Pope Francis has been corresponding with Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist Italian intellectual and founder of the newspaper La Repubblica, for several weeks, and now he has taken their conversation about faith to a new level. The Holy Father invited Scalfari to meet in person at the Vatican last week, and their conversation was published in La Repubblica this morning.
In signature Francis fashion, the Pope had cold-called Scalfari to arrange their meeting. “I’m calling to fix an appointment,” the Holy Father said. “Let me look at my diary: I can’t do Wednesday, nor Monday, would Tuesday suit you?”
Their conversation is intimate, and it reads far more like a spiritual experience than a political statement. It is the reverse of the blockbuster interview Pope Francis gave to Jesuit publications earlier this month. Then, the Holy Father spoke to Christians about how the church must learn to engage with the world. Now, he speaks to an atheist about matters of faith.
Pope Francis goes beyond rebuking the Church’s clericalism and bureaucracy to providing mentorship. He may be the one being interviewed, but he is also the one guiding the conversation, especially when it comes to the core questions of belief. He proves himself to be a Socratic teacher. Scalfari asks a question, the Holy Father returns it with a question or a thought that inspires a question, Scalfari figures his way through it. The result has a profound spiritual effect, and pushes the reader to consider what it means to believe:
Pope Francis: But now let me ask you a question: you, a secular non-believer in God, what do you believe in? You are a writer and a man of thought. You believe in something, you must have a dominant value. Don’t answer me with words like honesty, seeking, the vision of the common good, all important principles and values but that is not what I am asking. I am asking what you think is the essence of the world, indeed the universe. You must ask yourself, of course, like everyone else, who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Even children ask themselves these questions. And you?
Scalfari: I am grateful for this question. The answer is this: I believe in Being, that is in the tissue from which forms, bodies arise.
Pope Francis: And I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Do you think we are very far apart?
His Holiness also shares his evangelical core–evangelical in the original sense, of sharing the good news of God and God’s love with his community. His is an evangelicalism that has taken shape from a Latin and South American Catholicism that is becoming increasingly evangelical and charismatic.
Truly evangelical faith, for Pope Francis, must come from relationships. His message challenges both Catholics to be less bureaucratic and evangelicals to love people before trying to save them. “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us,” Pope Francis said. “Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas.”
And in the middle of it all, Pope Francis shows a sense of humor. He takes his faith seriously, but he not overly so. At one point, Scalfari tells the Pope how he had to endure a month and a half of spiritual exercises when the Jesuits hid him from the Nazis during the Second World War. Pope Francis responds with an apparent twinkle, “But it is impossible to stand a month and a half of spiritual exercises?”
This interview may not create the hype that the earlier one did. One, it is not his first significant interview, and two, it addresses spiritual matters, not questions about sexuality, so may be harder to grab media attention. But it certainly furthers the deep connection this Holy Father is nurturing not only with his people, but also with the world as a whole. Six months in, and Pope Francis continues to become a shepherd for the world.