It’s been 40 years since the world lost the pope who Edoardo Magri used to cover for a living.
The former Associated Press correspondent in Italy from 1962 to 1980 (he moved to Rome from Milan in 1964, one year after the archbishop of Milan was elected pope) is 82 years old now. He still speaks nearly impeccable English, a trait that explains why the wire service trusted this Italian to deliver the day’s news in English from Italy for 18 years.
Earlier this year in Rome, Magri, a devout Catholic, sat down for an exclusive interview with Angelus News to talk about Blessed Pope Paul VI, whom Pope Francis will officially declare a saint October 14 in Rome.
The interview was done in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the publication of the papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”). But Magri noted during our conversation at his home in Rome that the divided reaction to the encyclical was only one of the many sufferings that afflicted the pope — sufferings which today, one might say, made a saint out of him.
Pablo Kay: Blessed Pope Paul VI is going to be canonized a saint this year. Based on your time spent covering him, do you think he is a saint?
Edoardo Magri: I do. I knew from the beginning, it was incredible. His faith, his courage. Many, many people that I know in Rome have always loved him very much and always thought he was really one of the greatest popes the Church has ever had. The courage he put on to bring to an end the [Second Vatican] Council and then to put it into practice: It was incredible, the courage it took.
Kay: Can you describe what the situation was like before and after “Humanae Vitae” came out?
Magri: Before “Humanae Vitae” came out, the opinion of a commission of theologians was released, which was basically in favor of the Pill.
When “Humanae Vitae” came out and there was the press conference to discuss the text, of course all the press just jumped on the paragraph that said you couldn’t use the Pill or any other device in intercourse.
I was friends with a theologian, who at the time taught and served as rector of the Lateran Seminary in Rome. He suggested, “Ask whether the teachings are based on Scripture.”
So I asked that question. And I remember very well that Archbishop Lambruschini, who was the archbishop of Perugia around that time, answered that a number of theologians told the pope that he could have based his teachings on the Scripture, and that he had responded, “No, I'm not going to do that.”
And of course that was a part of the press conference that everyone stressed.
And then I remember very well that a lot of episcopal conferences around the world issued documents and statements more or less emphasizing the papal teachings, especially on this section, and probably not putting enough importance on the rest of the text, which is also very important to understand his teachings.
Kay: Why do you think he chose not to base it on Scripture?
Magri: I haven’t the faintest idea. He never said why he didn’t. I’m not going to try to guess (laughs). Lambruschini said that some theologians thought it would be possible. So from what I understood, the pope said, “No, I’m not trying to do that.”
Kay: Looking back at the 50 years since “Humanae Vitae,” do you think that history has vindicated Pope Paul VI?
Magri: I think that those who have accepted this papal teaching believe that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it has proven that you can be a happy family living that teaching. That is from my experience … because I know many such people, including my own family!
Kay: You were the only journalist allowed inside the papal apartment in the Vatican where doctors operated on Paul VI for an enlarged prostate in 1967. It was the first time a pope had ever been operated on. How did that happen?
Magri: It was a pool report [where one journalist is chosen to gather information on behalf of other outlets], and I was told [by the Holy See Press Office]: ‘We have chosen you, Edoardo Magri.”
One reason was that I was with a big international news agency. Another reason, as far as I understood, was that I was an Italian working with the foreign press, so I was kind of in the “middle of the road.” But yes, I was the only newsman in there.
Kay: Would you say that Paul VI suffered a lot?
Magri: Oh, yes.
The reactions [to “Humanae Vitae”] by some episcopal conferences caused him a lot of suffering. But he publicly accepted the criticism, he did not reject it. In that sense he was not weak, but he suffered, of course.
Kay: According to you, what were some of the reasons, besides the reaction to “Humanae Vitae”?
Magri: A lot of the problems came from the ecumenical council and the reactions against it.
There was also the problems with Archbishop [Marcel] Lefebvre. He was very sensible, Paul VI. I remember that many believed that he was kind of indifferent or aloof or something like that.
One story that I remember. There were five children from a family in Sicily who, because of infection or something like that, had become blind. There was a surgeon who was also a member of Parliament at the time who operated on them free of charge so that they could regain their sight.
They came to Rome to meet with the pope with a priest who had been helping them. They ranged from 3 or 4 years old to 12, if I remember correctly.
It was a big family. I remember that they met the pope and I interviewed them afterwards. They told me that they loved the pope. They felt that he was very close to them and that he had a fatherly affection for them. They also said that as soon as the meeting started, they immediately felt free to talk to him freely.
When they told me, I was very much impressed. And other people who were very close to the pope would tell me that his real nature was completely different than what appeared from the outside if you didn’t know him. Children are very sincere, and I when I saw them after this meeting, from the youngest to the oldest — they were so happy to have been with him.
Kay: Fifty years ago, was it ever possible for a journalist such as yourself to interview the pope, like some do today?
Magri: No, not like today. I asked for an interview for the AP and they [the Holy See Press Office] said that I couldn’t meet the pope to interview him, but I could send written questions and he would have given me written answers.
So I discussed what to do with some colleagues and they gave me a long list of questions, asking things like how he spent his days, what he liked, what he disliked. I gave this list to the press office.
After, I think, two or three months, I got the replies. The only problem with that was the Press Office said it was not fair for the pope to give these replies to one journalist alone. So they gave them to everybody. So it was no longer a real interview! Of course it wasn’t as personal as a real interview.
Kay: But was it the first time he answered questions?
Magri: That was the first time a pope had ever answered a list of questions from a journalist.
Kay: What’s something memorable about Paul VI that’s stuck with you?
Magri: One big problem with Paul VI was his syntax. It was almost impossible to translate what he said, like his audiences and his speeches, into English. English is a very “neat” language, where you can’t have a very lengthy sentence. I remember the AP, they told me, “This is your job!” To try to translate every speech and do a story with his quotes.
Recently I was listening to Vatican Radio and they aired one of his many speeches again. And when I heard it again, his Italian and his syntax, it came to my mind immediately. “Oh, I remember what a problem it was” (laughs).
Kay: So the sentences were very long?
Magri: Very long and complex. If you just follow his syntax as a reader, it was almost impossible to follow what he was saying, it was a problem. He was intelligent, no doubt, so maybe that was his problem (laughs).
In that sense, he’s the opposite of Pope Francis. His speech is so simple, so clear, everybody can understand it immediately.
Note: This interview was edited for brevity.
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