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ROME – In his conversation with Slovakian Jesuits while visiting the country last week, Pope Francis took a swipe at his media critics, saying he sometimes loses patience with people who insult without knowing the facts.
He also criticized members of the Church who he said are too nostalgic for the past, such as priests who are more attached to the Old Latin Rite of the Mass than they are to their parish communities, which he said is a sign that the Church is going backwards.
Asked how he was doing at the opening of the Sept. 12 encounter, which took place as part of a broader apostolic visit to Hungary and Slovakia, Francis said he was, “Still alive, even though some people wanted me to die.”
His visit to Hungary and Slovakia was the first international trip he has made since he had colon surgery July 4, in which a large portion of his lower intestine was removed due to a stenotic diverticulitis, or a hardening of the tissue in his colon.
“I know there were even meetings between prelates who thought the pope’s condition was more serious than the official version. They were preparing for the conclave,” he told the Slovakian Jesuits, adding, “Patience! Thank God, I’m all right.”
During the conversation, one Jesuit noted that people are divided about Pope Francis, with some believing his is heterodox and others idealizing him.
In response to a question from this Jesuit about how he handles people who look at him with suspicion, Francis pointed to “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.”
Although he did not specifically mention which Catholic television network he was referring too, many have interpreted the remark as a jab at American conservative broadcaster EWTN, or the Eternal Word Television Network, which has consistently aired commentary critical of Pope Francis and his decisions.
The largest Catholic media outlet in the world, EWTN boasts of an international audience of more than 380 million television households in 150 countries and territories throughout the world.
In his remarks, Pope Francis said that “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil. I have also said this to some of them.”
He noted that there are also many priests “who make nasty comments about me,” saying he sometimes loses patience with these people, “especially when they make judgments without entering into a real dialogue.”
“I can’t do anything there. However, I go on without entering their world of ideas and fantasies. I don’t want to enter it and that’s why I prefer to preach,” he said, noting that some people admonish him for not speaking more about topics such as holiness.
“They say I always talk about social issues and that I’m a communist. Yet I wrote an entire apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate,” he said.
Referring to his decision earlier this year to tighten restrictions on the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass, Francis voiced hope that this decision will help the Church “return to the true intentions of Benedict XVI and John Paul II.”
Noting that his decision was made after a consultation with bishops from around the world, “there are young people who after a month of ordination go to the bishop to ask for it. This is a phenomenon that indicates that we are going backward.”
To this end, the pope recalled how during a conversation with a cardinal, the cardinal told him that some newly ordained priests had come to him requesting permission to study Latin for the celebration of Mass.
The cardinal’s response, Francis said, was that “there are many Hispanics in the diocese! Study Spanish to be able to preach. Then, when you have studied Spanish, come back to me and I’ll tell you how many Vietnamese there are in the diocese, and I’ll ask you to study Vietnamese. Then, when you have learned Vietnamese, I will give you permission to study Latin.”
This cardinal, Pope Francis said, made these priests “return to earth.”
Francis said he makes the decisions he does “not because I want to start a revolution. I do what I feel I must do. It takes a lot of patience, prayer and a lot of charity.”
One Jesuit present at the meeting, who is close to Pope Francis’s age, commented that there appear to be a lot of people in the Church who wish to return to the past, or who seek security in the way things were done previously.
Pope Francis agreed with the remark, saying the Church today is suffering from “the ideology of going backward. It is an ideology that colonizes minds. It is a form of ideological colonization.”
This is not so much a universal problem but is rather “specific to the churches of certain countries,” the pope said, though he did not mention which countries he was referring to.
Looking to the past is a means of trying to find security, he said, saying, “It frightens us to celebrate before the people of God who look us in the face and tell us the truth. It frightens us to go forward in pastoral experiences.”
Francis then recalled the discussions during the 2014-2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family, saying it took a lot of work “to make it understood that couples in second unions are not already condemned to hell.”
Referring to the LGBT community, the pope said it also “frightens us to accompany people with sexual diversity.”
“We are afraid of the crossroads and paths that Paul VI spoke of. This is the evil of this moment, namely, to seek the path in rigidity and clericalism, which are two perversions.”
Pope Francis spoke of a wide range of other topics throughout his conversation with Slovakian Jesuits, including Jewish-Christian dialogue, fear of migrants and refugees, and the push toward what he has termed “ideological colonization,” specifically when it comes to gender.
The reference to gender ideologies is especially relevant given Italy’s current debate on whether to pass a bill called the “ddl Zan,” which seeks to broaden protections for discrimination based on sexual orientation in Italy’s constitution and to incorporate gender theory in school curricula.
The ddl Zan made global headlines over the summer when it drew unprecedented pushback from the Vatican, which for the first time invoked its sovereign status in a nota verbale, or formal diplomatic communication, to oppose the bill on grounds that it violated Italy’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
Discussion over the bill and the more than 1,000 amendments that have been proposed has been postponed and is expected to be taken back up the Italian Senate this fall.
In his remarks, Pope Francis said, “Ideology always has a diabolical appeal, as you say, because it is not embodied.”
“Right now, we live in a civilization of ideologies…We need to expose them at their roots,” he said, describing gender ideology specifically as “dangerous.”
“It is abstract with respect to the concrete life of a person, as if a person could decide abstractly at will if and when to be a man or a woman,” the pope said, adding, “Abstraction is always a problem for me.”
However, Pope Francis distinguished gender ideology from the topic of homosexuality and those in same-sex unions, saying “If there is a homosexual couple, we can do pastoral work with them, move forward in our encounter with Christ.”
“When I talk about ideology, I’m talking about the idea, the abstraction in which everything is possible, not about the concrete life of people and their real situation,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen