Pope Francis boards an American Airlines jetliner at Philadelphia International Airport on Sept. 27 for his return to Rome. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Pope Francis: Some Final Thoughts on the Flight Home

Aboard the flight from Philadelphia to Rome, Pope Francis gave another wide-ranging 50-minute press conference, responding to questions from 11 reporters from different language groups. He gave his first reactions on his visit to the United States and the great welcome he had received.

He denied that there’s such a thing as “a Catholic divorce” and affirmed that his recent reform of the annulment process excluded the administrative path to that. He also responded to a question on how he, as a pastor, would like to resolve the question of the divorced and remarried and access to communion.

He answered questions on conscientious objection, without going into any specific case, and spoke about child abuse, stating that some bishops are guilty of having covered up cases of abuse of minors by clergy. [Some suggest that it is the first time that a pope has said this, but that remains to be confirmed].

He again showered praise on the women religious of the United States. He ruled out the possibility of the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, but affirmed that the development of a theology of women is long overdue in the Catholic Church and said, “We have to move ahead with this.”

He expressed joy at the accord for peace reached between the Colombian Government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia [FARC]

He spoke about his denunciation of the persecution of Christians at the United Nations and responded to a question about his “rock star” status during his visit to the United States.

Yet again, he affirmed his desire to visit China. “I love the Chinese people,” the pope said. He would consider it “a joy” if he could have “a great country like China as a friend.”

The following is an unofficial transcript of the press conference, made by a number of English speaking journalists on the papal flight, including America’s correspondent:

What surprised you about the United States? What was different from what you had expected?
It was the first visit. I’d never been here before. I was surprised by the warmth of the people, so friendly. It was beautiful. There were also differences; three different kinds of welcome: In Washington the welcome was warm but rather more formal; New York was a bit exuberant; Philadelphia was very expressive. I was struck by the goodness and welcome at the three religious ceremonies, and by the piety of the people. You could see the people praying. This struck me a lot.

Was there some sort of challenge that you didn’t expect? [The translator added “some provocation?”]
No, thank God, everything went well. [There was] no challenge, no provocation. All was polite. No insults and nothing unpleasant or bad. We must continue to work with these faithful people like we have always done until now. Accompanying this people in their growth through good times and also through their difficulties, accompanying them in their joys and also in their difficulties when there is no work, or [when there is] sickness. The challenge of the church is to stay close to the people of the United States, not being a detached church from the people but close to them, close, close and this is something that the church in America has understood well.

Holy Father, Philadelphia as you know has had a very difficult time with sex abuse. It’s still an open wound in Philadelphia. I know that many people in Philadelphia were surprised that you offered the bishops in Washington comfort and consolation, and I think many in Philadelphia would ask you why did you feel the need to offer compassion to the bishops?
In Washington I addressed all the bishops of the United States. They were all there, no? I felt the need to express compassion because something really terrible happened, and many of them suffered because they did not know, and when it came out they suffered a lot because they are men of the church, men of prayer, pastors. I used a word from the bible, from the [book of the] apocalypse. You are coming from a great tribulation. What happened was a great tribulation, and not just suffering.

As I said today to the group [the survivors and those who accompanied them], it was almost a sacrilege. We know there is abuse everywhere in families, in the neighborhoods, in the schools, in the gyms. But when a priest abuses it is very bad because the vocation of the priest is to help that boy, that girl to grow towards the love of God, toward maturity and towards good, but instead of that he crushed them with evil, and this is nearly a sacrilege. He betrayed his vocation, the calling of the Lord. For this reason the Church is strong on this and one must not cover these things up. Those who covered this up are guilty. In the Church even some bishops covered this up.

It is a terrible thing, and the words of comfort were not [meant] to say, ”Don’t worry that was nothing”….No, no, no even some bishops covered this up, It’s a terrible thing and the words of comfort were not to say “don’t worry that was nothing…no, no , no but it was so bad that I imagine that you cried hard”…that was the sense of what I meant and today I spoke strongly.

