By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

During the recent weeks, Pope Francis has delivered a series of impressive messages to world leaders, urging them to do everything in their power to stop the war in Ukraine and give peace negotiations a chance. Previous to this, in the month of May, he had blamed NATO in an interview with Corriere della Sera for “barking” at the doors of Russia,  which provoked criticism from Poland and recently also from  NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, who by contradicting the Pope, called upon world leaders to get accustomed to “years of protracted war in Ukraine.” On June 5th Pope Francis after the Regina Coeli prayer, addressed a crowd in St. Peter’s Square, urging world leaders to unite against war and work towards solutions. “And while the fury destruction and death rampages and the conflicts rage on, fueling an escalation: Do not lead humanity into ruin, please! (…) Let true negotiations take place, real talks for a ceasefire and for a sustainable solution. Let the desperate cry of suffering people be heard- we see this every day in the media- have respect for human life and stop the macabre destruction of cities and villages in the east of Ukraine.”

On June 14, 2022 the Italian Jesuit Magazine “Civiltá Cattolica” and its editor Antonio Spadaforo S.J. published excerpts from a conversation that had taken place between Pope Francis and the editors of various Jesuit cultural journals in Europe. The meeting took place in the Private Library of the Apostolic Palace on May 19 with the Pontiff.  According to “Civiltà Cattolica” the  group was composed of Fr. Stefan Kiechle of “Stimmen der Zeit”(Germany) , Lucienne Bittar of “Choisir” (Switzerland) , Fr. Ulf Jonsson of “Signum” (Sweden), Fr. Jaime Tatay of “Razón y fe” (Spain), Fr. José Frazão of “ Correia di Brotéria (Portugal), Fr. Pawel Kosiński of “Deon” (Poland), Fr. Arpad Hovarth of “A Szív “ (Hungary), Robert Mesaros of “Viera a život” (Slovakia), Frances Murphy of “Thinking Faith” (Great Britain) and Fr. Antonio Spadafora of “Civiltà Cattolica” (Italy). Three editors were lay people, two of whom were women (of the Swiss and British Magazines). The others were Jesuits.

Human Reality

The first question posed to the Pontiff was: “what is the meaning and mission of the journals of the Society of Jesus? Do you have a mission for us?” The Pontiff underlined that the mission of a cultural journal is to “communicate.”  “The Society of Jesus should not be interested in communicating abstract ideas. It is interested instead in communicating human experience through ideas and reasoning, through experience. (..)  Discussion is a good thing, but what really counts for me it is human reality that is to be ‘discerned.’ Discernment is what really counts. The mission of a Jesuit publication cannot be only to discuss, but it must be above all able to help discernment that leads to action.” The Pontiff used the image of a stone that is thrown into water – where everything moves and you can discern. ” He further stated that “reality is superior to the idea, and therefore you must deal with ideas and reflections that arise from reality (…) ideas are discussed, reality is discerned.”

One discussant, whose Society is present in Ukraine, wanted to know what the Pope’s suggestions were for communicating the situation in Ukraine and “how we can contribute to a peaceful future?” The pontiff gave an interesting reply by emphasizing that in this conflict “there are no metaphysical good guys and bad guys, in an abstract sense. Something global is emerging, with elements that are very much intertwined.” He told the story that a couple of months before the war started he had met “a head of state, a wise man, who speaks very little, very wise indeed. (…) He told me that he was very concerned about the way NATO was moving. I asked him why, and he said ‘They are barking at the gates of Russia. They do not understand that the Russians are imperialists and will allow no foreign power to approach them. The situation could lead to war.’”   While the pope deplored the brutality and ferocity of the war, he warned about the danger “that we only see this, which is monstrous, and we do not see the whole drama unfolding behind this war, which was perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented. And note the interest in testing and selling weapons.  It is very sad, but at the end of the day that is what is at stake!”  He also emphasized that he is against a “simplistic” view of the conflict. “I am simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good guys and bad guys without reasoning about roots and interest, which are very complex. While we see the ferocity of Russian troops, we must not forget the real problems if we want them to be solved.”

Living the third World War piece by piece

According to Pope Francis the Russians had miscalculated. “They encountered a brave people, a people who are struggling to survive and who have a history of struggle.” Yet he also underlined that while events in Ukraine touched our sensibility more, because the Ukraine is closer to us, “there are other countries far away. Let us think of some parts of Africa, the north of Nigeria, the north of the Congo, where a war is still going on and nobody cares. Think of Rwanda 25 years ago. Think of Myanmar and the Rohingya. The world is at war. A few years ago, it occurred to me to say that we are living the third world war piece by piece. For me today World War III has been declared. This is something that should give us pause for thought. What is happening to humanity that we have had three world wars in a century? I lived the first war through my grandfather’s experience on the Piave River. And then the second and now the third. This is bad for humanity, a calamity. To think that in one century there have been three world wars, with all the arms trade behind them!” He reminded his interlocutors of the commemoration celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Landings that took place three years ago. “Many heads of state and government celebrated their success. No one remembered the tens of thousands of young men who died on the beaches on that occasion.” He added that in the year 2014 he went to Redipuglia for the centenary of World War I: “I cried when I say the age of the fallen soldiers (…)  When I went to Slovakia, I was struck by the number of young and old women. However there was a lack of older men. The grandmothers were alone. The war had taken their husbands away!”

