.- While it has drawn much attention, the interview Pope Francis gave to the prominent Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari is not the first of its kind in the history of the Church, but part of a tradition stretching back to “Good Pope John.”
The first interview ever given by a Pope to a “secular” newspaper was that John XXIII gave to the prominent Italian journalist Indro Montanelli in 1959, published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on March 29 of that year.
It was Pope John XXIII himself who made the first move, asking his personal secretary Loris Capovilla to inform Corriere della Sera chief editor Mario Missiroli that he wanted to give an interview to a journalist “outside of the Catholic circle.”
Missiroli asked Montanelli, his paper's most important columnist, to conduct the interview, preferring him to the official Vatican analyst Silvio Negro. Montanelli, an agnostic, was unfamiliar with the world of the Church, but nonetheless had a lively conversation with the Pope.
John XXIII spoke candidly at that time about some of his private opinions, including his low esteem for Pope Pius X, who had been canonized some years before. He also announced to Montanelli that he intended to call an ecumenical council, but the journalist did not grasp the importance of that detail, giving it little attention in his article.
John XXIII's successor, Pope Paul VI, gave an interview to the Italian Vaticanista Alberto Cavallari in 1965, which was published Oct. 4 of that year, again in Corriere della Sera.
Paul VI was very outspoken, addressing the problem of the lack of faith, explaining that “the need of the Church to open up” comes from the fact that “millions of people do belong to any religious faith anymore.”
He also addressed the birth control issue, a “delicate issue for the Church men, and also humanly embarrassing,” he reflected. He maintained that “it is not possible for the Church to stay silent, but it is also problematic speaking about it. We really need God to enlighten us and help us in addressing the birth control issue.”
Pope John Paul I's brief, 33-day pontificate did not afford him a chance to give interviews, but Pope John Paul II gave several.
In 1993, he spoke with the Polish-Italian journalist Jas Gawronski, and the interview was published in La Stampa that year on Nov. 2.
Gawronski asked the Pope about international policy, the Holy See's position on the conflict in Yugoslavia, about Poland, and about communism. The Pope was also called to explain in more depth his comment while visiting the Baltic nations that “Marxism also has a heart of truth.”
John Paul II explained to Gawronski that his saying “was not a piece of news,” since “the social teaching of the Church had always explained it.” He also stressed that “there is a strong effort for the social issues in communism, while capitalism is very individualistic.”
John Paul II also was the first Pope to be featured on a television show, calling live to a 1998 episode of the Italian talk show Porta a Porta. The show was celebrating the 20th anniversary of his pontificate, and he thanked them for their work.
In addition, John Paul II co-authored an interview book with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” which came about after a failed attempt at a television interview.
In 1993, he had agreed to be interviewed for the 15th anniversary of his pontificate, and Messori's interview was to have been broadcast by Italian state television RAI, as well as foreign stations.
However, Messori was skeptical about interviewing the Pope on television, and when he met John Paul II in Castel Gandolfo to agree on the questions for the interview, he told the Holy Father that “we need a Pope, a master who guides us, not a TV pundit. We are not dealing with the crisis of the Church. We are dealing with the crisis of faith.”
The Pope did not agree with Messori, but the TV interview was canceled nonetheless. However, John Paul II was so interested in the questions that he later sent Messori his written answers in an envelope through the then-director of the Vatican press office, Joaquin Navarro Valls.
The manuscript was entitled, “Crossing the threshold of hope,” which was subsequently chosen as the title of the book that came from it.
More recently, Benedict XVI agreed to answer the questions put to him by seven people on the Italian bishops’ conference TV show, “A Sua Immagine.”
The show was broadcast April 22, 2011, and the first question was that of a Japanese 7-year-old who had experienced the dramatic earthquake that struck Japan. She asked the Pope why children must be so scared and saddened by such events.
Benedict XVI spontaneously replied that he asked himself the same questions, and that he did not have the answers. The Pope then stressed that “we know that Jesus suffered like you, innocently, and that the true God is on your side.”
Benedict then concluded that “even if we have not the proper answers and if sadness endures, it is important to know that God is on your side, and this will certainly help you.”