You have spoken a lot about forgiveness, that God forgives us and that we often ask for forgiveness. I would like to ask you, after you were at the seminary today, many priests have sexually abused minors and have not asked for forgiveness of their victims. Do you forgive them? And on the other hand, do you understand the victims or their relatives who can’t or don’t want to forgive?
If a person has done wrong, he is conscious of what he has done and does not say sorry, I believe God will take that into account. I forgive him, but he does not receive that pardon because he is closed to forgiveness. We must all forgive because we were all forgiven. It is another thing to receive that forgiveness. If that priest is closed to forgiveness, he won’t receive it because he has locked the door from the inside. And that remains for us to do is to pray for the Lord to open that door. To forgive you must be willing. But not everyone can receive or knows how to receive it, or is just not willing to receive it. What I’m saying is hard. And that is how you explain how there are people who finish their lives very hard, badly, without receiving the tenderness of God.

Do you understand the survivors or their relatives who do not forgive?
I do. And I pray for them. I don’t judge them. Once, in one of these meetings [with survivors], I met several people and [among them] I met a woman who told me, “When my mother found out that I had been abused she blasphemed against God, she lost her faith and she died an atheist. I understand that woman, and God who is much better than me understands her. And I’m sure that God embraced her, because it was her own flesh that suffered assault, the flesh of her daughter. I don’t judge someone who is not able to forgive. I pray and I ask God [for her]. And God is a champion in finding ways to forgive.

We have heard a lot of talk about the peace process in Colombia. Now we have an accord [between the Colombian Government and the FARC]. Do you feel part of this accord to some extent? You said you wanted to go to Colombia….
When I got the news that in March the accord will be signed, I asked the Lord that they would reach an agreement. There is the [political] will on both sides, and even in the small groups. But we have to reach March for the final accord, which is the point of international justice. I was very happy with the [news] of the accord and I felt part of it because I have always wanted this. I have spoken twice to [Colombia’s] President Santos about this. And not only me, but also the Holy See wanted this [accord] and is always willing to help and do what it can.

Pope Francis looks out at the Statue of Liberty while flying over New York Harbor on his way from New York to Philadelphia Sept. 26. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis looks out at the Statue of Liberty while flying over New York Harbor on his way from New York to Philadelphia Sept. 26. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

What do you feel when the plane takes off from a country that you have just visited?
This is a bit personal, but I have to be sincere. When the plane takes off after a visit, I remember the faces of so many of the people that I saw and I feel the urge to pray for them. I say to the Lord, I came to do good but maybe I did wrong. Forgive me and protect all those people who saw me, who heard me, and thought about what I said, and even those that criticized me. Sorry but this is a bit personal…

Holy Father, I want to ask you something about the migrant crisis in Europe. Many countries are building new barriers made of barbed wire. What do you think about this development?
You used the word “crisis.” We arrive at a state of crisis after a long process. This crisis developed after a process that unfolded over many years, because the wars from which those people are fleeing are wars which have lasted years. And [they are fleeing] from Hunger too, and this has existed for years. When I think of Africa—this is a bit simplistic but I’m giving it as an example—I think of Africa as the exploited continent. It is from there that they took the slaves, and then they went to get the great resources -the exploited continent. And now there are wars—tribal and otherwise – and they have economic interests behind them. I think that instead of exploiting a continent, a country or a land, they should make investments so that that those people may have work.

This crisis could be avoided. It is true, as I said in Congress, this is the greatest refugee crisis since the last World War. It is the largest. You asked me about barriers. You know what happens to walls?. All walls crumble; all walls! Today, tomorrow or in a hundred years—they will crumble. They are not a solution, walls are not a solution. It is true that Europe is going through a difficult time right now. We have to be intelligent, because that wave of migrants is coming and it is not easy to find a solution. But one must be found, through dialogue between countries. Walls are never the solution, bridges are. Always! I think that walls, barriers—whether they last a short time or a long time, are not a solution. The problem remains, and it remains with increased hatred. That is what I think.

