Messenger of Hope
An exclusive interview with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, the Holy Father’s chief adviser and closest aide
Ugo Sartorio, OFM Conv.
THE ROAR of Rome’s chaotic traffic is barely audible in the quiet and stately Pius X Hall in Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. During the brief waiting period after having been escorted there by a gentle and discreet sergeant of the Swiss Guards, my eyes fall on an object that seems out of place in this austere yet solemn Hall: it is a white soccer ball circled by a red band which carries the words Lega Calico (Soccer League). The keepsake bears witness to the Cardinal’s passion for the sport, and his strivings to bring greater ethics and fair play to this game, which of late has been rocked in Italy by violence and corruption.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has, for the past two years, been Pope Benedict’s chief adviser and closest aide. I first hear a deep voice approaching from the next room, after which a tall, imposing figure stands in front of me, greeting me with a full-blown smile, for the Cardinal is a man who likes to be with people. We exchange greetings, and the Cardinal immediately enquires about me as General Editor of the Messenger of Saint Anthony, our spiritual mission, and the other friars who direct the magazine. He then expresses appreciation and gratitude for our mission as informers of what is happening in the Church, after which he invites me to sit and the interview begins.
Your Eminence, yours is the second most important position within the Roman Catholic Church. Could you explain to us in simple words what your task involves?
My title is that of Cardinal Secretary of State. The word ‘State’ however, does not so much refer to the state of the Vatican, as to the person of the Holy Father – in other words I am Pope Benedict’s closest aid and secretary. This means that my task is to govern the universal Church internally, both here in Rome and elsewhere, but always in the name and on behalf of the Holy Father. For clarity’s sake, we could compare the Holy Father to an elected Prime Minsiter or a President, and the Secretary of State to both Minsiter of the Interior and Foreign Minister combined.
As Secretary of State I have very close contact with the Pope. I discuss with him a broad range of issues relating to the internal life of the Church, as well as the Church’s relationship with the international community and the various nations of the world.
The expression ‘Secretary of State’ is actually an antiquated one. It is a residue from the days when the pope was a head of state to all intents and purposes. The Holy Father was once the head of the Papal States in Italy, and thus needed a secretary of state. It was for this reason that, after my nomination to this arduous task, Msgr. Luigi Bettazzi, Emeritus Bishop of Ivrea, told me, “Remember to be more a secretary of the Church than a secretary of the State”.
How often do you see the Holy Father?
I see him practically every day, but I always confer with him on Monday afternoons – the fixed time when the pope sits with the secreatary of state to discuss matters in detail. We are also often together during meetings with various Church groups, and during liturgical celebrations. During the Monday afternoon meetings, but also at other times, I discuss with him the various isses facing the Church, like the most important nominations and appointments to be made, and internaltional politics.
At lunch or dinner we talk more freely about our experiences. I take those more informal occasions as opportunities to inform him about my trips and meetings, but above all to convey to him the great affection that people all over the world have for him. For instance, when I was last in Peru to visit eathquake victims I met hundreds of young children at a tent city. They were just delirious about seeing the pope’s representative. I was very surprised about how cheerful they were despite the terrible ordeal they had just been through. They all wanted to give me a kiss to take to the Holy Father. So when I was back in Rome I said to him, “Your Holiness, you’ll have to reserve me a lot of time on this occasion because I have a lot of kisses to give you, hundreds and hundreds of kisses from all those children who kept on telling me, “da un beso al Papa” (give a kiss to the Pope). Being friends, we sometimes also speak about sports, about my family or about the events of the day.
If you had to give a brief description of Pope Benedict’s personality, how would you describe it?
He is a very learned man, not only in the biblical and theological sense, but also in the sciences. He is a very sweet and approachable man, friendly and deeply spiritual. He knows and appreciates the value of friendship, and knows how to cherish it. People who meet him for the first time often have the impression that they are already familiar with him, and this makes them feel at ease with him.
