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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FATHER GIOVANNI SCALESE (1) – Between Rome and Kabul

May 11, 2018
Featured Image: https://agensir.it

Aurelio Porfiri

There is an interesting Catholic blog called Antiquo Robore.  Curious to investigate who was behind this bilingual blog (English-Italian), I soon discovered that the person behind the well-researched blog has a story that was even more interesting than the blog. Father Giovanni Scalese is a  Barnabite, a religious order that may not be well known in China. And now he is, of all places, a missionary in Afghanistan. Don’t you think that there is an interesting story to know? So follow my conversation with him between Rome and Kabul.

Can you give some background about yourself?

I was born in Rome, 62 years ago, into a Catholic family. I was educated there and, after finishing my classical studies, I joined the Clerics Regular of Saint Paul—Barnabites, a religious Order founded in the 16th century by Saint Anthony Mary Zaccaria. After my novitiate, I continued my studies, getting a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and in theology at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas (Angelicum), and then a Licentiate degree in biblical theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. I was ordained a priest in 1981. In 1991 I graduated in philosophy from the State University of Bologna (the oldest university in the world!). My assignments in Italy were: Florence (Collegio alla Querce), Bologna (Collegio San Luigi) and Naples (Istituto Bianchi). In these schools I taught religion, history and philosophy; I was also the headmaster (“Rector”) of Querce and Bianchi. From 2000 to 2006 I was one of the Assistants General of the Order. From 2003 to 2009 I was entrusted with the formation of our seminarians in the Philippines and in India. And finally, in 2014, I was appointed Ecclesiastical Superior of the Catholic Mission in Afghanistan.

For those who never heard the name of Saint Anthony Mary Zaccaria, can you tell us something about him?

Well, those Catholics who follow the General Roman Calendar should at least know the name of my Founder, because he is celebrated, as an optional memorial, in the whole Latin Church on July 5. He is one of the Saints of the so-called “Catholic Reform,” to be distinguished from the Counter-Reformation. While the latter was a reaction of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation (the beginning of the Counter-Reformation is usually seen in the Council of Trent, 1545-1563), the Catholic Reform is prior to and contemporaneous with the Protestant Reformation. Zaccaria cannot be considered an exponent of the Counter-Reformation just because he lived from 1502 to 1539, well before the Council of Trent. He was born in Cremona, a city of Lombardy, fifty miles southeast of Milan, into a noble family. He was orphaned at the age of two. He studied medicine at Padua University. After graduation, he returned to Cremona, but, instead of practicing medicine, he devoted himself to spiritual life, teaching catechism and helping the poor.

In 1529 he was ordained a priest and became the chaplain of the Countess of Guastalla, Ludovica Torelli, whose confessor was a Dominican reformer, Fra Battista da Crema. In 1530, the three of them transferred to Milan, the capital of the duchy, where they joined the Oratory of Eternal Wisdom. Here Anthony Mary met two noblemen, Giacomo Antonio Morigia and Bartolomeo Ferrari, with whom he founded in 1532 a new religious Order, the “Clerics Regular of Saint Paul,” which was approved by Pope Clement VII in 1533. Along with Countess Torelli, he established a female monastery: the nuns were called “Angelics of Saint Paul.” Together with the leader of the Angelics, Paola Antonia Negri, he promoted even a lay group, a kind of Third Order, named the “Married of Saint Paul.” The three clusters formed a single family and performed together their apostolate. Not everyone in Milan was pleased with their zeal. They were accused of Pelagianism (the opposite of Lutheranism) and, more than once, brought to trial. Despite the persecution, they continued and broadened their mission, even over the border of the duchy. As he had a weak constitution, Zaccaria soon fell ill and, at the age of 37, he died. After his death he was immediately venerated as a Blessed; but, because of the new regulations about the beatification and canonization of Saints, issued by Urban VIII in 1634, he lost his title. He was then canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1897.

What were the main elements of his spirituality?

Maybe the first point to highlight is his dependence on Saint Paul. It is a striking feature, if we consider that he was contemporaneous with Luther, who drew inspiration for his Reformation from the Apostle. Cardinal Ratzinger, in 1997, pointed out: “Anthony Mary Zaccaria discovered Saint Paul, followed his evangelical dynamism, and considered him in the whole of the divine massage, inside the Holy Church. Saint Anthony Mary Zaccaria is a highly topical man and Saint, an ecumenical and missionary figure, who invites us to live the Pauline message inside the Church, and shows our separated brethren that Saint Paul has his true place in the Catholic Church.”

Traditionally, two aspects have been underscored as typical of the Zaccarian spirituality: Christ Crucified and the Holy Eucharist. Of course, as a disciple of the Apostle, the saint took up his theology of the cross. When he had to mention Jesus Christ, he simply named him “the Crucified.” He used to open his letters with the Greek monogram IC XC + (which stands for “Jesus Christ Crucified”). He spread, especially in Lombardy, the custom of ringing the bells at 3 PM on Fridays to commemorate the death of the Lord on the cross. As for the Eucharist (which he called the “Living Crucified”), he was a zealous promoter of its public worship. He was the initiator of the Quarantore (“Forty Hours”) devotion, that is, a solemn exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament done by turns in various city churches.

