Posted: April 29, 2004
Interview with Sr. Enrica Rosanna
April 26, 2004
By John L. Allen, Jr.
Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna was appointed April 24, 2004, as the under-secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Rosanna is currently a professor at both the "Auxilium," a pontifical institute on education, and the "Claretianum," an institute on consecrated life. John Paul has previously named her an auditor at three Synods of Bishops: on consecrated life in 1994, on Europe in 1999, and on the episcopacy in 2001. She has served as a consultor to the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life. She was interviewed on April 26 at the Claretianum.
When did you first hear of your appointment?
I heard about it two months ago, but obviously a nomination is a pontifical secret. I received the news from our major general, and since our maximum superior is the pope, I accepted it as an act of obedience. I did so in faith, above all.
Was it a surprise?
Yes, it truly was. I've lived all my life in a university environment, and today I'm very active. It's true that I've participated in four synods: the synod for Rome, where I got to know the pope, and then three synods of bishops as an expert: the synod on consecrated life, the synod for Europe, and the synod on the episcopacy. My primary field of activity, however, has always been Catholic education, even though I've studied consecrated life a great deal and published a great deal on the subject.
I know it's often a mystery, but do you have any idea how this appointment came about?
No, absolutely none. In fact, if I had made any predictions for myself [about a Vatican job], I would have thought of a dicastery where I was better known … Catholic Education, maybe, or Pax Cristi, or the Council for Justice and Peace. I'm a member of the Committee for the "Social Week" of the Italian Catholic Church, where we deal with political and social problems. Truly, I would never have envisioned this.
How did you take the news?
Above all, I took it in faith, and with a little amazement … maybe an entirely "feminine amazement." To tell the truth, I had no idea the appointment would cause such a fuss. After all, I'm used to living in an international community, I'm used to collaborating with dicasteries of the Roman Curia, I'm accustomed to working with the Italian bishops' conference. I've always been fortunate to enjoy great esteem from the church. I've also always emphasized co-responsibility. I believe in it, especially between men and women … reciprocity. Hence I welcomed the news with amazement, with faith, knowing that it's a great gift of God that comes from the hands of the pope. For that reason, I agreed voluntarily. One of the prayers I always say with great enthusiasm is the 'Our Father.' In it there's a phrase, 'thy will be done.' Once a chaplain in a homily told a story about this phrase. A teacher was giving a lesson, and she had dictated something to her children. Then she took out her pen and began to correct the papers, placing a large blue mark wherever a child had made a mistake. But when she looked at one such mistake she stopped and said to the child, 'You've given me the most beautiful definition of the Our Father that I've ever heard.' The child had written, 'thy will be celebrated.' [in Italian: sia festa la tua volunta instead of sia fatta la tua volunta]. I've recounted this story many times … "thy will be celebrated.' We Salesians have a charisma of joy, of enthusiasm, especially because we work with the young. Hence to say, 'God, thy will be celebrated' is precisely to put myself in the Salesian charism.
As you said a moment ago, the pope has already nominated you three times as an auditor at Synods of Bishops, and now you're a Vatican official. How do you explain the faith he has in you?
I don't know what to say, I really don't. I got to know the pope for the first time when he came to visit the Auxilium [in 1992]. It's a pontifical faculty, and I was president for nine years. For some time we'd been saying that the pope had already visited the other universities and pontifical faculties, so I invited him to come. He accepted. Later, Fr. Umberto Betti, who at the time was the rector of the Lateran University, and someone with whom I had worked with on the Synod of Rome, told me that on Jan. 21, when the pope was set to come to the Auxilium, he had been at lunch with the pope and Cardinal [Camillo] Ruini. The pope said, 'Today, I'm going to the Auxilium,' and at that point Ruini, with whom I had also worked a great deal on the Synod for Rome, began to say nice things about me. I have a picture of the pope, one of the many I have of him, in which he's pointing his finger at me asking, 'What's your name?' and I responded, 'Sister Enrica Rosanna.' You can see that in that moment, he's thinking, 'Is this the one Cardinal Ruini told me about?' I suppose that the first awareness John Paul II had of me came about through His Eminence. I have a great respect for His Eminence, and I know that he has a great respect for me.
