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from issue no. 10 - 2008

CHURCH. The new Secretary General of the IEC

From Sicily to serve

An interview with Monsignor Mariano Crociata: “The task of the Church is to embrace its mission and put itself at the service of our country, with delicacy and respect, with clarity and conviction, so that everyone has the possibility of meeting and loving our Lord Jesus Christ”

Interview with Mariano Crociata by Gianni Cardinale

On 20 October Bishop Mariano Crociata took up the post of secretary general of the Italian Episcopal Conference. He takes over from Giuseppe Betori, promoted archbishop of Florence on 8 September. The appointment of Crociata – who from July 2007 was bishop of Noto – was made known by the Holy See on 25 September at the end of the session of the Permanent Council. The secretary general of the IEC in fact, as opposed to what normally happens in the other Bishops’ Conferences in the world, is not elected by the bishops, but appointed by the Pope – who is the Primate of Italy – on the advice of the presidency and after listening to the views of the Permanent Council. 30Days was able to meet Monsignor Crociata shortly after he took up his new post in the headquarters of the IEC on the Aurelia bypass. The Sicilian prelate, overcoming a natural shyness and a certain reluctance to get involved with the media circus, agreed to answer some questions.

Mariano Crociata [© Alessio Petrucci/Romano Siciliani]

Mariano Crociata [© Alessio Petrucci/Romano Siciliani]

Your Excellency, how did your vocation to the priesthood come about?
MARIANO CROCIATA: I was a parish boy in the late ’fifties, in Partanna, where I grew up after my family had moved from Castelvetrano, the town where I was born. It was a town parish with the vitality typical of those years: I participated in Catholic Action and I was an altar boy. The parish priest kept an eye on me. He was a good priest, not particularly brilliant, but who worked with great apostolic zeal. A typical figure of the time, very active in the rites and celebrations that characterized the Christian life of the town. Already between the fourth and fifth elementary class I went on a summer seminary course. And then when I finished primary school he asked me, “Why don’t you go to the seminary?” It seemed almost natural to move from the parish to the seminary. Then my vocation gradually ripened.
What do you remember of the junior seminary?
CROCIATA: A big shift remains imprinted on my mind. In 1968-1969, the Mazara seminary was full, a striking thing, I think there were more than a hundred lads. Immediately afterwards, in 1969-1970, there was a massive drop, thirty students. In the final years we were a more restricted group, more looked after, with greater participation from us.
It was the long billow of 1968 ...
CROCIATA: Yes, in any case the Mazara upper seminary no longer existed. Or rather, it was no longer in the city, the seminarians studied elsewhere. Now it’s located in Palermo.
Who were the people who went along with you on your journey to the priesthood?
CROCIATA: As a seminarian I grew up in another parish. In those years there was an earthquake in Belice [in January 1968, ed.] with all the turmoil that followed. My family lived for a while in a shed. And the parish was given makeshift quarters. I remember well how these vicissitudes were somewhat shared by everyone. Of those years I remember that the seminary superiors were particularly close, as educators.
You studied at the Gregorian University as a student of the Capranica College ...
CROCIATA: The then bishop of Mazara, Giuseppe Mancuso, had already introduced another seminarian to the Capranica. Since I was doing well in my studies, when asked by the rector, he presented me too. The Capranica and the Gregorian left their mark on me in the sense that it was there that my vocation and my cultural interests ripened.
Those were the ’seventies, rather tumultuous, outside and inside the Church ...
CROCIATA: They were in fact very confused, difficult years. I saw myself and the environment in which I lived evolve from the atmosphere that then characterized everything to some degree, the so called challenge, to an awareness of the value of the Church, also as an institution, and the value of certain basic theological ideas. Throughout my college and university years I was helped and supported by several significant teachers and colleagues with whom I shared the years of training.
What was the subject of the thesis with which you graduated from the Gregorian?
CROCIATA: I submitted a thesis, under the supervision of Professor Peter Henrici, on a regular canon of the Lateran in the first half of the sixteenth century, a native of Gubbio, Steuco Agostino, a humanist who could boast boundless erudition for the period. He published among other things the De perenni philosophia, the central idea of which is that there was an original revelation spoken of in the oldest documents in literature – that was a period in which much of ancient eastern literature was coming to light – that was then lost, and of which more or less substantial fragments remain. This Revelation is fully reconstituted in Christ, and it is possible to see by comparison that those fragments of original wisdom, the prisco sapientia, were part of the revelation. A rather concordant vision, very indulgent towards differences.
You are also known for your work on interreligious dialogue. You were Director of the Department of Theology of Religions at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Sicily in Palermo. How did you become interested in the field?
CROCIATA: Afterwards. In 1984 I was invited by the Dean of the Faculty of Theology in Palermo to teach Fundamental Theology, in which I had obtained a licentiate at the Gregorian. But my work as a teacher has always gone hand in hand with pastoral commitment. First as director of the diocesan catechetical office in Mazara, then as a parish priest in Marinella di Selinunte and then, since 1989, as archpriest and parish priest of the Mother Church in Marsala. I would say that, along with college and university, what has left a more conscious mark has been parish experience, especially in Marsala, where I spent the longest period of pastoral service.
The Cathedral of Noto, Syracuse [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

