The first apostolic visit of Francis’ pontificate, in July 2013, was to the island of Lampedusa, the Archdiocese of Agrigento. It is a small island in Sicily, a place of landing for many suffering brothers who leave their homeland and their affections, hoping to find a new possibility of life; many of them lose it at sea. Archbishop Francesco Montenegro – then Monsignor and currently Cardinal -, on the occasion, defined it as “the edge of the world, a crossroads of peoples and Europe’s door on the Mediterranean”. And Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the Pope of the geographical and existential peripheries.
The extraordinary Jubilee of mercy has been opened in advance, in an unusual way, on Sunday November 29 in Bangui, Central African Republic, a city the Pontiff declared to be the “spiritual capital of the world”. Here, in the suburbs of human life and dignity, “mercy” finds its original meaning: miser/i + cor/cordis“, “have the heart close to the miserable, those who are suffering”. And God is the closest one to the hearts of those who suffer. In Agrigento, for the beginning of the Holy Year, with the opening of the “Door of Mercy” in the co-cathedral of Santa Croce in Villa Seta will be exposed the “Crucifix”, a work by the artist Alexis Leyva Machado, made with the oars of migrants’ boats. Pope Francis had received it from Raul Castro and has recently donated it to Lampedusa, on the outskirts of South Europe, the promised land for so many desperate people, the frontier of the merciful love of men. In Terris interviewed Cardinal Francesco Montenegro. Archbishop of Agrigento.
Your Eminence, what is the meaning of this extraordinary Jubilee?
“It is the most important and necessary proposal the Pope makes to the Church. In a world where violence prevails, poverty is growing, people with injured hearts, souls, and lives, entire nations which are being devastated by war, leave their land in search of a possibility. The Holy Year is an opportunity for all the believers to really rethink their existence and transform their life attitude into a different, more fraternal one, especially towards those in need”.
Who are those people who are asking for mercy today?
”The poor, people who are suffering, the old poor whose number keeps growing and the new poverties, which have become consistent. There are a lot of people, and their number grows every day, who are in serious economic, material and spiritual difficulties, who have got no education, who are hungry and thirsty, who suffer injustices. There is resentment and violence, there is hatred and so much need for love and tenderness, for the community’s embrace, to really feel as a part of a single human family”.
In practical terms, in daily life, how can one be merciful?
“There are many fields where to share what people have. Not the superfluous, but the necessary and vital. Not to give to eat and drink to the poor as alms, but eat and drink together with the poor. There are naked people who are asking to be dressed. Brothers who are fleeing from war and are seeking asylum. Being merciful means, first of all, being there, with a heart that beats for the last and together with them. You get on Christ’s path, with courage and love, living your faith in Jesus and the Gospel with consistency”.
Francis will go down in history as the Pope of mercy and of the suburbs. Is there anything he said during your meetings that particularly struck you?
“All the words and actions of the Pope are open to mercy, with special attention to the poor and the suffering of any kind. He constantly reminds us that the last are the first ones in the heart of God. And invites us to be where there is need, with God’s caress. Despite the many dangers, the Holy Father departed for Africa. Mercy is the essence of Christianity, of the Gospel lived in an authentic way, as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are witnesses of true life. We must break down walls and go out to meet the other. The enemy is fear”.
There have been numerous controversies these days in the media, provoked by the choice of some school leaders to ban Christian Christmas carols, along with exposing crucifixes or cribs, in the name of inter-religious dialog. The Bishop of Padua said he was willing to “to step back in order to promote brotherhood”. In Brianza, a priest canceled Christmas Mass, saying that the Eucharist is “an act of worship that would have been too strong”. What is your opinion?
“The Eucharist is a very strong message, and it should be one, also for Christians. A strong message of peace, love, and brotherhood. If we lived the Gospel in a serious way, our life would be transformed by love and we would change many of our attitudes. Encounter between religions is a necessity, but getting to know one another is a step towards a peaceful encounter. People have a distorted idea about Muslims. They confuse Islam with fanaticism. With many of them we can discuss questions concerning faith, pray together, and keep in step with each other as good traveling companions”.
The Church was recently devastated by events which have been termed Vatileaks2. There is this feeling that someone, still in secret, has wished to stop and deligittimize Bergoglio’s reformatory action for an ecclesiastical institution and the Vatican to be consistent with the Gospel. What are your thoughts?
“The Church consists of men. Some are weaker, others want to exploit their ministry and others want to hamper the Pope’s evangelizing reform. It should not be surprised, but put everything in order, with patience and determination, as the Holy Father is doing. If Pope Benedict XVI spoke of ‘dirt’ and the need to do the cleaning, this reality exists. The Church does not consist of perfect people. There are those who accelerate on the pedal of evil and we have to squeeze the brakes. Under the Gospel’s guidance”.