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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 23, 2021
Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan during a meeting with clergy and religious at the cathedral in Milan.Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan during a meeting with clergy and religious at the cathedral in Milan, March 25, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Angelo Scola celebrated his 80th birthday on Nov. 7 and consequently lost the right to vote in the next conclave. At the same time, The Catholic University of America Press published the English edition of his biographical interview book, Betting on Freedom: My Life in the Church, written with the Italian journalist Luigi Geninazzi.

In 1991, St. John Paul II appointed him bishop of Grosseto, a small Italian diocese, and then rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in 1995. In 2002, the pope named him patriarch of Venice, followed by cardinal in 2003. Pope Benedict XVI transferred Cardinal Scola to Milan in 2011 and, at his wish, Francis accepted his resignation in 2017.

In this exclusive interview with America’s Vatican correspondent, the cardinal spoke about some of the topics that he develops in depth in the book, including his close relationship with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, his joyful time as a bishop over 26 years and his concern at the decline of the Christian faith in Europe.

Significantly, he strongly defended Pope Francis against attacks from within the church and emphasized that “the pope is the pope,” stating that to attack the pope is to do harm to the church.

On Pope Francis’ election

As cardinal, he participated in the conclaves of 2005 and 2013 and, in this interview, revealed these two experiences “had a mystical dimension for me.” He said he felt the Holy Spirit at work.

“In the first conclave, the figure of Ratzinger stood out in a very clear way, due to the great friendship and collaboration he had with John Paul II,” Cardinal Scola said. “I strongly felt he should be elected knowing his great humility. He showed this when he came out on the central balcony for the first time and presented himself as a humble servant in the vineyard of the Lord. For me, that election was a joy but not a surprise, whereas the election of Bergoglio was a surprise.”

“Immediately [after] he was elected, we were not far from each other, the pope got up and came toward me and gave me a very strong embrace.”

Cardinal Scola said that before he entered the Sistine Chapel for the 2013 conclave, he “never imagined” that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would be elected pope. In the book, he also says that with regards to himself, he “never believed in the possibility of becoming pope.”

When I asked what he felt when Cardinal Bergoglio was elected, he revealed that “immediately [after] he was elected, we were not far from each other, the pope got up and came toward me and gave me a very strong embrace.” (This confirmed what I had reported in my book, The Election of Pope Francis.)

On working with then-Cardinal Bergoglio before his election as pope

Cardinal Scola said that at the time of the conclave, he “did not really know Bergoglio.” He recalled having met the future Pope Francis two or three times when, as rector of the Lateran University, he gave talks at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires.

Cardinals Scola and Bergoglio had also worked together as members of the council of the synod of bishops, working to implement the results of the previous assembly of the Synod of Bishops and prepare for the next.

“I was struck by his very reserved attitude,” Cardinal Scola said. “For example, during the breaks in the work, he would almost always remain seated and continued to work. Moreover, his interventions were almost always effective. But I never had the occasion for a more direct, personal relationship with him.”

Pope Francis’ leadership style: ‘A healthy punch in the stomach’

Cardinal Scola remarks in his book that “the appearance of Francis as pope has been a healthy punch in the stomach that the Holy Spirit has used to wake us up.” When I asked to explain this comment, he said that he viewed Francis’ election from the perspective of “our churches in Europe that are tired. His personality, his formation, his experience—particularly at Aparecida, where Bergoglio emerged with force and came to our attention. Moreover, his way of personally reaching out to people can even thaw some situations and raise up the church in Europe, which is suffering from tiredness.”

“Right from the beginning, Francis’ style of pontificate was like a healthy punch in the stomach from the Holy Spirit to wake us up.”

While “there are many beautiful experiences in the church in Europe, there is a real decline in true participation in the life of the church and a decline of the figure of Jesus among our people and especially a decline in their belonging to the Christian community,” Cardinal Scola said. “So, it seemed to me, right from the beginning, that Francis’ style of pontificate was like a punch in the stomach from the Holy Spirit to wake us up.”

On people within the church who ‘attack’ Pope Francis

He noted, however, that some in the church have reacted negatively to Francis’ leadership, with what he described as “harsh and insolent attacks against the pope.”

“This is wrong,” Cardinal Scola said. “As a child, I was taught the expression, ‘The pope is the pope,’ and that one cannot question this.... I cannot accept an attitude that I judge as unjust from the perspective of the church.”

“One can say, with all due respect, that ‘I do not understand this or that choice [made by the pope].’ But at the same time, one should make every effort to grasp fully what the pope has proposed.”

“Of course,” he continued, “one can say, with all due respect, that ‘I do not understand this or that choice [made by the pope].’ But at the same time, one should make every effort to grasp fully what the pope has proposed. It would be harmful to the church if it were not that way.”

Asked what he thinks about his brother cardinals who publicly criticize Pope Francis, Cardinal Scola said, “I will say frankly that while I can understand their internal turmoil—and I think all of them start with good intentions—I do not see the necessity to do this, especially in public.” As an alternative, “there is always the possibility for a cardinal to write to the pope, to request an audience and to seek to explain himself.”

On how Pope Francis is similar to (and different from) previous popes

He attributed the origin of these attacks to “the lack of understanding of the great majority of Christians of the necessary link between experience and doctrine.”

“Francis is a pope who starts from experience; he starts first of all from his own personal experience and has no shame in communicating it,” Cardinal Scola explained. “And from there he arrives at the formulation of dogma.” For this reason, he disagrees with those people who pit Pope Francis against his predecessors Benedict, John Paul II and Paul VI. “There is a continuity of method in all these popes,” he said.

