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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 05, 2023
Pope Francis meets the journalists during an airborne press conference aboard the airplane directed to Rome, at the end of his pastoral visit to Congo and South Sudan, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. (Tiziana Fabi/Pool Photo Via AP)Pope Francis meets the journalists during an airborne press conference aboard the airplane directed to Rome, at the end of his pastoral visit to Congo and South Sudan, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. (Tiziana Fabi/Pool Photo Via AP)

Pope Francis has denounced those who instrumentalized the death of Pope Benedict XVI, describing them as unethical. He also denied that Benedict was saddened by decisions he had taken.

The pope responded forthrightly on the matter to a question put by an Austrian journalist on the flight back from Juba, South Sudan. The pope had been on a pilgrimage for peace with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields. The three Christian leaders had offered an extraordinary example of church unity on this journey, and the question began with reference to that example.

“People who instrumentalize such a good person...I would say a holy father of the church, have no ethics. They are of a party, not of the church.”

“There was a lot of talk in these days about unity,” the journalist began before asking Francis: “After the death of Benedict, has your mission become more difficult? Have the tensions between the different wings of the Catholic Church become more difficult?”

Pope Francis replied, “I was able to talk about everything with Benedict and to change opinions. He was always at my side, supporting [me], and if he had some difficulties with me he said it and we talked, and there were no problems.

“One time, I spoke about the marriage of homosexuals, and I said matrimony is a sacrament and we cannot make [same sex union] a sacrament, but there is the possibility of the transmission of goods [i.e., inheritance] by civil law; it started in France.

“A person who considers himself a great theologian, through a friend of Benedict, went to him and made a denunciation against me,” Francis said. “Benedict was not frightened, he consulted four cardinals, of top level, and said explain this to me. They explained it, and so the story ended.”

Pope Francis said he offered this anecdote to show how the late Pope Benedict acted “when there was a denunciation.”

Significantly, Francis went further. He said, “Some of the things that are said, that Benedict was saddened at this or for something else, are invented tales,” using a typical Argentinian expression for tall tales: “cuentos chinos.”

Pope Francis: “I was able to talk about everything with Benedict and to change opinions. He was always at my side.”

The pope appeared to be referring to statements first made by Archbishop Georg Gänswein in his book and in interviews, alleging that Benedict was saddened, indeed that his heart was broken, by Francis’ decision, in “Traditiones Custodes,” to restrict the use of the Latin Mass.

“On the contrary,” Francis said, “I consulted Benedict on some decisions to be taken, and he was in agreement.”

Pope Francis said, “I believe the death of Benedict was instrumentalized by people who wished to bring water to their own mill,” meaning to causes that were dear to their own hearts.

He hit out strongly against the way people have sought to manipulate Benedict’s death. “People who instrumentalize such a good person, [a man] of God, almost I would say a holy father of the church, have no ethics,” he said. “They are of a party, not of the church.”

He said: “One sees on every side the tendency to take partisan theological positions.”

But he added, “Let’s drop it; these things will fade away or go forward as has happened in history.”

Pope Francis concluded, “I wanted to state clearly who Benedict was; he was not saddened.”

In April 2019, Pope Francis kissed the feet of the leaders of South Sudan, begging them to make peace. One journalist asked if he would be willing to do the same if he could meet with Mr. Putin?

The pope had been participating in an unprecedented ecumenical press conference with Archbishop Welby and the Rev. Dr. Greenshields on the more than three-hour flight home to Rome from Juba at the end of their ecumenical pilgrimage for peace in South Sudan.

The three Christian leaders responded to several other questions, including on conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ending violence in South Sudan, the pope and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, the status of L.G.B.T. people in Congo and on possible future papal trips.

During the air-borne press conference, a journalist said he had met L.G.B.T. people in Congo who were rejected by their families. He asked: “What do you say to the families in Congo and South Sudan who still reject their children, and what do you say to the priests, to the bishops?”

Pope Francis recalled that he had spoken to this question several times, including returning from Brazil in 2013 and from Ireland in 2018, and more recently in an interview with The Associated Press.

Returning from Brazil, he had said: “If a person with homosexual tendencies is a believer and seeks God, who am I to judge him?”

Returning from Ireland, he had advised parents: “Children with this orientation have a right to stay at home; you cannot kick them out of the house.”

And in his interview with The Associated Press, the pope had condemned the criminalization of homosexuality. He noted that some 50 countries had criminalized homosexual orientation, adding that it was punishable by death in 10 of them.

The biggest threat to peace in South Sudan, Pope Francis said, is the eagerness “to take that country's wealth—coltan, lithium, these sorts of things—through war” in trade for weapons.

“This is not right,” the pope said. “People with homosexual tendencies are children of God. God loves them; God accompanies them.

“To condemn such people is a sin,” Pope Francis said. “To criminalize people with homosexual tendencies is an injustice.”

