ROME — With Lent as a time for conversion, Pope Francis has laid out a handy guide in a new series reflecting on the seven virtues and their opposites — a host of “parasites” that will feast away without the fortifying “vitamins” of virtue in one’s daily diet.
Soon to be aired on Italy’s Discovery channel and published in early March as a book in Italian, Vices and Virtues: A Conversation with Pope Francis is the latest sit-down interview between the pope and Father Marco Pozza, a chaplain in a maximum security prison in the northern Italian city of Padova.
Pozza, 41, has already used the same television series and book formats for sharing the pope’s reflections on the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary.
This time he sought to tackle something broader and deeper — how to journey through this thing called life and make sense of all the lights and shadows present in the world and in one’s own soul.
A reflection on “the struggle and the beauty of everyday life,” the priest and pope said in the book’s joint introduction, is a reflection on vices and virtues.
The pope — dressed in white, the head of the universal church — and the priest — dressed casually in darker hues, a minister to the condemned — was the juxtaposition Pozza sought to highlight, the same way Giotto did with his stark black and white depictions of virtues and vices decorating the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova.
The 14th-century maestro arranged his frescoed masterpieces so that as visitors face a spectacular scene of the Last Judgment, they are also flanked by a series of personified virtues on the sun-soaked “warm” wall facing south and personified vices on the opposite “cold” and humid north wall of the chapel, the book said.
Giotto presents attractive, noble depictions of the four cardinal and three theological virtues on one side and their disfigured, miserable polar opposites — rather than traditional capital vices — on the other, making the choice look easy. But, the priest asked the pope, “Why are vices able to fascinate more than virtues?”
“People are like fish, when they see the bait, they are drawn to it,” the pope replied.
Vices seem to be offering something wonderful with nothing required in exchange, like “those aunts and uncles miseducating kids by giving out candy. How nice! But then your tummy starts to hurt,” making vices “a bad kind of free” with instant pleasure now, pain later, he said.
Everyone is vulnerable and people need to take their vulnerability seriously, Pope Francis said. By reflecting on vices and virtues, “we can understand better where our life is heading, and in what direction we need to go.”
“Virtues are like vitamins, they help you grow, push you forward. Vices are essentially parasitic,” making the person weaker, pulling them “just a little bit” lower each day like doing the limbo, until they hit the ground, he said.
Each chapter in the book is dedicated to the priest and pope detailing each virtue and its opposite pairing that Giotto presented in Padova: Justice-Injustice; Fortitude-Inconstancy; Temperance-Wrath; Prudence-Foolishness; Faith-Infidelity; Charity-Envy; and Hope-Desperation.
Inconstancy, for example, the pope said, is an “I’ll get to it later” approach to life that shows no progress, no courage to take the initiative, no ideals or no willpower to “make them concrete today, right now.”
Its opposite, fortitude, is “true prophecy,” which is seen in people who concretely “show that the Gospel is possible” and who say and do tough things when needed to serve others, the pope said.
“Fortitude is the virtue of the poor. To survive a person who is poor must be strong,” sustained by solid values, refusing to be beaten down, he said.
“Fortitude is the capacity to get back up. Or to let ourselves be helped to get back up,” he said.
When it comes to foolishness, “it is convenient to act the fool,” the pope said.
It is living “in a continual present, without having problems, without making ‘history,'” without “fruit” and without the roots of memory which are “the strength that gives life.”
There is foolishness in wealth, “in believing that heaven is here,” becoming “a slave to lies, slaves to what has been created instead of followers of the Creator.”
Prudence, on the other hand, is the essential virtue of governance.
“Because people are hot-blooded, they need something that tells them, ‘Stop, stop and think,'” and to have abundant empathy, the pope said.
“Prudence is not just a virtue of calculation, of pros and cons, it is also a virtue of the heart,” he said.
“Let’s take Jesus, for an example. So many times before he makes a decision, the Gospel has the phrase, ‘his heart was moved with pity for them,” this is empathy and this “helps Jesus make prudent decisions.”
Infidelity can exist in the lives of believers, who “say to God, ‘Yes, I believe in you, but just to be safe, I am going to leave this other option open,'” refusing to trust fully in him.
Rather than being a sign of infidelity, a crisis of faith or doubt can be signs of real faith, he said.
“We are human and faith is a gift that is so immense that when we receive it we cannot believe it. How is this possible?” Pope Francis said.
“The devil makes us have doubts,” he said, because it is natural that with trials and tragedies, people ask, “Why does God let this happen?”
“The problem is when you don’t have patience” because feeling abandoned is an experience of faith that many saints and people have, even Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, he said.
“They feel abandoned by God but they do not lose their faith. They keep that gift safe” and wait.
“A faith without these trials makes me doubt that it would be a true faith because if faith is really there, the devil will go and try to destroy it,” the pope said.
By strengthening the virtues, the two men wrote, people can “reawaken the archangel hiding in each person, and by battling vice, keep under control the beast that lies in wait inside each one of us.”
And, they added, while others continue to figure out “which side to be on,” God will always be offering his grace and waiting.