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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 30, 2015
Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Bangui, Central African Republic, to Rome Nov. 30 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

In an hour-long press conference on the plane that brought him back from Bangui to Rome, Pope Francis said the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, which opened in Paris today, must come up with a solution “now or never,” because humanity is “on the brink of suicide.” 

Besides the question on COP21, the pope responded to several other questions from the 74 media personnel traveling with him in Africa, including questions on Islam, Africa, freedom of the press, whether the church might change its teaching and allow the use of condoms to prevent AIDS and Vatileaks.

It’s worth mentioning that he spoke with passion about the grave social injustices that exist in Africa today, and said that “if humanity does not change we will continue to have more miseries, tragedies, wars, children that die of hunger, injustice.”

His answer also revealed the deep pain he felt due to what he had seen the previous day when he visited the only pediatric hospital in Bangui, and embraced children there who were suffering from malaria and were seriously undernourished, the majority of whom will die soon, he was told.

Pope Francis came back to the media section on the plane soon after the Alitalia Airbus 330 had reached its cruising altitude.  Upon seeing him, we journalists and media operators broke into strong, warm, spontaneous applause as a demonstration of our high esteem and respect for this courageous leader of the Catholic Church who has shown the world that he is not afraid to put his life at high risk to help people, and to contribute all he can to encourage, promote and support the peace process in the conflict-torn Central African Republic, where the overwhelming majority of its 4.5 million inhabitants,Christian and Muslim alike are thirsting for peace.  That thirst, that craving, that powerful desire for peace, was made evident by the vast crowds that came out on the streets everywhere Francis went to cheer the man who had come among them "as a pilgrim of peace and a messenger of hope."

The following is an almost complete transcript of most of the questions raised by the journalists and the answers given by Pope Francis. The working translation presented here was made by America’s Vatican correspondent who traveled with the pope on his first visit to Africa.

While in Kenya you met poor families in Kangemi, you listened to their stories of lack of access to basic human rights, such as lack of access to basic rights such as lack of access to clean water. The same day you went to the Kasarani stadium where you listened to stories of exclusion because of selfish human greed and corruption. What were you feeling as you listened to their stories? And what should be done to end the injustices?

On this problem, I have spoken strongly at least three times: the first time was at the meeting of the Popular Movements in the Vatican, then at the second meeting of the Popular Movements in Santa Cruz della Sierra (Bolivia) and then two other times: first in the document "Evangelii Gaudium" and very strongly in the encyclical "Laudato Si’."

I don’t remember the statistics, so don’t quote me, but I heard it said that 80 percent of the riches of world are in the hands of 17 percent of the people. I don’t know if it’s true, so if someone knows the statistics, please tell me so that I am correct. It’s an economic system where money is at the center – the god money. I remember that once a great French ambassador told me – and he was not a Catholic – he said we have fallen into the idolatry of money, and if things continue like this then the world will continue like this.  

You asked me what I felt at the meeting with the young. In Kangemi, I spoke clearly about rights. I felt pain. I felt how it can be that the people don’t notice it. I felt great pain. Yesterday, for example, I went to a pediatric hospital, the only one in Bangui and maybe in CAR, and in the intensive care unit they do not have instruments of oxygen. There were many undernourished children there, many, and the doctor told me that many of them, the majority of them, will die soon because they have malaria and are seriously undernourished. I don’t want to make a homily, but the Lord always rebuked the people of Israel for their idolatry. It’s idolatry when a man or woman loses their identity card of being a child of God and prefers to look for a god that’s of their own size. That’s the first thing. So if humanity does not change we will continue to have more miseries, tragedies, wars, children that die of hunger, injustice.

What do those who have in their hands 80 percent of the wealth of the world do? And this is not communism; it is the truth. But it’s not easy to see it. Thank you for asking me this question.

 What is your most memorable moment of this your first trip to Africa? Are you coming back to the continent anytime soon? And where is your immediate next trip to?

Let’s start with your last question. If things go well, I believe the next trip will be in Mexico. The dates are not yet precise. Second, will I return to Africa? I don’t know. I am old and the trips are heavy. And the first question, what moment do I remember? The crowds. The joy. The capacity to celebrate with an empty stomach.

I know God surprises us, but Africa surprised me too. There were many moments. The crowd, the crowd! They were happy to feel visited. They have a great sense of welcome. Very great! Each nation has its own sense of welcome. Then each country has its own identity. Kenya, a little more modern, Uganda has the identity of martyrs, the Ugandan people both Anglican and Catholic venerate the martyrs. I was at both shrines, the Anglican one first, then the Catholic one. The memory of the martyrs is their inheritance, the courage to give their lives for a cause. It’s their identity.

Then the Central African Republic: the desire for peace, for reconciliation, for pardon, a gift. They lived normally as brothers up to four years ago – Protestants, Catholics and Muslims. Yesterday, I went to Evangelicals, they work so well and then they came to Mass in the evening. Today I went to the mosque and I prayed in the mosque. Also the Imam got into the popemobile for ride around the small stadium. These are small gestures that I do, and yet they are what they want because a small group of them say "oh the Christians, the Christians are violent." I don’t understand this. The Christians want peace. Now, they are going to elections. They have chosen a transition status. They have chosen that woman who was mayor to be president of the transition, and she now organizes the elections. They seek peace, reconciliation, no hate.

