Interview with Msgr. Lorenzo Baldisseri, the new secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, who has served as apostolic nuncio in many countries.
“When it came to making the act of obedience to the new Pope, I got in line — as secretary of the conclave — behind the cardinals, in order to kneel before him. What a surprise when he placed on my head the red skullcap that was on a silver platter in the hands of the master of ceremonies.” Francis then told him: “You are a half-cardinal.”
Msgr. Lorenzo Baldisseri is the new secretary general of the Synod of Bishops. He is speaking to Inside the Vatican about his life and new responsibilities. He welcomes us at Palazzo dei Convertendi, in Via della Conciliazione, where the Synod is based.
He remembers: “Applause burst out, and I was so confused that I didn’t know what to do, whether to keep the skullcap on my head or put it in my pocket, but the cardinals next to me told me to keep it. Of course, later, I never used it, waiting for the other ‘half,’ if the Holy Father likes.”
Baldisseri has traveled across four continents for almost 40 years in his service to the Holy See as a papal nuncio. He met Bergoglio in 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil, on the occasion of the 5th General Assembly of Celam (Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean). At that time, Baldisseri was nuncio in Brazil. Then, he says, they met again “during the last conclave, due to my role as secretary of the College of Cardinals and of the conclave,” but above all “over the following period, about a month and a half, while I stayed at Domus Sanctae Marthae, until I was assigned a different residence because of my office. That period, meeting him at Mass and eating meals, was a gift for me, a privilege, a unique experience for which I thank the Lord.”
Who is Pope Francis… in three words?
Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri: Neither books, nor pictures, nor words are enough to describe him. It’s necessary to meet him in person. People understood this right away, and they crowd St. Peter’s Square to see him and feel close to him. Three words? I’ll try: man, priest, guide.
You love music and are an accomplished pianist. How has music helped you in your diplomatic work?
Baldisseri: It has helped me a lot as a diplomat and as a pastor. Making contacts, opening negotiations, solving conflicts: recall the idea of harmony, whose highest expression is in music. So I can say that I owe much of my success as a diplomat, not only to the habit of facing problems inspired by the music scores, but also to actually having interpreted them in musical moments, concerts and recitals. Passion for music comes from my childhood, and I cultivated it with studies, encouraged by the teachers who educated me.
You performed for Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo. Has this ever happened with Francis?
Baldisseri: That is true: I had the privilege of playing the “Steinway” baby grand piano — a gift from the Hamburg Company to Benedict XVI — on August 7, 2007, at Castel Gandolfo. He had heard me play in Aparecida and invited me to the palace. That evening, it was a “musical moment” of 50 minutes, an unforgettable experience. The emotion was so great that I still remember the inner turmoil of the time. I had to play in front of Pope Benedict, a skilled musician, and his brother, Msgr. Georg, former director of the Musical Chapel of Regensburg. The repertory impressed the pontiff, who congratulated me and expressed his pleasure at the beautiful musical evening we had spent together. I still haven’t had the opportunity to express myself in terms of music with Pope Francis, but we have talked about music and I offered him my recordings. He loves the classics and music from Argentina and Latin America.
How do you feel about this new chapter of your service to the Holy See?
Baldisseri: I feel like the hundreds of thousands of people who flock to Rome to see and listen to the Pope. We really are living a special time because of the ecclesial events of the recent past: with Benedict XVI’s resignation and the election of the new Pope, a new style of leading the Church and of being the Church was introduced. People feel this all over the world. There is a new, fresh wind, and that is good for everyone. As far as I am concerned, I am happy to be here in Rome at this time, after 39 years in the nunciatures of four continents, in touch with different cultures and traditions, living side by side with a frontier missionary Church.
The reform of the Synod is at the top of Francis’ priorities. Do you think this reflects the “Spirit of the Council”?
Baldisseri: I would rather say that we will “review” the Synod of Bishops after 50 years of its existence (the anniversary is in 2015). The Synod needs to be adapted to current times, in keeping with the greater collegial participation that Pope Francis seeks. There will be adjustments, improvements, new powers. What is in greater need of being reviewed is the methodology, as Pope Francis indicated. It is necessary to give the organism a new dynamism, simplifying procedures, using the modern technology of communication, enlarging themes.
Do you think there is an approach to the Holy Synod of the Orthodox tradition?
Baldisseri: The Orthodox experience can certainly be a help for the Catholic Church in pursuing the goal of greater collegiality, and this will bring us even closer to our Orthodox brothers, in order to achieve the unity that Christ desires: “ut unum sint” (“[I pray] that they may be one”). Pope Francis explicitly mentioned this in his interview on the plane returning from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last July. The beautiful experience of past meetings between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is to be continued.
Talking about the Synod, you used the expression “beating heart” to describe the role of your office. What do you mean?
Baldisseri: Currently, there are expressions of collegiality everywhere in the Church, I would even say of synodality. But there is not yet a deep awareness of what collegiality is. Much has been said about communion; it is a mature outcome of Vatican Council II and these 50 years since. Now it is time to switch to a collegiality that is not only rooted in communion, which is the indispensable foundation, but also from an operational and pastoral perspective. The Synod of Bishops was born of a need for collegiality among the bishops around the world, to participate in the sollicitudo ecclesiarum (“care for the Churches”) not only of the Roman pontiff, but also of the bishops of the world as members of the College of Bishops, whose head is the successor of Peter. I spoke of “heart” because the Synod really has to become a benchmark for the world episcopate, an engine that, headed by the Pope, moves, feeds, boosts, promotes evangelization; collects instances, evaluates them, proposes them to the Pope; a beating heart that responds to the expectations of the Pope, to the launch and execution of projects coming from the Pope himself.
The preparatory document for the Synod 2014, with its questionnaire, has sparked controversy. Why?
Baldisseri: I think the news is the different style we have used on this occasion. First of all, the shortness of the text. That doesn’t mean superficiality, but “essentiality.” The topic of “family” is approached primarily in its positive aspect: the value and beauty of the family, according to the natural law, and of the Christian family, based on marriage, the union of a man and a woman, a sacrament. The questionnaire is not a poll as some in the media have suggested. It is to collect data, suggestions, experiences, to be a guide for reflection as we study the different issues in view of determining an appropriate pastoral action.
The doctrine on the family is not being submitted to a referendum.
But 32 years after Familiaris Consortio, the Church wishes to reflect once again, and worldwide, on the family, to understand, to evaluate new realities, new aspects, that it couldn’t imagine in the past but which are now real and burning questions.
It is necessary to listen more, to go along with people who live in concrete situations, everyday life, stuck in the middle of difficulties, up against negative experiences, betrayals, violence, deep hate, poverty, especially spiritual poverty, selfishness, usurpation of goods and spaces of others, conflict as a permanent way of life, vice, and corruption, which leads to the breaking up of families.
The Pope invites us to go to the frontiers, to the challenges facing the family.
Everybody is questioned and can express his/her opinions on the situations he/she faces. The Church embraces everybody in her pastoral care.