ROME – Shy and thoughtful when responding, if one runs into Marcelo Figueroa on Rome’s famed Via della Conciliazione, one would assume he’s just another tourist. Dressed in a plaid shirt and khakis, he’s a far cry from the usual men of power on this side of town, who usually sport a Roman collar.

However, despite his low profile, he’s a trusted friend of the single most powerful man in the Catholic Church.

Around the world, Pope Francis’s words are subject to scrutiny and spin. Arguably, however, nowhere is this truer than in his native Argentina, where absolutely every word the pope utters is hyped as a response to a local politician.

In an effort to guarantee that Argentines get the pontiff’s words as they were uttered, not spun, this Protestant theologian decided to take on the challenge of launching the first-ever edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano (LOR), with local content written in and for Argentina.

Francis approved the idea, and with the help of LOR and the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, the paper launched last year.

The scope of the paper, Figueroa told Crux, is to “help the Argentine people to have an official source, but with an Argentine perspective and content, incorporating the vision of other people from Latin America.”

The initiative was a success, and is currently being replicated in Central America: The bishops of Panama, while in Rome for their regular ad liminia visit to the Vatican last week, announced the launching of a second local version of LOR, this time directed to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

Figueroa was in Rome this week for its presentation, but also because he’s a key player in what he describes as Pope Francis’s “alternative diplomacy,” rooted not in official channels but in interreligious and ecumenical dialogue. Although their platform has grown exponentially, the two have been working on this for the past 20 years.

“Without questioning the key role that the Vatican’s diplomacy through the Secretary of State has played historically and still plays today, I believe that Francis, with his expertise and for who he is, seeing the state of the world and its problems, understands non-traditional diplomacy exercised through the networks of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in the world,” he said.

Figueroa noted that all of Francis’s trips abroad have had an interreligious component, because this “non-traditional diplomacy can overcome the obstacles traditional diplomacy can’t,” tackling the problems generated by those who use religion to generate conflicts.

The pope’s diplomacy, the theologian argued, has “stopped wars and forged peace agreements.” He wouldn’t give details, however, nor share any more.

On his regular trips to Rome he stays at the Santa Marta Residence, the hotel within Vatican grounds where Francis has been living since the beginning of his pontificate. Figueroa rarely speaks in first person about his 20-year old friendship with the pope.

During a 30-minute talk, not once did he reference the content of numerous personal conversations he’s had on the phone and via email with the pontiff whom he alternately calls Francis and [Jorge Mario] “Bergoglio,” the pope’s birth name.

Figueroa spoke with Crux on Saturday. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

How would you explain Pope Francis’s thought to someone who knows him less well than you do?

I believe that trying to match or relate Francis to an ideology, be it an economic or political one, whatever the name of the ideology, is a mistake. He has often used the phrase “ideology enslaves, spirituality frees.” He doesn’t have an ideological conception of his ministry as pope, his spirituality or his theology. Quite the opposite.

Somehow, any ideology gives way to his spirituality. The gospels and the conception of God’s people, starting from Abraham, is anterior, it overcomes any ideology.

Many times people have tried to link Francis to an ideology. For instance, when they’ve tried to link him to the theology of liberation. It’s a mistake. The theology of liberation, and this is my interpretation, adopted a Marxist ideology. Francis doesn’t adopt ideologies to conceive his spiritual vision of things.

His root is, and will always be, the vision of the world and of things presented in the Gospel. If he speaks about mammon, he is literally quoting Jesus’ words. He is not inventing an ideology, and he is not saying that he is against capitalism. It cannot be said that Francis is against capitalism.

He is, obviously, against any system that privileges money, or power or ideology above the human person, but this is gospel 101.

I once wrote an article about the books that have to be read to understand Francis: You only need to read four, some 340 pages in total. The gospels. That’s it.

He himself says that to understand his vision one has to read Matthew 25, and there is everything: accompanying the prisoners, the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner- in present day the migrant. Francis is not a populist, neither from the left, as populism is in Latin America, nor the European version, that’s on the right. He will always look to the people, but because of his understanding of the mission of the Church, based on what Jesus did.

Then there are the fundamentalists of any kind of religion, those who believe they are the owners of religiosity and who try to impose their agenda. Here too, saving the distances, one can draw a parallel with what happened to Jesus. The great challenges he received weren’t with the prostitutes, the poor, the sick or the stranger. Furthermore, foreigners or those of another religion, as the Samaritans, were put as an example.

