Pope Francis told me: "The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don't even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing."
Your Holiness, I say, it is largely a political and economic problem for states, governments, political parties, trade unions.
"Yes, you are right, but it also concerns the Church, in fact, particularly the Church because this situation does not hurt only bodies but also souls. The Church must feel responsible for both souls and bodies."
Your Holiness, you say that the Church must feel responsible. Should I conclude that the Church is not aware of this problem and that you will steer it in this direction?
"To a large extent that awareness is there, but not sufficiently. I want it to be more so. It is not the only problem that we face, but it is the most urgent and the most dramatic."
The meeting with Pope Francis took place last Tuesday at his home in Santa Marta, in a small bare room with a table and five or six chairs and a painting on the wall. It had been preceded by a phone call I will never forget as long as I live.
It was half past two in the afternoon. My phone rings and in a somewhat shaky voice my secretary tells me: "I have the Pope on the line. I'll put him through immediately."
I was still stunned when I heard the voice of His Holiness on the other end of a the line saying, "Hello, this is Pope Francis." "Hello Your Holiness", I say and then, "I am shocked I did not expect you to call me." "Why so surprised? You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I'm calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary: I can't do Wednesday, nor Monday, would Tuesday suit you?"
I answer, that's fine.
"The time is a little awkward, three in the afternoon, is that okay? Otherwise it'll have to be another day." Your Holiness, the time is fine. "So we agree: Tuesday 24 at 3 o'clock. At Santa Marta. You have to come into the door at the Sant'Uffizio."
I don't know how to end this call and let myself go, saying: "Can I embrace you by phone?" "Of course, a hug from me too. Then we will do it in person, goodbye."
And here I am. The Pope comes in and shakes my hand, and we sit down. The Pope smiles and says: "Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me."