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from issue no. 04 - 2004

A life as a halfback

A meeting with the Secretary of the former Holy Office, Archbishop Angelo Amato, a Salesian. His theology studies and his passion for soccer. From the defense of the penalty area to that of the doctrine of the faith

by Gianni Cardinale

Angelo Amato in the loggia of the palace of the Holy Office

Angelo Amato in the loggia of the palace of the Holy Office

Archbishop Angelo Amato is the second Salesian to hold the post of Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He succeeded Tarcisio Bertone, also a son of Don Bosco, now Cardinal Archbishop of Genoa. The two are from different backgrounds: Amato is a theologian, Bertone a jurist. In character the new deputy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, very reserved despite his southern origins, is almost the opposite of his precursor, sunny and out-going though still a true-blue Piedmontese. Not counting the “profound” differences in their choice of soccer teams: Amato a life-long Milan supporter, Bertone a well-known Juventus fan… But the differences between the two stop there. And they don’t touch the main point. Apart from being linked by deep mutual respect and faithful friendship, Amato and Bertone are united by a shared view on the most delicate knotty problems in the current ecclesial situation.
Fifteen months after his installation in the former Holy Office, Archbishop Amato has overcome his natural reluctance and agreed to be interviewed by 30Days, to speak in particular about the period of his training as a Salesian and his academic years. On 23 April Monsignor Amato participated in the press conference presenting the instruction Redemptionis sacramentum. On some things that must be observed and avoided in connection with the Sacred Eucharist. And on the occasion he stressed, among other things, that this new document expresses the wish of the Holy See that the liturgical reform be practised «as established by Vatican Council II, eliminating those abuses that are against Catholic doctrine».
Your Excellency, how did your Salesian vocation come about?
ANGELO AMATO: Very easily, from the fact that at the beginning of the ‘fifties the Salesians came to my home town, Molfetta, and opened an oratory, a juvenile center and a parish in the neighborhood where I then lived. Automatically, instead of going to the parish where I was registered, I began to frequent the new oratory where there were many boys and one could play games. And it was precisely in the oratory that my vocation was born. But my parents weren’t enthusiastic and so I began to attend the nautical technical institute in Bari. Finally, when I was fifteen years old, I was allowed to enter the Salesian congregation. I did my time as an aspirant in Naples and probation in Portici.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with Archbishop Angelo Amato

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with Archbishop Angelo Amato

Was there any Salesian who particularly fascinated you?
AMATO: Undoubtedly the founder of the Molfetta charity, Don Piacente, uncle of the then President of the Sicilian Region, a priest of great faith. It was he who gave me a biography of Don Bosco in two large volumes, that by Lemoyne, that I read in one sitting. I was a boy but I was already reading a lot, as well as doing sport.
Which sport?
AMATO: Soccer, naturally. I played centre-half, as it was then called. I remember that there was a certain Gaetano Salvemini on my team, who was then to become a fine player and trainer in the B league and even, for a time, in the A league.
Do you support a particular team?
AMATO: Yes, of course, Milan. From when I was little.
So from pre-Berlusconi times...
AMATO: Exactly. Even when Milan dropped down into the B league. At the time I was in Greece and it was difficult to get news about the minor league. Fortunately there was the Makedonia, the Salonika daily, that gave all the results of Italian games, including those of the B league.
Other times. Did you relish the championship just won – alas for us Rome fans - by Ancelotti’s team?
AMATO: With moderation. We are in Rome.
Let’s close the sporting parenthesis and go back to your life as a Salesian...
AMATO: After the novitiate I spent three years in Sicily, matriculating in Classics at the Salesian high school in Catania. Then I studied philosophy and theology in Rome, where I took a licentiate in 1968. Meanwhile on 22 December 1967 I was ordained priest in Rome and I celebrated my first mass in Saint Peter’s, in the Chapel of the Eucharist. And that, in a certain sense, urges me every morning to say mass in the Vatican Basilica. My second mass, instead, I celebrated in the Catacomb of Priscilla, in the Greek Chapel. One could say with hindsight that it was a sign of how Providence enjoys playing with us at times.
How did you go on with your studies?
AMATO: From 1968 I studied at the Gregorian for a doctorate in Theology. In 1972 I started to teach at the Salesian University as junior lecturer. In 1974 I gained my doctorate with a thesis, immediately published, on “The Tridentine pronouncements on the necessity of sacramental confession in canons 6-9 of the XIVth Session”. My tutor was the great Jesuit Father Zoltan Alszeghy.
What do you remember of Father Alszeghy?
AMATO: I remember him with gratitude. He really was a great teacher, a celebrated theologian and a saintly priest. Not least because he succeeded in passing from “pre” to the post-council theological method in what I must say was a grandly balanced fashion. Unfortunately he seems to have been forgotten today. Even if they tell me now that there is an Italian student who is working precisely on Alszeghy for his doctorate.
Father Alszeghy had gone into the theology of grace and the theme of original sin in a particular way.
AMATO: Indeed. And those are topics that also seem a bit forgotten... Or rather, they get spoken about, sometimes, and in a very improper manner. Let’s hope that the anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, that falls this year, will be the occasion for taking up and deepening those themes in line with the great tradition of the Church.
A period that particularly marked your training was the time spent in Greece at the end of the ’seventies, with a bursary to the Ecumenic Patriarchate of Constantinople. Was that your choice?
AMATO: No. At the time I was a young professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Salesian University. It was at the start of the dialogue of charity between Catholics and Orthodox, the theological one was still to begin. In the framework of the cultural exchanges the Ecumenic Patriarchate had made a bursary available and the Secretariat for Christian Unity invited our university to send one of its teachers. I was... “third choice”. The late lamented Don Achille Triacca, the “first choice”, was very busy with teaching and couldn’t accept. And one of our teachers of Patristics refused because he didn’t have time. In the end they asked me if I wanted to go. The invitation was for me an order and I accepted.
Father Zoltan Alszeghy with Don Angelo Amato in the early ’seventies

