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from issue no. 04 - 2007

An interview with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone

It is still the continent of hope

His Holiness’ Secretary of State speaks on the eve of the apostolic visit of the Pope to Brazil. The lights and the shadows of a Church that continues to constitute more than 40% of the world’s Catholics

Interview with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone by Gianni Cardinale

There is much expectation, in the media circus also, for the first visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Latin America. The Pontiff will go to Brazil, where he will canonize the first native Brazilian Saint and where he will open the fifth General Conference of the Latin-American Bishops, an important moment for a Church that continues to constitute more than 40% of the world’s Catholics. To understand how the Holy See views this delicate mission of the Pope and how it sees the complex ecclesial and social situation in Latin America on the eve of the General Conference, 30Days posed some questions to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a Salesian, Secretary of State of His Holiness and since the past few weeks Chamberlain of Holy Roman Church also.
Cardinal Bertone was concerned with Latin America in the seven years in which he was the right-hand man of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where in practice he received the visits of all the Latin-American bishops come to Rome for the customary ad limina visit. In addition he accompanied Cardinal Ratzinger to a meeting with the Latin-American bishops held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1996. First as Archbishop of Vercelli, and then of Genoa, he several times visited the subcontinent to meet the Piedmontese and Ligurian communities and the fidei donum priests fulfilling their mission there. So he has seen with his own eyes the social and ecclesial situation of countries such as Argentina and Peru, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. As Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone chaired a summit last February in the Vatican with all the apostolic nuncios to Latin America. And that meeting is the starting-point of our interview.

Cardinal Bertone reading his speech at the meeting of the apostolic nuncios to Latin America with Benedict XVI, 
held in the Vatican 17 February 2007

Cardinal Bertone reading his speech at the meeting of the apostolic nuncios to Latin America with Benedict XVI, held in the Vatican 17 February 2007

Your Eminence, how did the February meeting with all of the Pope’s representatives in the Latin American countries go?
TARCISIO BERTONE: It was a valuable occasion for prayer and discussion. Three days sharing thoughts, reflecting and going into things. With realism we didn’t hide from ourselves the situations that are afflicting the countries of the continent: the violence tormenting the large metropolitan cities above all, the drug traffic that is becoming ever more aggressive and powerful, the social inequalities that can’t manage to be stemmed, the unemployment that is always very alarming, the deterioration of education that is hurting the young, the lack of representative democracy and the advancing proselytism of the sects.
A somewhat desolate landscape for what has been described as the “continent of hope”…
BERTONE: But thanks be to God Latin America is not defined by these features, that in fact do look rather depressing. From a social point of view we must recognize that the ferocious military dictatorships that in past decades bloodied the continent luckily no longer exist. And then, from an ecclesial point of view, there are lively Catholic communities, there is also a mature Catholic laity, wisely led by the local bishops, and the number of seminarians and priests is growing. There’s no lack of reasons for hope therefore. And the greatest resource, along with the natural ones and the beauty of the place, is the Catholic tradition of the Latin-American people that retains a certain strength still. Even those who don’t share our faith are well aware that without this precious tradition, present in the history and culture of the Latin-American people, the consciousness of the dignity, the wisdom of life, the passion for justice and the hope against hope that throbs in the heart of its people would be incomprehensible. And the situation would be worse than how it is.
And yet, as you have already mentioned, the sects are spreading like wildfire…
BERTONE: In fact it needs to be stressed that this spiritual legacy is not acquired once and for all. It is subject to the erosion caused by incoherence, by weariness and by a lack of faith in those who accepted baptism and are called on to live it and to proclaim it. The Church cannot cease from its continual process of conversion to the Lord and, therefore, in the process of purification and renewal. The abandonment of the Catholic Church by many who go looking elsewhere for what they hope can satisfy their religious quest poses serious questions about the quality of evangelization, instruction in the faith and the building of its communities.
It’s said that it was the Pope in person who decided that the meeting of the Latin-American bishopric should take place in a shrine, and specifically in the Brazilian shrine of Aparecida. What is the significance of the choice?
BERTONE: It’s true that it was the Pope who decided on it, choosing from the various options proposed by the Latin-American bishops. Perhaps it could be a sign of what to target so as to regenerate the faith in the heart of Latin America. On the continent in fact there still is, thanks be to God, great popular devotion, shown mainly at the Marian shrines. The whole of Latin America is studded with these shrines. Apart from Aparecida in Brazil, we have Copacabana in Bolivia, Maipú in Chile, Guadalupe in Mexico, Luján in Argentina, Chiquinquirá in Colombia, El Quinche in Ecuador, Caacupe in Paraguay, Coromoto in Venezuela, Suyapa in Honduras, and so on… It’s impossible to remember them all. Every country in Latin America, even the smallest, has its shrine where the people go, pray, confess, take communion… They are all big reservoirs – forgive me the expression – of spirituality. And they are a hope for the future also.
Earlier you mentioned the growth of priests and seminarians in Latin America. The fact remains, however, that compared to the rest of the Catholic orbe their numbers remain rather exiguous in ratio to the Catholic population.
BERTONE: It is the Lord who calls his laborers. All we can do is pray that He send us ever more. Our assignment, however, is that of engaging in healthy discernment, to help even economically those who choose to give their lives to Jesus and to His Church. And above all to see to it that they get a human and spiritual training adequate to deal with the priestly life, exalting as it is, it also has its moments of difficulty.
And the notion that the chronic shortage of priests be made up with recourse to married clergy or the ordination of what are known as viri probati?
BERTONE: That matter is not on the agenda. The Latin Church, while respecting and accepting other venerable traditions embodied in Eastern Christianity, continues to hold that celibacy remains an ecclesiastical discipline still valid today. A discipline to strengthen and motivate, not to reject. It’s worth looking at the reasons set out by the Pope in his speech to the Roman Curia of 22 December 2006 on the matter.
So the path of a permanent diaconate that could lead to the priesthood is not currently on the agenda…
BERTONE: Perhaps you are referring to the case of the Mexican diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, where in effect as a legacy of recent decades there is a notable number, unique in the world, of permanent married deacons and where the intention has been shown of conferring priestly ordination on them. It is public knowledge that the Holy See has made it known that this type of “shortcut” is not admissible…
Children of the “sem terra” playing football in Santa Maria da Boa Vista

