by Alan Elkann
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and head of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.
Your Excellency, you’ve written two books during this pandemic, “Pandemia e Fraternità” (Pandemics and Brotherhood) and “L’arte della preghiera” (The Art of Prayer).
Yes, I was at home, and I had to respect the cloister rules in what was a truly surreal Rome. I am in the Trastevere neighbourhood, which was completely empty, without the usual boisterous voices, crowds, tables on the street, street vendors, without colour or the world.
Yes, I’ve been at the centre of the Community of Sant’Egidio since September 1973. We established our headquarters there.
What role do you play?
It is very simple: listening to the gospel together and serving.
What does that mean?
Putting the gospel into practice down to the letter, and, if I may use an image, I’d refer to the inn of the Good Samaritan. Living in friendship with Jesus and with the poor among us. This is the secret of Sant’Egidio.
Pope Francis with Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia
What were you doing during the pandemic?
The power of prayer sustained us and we prayed in the church, respecting the distances asked of us. Often the poor were the only ones walking around Trastevere because, for many, the streets are their home.
Are you worried that there will be many more poor people now?
During this pandemic, the number of poor has increased in Rome. Our community and our communities in the world tell us that poverty is increasing everywhere. The pandemic was not the same experience for everyone. For example, many elderly people got the worst of it. And, after the pandemic, we risk living through a very sad period if we don’t learn the lessons of brotherhood and solidarity on a larger scale. I think that the coronavirus has taught us that we are all more fragile and the virus broke through borders, broke down all barriers, and now we know that nobody can live and survive alone.
Does one of your new books – “Pandemia e Fraternità” – discuss this topic?
Yes, in this sense, that I think there needs to be a revolution when it comes to kinship, which I believe is the unfulfilled promise of modernity.
What was it like for you and the other bishops to celebrate mass without people?
It was an enormous sacrifice because mass, by definition, is a celebration that brings people together, so to hold it alone was like fasting in anticipation of returning to a convivial banquet that you were forced to abandon.
People could not go to church. Has this weakened religion?
We have to be thankful for new technologies, which can replace our physical presence, allowing us to maintain a spiritual bond. In some cases, it allowed for greater religious reflection, but the body is necessary for Christianity: gestures, looks, embraces, even the senses of smell and taste. In other words, coming together. Religion can’t be virtual, just as life can’t be virtual.
It isn’t that it is just a terrible scandal in and of itself. The United States is not just any country. It has a responsibility to be an example in terms of democracy, freedom, and solidarity in a world in which social bonds are breaking down to the point of damaging the whole structure of democratic society. Souverainism is a risk to peaceful coexistence in the world.
Do you think that violence will spread like the coronavirus?
There is no doubt that violence is like a virus that has been a part of humanity forever, and if we don’t fight it with religious action for peaceful coexistence it will cause the same kind of damage as the virus.
You have fought racism your entire life, building bridges between different religions and peoples. Is it a plague with no cure?
Oh there are certainly cures, but racism is in the same family as viruses. We will be in deep trouble if we let it thrive, if we let it spread from person to person. It is something that can emerge during a pandemic and, unfortunately, we saw the worst of it under Nazism and Fascism. A Spanish intellectual (Miguel de Unamuno) said that Christianity is always “agony”, meaning it is also a battle against one’s selfishness and against dominant individualism. With this in mind, we can never give up and resign ourselves to thinking “This is how it has always been…”, nor can we turn a blind eye and allow the guilty to go unpunished with “It will never happen again.” For better or worse, history is in our hands.
You recently published a book on the art of prayer with Edizioni Terra Santa. Can you tell me more about this art?
I didn’t try to describe prayer in an abstract way. I discussed the 150 Psalms that make up prayer in the Jewish tradition and which Christians have also adopted, allowing millions of men and women to find a way to talk to God over these 3,000 years. They aren’t expressions of devotion as much as a direct dialogue with God, sometimes even harsh in tone, but with the conviction that God is never indifferent to our cries.
In today’s world, not everyone believes in God or prayer. Do non-believers have a harder time?
Vincenzo Paglia would have a hard time living without prayer, but I think that the Psalms are a cry that anyone can express, even non-believers.
Because the Psalms contain the entire life of a human being. Even people who don’t pray cry out, sometimes even cursing, but there is also something for such a person in the Psalms. The words found in the Psalms have also been food for thought for non-believers. The first Psalm speaks of the glory of those who listen: “Blessed is the man who, even if he doesn’t believe, listens. It is the fool who is not blessed.” Cardinal Martini used to say, “There is not a divide between believers and non-believers, but between those who seek and those who don’t.” I would add, “Between those who listen and those who don’t.”
The Microsoft President visits the Vatican in February 2019
Rome Call for AI Ethics, February 2020
Vincenzo Paglia with actor Roberto Benigni
Vincenzo Paglia with children in Africa
His Excellency Vincenzo Paglia with some of the lovers who come to pray in front of their patron Saint Valentine’s grave every year on February 14th in the basilica of Terni in the Promises Celebration.
Vincenzo Paglia at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia USA.
“Don’t You care that we are perishing?”
Were people praying during the worst moments of the pandemic?
I found that there were men and women who felt the need to pray and turn to God, and I also witnessed the dramatic scandal of thousands of dead without the comfort of their families or religion. This is why I would like there to be a memorial day for all the dead.
How can we take on the growing, ever more imminent risk of poverty?
Serious reflection is needed. Unfortunately, today we live in a world without a common dream. The coronavirus was a wake-up call, a punch in the gut to a prevailing sense of narcissism. We need to look at development in a new way that includes all human beings, that gets back in touch with a necessary sense of solidarity, rejecting a society that does not take care of the disenfranchised. This system that generates riches for few, leaving many in poverty, is cruel. The first way to take on this problem and to defeat poverty is to change our viewpoint and idea of development. Even before the theme of merely “feeding”, or at the same time as “feeding,” we need to establish a relationship of friendship, dialogue, and trust with those forgotten by society. A way to get back to, with a new point of view, what Jesus said about man not living on bread alone. I would add that he also lives on friendship, trust, and solidarity.
What did you take from the image of Pope Francis praying alone in a deserted Saint Peter’s Square?
It was emblematic for me, one of the most powerful images of our time. It brought to mind the image of Moses on Mount Sinai debating with God, trying to force God to intervene and help the people. “Don’t You care that we are perishing?” are some of the most dramatic and powerful words heard throughout the skies. In that moment, the pope was not praying for his people, Catholics, and not even for the religious in general. He was praying for all humanity, all seven billion of us.