ROME — On Jan. 20, while much of the world was watching the 45th president of the United States place his hand on a Bible to take the oath of office, Pope Francis was kicking back with a couple of Spanish journalists to talk about the fate of the modern world, and his deep worries about it. And, yes, Donald Trump.
In a wide ranging interview with the Madrid-based daily El País, Francis’s most memorable remarks drew a parallel between the rise of populism and the rise of the Nazis more than 80 years ago.
His focus was on Europe, where politicians like France’s Marine Le Pen and others on the far right are nudging closer to power.
“Crisis provokes fear,” said the pontiff. “In my opinion, the most obvious example of populism in the European sense of the word is Germany in 1933… After the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, it needs a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man named Adolf Hitler who says: ‘I can, I can.’
“And Germans vote for Hitler. Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk. In times of crisis we lack judgment, and that is a constant reference for me.”
On the matter of Donald Trump, about whom he was asked specifically, he suggested patience.
Almost a year ago he said in a pointed reference to then-candidate Trump that, “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
But in the inauguration-day interview, the pope was more cautious: “I think that we must wait and see. I don’t like to get ahead of myself, nor to judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will form an opinion,” Francis said. “But being afraid or rejoicing beforehand because of something that might happen is, in my view, quite unwise. It would be like prophets predicting calamities or windfalls that will not come to pass. We will see what he does and will judge accordingly. Always work with the specific.”
Asked about his greatest worry, the pontiff, who will celebrate four years at the helm of the Catholic Church in March, says he is most concerned about war. “As for what worries me about the world, it is war. We already have a World War III in little bits and pieces,” he says. “Lately there is talk of a possible nuclear war, as though it were a card game: They are playing cards. That is my biggest concern.”
Although the 80-year-old pontiff has millions of Twitter followers among his many multi-lingual Twitter profiles, he isn’t really a fan of technology, especially if it gets in the way of human connections.
“A simple case in point: a family that is having dinner without conversation, because they are watching TV or the kids are with their phones, texting people who are somewhere else. When communication loses the flesh, the human element, and becomes liquid, it is dangerous,” he said.
“It is very important for families to communicate, for people to communicate, and also in the other way. Virtual communication is very rich, but there is a risk if it is lacking human, normal, person-to-person communication. The concrete element of communication is what will make the virtual element take the right course. We are no angels, we are concrete individuals.”
He has no intention of slowing down any time soon. And his dream is to go to China, if only Beijing would invite him. “China has always had that aura of mystery that is fascinating,” he said. “As soon as they send me an invitation. They know that. Besides, in China, the churches are packed. In China they can worship freely.”
The journalists also led him into a conversation about his mortality and whether he would consider retiring, like Pope Benedict XVI before him. “In your consistories you have created cardinals from all over the world. How would you like the next conclave to be, the one that will elect your successor? Your Holiness, do you think that you will witness the next conclave?” they asked.
“I want it to be Catholic. A Catholic conclave that chooses my successor,” the pope joked.
“And will you see it?” they asked.
“I don’t know. That is for God to decide. When I feel that I cannot go on, my great teacher Benedict taught me how to do it,” he said. “And if God carries me away before that, I will see it from the afterlife. I hope it will not be from Hell…”