Italy. Meeting with the new Head of the Italian Episcopal Conference
«When the Pope calls, one answers...»
The Archbishop of Genoa Angelo Bagnasco tells the readers of 30Days his experience as a priest who in the span of a few months has found himself pastor of the Church of his city and head of the whole Italian episcopate. An interview
Interview with Angelo Bagnasco by Gianni Cardinale
The Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco
The nomination came two weeks after Bagnasco had circulated his first pastoral letter for Lent as Archbishop of Genoa, entitled Persevere in prayer. «Without prayer», Bagnasco writes in the letter, «we thresh about, but to what effect? It’s as if we’d like to do by ourselves, without Him Who makes grow what we sow».
And one certainly can’t say that Monsignor Bagnasco “threshed about” to become the successor – in Genoa and in the IEC – of two great figures in the Italian Church. But the Pope chose him, and, as he has repeated several times, «when the Pope calls, one answers…».
30Days asked Archbishop Bagnasco for an interview in which to tell readers of his experience as a Genoese priest who in the span of a few months has found himself pastor of the Church of his city and Chairman of the whole Italian episcopate.
Your Excellency, you are a true-blood Genoese, but you weren’t born in the city…
ANGELO BAGNASCO: In fact I saw the light in 1947 when my family had evacuated to my mother’s town, and hence of my grandparents, Robecco d’Oglio, in the province of Cremona. My mother Rosa gave birth to me, however, in Pontevico, where the nearest hospital was, only two kilometers away, but already in the province and diocese of Brescia. I was baptized there, but immediately after I was brought to Genoa with my sister Anna who is three and a half years older than me.
When did you get the vocation to the priesthood?
BAGNASCO: I became an altarboy in my parish in the historic center of Genoa, in Piazza Sarzano, when I was six years old. My old parish priest was Abbot Giovanni Battista Gazzolo, first, and afterwards Monsignor Carlo Viacava while his deputy was a young curate Don Gianni Zamiti – the latter two are still alive and overjoyed that their little altarboy has become their archbishop! – who supervised us on afternoons in the parish club where we went to play. And the desire to become a priest was born precisely when I was in elementary school. But I didn’t confide it to anybody. After I went to a co-ed middle school, always with that desire in my heart...
Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco with Benedict XVI
BAGNASCO: When I’d finished the third year of middle school, the moment came for the choice for high school. My parents had the idea of getting me to study to become an accountant, not least because the headmaster of the middle school had promised help in buying the books, given that my family was certainly not well-off. My father Alfredo worked in a bakery and was there till he was 78, my mother was at home. My parents were very happy with the prospect of having a son an accountant, but after the summer holidays I plucked up courage and told mother of my desire, that had become a decision by then, of entering the seminary.
What was the reaction?
BAGNASCO: Much surprise and some worry. They were also afraid I wouldn’t be able to stand up to seminary life which at the time seemed very tough. But then with the help of my parish priest and his deputy they calmed down and so I entered the minor seminary of Genoa in Chiappeto. After the high school exams I entered the old major seminary in Via Porta d’Archi, in the heart of Genoa, where I did the three years of classical high school. Very hard years, but also very fine. Full of merriment, enthusiasm, faith. After passing the final examination for which I had to be prepared in the whole curriculum of all the subjects of all three years, I began attending the courses in Theology. Then priestly ordination, on 29 June 1966, at the hands of Cardinal Giuseppe Siri.
What memories do you have of your teachers of the time?
BAGNASCO: In high school there were some particularly severe teachers, but that our high spirits were able to soften, like the one who taught natural sciences, Monsignor Rebora, or the Latin teacher, Monsignor Gazzo. In the years of Theology we then had very competent teachers who have left an impression, such as the professor of Dogmatics – Monsignor Giulio Adamini, a great teacher still living – and the one of Scripture – Monsignor Alessandro Piazza, afterward bishop of Albenga-Imperia for twenty-five years – and then Monsignor Pesce, one of Siri’s secretaries, who taught us Art History. But they’re just some names among the many that I could mention.
