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When modern-day popes meet the press: anarchists, atheists, apostles

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Pope Francis speaks to media aboard his flight from Asuncion, Paraguay, to Rome in this July 2015 file photo. The first pope in modern history to do an interview with a reporter was Pope Leo XIII in 1892. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Pope Francis speaks to media aboard his flight from Asuncion, Paraguay, to Rome in this July 2015 file photo. The first pope in modern history to do an interview with a reporter was Pope Leo XIII in 1892. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Before he was elected pontiff, Pope Francis had a reputation for not liking to do interviews.

“Really, I don’t give interviews. But I don’t know why. I can’t, that’s just how it is. I find it a bit tiresome, but I’m grateful for your company,” he told the more than 70 journalists from all over the world accompanying him aboard his first papal flight to Brazil for World Youth Day in July 2013.

The pope, who was unafraid of breaking long-held practices, looked like he was ready to end a decades-long tradition of taking questions from reporters on papal flights.

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One veteran journalist from Mexico sought to reassure the new pope that even though he might feel he’d been thrown into the lions’ den by coming to the back of the plane to meet the press, “the truth is that we aren’t that ferocious”.

Something eventually happened to change his mind because, six days later, on the return trip back to Rome, Pope Francis opened the floor to journalists, answering every question posed in an 80-minute session.

And ever since then, the pastor who never liked interviews has become the most-interviewed pope in history.

The nearly 600 responses he’s given to reporters’ questions in less than three years are now compiled in a 368-page book, in Italian only, titled Pope Francis Replies: Every Interview and Press Conference.

While Pope Francis is the most prolific with the press, his late-blooming bravery turns out to be a common trait of modern-day popes, according to the book’s introduction, written by Giovanni Maria Vian, a church historian and editor-in-chief of the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper.

Vian traces in great detail the history of papal interviews, and how these universal pastors became increasingly confident and open to the world’s media.

The first pope in modern history to enter the so-called lions’ den was – aptly – Pope Leo XIII when he sat down in July 1892 with Caroline Remy – an anarchist, feminist, lapsed Catholic and one of the best-known reporters of the time in France.

The twice-divorced 37-year-old, whose pen name was “Severine”, had written to the Vatican secretary of state, presenting herself as “a woman who had been Christian” but remembers the importance of “loving the least and defending the weak”, and as “a socialist who, even if not in a state of grace, has kept intact in her wounded heart a deep respect for the faith” and esteem for the aging pontiff”.

The first papal interview in modern history was quickly arranged and lasted 70 minutes, Vian wrote.

Remy, who took no notes during the encounter, spent that afternoon writing the story and submitted a draft the next day to the secretary of state, who only made a few rewrites before it appeared on the front page of Le Figaro, Vian said.

Just a few months before, Pope Leo had sat down with Ernest Judet, the French editor of what would soon become the world largest newspaper, Le Petit Journal. The private audience, Vian said, does not count as an actual interview since the pope met the editor, not to take questions, but to give him a “declaration” – essentially the gist of his upcoming encyclical On the Church and State in France.

The next time a pope sat down with a reporter was on Palm Sunday in 1959 after St John XXIII’s secretary, now-Cardinal Loris Capovilla, contacted Indro Montanelli, who was working for the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera.

The journalist said, years later, the pope had wanted an interview with a writer who wasn’t a part of “the Catholic world” and therefore skipped over his coworker – a Catholic and veteran Vatican reporter, Silvio Negro.

Montanelli said the papal invitation scandalised his editor, who “did not like the pope giving an interview at all”, and especially not to a secular outlet: “In his mind, the pope should be speaking in Latin.”

Despite the historic and commercial coup of clinching a papal interview, the piece ended up on the paper’s third page, Montanelli said, because the editor was afraid a big splash would hurt Negro’s feelings.

The real turning point in the papal approach to the press came with Blessed Paul VI toward the end of the Second Vatican Council, Vian said. One evening in 1965, the pope sat down with another reporter from Corriere della Sera, Alberto Cavallari, who said the pope “explicitly rejected the classic monologue of the popes”.

Cavallari wrote that the pope told him times had changed and today “millions of people no longer have any religious faith. Hence the need for the church to open itself up. We need to address those who no longer believe and those who no longer believe in us”.

Blessed Paul saw sitting down with the secular press as the next necessary form of papal communication – “This is dialogue”, Cavallari reported the pope as saying.

“Talking, explaining oneself, wanting that the speaker not feel isolated, knowing how to listen, always looking to demolish the walls created between a person and the pope” seemed to be a key part of Blessed Paul’s personality, Cavallari wrote. The conversation was frank, relaxed, unscripted and reflected the pope was aware “he had to face the risk of communicating in a way that was direct, agile and genuinely human”, the journalist wrote.

That approach, especially in seeking out and responding to the secular world, has continued the past half-century, as Blessed Paul’s successors have sat down for interviews with atheists, philosophers, converts and cradle Catholics.

Blessed Paul was the first pope to invite the press onto the papal plane to travel with him during his trips abroad, Vian wrote.

While Blessed Paul would simply greet those flying with him, St John Paul II started speaking directly to journalists during the flights and began the aboard-the-papal-plane news conferences, which continued under Pope Benedict XVI and, despite his initial fears, Pope Francis.

On that flight back from Brazil, Pope Francis told reporters how happy and spiritually renewed he was to have been cast among the throngs of young people. He said foregoing heavy security meant “I could be with the people, hug them, greet them, without armour-proof cars. It’s the security of trusting in the people” and God.

“I prefer the craziness of being out and running the risk,” he said, which may be what led to him to take that other risk of being cast to the den at the back of the plane where, he admitted, “I’ve seen the lions weren’t so ferocious.”

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