Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 15, 2021
Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Bratislava, Slovakia, to Rome Sept. 15, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“I have never denied Communion to anyone,” Pope Francis revealed in answer to one of my questions on the flight back from Bratislava to Rome, Sept. 15. It was a significant revelation coming at a time when a group of bishops in the United States are pushing to deny Communion to pro-choice politicians, including President Joe Biden. Francis appears to be sending a very different message—and it was not the only one.

He sent a second strong message in answer to my other question about the heated discussion regarding denial of Communion to pro-choice politicians, when he called on bishops to be “pastors,” not politicians. I was struck by this because over the past year, I have heard several Vatican officials ask: “Why can’t the American bishops be pastors not politicians?”

On the plane, Francis elaborated on this when he said, “if we look at the history of the church, we will see that every time the bishops have not dealt with a problem as pastors they have taken sides politically.” He cited examples where their taking sides politically has cost lives such as in the case of the Dominican Friar, Giacomo Savonarola, in Florence in 1489, and the Huguenots (Protestants) in France in 1572.

It was a significant revelation coming at a time when a group of bishops in the United States are pushing to deny Communion to pro-choice politicians, including President Joe Biden.

“When the church, in order to defend a principle, acts in a non-pastoral way, it takes sides on the political plane, it has always been so,” Francis said. He asked, “What must a pastor do?” and responded: “Be a pastor. Don’t go condemning. Be a pastor because he is a pastor also for the excommunicated.” Bishops, he said, should be “pastors with God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

At the same time, in his answer to my question, Pope Francis reaffirmed in a categorical way the church’s teaching on abortion. He said: “Abortion is more than a problem. Abortion is homicide. Abortion...without being ambiguous: Whoever has an abortion kills.”

On the plane, Francis responded to questions from five journalists. Responding to questions from a Spanish journalist, Daniel Verdú Palai of El País, he revealed that in his meeting, along with his senior Vatican advisors, with President János Áder and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, they never discussed the thorny (for the Hungarian side) question of migrants but instead focused on the issues that united them: support for the family and ecological concerns, and he praised what the Hungarians are doing in this latter field.

Some had criticized Francis for only spending seven hours in Hungary, but on the plane he revealed to a Hungarian journalist, Istávan Károly Kuzmány of Magiar Kurir, that he had promised the Hungarian president that he “would see whether it would be possible to come back [to Hungary] next year or the following year.”

“Even in the College of Cardinals there are some anti-vaxxers, and one of them, poor man, was hospitalized with the virus.”

A Slovak journalist, Bohumil Petrik of Dennik Standard, raised the issue of anti-vaxxers. He said there are divisions in Slovakia over the question of vaccinations, whereas the pope describes it as “an act of love to get vaccinated.” He asked how Francis could reconcile these two facts. Pope Francis admitted: “I cannot explain it well. Some say it is because vaccines are not sufficiently tested.” But, he added, “Even in the College of Cardinals there are some anti-vaxxers, and one of them, poor man, was hospitalized with the virus.” Journalists understood this as referring to Cardinal Raymond Burke, though Francis did not name him.

An Italian journalist, Stefano Maria Paci of Sky TV 24, told the pope that yesterday the European Parliament approved a resolution calling on its 27 member states to recognize homosexual marriages and asked what he thought about that. Francis reaffirmed that marriage “is a sacrament and the church has no power to change the sacraments as the Lord instituted them.” But he said that “there are laws that try to help the situations of many people who have a different sexual orientation.”

“This is important that these people are helped,” the pope said, and “if a homosexual couple wish to live together, the states have the possibility civilly to support them, to give them security regarding inheritance, health care, etc. But marriage is marriage. This does not mean to condemn them; they are our brothers and sisters, and we must accompany them.” His fuller answer is below.

“If a homosexual couple wish to live together, the states have the possibility civilly to support them, to give them security regarding inheritance, health care, etc.”

But the greatest revelation of his four-day-visit to Hungary and Slovakia, and of the press conference, is the fact that Francis is in good health and appears to have fully recovered from his operation on July 4. That was the feeling among the journalists. He had endured a heavy, grueling schedule over four days, in two countries, and was in strong form at the press conference. Those who had speculated that the end of the pontificate is in sight should think again.

The transcript of the question and answer about Communion and abortion, conducted in Italian, is presented below, in a translation provided by the Vatican News media.

Gerard O’Connell: Holy Father, you have often said we are all sinners, and that the Eucharist is not a reward for the perfect but a medicine and food for the weak. As you know, in the USA, particularly after the last elections, but even since 2004, there has been a discussion among the bishops about giving communion to politicians who have supported laws in favour of abortion and the woman’s right to choose. And as you know, there are bishops who want to deny communion to the president and others who hold office. There are other bishops who are opposed, there are other bishops who say “you do not need to use the Eucharist as a weapon.” My question, Holy Father: What do you think about all this, and what do you advise the bishops? Then, a second question: You, as bishop, in all these years, have you publicly refused the Eucharist to anyone like this?

