Fr. Paolo Pezzi. Wikimedia Commons

It’s as if Christ Were Asking Me, “Do You Love Me?”

The new Metropolitan Archbishop of Moscow recounts the network of circumstances that brought him to the heart of Russia. In his episcopal motto, “Passion for the glory of Christ,” is the meaning of witness to the Russian people.
Alberto Savorana

“I am moved and astounded, because it makes me look at myself as loved, wanted, preferred, and not so much for the honor of the role (God certainly does not look at me according to my capacities), but it is rather as if Christ were asking me, ‘Do you love Me?’–as He said in the dialogue with Peter, which I read every day. Mysteriously, this appointment is like entering, in a totally special way, into the intimacy of the relationship between Christ and His own.” These were the first words of Fr. Paolo Pezzi on the telephone, on the very day of his appointment as Metropolitan Archbishop of Moscow. He is 47, born in the town of Russi (Province of Ravenna, Italy), a priest of the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo. On the vigil of his episcopal consecration, he recounts to Traces the story that brought him to the heart of the Catholic Church in the land of Russia. “Along with astonishment, I feel gratitude for what I have encountered, because this appointment means an acknowledgment of the greatness of the charism of the Movement, and therefore of Fr. Giussani and his work of reform, which makes the Christian announcement alive again within the Church. The words of Benedict XVI on March 24th in St. Peter’s Square came to my mind: ‘In the Church, even the ecclesial institutions are charismatic and, on the other hand, in one way or another, the charisms must be institutionalized in order to have coherence and continuity.’”

What was the beginning of this preference, the “fine day” that changed your life?
Strange to tell, it happened during my military service. I went to a meeting, invited by a fellow-soldier belonging to CL, and as we came out he asked me what I thought. “Yes, it’s something good,” I answered, “Certainly, if it could last the whole of life…” He said, “What can stop it?” “Once I finish military service, I’ll have other things to think about, my friends in the parish, and looking for a job.” “But these are not objections. If it’s true, then you can live the Movement in all of this.” We left each other with a bet, which I lost a month later. I wanted that thing for me, and the objections I raised were unfounded. The day before I finished military service, along with the priest who was following the group of twenty soldiers belonging to CL, he said, “Now, go home. The first thing you have to do is to find an adult friend and tell him what you have met; otherwise, you will go away.” I called that adult, and that was the fine day, the confirmation of what I had met. I never went away.

How did you decide to become a priest?
The idea came to me as an opportunity and beauty to give my life to Christ. One day, as I entered the offices of CL in Ravenna, I saw the priests who led the community discussing something among themselves. I was so struck at the way they were together that I thought, “I’d like to be a priest in a communion like that.” Then there was that wonderful meeting with John Paul II for the 30th anniversary of CL in 1984. Listen to his words: “Go out into the whole world and bring the truth, the beauty and the peace that are met in Christ the Redeemer.” I wrote to Fr. Giussani, whom I had never seen, that my only desire was to go wherever the Movement would ask me. The following year, just after the birth of the St. Charles Fraternity, I went to Fr. Giussani–it was my first time to meet him–and he asked me why I wanted to go just there when I could have entered a diocesan seminary. I answered that I wanted to respond with total adhesion to what he had initiated. He interrupted his discussion with other priests, and said, “That’s enough; it seems clear. Go ahead, don’t be afraid, and ask Our Lady to remain faithful to what God has done for you,” as I have always done over these years.

What road led you to say “Yes” to Christ in Siberia, then in St. Petersburg, and now in the capital of the Russian Federation?
The road was the circumstances to which I said yes. The first was a trip with Fr. Massimo Camisasca to Siberia, where a young Franciscan priest had begun to gather the Catholic Community. When he came to the Rimini Meeting in 1990, he had asked for help. So it was that in 1991 the mission of the St. Charles Fraternity in Siberia began. The following year, one of the three priests who was there was unable to stay because of environmental difficulties, and Fr. Massimo asked me if I would agree to replace him. I said yes at once. There was no reason to say no to what I had always said yes to up to then. In Siberia, I spent five years of particular grace–I saw the birth of the people of the Movement, a sign of splendor and hope, even if we were only a handful. I remember the taste and the care we had for certain gestures and encounters, as if there had been three hundred of us.

