Pope Francis landed in Rome on Sept. 15 after a four-day journey to Hungary and Slovakia. Please read below for CNA’s transcript of Pope Francis’ 30-minute press conference during the flight from the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, to Rome.

Matteo Bruni, Holy See press office director: Hello, Your Holiness, thank you for these days that opened with Eucharistic Adoration in Budapest and ended with the celebration, the united prayer, this morning in Šaštín. Between those moments there were many images, many words, many encounters, it was beautiful that you could again be among people. The joy and participation of the people of God was also beautiful during these days. We will go over these days through the questions, but maybe you want to…

Pope Francis: No, no.

Bruni: OK, the first question comes from a Hungarian journalist, Istávan Kuzmányi of Magyar Kurír.

Istávan Kuzmányi: Holy Father, we thank you for your visit to Budapest, where you cited our Venerable Cardinal Mindszenty, who said: “I cannot worry when there are a million Hungarians praying.” Why did you decide after 21 years to participate as the pope in the International Eucharistic Congress? What do you see for the future of European Christianity and what do you think we Hungarians can do about it?

Pope Francis: At first it was not clear: [the pope] is only coming to the ceremony and will not visit us Hungarians? I explained that the visit to Slovakia was planned, that it was planned first, and I promised to your president, with whom I met, to come [the] next year, because there are so many Hungarian values.

I was struck by the sense of ecumenism with a very great depth that you have. Europe must, I always say, follow the dreams of the founding fathers of the European Union. The European Union is not a meeting to do things, there is a spirit at the base of the European Union dreamed of by Schuman, Adenauer, De Gasperi, these great ones. Return to that, because there is the danger that Europe will become only a management office and this is not right, it must go to the mystical, seek the roots of Europe and carry them forward. All countries must move forward. Some interests, perhaps not European ones, try to use the EU for ideological colonization and this is not good. The EU must be independent for itself and for all countries at the same level inspired by the dream of the founding fathers. This is my idea. Last year [Ed. in 2019] I was in Transylvania. That Mass was really beautiful.

Bohumil Petrik, Denník Štandard: Vaccination has divided Christians, also in Slovakia. You say that getting the vaccine is an act of love. And when you do not get the vaccine, what would you call it? Some believers have felt discriminated against and there are different approaches in the different dioceses on this point. Even before your visit, this visit could only be accessed if [someone was] vaccinated, then it was changed, even those who did rapid tests could attend and so on... So, we would all like to know how to get along, how to reconcile on this issue.

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Pope Francis: Humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines. As children, we got them for measles, for other things, for polio. All the children were vaccinated and no one said anything. Then this [opposition] happened. This was perhaps due to the virulence, the uncertainty not only about the pandemic, but also about the different vaccines, and also the reputation of some vaccines which are nothing more than distilled water. This created fear in people. Then others who say that it is a danger because with the vaccine you are infected. So many arguments that have created this division. Even in the College of Cardinals there are some deniers and one of these, poor guy, is hospitalized with the virus. The irony of life. I do not know how to explain [the opposition] well. Some say it comes from the diversity of where the vaccines come from, which are not sufficiently tested and they are afraid. We must clarify and speak with serenity about this. In the Vatican, everyone is vaccinated except a small group which they are studying how to help.

Daniel Verdu, El País: On Sunday morning, you met with President Viktor Orbán. One can understand that there are some differences on issues like Europe, migrants, nationalists. We wanted to ask how the meeting went, if you talked about migrants now that it’s becoming a big issue again with the Afghanistan crisis, and what you think about the laws that [Orbán] has enacted about homosexuals. We also ask you because I think you asked him not to let Christian Hungary die, but listening to your speeches during these days it would seem that sometimes it is these policies, these types of policies, that want to destroy Christian values.

Pope Francis: I was visited by the president [János Áder], because he came to me. He had this politeness, this kindness about him, so he came [to me]. This is the third time I have met him, and he came with the prime minister [Orbán] and the deputy minister. There were three of them. The president spoke. The first topic was ecology, which took up about three-quarters [of the conversation]. Chapeau to you Hungarians! The ecological consciousness you have is impressive. He explained how they purify the rivers, things I did not know about, and that was the main thing [we discussed]. Then I asked about the average age, because I am worried about the demographic winter. In Italy, if I’m not mistaken, the average age is 47 and I think Spain is even worse. There are so many empty villages, or villages with only about 10 elderly people, a serious concern. How do you solve this? And then, the president, always the president, explained to me the law that they have to help young couples to get married, to have children and it is interesting. It’s a law that is quite similar to the French one, but more developed. That’s why the French don’t have the same problem as the Spanish. And they explained this to me, both the prime minister and the deputy minister, and there they added some facts. Then what else did we talk about… On immigration nothing. We returned to ecology again. About the family. I asked about the family, and you can see that there are many young people, so many children. But also in Slovakia, I was amazed: So many children, so many young couples. This was promising. Now the challenge is to find jobs, so that they don’t leave [the country] later... Because if there are no jobs, they will leave and find one. Those were the things [we talked about]. The president always spoke and both ministers were adding some specific facts, but it was a good atmosphere and it lasted long enough. I think 45 or 50 minutes.