You obviously cannot anticipate the debate of the synod fathers, but we would like to know if in your heart as a pastor, you really want a solution for the divorced and remarried. We’d like also to know if the Motu Proprio on facilitating the declaration of nullity, has closed this debate. Lastly, how do you respond to those who fear that with this reform [of the process for annulment] there is the de-facto creation of a so-called Catholic divorce?
I will start with the last one: the reform of the marriage annulment procedure. I closed the door to the administrative path, which was the path through which divorce could have entered. You could say that those who think it’s a “Catholic divorce” are wrong because this last document has closed the door to divorce that would have been easier with the administrative path. There will always be the judicial path.

A majority of the synod fathers at the last synod [2014] requested that the process [for annulment] be streamlined because there are cases that last 10 to 15 years. There’s a sentence, then a second sentence, and after there’s an appeal, and then another appeal. It never ends. When the double sentence was valid that there was an appeal, it was introduced by Pope Lambertini, Benedict XIV, because at that time in Central Europe—I won’t say which country—there were some abuses, and to stop it he introduced this [double sentence]. But it’s not something essential to the process.

Processes change, jurisprudence changes, it gets better. In that moment it was urgent to do this. Then Pius x, wanted to streamline [the process] and did some things, but he didn’t have the time or the possibility to do it. [In 2014] the synod fathers asked for a streamlining of processes for the nullity of marriage and this Motu Proprio facilitates the process and the time it takes, but it’s not a divorce because marriage is indissoluble when it is a sacrament, and this the church cannot change. It’s doctrine, it’s an indissoluble sacrament. The legal process is to prove that what seemed to be a sacrament was not [in fact] a sacrament, for example, for lack of freedom, or lack of maturity or for mental illness.

There are so many reasons that bring about this [an annulment] after a study, an investigation [concludes] that there was no sacrament. Because, for example, the person wasn’t free. An example [of this] though now it’s not so common but in Buenos Aires, in some sectors of common society, there were weddings when the woman got pregnant: “You have to get married.” In Buenos Aires, I counselled my priests, strongly; I almost prohibited weddings in these conditions. We called them ‘hurried weddings,’ to cover up appearances. And then babies are born, and some work out but there’s no freedom. And when things go wrong, they separate [and say], ‘I was forced to get married because we had to cover up this situation. This is a reason for nullity.

You can find them [the reasons for annulment] in the Internet; they are all there.

As far as the question of second marriages is concerned—that is the divorcees who enter a new union, read what is in the Working Document [Instrumentum Laboris]. It seems a bit simplistic to me to me to say that in the synod the solution for these people is that they be able to go to communion. But that’s not the only solution. The Working Document proposes a lot more. The problem of the new unions of divorcees isn’t the only problem. In the Working Document there are many [issues], for example: young people don’t get married, they don’t want to get married. This is a pastoral problem for the Church.

Another issue is the affective maturity [of a couple] for marriage. Then yet another problem is faith [of the person who wants to get married]: “I believe that this is for ever. Yes, yes. Yes, I believe.”

“But do you [really] believe it?”

Then there’s the preparation for marriage: I so often think that to become a priest there’s a preparation of 8 years, and even then it’s not definite, the church can take the clerical state away from you. But for something [involving a commitment that is] lifelong, they do four courses. There’s something that isn’t right here. It’s something the synod has to deal with: how to do prepare people for marriage. It’s one of the most difficult issues. There are many problems and they’re all listed in the [synod’s] Working Document.

But I like that you asked the question about “Catholic divorce.” This doesn’t exist. If it wasn’t a marriage, then nullity [is granted], but if it was then it’s indissoluble. This is clear.

We were told that you went to visit the Sisters of the Poor because you support their cause. Do you also support those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example when issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples? Do you support those kinds of claims of religious liberty?
I can’t have in mind all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection, but, yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right, a human right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.

Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.’ It [conscientious objection] is a human right.