I will never forget your enthusiastic telephone call at the beginning of 1997: “Alberto, something incredible has happened! One of our girls from Novosibirsk has learned Leopardi’s ‘To His Woman’ by heart, and recited it in front of the whole community. We have to publish this in Traces!”
I remember that moment very well, because it struck all of us very much. How many can repeat that poem with the same passion we saw in Fr. Giussani?!

In St. Petersburg, you headed the only Catholic seminary in Russia, and earlier, in Italy, you had collaborated directly with Fr. Massimo as Vicar General of the St. Charles Fraternity. How did the experience in Rome help you in Russia?
First of all, in educating young people, in the passion for education. The years spent with Fr. Massimo taught me tenacity, how to start over again day after day, and not because you have a plan, not because you have to make a good product, but because of the certainty that what has taken hold of us can be grasped, communicated, and can make another’s life great, even the life of a priest, can educate a seminarian to be fully a man, devoted, consecrated, exemplarily ready to give his life to Christ, and to show how that makes the life of anyone beautiful and great. And then I learned not to be afraid to get down to work in an institutional reality like a seminary, to take up even this task not as something marginal in my life, but as that through which I show my passion for Christ and my relationship with Him. Thirdly, this passion for Christ can take flesh anywhere. There is no environment, no people, no culture, no reality that are impervious. If it is true that the human heart is the same everywhere, the encounter and therefore the particularity of the charism–since it is an ecclesial charism–can reach any man at all.

Recently, Fr. Carrón spoke of an “atrocious lack of affection,” of an imperviousness that makes us unable to live an adequate relationship with reality. Is it the same in Russia? What can overcome this aridity and arouse an interest that goes beyond a momentary reaction?
I think it is true here with us, too, but from the opposite point of view–not because of an arid and cold recognition of Christ, which can be a risk for Western man, but rather for an excess of sentiment, an exaggeration of the heart that projects itself on reality in a sentimental way. What can overcome it? Someone for whom the relationship with reality is not lacking in affection, because he lives an affective relationship with Christ that becomes capable of arousing an encounter. Those who live in this way are able to encounter; they have a history and have no need to fear showing it. In living the educational relationship with the Other, who emerges unequivocally in the relationship with reality, you have no fear of entering into an educational relationship with the other.

From his early years in the seminary, Fr. Giussani was attracted by Soleviev and struck by some writings of the late 18th century Slavophiles, and he went on to teach Oriental Theology at the Venegono Seminary. What did the encounter with Orthodoxy mean for you? And what can Orthodox tradition contribute to our Western mentality?
Above all, two things, which I discovered in the encounter with Fr. Giussani and saw again here in Russia. The first is passion for beauty. Oriental tradition, and in this Orthodoxy is a real teacher, lives (perhaps tiredly in some of its expressions, as is the case for many Christians in the West) a taste for the fact that the Christ event transforms reality. This is well expressed by the idea of “transfiguration”: reality is called to be transfigured in Christ. I remembered John Paul II’s words in 1984 for the 30th anniversary of the Movement: “We believe in Christ, died and risen, in Christ present here and now, who alone can and does change man and the world, transfiguring them.” The second is a passionate idea for “communion”: knowledge of reality and therefore immersion into the Mystery of God do not happen thanks to the genius of the individual, but are always the fruit of a communion, of an “I” that is not conceived of as alone, but in relationship. So it is an ecclesial conception of the “I.” How often did Fr. Giussani repeat, along with St. Paul, that in Christ we are “one”–members of each other!

The passion for unity animated Benedict XVI, who, even recently in a greeting to the participants in the mixed commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (held in Ravenna), asked people to pray for “the common journey towards full communion between Catholics and Orthodox, and that it may be possible soon to share the same chalice of the Lord” (General Audience, October 10th). What does “ecumenism” mean for the new Archbishop of Moscow?
It does not mean, negatively, a mere tolerance or juxtaposition. Ecumenism is first and foremost a conception I have of myself as participating in a relationship with Christ, who is able to embrace everything and everyone. In this sense, it is a taste for going to meet the other, a passion for knowing and discovering what the other has in him that is true and positive, for deepening and living your own identity and belonging. In a dialogue with some Orthodox friends, I said that proselytism begins where mission finishes; when someone stops being a missionary he begins to have other concerns–to show that his Church is better, that it is better at swelling the numbers of its own group. On the contrary, the only concern must be to live, and spread the relationship with Christ.

