The Church today “does not have to worry about being modern, but about being current,” responding to people’s need for meaning and “to the great questions that run through history and will never change.”
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 79, was, from 2016 to 2021, president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, which brings together the presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences from all over Europe. From 2007 to 2017, he was president of the Italian Episcopal Conference. Archbishop Emeritus of Genoa, with a tremendous pastoral experience, Cardinal Bagnasco has participated in several synods and is now a profound connoisseur of the reality of the Church, which he has experienced in numerous travels.
The pressures for a more modern Church, more open to the spirit of the times, are not new. Just as the temptation to marginalize God from history is not unique in what the Cardinal himself defined, in a homily for the feast of San Lorenzo in Genoa, as a “world order without God.” The answer, for the Cardinal, is only one: to return to the Gospel and the big questions.
In this interview with Cardinalis, Cardinal Bagnasco dwells on the prophecy of the Church and her role in society, the challenges for evangelization today, and the cancel culture that has now also targeted faith. The picture of him, however, is not bleak. On the contrary, it is a realistic description of today but done with a gaze imbued with true Christian hope.
By Pope Francis’s will, the whole Church is working on a great synodal journey on synodality. What are your hopes for this synodal journey?
I grew up in Genoa in the historic center bombed by the war. Around the churches, there were alleys, squares, and rubble, places to play. The people were simple, not rich, and generally, they had a sense of God. They saw the space of prayer, hospitality, and charity in the parish. My family – parents, and sister – also received a package of alimony each month that helped the budget. As Archbishop of Genoa, and still today, I often go to the alleys and meet people. People stop me, ask for prayer, say something confidential about them, or express an opinion or a question about today’s world. I always return enriched with humanity and faith. I feel confirmed in my being a Christian and a Pastor. Those people generally don’t have a particular culture but have common sense and unsophisticated beliefs. In its substance, I hope that the synodal journey is like this: that there are many genuine voices without ideologies. Then the Church, founded on the Word of Jesus Christ, not ours, will be helped, and the synodal journey a blessing.
In the local debates on the synodal path, there has also been much talk of greater inclusiveness of lay people and women, even of changing the teaching of sexuality. The Synodal Path of the Church in Germany opened the floor to these issues. What do you think are the central themes on which to focus in the Synod? What is the great challenge for the Church in the future?
Sometimes responsibility in the Church is considered not a pastoral task that Jesus instituted with the sacrament of Holy Orders but a temporal power. This view distorts the concept of participation and co-responsibility. There is a competition that cannot exist. It is not an ecclesiological vision but a worldly one. The greatest challenge, for which it is suitable for the whole community to feel more involved, is the proclamation of the Gospel to modern man, who seems indifferent to the faith. It is a question, therefore, of corresponding, with greater awareness and more unanimously, to the mandate of Christ: “Go into the whole world and preach.” The mission is clear, and it does not admit sophistry. It is not a question of colonizing but of announcing to everyone what everyone has the right to know: God is Love, and Jesus is the Savior who opens up to eternal life. This, however, does not mean changing the Gospel and the millennial patrimony of faith for which the martyrs gave their blood. Sometimes, in certain debates, it seems that only the words are changed, but the substance is often changed. The problem is not, as they say, language but our heart: it will be the warmth of our nature that will warm the hearts of men. Man is nostalgic for the infinite because the world is close to him, he runs after things thinking of filling the void, but he is disappointed. He hopes to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He has the right.
You were president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences and had previously been vice-president. What idea of the Church did you have while traveling around Europe and talking to your confreres about her? What is the most pressing need?
The Christian community can never lack confidence because the Lord said: “Do not be afraid; I am with you until the end of the world.” Situations in Europe are different and depend on history and social and cultural circumstances. There are very lively and cohesive communities that have experienced persecution and martyrdom. There, the still-hot blood of the martyrs helps today’s faith. There are other communities that, at times, faced with the spread of secularism which is living as if God did not exist, seem tempted by a sense of discouragement.
