Pope Francis, Ten Years Later. A dialogue with Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi

When the world met Pope Francis with the famous “good evening” pronounced from the central gallery of St. Peter’s, Matteo Maria Zuppi was recently auxiliary bishop of Rome for the historic center. Ten years later, the Roman prelate is not only a member of the sacred college and holds a chair formerly occupied by two greats of the Church such as cardinals Giacomo Biffi and Carlo Caffarra, but also presides over the Italian Episcopal Conference. In this interview with the Archbishop of Bologna we have analyzed some of the most characteristic aspects of the current pontificate.

Your Eminence, what impressed you most about that evening of March 13, 2013?

“I remember above all the big surprise of the name. It was an immediately attractive name, because it was used for the first time and then because it represented one of the most evangelical, popular and even creative names. The Holy Father motivated that choice by speaking of the Church of the poor and certainly, calling himself that way, he immediately gave a precise program to his pontificate”.

Did you already know the then Cardinal Bergoglio?

The Community of Sant’Egidio was present in Buenos Aires and I therefore had the opportunity to learn about his activity as archbishop.

A Pope who came from the end of the world but with Italian origins. In these ten years, in your opinion, has a particular pastoral solicitude of Francis manifested itself towards Italy and the Italian Church?

“I would say a lot. I think that one of the most important speeches of Francis was precisely the one made in Florence in 2015 on the occasion of the fifth Italian Ecclesial Convention. I believe that was one of the moments in which he showed his great attention to the Italian Church”.

This pontificate has had to confront more than any other with the power of the media, but also of the web and social media. Can we say that in the narrative of many media there has been a certain tendency to “hide” the most “uncomfortable” statements of the Pope? I am thinking, for example, of the interventions on themes such as the defence of life and the denunciation of ideological colonisation.

“Unfortunately, the mass media sometimes interpret or distort the very meaning of a discourse or use only a part of it. This is always a danger and can become a source of great confusion because complete information is not given. However, it depends a lot on the situations and the newspapers but that there may have been this risk of a partial reading, it is true”

When the Pope spoke years ago of the danger of World War III and rearmament, there were those who thought they were speeches that had become anachronistic with the end of the Cold War. Now that these scenarios have become dramatically topical again, is there not a risk of repeating the same error of underestimation when the Pope invokes peace when speaking of the war in Ukraine?

“Unfortunately, it is true: what seemed to some to be exaggerations turned out to be prophecies. Above all, what he said about the signs of the times and the risks that conflicts bring with them was underestimated. The truth is that we thought we had an infinite time of peace ahead and instead it is not so, we always arrive at a redde rationem. There have been partial readings on the war, but it is clear that the Pope does nothing but seek the path of peace and explain to everyone the complexity of this. And seeking peace is not a shortcut, nor ideological maximalism.”

The lesson of this pontificate on old age? Francis has repeatedly urged us to listen to and attend to the elderly so as not to forget our roots without which we lose our identity. In your opinion, has it managed to convey a message of “usefulness” of the elderly in spite of a society increasingly accustomed to considering them “waste”?

“A lot. He gave centrality to the theme of the elderly, meanwhile warning society against considering them through the lens of the consumer mentality and then reminding themselves that they have a role and inviting them to look ahead, to dream, not to be satisfied. An elder can still give so much to the community. This is why Pope Francis’ speech on old age is very important and it is a lesson from which we still have much to learn”.

The Pope has repeatedly recalled not only that work is dignity, but that just retribution is also dignity. Do you think that the popularity of your magisterium on this point will be sufficient to make people understand the timeliness of the teachings of the Social Doctrine of the Church in contemporary society?

“Of course, Francis has linked the social aspect to spirituality and has thus avoided that risk that he identifies with Pelagianism. He wanted to remind us that the social part is always linked to the spiritual part, otherwise it ends and becomes only the work of men. So he also gave the spiritual a necessary embodied, non-intimistic dimension. Those who say that there is a social insistence of the Pope forget that all this is linked to the proclamation of the Gospel and to holiness itself. A holiness to be understood not in abstract terms, but in life. The Social Doctrine of the Church is connected to Christ and putting it into practice is a way to live spirituality more. The discourse of the link between spirituality and social is fundamental, otherwise we would not understand Pope Francis. On the other hand, he and Benedict XVI wrote it together in the encyclical Lumen Fidei: love needs truth and truth needs love.”