While aboard a return flight to Rome from Romania, Pope Francis said Pope emeritus Benedict XVI gives him strength and reinvigorates him with the roots of tradition, which are legacies he wishes a polarized Europe would keep in mind.
“Every time I go to [Benedict XVI] to visit him, I take his hand and I let him speak,” the pope told reporters aboard the papal plane June 2. “He doesn’t speak a lot, and he speaks slowly, but with the same depth as always, because Benedict’s problem is his knees, not his head.”
Pope Benedict makes me strong
The comments were made in response to a question by Vatican reporters asking whether he still viewed his predecessor as a “grandfather,” especially given the emphasis that Francis put on the family and intergenerational dialogue during his May 31 to June 2 visit to the Eastern European country of Romania.
The pope emeritus, Francis continued, “has a great lucidity. When I hear him, he makes me strong and I feel the sap of our roots come to me so I can go forward.”
The pope added that the tradition of the Catholic Church is not “a museum,” but a heritage that allows people to be mindful of where they come from as they go toward the future.
Ever since Benedict resigned, shocking the Church and the world, some observers have sought to read division between the two pontiffs living inside the Vatican walls.
“Tradition doesn’t carry ashes, or the nostalgia of the integralists,” Francis said, but “the roots that allow the tree to grow and bear fruit.”
Leaders must govern with hope, never fear
Francis had a few words to say about Europe during his visit, which took place in the wake of the European Parliament elections. In Italy, a populist right-wing party finished in first place, leading observers to wonder whether it’s time for the pope to meet with its leader, populist firebrand Matteo Salvini.
“I never received an invitation from the Vice Minister,” Francis said, specifying that there is a strict protocol on papal audiences that was never initiated. He added that if the invitation were to come, he would be eager to have a dialogue.
Ironically, even while Francis spoke to the Roma people in Romania, also known as “gypsies”, in his own backyard of Italy the de facto leader of the government, Salvini, was criticizing the nomad ethnicity on the peninsula.
On June 2 Italy celebrated its Republic Day, and the president of congress invited everyone to partake in celebrations of “all Italians and all immigrants who are in our land, [especially] the more vulnerable communities, Holocaust victims, the Roma and Sinte people and those who were persecuted.”
Salvini, who leads the right-wing Lega party, responded on Twitter that hearing “today is the feast for immigrants and Roma people pisses me off.”
The pope and Salvini have butted heads before, and Salvini has made a point of carrying a Bible or kissing a rosary while he presents his anti-immigrant and nationalistic stance. Given the context, Francis’s speech in a Roma neighborhood in Romania saying that “in the Church of God there is a place for everyone, otherwise it’s not Christ’s Church,” was particularly poignant for Italians.
Aboard the papal flight, Francis said he does “not get into the question of propaganda” while he reads his two preferred news outlets, the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and the Italian daily Il Messaggero.
“I don’t understand Italian politics,” Francis admitted. “I have to study it, and I don’t understand it. Saying something about the behavior of a campaign or political party would be inappropriate on my part.”
The pope did take the time to condemn the “disease of corruption everywhere,” not specifically in Italy.
“We must help politicians to be honest, to not campaign under dishonest flags, or calumny, or defamation, or scandals,” he said. “Often, the mistake is to sow hate and fear. The politician must never sow fear, only hope - just and honest, yes - but a hope that can lead the country.”
Specifically on Europe, the pope urged its nations to “take on the responsibility” of being part of the European Union, which must “regain its identity” and overcome “barriers and divisions.”
“May Europe not be defeated by pessimism and ideologies,” Francis said. “Today Europe is under attack, not by cannons or bombs, but by ideologies that are not European but come from outside or small groups in Europe.”
Extended hand in Catholic-Orthodox relations
Francis’s trip to Romania, an Orthodox majority country, was marked by moments of ecumenical dialogue and prayer, from praying the Our Father with the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel in Bucharest to beatifying seven martyred Greek Catholic bishops in the city of Blaj.
In answer to a question that stated that some Orthodox leaders did not take part in the prayer, Francis said that as he prayed, he saw the people gathered in the church pray together in Latin and Romanian.
“People go beyond the leaders,” the pope said. “We, the leaders, must secure diplomatic balances to ensure that we walk together.”
The pope also said that the Orthodox aren’t alone in having members wary of better relations.
“We Catholics also have closed-minded people who do not want this ecumenism, who say that the Orthodox are schismatics,” Francis said. “There are integralist Catholics and we must tolerate them and pray for them so that the Holy Spirit may keep them.”
A journalist from Romania asked the pope what was next for Orthodox-Catholic relations and what advice Francis had to foster ecumenical dialogue.
“In conflicts, use the extended hand approach,” Francis said, adding that Romania has a great Orthodox leader in Patriarch Daniel, whom he called “a man of great heart and a great scholar.”
The pontiff suggested the legacy of martyrdom points a way forward.
“Ecumenism is not getting to the end of discussions, it’s done walking together,” he said. “When they killed Christians, they didn’t ask whether they were Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic.”
Francis also recommended fostering “the ecumenism of the poor,” where different denominations work and collaborate toward a common objective.
“Walking together is already Christian unity,” he said, “but don’t think now that theologians are going to get together to work on the Eucharist!”
Immigration and Communication
The developing country of Romania, plagued by decades of Nazi and Communist regimes, has witnessed over 4 million citizens abandon the homeland in hope of a better future. Asked about the exodus, Francis acknowledged how “painful” the choice is for many.
“They don’t leave for tourism, but for necessity,” the pope underlined. “What you find in the country you arrive [in] are often the results of a global policy that has an impact.”
Speaking of the financial, social and cultural struggles many immigrants face, he said the situation “points to a lack of solidarity” in a world that relies on “consumerism and having and earning more, and leaves people often feeling alone.”
In an introductory note to journalists, Francis said that today emphasis is placed more on “making contacts” rather than communicating with the other.
“This world really needs less contacts and more communication,” he added.