Before he became Pope Francis in March this year, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the archbishop of Buenos Aires and a Cardinal consecrated by Pope John Paul II.
In a series of conversations with journalists Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin in 2010, the then Cardinal discussed everything -- from how his parents and grandparents immigrated to Argentina from Italy to his family’s reaction to his decision to become a priest and why the Church is against abortion. The Q&A sessions have been republished as the book Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words by Penguin Books India. Excerpts from the book:
Why did you choose to become a Jesuit priest?
To tell the truth, I didn’t really know which path to take. What was clear to me was my religious vocation. After studying at the archdiocesan seminary of Buenos Aires, I ultimately entered the Society of Jesus because I was attracted to its position on, to put it in military terms, the front lines of the Church, grounded in obedience and discipline. It was also due to its focus on missionary work. I later had an urge to become a missionary in Japan, where Jesuits have carried out important work for many years. But due to the severe health issues I’d had since my youth, I wasn’t allowed. I guess some people would have been “saved” from me here if I had been sent over there, right? (Laughter)
How did your family react when you told them you wanted to be a priest?
I told my father first, and he took it very well. More than well: he was happy. The only thing he did was ask me if I was absolutely certain about my decision. He later told my mother, who, being a good mother, already had an inkling. But her reaction was different. “I don’t know, I don’t see you as… You should wait a bit… You’re the eldest… Keep working… Finish university,” she said to me. The truth is, my mother was extremely upset.
What happened next?
My mother didn’t come with me when I entered the seminary; she refused. For years, she didn’t accept my decision. It’s not that we were fighting. I would go home to visit, but she would never come to the seminary. When she finally accepted it, she did so by putting some distance between us. When I was a novitiate, in Cordoba, she came to visit me. Don’t get me wrong: she was a religious woman and a practicing Catholic; she just thought that everything had happened too fast, that it was a decision that required a lot of time to think over. But she was rational. I remember her kneeling before me after the priestly ordination ceremony was over, asking for my blessing.
Isn’t the gap between some of the Church’s rules and the way Catholics live today just too big at the moment?
I need to take a few steps back to answer that. The ethical path, which forms part of the human being, is pre-religious. No person, be they a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist, can avoid the demands of what is ethical, which range from the most general principles -- the most basic of all: “Do good and avoid evil” -- to the most specific. As a man gradually discovers these principles and puts them into practice, he bridges the gap. I would say it’s a gap in belief. There is also a gap between the Church and a counterculture, the sort of “Do as you please, it all ends up the same, we’ll see each other in hell” attitude to which the tango “Cambalanche” refers. And this attitude is equally common among agnostics, atheists, and believers. It’s a question of living a double life, if you like. Or employing a double morality.
Let’s see… I consider myself a Catholic, but I don’t pay taxes. Or I’m unfaithful to my spouse. Or I don’t pay enough attention to my children. Or I’ve got my father or mother tucked away in an old-folks home like a raincoat in a closet during the summer, complete with mothballs, and I never visit them. Or I swindle: I “fix” my scales or the meter in my taxi so they read in my favour. Basically, I live with fraud, defrauding not only the state and my family, but myself, too. Generally, when people talk about a double life they think of a person who has two families or a priest with a girlfriend. But everything that makes our way of living and the ethics that form part of our being fraudulent constitutes a double life. Ultimately, the challenge of living an ethical life, like the challenge of living a religious life, consists of behaving in accordance with these principles.
Let’s talk about the battle against abortion.
I consider that to be part of the battle in favour of life from the moment of conception until a dignified, natural death. This includes care of the mother during pregnancy, the existence of laws to protect the mother postpartum, and the need to ensure that children receive enough food, as well as providing health care throughout the whole length of a life, taking good care of our grandparents, and not resorting to euthanasia. Nor should we perpetrate a kind of killing through insufficient food or a nonexistent or deficient education, which are ways of depriving a person of a full life. If there is a conception for us to respect, there is a life for us to care for.
Many say that opposition to abortion is a religious issue.
Well… a pregnant woman isn’t carrying a toothbrush in her stomach, or a tumour. Science has taught us that from the moment of conception, the new being has its entire genetic code. It’s impressive. Therefore, it’s not a religious issue but, rather, a clear moral issue with a scientific basis, because we are in the presence of a human being.
Is the moral status of the woman who has an abortion the same as that of the person who performs it?
I wouldn’t speak in terms of moral status. But I do feel much greater... not sadness but, rather, compassion, in the biblical sense of the word -- by which I mean pity and empathy -- for a woman who has an abortion under who knows what pressure, than I feel for the professionals -- or the nonprofessionals -- who do this for money and with a singular coldness.
Furthermore, the clinics that perform illegal abortions “get rid” of the women immediately, out of fear of possible arrest and the police turning up. They send them packing, and if they haemorrhage, “that’s their problem”. This coldness contrasts with the crises of conscience, the remorse that many women who have abortions experience a few years later. You have to sit in a confessional and listen to these outpourings, because they know they killed a child.
Doesn’t the Church block a lot of the paths that would avoid a great many abortions by opposing the distribution of contraception and, in some places, limiting sex education?
The Church is not opposed to sex education. Personally, I believe that it ought to be available throughout children’s upbringing, adapted to different age groups. In truth, the Church always provided sex education, although I acknowledge that it hasn’t always been adequate. What happens is that nowadays a lot of the people who wave banners in support of sex education see it as separate from a human person. Therefore, instead of getting a law in favour of sex education for a complete person, for love, they end up with a law in favour of sexual activity. That is our objection. We don’t want the human being to be degraded. That’s all.
But what do you say to those who think it (priests not being celibate) could prevent incidents of sexual abuse?
Seventy per cent of cases involving paedophiles happen within the family or the neighbourhood environment. We have read stories of boys abused by their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and stepfathers. In other words, they are psychological perversions that existed prior to choosing a life of celibacy. If there is a priest who is a paedophile, this perversion existed within him before he was ordained, and celibacy does not cure that perversion. They either have it or they don’t. Therefore, we must be very careful whom we admit into the priesthood. In the seminary in Buenos Aires, we admit roughly forty per cent of those who apply. We monitor their progress very carefully. There are many who do not have the calling, and they leave, and down the line they marry and end up being wonderful laypeople in the parish.
Incidentally, do you ever think of your own death?
For a while now it’s been a daily companion of mine.
Why is that?
I’m over seventy years old and the thread of life I have left on the reel isn’t long. I’m not going to live another seventy, and I’m starting to consider the fact that I have to leave everything behind. But I take it as something that’s normal. I’m not sad. It makes me want to be fair with everyone always, to sign the final flourish. Mind you, it’s never occurred to me to make a will. But death is in my thoughts every day.
Courtesy: Penguin Books India; Price:Rs 799