Children of the “sem terra” playing football in Santa Maria da Boa Vista

Another connected issue is that of native usages that seems to be going full steam ahead in some prominent political circles…
BERTONE: The Church must be concerned to preserve all what is good and true in the different cultures with which it comes into contact. But to idealize certain civilizations of the past, even in polemic opposition to the spread of the faith on the continent, seems naïve to say the least. With all the mistakes that Christians and the churchmen may have made – and they certainly have made them, they also have original sin! – one cannot deny the fact that the spread of the Christian faith in Latin America put an end to some terrible usages – I’m thinking for example of human sacrifice – that were widespread in those civilizations, that some people nowadays would like to resuscitate.
Some people have linked the notification, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on certain writings by the theologian Jon Sobrino with the Aparecida Conference. Almost as if it were a further warning against Liberation theology.
BERTONE: I know of no such connection. I know the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith well and I know that in its activities, especially when it’s a matter of putting out this type of notification, it doesn’t go in for that sort of political calculation. And then it seems to me that the theologian in question has been condemned not as Liberation theologian but for some reductive opinions on the figure of Jesus Christ, sole and universal Savior of mankind. Not least because a certain kind of Liberation theology, not contaminated by extraneous doctrines opposed to the Christian faith – such as Marxist ones – has full entitlement within the Church. Even the theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez – who as a good Dominican was in the church of Santa Sabina last Ash Wednesday to receive it from the Pope – has never been condemned. Some theologians are always asking the hierarchical Church to be humbler – and they do well to remember it, to remind us! – but when they are asked to practice the same virtue and humbly follow the indications of the Magisterium, then the music changes…
The fact remains that, as you yourself mentioned at the start of this interview, poverty is a tragedy still crushing Latin America, and on which the Church cannot not let its voice be heard.
BERTONE: The Church does not forget the poor. It cannot do so. It would go against its founder Jesus were it to do so. This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Populorum progressio encyclical of Pope Paul VI. I believe that it is a happy coincidence that the Aparecida Conference comes during the anniversary. It will be a further reason for meditating on the very fine words of Saint Ambrose: «It is not of your having that you give to the poor. You do no more than render to him what belongs to him. What was given in common for the use of all, that is what you take to yourself. The earth was given to all and not only to the rich». Words cited in the encyclical by Pope Montini, who glossed it as follows: «Nobody is authorized to reserve to his own exclusive use what goes beyond his need, when others lack the necessary». Poverty still remains a scourge in Latin America.
It may be also why in recent years almost all the political elections have been won by candidates and parties of the Left. A progressive shift that the Church looks at with suspicion?
BERTONE: And why ever? The Church is not afraid of labels. But if anything of the contents. If Left governments do something sinister – forgive the pun – if they work to favor the humbler classes, to encourage a more equitable division of the land so it gets cultivated more productively, if they improve the health and education systems, if they work out an employment policy that takes young people out of the drug traffic and slow down the phenomenon of emigration… if in short they do all these things, then such governments can only receive the praise and even collaboration of the Church. The problem arises when these governments aim to resurrect anachronistic and dictatorial regimes or when they become subject to certain cultural currents – backed by strong multinational and media interests – that are spreading global models of ways of life ever more distant and adverse to Christian tradition and which threaten the fundamental rights of the human person and the Church.