He added, “The Catechism of the Catholic Church says they should not be marginalized.”

“I wish I had spoken as eloquently and clearly as the pope,” Archbishop Welby said, commenting on the issue. “I entirely agree with every word he said here.”

He added, “The Anglican Communion has passed resolutions at two Lambeth conferences against criminalization, but it has not really changed many people's minds.”

This week during the General Synod of the Church of England, he said, the issue of criminalization of homosexuality will be a main topic of discussion. “And I shall certainly quote the Holy Father,” Archbishop Welby said. “He said it beautifully and accurately.”

The Rev. Dr. Greenshields added, “There is nowhere in my reading of the four Gospels where I see Jesus turning anyone away. There is nowhere in the four Gospels where I see anything other than Jesus expressing love to whomever he meets. And as Christians, that’s the only expression that we can possibly give to any human being in any circumstances.”

Pope Francis: “People with homosexual tendencies are children of God. God loves them; God accompanies them. To condemn such people is a sin.”

Commenting on the ongoing violence in Africa, Pope Francis again lamented the violence associated with mineral and resource extraction experienced in eastern Congo. “I was able to meet with victims of that war [over resources], who were wounded, even amputees,” he said. “There was great pain and all to strip away riches. This is no good. No good.”

He noted that some have said that Africa has gained independence above the ground, but has not been able to control what is under the ground, which continues to be targeted by multinational mining concerns seeking resources and rare earth minerals. “We must get rid of this idea that Africa is [just] to be exploited,” he said.

Archbishop Welby agreed. “We need to be clear,” he said. “Congo is not the playground of the great powers or for the piracy of the small mining companies. The companies there act irresponsibly with artisanal mining.” Some offenses, he cited, include kidnapping of laborers, the use of child soldiers and “rape on a huge scale.” Outsiders “simply pillage the country.”

Congo “should be one of the richest on the face of the planet,” Archbishop Welby said. And “one of the biggest grantors of aid to the rest of Africa.” Instead, “it has been tortured…. It was given political independence technically, but not economic independence.”

According to the archbishop, the churches of the region, particularly the Catholic Church through the Great Lakes Peace Project, have done exceptional peacebuilding work. But the world’s great powers must do their part to promote peace in the region and not just extract its mineral riches to support their own prosperity.

Pope Francis, commenting on ongoing violence in South Sudan, called for more attention to the problems of arms sales to the region. “I think this is the biggest plague in the world,” he said. Behind the violence in South Sudan, he said, “there are economic interests to exploit the land, the minerals, the wealth [and] it is true that tribalism in Africa does not help.” But the biggest threat to peace, Pope Francis said, is the eagerness “to take that country's wealth—coltan, lithium, these sorts of things—through war” in trade for weapons.

“The whole world is at war and in self-destruction. One bomb draws back on you a bigger one and a bigger one and in the escalation you don’t know where you will end up.” 

In April 2019, Pope Francis kissed the feet of the leaders of South Sudan, begging them to make peace. One journalist asked if he would be willing to do the same if he could meet with Mr. Putin?

Francis replied, “I am open to meeting both presidents: the president of Ukraine and the president of Russia….If I have not gone to Kyiv, it was because it was not possible at the time to go to Moscow; but I was in dialogue.”

He explained that he attempted to intervene “on the second day of the war,” offering to negotiate with Moscow, but nothing came of that effort.

But of his gesture of the 2019 meeting in Rome, he said, “I don't know how it happened; it wasn’t thought out and you can’t repeat things that weren’t thought out—it’s the Spirit that takes you there.… I was an instrument of some inner impulse, not a planned thing.”

Francis reminded journalists that there were other wars too: Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and conflicts in Latin America. These should not be forgotten, he said.

“The whole world is at war and in self-destruction…. We must stop in time because one bomb draws back on you a bigger one and a bigger one and in the escalation you don’t know where you will end up. We need to have a cool head.”

Archbishop Welby, who was in Ukraine before Christmas, said, “An end to this war is within the hands of President Putin. He could end it with withdrawal and ceasefire and then negotiations about long-term settlement.”

The last question put to the pope regarded how he was feeling after this demanding journey in two African countries and he was asked if he felt up to other overseas trips.

According to Pope Francis he is planning a trip to India in 2024 and in August a trip to Lisbon for World Youth Day. In September he will visit Marseilles for a meeting of the bishops of the port-cities of the Mediterranean, where the issue of human migration will be at the forefront of discussion. He said it was possible that from Marseilles he might travel to Mongolia.

Regarding his health, Pope Francis joked, “You know that the bad weed never dies.” His continuing issue with his knee “is annoying, but it goes on slowly, so let's see.”

Both Archbishop Welby and Rev. Dr. Greenshields signaled their willingness to join Pope Francis on other ecumenical pilgrimages in the future.

This report has been updated.

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