In Uganda you spoke off the cuff and you said corruption exists everywhere, and also in the Vatican. My question: What is the importance of the press, the free, secular press in rooting out corruption wherever it is held?

The free press, lay and also confessional, must be professional; because the professional press can be lay or confessional. It’s important that it is professional. It must report the truth, not manipulate information. It must be professional. For me this is important because the denunciation of corruption or injustice is important, it’s good work. There’s corruption! You have to do something, make a judgment. The professional press must tell everything, without falling into the three most common sins: disinformation, to tell one half but not the other; calumny, which is not professional; defamation, to take away the good name of someone with things that in that moment do no harm, things from the past. These are the three defects that are an attack against the professionality of the press. We need professionality: they should say it as it is, this and this. Corruption? They should say it and give the data, this and this. And a journalist who is a true professional, if he gets it wrong, he should excuse himself, and ask pardon, saying I believed it but then I found out that it was not so. In this way things will go well.   It’s very important.

You paid tribute to the message of peace in the Central African Republic but there’s more religious fundamentalism today that threatens the entire planet. We have seen it in Paris. Do you think the religious authorities, bishops, imams, should enter more into politics?

If you mean enter into politics, no! Let them be a priest, a pastor, an imam, a rabbi, [because] that’s their vocation. But one does an indirect politics by preaching values, true values, and one of the bigger values is brotherhood among us. We are all children of God, we have the same father. And in this sense one must make a politics of unity, or reconciliation, and – though I do not like the word, but I must use it –tolerance. So, fundamentalism is an illness that is in all religions.

We Catholics have them, not a few but many, who think they have the absolute truth, and they go ahead throwing mud on others with calumny, defamation, and they do harm. I can say this because it is my church: also we, and we all. One must fight, because religious fundamentalism is not religious. Why? Because it lacks God. It is idolatry, just as money is idolatry. To do politics in the sense of convincing the people that have this tendency is a politics that we religious leaders must do. But fundamentalism that always ends in a tragedy or in crimes is a bad thing, but a piece of it comes in all religions.

There was the trial today of Luis Angel Vallejo Balda and Francesca Chaouqui. How was it that these two people were nominated? How was it that these two persons entered in your process of reform? Do you think there was a mistake?

I think that there was an error. Vallejo Balda entered because of the post he has, he was Secretary of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs; he entered because of the role he had. How she entered, I am not sure, but I think I am not wrong if I say – but I am not sure – I think that he introduced her as a woman that knew the world of commercial relations. And so they worked. When they finished their work, the members of the commission that was called COSEA remained in some positions in the Vatican. This happened with Vallejo. But Mrs. Chaouqui did not remain in the Vatican because she entered the commission and then did not remain. Some say she got angry over this, but the judges will tell us the truth about these intentions, what happened.... For me it was not a surprise, I did not lose sleep because they made public the work that had begun in the Commission of Cardinals – the C9 – to seek out the corruption and the things that were not working in the Vatican. And here I wish to say something: not Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui, but all and everything.

So I will go back, if you wish to the word ‘corruption.’ Thirteen days before John Paul II died, the then Cardinal Ratzinger who led the Via Crucis, denounced the filth in the church. He denounced that. First! This was Good Friday. Then John Paul II died in Easter week – and he became pope. But in the Mass for the election of the pope, he was the dean and he spoke of the same thing, and we elected him for this freedom in saying things. So from that time it was in the air in the Vatican that there is corruption; there is corruption. On this judgment, I gave concrete accusations to the judges: because what’s important for the defense is the formulation of accusations. I have not read the concrete accusations, the technical ones. I would have wished that this [trial] would be finished before Dec. 8, for the Year of Mercy. But I believe this cannot be done because I want all the lawyers that are defending [the accused] to have the time to defend them, so that all may have full freedom of defense. That’s it. As to how they were chosen, that’s the whole story. 

But how do you think of proceeding?

Corruption comes from far back. I’m just glad this isn’t a Lucrezia Borgia... but the cardinals will continue [focusing] on the corruption so as to clean it up.

Thank you for all you have done for my country, Colombia, and for what you have done in the world. But I have a precise question. I want to ask you a specific question about this change of political direction that is taking place in Latin America, which has also involved your country, Argentina, with [the election of] Mr. Macri something is changing after 12 years of Kirchnerism. What do you think of these new changes? How they are in some way changing the direction of Latin American politics in the continent that you are coming from?

I have heard some opinions, but the truth is that, at the present moment, I do not know what to say on this geopolitical question. Seriously, I do not know. Because there are many problems in this direction in various countries and, in fact, I don’t know what to say.

I don’t know why.... There are several Latin American countries in this situation of changing direction, this is the truth. But I don’t know how to explain it.