Jesus’ arguments came with those who believed they owned the faith, and wanted to test him with their own agendas.

Going back to your question, however, I believe it’s a grave mistake, in any part of the world and no matter the ideology, to try to put Bergoglio’s thought into a box.

Yet it seems to have become a favorite indoor sport …

I believe the Francis phenomenon is a very complex one. Not because he’s a complicated person, but because his thought is. He’s a person with an eclectic formation, and a colorful vision of reality. He is like a complex prism, and each one of us who’ve had the opportunity to get to know him, humbly have to accept that we only know one of the pieces of that prism, not the totality.

To fully understand Francis, one has to unite all those parts of the prism.

Such an extraordinary, ample, diverse person is a phenomenon hard to control, because he’s a person of free thought, who listens, asks for opinions from all sides, and then makes a decision.

We have a tendency to want to put people in boxes, reduce them to one thing or the other, to try to understand them, control them. And there are people in the history of humanity that are easy to label. Francis is not. To understand him, we have to look into each of the labels he’s been given, and even after putting them together, the picture would still not be complete.

Well, he does give contradictory messages sometimes, that even if they do have a logic, render him impossible to be labeled. Like, is he the “Who am I to judge” pope, or the “gender theory is a threat against the family” pope?

There’s a conductive line, because he’s a very consistent man: in his words, his life, in every sense. He is against gender ideology, which is a humanist ideology, but he is in favor of evangelical thinking. He is not in a position to judge, because Jesus put us on every mission, except one, that of judge. Only He can judge. So being both is not only compatible, it’s concordant.

If he said “I judge this person,” he’s contradicting the gospel. But his thought on gender ideology is very clear in his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. And his thought is none other than that of the Church.

Now, if the ultraconservative fundamentalists, or those on the opposite side of the street, want to label him one way or the other, that is their problem.

We see a lot of that, coming not only from conservatives who accuse him of going against the gospel, but also from liberals who push an agenda that is not the pope’s …

Precisely. Again, saving the distances, think about Jesus, who when in the synagogue of his town in the peripheries of Nazareth, quotes the passage from Isaiah, “I come to give the good news to the poor, to free the blind, the oppressed, the incarcerated.” He’s setting his agenda, from the peripheries.

Jesus looked at Jerusalem from the peripheries, just as Francis looks at the world and Rome from the peripheries, because that’s where he came from.

This is a pope who speaks a lot. Every morning at Mass, with his gestures, his encyclicals, in his trips, the press conferences on the plane. The funny thing is that many people, around the world, grab what he says and think, “He says this, thinking about X.”

Very few think, “He is saying that to me, it’s an interpretation from the gospel.” It always has to be addressed to a major political leader …

We Argentines excel at this, always thinking he’s speaking to some local politician. This is an Argentine sin, but to be honest, it shows such an intellectual poverty that it’s not worth engaging.

Talking specifically about Argentina, though examples in other places abound, he’s had the chance to deny or refute the narrative of himself that has been created. Why doesn’t he refute it?

If he had to go out and deny each thing that is written about him in Argentina, he’d have time only for that. And he has much bigger issues in the world. Curiously, despite the fact that the media, as corporations, are against him, most of the people aren’t fooled by them. The people continue to wait for him, as the father and shepherd they met and continue to love.

This manipulation happens everywhere, and Francis is not the first victim of it. But I believe that there’s a lot of comfort in not reading the pope integrally. He’s not writing the headlines for the front pages of tomorrow’s newspapers. He’s writing the encyclopedias of future generations.

I have to ask. When will the pope go back to his home country?

To begin with, I believe there are more Argentines that have come to Rome to see him than those who haven’t … Someone asked me once, “Why doesn’t he want to come?” I saw this as a completely absurd thing. To judge that, in his heart, Francis doesn’t want to see the Argentines is not to know him at all. To say that he doesn’t want to go is to insult him.

Obviously, he continues to love and miss his country. He is from there. When will he go, I don’t know. I haven’t asked him about it. I believe only he knows. But he will go when he thinks the time is right.

Looking at the world and his global vision, however, it’s clear that, no matter how much we, as Argentines, want for him to come, it’s a priority that he go to some other countries first. The world is in flames and at war … I believe we have to be less egoist about it.