CCN PHOTO | DEBORAH GYAPONG
Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi says one cannot possess God, only receive him.
Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, Canada's new apostolic nuncio, recalls two life-changing lessons in humility at age 19 that prepared him for a life of joyful, self-giving service to God and his Church.
These experiences shaped his life in the mould of Pope Francis, whom he represents to the Church in Canada. As the ambassador from the Holy See, he also represents the Vatican to the Canadian government. As well, he plays a key role advising the pope on episcopal appointments.
Bonazzi, 65, grew up in a village outside Bergamo in northern Italy, the oldest of five children. His father, a carpenter, and his mother were faithful Catholics, who took the family to church every Sunday.
But Bonazzi did not hang around the church as an altar boy, nor have any special relationship with the priests.
At the age of 12, however, he sensed a strong inner voice, impressing upon him that he should enter the seminary. The voice seemed so self-evident he thought everyone should be entering seminary.
"It was following this voice without knowing too much, because I was a boy, what it meant: 'Go to the seminary,'" he said.
There, from the age of 13, he dedicated himself to the "life of communal friendship," and paid attention to his studies, and to "prayer, meditation, and the desire to know God and to enter into dialogue with him."
He studied and prayed fervently, exploring the mystery of God in philosophy and theology courses. But at 19, he realized he did not know who God is.
He compared himself to his friends who were spending time with their girlfriends and preparing for marriage. He could see his friend Andrea knew his fiancée Mary very well.
"Can I say that I know, in a concrete way, God as Andrea is knowing Mary? I could not say 'Yes' to that question.
"In spite of my praying a lot and studying a lot, this was an important moment in my life because I realized God is not someone whom you can conquer, whom you can possess," he said. "God is something that you can only receive. You can open yourself to him. Receiving means love."
Bonazzi described this as a "capital moment" or major turning point. "I understood I could not enter into the mystery of God, without putting in my life a true attitude of love."
He recalled making a "kind of pact with God."
"I told him: 'I wish to know you. If it is your disposition for me to remain in darkness, I accept to be in this darkness until you wish, but help me to love you," he said. "Little by little, because I started to love more, to even put apart my side, to be attentive, to give my attention, my time, to be of service to the others, light started to enter."
This way, "God passed from being an idea to being a person, close to me, constantly with me," and his journey with him began in a "more profound way."
Also around this time, he received counsel from a priest who suggested the next time he went to Communion to imagine God was presenting him with a blank cheque. "You put your signature on this blank cheque," the priest told him. "And you let God write the amount, any amount he wishes."
"I remember I did this that day, like signing, this cheque," the nuncio said, stressing the importance of this turning point in his life. "I noticed afterwards that God took me seriously, but also like a loving Father, he started to put on this cheque his amount, his will."
This made his life a "divine adventure" for which he is extremely grateful, and which makes him more joyful, every day.
At 25, Bonazzi was ordained as a priest in the Bergamo Diocese and worked with young people for five years until his bishop sent him to Rome for further studies to prepare him for the Holy See's diplomatic service.
Those early turning points helped Bonazzi to understand that "to accomplish great things, which is the desire of every human being," one must be "humble, simple."
Letting God enter your life, to "fill your life with himself," makes it possible for your human personality to "manifest what is in you, what is only in you to be a gift for everybody."
But maintaining this freedom means gaining victory over the ways in which we limit ourselves, and to be "always open to everything."
From 1980 onward, every three years he received "a postcard or a telephone call," advising him the pope was sending him to a new assignment. His consent was presupposed.
Those assignments took him to Cameroon, Trinidad and Tobago, Malta, Mozambique, the United States and, in 1999, to Canada for five months before he was named apostolic nuncio to Haiti and made an archbishop.
From Haiti, he went to Cuba for five years and then to the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia before being assigned to Canada in December 2013, formally beginning his mission here in mid-March.
His years in Cuba helped Bonazzi gain an appreciation of political freedom and its relationship to internal freedom.
"Arriving in Cuba, I could notice that my exterior freedom was very limited," he said. This was reflected even in small things such as the inability to buy the newspaper he wanted.
The exterior limitations to freedom could also become "an interior limitation," he said. "Since you cannot do this, this, this, you may become discouraged, hold down your hands and lose this impetus, this interior freedom to be yourself."
Yet, he stressed even if one is behind bars in prison, "no one can stop you from being yourself in any given situation."
In Cuba, where many Catholics are held as political prisoners, Bonazzi said he met many excellent bishops, priests and lay people.
"But I also sensed sometimes this danger," he said. "A situation of harassment, of frustration, exterior limitation was entering into the person, discouraging the person, producing a kind of abandonment, lethargy."
When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, President Fidel Castro came to the nunciature to sign the book of condolences. "He wrote for 10 minutes under the light of the TV cameras," said Bonazzi, who then met privately with the charismatic leader for 20 minutes.
He had four other moments of personal contact with Castro and the beginning of a relationship. One meeting involved all the Cuban bishops, though Castro did most of the speaking.
"Fidel was a person with a special capacity to meet with people, to deal with people, to lead the people," Bonazzi said. But he realized at the meeting with the bishops that it was "generally Fidel fixing the square" and determining where people would stay within it. "It was not possible to go outside the decided field."
Despite Castro's charismatic leadership, Bonazzi sensed his fame "had become like a prison." At some stage, it seemed he was unable to sort himself out from the grand personage, the image.
He continues to pray for Castro, noting one cannot deny what he has been for Cuba and how, even now, "everything he's done has an impact on Cuba."
Having returned to Canada, Bonazzi must reacquaint himself with the country.
While he realizes he has a lot to learn, he senses a "change of paradigms" taking place, with Canadians "maybe not realizing the seriousness of what this implies."
What has caught his attention is the debate over euthanasia in Quebec and MP Stephen Fletcher's private member's bill now before the House of Commons.
"Are we changing for good, for the real well-being, or are we impoverishing our comprehension of the human being, our respect for the human being, therefore also our respect for society, respect for our history?" he asked.