I always felt moved as a boy when I read the Song of Roland in which there is a scene where the Crusaders forced Muslims to choose between being baptized or being killed by the sword. Conscientious objection was not permitted then. But it is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights.

Would that include government officials as well?
It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, s/he has that right. It is a human right.

Holiness, you used very strong words at the United Nations to denounce the world’s silence on the persecution of Christians, who are deprived of their homes, thrown out, deprived of their possessions, enslaved and brutally killed. Yesterday President Hollande announced the beginning of a bombing campaign by France on Isis bases in Syria. What do you think of this military action?
I heard the news the day before yesterday, but I haven’t read about it. I don’t know much about the situation. I heard that Russia took one position and it wasn’t clear yet about the US. I truly don’t know what to say because I haven’t fully understood the situation. But when I hear the word bombing, death, blood…I repeat what I said in Congress and at the UN, [we must work] to avoid these things. But I can’t judge the political situation because I don’t know enough about it.

The Mayor of Rome declared that he came to the World Meeting of Families because you invited him. Can you tell us how it went?
I will start with your second question. I did not invite Mayor Marino. Is that clear? I didn’t do it, and I asked the organizers and they didn’t invite him either. He came. He professes to be a Catholic and he came of his own accord.

I want to ask you about the relations between the Holy See and China, and the situation in this country which is quite difficult for Catholics. How do you read it?
China is a great nation that offers the world a great culture, so many good things. I said on the plane when we were flying over China, on the way back from Korea; that I would very much like to go to China. I love the Chinese people and I hope there is the possibility of having good relations, good relations. We have contacts. We talk. We are moving forward. But for me, to have as a friend a great country like China, would be a joy.


Pope Francis rides in the popemobile past Philadelphia monuments as he arrives to for the Festival of Families during the World Meeting of Families Sept. 26. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis rides in the popemobile past Philadelphia monuments as he arrives to for the Festival of Families during the World Meeting of Families Sept. 26. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

We heard you draw attention to the role of religious women, of the women in the church in the U.S. Will we one day see women priests in the Catholic Church as some groups in the U.S. ask, and some other Christian churches have?The sisters in the United States have done marvels in the field of education, in the field of health. The people of
the United States love the sisters. I don’t know how much they may love the priests [laughs], but they love the sisters, they love them so much. They are great, they are great, great, great women. Then one follows her congregation, its rules, there are differences. But are they great. And for that reason I felt the obligation to say thank you for what they have done. An important person of the government of the United States told me in the last few days: “The education I have, I owe above all to the sisters.” The sisters have schools in all neighborhoods, rich and poor. They work with the poor and in the hospitals.

Regarding the question of women priests, that is not possible. St. John Paul II said so clearly, after much study. Not because women do not have the ability. In the Church women are more important than men, because the Church is a women [in Italian] it is “La Chiesa,” not “Il Chiesa.” And the Madonna is more important than popes, bishops and priests. But I must admit we are somewhat late in an elaboration of the theology of women. We have to move ahead with that theology.

You have visited the United States for the first time; you had never been there before. You spoke to Congress, and you spoke to the United Nations. You drew large crowds. Do you feel more powerful?
I don’t know if I had success, no. But I am afraid of myself. Because I am afraid of myself; I feel always—I don’t know—weak in the sense of not having power and also power is a fleeting thing, here today, gone tomorrow. It’s important if you can do good with power. And Jesus defined power, the true power is to serve, to do service, to do the most humble services, and I must still make progress on this path of service because I feel that I don’t do everything I should do. That’s the sense I have of power.

Holy Father, in the United States you have become a star. Is it good for the Church that the Pope is a star?
Do you know what was the title they used for a pope, and ought to be used [still]: the servant of the servants of God. That’s rather different from a star. The stars are beautiful to look at. I like to look at them when the sky is clear, in summer. But the p must be, must be the servant of the servants of God. Yes, in the media they use this term, but it’s another truth. How many stars have we seen that then fade out and then fall. It’s something that’s fleeting. Instead, being the servant of the servants of God, this is beautiful and does not pass away. That’s what I think.