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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 04, 2023
Pope Francis thanks journalists at the end of his inflight press conference on the way back to Rome from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Sept. 4, 2023, after a four-day visit to the Asian country. To the left is Father George Koovakad, the organizer of papal trips. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)Pope Francis thanks journalists at the end of his inflight press conference on the way back to Rome from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Sept. 4, 2023, after a four-day visit to the Asian country. To the left is Father George Koovakad, the organizer of papal trips. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis held an hour-long press conference on the flight from Mongolia to Rome on Sept. 4, answering questions related to his visit in Mongolia, China-Vatican relations and the yet unfulfilled mission of Cardinal Matteo Zuppi to Beijing.

He clarified recent comments to young Russian Catholics in St. Petersburg that so upset Ukrainians, spoke about the updated encyclical “Laudato Si’” that will be released on Oct. 4, and when asked about the possibility of a visit to Vietnam, he revealed that traveling to foreign countries has become more difficult for him.

He answered several questions about next October’s synod of bishops and insisted on the need to ensure the privacy of the proceedings to allow participants to speak freely. He announced that a commission of the synod will provide the media with information each day but not with gossip of what clashes took place in the meetings.

On China and Vatican relations

Given that China has impacted in a highly significant and negative way on Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia, he was asked about the current state of Sino-Vatican relations in the light of Beijing’s prohibiting all Chinese bishops, as well as the faithful, from going to Mongolia for the pope’s visit.

Pope Francis answered several questions about next October’s synod of bishops and insisted on the need to ensure the privacy of the proceedings to allow participants to speak freely.

Francis, in his reply, avoided any mention of Beijing’s prohibition of travel among the Chinese faithful to Mongolia. Instead he asserted that the China-Vatican relations are “respectful,” even if that is not the word that most observers and many church people would have chosen.

He spoke about the ongoing dialogue between the two sides in reference to the nomination of bishops in accordance with the provisional agreement signed in Beijing in September 2018, even though Beijing has twice breached that agreement. He highlighted the fact that Catholic intellectuals have been invited to universities in mainland China to teach there.

He emphasized the need “to go forward much more in the religious aspect so as to understand each other better,” so that Chinese citizens may no longer think that Chinese Catholics are subject to foreign powers.

His answer to the question revealed that he wished to calm the waters and move forward in the hope of a more constructive dialog with Beijing.

Pope Francis has been exploring ways to create a climate, through concrete humanitarian actions, to bring an end to the war in Ukraine. He appointed the Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi as his peace envoy and sent him to Kyiv, Moscow and Washington. The cardinal has been waiting for Beijing to open the doors to him. Asked when the cardinal might meet with authorities in China, Francis gave no indication as to when Cardinal Zuppi might get the green light.

Clarifying his comments to young Russian Catholics

Francis had greatly angered Ukrainians when he concluded a video-conference with young Russian Catholics in St. Petersburg by encouraging them to treasure and protect their inheritance from “mother Russia” and from the times of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. He was accused of endorsing Russian imperialism.

Pope Francis was asked about the current state of Sino-Vatican relations in the light of Beijing’s prohibiting all Chinese bishops and the faithful from going to Mongolia for the pope’s visit.

Asked today why he had chosen to say those things, Pope Francis gave a long answer in which he stated clearly that he had been thinking of the cultural and humanistic dimension of that historical period, not of the political or imperialistic dimensions. He said when he spoke those words he was thinking of the great Russian literature, arts and music. He recognized that it was a mistake to refer to "great Russia" at this time, meaning while the war was being waged in that very name.

Responding to a journalist’s question, he said, “You mentioned imperialism, but I was not thinking about imperialism but about culture and the transmission of culture, which is never imperial…but always dialogical. It is true that there are imperialists who wish to impose their ideology, but when a culture is transformed into an ideology, this is imperialism; it is a culture distilled into an ideology.”

He said, “Here one must distinguish between the culture of a people and when it becomes an ideology. I say this for all, and for the church, because this happens in the church too. And it happens with imperialism that consolidates the culture and transforms it into an ideology.”

Also in the church, he said, “we have to distinguish between doctrine and ideology. Doctrine is never ideological, but it becomes ideology when doctrine is detached from reality and detached from the people.”

A visit to Vietnam?

He was asked if he would visit Vietnam given the fact the Holy See’s relation with Vietnam has developed in a very positive way over the years and took a significant step forward in recent times. Vietnamese Catholics have long wanted the pope to visit them and their homeland.

Pope Francis: “We have to distinguish between doctrine and ideology. Doctrine is never ideological, but it becomes ideology when doctrine is detached from reality and detached from the people.”

Pope Francis confirmed that “the dialogue between the Holy See and Vietnam is one of the very valid ones that the church has done in recent times.” Both sides “had the good will to understand each other and to find the paths forward. There were problems, but in Vietnam I see that sooner or later they are overcome.”