And who was the rector?
BAGNASCO: He was Monsignor Luigi Roba, who with his simplicity and his priestly depth marked our training in a particular way. A man very obedient to the Church, of great faith, who really was a good example.
What memories do you have of Cardinal Siri?
BAGNASCO: Cardinal Siri followed my, our training, because every week, constantly, he would come to the seminary to chair the so-called “club”. He came, met with the seminarians and answered their questions. There was no prepared subject. This happened every week, on Wednesdays. The cardinal was also present at all the big feastdays in the seminary. And how much his regular presence positively affected our training, I’m well aware, but so are all my seminary friends.
Archbishop Bagnasco with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in Genoa
BAGNASCO: I’ve always done the one, the other and the other again… The cardinal sent me as assistant parish priest to San Pietro and Santa Teresa del Bambino Gesù, a city parish, and at the same time to study Philosophy at the Genoa Sate University. After my degree, I began to teach. In the Theological Faculty for twenty-five years, in the seminary high school for seven. Always continuing the parish work, obviously.
What did you teach?
BAGNASCO: Italian to the seminarians. At the Theological Faculty I taught Metaphysics and Contemporary Atheism from 1980 to 1998. That long period of teaching has greatly helped me in facing even the most burning issues in cultural matters. Without counting the positive and stimulating business of always being in contact with young people.
You also had to do with the Federation of Italian Catholic University Students (FUCI) and the Scouts.
BAGNASCO: In effect, always at the same time as my other tasks, for fifteen years I was assistant to the FUCI: from 1980, appointed by Cardinal Siri. And for twenty-five years I oversaw the Scouts of my parish. A great experience, because scouting – for big and small – is a very fine, very incisive method of education.
That you feel you could recommend even today?
BAGNASCO: Definitely, with an eye to the Christian training, that one must always have. But overall it’s a method I recommend to the boys of today.
Have you continued to have contacts with the FUCI?
BAGNASCO: No, because I became bishop. But since I’ve been back in Genoa I’ve had the chance to meet the many university people of that time almost all of whom have families and children today.
In 1985 Cardinal Siri also appointed you director of the diocesan Catechistic Office. With the arrival of the new archbishop Giovanni Canestri, in 1987, did anything change in your mission?
BAGNASCO: In 1985 Siri also gave me the task of setting up ab imis – in collaboration with the Holy See – the Higher Institute of Religious Sciences, created as a result of the revision of the 1984 Concordat for adequately training teachers of religion in schools. Canestri confirmed me in all the posts given me by Siri and furthermore added, from 1990 onwards, that of head of the Office for the permanent training of teachers of the Catholic religion and, in the last three years of his stay in Genoa, also that of director of the Liturgical Apostolate. A glory, the latter, of the Church of Genoa, a Church that has seen the flowering of great figures – such as Monsignor Moglia, Monsignor Cavalleri, Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, Cardinal Siri himself – who had in some way felt the need for a liturgical renewal already before Vatican Council II.
Though with a different sensibility.
BAGNASCO: That’s true, but all of them had it in mind that greater awareness and better participation in the sacred liturgy by the people of God was needed.
In 1995 Archbishop Dionigi Tettamanzi arrived to lead the archdiocese of Genoa.
BAGNASCO: Shortly after his arrival he appointed me Episcopal Vicar and spiritual father of the seminary, freeing me from other tasks. So I left the parish, left the Curia offices and the FUCI and went to live permanently in the seminary, keeping on with the teaching I had. Up to 1998.
