Pope Francis’ in-flight press conferences must always be followed carefully. Speaking spontaneously and without filters, Pope Francis shows himself candidly, explains his reasoning, and highlights what he plans to do. Pope Francis has always said that he does not like talking to journalists and that he rarely did so when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. It is true. But the way he uses communication in press conferences suggests that the Pope has given few interviews before out of prudence, and not so much because he doesn’t know how to relate to journalists.
The press conference on the return flight from Mongolia exemplifies this. Pope Francis arrived in Mongolia with all the baggage of the controversies that had followed his statements to young Russians on August 25th. A summary: The Pope had a video conference with young Russians, engaged the group in questions and answers, and at the end, told them not to forget their identity, that of Mother Russia, of Peter the Great and Catherine II.
The Pope’s words landed in the context of the large-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine. For Ukrainians, Peter and Catherine have always represented those who wanted the destruction of Ukraine, having launched and developed the concept of Russian imperialism. Even His Beatitude Lubomyr Husar, the last major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church created cardinal, said in an interview that he could not feel like the brother of Catherine and Peter who wanted to eradicate Ukraine.
It was evident that the Pope’s words aroused controversy. It was equally obvious that the Ukrainian government would do a political reading of them, and protest. The Holy See responded with a brief statement from the Press Office and a note from the nunciature. The Pope’s explanation, however, was awaited.
Pope Francis, in his response, did not apologize. He admitted a slight mistake, saying that perhaps his choice of words had been “faulty.” The Pope also explained his thinking. He wanted to tell young people not to lose contact with the legacy of their grandparents. A cultural example came to mind. He remembered his school years and what he had been taught about Peter the Great and Catherine II. Their actions, he added, will have to be judged by historians. He was just recalling his school years history lessons.
In this way, Pope Francis dampened the controversy. In the same press conference, the Pope gave two other critical pieces of information.
The first is that, for the appointment of bishops in China, there is a bilateral commission between China and the Holy See chaired by Cardinal Parolin. It is the first time that the Pope has allowed us a peak into the secret agreement for the appointment of bishops stipulated with China in 2018.
The second is that the Pope is considering whether to make another European trip (it should be Kosovo) because it is no longer as easy as it was at the beginning, and therefore, every journey is complicated.
The first news is a concession. In a delicate moment with China, while Cardinal Zuppi’s visit to Beijing is expected shortly and at the same time there have been tensions over Beijing’s interpretation of the agreement, the Pope addresses the Chinese, asks them to be good citizens and explains a little about how the agreement with Beijing works. It is a reassurance to Catholics also made by reassuring China.
The second piece of news seems to be more of a decoy. It is not the first time that the Pope has said that it is increasingly difficult for him to travel, and the information is even taken for granted at his age and after having undergone two surgeries in the space of three years. Every time he says it, however, Pope Francis instead shows that he wants to divert attention from what he is planning.
Pope Francis has already said he wants to visit Kosovo and is considering returning to Argentina next year. Arguably, both options are still on the table. The Pope, however, does not want to say it explicitly; he maintains a space to be able to cancel a trip and make another one, and this depends both on the particular conditions of Kosovo (a state not recognized by the Holy See) and on the fact that the trip to Argentina could be bound to the next elections there.
These three examples demonstrate how the Pope is not clueless in press conferences. He manages information, shares some news instead of others, and sometimes misleads with statements that later turn out to be false – as when he gave three possible dates for visiting the sites of the earthquake that hit central Italy in 2016, but none of the dates it was the real one, which was three days after his return from the trip.
Can we say, therefore, that the Pope’s press conferences are methods of government? In some ways, yes. Just as interviews are also methods of government, which the Pope grants personally, often (almost always) without passing through the Holy See Press Office filter. The Pope communicates not only to explain himself but to impact public opinion. He manages the narratives and enters the narratives. He also did it when he learned two journalists were writing a biography about his years in Cordoba: he contacted them. Also, he answered their questions and curiosities, but in exchange, he wanted to see the text before publication.
In this sense, Pope Francis is a modern Pope, smart with the media, able to lie enough to achieve his objectives. There is, however, the other side of the coin. That is, the risk that a pontificate that gives a lot of weight to public opinion risks being a pontificate of public opinion alone.
In many cases, Pope Francis has ridden the wave of the common debate: from the promulgation of Laudato Si to the attacks against the traditionalist world, from his refusal to give clear answers on doctrinal issues to his push for interreligious dialogue at all costs, from his words against corruption to the fight against pedophilia with the spectacular anti-abuse summit of February 2019.
In short, many of the Pope’s decisions are reactions rather than policy actions—necessary reactions, in some cases. But one wonders how many of these reactions protect the Church and how many protect him.
And yet, these reactions risk always being too little. Now, there is the synodal debate, which is a response to the request for greater participation in the Church but also considers some of the themes proposed by the German Synodaler Weg.
What will happen if the Synod does not meet expectations? And, above all, what weight does the Synod have while the Synodaler Weg continues its journey? At a certain point, the Pope will have to take responsibility for deciding. He could outline the narrative, explaining that he did it because God’s people wanted a discussion, but as Pope, he has to guarantee the unity of the Church. However, his actions would only feed a narrative.
And so, Pope Francis’ press conferences and public statements are genuinely a form of government. But this form of government risks being just a narrative and leaving us without answers. Ultimately, Pope Francis has the idea of keeping processes always open. Anyway, in the end, it is always and only he who makes the decisions.