Translated from the September issue of Tracce.
"Look, I realize that what is at stake is first all something that is for me. And I believe that deep down it is something simple: the possibility of getting to know more about the mystery of Christ. Thanks to the Pope's decision, I can rediscover who Jesus is for me." Ultimately, that is the only thing that matters. At least, that is the most important thing for Monsignor Paolo Martinelli, 63, a Capuchin friar and former Auxiliary of Milan, who on May 1 became the Apostolic Vicar for the region of Southern Arabia. This includes three nations (UAE, Oman and Yemen) and a jurisdiction that covers 930 thousand square kilometers and 43 million inhabitants. There are more Catholics than one would expect: just over a million, 2.3 percent of the population. Almost all of them are immigrants from the Philippines, India, Lebanon, and part of Africa…
It is a new world for Martinelli, who, before returning to his hometown Milan, taught in Rome and worked for the Vatican for a long time as consultant for Consecrated Life and for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as advisor to the Synod of Bishops. "Of the Middle East I know quite a bit about Turkey, where there is a strong Capuchin presence and where Monsignor Luigi Padovese was (the bishop who was assassinated in 2010). I have also been to the Holy Land and to Egypt several times. But never to the Arabian Peninsula."
His appointment came as a surprise: "I asked myself, why me? It took me a while to realize that that location has been entrusted to the Capuchins for a century." His inauguration took place in early July, with a first trip to Abu Dhabi where mass was celebrated in St. Joseph's Cathedral. His final departure came in August, shortly after this dialogue. Meanwhile, there the handover took place from Monsignor Paul Hinder, a Swiss “man of faith and great wisdom: his presence there is invaluable. In 18 years he accumulated a treasure of spiritual, human and relationship experience that is indispensable for me. He is teaching me everything."
What was the impact like?
First of all, I was struck by the social reality. I had in mind the Middle East that I knew, which is very different. 45 years ago it was just desert, and now there are huge, welcoming, smartly designed infrastructures. They have created a reality of global interest and it is a crossroads of cultures. There are two hundred nationalities in the area. Then, of course, Dubai has a majestic and sometimes surprising character: hotels where you can ski, skyscrapers... Abu Dhabi seems to me to be of a more human scale.
What about the Church?
I received a moving welcome with children throwing flowers, and the presence of the various communities... It was a beautiful moment. It is a living Church, pluriform, formed of migrants who bring their cultural and spiritual heritage with them. The Church there encompasses very different worlds. The Vicariate has 17 parishes and 15 schools, and those are two strengths.
Parishes are a phenomenal meeting place. Apart from Sundays, where masses are constantly celebrated, there is catechesis, volunteer work, a great attention for celebrations... Coming from the West, the difference is very noticeable. It is a young, active Church. I was also struck by the Church’s ability to unite people from different cultures and in some cases even different rites: in addition to the Latins, there are Syro-Malabars, Syro-Malankarites, Maronites...
Are these communities integrating, do they have real relationships with each other?
In some cases there are ancestral difficulties. But the address that Hinder gave was very insightful. If the faithful are of a certain rite, you must try to offer them the possibility of celebrating according to that rite. But the priests are there for everyone. It is not about assembling different groups, but understanding that we are one community, one Church. There people live the faith as something that sustains life. It is impressive to see how the church fills up first thing in the morning with people who then go to work.
But does that presence also interact with society?
I would say yes, especially in regard to education and interreligious dialogue. Catholic schools are highly valued. In many cases, more than half of the students are Muslim. That makes mutual knowledge and common growth possible. I believe this is a fundamental point where the Church shows its relevance to everyone's life.
What about dialogue?
It has been growing a lot in recent years. Traditionally, the relationship of the Church especially with the Emirates has been very good. We are well-liked. For example, we are in an area of Abu Dhabi where there is a mosque next to the cathedral and bishop’s house, which is dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. I find it a great sign of hospitality. There was also a turning point in February 2019 with the Pope’s visit and the Document on Human Fraternity that he signed together with Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. It was a historic event. You can tell right away that it left a significant mark.
In what sense?
For example, there is a strong liking for the Pope. It is evident, even among people. Speaking to the authorities, you realize that Francis' gesture has increased the esteem for him. Then, of course, we need understand the text more closely, but the fact that it was signed in Abu Dhabi makes me feel a great responsibility.
Those pages trace a very broad horizon for interreligious dialogue. On the one hand, they stress the importance of getting to know each other better: respecting each other, understanding what the other really believes, regardless of stereotypes and prejudices. Then there is the Pope’s perspective, which leads to the question of what contributions religions can offer to this world to make it more human and fraternal? This is the big question.
What do you answer to this?
In my opinion, there is a concrete path to be taken. It is not so much a matter of a dialogue on doctrines, which will also have to be done, but about showing how each religion can offer a concrete contribution for the good of all, for the common good. Because, after all, every religion is linked to human reality, to human questions, to the family, to work... This is the work that needs to be done.
Have you seen events that, in some way, exemplify this dialogue that began in Abu Dhabi?
