'Simple, not silly': Children's questions become book by Pope Francis

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Loyola Press

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Children may say the darnedest things,
but when it comes to questions about faith they can make even the most learned
parents and priests pause.

“These are tough,” Pope Francis said when
presented with questions from 30 children from around the world.

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, who went through the
questions with the pope, said half the time he personally was stumped when
thinking about how he would have responded. But the pope wasn’t.

The questions, illustrated with the drawings of the children
aged 6-13, and the pope’s answers will be published March 1 as the book
“Dear Pope Francis.”

“What did God do before the world was made?” one
child asked. “Do bad people have a guardian angel, too?” asked

In the book, coordinated and published by the U.S.-based
Loyola Press, Pope Francis responds to those and 28 other queries; some of the
questions are theological, others are practical and a few are about the pope
personally, including what he wanted to be when he grew up.

To the question about what God was doing before creation,
the heart of the pope’s answer is, “Think of it this way: Before creating
anything, God loved. That’s what God was doing: God was loving.”

Questions about Jesus, war and peace and about heaven also
are included, though Father Spadaro was keeping those exact questions and
answers under wraps during a late January interview.

Some of the personal questions made Pope Francis laugh and
the pope’s answers to those questions made Father Spadaro laugh, the Jesuit
said. The pope admits in the book that when he was small he wanted to be a
butcher because the butcher his grandmother bought meat from had an apron with
a big pocket that seemed to be full of money.

The children’s questions are “simple, but not
silly,” said Father Spadaro, who discussed them with Pope Francis and
recorded his answers.

Father Spadaro heads La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal filled with articles on philosophy,
theology, literary criticism and political theory. He has never worked with
young children and said he was in awe of how the pope handled the questions —
taking them seriously and responding to them honestly and clearly.

Some of the pope’s answers, he said, are

“This is important,” Father Spadaro said. “It
says a lot about the magisterium of Pope Francis; he knows his ministry can
reach children.”

At the request of Loyola Press, Father Spadaro asked Pope Francis
last May if he would be willing to do the book. The Jesuit publishing house had
asked Father Spadaro to approach the pope since he had conducted the first big
interview with Pope Francis in 2013.

“The pope said yes immediately and with enthusiasm,”
Father Spadaro said.

Loyola Press then reached out to dozens of Jesuits and
collaborators around the globe, asking them to solicit questions and drawings
from children. Sometimes Loyola had to ship off crayons, markers and paper
because the children had none.

In the end, 259 children in 26 countries submitted
questions. The big batch of letters are in 14 languages and come from children
in wealthy cities, poor rural areas and even refugee centers.

Choosing which letters the pope would answer in the book was
done with input from the children, parents, grandparents, teachers and Jesuits,
Father Spadaro said. But he went into the reserve pile and pulled out a few
more as well.

In August, Father Spadaro read the letters out loud to the
pope in Italian, but the pope also scrutinized the drawings, the Jesuit said.
He commented on the scenes and colors and often had a good laugh over the way
the kids drew the pope.

For the answers, “I was not just taking
dictation,” Father Spadaro said. The pope enjoys a conversation; for the
book, that meant the pope would sometimes discuss the questions and potential
answers with the Jesuit scribe and, often, would return to add something to an
answer after they had already moved on to other letters.

“He’s a volcano,” Father Spadaro said.

The pope would look off into space as if picturing the
children and responding to them in person, usually in Spanish, but sometimes in
Italian, the Jesuit said.

The questions stayed with the pope, who later referred to
some of them in speeches and homilies, he said. The most noticeable example was
the question from 8-year-old Ryan in Canada about what God was doing before

In the pope’s unscripted talk at the Festival of Families in
Philadelphia in September, Pope Francis told the crowd, “A young person
once asked me — you know how young people ask hard questions! — ‘Father, what
did God do before he created the world?'”

“Believe me, I had a hard time answering that one,”
the pope admitted in Philadelphia. “I told him what I am going to tell you
now. Before he created the world, God loved, because God is love.”

Although it might not be “theologically precise,”
the pope said that night, God’s love was so great that “he had to go out
from himself, in order to have someone to love outside of himself. So God
created the world. …  But the most
beautiful thing God made — so the Bible tells us — was the family.”

Pope Francis will have a chance to meet nine or 10 of the
children in late February when he has promised a private audience for some of
the people who took part in the project.

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