It would seem the pope is also satisfied with the work you did at those three synods.
I suppose, I suppose. If he wasn't satisfied, he wouldn't have called me back. I suppose others could have intervened on my behalf too, but this falls into the category of secrets. Certainly in the circoli minori [small working groups] in the synods I had the opportunity to work with bishops, with cardinals. We experts have an important work to do, and in that environment it's a form of collaboration done on a level of equality.
This appointment isn't just an honor. It's also a turning point, the first time a woman will play such a senior role in the Holy See. Do you see this as an important moment for the feminine voice in the church?
Well, I may be slightly less amazed than everyone else, because I'm accustomed to work [in this environment]. At the same time, I do agree there's a distinctively feminine way of seeing things. I'm convinced that we have a different modality of observing things. From my experience of working with men, especially the bishops, I'm aware that often we perceive things in greater detail. For example, I've been a university professor all my life. At the synods, when I would make an intervention (we would speak only in the circoli minori or the group of experts), some bishops would say, 'Sister Enrica, when you speak I understand everything. I can tell you're accustomed to teaching.' It's because I'm very logical. But perhaps there's also an element of the feminine mode of expression, which comes from my experience as a woman, but also my charismatic experience as a Salesian. It's to some extent about a gift for sympathy, which you may have seen with my students. There's a relational capacity, a sensitivity to the details, an inter-personal emphasis. I believe much in the inter-personal dimension. When I studied religious vows, I approached them on the anthropological level as a way of unlocking the potential of the personality for relationships … the relationship with God, yes, but also relationships with one's brothers. The vow of poverty, for example, puts one in relationship with all the poverty of history. Chastity can't be carried forward without justice and honesty. Obedience is a sense of respect for nature, for the design of God, for not wasting things. The way I approach these things seems to me a very feminine vision.
In your new role, a number of priests will actually report to you. This is a rather singular situation in the Vatican, yes?
It could be, I suppose. For the first time, they'll find a woman as their superior. Whether or not this creates problems for anyone depends a great deal on personalities. I have to say that in my experience working with the Salesians, sometimes as a superior myself and sometimes not, I've had very good experiences, and some difficulties. It depends upon character, upon many things. I suppose it's possible someone might think, "This woman has swindled me out of my post," even though I didn't do anything to have this job.
But you're not afraid?
Absolutely not. What I can do, I'll do, and if I can't do something, I won't. I will seek to pour myself out with who I am and what I know how to do. Beyond that, they'll teach me. I believe very much that the persons already there will tell me what I have to do. Without doubt, I have a terrific capacity for work. I know how to do 25 things at once. It's part of my temperament, my background. I'm from Lombardy, a land where one works a great deal. I've worked my whole life, and I'm not afraid of work. I don't get discouraged. At the same time, I think I probably do have just a touch of fear. Not fear of the new, but this is a great act of trust. Just as the pope had faith in me, so I also have to have faith in him. This is the logic of God. What is that logic? Love of the poor and the small, birth from a virgin, the scandal of the cross, forgiveness. I think that in my case, the pope respected this logic. By this I don't mean that I don't have positive qualities. If I didn't have talents, they wouldn't have called me.
As under-secretary in a Roman congregation, you may exercise in some sense the church's power of governance. Is this too part of the pope's act of faith in you?
Sure, even though I'm anxious to see myself exactly what this means. Everyone says this, all the newspapers have written that the job is part of the power of governance, but who knows exactly what I'll have to decide? No one has yet explained to me exactly what I have to do. We'll have to see. I suppose that there will be approvals of congregations, I suppose that there will be problems within congregations. I hope that the superiors don't torment me too much! I hope that all the women's congregations who know me don't suddenly imagine that I've become the magic solution for all their problems. Truly, I'm not sure yet what's been asked of me. But, I think it's useless to imagine that you're the first person ever to encounter a problem. When difficulties arise, I'll go to the competent persons and say, 'Excuse me, what have you done up to now? What do I have to do? What are the best solutions?' Then I'll get on my knees. The best things are always obtained through prayer. After my nomination was announced, people looked for me but I took three days of prayer, three days for being able to think. Changing my life radically is not easy, especially since I'm 65 years old. I've lived in my community since 1964. You can do the math. I've traveled a great deal, of course, but my community is my home. Everyone has a niche, their own ways, their own things, their own work, and now I'm in a sense being expropriated. But we married Christ. He's not a tranquil type. He expropriates us, he makes us change, he makes us walk.
