01-03-2013 - Traces, n. 3

Fraternity of St. Charles

From a mountainous region of Italy to the other side of the world, the friendship with Fr. Giussani leads to a call "to live nothing other than Christianity in its simplicity." FR. PAOLO SOTTOPIETRA discusses what it means to succeed his order's founder, Msgr. Massimo Camisasca, and become a brother among brothers, who asks for obedience but knows he is part of a companionship. "Christ is the one at work. I want to respond with all my being to His call."

by Alessandro Banfi

Born 45 years ago in Stenico, a town of a thousand souls in the province of Trento, Italy, Fr. Paolo Sottopietra's horizon today is the world, understood as mission territory and land of new evangelization. On February 1st he was elected Superior General of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo, to succeed Msgr. Massimo Camisasca, "Don Massimo," as his young people continue to call him, now bishop of Reggio Emilia and Guastalla. Sottopietra will be responsible for the formation of the seminarians and the houses the Fraternity has opened in Italy and around the world, from the working class suburbs of Rome to Siberia; from the periphery of Madrid to Taiwan; from Paraguay to the universities of the United States. They care for parishes, engage in charitable work, and teach theology courses. Their charism? That of Fr. Giussani. When Benedict XVI met them in private audience on February 6th, he spoke of Giussani: "I learned of his faith, his joy, the force and richness of his ideas, the creativity of his faith." We reached Fr. Sottopietra in Taipei, during one of his first visits as Superior General.

Fr. Paolo, what feelings fill your heart during this moment?
Above all, wonder. Even though I was prepared in many ways for what is happening, it is still something I don't take for granted, and it makes me reflect deeply. I am experiencing it as God's call. Also, I feel great gladness. In recent months, we have sought to look at what God was doing, to understand what He wanted to show us. Now that He has confirmed His will, I want to respond with all my being.

Do you ever ask: Why me?
It must be that He wants to make use of me. The person who leads is called to give a direction to the journey of the whole community. I want to do it, using what I am, the gifts given to me. Above all, this makes me feel very loved. And, more deeply, I feel that this is the road on which Christ invites me to follow Him, to convert me. The two things coincide: God calls someone to a task to save him, that is, to complete him through what is entrusted to him.

Your place in the world is clear to you...
The fact that Don Massimo was nominated bishop surprised us, and made us reflect on how God was operating. Now that the new decisions have been made, I feel the companionship of my brothers. I begin with the very strong awareness that I am one of them, who certainly as Superior asks for obedience, but who first of all wants to live with them what I ask of everyone. In these weeks, I have felt among us, frankly, such esteem, such friendship, and also such freedom to say what one thinks. All this has comforted me.

Benedict XVI announced to the world his decision to withdraw just a few days after the audience he granted you at the end of the Assembly in which you were selected as successor. The vicissitudes of the Fraternity and that of the Pope have touched in some way.
The encounter with the Pope was a very special moment, entirely unpredictable. We arrived at the General Audience in the morning, in Nervi Hall. At the end, he met us in a little sitting room that he had prepared on the first floor, with 20 chairs: 18 for us, plus 2 others, one for Fr. Julián Carrón, one for Msgr. Camisasca, all in front of the Pope. While we were waiting for him, I was told, "He will be very tired when he arrives, so we have to be very brief." It was only then that I realized I would have the opportunity to greet him. I tried to tell him about the gratitude I had inside. The Pope expressed great joy with his whole being, above all with his eyes, very luminous. The words he spoke to us will remain a gift for the whole Movement, especially what he said about Fr. Giussani, remembering the creativity of his faith and the power of his ideas, and then the things he said about the priestly formation work of Fr. Massimo, holding it up as a model example of care for vocations.

What about your personal encounter?
He told me, "You have a great responsibility. The Lord will help you." I told him that I desired to learn from him the gladness with which he bore the burden of the Church. I have thought over this conversation a great deal since the announcement of his withdrawal, and I confirm what I told him. His gesture expresses a freedom in which I, too, want to grow, the freedom of one who obeys the Spirit. He also asked if I still had contacts with the University of Eichstätt, where I studied his theological thought, after seminary. His attention amazed me.

So you are a Ratzinger scholar?
This arm of my studies was an apt suggestion of Javier Prades. After I finished my B.A., I was looking for an author who would communicate to me a synthetic vision of theology. I set out to do a doctorate at the newly founded Catholic University of Eichstätt, in Bavaria, whose rector was Dr. Nikolaus Lobkowicz. My thesis gave me the opportunity to study in depth the work of the then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And in the last years in which Ratzinger was cardinal, I participated in encounters with his former students. In the recent years, the Pope invited us to Castel Gandolfo every summer for three days of work.