I presume you are also referring to the political pressure in many countries to approved laws in favor of abortion in the wake of what has occurred in the federal district of Mexico City.
BERTONE: Certainly. To keep to the metaphor, I don’t understand what is leftwing about spreading laws the effect of which is to get rid of the most helpless, as unborn children are. It is impossible on this point that the Church forget what we are taught by Vatican Council II, at number 51 of Gaudium et spes: «Abortus necnon infanticidium nefanda sunt crimina». However the news we get from Latin America in this field is not only negative. For example a more restrictive law on abortion has been passed in Nicaragua, and it was passed by a party and a political leader – now President of the Republic – with a revolutionary past! We hope that Brazil also follows this path rather than that of the federal district of Mexico City.
On 9 June the Pope will be giving an audience to the American President George Bush. Will Latin America be one of the topics?
BERTONE: Of course. However it’s clear that the Holy See always hopes that there be great respect and great mutual help between North and South America. A great country like the US must take particular care of relations with its neighbors. I must confess that reading in these columns [30Days n. 1, January 2007, p. 28, ed.] certain statements by Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, a Salesian like myself, left an impression on me. In them he invited President Bush and Congress not to pass laws against immigrants. «There’s no benefit in it», he said. «These laws in fact make them disliked by our peoples. The United States is a great nation, but they have to do more to encourage the development of Latin America. Otherwise the void of political initiative will be filled by other emergent powers, such as China, or debatable ones, such as Iran. And so they can’t complain too much when it happens». Words that make one think.
Paul VI signing the Populorum progressio, Easter Sunday, 26 March 1967

Paul VI signing the Populorum progressio, Easter Sunday, 26 March 1967

It’s no secret that negotiations for the signing of a concordat are going on between Brazil and Holy See. Is it imminent?
BERTONE: We hope that as soon as possible a fundamental agreement can be worked out that establishes healthy collaboration between Church and State and that helps resolve the concrete problems that are still at issue.
Your Eminence, the American weekly Newsweek of 16 April published an article on the second anniversary of the election of the Pope as follows: caption: Pope Benedict the invisible; subheading: Benedict has been almost invisible in the places he’s needed most. And in effect reproached the Pontiff for being too Eurocentric and little present in the more dramatic crises afflicting our world…
BERTONE: The caption is truly amazing, more the outcome of ignorance perhaps than of bad faith. In this case yet again there’s no basis for it. The Pope has at heart the fate of the whole Catholic Church, and also that of the whole of mankind. And he makes his voice felt. Perhaps he isn’t fond of doing it in a clamorous way. But in the talks that he has with the great and small of the earth he always reminds them of the duties they have towards humanity. Furthermore the Pope speaks out with detailed relevance on set occasions. It’s enough to read his address to the diplomatic corps on 8 January 2007, the speech to the apostolic nuncios to Latin America on 17 February 2007, the Urbi et orbi message of Easter. In those speeches his concern was the world and he focused on the dramatic issues of poverty, suffering and conflict with effective clarity. But the Pope also makes himself felt in personal messages. It’s enough to read the exchange of letters with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in the run-up to the G8 summit scheduled for early June. In his letter he asks the great powers of this world to show particular concern for Africa which is in danger of becoming an ever more neglected continent. Pope Benedict XVI is not at all an invisible Pope! Quite the contrary!

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