Nevertheless, faith is alive in hearts; communities must grow in communion and missionary enthusiasm. We must also not be deceived by the prevailing narrative: there is no longer a need for God, and man saves himself with progress and technology. The reality says otherwise since the Western man can also be well-off and organized, but he is not happy. He feels he is missing something that does not depend on him but can only invoke from above. He senses that he can be satisfied with many things, but he can lose himself. He can succeed but fail in life. Awareness of this will make Christian communities grow in the faith of the fathers, witness, and mission. Proclaiming the truth of Christ, with its implications, is the first act of LoveLove for the world.
Pope Francis called a consistory last August to talk about the reform of the Curia he promulgated. In what way will this reform impact the universal Church, in your opinion?
It is inevitable that the reform of the Curia, promulgated by Pope Francis, will be a point of reference for the Church in the world. The individual Bishops will have to decline it in the concreteness of their Dioceses, according to the situations and needs, and for the good of their people.
Now and tomorrow, the Ministers of God’s role is what Jesus wanted, which emerges in the Gospel, apostolic writings, and authentic Magisterium. The Second Vatican Council clearly states that Jesus chose those he wanted, appointed twelve, and sent them “so that as sharers in His power they might make all peoples His disciples, and sanctify and govern them” (Lumen Gentium, 19). The Sacrament of the Order, therefore, ontologically configures, in the being of the ordained, to Christ the Head and Shepherd, Priest and Prophet. The substance is this, and the rest is an outline that cannot change any of this.
Today we often speak of a Church that has withdrawn into its positions and lost the triumphant characteristic of past years. Is this new situation a risk or an opportunity for the Catholic Church?
The triumph belongs only to God and consists in giving the life of the Son on the cross. In essence, it is God’s LoveLove for the world. This is the glory of him. On the part of man, his glory is to let himself be loved by Christ, to surrender to his LoveLove for him. The Liturgy is the culminating moment, the summit, and the source of the glory of God and man. He must therefore reflect and make this mystery visible. As far as the Church is concerned, it is a visual and spiritual reality, which is why it lives in history and transcends it. It does not work for his glory but is at the service of man in truth and Love. She is in the world but not of the world. For this presence to be salt and leaven, therefore incarnate, and light and city placed on the mountain, therefore not hidden and worldly, it must have something that the world does not have, a novelty compared to the century. Suppose she lost this difference and assimilated himself to the language and agendas of the time, silencing the supernatural lymph. What would she have to say to the world but repeat his words, his immediate urgencies, his universalistic objectives, his populist methods? It would not be interesting for the world but functional to the world: if she said the secular words, she would be applauded, but if she said the words of faith, she would be silenced or attacked. It also happened to Jesus. Nothing new.
You have often spoken of a world order without God, which wants to exclude God from public life. What must pastors do to combat God’s exclusion from public life?
We must speak of God by bringing out the inconsistency of a world without God. Explain, with patience and trust, that only where God truly exists the human being is honored; God is not the antagonist of human freedom but its creator and the best guarantor. It is increasingly necessary to say that God created us for life, Love, and joy and that He is the answer to these longings of the human heart. It is necessary to show that God’s commandments, the Beatitudes, are not nos but the great yes to happiness and beauty. Nietzsche wrote that he wanted to see in Christians a “more redeemed” face to be able to believe in their Savior: he wished to see the witness of joy despite the trials, the joy of the soul that holds up even to crosses. God, in public life, does not mean a theocratic society. The Gospel has never been presented as a law of the state. It means, first of all, recognizing all citizens’ right to religious freedom, recognizing that the person is not closed in on himself but goes beyond and that the organization of society is not measured only on physical well-being since there are needs for which God it is the origin, and to which only God can answer.
In debates, it is often said that the Catholic Church has a “backward” point of view – you pass the term – on the world, which continues to speak of doctrine instead of understanding people’s needs. Yet, the examples are always the same: from communion to the divorced and remarried, passing through the defense of the Gospel of life, to the point of even challenging the Church with the very proclamation of the Gospel in public life, in the name of a plurality of objectives. How important, then, is it to announce the Gospel today? And how can this Gospel be, and must it be proclaimed?