Fidelity to tradition and the capacity to resist the systematic attack of atheism were for us Westerners an example of life, which the activity of “Russia Cristiana” allowed us to know and love. What is left of this heroic testimony?
There remains the example of people who, not because of a plan or a utopia, but because of a simple unpretentious certainty, remained attached to their own faith, and witnessed to it to the point of martyrdom. A few days ago, as we started the new year with the Moscow community, we held a pilgrimage to one of the most tragic places, near Moscow, where tens of thousands of people were shot during the years of the Soviet regime. I was struck by the fact that their sacrifice sustains us today. There were about twenty of us in a snowstorm. When we entered the little church built in that polygon, I was impressed by the thought that the heroic testimony of so many people whom no one will ever know by name was the reason for which we, too, were there. Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ukrainians, and Estonians were all killed together, and yet before life and death, that is, before the mystery of God, they lived, without having to say it, a unity of witness that sustains us today. We inherit the whole of history and we carry it forward.

The Catholics in Moscow are a little flock. In the West, we often try to contain the crisis by means of pastoral plans and strategies. Benedict XVI referred to this and said that it is not the way: “The extraordinary apostolic results that he [St. Paul] was able to achieve cannot, therefore, be attributed to brilliant rhetoric or refined apologetic and missionary strategies. The success of his apostolate depended above all on his personal involvement in proclaiming the Gospel with total dedication to Christ” (June 28, 2007). What does your experience tell you is needed?
To support a people, men, and therefore to educate them to live their own faith, their relationship with Christ as the great opportunity to enter into relationship with reality and manipulate it, bring it to its destiny. I recently read again Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, The Salt of the Earth. He speaks there of a tiredness in living the faith, due to concern for organizing life. What happens, instead, is the presence of people who have an experience of faith and then the organizational aspect becomes the expression of one’s taste for relationship with Christ. When a boy falls in love with a girl, he has to agree on a day and a time for meeting her, or he will never meet her at all; but he is not satisfied with just the day and the hour, what he wants is a relationship with her.

Fr. Giussani liked to repeat a phrase of Soleviev (so much so that he made a poster of it, which he called “the permanent CL poster”). “What we have most dear in Christianity is Christ Himself; Christ Himself and all that comes from Him, since in Him dwells all the fullness of the Divinity in the flesh.” What does this affirmation say to you, as Archbishop?
That for me, too, my responsibility is still to go on answering to the Mystery of God, just as He calls me. For me more than for others, the immediate risk is to have at heart the organization of people’s lives. But if I have at heart Christ and all that comes from Him, then even the fact that I have to concern myself, quite rightly, with problems that I have to tackle, will be the occasion for responding to the mystery of God and not a weight that pulls me away, that loads me down, that draws me away from the mystery of God. The second thing, which continues to move me every day as I read it over, is when Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.” Peter tries to respond at once to Jesus’ words, “Feed My sheep,” with concern for John: “What can we do for him?” And Jesus replies, “Don’t worry about him; you just follow Me.” So it is in following Him, having Him as the dearest thing I have, that I can concern myself with those entrusted to me.

In a letter you wrote to Fr. Giussani from Novosibirsk, and which he read at the Exercises of the Fraternity in 1996, you said, “This time seems to be alive with a new drama: becoming aware of Christ’s humanity running in my veins… I will pray that those who participate in the Exercises may be content to love Christ, desiring to face up to reality according to that aim which is His glory in history.”
It is what I keep on asking for myself and for everyone else–not only to have a relationship with Christ, but to be happy, not taking it for granted in a formal relationship, out of duty. And I realize that I am happy in the relationship with Christ not abstractly, but in the way I face up to reality. This is why I chose as a motto what Fr. Giussani told us many years ago: “Have a passion for the glory of Christ.” When I heard it, I said to myself, “This is what I want for my life.” So my motto is: “Passion for the glory of Christ.” I certainly would never have imagined that the Lord would have come so far with me.