Antonio Spadaro, S.J., is an Italian Jesuit priest close to Pope Francis who serves as editor of La Civiltà Cattolica (Italian for “Catholic Civilization”), a bimonthly Jesuit journal on culture based in Rome and founded under Pope Pius IX in 1850. It is the only periodical directly revised by the Secretariat of State and requiring its approval before publication. Father Spadaro is a prolific writer and editor, producing a number of important books and articles especially on Pope Francis, whom he has interviewed and worked with closely on several occasions. It was Father Spadaro who conducted the first major interview of Pope Francis, published simultaneously in Jesuit journals around the world and in America’s Sept. 30, 2013, issue as “A Big Heart Open to God”—and later released in the U.S. as a HarperOne book under the same title.
Last summer, Father Spadaro began working on a project with Loyola Press in Chicago to ask children around the world one thing: “If you could ask Pope Francis one question, what would it be?” Sending this question out through the international Jesuit educational and parochial network, Loyola Press received 260 letters from children in 26 countries. Father Spadaro met with the Holy Father about the project, sifted through the letters to choose 30 for the book, collected the pope’s responses, and brought several of the children to Rome for a meeting with the pope at the Vatican. The result, a book titled “Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Around the World,” was published by Loyola Press on March 1.
On March 4, I interviewed Father Spadaro by telephone about this new book. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
What inspired this new book?
The idea came from Loyola Press. They called me in Rome asking for a meeting, so I said yes and they came to talk to propose this book. When they talked to me about this project, I realized it was the right thing to do. I said “yes” on May 4 and got the chance to talk to Pope Francis about it on May 11. Immediately, when he heard about the project, he said: “Yes, I want to do it.”
What reading audience did you have in mind as you edited these children’s letters and drawings and the pope’s responses to them?
The audience is very broad. It’s not just a book for children. I receive feedback from many people who bought more than five—or even 10—copies of the book for everyone in their families.
When a book speaks to adults, children may not listen. But when a book speaks to children, the adults will listen because the language is very simple and at the same time very deep because it’s very simple. The questions are very tough at times and the pope, without mentioning the book, mentioned one of them in Philadelphia. It was a question from Ryan in Canada: “What did God do before the world was made?” In Philadelphia, talking with the families, Francis said children ask very tough questions and he quoted this question here.
So I think the audience is everyone—it’s good for everyone. The questions are very theological, but also about life and death.
Who are the “children around the world” in this book?
When Loyola Press started this project, they tried to reach people from all around the world. So they created a network of Jesuits and friends, more than 30 people from several nations, to collect this information. They included people from continental China—for example, Shanghai—to Syria’s refugee camps. And Argentina, Belgium, Albania, Africa, of course, Australia and so on. So they used this Jesuit network to spread the message and ask for questions from the children—and sometimes they even sent colored pencils and crayons because in some countries they’re very hard to find.
They reached 260 children from many different countries. They got letters in 14 different languages, all of them translated into English and Spanish and Italian. So it was a big project.
Pope Francis speaks to a lot of people from all ages. What do you find distinctive about the way he talks to children?
When he talks to children, he goes straight to the point, because the children don’t have any kind of wall or barrier. You know, children’s questions are unfiltered! No frills, no way out—they are very sharp, clear, and so one can’t escape into a shadow of very highly abstract concepts. The pope, as you know, likes that—he likes those kinds of straightforward questions.
So the message of Pope Francis comes out very simple, clear like crystal, but you can also feel a lot of affection here in reading the letters. He shows himself as a father—he even said that in an answer, he likes to be a father. So two things: His fatherhood and ability to go immediately to the core of the question.
You’ve written and edited a number of things about Pope Francis. What were some highlights and challenges for you in editing this material?
I did my first interview with Pope Francis in 2013, and that interview and this book were two very different experiences! The first one was a real, profound dialogue between me and him. At one point, I didn’t even use the questions in my notebook because I enjoyed the real dialogue—you know, he was looking me in my eyes and we spent three afternoons together. And it was amazing; it was between me and him.
Meeting with him to record his answers for this book was different. I saw that from time to time, while he was answering the questions, Pope Francis looked off into space and tried to imagine the child writing to him. He was not looking at me but at the image of these children—at Ryan, Emil, Tom and so on. I saw care and fondness. I knew he was answering them in his heart and trying to imagine them. It was a strange dynamic. The pope had in front of him the letters of the children with drawings and he paid a lot of attention to the drawings. Collecting the answers, I realized he spoke to them as if they were there, and this struck me a lot.
How is this book different from other Pope Francis books currently on the market?
In a sense, I feel attached to this book even more than to others because I realize how much he likes to be interviewed by children. There are questions like, for example, William from the United States: “If you could do a miracle, what would it be?” And Francis said: “I would heal children, I would heal every child.” He takes children very seriously.