The Cathedral of Noto, Syracuse [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

How did you manage to combine work as parish priest with academic activity?
CROCIATA: I tried to divide my time as best I could.
You were intent on doing both things...
CROCIATA: Yes. I remember that as a kid in middle school, when I was at the junior seminary, I said it already to my teacher. This is something that has always remained close to my heart. And then things went in such a way that I’ve been able to engage in both activities.
We mentioned your interest in the theology of religions.
CROCIATA: The subject of my teaching has always been fundamental theology. Over the years I have given post-graduate courses on issues of fundamental ecclesiology. In the mid-nineties the theology of religions had by then emerged in significant fashion, I was intrigued by it and felt urged to resume the interest that had stirred in my years as a university student, when I followed Pietro Rossano’s courses. So I gave a course in which I analyzed, among others, the much debated book by Jacques Dupuis, one of the leading experts in the field, on the Christian theology of religious pluralism.
Without going into personal issues, what do you consider the critical aspects of the theology of religions?
CROCIATA: There is the danger of a pluralistic theology of religions which leads to a displacing of the Church, a relativization of Jesus Christ or alteration in the configuration of the Trinity. But the variations are many. The great challenge is to keep intact the Christian theological framework and succeed in understanding, in grasping the plurality of religions as a positive phenomenon within the theological horizon of Christian Revelation – that is, as something that belongs to a design mysterious to us that sees God leading everyone to salvation – without reducing, let alone losing, the uniqueness of Christ and his salvific mediation. I, too, am of the idea that the only path is that indicated by Vatican Council II, according to which the mystery of Christ’s Easter, and thereby the Spirit of the Risen One, works in a way that God knows, as John Paul II was to reiterate, in other religions also, without them coming to the level of Christianity.
Some people have said that the Dominus Iesus declaration is a turning back from Vatican Council II.
CROCIATA: These controversies are likely to fuel break-away positions, the result of a radical pluralism according to which all religions are equal. The Dominus Iesus substantially repeated Vatican II, from which it took a considerable number of citations and of which it restated and brought up to date the teaching on Revelation, on the uniqueness of Christ, on the necessity of the Church.
You were vicar general in Mazara del Vallo, a diocese with a strong Muslim presence. Were you able to test your studies in the field?
CROCIATA: Not really. It’s true that I lived in the so-called “kasbah” area. I lived among immigrants, people whose level of religiosity is quite similar to that of many of our Christians who walk in processions and get their children baptized. The level is quite similar. Among them there are also people of some culture, but for the most part they are people who have come to work, who then settle and live their religiosity as best they can. So we are beyond the possibility of real dialogue. The real experience is that of sharing a life: working, living together, being together, collaborating, gaining mutual respect, experiencing the possibility of peaceful coexistence. The problem there – but it also applies elsewhere – are the new generations, which often show signs of considerable social distress.
Did you experience the possibility of conversion from Islam to Christianity?
CROCIATA: Experience of conversion, no. I did meet people who approached the Church, but one must be careful. In the big cities things can present themselves differently. It’s possible to meet Muslims sincerely interested in Christianity. In Mazara, however, as in other centers in the area, the phenomenon – rare in fact – involves those who don’t intend to return home, and hence results from the need for inclusion in the new environment of living and working.
What is your assessment of the phenomenon of mixed marriages in the light of your pastoral experience?
CROCIATA: Mixed marriage with Muslims, which has been dealt with in a document of the Italian bishops, is not to be encouraged, because over the years people often return to their original cultural situation and social, religious and legal relations, with sometimes dramatic consequences that can fall on the children. So requests are to be treated with great caution. The trend is difficult to predict. The great experts tell us training projects for the new generations of Muslims in Italy are coming. Because the challenge is this: to remain Muslim but integrated in a society that does not have a Muslim majority. That may provide a possibility of coexistence.
The building of mosques is an issue that returns periodically. What opinion have you formed?
CROCIATA: It’s going from extreme to extreme: from reasonless refusal to visibility, to an encroachment that doesn’t fit. In the balance, also in relationships between numerically different presences, I believe that we must ensure that Muslims in our country can follow their religion in an appropriate manner. The problem is a different one.
Benedict XVI with Mariano Crociata, 30 March 2007 <BR> [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI with Mariano Crociata, 30 March 2007
[© Osservatore Romano]