Gerard O’Connell, America Magazine: Holy Father, first I want to say that we are all happy that the surgery produced a splendid result and that you are rejuvenated. You are rejuvenated after…

Pope Francis: I was told by someone that they wanted to do an operation. I don’t know who it was that I heard [...] It was an aesthetic thing.

O’Connell: You yourself have said that we are all sinners and that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a medicine and nourishment for the weak. As you know, in the U.S. after the last elections, but also since 2004, there has been a discussion among bishops about giving Communion to politicians who have supported pro-abortion laws and a woman’s right to choose.

And as you know, there are bishops who want to deny Communion to the president and others, there are other bishops who are against it, there are some bishops who say that the Eucharist should not be used as a weapon. What do you think about this reality and what do you recommend to the bishops? And then as a second question, have you as a bishop in all these years publicly refused the Eucharist to anyone?

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Pope Francis: I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone. No one. I do not know if anyone came [to me] who was in this situation, but I never refused the Eucharist. To this day as a priest never. But never have I been conscious of having a person in front of me as you describe. That is true.

Simply, the only time I had a funny thing happen was when I went to celebrate Mass in a nursing home. And we were in the living room and I said: “Whoever wants Communion, raise your hand.” And everybody, they were elderly, raised their hands. And I gave Communion to one lady, and [afterward] she took my hand and she said, “Thank you, Father, thank you, I’m Jewish.” She took my hand. Even this one I told you about was a Jewish woman and yet, onward. The only strange thing. But the lady told me afterward.

Communion is not a prize for the perfect, think of [...], Jansenism, the perfect are able to take Communion. Communion is a gift, a gift, the presence of Jesus in his Church. It is in the community. This is the theology. Then, those who are not in the community cannot take Communion -- like this Jewish lady, but the Lord wanted to reward her and without my knowledge. Why [can they not take Communion]? Because they are out of the community, excommunicated, they are “excommunicated” it is called. It’s a harsh term, but what it means is they are not in the community, either because they do not belong, or they are baptized but have drifted away from some of the things.

Second, the problem of abortion. Abortion is more than an issue. Abortion is murder. Abortion, without hinting: whoever performs an abortion kills. You take any embryology textbook of those students that study in medical school. At the third week of conception, at the third, many times before the mother notices, all the organs are already there. All of them. Even the DNA. [...]

It’s a human life, period. This human life must be respected. This principle is so clear. And to those who can’t understand it I would ask two questions: Is it right, is it fair, to kill a human life to solve a problem? Scientifically it is a human life. Second question: Is it right to hire a hitman to solve a problem? I said this publicly [...] when I did, I said it to COPE, I have wanted to repeat it. And period. Don’t continue with strange discussions: Scientifically it’s a human life. The textbooks teach us that. But is it right to take it out to solve a problem? This is why the Church is so strict on this issue because accepting this is kind of like accepting daily murder.

A head of state was telling me that the decline in population started with the age of abortion. Because in those years there was such a strong abortion law that six million abortions were performed and this left a very large decline in the society of that country.

Now let’s return to the person who is not in the community and is not able to take Communion because he is outside of the community. This is not a penalty: you are outside. Communion is to unite the community.

But the issue is not a theological problem, which is simple. The problem is a pastoral problem: how we bishops manage this principle pastorally. If we look at the history of the Church, we will see that every time the bishops have not managed a problem as pastors, they have taken sides about political life, about the political problem. For not managing a problem well they have taken sides on the political front.

Let’s think about the night of St. Bartholomew: Heretics, yes, heresy is very serious [...] everyone, it’s a political fact. Let’s think about Joan of Arc, with this mission. Let’s think about witch-hunts. Always we think of Campo de’ Fiori, Savonarola, all these kinds. When the Church, in order to defend a principle, does not do it pastorally, it takes sides politically. And this has always been the case. Just look at history.

