Pope Francis spoke this Thursday in an exclusive interview with Telemundo News at the Vatican about his legacy, after more than a decade at the head of the Catholic Church. He spoke about his health, which at 86 sometimes brings about some “painful days”, and about controversial issues such as abortion. He offered his perspective on the war in the Ukraine, where he has offered to help with a peace mission; about migration, and his own personal experience as an immigrant.
[Lea esta historia en español]
Francis, who was elected pope in 2013 back when he was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in his hometown of Buenos Aires, acknowledged that for him, too, to migrate is "to die a little," as Mexican film director Alejandro González Iñárritu has said.
Francis sent a message to those facing the challenge of leaving behind their countries: “[It always feels like dying a little], because they leave their beloved homeland. I am the son of migrants and I experienced that myself at home.”
Below is the full interview with Julio Vaqueiro, conducted just minutes before the beginning of a unique gathering with young people from the Scholas Occurrentes foundation, which Pope Francis created in his native Argentina 30 years ago and that, since he became pope, has spread to the rest of the world.
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The Pope's health: "Some days are more painful"
Julio Vaqueiro: His holiness, thank you very much for your time, for joining us. How do you feel? How is your health?
Pope Francis: Much better. I can walk now. I was getting my knee fixed and I couldn’t walk before. Now I'm walking again. Some days are more painful, like today. Some days are not, but that's part of the process.
JV: You had us worried with your bronchitis.
PF: Yes, it really was an unexpected thing. It was acute pulmonitis.[...] But we caught it in time, they told me, and if we had waited a few more hours, it would have been more serious. But I got out in four days, I got out.
JV: You look very good.
PF: I’m already at that age where people say to you, ‘You're looking good’. That's the compliment old people get (laughs).
JV: You always say to people, 'Pray for me.' Do you feel that force, of all the people who pray for you?
PF: It’s clear, it’s evident. There are some things that I don't understand, but it is the people who are interceding for the pastor. Sometimes people don’t realize the power they have by praying for their pastors. And the prayer of the faithful works miracles, seriously, it works miracles. It can take care of their shepherd. A pastor, any pastor, whether he is a parish priest, bishop or any pastor: it's as if he's being protected, armored, with a breastplate, made with the prayers of the faithful.
[Bergoglio’s health deteriorated in 2022, particularly with knee problems, to the point that he sometimes had to be moved in a wheelchair. At the end of March, he spent several days in a hospital to treat a lung infection. When he was released, he joked to reporters: “I’m still alive.”]
Pope Francis in an exclusive interview with Telemundo News.Noticias Telemundo
His legacy: what he has accomplished and what is still pending
JV: In these 10 years, Your Holiness, of all the things that you have wanted to change in the Church, what perhaps is the one that has weighed you down the most, not having been able to change so far?
PF: I myself, dear, find it hard to change [...] But, of what I wanted to change, nothing was just mine. What I put into practice was what the cardinals in the pre-conclave meetings had said had to be done. And when I was elected I said, well, we’re going to put those things into practice, right? The economic system, the new laws of the Vatican State, the pastoral care of the Vatican Service, which is very important. Of course, part of that pastorality included women who changed a lot within. They are very, very executive, very practical: the lieutenant governor is a woman. And many things have been changed, but all of this was requested by the cardinals who meet in key meetings that they call.
JV: And what do you feel you still have to do?
PF: Everything. It’s funny, the more you do, the more you realize that you’re still have so much left to do. It’s like insatiable, this thing. For example, this morning I met with the Italian synodal group and, well, there's an increase of the laity in the positions that are taken, a declericalization. Some countries are too clericalized and where clericalism is a perversion: either you are a pastor or you might as well not even enter [the service]. But if you are clerical, you are not a pastor. What I always say to the bishops, the priests and myself: be pastors, be shepherds.
[In 2013, Pope Francis reached the top of a Church that had been hit by the Vatileaks scandal —the theft and leaking of previous pope Joseph Ratzinger’s private documents—. Among his first steps, Francis initiated investigations into possible cases of internal corruption and later led a discussion of reform to include more modern families, although without major doctrinal breaks. In 2022, he promulgated a new apostolic constitution focused on evangelization and established a new ecclesiastical structure. Among other reforms, he also promoted the inclusion of women in the church, establishing that they could head Vatican departments.]
