A rosary for the whole world
“The Year of the faith is first and foremost a year when we must pray for faith, and ask the Lord for the gift of it”. A wide-ranging interview with Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. From the ordinations of the Chinese bishops to a ‘campaign’ of prayers for the proclamation of the Gospel in every continent
Interview with Cardinal Fernando Filoni by Gianni Valente
On 19 February last the task of presenting to Benedict XVI the address of homage in the name of the new cardinals created in the Consistory the day before fell to him. On that occasion, His Eminence Cardinal Filoni placed the service of the new cardinals “under the protection of Mary, Mother of Grace”. Now, his ‘strategy’ for living the forthcoming Year of Faith is a simple rosary. A rosary of prayers to be offered for the proclamation of the Gospel on every continent. The easiest way to “ask the Lord for the gift of faith,” for oneself and for others. This is a Campaign of world prayer for the evangelization which must accompany the Year of Faith, to which Pope Benedict XVI gave his own blessing on 11 May, during an audience granted to the National Directors of the Pontifical Missionary Works, who will be the leaders of the initiative in their own countries.
Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, has traveled the world and knows how it works. His confidential nature, the distaste for gossip, the great capacity for work, the promptness in going to the heart of the problems, looking for solutions with a sense of reality are known. And the fact that these qualities do not draw up the outline of a Vatican ‘bureaucrat’, but rather reveal a spiritual wisdom and insight into the things of the Church and the world that is simple and concrete. As rosary beads.
30Days met him in his studio in the historic Palazzo di Propaganda Fide, Rome, overlooking the Spanish Steps. The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples today comprises over a thousand ecclesiastical districts, including the vast majority of dioceses in Africa, Asia and Oceania, as well as universities, seminaries, hospitals, schools.
Cardinal Filoni on the occasion of taking possession of the cardinal deaconship of Our Lady of Coromoto in St John of God, Rome, 23 February 2012
FERNANDO FILONI: God offers many opportunities, and builds our story on the basis of what we are. I frequented the parish church, served Mass for the priests and being with them at the altar I was aware of their sense of dedication. Until one evening the parish priest asked all us altar boys, but will none of you this year enter the seminary? I raised my hand and said: I! There was something of childhood spontaneity in that impulse. But also the fact of having grown up having the faith of my mother and father, in the things of every day, before my eyes, had something to do with it.
The years of your preparation for the priesthood were those of Vatican Council II.
Our superior had us read the news of the Council during meals. The TV, even though in black and white, gave us visually the image of the universality and the varied human diversity of the Church: the pope, bishops and patriarchs of the East who entered St Peter’s in procession. Whites, blacks, bearded, Westerners, Easterners... When I started theology at the seminary of Viterbo, the Council was over. The high-backed chairs that served for the general congregations of the Council Fathers were sent to various seminaries. The theology lecture hall was set up with those that arrived in Viterbo. So we attended the lectures sitting on the chairs of the Council fathers. And we tried to imagine who had been sitting on those seats now occupied by us.
Your episcopal motto is “Lumen Gentium Christus”. It recalls the first words of the dogmatic constitution on the Church, the most important document released by the Council.
We were impressed by the great debate on the Church that had formed the core of the Council: “Lumen Gentium Christus”, all in only three words. The beginning of the conciliar Constitution recalled the mystery and mission of the Church. If the Church does not reflect the light of Christ, it has no reason to exist. We too were asked to proclaim and bear witness to Christ. This is the mission that the Church has also entrusted to me. As a priest, and then as a bishop, and also as nuncio.
After your priestly ordination, you came to Rome to continue your studies. You lived and carried out your pastoral ministry in a parish, and taught in a Roman high school. How do you remember that time?
My bishop had allowed me to go to Rome to complete my studies. I chose to stay in a parish, and not in a college. They were very beautiful years. The parish was that of St Titus, which has now been entitled to San Leonardo Murialdo. I taught religion at the Vivona high school, at the separate branch that then became the Socrates high school. I met hundreds of boys and girls. It was the ’seventies, the time of contestation. For me, who was studying theology, the continuous dialogue with them was a help to compare what we were studying with real life. Also for the youngsters, I think, it was an interesting experience to hear about theology and church history outside of the trivializations that were in many newspapers.
How did you enter the Holy See’s diplomatic service?
When my bishop asked me to return to the diocese – I had been missing for eight years – Cardinal Ugo Poletti, Vicar, with his affable and engaging manner, said: “Your diocese already has plenty of priests! The Secretary of State asks me if any are available…”. It may seem like an accident along the way. But for me it passed also through there, the main thread that traces the life of God within us.
After a period in Sri Lanka, you were sent to Iran. How was that country in those years?
It was the hardest period of the war between Iran and Iraq. The bombings came even as far as Tehran. It was a very violent war, with hundreds of thousands of deaths. The Holy See had an old mission there, since a representative of Pope Urban VIII established himself in Isfahan in 1629 at the request of Shah Abbas the Great, the artificer of a cultural and political Persian renaissance. A presence that always remained one of fluctuating fortunes, up to the point of the establishing of full diplomatic relations between Iran and the Holy See in 1953. There I was able to share the life of the local Christian community, composed of Catholic and Orthodox Armenians, Latin and Chaldean Catholics. For them life was not always easy. But we were very respected. There was the case of employees taken hostage in the U.S. embassy. But that event also created esteem for the nunciature, which faced the difficult issue from a humanitarian point of view, without intervening in the political sphere. And this was appreciated.