The Holy Father’s latest encyclical Spe Salvi was a surprise in that everyone had expected a document on the social doctrine of the Church. Instead we have this brief but vibrant writing on the nature of Christian hope. What impression has the document made on you?
Benedict is a man who thinks hard, reads assiduously and prays fervently. He has an awesome understanding of theology, and is acquainted with the leading thinkers in academia throughout the world. One need but mention his university career, and his work as Archbishop of Munich. This experience gives Benedict a privileged access to intuitions and a keen awareness of people’s expectations. He has the capacity to engage with the modern world, and his latest encyclical brings this out clearly.
Benedict knows that the Church, living as she does in very troublesome times, needs hope above all, and for this reason the document flowed from him spontaneously, and in such a brief time. He managed to complete it in his elegant German just before the beginning of last year’s summer holidays.
The encyclical is a gift to the Church and to the entire world, and proves just how much the Holy Father is in empathy with the world, with its travails, sufferings, expectations and hopes.
You were also closely acquainted with Pope John Paul II. What do you remember about him?
I first worked with him a lot when I was an advisor to the various Vatican dicasteries. Subsequently, at Cardinal Ratzinger’s urging, I was nominated Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That position gave me access to John Paul’s closest advisers, and even to dine with him frequently.
John Paul was a tireless worker; and often had guests with him during meals, especially at lunch, when he continued conversations that had been broken off in the morning. On those occasions the subject would fall on Church topics, but also on science, and between courses he would sometimes take advantage of the pause to jot down notes on what was being discussed. During dinner he preferred to entertain friends and acquaintances, with whom he would either reminiscence about the past or talk about lighter subjects.
I once asked him, “How do you manage to keep up such a strenuous work rhythm, always in contact with people? Couldn’t you at least spend your lunches and dinners more quietly?” His answer was, “I’m used to this since I was Archbishop of Krakow”.
Besides his indefatigable nature, out late pontiff was also a highly determined man who knew how to make tough decisions. I remember being deeply impressed by his discourse at Nowa Huta, when he was Archbishop of Krakow, and also his speeches in defence of life and human rights.
I always remember his clear stance in favour of the declaration Dominus Jesus delivered during the famous Angelus of October 1, 2000. Some people had advised him against making a clear reference to the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, but John Paul went ahead undeterred, and boldly proclaimed: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Lord and only Saviour.
In also remember his sense of friendship. When I was Archbishop of Genoa, every time I was at the Vatican he used to say to me, “Did you have to go so far away? We used to work so well together, we used to get along…” And I would answer, “But Your Holiness, you were the one who sent me there, I never went there of my own free will…”
It is a beautiful experience to work with outstanding people who trust in you and cherish your friendship.
You have been to Padua and have visited our Basilica. What is your relationship with Saint Anthony?
I was born into a family that had great devotion for Saint Anthony. We used to remember him especially at Christmas because he had the Christ Child in his arms, and whenever we would lose anything it was natural for us to turn to him, the finder of lost objects.
Later, when I was Archbishop of Vercelli, I remember that the people of the city showed great veneration to the Paduan Saint when his relics were taken to our diocese. According to tradition, the Saint had spent a few months at Vercelli as a guest of Abbott Gallus to discuss some theological questions with him, and during his stay performed a number of miracles, so the memory of Saint Anthony is still very strong in Vercelli.
While I was there I also organised an encounter with both primary and high school students. During the event I introduced to them the figure of Saint Anthony as a man who had come to Vercelli as a ‘student’, even though he was actually a priest by then. But it worked, and the students were deeply impressed by the picture I painted for them of Saint Anthony.
I have been to Padua a number of times, and I once celebrated a solemn Mass in the Basilica.
Your Eminence, thank you for having granted us this inspiring interview.
My best wishes to the Messenger of Saint Anthony and to all its readers. I would like them to know that I also pray fervently for the intercession of our dear Saint.
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