Francis: 'The Church could fall like a house of cards'

Pope Francis has declared himself a "sinner" and said the Catholic Church will "fall like a house of cards" unless it is able to focus more on the "essentials" of preaching the Gospel and less on politics and bureaucracy.

In an unprecedented interview, the Pope, who has established a reputation for directness and humility since being elected six months ago, declared that he was determined to reform the Church but said it had become "obsessed" with issues such as gay marriage, abortion and contraception.

In another characteristically startling admission, he declared himself a sinner. "This is the most accurate definition," he said, when asked what sort of a man he was. "It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner."

There were also some intriguing personal disclosures. He revealed himself as a fan of Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet who converted to Catholicism, and said he loved to gaze at paintings by Caravaggio hanging in the churches of Rome. He considers Johann Sebastian Bach's music sublime, while his favourite film is La Strada by Federico Fellini, the Italian director.

He said he prayed "even when I am waiting at the dentist" and that he decided not to move into the apostolic apartment in the Vatican, where his predecessor Benedict XVI lived, because he would have felt trapped and out of touch.

The papal apartment was "like an inverted funnel", it was "big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others."

He called on clergy to spend more time meeting ordinary people and preaching the Gospel, and less time on bureaucracy. "We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards," he said. "The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials."

The wide-ranging interview was published simultaneously by 16 Jesuit publications around the world in a dozen languages, including English. It was conducted in the utmost secrecy, with even some Vatican officials unaware of its content, and distributed under a tight embargo.

The Pope, the first Jesuit pontiff, said the Church had been guilty in the past of getting bogged down "in small things ... small-minded rules". He was elected in March by his fellow cardinals with a mandate to reform an institution that has been tarnished in recent years by corruption, financial scandal and accusations of intrigue and infighting.

He admitted to making mistakes as head of the Catholic Church in Argentina, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

He said he had a tendency towards an "authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions". He added: "My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults."

He said he had been reprimanded by some Catholics who felt he had not spoken out forcefully enough on issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage. But he said he did not see the need to discuss those issues constantly, because the Church's teachings were clear and he agreed with them. "It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," Pope Francis said. "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.

"The Church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines."

The Pope granted the interview to the Rev Antonio Spadaro, the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal based in Rome. It was conducted in Casa Santa Marta, the plainly decorated Vatican guesthouse where he lives in room 201. He was asked how he felt when it dawned on him, during the conclave of 115 cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, that the voting was going his way and he was going to be elected Pope.

"He felt a deep and inexplicable inner peace and comfort come over him, along with a great darkness," said Spadaro, "and those feelings accompanied him until his election later that day."

The Pope, asked about the issue of homosexuality, reiterated remarks he made at the end of his trip to Brazil in July, when he said, "Who am I to judge?" He said his remarks, interpreted as a dramatic softening of the Vatican's stance, simply reflected the Catechism, which says gays and lesbians "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity".

Pope opens up

"I pray mentally even when I am waiting at the dentist."

"The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but in the end it is like an inverted funnel. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people."

"The thing the Church needs is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle."

"Among the great painters, I admire Caravaggio; his paintings speak to me. Among musicians I love Mozart. Mozart fulfils me. At a different level, not intimate in the same way, I love Wagner. I like to listen to him, but not all the time."

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