Monsignor Bagnasco, military bishop, administering Confirmation to a soldier in Nassiriya during Christmas mass in 2005
BAGNASCO: Yes, there have been some statements that caught the attention of the media, but on the other hand the circumstances required it. On the question of abortion the Church, Catholics and not only they, absolutely cannot keep silent. Once conceived life has all the rights of human life and one cannot absolutely accustom oneself to the idea that it be cancelled. Vatican Council II, in number 51 of the Gaudium et spes, reminds us that «abortus necnon infanticidium nefanda sunt crimina».
In November 2002 then you came out with some very harsh words against the fashion of Halloween…
BAGNASCO: It was more or less at the start of the fashion in concomitance with the feast of All Saints and the commemoration of the dead. It was and is a clearly northern, pagan, fairytale fashion, that is not part of our culture and of which there is no real need. It’s true that we mustn’t and don’t want to be closed to new contributions, but they have to be contributions that enrich our society, not impoverish it. In the case of Halloween it doesn’t seem to me an opening but a capitulation to money-making rather than a cultural importation. That’s why it’s worth giving a word of warning, without wanting to make a crusade of it. The problem of our cultural identity, which for us clearly has religious and Christian roots, is certainly a very important question today. And we are seeing so increasingly.
In the meantime, from 2001, you have also been Chairman of the Board of the daily Avvenire.
BAGNASCO: Yes, I was appointed on the suggestion of the leaders of the IEC. It has been and still is an unquestionably fine, interesting and enriching experience, because it introduced me in a more direct way into the world of newsprint, of the quality press. And then the Board is made up of very high level people.
On 20 June 2003 came your nomination as bishop to the military.
BAGNASCO: It was a sudden appointment. Everything happened in the space of a few days. And for me it was a totally unexpected nomination, that I accepted with surprise and some trepidation. First of all because the military world was totally unknown to me and then because it was a matter of an extensive diocese, covering the whole country and even beyond, with our soldiers on missions to foreign countries. Without considering that the bishop has more than two hundred priests also scattered throughout Italy and the world.
Did you also have worries or reservations of a pacifist nature?
BAGNASCO: Absolutely not. Not least because I am not a warmonger and I believe that nobody in Italy is. And then because soldiers are the first not to want war.
Your appointment occurred shortly before the slaughter of Italian soldiers in the south of Iraq.
BAGNASCO: I started in June, and in November came the tragedy of Nassiriya that confronted me in direct, raw and dramatic way with the reality of terrorism, that has struck and continues to strike at everyone without distinction in a treacherous and cowardly fashion, as we have seen in these recent years.
Archbishop Bagnasco in front of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa
BAGNASCO: That’s true, unfortunately even after Nassiriya I’ve had more than a few funeral masses to say. And I must say that even in the suffering, in the pain of the relatives, fellow soldiers and friends, I have discovered a reality, that of the world of the armed forces, of great humanity and goodness, of great generosity and spirit of sacrifice in the doing of one’s duty with humility and discretion. It’s a world with a great religious sense and great faith. I really must say it: our Italian soldiers, 97 per cent of whom are lads from the center and south of Italy, have a great sense of the family and a great religious sense. At times maybe not fully practiced and lived, but that belongs to human nature.
So luck would have it that you have celebrated not just funerals.
BAGNASCO: No, thanks be to God. Cardinal Tettamanzi used to say that nobody celebrated as many confirmations as me, not even him, though he is head of the largest archdiocese in Europe. And I have celebrated them in Italy but also abroad: in Nassiriya, in Kabul, in Sarajevo, in Kosovo, in Albania. And it has been a great grace. Because these young people in contact with their military chaplain and in the community context of the barracks, the base or the ship, feel their faith resurging and ask to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. These celebrations become a very important moment for them and for all the military community. They become a great occasion for evangelization. In three years I have also administered Baptism to forty-five grown-up young men between the ages of twenty and thirty!
On 29 August 2005 came your appointment as Archbishop of Genoa. In that case perhaps the nomination was not as unexpected as that of army bishop.