What is that?
CROCIATA: Usually we are talking of religious leaders whose yardstick is the country of origin, not a religious Islam that has its own statute. There is no unique Islam independent of the State. So encouraging an Islam that has an Italian reference becomes a requirement for all. But it’s necessary, despite the complexity, that other religions are let to grow so as to become a condition for integration, inclusion, stability and also for religious development that leads on to dialogue, an opportunity to live together in mutual respect. On the other hand there is another question, cultural and religious at once: one cannot understand the other without understanding oneself. That holds for us and it holds for them. We can’t expect to be recognized for what we are, here in an Italy still with a Catholic majority, by requiring an abandonment of their point of view. But the reverse is also true.
In what sense?
CROCIATA: We cannot pretend, as some do, to deny every assumption, every cultural and religious starting point so as to open up to the other. Because it’s possible to know the other if we remain ourselves. As the document of the Sicilian bishops says on Christian discernment on Islam, it is necessary to “know oneself and to know”. That is crucial. Respect for one’s own dignity, for one’s own freedom, one’s own history, one’s own presence is respect for the other who comes along, with his identity, with his consciousness. There is no other way.
What do you think of the idea of inclusion, even partial, of sharia within our legal system?
CROCIATA: Frankly I don’t understand the idea, aired for example in Great Britain. There are situations, into which one enters, which cannot be changed arbitrarily and abruptly. A cultural and historical perspective cannot be lost without also losing any possibility of communication and true understanding. The situation in which we live is constituted by our Constitution and Italian and European culture. Here we have to ask ourselves whether some values achieved, some breakthroughs that are part of the Christian consciousness and the social evolution of our country and our continent – such as human rights – are truly irreversible or not, for the sake of coexistence, at this point of any kind whatsoever, and above all unstable and mutable.
As an expert on the subject, how have you felt about certain moments of this pontificate, such as the Regensburg lecture, or Magdi Allam’s baptism?
CROCIATA: Benedict XVI has shown unequivocally the fullness of truth of our Christian faith, which must be proposed in accordance with the repeated task of evangelization constitutive of the Christian, in its compatibility with reason, on the one hand, and with dialogue, on the other. The two pairings – faith and reason, faith and dialogue – are not in opposition, on the contrary they require one another mutually.
Your friendship with the late Monsignor Cataldo Naro has been spoken of. What memories do you have of him?
CROCIATA: Shortly before taking up this post I attended the second study conference held in Caltanissetta in his memory, and there the role of the study of history, of sociology in function of the pastoral task of the Church was discussed. In a little communiqué I recalled that he had worked hard to link those areas of research in function of the pastoral mission of the Church. Aldo was a person of truly extraordinary culture, but also with a capacity for profoundly balanced synthesis. We, colleagues and friends, are beginning to understand him better with time. One interesting aspect is that he was a man of generous, free heart, open-minded. A typical aspect of those who have those qualities is that when they find good and meaningful things, worthwhile people, they recognize and encourage them. Without any kind of crudeness and no mean mindedness. That capacity to grasp potential and encourage it, I experienced in person. He sensed that I might be able to go into certain things, might be able to study certain issues, might be able to give. He urged me on, he prompted me. It’s something that moves me when I think about it. He had my intellectual and spiritual growth at heart, also for the Church, as if it were something that concerned him. And he did it with everyone.
Did you expect to be appointed Secretary General of the IEC?
CROCIATA: No. This year has been for me, apart from very gratifying, arduous in that I undertook the episcopal ministry in a diocese, in Noto. I was appointed in July 2007 and was ordained in October. I immediately set to work and gradually got organized. When the nomination arrived, I hadn’t done everything, I still had things to fix.
When did you find out?
CROCIATA: Not many days before the date on which the appointment was made public. It came as a total surprise. It was over the horizon for me. I would never have imagined this request being made of me.
How well do you know Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the IEC President whose closest collaborator you will be?
CROCIATA: I begin now.
And the IEC structure?
CROCIATA: Not much. I came to know the IEC as structure in significant fashion when I was a diocesan administrator in Mazara del Vallo. Then as bishop of Noto I began to have a more organic link.
Muslims praying at the end of Ramadan, in the Umberto I Forum in Palermo [© Agenzia Sintesi]

