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An Interview with Author Alicia von Stamwitz

April 7, 2015
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Alicia von StamwitzAlicia von Stamwitz is an award-winning freelance author and longtime editor with the religious press. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Sun, America, The United Church Observer and St. Anthony Messenger. Her exclusive interviews and profiles of today's most influential spiritual leaders are published internationally. She lives in Missouri with her family.
We had the chance to speak to her about her new book: The Spirit of St. Francis – Inspiring Words from Pope Francis, during a visit to our Toronto offices.
To learn more about Alicia von Stamwitz, please visit her website, a www.aliciavonstamwitz.com
Stefan: You have a new book out, The Spirit of St. Francis – Inspiring Words from Pope Francis. What do you believe is at the heart of the Holy Father’s message?
Alicia: I think from the very beginning what he’s emphasized is the love of God. It is so simple, but he embodies it in everything he does, in his expressions, in the way he speaks and the way he writes. You have this sense that he’s almost like a mother figure trying to bring his flock in and I think that is the heart of his message. Out of that comes messages about forgiveness, messages about welcoming people into the Church, messages about reaching out to people who are on the outskirts, but in a simple sense, he simply says over and over and over again, God is love.
S: How does his core message reflect the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi whose namesake he took when he was elected pope?
A: I think St. Francis experienced that amazing feeling at one point in his life of God’s unbelievable love, and it transformed Francis’ life, that’s Francis of Assisi. From that moment on, he became a new man. People say that he was very radical. But if he was radical, he was only radical in the sense that his eyes were opened to the magnificence of God’s love, and all of a sudden everything looked different, as all of us feel when we fall in love, or have been felt we’re the recipient of someone else’s love, it’s transforming. And so I think Pope Francis’ message about the love of God is something that is deep inside of him, and that very much mirrors that love that Francis of Assisi felt and then shared with the world.
S: Are you aware or do you feel at anytime that there was that kind of a transformation in the Holy Father’s own life, similar to that of St. Francis of Assisi?
A: In some respects he does speak of a time in his life when he was a young man on the verge of adulthood, when he was seventeen and he heard God’s voice. He doesn’t say in any detail what that was about, but you have the sense that he received a call and it was almost something if not auditory, it made a strong impression on him. God was calling him to a life of service. So I do think he had an important moment, and then after that there have just been moments in his life where he’s continued to feel God’s presence and closeness and he writes about that quite a bit.
S: Much of your book involves quotations from Pope Francis, and he’s widely quoted in the media. What does Pope Francis most often address in these quotes? Are they intended for Catholics? For Christians? Who are they aimed at?
A: One of the things I like about his quotes, is that they are very much aimed at the ordinary human person, absolutely anybody reading his quotes could feel like the Holy Father is speaking to them. Because he writes about stuff like people fighting, and in a marriage you’ll throw dishes at each other, I know that happens, but then you’ve got to make peace. And he’ll say, you’ve got to make peace that night, because anger has a tendency to harden overnight. So simply stuff life that, or he talks about someone who feels unworthy of God’s love and goes, “I know what that feels like! Sometimes I have so many sins I can’t carry them with a truck.” He’s basically got a very wide embrace, and he’s just a human being. So you get the feeling that whenever he’s speaking, he’s speaking to people he’s run into in his life and all walks of life: young or older, Catholic, not Catholic, Christian, non-Christian. The good thing about his writings are, you do feel like wherever you are, you’re probably going to find some message that is for you.
S: Do you personally have a favourite quote from the Holy Father?
A: I have a couple, I really like that one I referenced before about in a marriage you get angry at each other and throw plates, and that’s alright! But get back to each other as soon as you can. And the one I mentioned too about how some of us feel so guilty sometimes so laden with sins, we feel like a huge truck couldn’t carry all our sins. But then he has lots of great images; he uses a lot of metaphors and imagery all the time in his quotes. One that I like, he says, “Jesus is like am mountain guide, helping us climb a mountain with a rope. You just get this image of someone who’s steering you on this wonderful adventure.” So that’s another quote I like that’s in the book, those are some that spring to mind. And when he says things like, “The confessional should not be a torture chamber,” I though that was a great one, or in his Apostolic Exhortation, the Joy of the Gospel, he speaks of “sour pusses.” He has a vocabulary and metaphors that really makes me chuckle at times, and at times I think they’re just very clever, they’re very good images, he’s a very good preacher!
S: What would you say the inspiration for your book is and how did you choose the themes for the different chapters?