What should the pastor do? Be a shepherd, do not go around condemning, not condemning, but be a pastor. But is he also a pastor of the excommunicated? Yes, he is the pastor and he has to shepherd them, and he must be a shepherd with God’s style. And God’s style is closeness, compassion, and tenderness. The whole Bible says that. Closeness. Already in Deuteronomy, He says to Israel: What people have gods as close as you have me? Closeness. Compassion: the Lord has compassion on us. We read Ezekiel, we read Hosea, right from the beginning. And tenderness -- just look at the Gospel and the works of Jesus.

A pastor who does not know how to manage with God’s style slips and he adds many things which are not pastoral. For me, I do not want to particularize [...] the United States because I do not know the details well, I give the principle.

You can tell me: but if you are close, and tender, and compassionate with a person, you have to give Communion -- but that’s a hypothetical. Be a pastor and the pastor knows what he has to do at all times, but as a shepherd. But if he stops this shepherding of the Church, immediately he becomes a politician. And you will see this in all the denunciations, in all the non-pastoral condemnations that the Church makes. With this principle, I believe a pastor can act well. The principles are from theology, the pastoral care is theology and the Holy Spirit, who leads you to do it with the style of God. I would venture to say up to this far.

Bruni: Thank you, Holy Father.

Pope Francis: If you say to me: but can you give or cannot give [Communion]? It is casuistry, as the theologians say. Do you remember the storm that was stirred by Amoris laetitia when that chapter on accompanying separated, divorced couples came out: “Heresy, heresy!” Thank God there was Cardinal Schönborn, a great theologian who clarified things.

But always condemnation, condemnation, enough with excommunication. Please let us not place any more excommunications. Poor people. They are children of God. They are outside temporarily, but they are children of God and they want, and need, our pastoral closeness. Then the pastors work things out by the Spirit of God.

Stefano Maria Paci, Sky TG24: Holy Father, I believe, knowing you, that this message will seem to you a kind of gift. Knowing that I am flying with you, Edith Bruck asked me to give it to you. The Jewish writer, deported to Auschwitz at the age of 13, winner of the Prema Strega Giovani this year, sent me [this letter] last night. A completely unusual fact: you went to her house in the center of Rome to meet her. It is a long message from her signed, “Your sister Edith,” in which she thanks you for your repeated appeals and gestures against anti-Semitism during this trip. The first words [of her message] are “Beloved Pope Francis, your words on anti-Semitism, which has never been eradicated, are more relevant today than ever. Not only in the countries you are visiting, but throughout Europe…”

Pope Francis: This is true. Anti-Semitism is in fashion now, it is resurrecting. It is a very bad thing.

Paci: The question is about the family: You spoke about it with the Hungarian authorities, you spoke about it yesterday in the meeting with young people, and yesterday arrived news of a resolution in the European Parliament which invites the member states to recognize same-sex marriages and related parenting relationships. Holy Father, what are your thoughts on this?

Pope Francis: I have spoken clearly about this: marriage is a sacrament, marriage is a sacrament. And the Church does not have the power to change the sacraments. They are thus, as the Lord has instituted [for] us. These are laws that try to help the situation of many people of different sexual orientations. And this is important, to help these people, but without imposing things that by their nature do not enter in the Church. But if they want to support a homosexual couple in life together, states have the possibility of civilly supporting them, of giving security through inheritance, health [insurance]. But the French have a law on this not only for homosexuals, but for all people who want to associate with each other [in a legally recognized relationship].

But marriage is marriage. This is not to condemn people who are like that, no, please, they are our brothers and sisters and we must accompany them. But marriage as a sacrament is clear, it is clear. That there are civil laws that provide if they want to associate, a law to have the health service, to have [...] among them, these things are done. The French PACS, this law [...] has nothing to do with homosexual couples -- homosexual people can use it, they cannot use it, but marriage as a sacrament is man and woman. Sometimes what I have said is confusing. All the same, respect everyone. The good Lord will save everyone -- do not say this aloud [laughs] -- but the Lord wants to save everyone. Please do not make the Church deny her truth. Many, many people of homosexual orientation approach the Sacrament of Penance, they approach to ask priests for advice, the Church helps them to move forward in their lives. But the sacrament of marriage is [...].

[Addressing journalists] Thank you all. I read a nice thing about one of you. I leave this as a little offering before I leave. It was said that this journalist is available 24 hours for work, and she always lets the others go first, her behind, and always gives the word to others and she keeps quiet. It is nice that someone says this about a journalist. And this guy, Manuel Beltrán [Ed. he means José Beltrán of Vida Nueva], said it about our Eva Fernández.