We later brought 14 of the children and their parents to Rome. Even the place where he met them was symbolic: It was in the “mushroom room,” which is just behind the Pope Paul VI aula, and usually the heads of state and very important persons pass through this room on their way to that aula. It was as if these children were heads of state. Instead of giving them 20 minutes, as Pope Francis usually gives to heads of state, he gave them more than one hour. He sees in the eyes of these children the future and that is why I like this book: It’s charged with hope for the future.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
It depends because it’s not a quantifiable message: It’s a real dialogue between the children and Pope Francis. So it depends on your situation, what you believe, what you are feeling. For example, there is this question from Luca in Australia, who lost his mother a few months before sending the letter to the pope: “My mum is in heaven. Will she grow angel wings?” I saw people crying when they read this letter because they’ve had the same experience—and the answer is amazing. Pope Francis said: “No, no, no, your mom is in heaven, beautiful, splendid, and full of light. She hasn’t grown wings. She’s still your mom, the person you know, but she’s more radiant than ever. And he watches you and smiles at you as her son. Your mom is happy whenever she sees you behaving well. And if you don’t behave, she still loves you and asks Jesus to help you become a better person.”
If you feel pain and sorrow when you read this letter, you take something away from it, but it really depends on you—there is no one unqualified and precise message. The only message I can find all over the book is mercy. Even the answer I just read to you is a message of mercy because the pope said your mom loves you and wants you to behave well, but if you don’t behave she still loves you and asks Jesus to help you be a better person. This is a great message.
As a fellow Jesuit, you seem to understand the pope’s point of view pretty well. Where do you see the pope’s Jesuit side coming out in this book?
You know, in our Formula of the Institute, St. Ignatius asks the Jesuits to catechize young people—to be in touch with them, to talk to them, to spread the Gospel to them. As all the professed fathers in the Society of Jesus do, the pope takes this vow seriously, and this book was a way for him to accomplish this vow he took many years ago.
What are your hopes for the future of Francis’ pontificate?
What Pope Francis really wants to do is put Christ at the center of our lives and of the church. People sometimes ask me if he is a revolutionary pope and my answer is complicated: I usually say “yes,” but because the Gospel is revolutionary. Francis doesn’t want to be a revolutionary person; he just wants to put Christ at the center of the church to allow him to change our hearts and our structures. What I like, what I expect to see in the future, is a church able to receive this message—to internalize this message of mercy. I think this book is one effort to spread this message.
As a journalist, you’ve had the opportunity to interview and work with Francis many times, including the 2013 interview in Jesuit journals around the world that America published in English. If you could tell our readers one thing about Pope Francis, what would it be?
The experience that really strikes me is what I see on his trips. I go with him on his trips around the world, including the recent trip to Mexico. What I’ve kept from these trips is that he wants to have real relationships. He’s a real human being who wants to spread the Gospel. He doesn’t care about formalities and appearances. As I told you before, he’s straightforward, he’s a father. What really strikes me the most about him is his fatherhood and I think that’s the right channel to spread the Gospel—the image of God—to the people of God today and to the world in general.
You are the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, an influential Jesuit journal in Italy. How is your work going right now under the pontificate of Francis?
It’s pretty hectic, I have to say, because we publish the review every two months and all the articles have to be written by Jesuits. The magazine was founded in 1850 during the pontificate of Pius IX and that leaves us with a special kind of relationship with the Holy See because I have to go twice a month to the Secretary of State to check the articles and receive formal certification. From Pius IX to Paul VI, the review was approved by the pope himself, and Pope Francis feels some of that strong relationship again with the journal. So my struggle is to help people understand better his vision, the vision of this pontificate and to go deeper about what the Holy Spirit is asking of the church today.
What is your favorite scripture passage and why?
It’s John 10:10, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” because it’s something that gives you the measure of the gift of God—which is not partial but full.
Any final thoughts?
The children’s questions are very deep but touch many different topics. They are very curious about the pope’s personal life, even his life prior to becoming pope. They ask religious questions grappling with sin, evil and so on, and they are concerned with the afterlife—which is pretty surprising. They are also aware of society’s challenges: war, ecological degradation and so on. And Francis’ language is very simple. It’s very simple because God is simple: The tenderness of God is revealed in his simplicity. God is not complicated and that’s the flavor of the book.
After the pope approved the book on May 11, Loyola Press collected questions until July 10, receiving 270 letters from 26 countries. I talked with the pope on Aug. 5 about them. Our conversation was one hour and a half long. That was the process of the book. It was amazing that Pope Francis later met these children in the Vatican so they could sing to him, take pictures, and even ask other questions. I remember one child asked him: “Do you love Jesus?” And Pope Francis said: “I don’t know. But what I really know is that he loves me.” That was very touching.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.