ROSARIO, Argentina – Pope Francis believes the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to genuinely see the humanity of the poor, to rethink global patterns of production and consumption, and to end “hypocrisy” such as lamenting world hunger while manufacturing weapons.
He also called on the Church to be “freed in the midst of the crisis” to meet people’s needs, not “closed off in institutions.”
The pope said he sees the disruptions caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect on the economy and the way the poor are often ignored or treated “like rescued animals.”
“We need to tell ourselves this often: That poor person had a mother who raised him lovingly,” Francis said in an interview with British author Austen Ivereigh, published on Wednesday.
“We disempower the poor. We don’t give them the right to dream of their mothers. They don’t know what affection is; many live on drugs,” Francis said. “To see them can help us to discover the piety, the pietas, which points towards God and towards our neighbor.”
“St. Teresa of Calcutta saw them, and had the courage to embark on a journey of conversion,” Francis said, referring to the Albanian-Indian nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity. “To ‘see’ the poor means to restore their humanity. They are not things, not garbage; they are people.”
The pope also called for integrity on the part of political leaders.
“This crisis is affecting us all, rich and poor alike, and putting a spotlight on hypocrisy,” Francis said. “I am worried by the hypocrisy of certain political personalities who speak of facing up to the crisis, of the problem of hunger in the world, but who in the meantime manufacture weapons.”
“This is a time to be converted from this kind of functional hypocrisy,” he said. “It’s a time for integrity. Either we are coherent with our beliefs or we lose everything.”
Francis urged that the implications of the pandemic for social and economic life not be forgotten when it’s over.
“Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world,” Francis said, noting that he sees “early signs” of an economy that is “less liquid, more human.”
Yet for this conversion to materialize, he said, it’s important to remember the pandemic and not to file it away so that the world can go back to what it was.
“This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it,” he said. “We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back.”
Francis’s words came in a 45-minute recording replying to questions posed to him in written form by Ivereigh, who’s written a biography on the pontiff, The Great Reformer, and a book on his pontificate, Wounded Shepherd.
The full transcript of the pope’s response was published simultaneously by England’s The Tablet and the American publication Commonweal, Catholic news outlets Ivereigh writes for regularly.
The author decided to reach out to Francis in late March as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to strongly affect the English-speaking world, reaching the United Kingdom, where Ivereigh lives, the United States, Australia and beyond.
“How am I living this spiritually? I’m praying more, because I feel I should,” Francis said. “And I think of people. That’s what concerns me: people. Thinking of people anoints me, it does me good, it takes me out of my self-preoccupation. Of course, I have my areas of selfishness. On Tuesdays, my confessor comes, and I take care of things there.”
For Francis, the major concern these days is how to accompany the people of God. That’s the reason for the daily televised Mass, a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square March 27, and the many activities of the papal almoner to tend to the sick and hungry.
Also on his mind is the “aftermath” of this pandemic, meaning, “what will be my service as Bishop of Rome, as head of the Church, in the aftermath?”
“That aftermath has already begun to be revealed as tragic and painful, which is why we must be thinking about it now,” he said, noting that the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development “has been working on this, and meeting with me.”
“I’m living this as a time of great uncertainty. It’s a time for inventing, for creativity,” he said.
Speaking about the Roman curia, the central government of the Church, the pontiff said the way work is done has changed due to the pandemic, such as remaining within one’s office or private room and using technology to communicate, but there are “no idlers here.”
The pope also praised the “saints who live next door,” referring in particular of doctors, volunteers, religious sisters, priests and shop workers performing their duties so society can function.
Francis said that even though a number of governments have taken exemplary measures to defend the population, the crisis has made it evident that “all our thinking, like it or not, has been shaped around the economy.”
“In the world of finances, it has seemed normal to sacrifice [people], to practise a politics of the throwaway culture, from the beginning to the end of life,” he said.
“I’m thinking, for example, of pre-natal selection. It’s very unusual these days to meet Down’s Syndrome people on the street; when the scan detects them, they are binned,” Francis said. “It’s a culture of euthanasia, either legal or covert, in which the elderly are given medication but only up to a point.”
Ivereigh asked if it’s time to rethink the Church’s way of operating, one less attached to institutions.
“Less attached to institutions? I’d say less attached to certain ways of thinking,” Francis said. “The Church is institution. The temptation is to dream of a de-institutionalised Church, a gnostic Church without institutions, or one that is subject to fixed institutions, which would be a Pelagian Church.”
It’s the Holy Spirit, the pope said, who “institutionalises the Church.”
“A Church that’s free is not an anarchic Church, because freedom is God’s gift,” Francis said. “An institutional Church means a Church institutionalised by the Holy Spirit.”
The pope shared the case of an Italian bishop who called him to say he wanted to give absolution to those in the wards of a hospital from the hallway, but canon lawyers had told him he couldn’t as direct contact is needed for a valid confession.
Francis told the bishop to “fulfill your priestly duty,” and soon found out the bishop was granting absolution widely.
“This is the freedom of the Spirit in the midst of a crisis, not a Church closed off in institutions,” the pope said. “That doesn’t mean canon law is not important: it is, it helps, and please let’s make good use of it, it’s for our good. But the final canon says the whole of canon law is for the salvation of souls, and that’s what opens the door for us to go out in times of difficulty to bring the consolation of God.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma