Pope Francis has admitted to moments of selfishness while living in lockdown at the Vatican, and has saluted people on the frontline of the fight against the coronavirus, including doctors and shop workers, as “the saints who live next door”.
With characteristic frankness, the pope said he struggled with “self-preoccupation” in a largely solitary existence. “Of course I have my areas of selfishness. On Tuesdays, my confessor comes, and I take care of things there,” he said in an interview published in the Catholic weekly the Tablet.
He added: “I’m thinking at this time of the saints who live next door. They are heroes – doctors, volunteers, religious sisters, priests, shop workers – all performing their duty so that society can continue functioning. How many doctors and nurses have died! How many religious sisters have died! All serving … If we become aware of this miracle of the next-door saints, if we can follow their tracks, the miracle will end well, for the good of all.”
Responding to questions put to him by Austen Ivereigh, the British author of a papal biography, Francis spoke of the hypocrisy of politicians who talk about facing up to the coronavirus crisis sweeping the globe while failing to tackle the environmental emergency, supporting a “throwaway culture”, and continuing to manufacture weapons.
“It’s true, a number of governments have taken exemplary measures to defend the population on the basis of clear priorities. But we’re realising that all our thinking, like it or not, has been shaped around the economy.
“In the world of finance it has seemed normal to sacrifice [people], to practise a politics of the throwaway culture, from the beginning to the end of life … It’s a culture of euthanasia, either legal or covert, in which the elderly are given medication but only up to a point.”
The coronavirus crisis put a spotlight on people’s values. “I am worried by the hypocrisy of certain political personalities who speak of facing up to the crisis, of the problem of hunger in the world, but who in the meantime manufacture weapons. This is a time to be converted from this kind of functional hypocrisy. It’s a time for integrity. Either we are coherent with our beliefs or we lose everything.”
The climate crisis had been forgotten in the focus on the pandemic, he said. “Who now speaks of the fires in Australia, or remembers that 18 months ago a boat could cross the North Pole because the glaciers had all melted? Who speaks now of the floods? I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.”
He added: “Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings …
“Let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were. This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it. We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back at this time.”
This was the moment to focus on the poor, the homeless and those on the margins. “But the poor are hidden, because poverty is bashful. In Rome recently, in the midst of the quarantine, a policeman said to a man: ‘You can’t be on the street, go home.’ The response was: “I have no home. I live in the street.’ To discover such a large number of people who are on the margins … They are there but we don’t see them: they have become part of the landscape; they are things.”
In Europe, he said, “when we are beginning to hear populist speeches and witness political decisions of [a] selective kind, it’s all too easy to remember Hitler’s speeches in 1933, which were not so different from some of the speeches of a few European politicians now”.
Pope Francis described life under lockdown in the Santa Marta residence, where he lives. “We now have two shifts for meals, which helps a lot to alleviate the impact. Everyone works in his office or from his room, using technology. Everyone is working; there are no idlers here.
“How am I living this spiritually? I’m praying more, because I feel I should. And I think of people. That’s what concerns me: people. Thinking of people anoints me, it does me good, it takes me out of my self-preoccupation. Of course I have my areas of selfishness. On Tuesdays, my confessor comes, and I take care of things there.
“I’m living this as a time of great uncertainty. It’s a time for inventing, for creativity.” People could “either get depressed and alienated … or we can get creative”.
But it was not easy to be confined to the home, he said. “The counsel is not to give up, but save yourself for better times, for in those times remembering what has happened will help us. Take care of yourselves for a future that will come. And remembering in that future what has happened will do you good.”
Asked if he had a message for the elderly who were self-isolating and for confined young people, he said: “The elderly continue to be our roots. And they must speak to the young. This tension between young and old must always be resolved in the encounter with each other. Because the young person is bud and foliage, but without roots they cannot bear fruit. The elderly are the roots.”
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