Pope Francis gave an half-hour press conference on the plane that brought him from Santiago de Cuba to Washington D.C., and answered a range of questions relating to his visit to Cuba, the church’s role in the release of prisoners, why he didn’t meet the dissidents in Cuba and the question of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
He also responded to questions about those who suggest that he is not Catholic, or maybe even is a communist, because of his trenchant criticism of the present economic system, capitalism and imperialism. Inevitably, he was asked about his meeting with Fidel Castro.
When asked by a reporter how he would respond to those who criticize him for his denunciations of the present economic system, the inequalities caused by that system, the destruction of the planet and the arms trade, and charge that the pope is not Catholic, or indeed a Communist., Francis answered with decisiveness and much humor.
“ I don’t remember that I have said anything different to what’s in the Social Doctrine of the Church” he stated. And as for not being a Catholic, he said with a smile, “I am ready to recite the creed!”
Continuing in this humorous note he recalled that a cardinal friend had told him that a lady had come to him, very worried. “She was very Catholic, a little rigid but a good, good, Catholic. She asked the cardinal if it was true that there was an antichrist and anti-pope, and she drew his attention to the fact that Bible talked about an anti-Christ, and even in the Apocalypse there is something like this.” When the cardinal asked her why she raised this question, she replied “Because I am sure that pope Francis is anti-pope, because he doesn’t wear red shoes as is traditional.”
Then returning to the heart of the question, he said, “I am certain that I didn’t say one thing more than wasn’t already in the doctrine of the church.” He recalled that in an earlier press conference another reporter observed that he had spoken strongly (about the economic system and other issues) to the Popular Movements (in Santa Cruz) and asked him, “but will the Church follow you?”
On the plane, Francis recalled that he had responded to that question in these words: “I am the one following the church. In this I think I am not mistaken. I think that I didn’t say anything which was not in the doctrine of the Church, in the social doctrine of the Church.” He said these issues can be explained, but he acknowledged that some explanation may have given the impression that he was “a little more left-leaning,” but that would be “a mistake of the explaining.”
Francis went on to state firmly that “my doctrine on all this, on the “Laudato Si’’’ (the encyclical on ‘the common home”), on the economic imperialism, and all that, is the Church’s social doctrine.”
Another reporter, framing the question in a slightly different way, noted that when he was in Latin America he had “strongly criticized the liberal capitalist system” but in Cuba his criticisms of the communist system “was not very severe, they were much softer” and asked, “Why this difference?”
Francis replied, “The speeches that I gave in Cuba always contained references to the social doctrine of the Church. I spoke clearly about those those things that need to be corrected. I didn’t soft-pedal.”
Then, addressing the first part of the question he said he had written, “strongly written,” in the encyclical and in ‘The Joy of the Gospel” about imperialism, savage liberal capitalism” but he added, “I don’t remember having said anything more than that. If you remember something please remind me. I said that which I wrote, which is enough, no? It’s enough. And then all this is in the doctrine.”
As for the part of the question relating to Cuba, the pope explained that “this has been a very pastoral trip with the Catholic community, with Christians, and also with people of good will. This is the reason that my speeches were homilies…Also with youth, they were believers and non-believers, and the believers were of various faiths, it was a speech of hope and encouragement, of dialogue between them. To walk together, to seek that which unites us and not (that which) separates us, to build bridges. This is pastoral language. But in the encyclical I had to deal with more technical things….”
Asked what role the church in Cuba played in the release of prisoners at the time of his visit, Francis said “The Church in Cuba made a list of (prisoners) for the indult (pardon); more than three thousand were given the indult, the President of the Bishops Conference told me… and other cases are being studied.” He explained that “the Church here in Cuba is committed to this work of (obtaining) the indults.” He revealed that someone had suggested to him that “it would be really good if there could be an end to life imprisonment.” Francis is in agreement with this proposal, he said so in the past, and on the plane today he spoke frankly too and declared “life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty; it is like being there dying every day, without the hope of liberation.”