He emphasized to his interlocutors that their journals should deal “with the human side of war. I would like you to show the human drama of war. It is all very well to make a geopolitical calculation, to study things in depth…. Try to convey the human drama of war: the human drama of those cemeteries, the human drama of the beaches of Normandy or Anzio, the human drama of a woman who receives a knock on the door, it’s a postman with a letter thanking her for having given a son to the country, who is a hero of the country. But then she is left alone.”   In respect to Ukraine he stated that the country is an expert in suffering slavery and war. It is “a rich country that has always been cut up, torn apart by the will of those who want to take it over and exploit it. …Seeing this heroism touches our hearts (…) What is before our eyes is a situation of world war, global interest, arms sales and geopolitical  appropriation which is martyring a heroic people.”

During the discussion he also made reference to the forty minute conversation which he had with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (March 16th) during which both church leaders had made the urgent appeal to end the war peacefully. “In the first part he (Patriarch Kyrill) read me a declaration in which he gave the reason justifying the war. When he finished, I intervened and told him: ’Brother, we are not clerics of the State, we are pastors of the people.’”(…)   I was to have met him June 14 in Jerusalem. To talk about our shared issues. But with the war, by mutual agreement, we decided to postpone the meeting to a later date, so that our dialogue would not be misunderstood. I hope to meet him at a general assembly in Kazakhstan in September. I hope to be able to greet him and speak a little with him as a pastor.”

New way of seeing reality

One discussant wanted to know from the Pope what signs of “spiritual renewal” he would see in the Church. Whether there are “signs of new, fresh life?” Pope Frances replied that we need to renew our “way of seeing reality.”  That he saw more renewal in spontaneous things that are emerging: movements, groups, new bishops who “remember that there is a council behind them”. He was very blunt by stating that “restorationism” is a major problem within the Church. “Restoration has come to gag the Council (Second Vatican Council). The number of groups of ‘restorers’ – for example in the United States there are many- is significant.” And he recalled the example of an Argentine bishop who told him that he had been asked to administer a diocese that had fallen into the hands of these restorers.  “They had never accepted the Council. There are ideas, behaviors that arise from a restorationism that basically did not accept the Council. The problem is precisely this: in some contexts the Council has not yet been accepted. It is also true that it takes a century for a Council to take root. We still have forty years to make it take root, then! Signs of renewals are also the groups that through social or pastoral assistance give a new face to the Church. The French are very creative in this regard.”

He then made reference to “the ordeal” of Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe (1901-1991) during the 32nd General Congregation. In respect to the role of Father Arrupe, the pope emphasized that (..) “at that time there was a conservative reaction block to the prophetic voice of Arrupe!  …Arrupe was a man of great obedience to the pope, great obedience. Pope VI understood that. The best speech ever written by a pope to the Society of Jesus is the one Paul VI made on December 3, 1974. “Yet he also reported that at that time that “people linked to the curia somehow incited a group of Spanish Jesuits who considered themselves the true “orthodox” and they opposed Arrupe. Paul VI never got into that game. Arrupe had the ability to see the will of God, combined with a childlike simplicity in adhering to the pope.” Pope  Francis remembered a Jesuit from the province of Loyola, who was “particularly aggressive toward Fr. Arrupe. He was sent to various places and events to Argentina and always made trouble. He once said to me: ‘You are someone who understands nothing. But the real culprits are Fr. Arrupe and Fr. Calvez. The happiest day of my life will be when I see them hanging from the gallows in St Peter’s Square.’”

The Pope used this story in order to illustrate what “the post conciliar period” was alike. He emphasized that “this is happening again, especially with the traditionalists. That is why it is important to save these figures who defended the Council and fidelity to the pope. We must return to Arrupe,” whom the pope characterized as a person who “rediscovered the Spiritual exercises as a source, freeing himself from the rigid formulations of the Epitome Instituti- the expression of a closed rigid thinking, more instructive -ascetical than mystical.”

Giving new life to the key principles of the Second Vatican Council

Pope Frances’ exchange with the editors in chief of some European Jesuit cultural magazines points to an urgent problem that is hardly discussed any more. It is the problem, as Pope Frances stated that the Second Vatican Council up to this day has not been accepted and its key principles neglected by many.