Cardinal Scola said that Francis shares Benedict XVI’s view that “Christianity is not primarily a doctrine or an ethic, but the personal encounter with Christ within the community of the church.”

“But times have changed, and one [pope] will underline some contents, another pope will highlight other elements; one will communicate with a certain style—but they all must take into consideration the totality of the Christian proclamation,” Cardinal Scola said. “And it seems to me that Pope Francis does this, but he does so by underlining certain things that are different from what his predecessors did but which in substance, at the base level, respect this foundation.”

Pope Francis insists on a culture of encounter, not on confrontation, Cardinal Scola said, adding that “this is the road that the Christian should follow.” Francis, he said, shares Benedict XVI’s view that “Christianity is not primarily a doctrine or an ethic, but the personal encounter with Christ within the community of the church.”

On Pope Francis’ synodal vision

In his book, the scholarly Cardinal Scola comes across as a truly authentic, passionate man who enjoyed carrying out the pastoral duties of a bishop. In Betting on Freedom, he recalls that when John Paul II called him to the episcopate at the age of 49, “I perceived that that was the road that the Lord indicated for me, namely, to accompany the life of the People of God. I liked working together with people, my method was synodality!”

Because of his own emphasis on synodality, Cardinal Scola said without hesitation that he thought Pope Francis was on the right track by pushing the whole church onto a synodal path. “His idea of synodality is proven by his style of exercise of the magisterium, which is based on gestures that reach out to people, a magisterium that also draws on his personal life and arrives to dogmatic formulation when the need presents itself.”

“It is necessary for us to accompany the pope, as one should always do—following him, obeying him—because the pope is the ultimate point of reference.”

“I believe the project is very good,” the cardinal continued. “And it is necessary for us to accompany the pope, as one should always do—following him, obeying him—because the pope is the ultimate point of reference for the navigation of the barque of the church, [even] when the sea is stormy. It is necessary to accompany and follow the indication he gives, even if one may question it—in the good sense of the word—and discuss where one does not always find it convincing. But we must never lose that ultimate attitude, in full freedom, that one calls obedience.”

At the same time, he confessed that he has “some fears” about how the synod will unfold. “In Europe, at least, we have been too accustomed to set up commissions and committees, where we talk and talk, but too often we do not arrive at this walking together.”

Nevertheless, he said, “I hope things can go well, that synodality can generate a new style of church...[and] arouse a capacity to remotivate all of us together—lay people, both the young and the elderly, as well as priests and bishops. But I think it is not going to be easy, especially after this period of Covid.”

Rising divisions within the church

“Some people foresee dark scenarios for a church that is allegedly threatened by schism,” he writes. However, he says, “I do not see the risk of schism,” and is instead concerned with “polemics and divisions—which grow ever sharper, even at the expense of truth and charity.”

“I fear we are moving backward, specifically to the epoch of the debates between conservatives and progressives after the council,” he continues. “I see a renewed opposition between the guardians of tradition rigidly understood and the proponents of conforming practices, but also doctrine, to worldly demands.”

“We can debate and discuss questions, but we must do so with mutual respect and never underestimate the common belonging to Christ.”

In the interview, he lamented especially the deficiency of “truth and charity” in discussions within the church, saying that this is “not acceptable.”

“We can debate and discuss questions, but we must do so with mutual respect and never underestimate the common belonging to Christ,” he said. “We must also recognize the need for diversity in unity, otherwise we lose the richness that we offer to the freedom of others.” Furthermore, he said, “The attractiveness of the person of Jesus does not come across to people if they do not see this unity in the Christian community.”

On why young people are leaving the church

Cardinal Scola, in a stimulating and profound introduction for his book’s American edition, speaks of the decline of Christianity and Catholicism in Europe and the growth of the “nones”—a term used to describe demographic groups, especially young adults, who do not identify with any religious tradition.

In the interview, Cardinal Scola said that he believes “the church at this moment is being put to the test in different ways, especially in those churches of ancient evangelization. It is sufficient to see what is happening to the church in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, where they have a great tradition but now really struggle to connect with young people.”

“We were not able to educate [young people] at a sufficiently deep level, and they were overtaken by the prevailing confusion in society,” Cardinal Scola said.

He recognized that “some young people still follow the church with seriousness and sincerity.” But, he said, “it is a minority, and there is above all great confusion around key elements of their life such as affection, work, leisure.” He noted that “this is true also for boys and girls who frequented our parishes and schools and were accompanied by good priests but then chose to live together and not get married.”

“This means we were not able to educate them at a sufficiently deep level, and they were overtaken by the prevailing confusion in society,” he said.

Is the church in ‘crisis’?

Notwithstanding all this, Cardinal Scola said he never uses the term crisis for the situation of the church today. “Crisis means judgment, and we are always under the judgment of the Spirit of Jesus,” he said. “This is not a negative thing; it is the beginning of change.” While humans may be resistant to change, Cardinal Scola emphasized that God is ultimately in charge. Thus, he said, “I have great hope in the possibility of change, because the times are never ours.”

“The fact that we are under judgment from the Spirit is what renews the church, but this renewal has need of holiness: holy men and women,” he continued. The cardinal cited the example of Paul Nagai, a Japanese doctor injured when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, who by his Christian witness inspired the city’s recovery.

Ultimately, Cardinal Scola says that the church should adopt the wisdom of T. S. Eliot, when he wrote, “Take no thought of the harvest,/ But only of proper sowing.”

“We should do this. The harvest is in the hands of God, so we must not be frightened,” he said. “It is the Spirit of the Lord that guides the church and gives the harvest.”

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