I met with the ambassadors and civil authorities. We got talking about the Fratelli Tutti encyclical. I saw interest, even among Muslims, in how the Pope relates faith to life, in how he considers social organization, economics, life based faith. They were impressed. It is obviously something significant for them. That faith has to do with life is more evident in the Muslim world, to the point that it challenges our world. Hinder has often pointed this out: if we look at the West through the lens of their mindset, we realize that secularization and the privatization of faith are not adequate responses.
I have heard you use this expression, which Hinder also used: "There the Church is a pilgrim." What does it mean?
A Church of migrants, like the Church here, somehow expresses a truth that is proper to the whole Church. And that is the awareness of being pilgrims, that is, of inhabiting this land within a journey toward a greater destiny, toward fulfillment. We should all conceive of ourselves in this way. But beware, being pilgrims does not relativize what we are experiencing. On the contrary, if I am walking and the ultimate goal is a fulfillment, it means that every step I take is in relation to it, and so is precious. Every moment I live has an eternal destiny. But the other crucial factor for a Church of migrants is that it is also a "Church of the people," as the Archbishop of Milan would say. That is, a Church composed of different spiritual traditions and charisms. But it is another fact that concerns everyone: the more the Church succeeds in generating fruitful dialogue between the differences that constitute it, the more it is itself.
There is also a small CL presence in the Vicariate. What is the contribution that a reality like the movement can make in such a context?
The very relationship between faith and life comes to mind. We need to nurture this connection, to deepen the capacity of faith to sustain and make beautiful the everyday reality. I think the movement can contribute to that.
When did you encounter CL?
At school. I am from Milan, from a middle-class family. I lived in the centre and my childhood was spent between the desire for wide spaces and city buildings. When I had a choice, I decided to go to an agricultural institute in Treviglio. I commuted backwards: everyone came into Milan, and I took the train in the opposite direction every morning. It was my first way of being a little bit alternative...I met Gioventù Studentesca there, when I was in the third grade. The first important gesture that I participated in was the 1975 pilgrimage to Rome for the Holy Year: the famous Palm Sunday with Paul VI. I was there.
What struck you?
It was a Christianity that had to do with life, it helped to live.
What about your vocation? When did it mature?
My encounter with Fr. Emmanuel Braghini (a Capuchin friar who was very close to Fr. Giussani) was crucial. It was a chance meeting: I was looking for a confessor, I started going to him and got involved. I was a senior in high school.
What attracted you to him?
His way of living. He had a very beautiful capacity for affection, free and deep at the same time. The introduction to my vocation was just the fascination with which he celebrated Mass, prayed, met people... This all coincided with my senior year of high school, and it was becoming clear to me that the reason I had chosen agriculture was not because I wanted to be a farmer, but because I was looking for something broader, capable of embracing the whole of life. And that came to fruition in meeting him.
Did you meet Fr. Giussani?
He often came to Fr. Emmanuel's for confession, so I would run into him there in the convent, in via Kramer. Then I attended the Catholic University in Milan, and I was able to take his courses which were fundamental. After that, once I had moved to Rome, we did not get to see each other very often. But I had the joy of following the Memores Domini retreats for years, often held by Monsignor Giussani. There, I was always fascinated by the profound relationship between Baptism and the evangelical counsels (obedience, poverty and chastity). Then in Rome I had Angelo Scola as a professor; meeting him was crucial.
Perhaps he expected an academic rather than a pastoral career, no? The Gregoriana, the Antonianum, the Lateranese...
As soon as I became a priest they sent me to Cesano Boscone, to the Sacra Famiglia, the institute that houses frail and disabled people. I was a chaplain for four years, and I had a great time: I threw myself into it. For example, I started making up songs for the kids who could not follow Mass to sing. And they still sing them now.
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I saw that there are two albums of yours on YouTube....
Three. And they were all basically born there. I was strumming the guitar and writing songs even before that, but it was music designed to engage kids. When I spoke to them, I was not sure they understood me. So I decided to try it in another way, by combining words and gestures during the penitential act, the sign of peace, the offertory… Exciting work. There, the immense theme of the impact with pain, which I carry inside, opened up. I then studied such topics; I did my thesis on death in Von Balthasar. The theme of illness is a very strong question, which left its mark on me. Even in my studies, I have never been intellectual.
And it also helps me in pastoral life.
What will you take with you from these years spent in Milan?
I worked a lot with consecrated life. Entering this world has been a valuable experience. There are 4,000 nuns and a thousand religious men in Milan. And the number of arrivals from other countries is also growing: even in my own community, half of the friars are not Italian. As the Archbishop says, the Milanese religious life is a kind of laboratory of the "Church from the people." Here, I was able to deepen this awareness of working for a Church that knows how to integrate different ideas and visions. And then, the idea of valuing the charismatic dimension of the Church – of which religious life is a peculiar aspect –, of recognizing and valuing the gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes. This is something that will also accompany me in my new mission.
What do you expect for you there?
A new knowledge of Christ. This is what I desire: to see some feature of the Mystery that is only possible through this mission. I would like it to be the possibility of a new beginning for me, in faith and vocation. I hope to be converted. Mission is not something to be done. It is not about executing a script, but about following the Mystery.
Translated from the September issue of Tracce.