HIV is raging in Africa. The cure means that people live longer now, but the epidemic continues. In Uganda alone in the last year there were 135,000 new cases of infection of HIV, and in Kenya it was worse. AIDS is the first cause of youth deaths in Africa. Holy Father, you have met with HIV-positive children in Africa in these days, and you have heard a moving testimony in Uganda. I wish to say something on this question. We know that prevention is the key. We also know that condoms are not the only way to stop the epidemic, but it is an important part of the response. Isn’t it time to change the position of the church in this matter, so as to allow the use of condoms to prevent new infections?

The question seems to me to be far too small, it seems to me also to be partial. Yes, it’s one of the methods. I think the morality of the church on this point finds itself in a dilemma: is it the fifth or the sixth commandment? To defend life, or is the sexual relation open to life? But this is not the problem. The question is much bigger. It reminds me of the question the posed to Jesus: “Tell me master, is it allowed to heal on the Sabbath?” “It is obligatory to heal.” On the other hand, denutrition, the exploitation of people, slave labor, the lack of drinking water.... These are the problems. Let’s not just talk about whether you can use that bandaid or another for a small wound. The great wound is the social injustice, the injustice of the environment, the injustice of exploitation and denutrition. That’s it.

I don’t like to reduce [the problem] to such casuistic questions and reflections when people die from lack of water, of hunger, or lack of housing. When everyone is healed, or when we will not have these tragic illnesses that man makes, both for social injustice, as well as to make money. I think of the arms trade. When these problems no longer exist, then one can ask this question. Is it licit to heal on the Sabbath? Why do they continue to make arms and to traffick in arms? Wars are the reason for a much bigger mortality. I would say to mankind do justice.... But do not think whether it is allowed or not to heal on the Sabbath. And when all these are cured, when there are no injustices in this world, then we can talk about the Sabbath.

What is the position of the Vatican on the crisis between Russia and Turkey over the shooting down of a plane? Do you think of going to Armenia next year?

Last year I promised the three patriatchs that I would go. The promise is there.

Then there are wars. Wars come from ambition. Wars are an industry. We have seen many times in history, that when the balance sheet is not going well war becomes a factory. The terrorists make arms. Who gives them the wherewithal to make war? There is here a network of interests, an imperial power, a power of the moment.... We have been in war for years now, and each time more. The pieces are less pieces and much bigger.

I don’t know what the Vatican thinks, I know what I think. That wars are a sin, are against humanity, and destroy humanity. They are the causes of exploitation, human trafficking and of many [other] things. We have to stop. I used this expression twice at the United Nations, both in Kenya and in New York, that their work should not be nominalist declarations, that they be effective, that they make peace. I know that they do many things. I saw how the Blue Helmets work.... Wars are not from God. God is a God of peace who made the world, he did his work. God made man, and afterwards – the Bible tells us –a brother killed a brother. [It was] war, the first world war between brothers.

The conference on climate change begins in Paris today. You have made a big effort to help it come out well. But are we not expecting too much from this world summit? Will COP21 be the start of the solution?

I am not sure, but I can say that it is either now or never. Since the first conference in Tokyo up to now they did little. And each year the problems are more serious. Speaking in a reunion with university students about what world do we wish to leave to our children, one said: But are you sure there will be children? We are at the brink of a suicide, to use a strong word. And I am sure that almost the totality of those that are in Paris are aware of this and want to do something.

The other day I read that the glaciers in Greenland are losing thousands of millions of tons. In the Pacific there is a town that is getting land in another country to move there because in 20 years this town will not exist anymore. I feel confident that these people [at the Paris summit] will do something, because I would say that I am sure that they have good will and I hope that it is so, and I pray for them.

What do you say about Islam and the teachings of the Prophet Mahomet to the world today?

One can dialogue. They have many values, and these values are constructive. But I too have the experience of a friendship with a Muslim, a world leader, and we can speak about the values. I pray, he prays. Many values: prayer, fasting. One cannot liquidate a religion because there are some groups or many in a certain moment of the history of fundamentalists. It’s true that there have always been wars of religion in history. We too must ask pardon. Catherine de Medici was no saint. There was the Thirty Years War, the night of St. Bartholomew. We must ask pardon for the fundamentalist extremists of the wars of religion.

But they [the Muslims] have values. Today in the mosque I wanted to drive around a small stadium where there were so many people that they could not enter, and in the popemobile there was the pope and the Imam. But on all sides, you have people with religious values and people with none. But how many wars, not only of religion, have we Christians done? It was not the Muslims that sacked Rome. They have values.

What do say to the world that thinks that Africa is only the victim of wars and destruction?

Africa is a victim. Africa was always exploited by other powers. They sold the slaves from Africa to America. There are powers who only seek to take the great riches of Africa, the richest continent in the world, but they do not think of helping to make the country grow and that all may have work. Africa is a martyr; it is the martyr of exploitation in history. Those who say that all the calamities or all the wars come from Africa do not understand well the damage that that certain forms of development do to humanity. And for this reason, I love Africa, because Africa was the victim of other powers.

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