He recalled that the president of Vietnam had visited him in the Vatican, and “we spoke openly.” He recalled too that some years ago a group of parliamentarians came from Vietnam and were “very respectful because that’s their way of doing things.”

He said, “Theirs is an open culture, and with Vietnam I would say there is a dialogue that is open.”

As for a papal visit to Vietnam, Francis responded, with a smile, “If I don't go, John XXIV certainly will. There will certainly be [a trip] because it is a land that deserves to progress and that has my sympathy.”

He confirmed that he would go to Marseilles [on Sept. 23] and “perhaps another one in Europe.” In the past he had mentioned Kosovo as a possibility, but not today.

Francis, who will be 87 on Dec. 17, said, “It is not as easy for me to do trips nowadays as it was in the beginning; there are limitations, including walking.”

The synod and ideological polarization

Asked how ideological polarization may be dealt with at the synod, given that its proceedings will be secret, Pope Francis replied: “There is no place in the synod for ideologies. It is another dynamic; the synod is dialogue by the baptized, by the members of the church in the dialogue with the world and the problems that humanity faces today.

Pope Francis: "True Catholic doctrine scandalizes, just as the idea that God became man scandalizes, that the Madonna preserved her virginity [scandalizes]. The true Catholic doctrine scandalizes, but the distilled ideology does not scandalize.”

“But when one thinks in an ideological framework the synod ends. There is no place in the synod for ideology,” he said. “There is a place for dialogue and for confrontation between sisters and brothers, and confrontation with each other on priorities.”

He emphasized that “synodality is not something [introduced] by me, it came from Paul VI. When the Second Vatican Council ended, he noted that the church in the West had lost the synodal dimension. The Eastern churches have it.”

For this reason, he said, “Paul VI created the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops that over the past 60 years has carried forward reflection in the church [on various issues] in a synodal way.”

Francis recalled that on the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s decision, “I published a document and I concluded that it was very appropriate to hold a synod on synodality. It is not a fashion, rather it is something ancient because the {Eastern church has] preserved it.”

Pope Francis confirmed that the synod’s proceedings will not be public. “We must protect the privacy,” he said. “This is not a television program where we speak of everything; it is a religious moment. it is a moment for religious exchange.”

He said the synod members will each speak for three or four minutes and then there will be a period of silence with prayer, a moment of prayer. “Without this sense of prayer there is no synodality,” he said, “It is political, it is parliamentarianism, but the synod is not a parliament.”

Francis said, “There will be a commission, presided over by [Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication] that will issue press releases on how the synod is going, [but in] the synod, we must protect the religiosity and the identity of the person who speaks.”

On opposition to the synod

A journalist told Francis, “This synod is not only arousing much curiosity and much interest, it is also arousing much opposition and criticism.” He mentioned a book that is being circulated in Catholic circles to which U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke wrote in the introduction that the synod will be “a Pandora’s box” that will bring calamity to the church.

The journalist asked if the pope believed this evident polarization threatened the work of the synod. Pope Francis responded by recalling that some months ago he called a Carmelite prioress who told him: “Holiness, we are afraid of the synod that it will change doctrine.”

The pope told her, “If you continue with these ideas, you will find ideology. Always, when in the church one detaches from the journey of communion then ideology emerges…. But it’s not the true Catholic doctrine, which is in the Creed. The true Catholic doctrine scandalizes, just as the idea that God became man scandalizes, that the Madonna preserved her virginity [scandalizes]. The true Catholic doctrine scandalizes, but the distilled ideology does not scandalize.”

Another journalist asked the pope, “How can we journalists explain the synod to people without having access at least to the plenary sessions to be sure that the information given to us is true. Is there not some possibility of being more open?”

Pope Francis insisted that the synod will be “most open,” adding that Mr. Ruffini’s commission will provide updates each day of the proceedings. “This commission will be very respectful of the interventions of each [participant],” Pope Francis said, “but it will seek to not give room for gossip when it gives information on the proceedings of the synod, which is constitutive for the church. If one wants to get the news that this one clashed with that one, that is gossip.”

He acknowledged that the commission will not have an easy task, “but it will tell that the synod went this way today, it will provide a synodal dimension, not a political one.”

“Remember the protagonist of the synod is the Holy Spirit,” Pope Francis said, “and how does one explain this [except] by transmitting the ecclesial happenings.”

Update of “Laudato Si’”

Pope Francis said his “update” of “Laudato Si’” will be published on Oct. 4, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. He called it a review of what has happened since the U.N. meeting on climate change in Paris in 2015. The revision will consider “some of the things that have not yet been listened to” that have emerged from various U.N. meetings on climate change.

He said, “It is not as large as ‘Laudato Si,’ but it carries forward ‘Laudato Si’...and it offers an analysis of the present situation.”

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