EDITOR’S NOTE: CV is happy to include a new entry in our “Five Questions” series. This interview features Alejandro Bermudez, the Executive Director of the Catholic News Agency. Alejandro spoke with CV’s Stephen Kokx about his experience translating into English the Spanish version of On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the 21st Century. We hope you find this a helpful addition to our ongoing conversation about how to best live out our Catholic faith in the modern world.
Alejandro Bermudez is intimately familiar with the Catholic Church in Latin America. He was raised in Argentina but moved to Peru with his family when he was six-years-old. Though currently residing in Denver, his career in journalism has allowed him to travel the world and meet dozens of Church leaders. While living in Peru, Alejandro covered Pope Francis during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, eventually meeting him on three separate occasions. He currently serves as the NC Register’s Latin America correspondent and is the editor-in-chief of ACI Prensa, the largest and most-visited online Catholic news provider in Spanish and Portuguese. Previously, he has written for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic Pulse.
It makes sense, then, that he was asked to translate into English On Heaven and Earth, an interreligious conversation that took place from January through December in 2010 between Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On Heaven and Earth is published by Image Books and was released in the U.S. and Canada in audio, digital and print formats on April 19th. Unsurprisingly, it has skyrocketed to the top of Catholic and Jewish book charts in North America.
What one takes away from Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka’s conversations will depend on the reader. Their wide-ranging, often times brutally honest back-and-forth shies away from few, if any, topics – topics such as same-sex marriage and civil unions, Jewish deicide, euthanasia, priestly celibacy, globalization, unfettered capitalism and, perhaps least unexpectedly, the devil and poverty. In total, there are twenty-nine brief chapters in this succinct, easy to read, 236-page book.
I suggest you pick up On Heaven and Earth as soon as possible. It is a useful piece of literature that should serve as a sort of reference manual for the decisions Pope Francis makes during his papacy.
You translated this book into English within a month of Cardinal Bergoglio’s elevation to the papacy. Describe how this project became a reality so quickly. Who reached out to who? What was the process like?
I was contacted by Image Books when I was still in Rome covering the conclave for EWTN, after the Pope’s election but before his installation. And I was asked if I could turn around the translation in 9 days. It was the Pope, in a sense, as a Latin American, “my” Pope, so I could not turn it down.
John L. Allen Jr. from the National Catholic Reporter says On Heaven and Earth indicates Pope Francis is a “moderate realist.” Some bloggers say Pope Francis is a sort of enigma. Others contend he focuses too much on exterior works of charity. And some believe he is a radical progressive in the making. Who is right?
Easy: none of the above. I think the confusion starts when you try to define a man, in this case the Pope, by putting him in a conceptual box. We Catholics have become extremely paranoid about defining someone on the “liberal” or the “conservative” side, usually with great injustice. In the words of the great theologian Romano Guardini – who by the way is greatly admired by this Pope, who started, but never finished his doctorate on Guardini – he is an “essential man;” meaning he is someone who believes deeply in going to the basics: conversion of heart. That is both moderate and radical, conservative and extreme; you name it. But it is the hardest thing to do for us Catholics and, according to Pope Francis, the only way to start any real transformation, from “the reform of the reform” of the liturgy to social justice. Without that conversion of heart, all becomes pomp and circumstance, or grandstanding.
You recently wrote about how Pope Francis does not yet have an agenda, and that there is nothing wrong with that. Still, what issues do you anticipate him focusing on? Can we glean anything about his future plans based on his time in Buenos Aires or what he says in this book?
This may be unnerving to many, but the man I know never had an agenda. He had very clear priorities. When he was asked, before going to the 5th General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Aparecida (Brazil,) what should be the take-away of the bishops’ meeting, he said “Jesus Christ and the poor.” These are very clear goals, but they are hardly an agenda. I think it is clear, by his daily preaching from Santa Marta, that he wants to encourage Catholics to take our faith seriously, to be holier.
Some Catholics are going to read On Heaven and Earth and disagree with not only Cardinal Bergoglio, but with Rabbi Skorka as well. What do you say to them? Should Catholics be confident in the direction the Church is headed?
It is natural for a Catholic to disagree with Rabbi Skorka in many things. Cardinal Bergoglio was not endorsing him, he was having a conversation prompted, by the way, by Rabbi Skorka’s assistant at that time. They may very well disagree with Cardinal Bergoglio as well. He was not the Pope then. He is the Pope now, and we Catholics believe in the assistance of the Holy Spirit. But the book shows to me that the “material” over which the Holy Spirit is working is really, really good.
You’ve written extensively about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI over the past 8 years. What are the biggest differences as well as the biggest similarities between him and Pope Francis?
I personally hate comparisons between the two, especially because I see them as very unfair to Benedict. This is something I know Pope Francis does not want. Obviously this Pope, unlike Benedict, has a long pastoral background and a more outgoing personality. But, quoting a good friend of mine, many passages from Bergoglio on this book read much like Benedict on “Light of the World.” Having said that, I prefer to leave the comparison to historians… and only the good ones!