After further diplomatic stages (Secretariat of State, Brazil), you were sent to Hong Kong, a privileged point of observation on mainland China. Then it was still widely thought that a large part of Chinese catholicity, under pressure from the civil authorities, was being lead toward creating an independent national church. What was your experience in this regard?
When I was a seminarian, I was impressed by the witnesses of fidelity to the Gospel that came from China. I had read the memoirs of Gaetano Pollio, the Archbishop of Kaifeng who had been imprisoned and expelled in the early years of the Maoist regime, later becoming Archbishop of Otranto, and then of Salerno. I admired how, in sufferings, he had served the Church and loved the Chinese people. Those events came back to my mind, after having been posted to Hong Kong. Those were the years of the opening desired by Deng Xiaoping. Now we see very well how far-sighted Deng’s vision was. The Holy See wanted that its own international position not be identified with Taiwan, where there is a Vatican embassy. So in Hong Kong a ‘Study Mission’ was opened which was to concern itself with the People’s China, apart from with the then British colony and Macao. It was the time when the Church in China was also being reorganized. The Holy See wanted to understand how the situation was evolving. And to show their closeness to the Chinese Catholics who showed their great desire to live their faith in communion with the Bishop of Rome. A bond of communion which the Chinese bishops had continued to confess even during the persecutions.
Fernando Filoni receives the cardinal's hat from Pope Benedict XVI in the Consistory of 18 February 2012
[© Paolo Galosi]
The division was not the result of church dynamics, but of historical and political circumstances. It was a situation of suffering and trial. And you had to help the Church in China, both the so-called ‘underground’ area and the incorrectly named ‘patriotic’ one, to look at the situation from a future perspective. To make myself understood, at that time, I said that the situation of Chinese Catholicism was comparable to a spring whose water, at a certain point in its flow, became impeded, it was divided and found two paths in its flow. One part sought a way of continuing to flow outside. The other found a way of flowing beneath the surface of the earth. The two currents, arising from the same source, however, were destined to find themselves again in the unity of the sea. And the sea – I said then – is the heart of God. The two church communities, if they remained in the faith of the apostles, would then one day be found together united in Christ. Of course, since the two currents were separated there have been many complications. But I believe that sooner or later a solution will be found.
Then, as nuncio, you lived the crucial experience in Iraq. Where you also experienced the bombs.
I was there in the final period of Saddam Hussein’s regime, during which the UN-imposed sanctions to collapse the regime weighed in an incredible way. The voice of the Church was prophetic. We repeated everywhere only what we saw: that in fact the sanctions hit the people, and not the regime.
How do you now re-read the military interventions in Iraq and what followed them, for that area of the world and especially for its Christian communities?
The war in itself was wrong. You can not think of bringing democracy with war. At that time there were conditions for negotiations. Saddam had indicated to me also that this was his request. But like any leader, especially in the Arab world, if you wanted to deal with him you had to avoid humiliating him. The understanding of the situation was lacking. Christians suffered injustices under the regime, as did the whole society. But the regime, to maintain internal peace, at least protected freedom of worship. The war was not justified in terms of political and international justice. Because Iraq had not intervened in the 11 September attacks. And the issue of weapons of mass destruction was a pretext. A month before the bombing began, Saddam obtained from the assembly of tribal chiefs the approval of the law by which Iraq undertook not to develop weapons of mass destruction. We all said it was important that this happened, that it was a sign of his willingness to cooperate. But it was to no avail. Evidently, the war had already been decided. And already then you knew that chaos would come afterwards, and the war destabilized not only the small Christian community, but every aspect of life in the country, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. This is what we still have before our eyes.
After a brief period in the Philippines, you were called to Rome as Deputy Secretary of State. How were the rhythms and methods of working?
The deputy is one of the principal collaborators of the Pope. He answers directly to him and to the Secretary of State. For me it was a very nice period, especially because it gave me the opportunity to get to know Benedict XVI more closely and to have very frequent contact with him, who is a father, a teacher, and is extremely lovable. And those are the riches and the gifts of grace that those who received them carry with them always. And for which you can only thank God. The rhythms and methods, although challenging, were part of the office.
You are now Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. What are the criteria that orient you in the task that was assigned you?
The Congregation de Propaganda Fide is full of history. Those who work here must feel the great legacy of this department that has been and continues to be so important in helping the life of the Church around the world. Its first reason for being is to proclaim the Gospel everywhere. And given that the Church is now rooted also in many of those that were once the mission territories, Propaganda Fide continues to offer its services to the bishops, priests, religious and laity of those particular Churches. It thus contributes to expressing the “Pope’s solicitude for all the Churches”: an evocative formula, which always strikes me. Over time, the younger Churches also gain their own consistency in terms of seminaries, residences, schools, universities, health care in the towns and villages. The proclamation of the Gospel is also expressed in meeting the needs of populations. I see an ancient wisdom in the choice of having entrusted to Propaganda Fide the service and care in favor of new churches, not only with regard to what was strictly ecclesial, but also in supporting material works thanks to the Pontifical Missionary Works, the network born from the intuition of Pauline Jaricot, the venerable who died in poverty on the streets of Lyon just one hundred and fifty years ago.
