Gerard O’Connell|Colleen Dulle
September 23, 2021

In a Q&A session with Jesuits in Slovakia, Pope Francis revealed that after his colon surgery this summer, some prelates wanted him to die. He also issued a thinly veiled criticism of EWTN, saying the Catholic network’s attacks on him are “the work of the devil.”

I found it sad that the pope has to defend himself. EWTN is based in the United States. Can not the [U.S.] Catholic bishops’ conference defend the pope on this?”

America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell wrote about the pope’s comments and reported that Pope Francis had previously confronted an EWTN reporter about the network’s attacks on him. On this episode of the “Inside the Vatican” podcast, Gerry joins host Colleen Dulle to discuss the pope’s distinction between attacks on him and on his office, and between legitimate criticism and attacks.

Gerry and Colleen also look into Pope Francis’ comments that “some people wanted [him] to die” after his colon surgery and even held meetings to prepare for a conclave.

With the pope facing resistance in both the Vatican and the media, Gerry said: “I found it sad that the pope has to defend himself. EWTN is based in the United States. Can not the [U.S.] Catholic bishops’ conference defend the pope on this?”

Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Colleen Dulle: What did the pope say about EWTN in his meeting with the Slovak Jesuits?

Gerard O’Connell: Well, the question was [about] how he dealt with people who express suspicion of him. And it was said [by one of the Jesuits], “Some people consider you as heterodox, some people as orthodox. How do you deal with people who are suspicious of you?”

He responded in a strange way. He said, “There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.” And then he says: “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I’m a sinner, but the church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil.” He’s speaking about the attacks. [He continues,] “I have also said this to some of them.”

Let’s talk about the line the pope is drawing here, because he says he deserves the attacks because he’s a sinner, but that the church doesn’t deserve them. What do you make of that?

He’s drawing a distinction between himself, Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and himself as pope, as the center of unity and orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. So, one is a personal situation; the other is a role, a central role in the Catholic Church. And he says, me as an Argentinian so-and-so, you can say what you like. I deserve many criticisms. But when I’m acting as pope, it’s a different thing. You’re attacking the church because you’re attacking the center of unity and orthodoxy in the church.

And we should say, there’s an important distinction here between those kinds of attacks and the genuine criticism that journalism requires. He’s drawing a distinction also between attacks and criticisms.

He has never objected to criticism which is given in a good spirit and rais[es] questions, even about how he acts, how he does things. What he does reject are the attacks which really seek to diminish his role as the pope, as bishop of Rome, as leader of the church, which seek to really undermine his credibility in the face of the people.

Now, when you’re a big television channel and you’re broadcasting and you are really downsizing, demeaning, really speaking badly about the leader of the Catholic Church, then this is a different thing than if you’re criticizing just some individual who doesn’t have a position of this nature.

This comment was widely interpreted to be a reference to EWTN, which is the large American Catholic TV network. They also have a few other publications that are owned by EWTN: the Catholic News Agency is one, the National Catholic Register newspaper is another. They have a lot of affiliated radio stations. How do we know that the pope is talking about EWTN?

Well, I think he gave us a clue, a very strong clue, when he said at the end of that statement, “I have also said this to some of them.” I remember very well on the [pope’s] flight to Iraq, Pope Francis came around to greet each of the journalists at a certain point. He reached the EWTN reporter and cameraman, and I think they had the camera on him. And one of them said to him, “Holy Father, we’re from EWTN, we are praying for you.” And the pope said, “Ah, perhaps Mother Angelica”—who is the founder of EWTN—“in heaven is praying for me, but you stop speaking badly about me.” And he said it twice.

Now, what gave me a very clear indication that he was talking about EWTN [was that] he’s using exactly the same phrase in Italian on the plane to Iraq and in Bratislava when he met the Jesuits: sparlare. It’s an Italian word which means “to bad mouth,” “to speak badly,” “to speak ill of someone.” On the plane, he told the EWTN [journalists], “Stop speaking badly about me.” In Bratislava, he used exactly the same word, sparlare, to speak badly. And he said, “There is a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of me.”

You think that because he used the same word in both of those exchanges, it was definitely a reference to that exchange when, as he said, he has told them this before?

What is the key to it is the end of his first sentence, his first paragraph, when he said, “I have also said this to some of them.” He’s talking about some [from] the large Catholic television network.

I want to ask you a little more about this exchange. You were on that flight [to Baghdad]. Did you see this happen?

I didn’t actually see it happen. I saw him going to them, but I wasn’t close enough to hear them. But people who were close told me and I have, as I said [in my article], I have three—I’ve actually got four [now]—confirmations of this. And I’ve double checked. He’s not demonizing a television station as such; he’s demonizing the attacks that are being made. And we know about those attacks that have been made. They’ve been publicized a lot.

