ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — At the close of a week-long trip to Latin America that elicited some of Pope Francis’ most fiery anti-capitalist rhetoric to date, the pontiff acknowledged his views stirred controversy in the United States and vowed to ponder those reactions ahead of a September trip to the country.
“I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States. I must begin studying these criticisms, no?” he said. “Then we shall dialogue about them.”
Interestingly for a pontiff who has made economic justice a central theme, Francis said he’s generally “allergic” to financial matters. Of accounting, he said: “I don’t understand it very well.”
The pontiff acknowledged that his commentary on the economy tends to focus on the poor rather than the middle class, insisting that the poor are at the heart of the Christian Gospel. However, he called the imbalance “an error of mine” and said reconsidering it is “something I need to do.”
Francis largely shrugged off praise for restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba last December, saying the primary credit goes to the two countries themselves. He also gave thanks to the Lord, saying divine intervention played a role.
On a human interest level, the pope denied chewing coca leaves during his Latin America trip, and also confessed that every time a young person asks him for a selfie, he feels “like a great-grandfather.”
The pope’s comments came in a 65-minute session with reporters on Sunday aboard the papal plane en route from Asunción, Paraguay, back to Rome.
Francis also addressed the current political situation in Greece, a Communist-style crucifix presented to him by Bolivian President Evo Morales, and a border dispute between Bolivia and Chile.
During the news conference, Francis was asked about the perception of some in the United States that his repeated attacks on “an economic system that imposes a profit mentality at any cost, to the detriment of the poor,” was a direct criticism of the American system and way of life.
The pope said that this viewpoint, which he talked about in Bolivia, wasn’t new; he expressed it in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and his recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.
The pontiff said he knew his views were being criticized in the United States, but added that he couldn’t respond because he hasn’t had time to read the critiques.
“Every criticism must be received, studied, and then dialogue must ensue,” he said.
He also said that he hasn’t started to prepare for his visits to Cuba or the United States, preparation that he’ll start on now that his first trip to Spanish-speaking Latin America is over. (Two years ago he traveled to Brazil, where the official language is Portugese.)
On the warming of Cuba-US relations, Francis offered a timeline of how his intervention last year came about.
“It all began in January of last year, and I spent three months simply praying about it,” he said. “What can I do between these two [countries], after 50 years of them being like this?”
Francis said he wondered what to do after he was approached by the two sides, and eventually dispatched a cardinal as a go-between.
“The Lord made me think of a cardinal; he went, talked, and after that, I knew nothing else,” he said.
The pope said months went by without him hearing about any breakthroughs, until one day the Vatican secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told him that on the following day there would be a second meeting between two teams that were brokering a decision to begin diplomatic relations.
“I asked him ‘What?’” Francis said. “He told me, ‘Yes, the two teams are talking.’”
After that, the pontiff insisted that what happened between the United States and Cuba wasn’t the result of mediation from the Vatican, but the result of the two countries’ goodwill.
“The merit is theirs for doing this,” he said. “We did hardly anything, only small things.”
At another point, he said that “it was the Lord” who “mediated” between Cuba and the US, and that he expects both nations to gain something and to give up something during negotiations.
Last December, when President Barak Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced their intention to resume diplomatic relations after more than five decades, both thanked Pope Francis for his help.
Francis was also asked whether he’ll use his stop in Cuba to pressure Havana to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom. Francis said that even though everyone should have these two rights guaranteed, the island country isn’t the only one where they’re not always respected.
“Keep in mind that there are many countries, including some in Europe [such as France], where one cannot carry religious symbols,” he said.
On the situation in Greece, Francis fielded a question before news broke that Athens had reached a new bailout deal with Eurozone members at the conclusion of marathon overnight talks on Sunday.
The pontiff began by admitting he’s been “allergic” to economics since he was a boy. He said his father, an accountant, would bring the ledgers of the factory where he worked home with him on weekends, and the future pope found them mysterious.
“I don’t understand it very well,” he said.
However, Francis ventured to say that he believes it would be too simple to say that the blame lies only on one side, considering that former Greek governments are also at fault.
“I hope that they find a way to resolve the problem and also a way to have oversight so that the same problem doesn’t happen in other countries,” he said.
An oversight body, Francis said, would help the situation move forward because the “road of loans and debts is never-ending.”
Talking about a crucifix of Marxist inspiration he received from Bolivian President Evo Morales, he said that he was curious about it, since he didn’t know it was a replica of one created by Jesuit Rev. Luis Espinal, a priest killed in 1980 by the Bolivian army whom Francis honored on his first day in the country.
Francis said that he was surprised by the cross, which he called “protest art,” but that he wasn’t offended by it because he sees it as part of the legacy of Espinal, who followed a version of Latin America’s Liberation Theology aligned with Marxism years before the Vatican first warned against it.
The pontiff also said he’s concerned about the peace process in Colombia, and that he hopes negotiations proceed, confirming the Vatican is willing to help.
Questioned about a possible intervention from the Vatican over Bolivia and Chile’s long-standing dispute over access to the sea, he said that as a head of state he couldn’t say anything on the matter because it could be read as him trying to interfere in another country’s sovereignty.
Francis was also asked about why, during this trip, he had delivered so many strong messages directed to the poor, and also strong, at times severe, messages for the rich and powerful, but had so very little to say to the middle class, “the people who work, pay their taxes, the normal people.”
He began his answer by recognizing it was true, and saying it was “a good correction.”
“It’s an error of mine not to think about this,” he said.
The pope said that society is polarized, with the middle class becoming smaller, and the gap between the rich and the poor growing.
“I speak of the poor because they’re at the heart of the Gospel,” he said. “I always speak from the Gospel.”
But the common people, the simple people, the worker, that is a great value, Francis said.
“I think you’re telling me about something I need to do. I need to delve further into this magisterium,” he said, referring to official church teaching.
On a less serious note, the 78-year-old pope was asked about his stamina during the week-long barnstorming tour.
“You want to know my drug?” he joked, saying that the Argentinian tea infusion mate, that has high levels of mateína, similar to caffeine, helps him.
“But I didn’t chew coca leaves, I want for this to be clear!”
Asked about young people who approach him asking for a selfie, Francis said he feels like a great-grandfather every time it happens, considering it “another culture.”
Francis shared that as he was leaving one of the events during the tour, a policeman in his 40s approached him, asking for a selfie. He couldn’t avoid joking, he said, that “you’re not a teenager!”
“It’s another culture … I respect it,” the pope said.