Is the propagation of the faith comparable to a strategy of cultural and religious expansion?
The dynamics of evangelization itself come from Christ himself. He, the envoy of the Father, sent his disciples to proclaim the Gospel, first in pairs, and then again giving them this mandate fully and definitively before the Ascension. Expansion strategies respond to a commercial or political logic. The inner dynamism of faith, in truth, is not comparable to all of this. You can see it in action in the Gospels: when the first disciples met Jesus they asked to stay with him, to know him, to hear him: “Master, where do you live?”. “Come and see.” And they stayed with him. There was no strategy, no idea of expansion, there was the desire to know him, because no one spoke of God as he. Evangelizing is tiring. St Paul knew it well and our missionaries know it well. Evangelization pays a high tribute every year also in blood, but our missionaries, like the Apostle of the Gentiles, have the consolation of God, like St Paul, who, after many persecutions, had a dream in which the Lord said to him: “Take courage. For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome” (Acts 23, 11).
As Prefect of Propaganda Fide, you find yourself once again dealing with the affairs of the Church in China. The government agencies continue to want to exercise forms of control over the appointment of Bishops. How can you deal with this problem?
You have to leave behind the erroneous idea that the bishop is an official. If you can not escape from this logic, everything remains conditioned by a political vision. To become a party or government official there are determined criteria. Those used for the appointment of a bishop are different. And this characteristic should be respected. What we are asking everywhere, not only in China, is that the bishops be good bishops, worthy of the task that is entrusted to them. And that is that they be men of God who are also capable of an overview on the life of their particular church, to confirm the brethren and ordain priests in the faith and the grace of God. A particular, spiritual suitability, and a psychological maturity, which also involves balance and prudence ,are needed. In the selection of bishops that also occurs in China these are the criteria that are dear to the Holy See. Knowing well of course that the bishops are citizens of their own country, and, as such, must be loyal to their homeland, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but not at the expense of giving to God what is God’s. As successors of the apostles, it is required of them to be faithful in all things to the Church’s doctrine. This is not an ‘order’ of the Pope. The faithful want it first of all. It is the faithful who actually then judge the suitability and dignity of their own bishops: they love them or marginalize them. The precious good that is dear to the Pope and the pastors in China, and that is asked of us by the Lord, is the pastoral care of the people of God, who in China have an extraordinary sensus fidei, purified by years of suffering.
Benedict XVI with Cardinal Filoni at the audience for the national directors of the Pontifical Missionary Works in the Clementine Hall, 11 May 2012 [© Osservatore Romano]
The Church is a reality of communion. It is not a top-down structure, where the only problem is to pass on the orders that arrive from above. The Magisterium doesn’t have the duty to affirm certain ideas or beliefs of the Pope or the bishops. Its proper function is the salus animarum, it is to confirm the people of God in faith and fidelity to Christ, it is to live in communion with the whole Church, in fidelity to the Pope. In China, as elsewhere, where difficulties occur, we must intervene, and perhaps correct, if necessary. But also in this process no one decides by himself. There is the concurrence of the faithful, the consent of priests and bishops. The Church lives in this world and walks in history. It is essential also that on relations with the civil and political realities, bishops, priests, religious and faithful help the Apostolic See by providing elements for evaluation. The only thing that can not be done is to separate and oppose the Successor of Peter to the bishops, or priests to bishops, and maintain the unity of the people God. Here the speech of Lumen Gentium returns: if the Church is the People of God and the Body of Christ, the elements that belong as much to its tradition as to its living reality can not be placed in contrast.
Benedict XVI has proclaimed a Year of Faith. How will you and your department be stimulated by the prospect suggested by the Pope to the whole Church?
We, as a Congregation, look to the Year of Faith from the perspective of the first announcement. And we believe that the Year of Faith is first and foremost a year when we must pray for faith, that is, ask the Lord for the gift of it. Without this, all our works and aid networks that embrace the entire world, especially the missionary, would also lose their raison d’etre. Because of this we thought of a small concrete sign: we will dispense a simple rosary whose intermediate beads between one series of ten beads and the other will be of different colors to represent the five continents, to thereby signify that that series of ten beads is particularly dedicated to the needs of evangelization and of faith in that continent (the colors are: white for Europe, red for America, yellow for Asia, blue for Oceania and green for Africa). We will distribute it all over the world, gathering requests and adherence also through the internet. So whoever wants to, can pray to the Mother of Jesus for the proclamation of the Gospel in every continent. I like to think of the invitation, at Cana in Galilee, that Mary addressed to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you”. If we listen to this call, we are confident that the Lord will not fail to bestow on His Church the best wine of faith throughout the world.