BAGNASCO: The newspapers write so many things and it’s not said that they’re always true. However I received the letter from the apostolic nunciature to Italy on 22 August, seven days before the official announcement. And, leaving aside the gossip, journalistic and otherwise, that was going around about me, returning to my native Genoa as archbishop was something wholly unexpected for me.
With you Genoa once again has a Genoese archbishop for the first time after the retirement of Cardinal Siri.
BAGNASCO: That’s so in effect.
Which is also why your reception was generally positive. Albeit there has been no lack of problems. On 24 September, in fact, you took possession of the diocese. And a few weeks later, toward the middle of October, you had to face the question of the mosque...
BAGNASCO: The idea of building a mosque in the heart of the working-class district of Cornigliano was born with my precursor, but nothing had come of it. Then the Capuchin monks of the “Sorriso francescano” proposed a swap to the Muslim community with a more decentralized site. It seemed an acceptable solution to all concerned, but then came the news that behind the Muslim community wanting to build the mosque there was the UCOII [Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy, ed.], notoriously accused of tough and fundamentalist tendencies. Therefore nothing more has been done.
In late October then, in relation to the Festival of Science, the media spoke of your refusal to participate because of an over secularist and scientistic slant to the initiative.
BAGNASCO: I didn’t go because my schedule wouldn’t allow it. And my absence was interpreted as an ideological, polemical refusal. Certainly I would have liked the Festival of Science, which is a very interesting cultural event, to have a more open approach, inclusive also of dialogue with religious, Christian, Catholic thinking. Afterward I met the organizers and I must say that they agreed with my observations.
Then, out of the blue, in mid January this year a member of the Curia joined the Board of an important bank, the Cassa di risparmio di Genova. Something rather unusual...
BAGNASCO: The Fondazione della Carige was to have a new Board and all the members of the Preparatory Council – who are nominated by various local bodies from Genoa and Ponente – asked me to join the Board as a person super partes and a token of gratitude to the Genoese Church. I pondered the proposal and, given that the request came from all the political and social persuasions, I accepted. Clearly, however, it couldn’t be me to join, and so I designated Monsignor Giorgio Noli, episcopal vicar for the service and witness in charity, in my place.
Bagnasco among workers of the Ilva company in Genoa
BAGNASCO: Not so much. The Foundation is a body that encourages good works in the cultural, social, and public assistance spheres by means of considerable grants. And the Church has always had and has a leading role in that sphere.
From 29 January to 3 February you were in Rome for the ad limina visit of the Ligurian Bishops’ Conference. Were you aware that your appointment as Head of the IEC was in the offing?
BAGNASCO: Absolutely not. Media gossip, but not only that, spoke of other solutions.
And yet as early as 19 February your appointment was already being taken for granted in media circles. And the Secolo XIX of 21 February reported that on 13 February you had cancelled all your meetings and visits arranged for the two following days because of an unexpected trip to Rome...
BAGNASCO: Evidently something had happened in those two days. And, as I’ve already said, when the Pope calls, one answers...
On 7 March the Vatican Press Office finally announced the name of the chairman of the IEC for the next five-year term.
BAGNASCO: And so finally the media pressure relaxed.
Not altogether, however. Your nomination came at a delicate moment in the political-cultural debate in Italy: the proposed law on the so-called DICO [Italian acronym for the rights and duties of unmarried couples, tr.], the possibility of a Note “committing” Catholic politicians, the “Family Day”...
BAGNASCO: As I’ve said many times already, no need was felt for a law like that on the DICO: the problems with which it aims to deal can be perfectly resolved within the sphere of private law. To present it then as a Christian way of legislating sounds a bit ridiculous. As for the heralded “committing” Note, it will be discussed at the next meeting of the permanent council of the IEC [the interview took place before the meeting of 26-29 March 2007, ed.]. As regards the so-called “Family Day”, if lay Catholics together and in agreement decide to promote and organize it, and take care to do it in respectful and pro-active fashion, it certainly won’t be the bishops to stop them. They have all our consent and support.