Pope Francis: No, I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone, to anyone. I don’t know if anyone in that condition came, but I never, never refused the Eucharist. As a priest, that is. Never. I have never been aware of having a person like the one you describe in front of me, that is true. Simply, the only time I ever had a bit...an interesting thing, was when I went to celebrate Mass in a rest home and we were in the living room, and I said: “Raise your hand if you want to receive Communion.” Everyone, the old men, the old women, everyone wanted Communion, and when I gave Communion to one woman, she took me by the hand and said to me: “Thank you, Father, thank you: I’m Jewish.” I said: “No, the one that I gave to you is Jewish, too...” The only strange thing, but the woman received Communion first, she said it after.

No, I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone, to anyone. I don’t know if anyone in that condition came, but I never, never refused the Eucharist.

No. Communion is not a prize for the perfect, no? Let’s think of Port Royal (des Champs), of the issue with Angélique Arnaud, Jansenism: those who are perfect can receive Communion. Communion is a gift, a present; the presence of Jesus in his Church and in the community. This is the theology. Then, those who are not in the community cannot receive Communion, like this Jewish woman, but the Lord wanted to reward her without my knowledge. Why? Because they are out of the community—ex-comunitate—excommunicated they are called. It is a harsh term, but it means that they are not in the community, either because they do not belong to it, they are not baptized or have drifted away for some reason.

Second the problem of abortion. Abortion is more than a problem. Abortion is homicide. Abortion...without being ambiguous: whoever has an abortion kills. Take any book on embryology for medical students in medical school. The third week after conception, from the third week, often before the mamma is aware of it, all the organs are already there, even the DNA... Isn’t that a person? It is a human life, period. And this human life must be respected. This principle is so clear, and to those who cannot understand, I would ask two questions: is it right to kill a human life to solve a problem? Scientifically, it is a human life.

Abortion is more than a problem. Abortion is homicide. Abortion...without being ambiguous: whoever has an abortion kills.

The second question: is it right to hire a hitman to solve a problem? I said this publically to Jordi Évole when he did it, I said it the other day to COPE, I wanted to repeat it... and that’s enough. Don’t ask strange questions. Scientifically it is a human life. Books teach this. I ask: is it right to throw it out to solve a problem? That is why the Church is so hard on this issue, because it’s a little like if she were to accept it, if she accepts this, it would be like accepting daily murder. A Head of State was telling me that the decline in population began by them, there is an age gap, because in those years there was such a strong law on abortion that they did six million abortions, it is calculated, and this left a sharp drop in the society of that country.

Now let’s get to that person who is not in the community, who cannot receive Communion because they are outside the community, and this is not a punishment. No, the person is outside. Communion is uniting yourself to the community. But the problem is not the theological problem—that is simple—the problem it is the pastoral problem: how do we bishops deal with this principle pastorally. And if we look at the history of the church we will see that every time the bishops have dealt with a problem not as pastors, they have taken taken a political stance on a political problem. Think of St Bartholomew’s Night: “Oh, heretics, yes. But it’s a serious heresy...let’s cut all their throats....” No: it is a political matter. Let’s think of Joan of Arc, about that vision, let’s think of the witch-hunt.... Let’s think of the Campo de’ Fiori, of Savonarola, of all those people.

Every time the bishops have dealt with a problem not as pastors, they have taken taken a political stance on a political problem.

When the church defends a principle in an unpastoral manner, it acts on a political level. And this has always been the case, just look at history. What must the pastor do? Be a pastor. Be a pastor and don’t go around condemning, not condemning.... But is he a pastor for the excommunicated too? Yes, he is a pastor and must be a pastor with him, to be a pastors with God’s style. And God’s style is closeness, compassion and tenderness. The entire Bible says so. Closeness is already there in Deuteronomy where he says to Israel: “Tell me what people has its gods as close as I am to you?” Closeness, compassion. The Lord has compassion on us as we read in Ezekiel, in Hosea. Tenderness was there already in the beginning. It is enough to look in the Gospels and the things of Jesus. A pastor who does not know how to act with God’s style, is slipping and does many things that are not pastoral.

For me, I do not want to specify, since you spoke of the United States, because I do not know the details well of the United States, I will give the principle. You could say to me: “But, if you are close, tender and compassionate with a person, would you give the person Communion?” This is a hypothesis. Be a pastor, and the pastor knows what he must do at all times, but as a pastor. But if he goes out of the pastoral dimension of the church, he immediately becomes a politician: You see this in all the accusations, in all the non-pastoral condemnations the church makes...

What must the pastor do? Be a pastor. Be a pastor and don’t go around condemning, not condemning.... But is he a pastor for the excommunicated too?

With this principle, I think a pastor should be able to move about well. The principles are taken from theology. Pastoral ministry is theology and the Holy Spirit who is leading you to act with the style of. God. I dare say up to here. If you say: can you give or not give? This is casuistry, what the theologians say.

Do you remember the storm that was whipped up with “Amoris Laetitia” when it came out with the chapter on the accompaniment of separated couples, divorced? Heresy, heresy! Thanks be to God there was Cardinal Schönborn there who is a great theologian, and he clarified things.

But always this condemnation, condemnation. Enough with excommunications! Please let’s not make more excommunications. The poor people, they are children of God and they want and need our pastoral closeness. Then the pastor resolves things as the Spirit tells him.

This story has been updated with the pope’s comments about abortion. 

Correction, Sept. 20: The killing of Huguenots in France cited in this article occurred in 1572, not 1472 as originally reported.

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