Exclusive interview: Iacopo Scaramuzzi – “Vatican Tango”

Aurelio Porfiri

What is more natural for a Pope coming from Argentina than being familiar with tango? And Pope Francis has revealed indeed he is a fan of this typical Argentinean dance, a dance that has become a standard among other dances thanks also to the contribution of great composers as Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla.

Tango is a dance full of passion and bodily language. Italian Journalist Iacopo Scaramuzzi was, perhaps, thinking about this when writing his book Tango Vaticano (“Vatican Tango,” Edizioni dell’Asino), a book that deals with Pope Francis also from the perspective of his being an Argentinean. But there is much more in this book of the young Vaticanist collaborating with Askanews and with other media outlets such as Jesus and Vatican Insider. We asked Iacopo Scaramuzzi himself to explain what his books were about, from his perspective.

Why have you called your book Vatican Tango?

There is a more immediate reason and a more metaphorical reason. The first reason is that I wanted to tell the story of the first Argentinean Pope of the Church. And as I relate in the very last sentence of the book, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a good tango dancer, before becoming a priest. The tango, however, is a very passionate, and somehow confusing dance. And with this title – that’s the second reason – I wanted to suggest the warm style of this Latin-American Pope, which is sometimes confusing for the Vatican, traditionally a pretty stiff institution.

What is new in your book respect the many other books on Pope Francis?

I didn’t want a book of scoops. In the press agency I work for, I cover hard news. I predicted for example the election of Pope Francis the day before the Conclave began. With the book, however I rather tried to analyze the broader picture. I have the impression that many people speak about the Pope but they focus on his personality without grasping the profound roots and implications of his papacy. I wanted to make explicit that his papacy is the consequence of several historical events of the past, like the 2nd Vatican Council, the end of the Cold War, the globalization and the economic crisis. Pope Francis represents in this regard a bright “sign of the times.” By the way, I find the Vatican an amazing, complicated, somewhat bizarre world, and I had a lot of fun writing this book, using a little bit of humor. I hope the readers too will have some fun reading it.

You have called one of your chapters “Ecclesia facit saltis.” What do you mean?

There is an expression: “ecclesia non facit saltus,” the Catholic Church doesn’t “jump.” That means that the doctrine, the liturgy, the teaching of the Church doesn’t change abruptly throughout the centuries. I think it’s wishful thinking by those who fear that every change risks to endanger the stability of the Church. On the contrary, I think that changes are unavoidable, positive, and sometimes – as with Pope Francis – they come in a pretty abrupt way.

Pope Francis and USA. A difficult relationship?

On the one hand, yes. He’s an Argentinean; he has never been to the USA in his life before his trip as a Pope in 2015; his social and economic views are quite the opposite of those of the North American mainstream. On the other hand, he shares certain values with the United States. He is the Pontiff of every Catholic. In his speech at the Congress, Pope Francis mentioned four US figures, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He is very much in step with them. And with President Barack Obama he had a positive dialogue, as it was clear when he helped Cuba and the US to end 50 years of diplomatic hostility.

According Pope Francis, there is today a new slavery caused by big companies and capitalism….

Jorge Mario Bergoglio repeatedly laments that workers, the poor, the unemployed are very often exploited. He also underlines that there are new forms of slavery and human trafficking. I don’t think he hates companies and capitalism, but he points the finger at their possible abuses.

What do you think of Pope Francis and liberation theology?

Pope Francis is not a liberation theologian. He adheres to the “people theology”, an Argentinean version of the Latin American liberation theology: both stemming from the 2nd Vatican Council, but the latter less political then the former. The people theology focuses on the “people of God” and it underlines the need for a shepherd to be close to his flock.

Liberation theology was accused of being close to Marxism and sometimes to the guerrillas. The young Jorge Mario Bergoglio criticized its extremes. But as a Pope he’s aware that the doctrinal sanctions against liberation theologians during John Paul II and Benedict XVI years left wounds to be healed. He didn’t rehabilitate it, he rather left criticism from the Vatican behind. I think the liberation theologians feel today not fully understood by the Holy See, albeit more respected. And they totally agree with Pope Francis when he asks the Church to be poor and close to the poor, when he denounces the inequalities in the world and the need to tackle their structural roots.