Have you been to the United States?
I was there twice, both times in San Francisco. I went to Corralitos, where we have a house of formation. Then I went to Laredo, in Texas, and also in San Antonio. I've also been to Los Angeles, but very quickly. For the most part, I was in San Francisco. After my nine years as president, I requested an internship for brushing up on the language. I was there two months.
Which languages do you know?
French and Spanish, and a little Portuguese. It's not that I know them perfectly, because I've never had the occasion to practice them in a full sense. But, I understand things perfectly.
What vision of consecrated life do you have?
Truthfully, there are enormous problems, but I believe strongly that consecrated life has a future. We must rediscover our roots, that we are called both to holiness and to exemplary lives. Right now, I'd like to speak of female religious life. It's often said that female religious life is in crisis, that there are no vocations, etc. There are objective reasons for which the vocations have diminished. The first objective reason is that in the last century many new congregations were founded. Given the drop-off in the birthrate over the same time, one could say that the size of pie to be divided became smaller. When there are more congregations, the slice of the pie each can take becomes smaller. Second, it's also true that the great historic congregations are experiencing a bit of stagnation, missing an intermediate generation, and have lost as bit of fervor. Looking at my own congregation I'm tempted to say it's not like this, but also my congregation has its problems. The new congregations are closer to their charism, closer to their origins, and are perhaps a bit more capable of enthusiasm. Then, there's the reality that for women in the past the possibilities for self-realization were very limited. Either you become a nun, or you got married. Today, of course, women can do virtually anything: health care, education, the professions, anything. Negatively, the "feminine question" has also taken its toll, a certain image of the woman. Secularization has also played a role. As a sociologist, I can say that it was once the case that joining a religious community was a gateway to a certain prestige. Today that's no longer the case. I believe strongly in the possibilities of religious life, because God continues to plant the seeds of vocations. I believe that religious life has the capacity to redeem itself, but we've got to get going, we've got to roll up our sleeves and get to work. I see many religious who are doing just this. But like all good Christians and all good people of this earth, we also have our defects and our difficulties. I believe in the future of religious life because it's a gift of God. The sociologist Peter Berger has said that if religious life were not bridled by norms and rules, it would cause the church to explode, if it's authentic. Saint Catherine of Sienna said if you were what you should be, you would set Italy on fire. Maybe we allow ourselves to be a little too conditioned, we don't make that leap of quality to which John Paul II aspires, to which our superiors aspire. We too are perhaps a little secularized. I believe the church, religious life, has to walk a path of authentic daily holiness. Maybe sometimes we're a little too focused on our work, on what we do, rather than who we are. Maybe the church too asks too much of the world what it should do, rather than what it should be. For example, in 1968, I was in the university, and it was an era of hiding our identity. Sometimes I didn't know if my fellow students were members of a religious community, or even if they were Catholic. Today it's a moment of identity. People need to see signs of identity. If at one stage the guiding metaphor for religious life was sowing seeds in the earth, today I think it has to be the light that is not concealed under a basket. People need to see what it means to be Christians, that Christians are happy. We religious must give witness.
You spoke of the need to give signs. Does this mean, for example, that religious should always wear the habit?
I believe in signs. The habit can be a sign, and so can a crucifix. But one's face can also be a sign. Fraternity can be a sign. Yesterday, for example, I met some of our Spanish sisters in St. Peter's Square, and they were not wearing habits. I said to them, 'You are Salesian sisters.' They looked at me and asked, 'Who told you?' I responded, 'Your faces.' Because I could see that they were religious. Yes, the habit can be an important sign of poverty, of austerity, but its use depends on many things. Look at France right now, where outward signs of religious membership are controversial. We can think of other signs. But there are other signs that can be expressed in gests, in sympathy, in fraternity. Many times people need a smile, they need someone to walk with them. I believe in signs, which can be habits, can be the crucifix, and can take many other forms. In itself, the habit is not the essential thing. There are many expressions.
