Such different but wonderful personalities ... I have found joy in helping Christians understand that their riches are complementary and not contradictory.
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Fr. Federico Lombardi recently celebrated his 80th birthday and his 50th anniversary as a priest, a double anniversary that was celebrated on September 6, 2022, with a Mass organized by the Dicastery for Communication. Six years after leaving the leadership of Vatican Radio and the Holy See Press Office, the Italian Jesuit remains actively involved in the life of the Church, notably as president of the Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation.
In an interview with I.MEDIA, he talks about his personal experience of the priesthood and the current challenges facing priests, especially in the context of suspicion linked to abuse scandals, a subject in which he has personally taken an active stance by facilitating the summit of presidents of episcopal conferences convened by Pope Francis in 2019.
In his homilies, Pope Francis often invites priests to hold on to the memory of their “first call,” of their “astonishment” when Jesus’ gaze fell on them… What is your personal memory of that call? When did your vocation appear to you?
Fr. Lombardi: My vocation appeared gradually, in a very Christian family context, marked by the experience of faith. I was looking for a total and radical form of self-giving. The meaning of my life was to find a way to dedicate myself totally to the Lord’s plan for me: I felt a religious vocation, before a priestly one.
Through scouting, I was amazed by the beauty of creation, and I felt the presence of the Lord in the natural world around me, which I saw as a gift to me from the Creator. Helping the poor, accompanying sick people on the train to Lourdes and Loreto, and visiting sick people in their homes also had a great impact on me.
I can also identify two more powerful moments in which I felt God was calling me to make a decision to give myself completely. One was during a long bike trip in the south of France when I was 17, and the other was during a spiritual retreat. These were moments of inner struggle, but they ended with a decision to commit to the consecrated life. And I chose the Jesuits, because I had been educated in a school of the Society of Jesus.
What were the foundational stages of the beginning of your religious life and your priesthood?
Fr. Lombardi: I was a young Jesuit at the time of the Second Vatican Council, and I was marked by this atmosphere of renewal and dynamism. I felt a great spiritual joy upon reading Gaudium et Spes, this positive outlook on our time and this missionary outlook to serve the world.
During my formation, I lived with students in Turin, where I studied mathematics. Then I was sent to Germany, to Frankfurt, for my theological studies and my first year of priesthood, after my ordination in 1972. Besides my theological studies, I was also very involved in the apostolate with Italian emigrants and their families.
This was my first field of experience, my first mission as a deacon and then as a priest, and it marked my way of living my priesthood. They had their culture, their simplicity, their problems. This pushed me to try to express the Christian message, to celebrate the Eucharist, to give homilies in the simplest and clearest way possible, to go to the essential, to dwell on concrete problems for people who had hard experiences in life.
Even though I later worked in more intellectual circles, I always had this concern to speak of faith by speaking of life, of concrete situations, and not by going into the clouds or by speaking of very beautiful theoretical things that wouldn’t be directly linked to the experience of those who were listening. This has remained fundamental for me, something I have never forgotten. And the articles I wrote on Italian emigrants in Germany prompted my superiors to have me work in Rome for the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, during the period of the post-Council debates and the end of the pontificate of Paul VI.
After working for this magazine, and then serving as provincial of the Jesuits in Italy a few years later in 1990-91, you became the program director at Vatican Radio. You took up your responsibilities in the midst of the Gulf War, and you’ve lived through many international crises, as well as internal crises in the Vatican. How did you reconcile this attention to short-term news with a life of prayer as a priest? How did you carry out these two contradictory aspects at the same time?
Fr. Lombardi: Teamwork is fundamental for me. So it wasn’t just a personal responsibility, it wasn’t my job to find solutions to the fundamental questions of humanity! But I worked with the great radio community, with Jesuits of course, but also with other very experienced people.
At the Vatican Press Office and Television Center, I was also supported by a team of technicians and editors. The responsibility of confronting the problems of the life of the Church was not a personal problem, but one of teamwork, with shared orientations to seek the right attitude. For me it was a very interesting experience: I didn’t have to solve all the problems of the world myself, but to accompany, to present, and to translate the service of the pope for society and for the Church.
Serving peace, justice, attention to the poor, the dignity of the person: I found these themes in the attitude and actions of the pope and, with a team, we tried to bring them to fruition in our way of presenting them.
So working in Vatican communications offers an experience of co-responsibility between priests and laity?
Fr. Lombardi: Yes, of course there are lay people of great spirituality and faith, but I was doing this service as a priest, with my formation, my sensitivity, and my pastoral concerns. I never thought of myself as just a manager. I had to run an institution, in collaboration with others, but I never thought in terms of pure managerial efficiency. That way of thinking is totally outside my capacity. I had to animate, guide, and organize a community of communicators at the service of humanity and the Church, driven by my faith, by a Christian vision.
