Father Joseph Fessio on Pope Francis
HH: Joined now by Father Joseph Fessio. Father Fessio is the founder and the president of Ignatius Press. He’s a member of the Society of Jesus, and I can’t really wait to hear what your thoughts are about Pope Francis, Father Fessio.
JF: Hugh, I am ecstatic not because he’s a Jesuit, but because he’s going to be a great Pope, and he happens to be a wonderful Jesuit, too.
HH: Would you tell me and the audience how surprised you were when he was announced yesterday?
JF: Well, I was surprised, as was pretty much everyone else. Certainly, the Irish bookies got this one wrong, and the media got it wrong.
JF: But you know, Pope Benedict, before he finally retired, talked about the Vatican Council and there being two interpretations of it, one by the media, and one by the council fathers. And he says the media was a political interpretation. The council fathers was an interpretation in faith. And likewise, all this run up to the election, it’s like the Super Bowl. You’ve got two empty weeks, and you talk about the cousin of the third-string nose guard and what his brother did, because you run out of stuff to say. And it’s all speculation. But these cardinals wanted a pope that would follow along in the lines of Benedict and John Paul II, at the same time be able to be a good pastor, and a good leader. And they got one.
HH: Now Father Fessio, it’s very hard to follow a man who’s likely to become known as a doctor of the Church, and before him, John Paul II, or John Paul the Great. Did they look for someone who would complement or who would extend…how do you read this in light of the two great popes that he is following?
JF: Hugh, I’ll go back one step further. In the middle of the 20th Century, there were several truly great theologians in the Catholic Church and in the world – de Lubac, Ratzinger himself, Balthasar, Rahner, Bouyer, Congar, and God brought them to the Church at a time of need. And the theologians now are living off of that great heritage. They’re good, but they’re not giants. We’ve had two popes who were truly giants – John Paul II, Benedict XVI, no question about it. We do not need another pope of that stature. There wasn’t going to be someone like that. But this Pope is intelligent. He’s got a doctorate in Germany. He’s the long Jesuit studies. He’s also very pastoral. He’s with the people. And this is a tremendous step that the Church is taking to show her unity with the new world, with the Southern Hemisphere. And you know, Hugh, you’re letting me talk on along here, but you can interrupt anytime you want. It’s your show.
HH: No, please. Please keep talking.
JF: You know, one of the titles of the Pope is Pontifex Maximus. We say pontiff, or supreme pontiff. Pontifex in Latin means a bridge builder. Pons is a bridge, okay?
JF: Bridge builder. And Maximus means the biggest. So he’s the biggest bridge builder. What’s the bridges he’s building? He’s building a bridge between the old world, where his parents were born, where my grandparents were born, too, up in Piemonte, and the new world – Argentina, South America, growing area for the Church. He is the bridge between doctrinal orthodoxy and zeal for the poor. He loves the poor. He lives a simple life. And I think they chose him because he had shown his ability as an administrator and as a leader. When he was made archbishop of Buenos Aires, the first thing he did was he appointed six auxiliary bishops that were friends, reliable he could have trust in, to help him with his task. And I think that’s the best thing an administrator does, is to make good hires.
HH: Do you expect him to move quickly to make new appointments in the Roman Curia?
JF: Hugh, I’m going to break some news for you on the air, okay?
JF: I am going to talk about two things. I had a conversation this morning with a good friend of mine, a classmate of mine under Ratzinger, who happens to be a cardinal that was in the conclave. He told me two things. He said first of all, as soon as he was elected, Francis, Bergoglio, when all the cardinals came to congratulate him and offer their obedience, he went around to the back of the room, because there was a cardinal there in a wheelchair, and he wanted to greet him first. Just a little touch, but a sign of his human side.
JF: But secondly, my friend told me the cardinals wanted someone who would reform the Curia, and they said Bergoglio will do it within a year.
HH: And by reforming the Curia, explain to an audience that does not follow the Vatican, what does that mean?
JF: Ah, excellent question, Hugh. Now there’s been a lot of talk in the media before the election, the Roman Curia is dysfunctional. Curia means court, you know, in Latin, but basically it’s all the different offices around the Holy Father, for doctrine, for worship, for bishops, for priests, those sorts of things, and the secretary of state, which handles all kinds of materials, especially relations with other governments, and the Vatican bank. Now I make a distinction. I think there are many fine people that work in those Curial offices, and there are several of those what they call dicasteries, or departments, so to speak, which are doing wonderful work. For example, the Congregation for Bishops, which here in California, we have seen in the last two or three years, has appointed extraordinary bishops.
JF: But there’s been some dysfunction, it seems to me, in parts of the Curia where the Pope isn’t running the show. It’s sort of all these subordinates who are doing their own thing, and kind of going around the Pope. So one of the theories about Benedict retiring was not just that he was weak, because he was, he was frail. But he saw that under John Paul II, when John Paul II was not as strong as he had been in his younger years, that these bureaucratic subordinates were taking the reins into their own hands. And Benedict did not want that to happen. So basically, I think we’re going to have a better functioning set of supporting administrators with the Holy Father.
HH: And with less than a minute left here, Father Fessio…
HH: Yeah, I’ve got one question for you. He’s very adamant about how wealth ought to be used. But does he know how wealth is created? I’m always worried about whether or not priests understand economics. What do you think?
JF: I think he’s tops on that, because when he was provincial in Argentina, liberation theology was just getting its momentum, and they wanted to help the poor by Marxist violence and overturning society. He put his foot down on that and he said no. He says we must help the poor. We have to change hearts. We have to work in parishes, work in the system we have. And he was, he criticized liberal capitalism and bankers who had no heart, but I believe he is quite strong on the free market and the creation of wealth by initiative and creativity and entrepreneurship.
HH: Oh, that’s reassuring.
JF: At the same time, he wants to live a simple life, which is good.
HH: And he’s encouraged people who have wealth to use it responsibly, very important distinction. Father Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press, thank you, my friend.
End of interview.