The fact that he is a Jesuit is more a resource or a problem according your opinion?

I think it’s a big resource, and I think that several people inside the Church think it’s a problem. The Jesuits are a powerful religious order which Saint Ignatius founded in the 16th century as a response to the Protestant Reformation and to the crisis of the Catholic Church. They were conceived as the special emergency unit of the Pope. For centuries they were very well formed, strong, creative and radical personalities. But they were also often suspected to be ambitious, uncontrollable, and a bit too astute. The Society of Jesus was even suppressed, and then rehabilitated, because of the excessive power it had obtained at the expense of the European monarchies.

I think they are the elite of the Church, almost too much in the forefront. In the last dozens of years, they have often held a progressive attitude towards social issues, such as the refugee crisis or the ecological problems. Of course not everybody in the Church loves this. But I think that, from a historical point of view, the Jesuits are the ones who can sort the Church out of the crisis it faces (loss of vocations, secularized societies, globalization, fundamentalism within the Christian world and in other religions, and so on).

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is very Jesuit: he doesn’t want the Church to be closed in its traditions, he rather pushes the Church to open itself to the world, to bring itself up to date, not in order to give up its doctrine but on the contrary to reinforce it in the contemporary world and reach out even to far-off people. The Jesuits have always been missionaries, they were the first to reach remote zones of the world like Russia, Japan and China. And Francis is trying harder to enter into dialogue with Asia, Russia and China first of all.

What do you think of his approach with some hot international topics, like Syria?

Pope Francis has given a new boost to the diplomatic presence of the Holy See in the world. Just think of the USA-Cuba appeasement, of the push for an agreement at the UN climate summit in Paris, of the central moral role this Pontiff plays for “his” Latin America.

The Middle East, and Syria in particular, is a very complicated issue for the Pope and his collaborators. Jesus was born there, but today Christians are a minority, pressed by jihadist terrorism on one side, and dictatorships on the other side. The local Church leaders are traditionally linked to the local governments, who tend to be more and more dictatorial. The Holy See diplomacy tries to loosen this tie, but has to defend the Christian minority from persecutions.

In any case, the Pope is well aware that the solution in Syria depends on an agreement among foreign powers, Russia, US, Saudi Arabia and Iran first of all. And he continues to ask for a political dialogue that could help bring the war and the humanitarian emergency to an end, and afterwards achieve peace in the country and beyond its borders.

You have called a chapter of your book “How a Pope survives.” Is the Vatican environment so dangerous?

I’ve chosen this title because indeed I wanted to suggest that this Pope is disturbing a good number of people. I think several cardinals and bishops criticize his reforms, although not in a public way. He’s trying to change an institution, the Vatican, which is pretty resistant to change. But I also recall in my book that this is not totally unprecedented.

Going back in the time, Pope John Paul II was shot by a Turkish terrorist; John Paul I was a Pope for just 33 days before dying suddenly; Paul VI was almost stabbed in Manila. Above all, John XXIII had a lot of enemies within the Vatican. He discovered bugs in his apartment. The Osservatore Romano sometimes censored him, and many cardinals heavily criticized his decision to convene the 2nd Vatican Council. But he succeeded.

What is your perspective on the relationship with China?

Pope Francis loves China, wants to go to China, and thinks that China is a fundamental country for the future of the Church. He doesn’t have a proselytizing attitude, he has a lot of respect for Chinese history and institutions, but, as a heir of Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit who was welcomed by the Chinese as a wise bestower of science and wisdom at the start of the 17th century, he thinks that the Church has to know China better.

“For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom,” said the Pope in a well-known interview by Asia Times. And “the Church has great potential to receive culture.” The dialogue between Catholic Church and China, for Pope Francis, is good for both, and for the entire world.

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