Pope Francis, using strong language to condemn a “Vatican-centric view” of the Roman Catholic Church, says that church leaders have too often been narcissists, “flattered and sickeningly excited by their courtiers.”
Extending his departure in style from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Francis vowed in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that he would do everything in his power to change that view.
“The church is or should go back to being a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God,” he said.
The pope suggested that the church should rethink the relationship between its leaders and the faithful.
“Leaders of the Church have often been Narcissus, flattered and sickeningly excited by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy,” he said.
Asked what he meant by “the court,” Francis said that he did not mean the Curia — the officials who govern the church from Vatican City — but something more like the quartermaster’s office in an army, which provides clothing and equipment to troops.
“It is Vatican-centric,” he said. “It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I'll do everything I can to change it.”
The pope said that he was against what he called “clericalists,” saying that when he meets one, “I suddenly become anti-clerical.” He referred to St. Paul’s outreach to pagans and other religions, said that the church should include people who feel excluded, and preach peace.
In a reference to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which led to modern reforms in the church, the pope said: “This includes a dialogue with non-believers. After that, not so much was done in this direction. I have to the humility and ambition to do so.”
The interview was conducted last week in the Vatican guest house, where Francis, who has been praised for what is seen as a simpler and more humble approach to the papacy, lives in a low-key residence.
The interview appeared as Francis begins a three-day meeting with a group of eight cardinals gathered from around the world with the task of reforming the Vatican administration, the Curia.
Last month the pope said the church should not focus on issues like abortion, contraception, and gay marriage to the extent that it neglects other aspects of the faith.
“We have to find a new balance,” he said in an interview published in Jesuit journals. “Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the gospel.”
In the interview with La Repubblica, Francis disclosed some of his own fears before being elected by a conclave of cardinals in March.
“When in the conclave they elected me pope, I asked for some time alone before I accepted,” he said in the interview. “I was overwhelmed by great anxiety, then I closed my eyes and all thoughts, including the possibility of refusing, went away.”
Eugenio Scalfari, the co-founder and former editor of La Repubblica, who conducted the interview with Francis said he was “shocked” when the pope called to set up the interview.
“I answered, and he simply said: ‘Good morning, it’s Pope Francis. You wrote me a letter in which you said you would have liked to meet me and get to know me, so here I am. Let’s book an appointment. Is Tuesday OK with you? The time is a bit of a pain, 3 p.m.…is that OK?’” said Scalfari recounting the conversation to NBC News.
Scalfari, 89, describes himself as an atheist. During the summer he posed a series of questions to Francis about atheism in an open letter. The pope responded to his questions in a lengthy opinion piece, with the simple byline “Francesco,” published in the newspaper on Sept.11.
“The most surprising thing he told me was: ‘God is not Catholic.’ I asked him what he meant, since he is the leader of the Catholic Church, and he told me that ‘God is universal, and we are catholic in the sense of the way we worship him.”
The opportunity to interview the new leader of the Catholic Church was enough to awe even a seasoned reporter.
“In 60 years of career as a journalist, I interviewed many important people, and I became friends with some of them. But I never thought I could feel I would become a friend of a pope.”
NBC News Claudio Lavanga, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.