You spoke of the future of religious life. I've sometimes heard religious complain about the support given under this pontificate to the new movements, as if the movements are the future and religious orders the past. How do you see this relationship?
It can be positive or negative. The movements have rediscovered their lay identity, and we have to help them grow in this identity. Religious have to rediscover their own charism and deepen it, develop it, carry it forward in history, reading the signs of God in time. My community, for example, is dedicated to education, but that doesn't mean we can do it the same way Don Bosco did. Sometimes the relationship between the movements and religious is one of conflict. Sometimes they say, for example, that someone who comes from the movements will have problems entering into the charisma of religious life. But I think we have to do justice to this pope. The movements have been greatly supported by John Paul II, it's true. But so has consecrated life. There's a document on consecrated life, a beautiful document from the congregation on common life in fraternity, there's another document, Starting Afresh from Christ, from the Congregation for Religious. How many times has John Paul spoken about religious life during his Angelus address? This past Feb. 2, he addressed consecrated life. In fact, there has been a particular attention under John Paul II. He's talked about discovering the life of holiness and the need to discover one's own identity. Yes, he has valued the lay movements, but there was a need to rediscover the lay identity. This also applies to the lay movements which are born within religious communities. We Salesians, for example, have cooperators, and they too have in these years rediscovered their own identity. Traditionally, this used to mean simply 'benefactors,' in the sense that a 'cooperator' was someone who gave us money. Now we realize it's a vocation. We also have the Volunteers of Don Bosco, which is a secular institute. Everyone has to rediscover his or her own identity. I believe that if one does this, he or she can collaborate with others. This is true in the Salesian family. In order for us to collaborate well, we have to become ever more faith Daughters of Mary. We don't have to mimic the male Salesians. They're priests, while we're educators. They have the charisma of the young, and so do we, but we have specifically the charisma of female education. They have kids at the age of middle school and up, while we begin in grade school. They're men, we're women. Hence there's integration. In a family, the mother doesn't have to be the father, and the father doesn't have to be the mother. Each one has to live his or her identity. Today, religious have to be the light not hidden under a basket. There will always be problems, of course. What's your concept of providence? It's not that God's providence will always give us peace on earth, fraternity, and so on. Providence means, 'I am with you until the end of time. … Even if there are difficulties, I will help you overcome them.' Difficulties between the movements and religious life will continue, as will problems between husband and wife. Life is like this. Life is made up in part of defects and difficulties, and no one is going to remove them for us. No one promised us a perfect life. We have to walk together, seeking to overcome the problems to the extent possible. It's not a competition between movements and religious, but collaboration. In such a big church, there's space for everyone.
When do you start?
Wednesday morning, I'll be in the office. I was supposed to go to Africa, for two reasons. First of all, I was going to give a course of 15 days in Nairobi on the sociology of consecrated life. Obviously things changed and the appointment was cancelled. Then, I was also going because our faculty is preparing an affiliation with an African institute. I've already been once before, for a congress on peace. This time there's going to be another congress on peace in the Great Lakes region. I was going to go both for the congress and to work out details of the affiliation. Now, obviously, I can't go. Someone else will go.
What hope do you have for this job?
Truthfully, I haven't thought about it. I hope to be of service, to serve with everything I am and everything I do. I hope to make a contribution in collaboration with the others. I hope to respond with faith to the faith that has been shown to me. I'm grateful to the Holy Father, because it's an act of faith not just in me but also in my congregation. Obviously, my community will suffer, and me too. It's a large community because we're part of a university, we're 104, but it's my family. I've always been there. But, the Lord calls me and I will go. I'll still live there, but going out early every morning it won't be the same. Now we have to start redistributing my jobs.
National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2004