But, especially in the last years, we have come to the conclusion that the specific charism of St Anthony Mary is his struggle against lukewarmness and for the “renewal of Christian fervor.” He was a reformer; but for him the true reform was not in the change of the Church structures, but rather in the interior conversion of each Christian. And that is the charism he left to his children.

Who are the Barnabites?

We are the male branch of the religious family founded by St Anthony Mary. Our official name is Clerics Regular of Saint Paul. “Barnabites” is just a nickname, given to us by people, since the first church we officiated in Milan was dedicated to Saint Barnabas. We have always been a little Congregation: it reached its peak in the 18th century with around 700 religious; now we are, more or less, 400. Our Order is a clerical religious institute: the vast majority of the Barnabites are priests (there are just few brothers). As I said, we were founded for the “renewal of Christian fervor,” without any specific kind of pastoral activity to do, but priestly ministry (especially preaching and confessions). However, since they were men of great learning, Popes and Bishops asked them to open their internal schools even to external pupils, and so, little by little, the education of youth has become the main purpose of the Congregation. This has never prevented the Barnabites from devoting themselves to other activities, like parish and missionary apostolate. Currently, we are present in 18 countries in the world, with about 70 houses.

Can you introduce us to famous Barnabites in history?

First of all, our Congregation has given to the Church three Saints: besides the Founder, we have Saint Alexander Sauli (+ 1592), one of the most important Bishops of the Counter-Reformation, and Saint Francis Xavier Mary Bianchi (+ 1815), the “Apostle of Naples.” Of 14 Barnabites there is the cause of beatification ongoing. The Order gave to the Church 7 Cardinals (the most famous among them is the Secretary of State of Pope Gregory XVI, Luigi Lambruschini). About 70 have been the Barnabite Bishops (living, the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, Sergio Pagano, and the Apostolic Administrator of Southern Albania, Giovanni Peragine). Several Barnabites distinguished themselves in both sacred and profane sciences: Holy Scripture (Carlo Vercellone); Liturgy (Bartolomeo Gavanti); Spirituality (Carlo Quadrupani); Ecumenism (Augustine Šuvalov, Cesare Tondini de’ Quarenghi); History (Giovani Antonio Gabuzio, Carlo Bascapè, Orazio Premoli); Archeology (Luigi Bruzza, Leopoldo De Feis, Umberto Fasola); Egyptology (Luigi Ungarelli); Assyriology (Luigi Cagni); Philosophy (Hyacinthe-Sigismond Gerdil, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, Vincenzo Cilento); Pedagogy (Domenico Bassi); Architecture (Lorenzo Binago, Giovanni Ambrogio Mazenta); Music (Giovenale Sacchi); Literature (Onofrio Branda, Giovanni Battista Spotorno); Mathematics (Francesco De Regi, Paolo Frisi, Ermenegildo Pini); Physics (Pietro Configliachi, Giovanni Maria Cavalleri); Astronomy (Francesco Denza); Seismology (Timoteo Bertelli). A curiosity: several female institutes of consecrated life originate from the Barnabites: the Daughters of Divine Providence (Rome, 1832), the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood (Monza, 1876), the Little Workers of the Sacred Heart (Trani, 1935), the Missionaries of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus (Bragança do Pará, 1954), the Disciples of the Crucified (1961).

Where are the Barnabites in Asia? Are there Barnabites in China?

Currently, the Barnabites are present in Afghanistan (1933), the Philippines (1989), India (2007) and Indonesia (2013). There are no Barnabites in China. But, in 1719, Pope Clement XI sent to China a pontifical legation, led by Bishop Carlo Ambrogio Mezzabarba, to settle the question of the “Chinese rites.” There were also five Barnabites among the members of that expedition; two of them were sent to the Emperor in advance, to announce the arrival of the Apostolic Legate. The legation failed; of the five Barnabites, one remained at court; three went to Cochinchina, and one was sent to Burma. And so it happened that the Mission in Burma started: the Barnabites were the first evangelizers of the present-day Myanmar. They contributed also to the culture of that country: Bishop Giovanni Percoto was the author of the first Burmese alphabet. The Mission lasted for a century: it continued even during the suppression of the Order (1810-1814); but in 1830, for lack of religious (at the re-establishment of the Order, only a half of the Barnabites were left), the Superior General was forced to renounce the Mission. Thirty-four Barnabites were assigned there; seven of them became Bishops; four were martyred.

Why you have decided to become one of them?

The answer is really quite simple: I was born and grew up in a parish, San Carlo ai Catinari, conducted by the Barnabites. Practically, for me the Barnabites were the only existing priests; priesthood, religious life and Barnabites coincided; so, when I decided to enter the Church (at age 19), there were no other options. San Carlo ai Catinari is an important place for the Barnabites, not only because it was their general house for several centuries, but also because the devotion to Our Lady of Divine Providence (which then has spread inside and outside the Congregation) arose there.