That is just one hypothesis, the pope said, “another hypothesis is that they (the Government) grant a general indult of one or two years, but the Church is working (on this whole matter) and has worked on it.” He clarified that he was not saying that all the 3000+ prisoners that were released “were taken from the lists of the Church. No. The Church made lists, I don’t know how many, and it continues to do so.”
A Cuban journalist—the only one on the papal flight—asked for his thoughts on the U.S. embargo on her country, and whether he intended to speak about it to the U.S. Congress?
Francis said “the issue of the embargo is part of the negotiations (between Cuba and the United States). That is public (knowledge). Both presidents have referred to that. So it’s a public thing that is under way, on the path of good relations they are searching for (a solution) …” He said he wishes that “ a good conclusion” is reached on this, and that “there might be an agreement that satisfies both sides.”
As for the position of the Holy See regarding embargoes, Francis said “previous popes have spoken about this. Not just this one. There are other cases of embargoes too. And there’s the Social Teaching of the Church on this subject. I’m speaking about that. It’s very precise, very just.”
As for raising the embargo issue in his speech to the U.S. Congress on Sept. 24, Francis said “the speech is finished so I can’t say.” Then, he added, that this theme “isn’t mentioned.”
On the other hand, he said he’s thinking about what be might said on “the theme of bi-nation or multi-national agreements as signs of progress in (human) coexistence,” or ”better put I’m thinking well about what I might say about it. Specifically on that theme, the theme of bi-national or multi-national agreements as signs of progress in co-existence.” But he didn’t indicate in what forum he might address that subject.
An American journalist reported that more than 50 dissidents had been arrested outside the nunciature as they were trying to get a meeting with the pope. She asked if he would like to have a meeting with the (Cuban) dissidents, and if he had such a meeting what would he say?
Francis said “I don’t have any news that that has happened. I don’t have any news…. I don’t know, directly.” As for the question whether he would like such a meeting, he said “I like to meet with all people. I consider that all people are children of God and … a relationship with another person always enriches. I would like to meet with everyone.”
He said it was “very clear” from the beginning “that I was not going to give audiences (at the nunciature during the visit to Cuba).” He revealed that “other sectors, including a Head of State had requested audience,” but he had said “No, because I am on a visit to a nation and just that…I know that I hadn’t planned any audience with the dissidents or the others.”
He revealed that “from the nunciature” there had been “some calls to some people who are in the group of dissidents.” The nuncio was told that Francis would greet them with pleasure outside the cathedral after the meeting with consecrated persons. That possibility existed, he added, and recalled that he had greeted sick people who were in wheelchairs, “but no one identified him/herself as a dissident.”
A second American journalist recalled that when Fidel Castro was in power, the church “had suffered a bit in Cuba.” She asked Francis whether in his meeting with Fidel last Sunday he had got the impression that “he (Fidel) may be a bit regretful now.”
Francis responded this way: “Repentance (‘pentimento’) is a very intimate thing, and it’s a thing of conscience. In the meeting with Fidel, I spoke about the stories of Jesuits he knew, because I brought him a gift of a book of Fr. Llorente, also a good friend of his, who is a Jesuit. And also a CD with the conferences of Fr. Llorente. And I gave him two other books from Fr. Pronzato(?), which I’m sure he’ll also appreciate. So we talked about these things.”
The pope revealed that in his private encounter with Fidel. “We spoke a lot about the encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’”. He’s very interested in the issue of ecology. It was a spontaneous meeting, not so formal. The family (of Fidel) was present too, as were those who accompanied me, (including) my driver.” He explained that Fidel and he “were a bit separated from his wife. They couldn’t hear (what we were saying) but they were in the same place. We spoke a lot on the encyclical because he is very concerned about this. As for the past, we didn’t speak (about that), but we spoke about the Jesuit college (that Fidel attended) and how the Jesuits were and how they made him work. All of that, yes!”