The Church does not have to worry about being modern but about being current: that is, it must respond to the actual needs of man, those who live in the depths of the heart, such as the desire not for satisfaction but for happiness, the need for meaning, the great questions. that run through history and that will never change. All this is not answered by technology but by religion, the Lord, who has the words of eternal life. These light words make us say with the Apostle Peter: Master, who will we go away from you? Jesus did not seek consent but announced the truth. And he cost him his life! Today there is a tendency to detach the Truth from the person of Christ: this separation reduces faith to emotion and Christ to the teacher of human wisdom, a philosophy that must be adapted to the times. God is Love, says John, but today we do not believe in Love. We are changing it by making it a sentimental and easy poem, forgetting that the other name of LoveLove is sacrifice. And so young people are especially deceived. We tend to forget that if God reveals to me that He is the goal of my existence but does not tell me how to get there, he does not “serve.” But Jesus also told us how to get there, how to live. Here are the ethical implications: they are not abstract doctrines. They speak of me, my present, and my future. They are not grim and merciless denials but describe the way to true life. Contemporary culture has many lights, but it has placed the subject at the center as a measure of truth: it has reduced man to will by weakening thought. And so everything becomes subjective and changing opinion. In this context, we would like the Church to be silent so that people believe that she has nothing to say. But this is not the case: if the Church were silent, she would not love the world. It is not a question of making ourselves judges or believing ourselves better, but of being faithful to God and man. If people hear that we speak without cajoling but with Love, perhaps they will not fully share what is said, but they will feel loved by us and by Someone who is beyond us.
We often talk about the lack of Catholic politicians or Catholic intellectuals. But what role must a politician, a Catholic intellectual, have in society today? How can and should it be present?
The Church is rooted in the world and shares the joys and sorrows of every man: everything that concerns him interests her. In temporal matters, the primary responsibility lies with the laity, who must animate earthly realities in a Christian way. For this reason, they must not be “clericalized.” Their conscience, however, must be formed and informed. If this is true for every layperson, it is even more true for the politician who must evaluate and decide according to his conscience, knowing that his choices cannot contradict the values that spring from faith and that inspire a Christianly inspired anthropological vision. A politician should not engage in active politics without specific expertise and a proven moral honesty; but also without a general culture that allows him to have a broad vision of things, a synthesis of that humanistic thought now neglected. In this perspective, the Church has a long experience of cultural and moral formation, which even goes beyond confessionalism. Many basic themes are the heritage of both faith and reason.
We are faced with the new cultural thrusts, which even lead to denying the contribution that the Church has given to Western society (the so-called cancel culture) and which, within the Church, come to question pieces of doctrine (think of the debate on Humanae Vitae), what can be the position of a bishop, a priest, a faithful Catholic?
The “cancel culture” is simply inhuman since it denies not only the religious history of a people but also the civil one. Human beings all indeed belong to humans, but it is also true that they live in different cultural and social contexts in time and space. The Son of God also became incarnate in culture and history, and he respected customs and doctrines but, at the same time, went further when it came to the truth of God and man. This is why invoking doctrinal changes in the name of different cultures clashes with the acting and speaking of Christ. And when you touch what belongs to the universal being of man, you touch man himself in his depths.
Moreover, Western civilization seems to have a will to power that is disconcerting: this should worry everyone, Christians and non-Christians, as it seems we want to standardize humanity in a unique culture and language; even a single and universal religion is hoped for, implying that everything is equivalent. As for the right of Catholics to participate in public debate and the democratic formulation of laws, even thinkers like Rwol, Habermas, and others have declared this. But, naturally, on one condition: that an “institutional” language is used, that is, that rational arguments are brought forward and not revealed authority.
Finally, the position of the believer, as a Priest and a Bishop, is above all that of fidelity to the deposit of faith, knowing that the “doctrine” does not mortify the proclamation of Jesus. Still, it is the expansion that makes explicit and makes existential faith. Furthermore, it is also a question of using the two ways of truth: faith and reason. Perhaps, on this front, we need to work harder and better. Since not everything that is revealed belongs only to faith but is also part of the universal experience, we should learn not to entrench ourselves behind faith, but also to walk the path of rationality, looking for arguments to motivate Catholic positions, especially in some sensitive issues.