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from issue no. 10 - 2007

An interview with the Archbishop of Naples

Hope can flower anew

«The seed of hope seems to be sleeping. But it is always on the point of reawakening». An interview with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, after the Pope’s visit and the meeting promoted by the Community of Saint Egidio

Interview with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe by Gianni Valente

The facts of daily news suggest everyone should avoid rhetoric when speaking about Naples. In the great city under Vesuvius it is the time of disenchantment, the sirens of the “Neapolitan renaissance” have lost their voice. The situation is excellent only for the types who by nature are not discouraged, and are accustomed to rolling up their sleeves.
From 21 to 23 October in Naples there was first the pastoral visit of Benedict XVI, then the visit and the passage of ministers and patriarchs, rabbis, cardinals and Muslim leaders, Shinto monks and statesmen from the North and the South of the world: all summoned to the encounter for dialogue promoted by the Community of Saint Egidio and concluding with the speech by President Giorgio Napolitano. To guarantee that it would not be only a festival of good intentions there was the practical sense of Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, grand impresario of the three Neapolitan days. The apathy enveloping the city clashes with his proverbial dynamism. So much so that city media have begun to shower hyperboles on the new archbishop: Cardinal Tsunami, shadow-mayor, the only unquestioned authority in the city...

Benedict XVI with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Archbishop of Naples, 
in the Cathedral of Saint Gennaro, Naples

Benedict XVI with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Archbishop of Naples, in the Cathedral of Saint Gennaro, Naples

Eminence, when the Pope came it was cold and rainy. But apart from the water, how did it go?
CRESCENZIO SEPE: From the Popemobile, while we crossing the city, His Holiness looked at everything with great curiosity: the streets, the buildings, the balconies where bunting was displayed and from which flowers rained down. He was struck by how even with that dreadful weather there were so many people out on the streets. When he saw Vesuvius all white, he said: «You continue to say that Saint Gennaro has not performed the miracle. But look, more miracle than this, Vesuvius white with snow!». «Vesuvius white», I said to him, «you white». In effect, the Neapolitans cannot remember a snow-covered Vesuvius in October. I am certain that apart from the rain and the wind, a plenitude of blessings has also fallen on the city with his visit, like seeds that will be able to sprout.
The Pope reserved special treatment for you. During the homily he quoted your last pastoral letter.
SEPE: The fact that he deigned to cite my little letter to the faithful shows his approval for our pastoral activity, carried forward in the confidence that Jesus can also make hope flower anew in Naples. The gesture that most affected me was when he embraced me before going up the ramp of the helicopter. Despite the cold, the Pope touched the heart of Naples. He encountered its vital humanity, even in the midst of so many problems: a city full of potentiality ready to emerge, where the dimension of faith is grafted onto a reality of deeply felt popular devotion. Now disillusion and discouragement seem to prevail, because of all the social and political difficulties that have become a daily worry. As the Pope said, violence too unfortunately tends to disseminate itself mentally, insinuating itself into the folds of social living, in the historical quarters of the center and in the new and anonymous outskirts. The seed of hope seems to be sleeping. But it is always on the point of reawakening.
In the face of the problems of society, churchmen at times use a laborious language. As when they talk of the “anthropological issue”...
SEPE: Evil touches us all, touches the Church also. The important thing is that concrete facts follow the words. In order to take the boys off the streets, we are relaunching the oratories in all the parishes again. Places to meet together, to speak with the parish priest, but also to offer the possibility of learning a trade. Job cooperatives are being established, but also computer laboratories. Thirty are already active in the parishes, we hope to reach a hundred by Easter. And then workshops for leather working, schools of iconography, reception houses, and also music and painting workshops to develop the artistic talents of our children, including the art of crib-making. Contacts with companies and businesses are also being intensified, to encourage youth employment bringing the supply and demand of work together. Some young people will also equip the whole diocese with computer technology. They are all expressions of a Church that does not only make speeches. Which, in a context of Christian training, also helps face up to the concrete problems of life.
Both in Naples as well as in the message directed to the Social Week the Pope touched on the topic of social marginality.
SEPE: We speak of the dignity of every individual, of the common good. It is the social doctrine of the Church, always the same.
In Naples the Pope greeted the religious heads come for the prayer meeting for peace organized by the Community of Saint Egidio. You were present at the lunch where, according to leaks to the media, a squabble broke out.
SEPE: What squabble... At table the atmosphere was relaxed and cordial, everyone voiced their own opinion, freely. There was an exchange of opinions, and the Pope said that the issues touched on could be material for a future encounter. And everything finished there. In the speech to the religious heads the Pope repeated that the spirit of Assisi must continue, exhorting the Community of Saint Egidio to continue on its courageous and fruitful path. At these meetings there had never been so many high-level representatives of the Churches and the religions as in Naples. The spirit of Assisi became somewhat the spirit of Naples.
And also in this regard your practical temperament did not fail the occasion...
SEPE: All the new relationships born in Naples during these days don’t deserve to end in nothing, and what was seen was seen. Therefore, on the basis of the spirit of Assisi, confirmed also by Benedict XVI, I announced the initiative of setting up here in Naples a study forum researching into the paths necessary for dialogue and peace. A permanent structure of inter-religious and intercultural dialogue, to open the doors of Naples to the differences between men. With a perspective that from Naples embraces all the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum. And with the clear intention of doing everything to encourage coexistence and peace, in the common witness that no violence can be justified with the name of God. A violent and warlike God does not exist.
The Pope during his greeting of religious heads invited to the International Peace Meeting, organized by the Community of Saint Egidio, at the archiepiscopal seminary of Capodimonte

The Pope during his greeting of religious heads invited to the International Peace Meeting, organized by the Community of Saint Egidio, at the archiepiscopal seminary of Capodimonte

Nevertheless, there are still those who see in inter-religious dialogue elements of ambiguity and “compliance”, of abdication of one’s own identity. How do you see it?
SEPE: John Paul II was already saying it: the first obligation is that of identity. In dialogue one hides nothing, one presents oneself for what you are, otherwise it would be a bogus dialogue.
During the days of Naples, you handed over a church for the Orthodox Russian faithful to Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk. And Kirill invited you to Russia.
SEPE: It is a beautiful and important church, in the center of the city. We gladly offered it for the use of our sister Church of Moscow. Through these concrete gestures we progress towards the full Christian unity willed by the Lord and also sought by recent popes. Kirill said that great changes are happening in relations between our Churches. He said that the offering of the church is a good work, because «people who didn’t have a place to pray now have one ». And he added that these gestures mean much more than the search for agreements on formulas and resolutions. Thus divisions are overcome, by living together. It was enough to see the affection and the gratitude expressed by the Russian faithful present at the delivery of the keys.
Since you have become archbishop of Naples, many have remarked on the energy with which you have launched yourself on your new pastoral task. Is there something that you miss – or even something that you do not miss at all – of the years passed in the Vatican?
SEPE: If one follows the will of God in the circumstances that the Lord presents him with, nothing ever lacks. Certainly, the fact of having returned to my own origins, with the baggage of experience of the universality of the Church that I have been able to gain in these past years, is helping me have positive drive in facing things and circumstances. As von Balthasar wrote, everything takes place in the fragment. And if you don’t throw yourself into the concrete life of the people, touch their problems hands-on, their daily difficulties... Here in Naples I see no other way of witnessing to the Gospel. And it doesn’t work like that only in Naples, I believe.

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