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Migration: a serious problem
JV: I want to show you some photographs of what we saw at the US-Mexico border just a few days ago. This is a baby, wrapped in a blanket inside a suitcase, crossing the river. Her parents are carrying her in that suitcase. What is your message for a father or mother like this baby’s? What is your message for migrants?
PF: It is a serious problem [...] the problem of migrants is serious there, it is serious here, on the coast of Libya. There is actually a book in Spanish about a boy who comes from Guinea. It takes him three years to get to Spain. They take him prisoner, they make him a slave, they torture him, and he recounts the story of his life. I recommend this book, it's a quick read, it's short. It's Little Brother (Hermanito). Read it, you'll see the drama, the drama of a migrant on the Libyan coast. But this is not very different (from what happens to other migrants). Now, why do people migrate? Out of necessity.
There was a woman, a great stateswoman, who said that the problem of African migration must be solved in Africa, by helping Africa. But unfortunately Africa is the slave of a collective unconscious, of the idea that Africa is there to be exploited. And people are always thinking about how to exploit Africa. Rather, we should be helping to raise it up and aid it in making it truly independent, so that it does not depend so much [...] I was in the Sudan, a wonderful region that is recently rebuilding itself. And yet, foreign powers are quickly setting up their industries there, not to grow the country but to take from it. I’m not saying all of them, I don’t want to name countries, but the problem with Africa is that this dishonest political unconscious still believes that Africa is to be exploited and that hasn’t changed. And hence all the migrations.
[Francis arrived in the Vatican with a vow of humility as a career Jesuit priest and a speech of solidarity and support for the poor, marginalized and oppressed, sending messages to migrants on multiple occasions. “We cannot close our eyes to it, it's a scandal”, he said of the migrant crisis in the world. And after the deadly fire in a migrant center in Ciudad Juárez, he dedicated a few minutes of his general audience in the Plaza de San Pedro to talk about the tragedy that mourns 38 families and he prayed that they find comfort.]
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His own story of migration: leaving his homeland behind
JV: A few months ago we interviewed the Mexican film director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and he said that “to emigrate is to die a little”, do you agree with this?
PF: Always, because you leave your homeland behind. I am the son of migrants and I have experienced that at home.
JV: You yourself are a migrant, but you are also a pope.
PF: I was born in Baires [Buenos Aires] but my father was a migrant, my father was already an accountant at the Bank of Italy when he moved there.
JV: And you, living in Rome, end up being a migrant back here as well. Do you feel you died a bit also, as a migrant pope?
PF: You always leave something, you leave something behind. The mate [the traditional Argentinian tea-like drink] that you make with a thermos is not the same [he gestures with his hands] than the mate that your mother, or your aunt or your grandmother gives you, warm and made fresh. It's not the same. You miss the air itself that you grew up with.
There is a very beautiful poem by Nino Costa, in Piedmontese, which tells the story of migrants. It's called Rassa nostrana, Our race. And it tells the fate of a migrant who goes and comes back full of money, he makes it in America. And then he dies in some unknown place, and his life ends in a cemetery. A migrant can either become rich and everything is great, or he'll end up suffering immensely if he is not well received. Argentina in that sense (and everything I'm saying I say out of love for my country, out of love for the truth), is a land of migrants. And we, I think, if I’m not mistaken, of our 46 million inhabitants, only 600,000 are aborigines, the rest are migrants from the War: Spanish, Italian, Lebanese, and Polish migrants, all like that, French, German. It's a country of immigrants. It's a cocktail.
[Jorge Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on December 17th, 1936, the son of Italian parents: Mario, an accountant and railway employee, and Regina, a housewife who raised five children. He began his service in the Catholic Church at the age of 21 after graduating as a chemical technician. He was ordained as a priest in 1969 as a member of the Society of Jesus. He was then made provincial superior of the Jesuits. In the 1990s he was consecrated bishop and then archbishop of Buenos Aires.]
