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from issue no. 05 - 2005

The first meeting at the former Holy Office

The Salesian Angelo Amato, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, tells of how the Department celebrated its Pope. And greets the new Prefect, Archbishop William Joseph Levada

by Gianni Cardinale

Monsignor Angelo Amato 
greeting Benedict XVI on his visit to the former Holy Office, 20 April 2005

Monsignor Angelo Amato greeting Benedict XVI on his visit to the former Holy Office, 20 April 2005

In the late morning of Wednesday 20 April, the day after his election, Pope Benedict XVI returned to the Palace of the Holy Office, to the offices where he had worked as cardinal. 30Days spoke with Archbishop Angelo Amato, a Salesian, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since December 2002 and hence the closest collaborator of the then Cardinal Ratzinger, about what can be described as the first visit of the new Pope to a Vatican ministry.
Archbishop Amato, for obvious reasons, was the first cleric to be received in private audience by the new Pope, on 25 April. «There was a great deal of work that had fallen behind,» the archbishop says, «but before starting the Pope said to me: “Let’s exchange a few words so that the photographers can do their work properly…”» The Secretary of the former Holy Office was received in audience also on 29 April and 6 May. Not only that, he happened to meet the Pope by chance also on another couple of occasions in the Palace that looks out on Città Leonina square. «When the Pope returned to his old apartment», he says, «I happened to bump into him, seeing that I live there too. I must say that during those days life for us, his former fellow residents, was cheered up by the crowd that stood there for hours to hail the new Pope, welcomed with liking and great affection».

Your Excellence, let us come to the visit to your offices by Benedict XVI of 20 April. Did you expect it?
ANGELO AMATO: No, it was a big surprise. We had planned a mass of thanksgiving for that morning and instead we got an early call from the particular secretary, Monsignor Georg Gänswein, who told us that the Holy Father would pay us a visit at the end of the morning. This news filled us with great joy and we immediately got busy to ensure that everybody would be present and that the reception of the new Pope was the best possible. The first thing we thought about was what to give the Pontiff.
And what did you decide on?
AMATO: The Saturday a week before, 16 April, was his birthday and then, too, we prepared an address of good wishes in the Congregation and we gave him a floral bouquet of very handsome orchids. On that occasion I permitted myself to accompany the classical ad multos annos with the quotation of an ancient apocrypha of Saint Joseph, which says that the putative father of Jesus lived to be over a hundred years. The then cardinal liked it very much and asked me for the text which he hadn’t known.
So this time no flowers.
AMATO: It wouldn’t have been very original in effect… So we thought of a cake. And I immediately ordered a fine mimosa cake.
One imagines there must have been a lot of people wanting to join in a meeting as important and unexpected as that.
AMATO: In effect the word had gone round in amazing fashion. And many people rang to ask whether they could come to the reception. Obviously we granted the requests of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, of Father Gianfranco Girotti, of Archbishops Luigi De Magistris and Jozef Zlatnansky, who had worked in our Congregation in the past. At a certain point all the residents of the Palace of the Holy Office wanted to come, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough room.
Not least because the Pope has not come alone.
AMATO: Apart from Monsignor Gänswein the Pope was accompanied by the Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, the Substitute Leonardo Sandri, the Secretary of Relations with States Giovanni Lajolo, the Prefect of the Papal Household James Michael Harvey and by the Regent Monsignor Paul De Nicolò. The few chairs we’d prepared weren’t enough and many were left standing.
How did you greet Benedict XVI?
AMATO: The Pope’s love of music is no secret. And already for his birthday our choir - named “Piano” in honor of Saint Pius V – gave its first performance singing Cardinal Ratzinger a fine Ave Maria by the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a song for several voices with some very interesting fughette. Unfortunately four days weren’t enough to widen our repertoire and so we sang the same Ave Maria by the Austrian composer to Benedict XVI also…
Then you had to say some words…
AMATO: Yes, I made a short speech of welcome amply reported by the good Giampaolo Mattei in L’Osservatore Romano the following day. I started with a greeting that seemed to me very appropriate: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Then I expressed all our joy. And allowed myself to say that his election as Pope belied the dictum that who enters the conclave as pope comes out as cardinal… Finally, after referring to the long series of popes of that name and also to the many centuries since the last German pope, I asked him the precise reason for choosing the name Benedict, since at that moment he still hadn’t explained it publicly.
And what did the Pope answer?
AMATO: He recalled Benedict XV who did much for external peace, in the world bloodied by the World War, and for internal peace, within the Church, that had gone through the Modernist crisis. And then he said he was glad that this was his first visit as Pope. At that point I remembered that on his birthday visit, on 16 April, he had confided the hope that the new pope would grant him the possibility of returning to his office for some months, just the time for a tranquil hand-over to his successor. The Lord provided otherwise…
At that moment the cake arrived…
AMATO: It was Cardinal Sodano who reminded us. So I took the mimosa cake and handed it to the Pope. With lots of photos that have been published in various dailies. But the best moment according to me came later.
Which was?
AMATO: The Pope was about to leave the Palace. We were in the elevator. Cardinal Sodano asked: «How many are there of you, a score?» «About forty», I answered. At that point the Pope came in, and added: «It’s a nice little family». I was touched. It’s true that at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he felt really at home. We didn’t see only the big intellectual in him, the famous theologian, the wise pastor, but also a paterfamilias, the father of this fine little family whom everybody could address at any moment. A father, however, who had, who has, great respect and a great delicacy. And that is also shown by a detail I’d like to recount.
Benedict XVI among his former collaborators at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Benedict XVI among his former collaborators at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Please do.
AMATO: When a pope dies all the ministry heads resign from office to await eventual reconfirmation by the new pontiff. Well, the morning before the general gathering of the cardinals in preparation for the conclave, I arrived in the Congregation and noticed the presence of the then Cardinal Ratzinger in the antechamber of his study. So I hurried to greet him, and with admirable humility he asked my permission to enter his office. On the following days I saw to it that I was at the entrance, to accompany him inside the Congregation without him having to ask my permission again…
Your Excellence, with the nomination of the new Pope your Congregation has not lost only its Prefect…
AMATO: In fact. With him we have also lost a valid collaborator in Monsignor Gänswein and I’m afraid – so to speak – that also our very good collaborator Birgit Wansing, who has worked in the particular secretariat of Cardinal Ratzinger for so many years, is destined to change Palace…
Your Excellence, meanwhile on 13 May the nomination of the new Prefect was announced, in the person of the Archbishop of San Francisco, William Joseph Levada…
AMATO: We in the Congregation greeted this choice of Pope Benedict XVI’s with joy. Archbishop Levada knows our ministry well because he is a member of it and because he has worked as an official for six years. Then he knows our country well, since he studied in Rome. As well as being a man of great theological competence, he has notable administrative and pastoral experience also, since he has been bishop for more than twenty years. We know him well, he’s one of the family.

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