Father Zoltan Alszeghy with Don Angelo Amato in the early ’seventies

How long was your stay in Greece?
AMATO: Two years, more or less two, 1978 and 1979. The first four months I lived in the community of the Jesuit Fathers of Athens, to learn modern Greek and get through the entry examination to the university; then I moved to Salonika, to the Moní Vlatádon monastery, the home of the famous Patriarchal Institute of Patristic Studies. I was the first and only Catholic to be taken in. I was welcomed by the Igumenos Nikodimos Anagnostou, now Bishop of Ierissós. The Patristic Institute was directed by the celebrated Panagiotis K. Christou, former Minister of Education in the Greek government, the author of a monumental Greek patrology in several volumes and publisher of the works of Palamás. I remember with particular feeling the liturgies celebrated in the small church of the monastery, the site, according to tradition, of Saint Paul’s preaching in Thessalonika. One must keep in mind then that the Patristic Institute of Salonika is the most important theological center of Orthodoxy, more important than that of Athens, and is also more open in the ecumenic sense. To the extent that Professor Christou wanted to publish the outcome of my two years of study on the sacrament of penance in Greek-Orthodox theology in the 16-20th centuries, in the Análekta Vlatádon series.
How did the Orthodox monks treat you during your stay in Salonika?
AMATO: At the beginning with a certain, understandable, distrust, which then dissolved, giving way to a more brotherly, generous and nobly Christian co-existence. I have a grateful memory of that period and I still have truly brotherly friends. We should use these opportunities of acquaintance on the spot more fully. Many prejudices of a psychological kind are overcome in that way and many theological knots also become clear.
At the same time you also enrolled at the civic University of Salonika…
AMATO: Yes, there I attended the lectures on Dogmatics given by Professor Romanidis and those on the History of Dogmas by Professor Kalogyrou. Both honored me with their courtesy and their friendship, though they were of quite different orientation: rigid in doctrine the former, “paternally ecumenic” the latter. Obviously I made the most of the central library of the University – open also in the summer months – well-endowed with books in my field. Let me take advantage of your pages to thank the director of the library and the courteous staff.
Jumping to the present, what is your assessment of the dialogue between Rome and the Orthodox Churches on two such “classical” questions as the Filioque and Petrine primacy?
AMATO: I don’t think the Filioque is an insuperable obstacle. When I was studying in Greece even the professors least open-minded towards us agreed that the Creed with or without the Filioque is the outcome of two theological traditions, western and eastern, both legitimate, that can very well co-exist. I have the impression, however, that when the problem is rekindled on the Orthodox part and there is a request, for example, to annul the decisions on the Filioque taken by the second Council of Lyons in 1274, in reality something else is being asked for...
AMATO: A disavowal, a wiping-away, of all the second millennium of the history of the Church, from the second Council of Lyons to the first Vatican Council, not to mention the “pontifical” Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
Council of Trent included?
AMATO: Maybe not. I don’t think they could disavow Trent. For one simple reason. In the second half of the 16th century the Lutheran theologians of Tubingen sent the Augustan Confession to the patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremiah II [1536-1595, ed], a very likeable figure, begging him to underwrite it so as to create a Protestant-Orthodox axis against Rome. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us, Jeremiah II refused, saying in practice: it’s true that we Orthodox are united with you Protestants in aversion to Rome, but, as for doctrine, we are totally in agreement with Trent. That’s why I don’t believe that Orthodoxy can wipe away the Council of Trent.
Leaving aside the question of the Filioque, what seems difficult to reach is an accord on the modes of exercise of the Petrine primacy...
AMATO: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith organized a scholarly symposium on the matter in 1996, the acts of which have been published. The starting-point was the following statement made by John Paul II in the encyclical Ut unum sint: «I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in the ascertainment of the ecumenic aspiration of the greater part of the Christian communities and listening to the request that is addressed to me of finding a form of exercise of the primacy that, while not abdicating in any way the essentials of its mission, is open to a new situation» (no. 95).