What struck me, if I may say, is that I found it sad that the pope has to defend himself. EWTN is based in the United States. Can not the Catholic bishops’ conference defend the pope on this? Have they ever come out to defend when they see their attacks on him? Maybe even the Vatican should have intervened. I know at the [September 2019] meeting of the communications—

The communications dicastery of the Vatican.

Yes, the Vatican communications department.

Right, Michael Warsaw, the CEO of EWTN sits as a consultant [consultor] in that dicastery.

Yes. And there were questions raised [about EWTN] during that meeting, I was told. But in a way it’s sad that the pope has to defend himself.

That others aren’t coming out to defend him.

Yes. And I think it reflects a level of, perhaps, frustration within the pope because he gets constant feedback that this anchor or that one has said this. He’s well aware of what’s being said and by whom.

We should just make it clear who we’re talking about here. Raymond Arroyo, who is a host of his own show on EWTN, has this group called the “Papal Posse” that is basically a group of three people who are extremely critical of the pope. They get on TV and they just rag on him, basically, and they interview his top critics. They’ve brought on Archbishop [Carlo Maria] Viganò; they were big on giving him a platform, especially when he was calling for the pope to resign. They have brought on Steve Bannon; they brought on [Cardinal] Raymond Burke. It just goes on and on.

Well, the problem is that this is not a small television [station] with a small audience. It’s broadcast in many countries. Now why throw such a cloud of suspicion over the chosen leader of the Catholic Church? What is the purpose?

Well, I think that Chris Lamb gets at the purpose really well in his book, The Outsider. It’s that a lot of it was connected to the fact that at the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis was heavily criticizing unrestrained, free market capitalism. And a lot of these folks who had a lot of money and supported the station were opposed to that and wanted to shut him up, basically.

The pope knows that his remarks are going to be published. He feels it’s necessary [to say this]. I mean, the pope is now 84; he’s going on 85. He doesn’t stand for reelection. He’s not courting public opinion. But his task is as the guardian of unity and orthodoxy in the church. And what he says is, “This is the work of the devil.” What is he talking about? He has often explained [that] the devil is the one who creates division, who creates distrust in the community. And that’s what he’s talking about. And this is not in the nature of the Gospel.

In this talk with the Jesuits, Pope Francis also talked about other people who would like to see his papacy end. Right off the bat, when one of the Jesuits asked him, “How are you doing?,” the first question, he answered, “I’m still alive even though some people wanted me to die,” which, I was just like, holy cow, if you’re responding to “How are you?” that way, that’s a pretty bad sign. He was referring to after his colon surgery this summer. Some people had assumed that he was not recovering as well as the official reports were saying, and they started having meetings, preparing for a conclave. He said this to the Jesuits. And I’m wondering if we know any more about that. Who are these prelates? Are these meetings actually happening?

There was a lot of discussion when he went to the hospital. It was such a sudden, unexpected event. Then the information coming from the hospital was very limited, very concise, with not much detail. And so people began to speculate: “Maybe he’s really ill. Maybe he’s much worse than the doctors say. They’re not telling us the truth.” And so discussion went on. The question is, here, some people are praying for the end of his pontificate.

I remember on one trip when we went with the pope, he was told of a prelate in the Vatican who said before the trip, talking with another prelate, “Ah, well, let’s hope he doesn’t come back.” Now this morning, Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin at a meeting was asked what he thought about this information [that some prelates had held meetings preparing for a conclave]. And he said: “Well, I don’t know anything about it. I was not aware of it.” But, he said, “the pope can have information that I do not have.” It even came out in the papers that there were discussions about if it would be the end of the papacy, who will be the next pope. They were putting out names. I think Francis is sensitive to this.

I would be, too.

And he said, “Thank God, I’m well.” These comments about his demise, they’re really centered in the Western world, some in Europe, in North America. It’s not something you hear in Africa and in Asia.

I think that these two stories that the pope shared about EWTN attacking him and then also about these prelates in the Vatican who are looking forward to his successor, they show us that there is quite a strong resistance to Pope Francis, whether inside or outside of the Vatican, and that he knows about it and that he’s talking about it. And that when it does come time for the next conclave, although we don’t think that’s on the horizon, there will be people who are pushing for somebody who’s very different from him. I think that’s important for us to remember for the future.
But as for right now, Pope Francis is pretty healthy. We don’t expect a conclave anytime soon. And it seems like with the way that he’s talking about this, he also doesn’t have any intention of letting these comments and attacks get to him.

Gerard O’Connell

Rome-based associate editor Gerard O’Connell is responsible for planning and producing America’s coverage of the papacy, Vatican affairs and Rome events.