by Diane Montagna
Your Eminence, what was your path to the priesthood?
It was a strange path, especially because of its rapidity. Until the age of seventeen, I had never thought of becoming a priest, but a year later the decision was made, and I entered the seminary, despite my parents’ opposition and sorrow. Since childhood I had a strong faith and was in the habit of praying, but otherwise my religious practice was limited to Sunday Mass. Then certain external circumstances led me to participate in the public activities of my parish, and that is how my choice was born.
How did you experience the Second Vatican Council? Can you explain Benedict XVI’s desire for the hermeneutic of continuity?
I experienced the Council with joy and enthusiasm. I was a young priest teaching at the seminary in Reggio Emilia and I also looked after Catholic graduates there. I organized conferences with them to which we invited some of the protagonists of the Council as speakers: many people came to listen to them. After the close of the Council, the climate changed rapidly: even within the Church disputes and protests exploded, and I immediately distanced myself from them. The hermeneutic of continuity, or rather of renewal in continuity, proposed by Benedict XVI best expresses the demand that many, like me, have felt and experienced since those years: to welcome fully the great newness of the Council in the continuity of the Faith and of the Church.
For many years you served as president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. In your opinion, what should be the role and limits of episcopal conferences in the Church?
Episcopal conferences carry out a function of the utmost importance. For they allow the Church to have a voice and a role on a national level, as well as facilitating and intensifying ties among the bishops of that nation. On the other hand, they must not be an obstacle to the action of individual bishops, much less endanger the unity of the universal Church.
The declaration Dominus Iesus, published in the year 2000 under the authority of St. John Paul II, reaffirms that the Catholic Church is the only source of salvation for mankind. It is often criticized. Can you offer us your interpretation of this document?
It is a fundamental document that reaffirms in our own day, which is characterized by relativism, the central and decisive statement of the New Testament that Jesus Christ is our only Savior (Acts 4:12). This is what the Church has always believed, this is the origin of the missionary impulse towards all peoples and cultures. United to Christ as his body, the Church is the sacrament of salvation for the whole human race.
What dangers does the absence of God pose to the Western world?
“With God or without God, everything changes” was the title of a conference we organized in Rome a dozen years ago. Without God, man loses his point of reference, his specificity, and his inviolable dignity. In fact, if God is absent, man is inevitably reduced to a particle of nature, which ends in death. The crisis that is corroding the West from within, despite its economic and technological progress, has its roots here. Regaining faith in God means rediscovering the path to our future.
What, in your view, are the points on which the Church should insist?
The first and most important point is what I have just said and on which Benedict XVI has insisted so much: faith and trust in God, the primacy of God in our lives. The second point, inseparable from the first, is faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our only Savior. The third is man, created in the image of God and made his adopted son in Christ, man who is called to eternal life, man who already today seeks to live as a child of God.
The Church’s moral teaching is increasingly under attack, especially since the publication of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. Some people, even within the Church, want to change it. What is your position?
It is inevitable that Christian ethics will be challenged, in a largely de-Christianized society. Moreover, there has always been an osmosis between the Church and the society in which the Church lives. It is therefore not surprising that disputes over Christian ethics also arise within the Church. However, if we look at both history and current events, we see that Christian faith and life flourish when they remain true to form and act as a leaven that changes the world. On the other hand, they become irrelevant when they give up their form to adapt to the times. It is not a question of standing still and rejecting those developments that are physiological and necessary, but of growing and developing in complete coherence with one’s origins.
What is the primary role of a cardinal in your opinion?
Cardinals are at the service of the Church and especially of the pope and his mission. They must devote themselves fully to this, with complete fidelity and total dedication. Therefore, they have an important role, and fulfilling it requires prayer and the Lord’s grace.
Of all the popes you have served, which one has impressed you the most and why?
Concretely, that is, with a direct and personal relationship, I have served two Popes: John Paul II and Benedict XVI. During the pontificates of the previous popes, i.e., until John Paul I, I was not yet a bishop; I lived and worked in Reggio Emilia. When Francis became Pope, I was already 82 years old and therefore no longer had an active role. I have a deep personal relationship with Benedict XVI, which is still very much alive today, but the Pope of my life was undoubtedly John Paul II. I had the grace to serve him for twenty years, working in close contact with him. Many things struck me about him, beginning with his total trust in the Lord, which led him to face the greatest trials with serenity and without fear. He is now the Saint to whom I entrust myself every day in prayer.