Italy: In an hour long off the cuff conversation, Pope Francis talks freely about a range of issues: Rome with its big-city evils, the era of change that weakens politics, the effort to defend the common good; the re-appropriation by the Church of the issues of poverty and sharing (“Marx didn’t invent anything”), the dismay in face of the degradation of the peripheries of the soul, the slippery moral abyss in which children are abused, the tolerance of begging, the work of minors and, not least the exploitation of child prostitutes not even fifteen-years-old. And by clients who could be their grandfathers. “Pedophiles” – this is how Pope describes them. Francis talks, explains, interrupts himself, returns to the subject -- passion, gentleness, irony. A faint voice seems to lull the words. His hands accompany his way of reasoning, he clasps them, loosens them, they seem to trace invisible shapes in the air. And he is on excellent form, despite rumors about his health.
In your opinion, is there so much talk about corruption because the mass media insists too much on the matter, or because it is in fact an endemic and a grave evil?
Pope Francis: No, unfortunately, it is a worldwide phenomenon. There are heads of state in prison in fact for this. I have wondered about it a lot, and I have come to the conclusion that so many evils grow especially during epochal changes. We are living not so much an age of changes , but a change of age. Therefore, it is about a change of culture; precisely in this phase things of this sort emerge. A change of age fuels moral decadence, not only in politics, but in financial and social life.
Even Christians don’t seem to give a shining witness …
Pope Francis: It is the environment which facilitates corruption. I’m not saying that all are corrupt, but I think it’s difficult to remain honest in politics. I’m speaking about everywhere, not just Italy. I’m also thinking of other cases. Sometimes there are people who want to clear things up, but then they run into difficulty and it’s as if they’d been swallowed up by a multi-level, across the board, endemic phenomenon. Not because it’s the nature of politics, but because when times are changing the push towards a certain moral drift becomes stronger.
On the streets of Rome you can see girls as young as 14 often forced into prostitution amid general neglect, while in the subway you see children begging. Is the Church still a leaven? Do you feel powerless as a bishop in the face of this moral decline?
Pope Francis: I feel grief, I feel enormous pain. The exploitation of children makes me suffer. It’s the same thing in Argentina. Children are used for some manual labor because they have smaller hands. However, children are also exploited sexually, in hotels. Once I was alerted that on a street of Buenos Aires there were child prostitutes only 12 years old. I checked and it was in fact so. It made me sick. But even more so to see high-powered cars stop, driven by elderly men. They could be their grandfathers. They would make the girl get in and paid her 15 pesos that was then used to buy discarded drugs, the “package.” For me, these persons who do this to girls are pedophiles. It also happens in Rome. The Eternal City, which should be a beacon to the world, is a mirror reflecting the moral decay of society. I think they are problems that can be resolved with a good social policy.
You are regarded as a communist, pauperist, populist Pope. The Economist, which has dedicated a cover to you, stated that you speak like Lenin. Do you identify yourself in this depiction?
Pope Francis: I say only that the Communists have stolen the flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the center of the Gospel. The poor are at the center of the Gospel. Let’s take Matthew 25, the protocol on which we will be judged: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in prison, I was sick, naked. Or, let us look at the Beatitudes, another flag. The communists say that all this is communist. Yes, right, twenty centuries later. Now when they speak one could say to them: but you are Christians [laughs].
In August, you will go to Korea. Is it the door to China? Are you pointing to Asia?
Pope Francis: I will go to Asia twice in six months: to Korea in August to meet Asian young people and, in January to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The Church in Asia holds great promise. Korea represents so much; it has behind it a most beautiful history. For two centuries it had no priests and Catholicism progressed thanks to the laity. There were also martyrs. In regard to China, it is a great cultural challenge, very great. And then there is the example of Matteo Ricci, who did so much good