A: When I looked at the books that were out, that people had done collecting the Holy Father’s works and writings. Most often people will just take all of his homilies from a period of time, so it’s a chronological collection of his homilies, or people will take one or two sentences and create a little daily reflection reader. I didn’t sense that there was something collecting the depth of his thought on a theme. So part of the inspiration was thinking well, he named himself, chose for his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, and we all know some of those themes that are associated with that great saint: simplicity, humility, joy, love and even that sense of care for creation that St. Francis of Assisi had. But there were very few quotes that I picked up that focused on those themes deeply. So I approached the Vatican, I knew the Vatican editors and I asked one of them in a meeting, “Could we consider doing a book of Pope Francis’ writings on themes associated with St. Francis of Assisi, because we haven’t seen anything like that yet. And of course I work with Franciscan media publisher that carries that name. So they said, “Yeah that ‘s a really good idea, let’s talk about doing that.” Together we came up with a table of contents, so it was basically a very organic process. I spent four or five months reading through all of the Holy Father’s writings and speeches, everything that has been collected, even some things from before the time that he was elected pope. So after immersing myself in his writings, the themes came up, they surfaced. The things that most often, that I could pair with themes that were truly, strongly Franciscan themes too.
S: I gather that you have another book that you’re collaborating on with the Vatican, is that correct?
A: Yes! Right after I was finished with this book, the editors at the Vatican publishing house said, “Nice job, could you do another one?” I said, yes! I’ve read all his writing, so I feel like this is going to be a little easier. So the second one is going to be on family, for preparation on the Synod on the Family that will be taking place this October. As well as the meeting in Philadelphia where a lot of families will be gathering. And again, this is intended for ordinary families, it’s a book that collects all of the Holy Father’s writings on marriage, the family, mission and vocation of the family and the world.
S: What more can you tell us about the Holy Father’s upcoming trip to the Untied States and what we can be expecting come September 2015?
A: I think from what I’ve read of the Holy Father’s writings, his emphasis is simply going to be to encourage and affirm families today with great compassion for families that struggle. One of the nice things about putting together this book is that you get the sense that this guy grew up in a normal family. There were five siblings, and they probably fought a lot. And he had extended family in the area, who knows how mother in law got along with his dad or his mom. So when he writes about the family, you get the sense that he knows that it’s not always easy, whether in marriage or in family life. So I suspect when he’s here in Philadelphia, there are going to be some great homilies, and talks that he’ll give that will mostly be empathizing with families and affirming them.
S: Do you think that your new book will be helpful as a supplementary guide to the Holy Father’s collection of thoughts and words?
A: I think so, I hope so. I think because we’ve organized the chapters by themes, so that if you’re in a particularly tough spot in your marriage for example, you might just want to read some of those things that he’s written over the course the last two years. I’m sure there’ll be catechetical material that will come from the US bishops and others for the conference, but I think the Holy Father’s writings are going to touch people’s hearts, because he very much writes from the heart. He’s very much open and sometimes even a little spontaneous, I think he drives his translators crazy because he doesn’t stick to his prepared speeches! But that’s where some of his most colourful anecdotes and metaphors come from. So I guarantee that in some of his writings we will find that there is something there to encourage them and help them.
S: Have you had the opportunity to meet the Holy Father?
A: No not yet, of course it would be exciting! On the other hand, I think the Holy Father himself would say, “You know, don’t spend a thousand dollars to buy a ticket to come and see me in Rome.” If he and I happen to be in the same area and through someone I could have the chance to meet him that would be cool. But I already feel like I’ve met him through his words. You know when you read somebody’s words closely, and listen, and in this world of new media, I’ve watched of course his homilies and watched him live on TV. So I feel like I already know him, he just hasn’t had a chance to meet me yet!
S: If you had the opportunity, what might you say to him or what might you ask him?
A: He’s speaking quite a bit these days about how he feels it’s important for women to have a greater role in the Church. I think it would be pretty exciting, I think he’s often doing things that are surprising to people, so I have a great idea for him: I think he should get together an important meeting. He could decide what it could be about, at which the women outnumber the men. A decision-making meeting, he can decide what it’s going to be, something important. But just to look at a room, speaking of televised events, as a woman, you just get tired of seeing all those men always. He’s surrounded by men, men, men! Let’s get a meeting where the women dominate in a decision-making meeting with the pope. That’s what I would like to ask him to do.
S: Any last thoughts for our readers, in terms of what they can take from the message of not just St. Francis, but Pope Francis?
A: I think my hope and I think the Holy Father’s hope when he speaks, is always that a person will sense the love of God. So probably circling back a little to the beginning, but it seems to me that when he writes and when he speaks, what he is most anxious for is a personal human encounter. He wants to touch the heart of the person in front of him with the love of God that he himself has felt. So I would hope that any reader that has time to just sit quietly and read the Holy Father’s words or listen, this will be in audio too, will feel that touch of God’s love and feel a sense of joy and hope about their own life. Wherever they are, whatever stage of their Christian journey.
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CNS photo/Paul Haring
Kevin Spurgaitis/The United Church Observer.
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