Cardinal Bertone's "Confessions"

Secretary of State Tells His Vocation Story

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By Jesús Colina

VATICAN CITY, JULY 17, 2009 ( For this week’s contribution to “God’s Men,” the column with which ZENIT is celebrating the Year for Priests, we present an exclusive interview with Benedict XVI’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

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ZENIT: When did you discover your vocation to the priesthood?

Cardinal Bertone: I discovered it precisely when I was studying the fifth year of gymnasium — what would today in Spain be the first year of bachillerato, or in Mexico or the United States, the second year of preparatory or high school — in the Salesian Institute of Turin, in Valdocco, which is the first institute founded by Don Bosco.

There, I studied secondary school and bachillerato (liceo) and honestly, before that, I had not felt any desire to be a priest, despite living among exemplary priests who were my professors and educators. Instead, I wanted to study languages and dedicate myself to seeing the world, and thus, something very different — something like international relations, in a certain sense.

Later on, a Salesian priest who was my Greek professor, made a proposal to me: “We are organizing a three-day priestly discernment encounter. You can come and think about your future.” I accepted and after these three vocational discernment days, I decided that inasmuch as it depended on me, I would become a priest and join the Salesian congregation.

On May 24, 1949, I gave this news to my parents, who traditionally made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Help in Turin. They were somewhat surprised, given that they had never heard me speak of plans to be a priest. They told me, “If the Lord wants this, we will not object. Indeed, we are quite happy. But remember that it will depend on you to be faithful and therefore, it is you who has made this decision.”

That’s how I began the path of my vocation, with the novitiate and then, with the whole program of studies, etc.

ZENIT: And who helped you to follow this path?

Cardinal Bertone: In a special way, the Salesian educators, and particularly at the beginning, the master of novices. I lengthened the novitiate four months because I was so young. Theoretically back then, the novitiate began at age 15 and ended at 16, with the first profession. I still hadn’t turned 15 when I entered on Aug. 16, 1949, and therefore, I extended the novitiate until I turned 16 in December of 1950. That’s when I made my religious profession. Afterward, the Salesians and excellent confessors accompanied me.

I should mention that at the beginning I asked advice regarding this decision from a confessor — an 84-year-old priest — who heard confessions behind the main altar of the Basilica of Our Lady of Help, and to whom I regularly went to confession. He gave me his counsel. He told me: “Look, this is a very large task. You will have to prepare yourself very well. But remember that I have been a priest for 60 years and I have never regretted it.” So, encouraged by this testimony too, I followed this path, though in visiting home, I had a bit of a problem, a bit of nostalgia. But my parents told me: “Finish the whole testing period and the study program, because it was you who made this decision. And after that, you can make a more mature choice.” And at the end, I made the decision to continue to priestly ordination, which happened July 1, 1960.

ZENIT: Along this path, what was the role of the Salesians’ founder, Don Bosco?

Cardinal Bertone: Certainly Don Bosco was an extraordinary model of a priest, and his followers, his sons, who were my professors and educators, represented him very well. They offered me beautiful testimonies that sparked in me the desire to follow this path and encouraged me in it. In my life, Don Bosco has always been present. He has guided me in my growth toward the priesthood and afterward as a priest, in the missions that I have had as a Salesian, from being major rector of the Pontifical Salesian University, here in Rome, and formator of many candidates to the priesthood — very many.

Later on he has guided me in my life as a bishop: first as the archbishop of Vercelli and then in Genoa and now, as the secretary of state, as the closest collaborator of the Pope. Don Bosco taught me to be faithful to the Pope, to give my life for the Pope and for the Church, something which I try do with my limits, but with all my strength.

ZENIT: What have been the greatest difficulties and the most beautiful satisfactions?

Cardinal Bertone: As I mentioned, I had some difficulties during my formation, as I felt a certain nostalgia for the past, for life with my companions and friends. But I stayed strong in following my vocation. Those who were my age, who didn’t think that I would follow this path, especially my classmates from liceo — I studied liceo as a Salesian but with 30 companions who now have professions and a beautiful role in Italian society and have supported me — they told me: “If you are a priest, you should be like Don Francesco Amerio.” He was our great professor of liceo, of history and philosophy and also religion. For me, he was a model, one who has supported me — and I’ve still got my notes from his religion classes. That is proof of the influence had by this priest, this professor, who my companions presented to me as a model.

Afterward I had difficulties, especially in the years from 1968 to 1972. I was here in Rome — I was a professor at the Salesian University and also a formator for candidates to the priesthood. We had a large number of theology students in what was then the Pontifical Salesian Atheneum: 140 theology students who felt the pressure and the influence of the changes of ’68, of the debate and the whirlwind of opinions. It was after the [Second Vatican] Council. But we had had moments of a lot of friction and of clashes of opinions and people, and as the superior, I had to make decisions on these students’ admission to holy orders. We kept up a very intense dialogue with the students. Those were times of great student meetings, with discussions that lasted hours, even late into the night. Thus, moments of tension, but also of overcoming these tensions.

Then as a bishop, and as an archbishop of the two dioceses that I have guided, both of them by appointment of Pope John Paul II, I also had moments of confrontation, sometimes taxing situations, with this or that problem that arose in the local Church. When I was secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there were also some doctrinal problems given us to analyze and judge, and sometimes they were very grave problems at the doctrinal, moral or disciplinary level.

But in this role I have also had very beautiful satisfactions: The fact of having guided and of having had a fraternal community, I would say relationships of fraternal communion, of strong friendships, which continue even to today, when I run into old students or bishops from all over the world.

I have had moments of authentic communion, of fraternal friendship in the joy of fidelity to the Pope, in the joy of fulfilling our priestly and episcopal ministry, or because of the fact of having led many youth to the priesthood. Then there is the episcopal fatherhood in priestly ordinations and in episcopal ordinations, which now are more and more frequent in my role as secretary of state, with the ordination of many collaborators of the Pope and also of many local bishops.

This is a great satisfaction: The great people of God is made up as well of the pastors of the Church, with their various responsibilities, with their diverse roles, according to the vocation and charism that the Holy Spirit distributes. This people that journeys in profound unity is truly a beautiful sign of the benevolence of God for the Church and all of humanity. I experience this in the meetings I have with the local Churches, with the pontifical representatives all over the world, and with the leaders of states
who come to visit the Vatican and express their appreciation, their recognition of the Church’s work, of the testimony the Church gives, whether it be in the field of formation, above all in the area of education, or in the field of promotion of the human person, social promotion, or special assistance to the weakest classes of society.

Thus, I give thanks to the Lord for the gift of the priesthood and also for the gift of the episcopacy. And I wish everyone a good Year for Priests!

[This interview can be seen in its original Italian at] [Translation by Kathleen Naab]
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