Muslims praying at the end of Ramadan, in the Umberto I Forum in Palermo [© Agenzia Sintesi]

Did the appointment to Noto come in less sudden fashion?
CROCIATA: Yes perhaps, in that people with a background like mine are taken into account. I then felt resistance and fears. I trusted myself to the confidence of others, to the fact that others believed I could be a good bishop.
With what spirit do you face this new adventure?
CROCIATA: With the capacities I have to understand, go into things, devote myself. With God’s help I’m willing to get involved in this adventure. That’s what I’ve been doing in these early days. I felt immediately at home, helping with what was to be done. I let them tell me what needs to be done.
Are you afraid the media attention you’ll come in for?
CROCIATA: I see myself as a rather shy man. I’ve learned gradually how to speak in public, what with the parish and teaching, now I even sometimes do it with passion, but a certain natural worry always remains.
How do you judge the political and cultural air that one breathes in Italy? Are you also afraid of that?
CROCIATA: No, not afraid. I’m struck by some confusion, a certain disorientation, by the loss of some important landmarks. There is great agitation around, but no one really knows where to go. A truly general feeling. People dashing about and making noise. And in this context, the task of the Church is to embrace its mission and put itself at the service of our country, with delicacy and respect, with clarity and conviction, so that everyone has the possibility of meeting and loving our Lord Jesus Christ.
Even though no president of the IEC was born farther south than Genoa, the press has amply stressed that you are the first bishop from the South to hold the post of Secretary General ...
CROCIATA: I’ve already said it in other interviews: that consideration shouldn’t be exaggerated. I realize that a Sicilian does not have the features and history of someone from Lombardy, for example. However, my nomination is proof, if any were needed, that ours is the Church of all the Italians.

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