesn’t hurt! I’m a coward when it comes to physical pain.”
The pontiff also said he’s aware of being surrounded by people who don’t agree with what he says or does.
“I was never hurt by listening to people,” Francis said. “Even if you don’t agree with them, they’ll give you something or they’ll put you in a position to re-think things. That enriches you.”
The youngsters asked Francis about their everyday problems.
One of the questions was about drug dealing that destroys the life of many in the villas miserias, the Argentine term for a slum.
“Drug dealing advances and it doesn’t stop,” he said. “There are countries that are already slaves of drugs and we’re worried.”
“What worries me the most is the triumphalism of drug dealers,” the pontiff said. “These people are proclaiming victory, they feel that they’ve won, that they have triumphed. This is a reality.”
Argentina is considered the third largest global exporter of cocaine.
Talking about the family, a hot-button issue for the Church as it prepares for the Synod of Bishops on this topic next October, the youngsters asked Francis, “What’s the most important thing we need to give our children?”
“Belonging. Belonging to a home,” Francis said.
This, he explained, is given with love, time, by holding their hands, listening to them, playing with them, giving them what they need to grow and a place to express themselves.
“The most important thing is the faith,” the pope said. “It pains me to find children who don’t know how make the sign of the Cross!”
The “collective papal interview” was published in the home-made magazine of the slum La Cárcova, run by the community Gran Buenos Aires.
Italian journalist Alver Metalli, the brains behind the launch of the street newspaper, said in his online publication Terra da America that the idea of the interview was born on a “hot summer night in Buenos Aires” last January, in the courtyard of the slum’s chapel, run by the Villero priest, the Rev. Jose “Pepe” Di Paola.
Di Paola is a spiritual protégé of Pope Francis, who, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, created a diocesan pastoral service for the slums, sending more than a dozen priests to live with the poorest of the poor.
Metalli said that after a religious procession and “with the spirits fueled by some glasses of wine,” he and Di Paola decided to pursue the idea, asking more than 600 youngsters to submit their questions.
On Feb. 7, when Di Paola was in Rome, he had a private audience with Pope Francis. He told the pontiff about the idea and gave him the questions, which the pope answered right then.
Questioned about what makes it possible for a person to change after a difficult life or when brought down by social or international situations, Francis said that everyone can change. “I know some people who had let themselves go, who were throwing their lives away and are now married with a family,” he said.
According to the pontiff, this is not optimism, but rather, certainty in two things: the human person, “made in God’s image,” and “the strength of the Holy Spirit.”
Asked about when he plans to visit Argentina, Francis said that he wants to do so in 2016, but that it’s not set in stone because he has other trips to plan and countries to go to before.
Referring to the national elections his home country will have later this year, he asked for politicians to have a clear, concrete platform, to be honest when presenting their ideas, and to hold a “free, unfinanced campaign.”
“In the financing of electoral campaigns, many interests get into the mix, and then they send you the bill,” Francis said.
He also called for transparency in fundraising for political campaigns.
“Perhaps public financing would allow for me, the citizen, to know that I’m financing each candidate with a given amount of money,” he said. “Everything needs to be transparent and clean.”