An excellent witness of the Second Vatican Council is 91 year old Pope Benedict XVI who was one of the key architects of the Council. In a biography “Benedict XVI- A life” that was written by Peter Seewald in 2020 (Droemer Verlag) a fascinating insight was given into the role that Cardinal Ratzinger played during this  historic Second Vatican Council, which Pope Frances has been referring to in his discussion with the Jesuit editors in Chief.

As his biographer Seewald reports in the book, Josef Ratzinger, at the age of 24, was one of the youngest lecturers, who was extremely popular among students and who attracted attention with his lively lectures.  It was Ratzinger’s inner conviction that after such devastating war (World War II), accompanied by complete godlessness and hopelessness, a new beginning within the Church and faith was needed.  From 1959 to 1963 he was professor of theology at the University of Bonn, where he generated great enthusiasm with his inaugural lecture “The God of Faith and the God of Philosophy.” At that time he was also in intensive dialogue with the Indologist Paul Hacker, who taught as professor at the University of Bonn; likewise he was in contact with the French Catholic Theologian Henry de Lubac, with the  Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans -Urs von Balthasar (1905-88), and with the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth.

On February 21, 1961 Ratzinger on invitation of the Thomas Morus-Academy in Bensberg (near Cologne) held a much noticed lecture “Zur Theologie des Konzils” (About the theology of the Council).  The Church according to him was by nature “Communio” and not “Consilium,” i.e. some kind of council of bishops. Among the audience at that time was Cardinal Frings from Cologne, who was so impressed, that he asked Ratzinger to prepare a lecture for him, which Frings was supposed to give in Genoa in the context of the beginning preparations for the Second Vatican Council.  This speech, drafted by Ratzinger, was published in the Genoese magazine “Spirit and Life.” Ratzinger derived the requirements of the Council from the social changes since the end of the war. According to Seewald, he sees the world shaped by globalization, mechanization and belief in science. The reason for the modern atheism is the “self-divinization of mankind.” The task of the Council was to formulate in dialogue with a “profane modernity the Christian faith as a genuine and livable alternative (…) Today’s man should be able to recognize again that the church is neither afraid of science nor does it need to fear it, because it is hid in the truth of God, who cannot contradict any genuine truth and progress.”

Under the shadows of the Cuban Missile Crisis

According to Seewald, Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), in opening the Second Vatican Council, had identified three objectives: Inner-church renewal; Christian unity; and the Church’s contribution to social problems and peace in the world. In the preparations for the Council, according to Seewald, two different approaches became apparent between the faction around Frings and the Central European bishops, and some members of the Curia (among others Cardinal Ottaviani), some of whom were rather hostile to the Council. In the time of preparation of the Council, in which Ratzinger who was advisor to Cardinal Frings as well as the French theologians de Lubac and Yves Congar (Nouvelle Théologie) were substantially involved, it was discussed that the Scripture and the Fathers should have a stronger say while the teaching authority of the church should be less dominant. In Rome at that time a very optimistic culture of debate and a spirit of new beginning prevailed among the theologians. They were determined to lay with the Council the foundations for a real change in the Church.

The Council opened on October 9, 1962. 133 bishops solemnly entered St Peter’s Cathedral at that time, including for the first time representatives from China, Japan, India and Africa. The Council Fathers represented almost 540 million Catholics. John XXIII had chosen as motto for the Council the word “aggiornamento” (‘bringing up to date’, defining the relationship of church and modernity afresh), with which the church should be enlightened. The Council was at that time overshadowed by the looming Cuban crisis (!), which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union. It was in Rome that Pope John XXIII signed his fascinating eighth encyclical “Pacem in Terris”, in which he passionately advocated peace and justice in the world.  His death in June 1963 was followed by the pontificate of Paul VI, who, after a brief interruption, continued the Council in various sessions until 1965.

On the background of some of the above outlined aspects of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) one should pay special attention to  Pope Frances’ reference to Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe and Pope Paul’ VI speech that was given at the occasion of 32nd General Congregation  of the Jesuits(1974),  which Pope Francis had referred to. In the interview the Pope spoke about Fr. Pedro Arrupe without mentioning some key aspects of Arrupe’s background. Having begun in 1938 as Jesuit missionary in Hiroshima, he served from 1942 to 1945 (!) as Novice Master of the Jesuit Order in Hiroshima. One should note that between August 6 and 9th 1945 in the context of the Pacific and Second World War, American nuclear bombs were thrown on Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost wiping the two cities from earth in a nuclear nightmare. Father Arrupe survived the nuclear explosion in part because the house was built with stones (rare exception then). In this discussion with editors of European Jesuit cultural magazines one cannot miss Pope Francis’ very personal passion for the future of the church and his stern warnings against the danger of a nuclear nightmare.


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