You don’t necessarily have to be a priest to do this, but I was a priest, so I did it by seeking to unite my professional and priestly responsibility in relation to the professional community that was entrusted to me.
I always tried to work with others, from the time I was a patrol leader in the scouts, then after my ordination, as vice-director of La Civiltà Cattolica, then as provincial of the 1,200 Jesuits in Italy. It was a community responsibility, and I transferred a lot of that experience of team life also to my work at Vatican Radio, with about 400 people at the time.
How did the three popes you served directly – John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis – inspire you in your priesthood?
Fr. Lombardi: John Paul II gave us the impetus for a vision of a universal mission, and of history interpreted and lived in the light of Jesus Christ and his mission as Savior and Redeemer, especially through the Jubilee of the Year 2000. This helped me in my work to situate the historical vision of the mission of the Church to humanity, a great desire to serve peace, the family of peoples. He gave great perspectives for history, the world and the universal Church, also in seeking to enthuse young people through the World Youth Days.
Concerning Benedict XVI: During my studies in Germany I had already admired the depth and balance of his thought, his capacity for synthesis, his way of presenting the whole of the Christian vision with great serenity and in dialogue with contemporary culture. When he was Pope and I covered him, I appreciated even more his insistence on the relationship between spirituality and intelligence. His homilies, his ability to read the mysteries of Christ and to speak about them with great spiritual and theological depth, really fascinated me.
I also remember his ability to balance the tensions that the Church and society are going through, trying to hold everything together, to present Christianity as a beautiful, profound vision, capable of leading the experience of culture towards an ultimate truth that is located in Jesus Christ and in faith. He has this capacity to integrate all these reflections in a vision that is absolutely not naïve, but very conscious of the problems of the world today. This synthesis of truth in faith has nourished me deeply.
Francis, for his part, has this extraordinary charism of closeness, this capacity to make people feel and experience the closeness of God’s love and mercy for everyone, for the poor, for those who suffer. In this sense, he is a great model and fosterer of concrete relationships with all the people he meets, with a spontaneous capacity for relationships, with gestures, with simple language.
I see among these three popes a complementary richness that has always nourished me in priestly and spiritual service. I have always tried to understand, interpret, and serve the charisms of the popes, with such different but wonderful personalities, and I have found joy in helping Christians understand that their riches are complementary and not contradictory.
After your retirement from Vatican Radio and the Press Office, you remained active on several issues, including the fight against abuse. Besides the attention due to the victims, what can you say to priests who are exhausted by the social and media pressure linked to these phenomena? How can we find a balance between a firmer and more rigorous approach to abuse, without falling into an attitude of generalized suspicion which in itself causes much suffering?
Fr. Lombardi: I believe that in the face of abuses and scandals, the aspect of suspicion and humiliation is inevitable. It’s a price we have to pay, as a participation in the suffering of the victims and in the purification of the Church. There is no path of purification, of conversion, of renewal, without a price to pay. It’s true that I suffer, that I’m humiliated as a priest, but I accept it. In the path of following Christ, there’s a whole dimension of humiliation to be borne with humility, with patience, with awareness of having to bear together the consequences of those faults in order to renew ourselves. This is an absolutely fundamental point.
But we must continue to trust in the grace of the Lord, in the truth of our vocation. We believe in the value of the service of faith, the service of the Word of God. If we are convinced that we have been called, we must continue to serve Jesus Christ’s message of salvation for humanity with constancy and decision.
We must therefore accept and live humiliation seriously as a participation in the suffering of the victims, and remain aware of the value of commitment to the Christian life and the service of others, including in the form of the priesthood, the sacraments, and the proclamation of the Word of God.
How do you view the crisis of the priesthood that is affecting many countries? Could this phase of purification finally lead to something more just, healthier, and lastly, more attractive?
Fr. Lombardi: I hope so, of course! When we see negative aspects, we must also try to discern the positive signs that we can see in our Church and our society. It’s a principle of communication: We’re often inclined to see the bad and the negative, but we must also see the positive aspects, and there are many in the Church! There are also changes in the forms in which service is exercised and in the life of the Church, and they must be sought together.
The theme of synodality that the Pope proposes to us is therefore very important. It’s an essential perspective of this pontificate: inviting us to set out again as a community, together, feeling our common responsibility, and without being afraid to see the reality, but experiencing mutual help, praying together, seeking the Holy Spirit who can manifest himself in many ways.
Let’s think about the early Church: There were only 12 people, but the Holy Spirit found the strength to spread the Christian faith. In its history, the Church has experienced many changes. For example, the Society of Jesus was suppressed, but then it was able to be reborn… We must therefore have a perspective that doesn’t let itself be too impressed by a momentary situation, but have, in faith, a confident view of God’s work and his Spirit.