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On the Ukraine war: achieving peace
JV: I want to ask you about the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he doesn’t need intermediaries; but in actuality, he asked you to join his formula for peace, which includes that Russia return territories it has taken. Do you think Russia should do that to achieve peace?
PF: Well, that wasn't the tone of the conversation. What I said, right? ... He asked me a very big favor, to try to take care of the [Ukrainian] children who had been taken to Russia. 'Look, I ask you that'. They don’t dream so much about peace negotiations, because the Ukrainian bloc is really very strong: all of Europe, the United States. In other words, they have a very large force of their own. Right? What he was very hurt by, and asks for collaboration, is to try to get the children to return to Ukraine.
JV: To achieve peace, do you think that Russia should return those territories?
PF: It's a political problem. Peace will be achieved the day they can talk, either by themselves or through others.
[Throughout his career, Pope Francis has consistently espoused a discourse of peacekeeping. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he visited the Ukrainian embassy to show his “concern for the war” in what was described as an unprecedented gesture. In early May he announced that a secret peace “mission” was underway, saying the Vatican is willing to help facilitate the return of Ukrainian children taken to Russia. Soon after, he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a cardinal was appointed to lead the mission. The process is in a study phase, the Holy See has clarified.]
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On abortion, the Pope poses two questions
JV: In the United States there is a very big debate, Your Holiness, around abortion. We know what the Church’s position is, but do you think that a woman who was raped has the right not to have her child, one that is the product of that rape?
PF: I say this about abortion: in any second-year university embryology book it says that a month after conception, even before the mother is aware [she is pregnant], the entire organ system is already drawn inside and the DNA is clear. In other words, it is a living being. I’m not saying a person, it’s a living being. So, I ask myself a question: is it lawful to eliminate a living being to solve a problem? Second question: Is it lawful to hire a hitman to solve a problem? And there you have it. You’re not getting me out of there. Because it is the truth.
[Pope Francis recently outlined his position regarding women who terminate their pregnancies in a conversation with 10 Spanish-speaking teenagers for the documentary Amen: Francis Answers. Asked about abortion, Francis said he instructed priests who care for women who have had abortions “to please don’t ask too many questions and be merciful, like Jesus was.” He added that “a woman who aborts shouldn't be left alone, we should not send her to hell in one fell swoop.” He also said that abortion should also be looked at “scientifically and with a certain coldness.” He said that one month after conception, an embryo is not “a bunch of cells that came together but is a systemic human life.”
The Vatican does not officially condone abortion, but there are leaders and followers of the Catholic faith within the Church who are in favor of the right and access to reproductive health. In the US, Catholics for Choice, which advocates for the right of each person to make their own decisions and have access to the health services they need. The UN has severely criticized the Vatican for its attitudes towards homosexuality, family planning and abortion, and called for its policies to be reviewed to ensure that children’s rights and access to health care are protected.]
Celibacy and sexual abuse within the Church
JV: You have spoken about the possibility of reviewing the celibacy mandate in the Church. Do you think that celibacy is linked, does it have something to do with the abuse of minors within the church?
PF: My dear, 32%, in some countries 36%, of the abuses happens within the family: an uncle, a grandfather, and all of them married, or neighbors. Later in life, within sports activities, later on, in the schools... those are the statistics, that's what they are. So it has nothing to do with the fact that the uncles are married, the grandparents are married, and sometimes they are the first rapists. [...] Of course, I’m not saying that this is the case with all uncles or grandfathers. I’m talking about the statistics.
[After becoming pope, Francis explored ways to deal with priestly abuse of minors and has apologized multiple times to victims. In March 2023 he expanded the responsibility in canon law for those who cover up cases within the Church, including associations headed by laymen that are authorized by the Vatican. The Catholic Church continues to be the subject of scrutiny and scandals for the abuses that its members commit and have committed. Recently, a report came to light about more than 1,900 minors who were abused by hundreds of Catholic clergy in Illinois over seven decades.]
Julio Vaqueiro interviewed Pope Francis at the Vatican. Pamela Subizar wrote the original version of this story in Spanish for Noticias Telemundo. Juliana Jiménez translated the English version.