So you have experienced his thoughfulness during your meetings, and the power of his thought in your studies.
In those years, Ratzinger taught me how to think. His is a rigorous and free method of approaching theology, never abstract. Reading his articles, I realized how, for Ratzinger, no questions were ever useless, not even those posed badly, full of anger, or ideological. With him I learned to listen. In every position, there is a shred of truth. Another thing: for him, the first step to finding a solution is to look at the history of the Church. For Ratzinger, the bond with tradition is the springboard of innovation. His thought is as far as possible from being deductive or "dogmatic;" it is deeply bound to the life of the Church.

In the collegial vote, Msgr. Camisasca was decisive in the consensus for your election.
Fr. Massimo was the person with whom I shared everything. Even back in my seminary years, he involved me together with others in a constant work of judgment on the Fraternity. This is a characteristic of his: he risks taking on "travel companions" much younger than he. In these years, he cared for each of us personally. He offered us a friendship, correcting and guiding us. None of us had a distant or superficial relationship with him. Through his friendship, however, he bound us to the objectivity of a reflection, to the teaching with which he helped us to know ourselves, the ideal to which we want to adhere forever. Lastly, he sent us to 20 countries in the world, launching us into a work of extraordinary evangelization, to serve the mission of the Church. In all these ways, he has been a true father to us.

And what would you say about Fr. Giussani?
The Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo would not exist without him. Fr. Massimo is his son, and the charism of our Fraternity is his. In him, we acknowledge our origin and we want to continue to nourish ourselves with his thought. Fr. Massimo always says, "I have lived with you what Fr. Giussani lived with me." In this way, he did an important work: showing concretely that that charism is also suitable for the formation of young men to the priesthood. I had the good fortune to meet Fr. Giussani during my years of study at the Catholic University of Milan. I was 19 years old when we met, and I discovered that the words of the tradition that had been handed on to me in my family were alive. They were true. When I heard him speak and above all answer our questions, I always had the impression of being before a Don Bosco, a Saint Philip Neri. I thought: I am having the same experience as the young people who listened to those saints. There was something in him that put us directly in contact with the great tradition of the Church, in an implicit and entirely natural way. This excited me. In more recent years, I participated with him in the Presidential Council of Communion and Liberation, and saw his capacity for judgment on the life of the Movement, observing how he faced the problems of the people. He accompanied all my formation.

If I think of my small personal experience, the Fraternity of Saint Charles has been important because of the way many priests were close to my family in the attention they gave us. They have been companions for me, showing me the way to the Lord. Is this the core of your mission?
We are called to live–with the people who are entrusted to us–that which we humbly seek to live in our own houses. We do not want to live anything other than Christianity in its simplicity: a communion, founded on the desire to follow Christ. And this is what we propose to people. I am answering these questions in Taipei. Here we have a very small parish, a community of 80 people. In these days here, it has truly felt like family. This courtyard among the big buildings is a place where people meet to cry and to laugh, to celebrate the happy passages of their lives, to be educated. And here they find priests with whom they can be friends. Familial relationships, care for people one by one: I think this is the future of the mission of the Church, offering places where people can experience affection that becomes a vehicle of faith, of judgment on their life, helping them to reach certainty that life is saved.

From the point of view of the–let's call it–sociological history of the Church, we could say that through many of your priests, the old "choice" between movements and parishes has been naturally eliminated.
The attention to the individual to which we have been educated makes many rigid frameworks collapse. For us, the parish is always a help. Why? Because being rooted in a place is essential for the person, particularly for people today, so alone and so entangled in virtual environments, where relationships are often equally virtual and illusory. It is important that there be real places, which a family can reach by public transport or on foot, in their own part of town.

What can you tell us about the women's branch of the Fraternity? In Rome we are getting used to seeing their presence alongside yours...
There are 18 sisters. They are very joyful and are maturing rapidly. They have just opened a house in Nairobi and have begun to accompany Fr. Massimo in Reggio Emilia. They are a permanent reminder for us of what the Pope said in his final Angelus: the primacy of prayer that saves our passion for the human person from the disease of activism. I feel their presence as a great gift for the Fraternity, and am convinced that in the shared journey ahead they will teach us many more things; they will show us more deeply the face that God has envisaged for us.