The problem is to clarify what is essential.
AMATO: The essential for the doctrine of the Catholic Church is that the origin of the primacy is divine in nature and that it has the unity of the Church as its purpose. And that is also to be found in the writings of the first millennium: «Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia», wrote Saint Ambrose. The characteristics of the exercise of the primacy must then be understood on the basis of two fundamental premises: the unity of the episcopate and the episcopal character of the primacy itself. Without counting then that the successor of Peter cannot be considered a simple primus inter pares. That said, it’s clear that on the concrete modes of exercise there can be differences in relation to the time and place. It is precisely on this that our Congregation is still working.
When is it thought that the document will be made public?
AMATO: I can’t make forecasts. But the distance to cover is still long because there are some very delicate questions linked strictly to the Petrine primacy, such as papal infallibility and the two Marian dogmas defined by Pius IX and Pius XII. But it’s easy to foresee that the moment the question of the Petrine primacy is clarified then all the other knotty problems in the dialogue with the Orthodox world, including the Filioque, will get untied one by one.
On the subject of the Marian dogmas, as you have already mentioned this year is the 150th anniversary of the Immaculate Conception; in what sense is that dogma, together with that of the Assumption, still an obstacle to ecumenic dialogue with the Orthodox?
AMATO: As for the Assumption there is no difference from Orthodoxy except for the fact that we have dogmatized and they haven’t. In the case of the Immaculate Conception, instead, there is a difference, due chiefly to a different understanding in Orthodoxy of what we call original sin.
What understanding?
AMATO: For Catholic doctrine Mary was conceived, hence the epithet, without original sin. For the Orthodox instead – even if there is no lack of exceptions in history – the catharsis, the purification of the Blessed Virgin takes place at the Annunciation. Sergej Nikolaevic Bulgakov in his book The burning bush devotes a whole chapter to the Marian dogma of the Immaculate Conception, attributing the promulgation of the dogma of 1854, that de facto preceded the dogma of Vatican Council I concerning papal infallibility as matter of faith, to doctrinal Catholic authoritarianism. As he sees it the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is a doctrinal abuse, an incorrect expression of a just idea, that of the personal impeccability of the Mother of God.
Your Excellency, let us close this Orthodox parenthesis. But let us stay with the Marian theme. In recent years you have several times argued with those who would like further dogmas on the Virgin Mary to be defined.
AMATO: I did not argue. I expressed my opinion. It’s true that there are circles, rather marginal ones, that would like three titles to become dogmas at the same time: Advocate, Mediatrix and Co-redeemer. As for the first two I recall that Council Vatican II made them its own in the Lumen gentium and I don’t see why they should be dogmatized, thus adding subsequent and useless problems to the ecumenic dialogue.
And for the Co-redeemer title?
AMATO: In that case the question is more serious. The title of Co-redeemer is neither biblical nor patristic nor theological and has been used rarely by any pontiff and only in minor addresses. Vatican Council II avoided it deliberately. It’s well to remember that in theology the principle of analogy can be used, but not that of equivocality. And in this case, there is no analogy, but only equivocality. In reality Mary is the “redeemed in the most perfect way”, she is the first fruit of the redemption by his Son, the sole redeemer of mankind. Wanting to go further seems hardly prudent to me.
Let’s go back to the subject of your training. Another important period in your experience as scholar was that spent in the United States where you went into the delicate theme of what is known as the theology of religions.
AMATO: In effect I went to the States during my sabbatical year in 1988. And in Washington D. C., in the libraries of the Catholic University and of Georgetown, I began to study the topic you mention. At the time the theme was not much developed in Europe, whereas it was already widely present in publications in English, above all North American and Asian. And it was clear that more than a few theological solutions appeared, and they still look unbalanced, in favour of pluralism and relativism. The difficulty of theologians who live in non-Christians countries with great religious and cultural traditions is understandable. But the pronouncement of Jesus as Lord and sole Redeemer of humanity is a primary and essential evangelical given.
Those studies were of use when you had to make a contribution to the draft of the famous declaration Dominus Iesus, published in 2000, that stirred up quite a lot of argument even from eminent spokesmen of the Catholic Church...
AMATO: Apart from some overheated spur-of-the-moment reactions, now, four years after its publication, everybody recognizes the utility, timeliness and justness of the Dominus Iesus Declaration.
The Dominus Iesus was criticized for its cold, abstract style...
AMATO: There may be a point in getting a clear picture of the tone and idiom of the declaration. First of all it is not a long and detailed document, but consists only of brief extremely compressed chapters. That way of communicating isn’t meant as a sign of authoritarianism or of unjustified severity, but belongs to the typical literary genre of those magisterial pronouncements, which aim to set out points of doctrine, censure errors or ambiguities, and indicate the degree of assent required of the faithful. The clear and simple tone aims at communicating to the faithful that the issues are not matters of opinion or debatable questions, but central truths of the Christian faith, that certain theological interpretations deny or put in serious danger.
The second part of the Dominus Iesus, the ecclesiological part, was particularly criticized...
AMATO: That second part aimed to reiterate what can be described as the specificity of Catholic tradition, as a response to a situation of theological confusion. The Dominus Iesus means to express no more than the synthesis of the essence of our conscience of ecclesial faith.
Another synthesis of the Creed, in a more approachable form, is to be the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church being prepared by your Congregation. Will it be ready, according to schedule, for 2005?
AMATO: I believe so. A complete draft has already been sent to all the cardinals and all the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences, for their eventual comments. After which a definitive version will be drafted and submitted to the Holy Father. If God wills, by the early months of 2005 we shall have the Compendium.
Your Excellency, last November you took part in a study seminar promoted by the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace on the theme of biotech crops. What is your personal view of the question?
AMATO: Listening to the papers and the debate at the November conference I think I understood that so far no absolute harmfulness of biotech crops has been scientifically proven. Even if biotech crops pose serious questions at the economic and agronomic levels. However I believe that man has always tried to modify crops so as to increase production and defend them from parasites.
Are there likely to be doctrinal pronouncements on the matter?
AMATO: Certainly not from our Congregation. Unless a well-founded doubt arises that the bread and wine made from genetically altered wheat and grapes, if used for the mass, may invalidate the eucharistic celebration.
A final question. You attended a preview for the Roman Curia of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ. What impression did it make on you?
AMATO: Let me give you my impressions off the cuff, and they’re positive. The first is of the great professionalism of the film, which is very well “confectioned” and keeps its tension and the viewer’s attention, a difficult thing for religious films. My second impression was that, in fidelity to the biblical text, the film is a realistic meditation, not saccharine or crudely painted, and in no way forced, of the sorrowful mysteries: from Jesus praying in the garden, to the scourging, to the crowning with thorns, to the climb to Calvary and to crucifixion and death. It is the Via Crucis of Our Lord. The bloodshed is nothing but the consequence of those atrocious tortures. The death of Jesus was a true and proper sacrifice. The Lord himself, founding the sacrament of the Eucharist, says so: «This is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, shed for you and for all men for the remission of sins». Jesus shed his blood, and the last drops came out of his side, opened by the lance of Longinus. My last considerations are about the presence of Satan, the real adversary and enemy that Jesus vanquishes with his sacrifice, and the scene of the empty sepulchre and of Christ who rises again. The bandages that bound the dead body of the Lord are not unwound but only loosely empty. The Risen Lord has abandoned them with his glorious body, without undoing them, as Lazarus had to do instead when brought back to life by Jesus.

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