National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Posted: November 6, 2003

Interview with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe

November 3, 2003

By John L. Allen, Jr.

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe has built his career as a prodigious organizer. He staged the celebration of John Paul’s 50th anniversary as a priest in 1996, put together the mind-bogglingly complex Jubilee Year in 2000, and today runs the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

John L. Allen, Jr., NCR’s Rome correspondent, interviewed Sepe in early November. Following is the text of that interview.

Is the experience of the Jubilee still alive in the Church today?

In the pope’s letter Novo Millennio Ineunte -- where he offered a synthesis of the preparation and the unfolding of the Jubilee, and outlined its significance for the Church of the Third Millennium -- this experience was celebrated and transmitted. This document, like the two that proceeded it, constitutes in a sense the scaffolding of the Jubilee. These documents are like a trilogy that the pope has written. First he published Tertio Millennio Adveniente, presenting the guidelines as to how the Jubilee should be prepared, such as the three years dedicated to the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and how the problems of the Church and the society should be approached in a Jubilee perspective. The second document was the letter officially declaring the Jubilee Year, Incarnationis Mysterium . After it was all over, the pope reflected a great deal and then prepared the third document, Novo Millennio Ineunte, departing from the Jubilee and offering prospects for the Church’s path into the Third Millennium. It’s important to say, to underline, that in the pope’s mind the Jubilee was never intended to be, and in fact it wasn’t, an end in itself. It was designed to carry the Church forward, to project it into the Third Millennium. From my experience, and on the basis of all the documentation we have collected -- we have hundreds of boxes filled with documentation, and many students have asked us to be able to study this material for graduate theses in theology -- I would say the Church clearly received a new impulse. Not just in the external manifestations of the Jubilee Year, which obviously are finished, but in the motivation for these events. What was that motive? That the Church undertake an examination of conscience after 2,000 years, leading to a new outlook that would render the Church more incarnate in the world of today. This outlook in turn generated a more mature Christianity, a more mature faith, more self-conscious, more aware. This is the great legacy of the Jubilee. Departing from this new outlook, many pastors in the world were stimulated to launch a ‘new evangelization’ to make the faithful themselves more responsible, and thus more coherent in their Christian life. I think there was a reawakening, what the pope has called almost a ‘new springtime’ for the Church.

Concretely, where can we see the fruits of this reawakening?

Well, we should depart from the fundamentals of the Christian life. There was a stronger awareness of the need for the Word of God, for hearing the Word of God. Many small groups, called “communities of listening,” were created during the Jubilee Year. Even in small parishes in small towns, these communities came into being, practicing the reading of Scripture. This has now become a custom, a habit, which didn’t exist before the Jubilee. There was also a great rediscovery of the sacraments, especially the sacraments of the Eucharist and confession. Many pastors said, or wrote to us to say, that they had to put confessionals back into the churches because the people asked for the sacrament during the Jubilee. This was one of the motives, after all … conversion of hearts and examination of conscience. This is a legacy that endures today. Many priests today probably dedicate themselves a little more to hearing confessions, in part because of the Jubilee, and the way the faithful approach living their faith with greater responsibility and coherence.

You spoke about Novo Millennio Ineunte, the pope’s document reflecting on the Jubilee Year. To what extent does this represent John Paul’s personal thought?

The pope wanted this document as a third installment, a third part, of his trilogy. He conceived it and he wrote it.

Personally ?

Personally. Naturally he had suggestions from various people, but it was his document.

Some documents reflect the pope’s personal touch more than others, and this seemed a rather personal text.

About the others I wouldn’t know, but this was certainly desired and edited personally by the pope.

The pope also asked that the cardinals come to Rome in May 2001 for a special consistory to discuss the ideas in Novo Millennio Ineunte. What came out of this meeting?

An analysis was made of the preparation and unfolding of the Jubilee. Then, as is customary, everyone offered their impressions, their opinions, their suggestions. All that was collected and added to the documentation. The Jubilee, after all, was an experience of the entire Catholic Church, of all the bishops. We can’t forget that the Jubilee was not just celebrated in Rome, but in all the dioceses, and thus there was a direct participation of all pastors and all bishops. The bishops followed the guidelines sketched by the pope, obviously adapting them to the circumstances of their own dioceses. At the consistory, the cardinals were in a sense the spokespersons for all the bishops who lived this experience.

Can you point to something specific that came from the consistory that has made a difference?

I believe that a profound analysis resulted of what Christianity is today, and the challenges it faces, in the light of the joyous, positive experience of the Jubilee.

Is it possible to measure the impact of the Jubilee on the Church?

Look, I’ve always said that the consequences of the Jubilee are simply not measurable. Beyond the numbers, the persons who came to Rome or who in the various parts of the world participated in the Jubilee, there’s the interior grace that resulted. There were so many episodes of people who during the Jubilee felt called to live anew their Christian faith, who underwent a kind of conversion, but this can’t be measured. It just can’t be done. We can say, however, that the exterior participation in the Jubilee had a great impact, in part because of global communications and the mass media. For example, during the Jubilee for the first time we created an internal computer network linking the Holy See with all the bishops’ conferences in the world. We put in the technical equipment necessary to link Rome with every episcopal conference … computers, etc. The central terminal was in our office, the secretariat of the Jubilee. This network also allowed the conferences to connect with each other, not just with Rome. All this created a great communion between Rome and the local churches, and among the local churches themselves. Many times, for example, various initiatives became occasions for other churches to do something similar, not always in the same way. There was a continual exchange of experiences that enriched the Church in an extraordinary way.

Are you saying that a capitalist-style “bottom line” for the Jubilee Year is impossible?

It’s impossible. I always give the example of the year dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Father presented this idea, connecting it with the sacrament of confirmation and also with the virtue of hope, especially in light of all the situations in the world where hope seems to be lacking. Afterwards, bishops around the world, taking their cue from this letter of the pope, wrote pastoral letters themselves applying this initiative in their own dioceses. They sent these letters on to us, to give us an idea of what was happening. We made a list of all of them, and it came to 17 pages just for the titles alone! Naturally, not everyone sent their letters to us, since this was entirely a voluntary matter. Then, there was the year of the Son, and the year of the Father, and so on. This is just one example.

So even without a precise cost-benefit analysis, you’re impressed with the response.

It was incredible, incredible.

Let’s talk about your personal experience. How did the Jubilee Year touch you personally?

For me, it was a real enrichment. Obviously, I touched it day-by-day with my own hands. In a way I had the pulse of how the whole Church reacted to the stimuli that came from the pope. The understanding I was able to develop was so rich. Priests and bishops came to us from every part of the world to tell us, to say to us, what this experience meant for them. For me, this was a continual examination of conscience. In the essays that make up the book, I was asked to make theological and pastoral comments, and I always wanted them to be incarnate in the actual reality lived in the Jubilee, day by day. Every Sunday I had to produce these essays, and they reflect what was happening moment for moment. I tried to collect insights that came from others, add my own, and instill them in these essays for capturing the spiritual element of the Jubilee, which after all was the reason we did all this work. It was the interior spiritual reality that could touch every person that was the scope of the effort.

Did you have the chance during the year to spend time with pilgrims and hear their stories?

Yes. For example, in preparing for the particular jubilee days, we put ourselves directly in contact with the interested parties. Many times, we tried to go visit them. For example, the jubilee for the sick, or for the handicapped, we spent time with them here in Rome before the event. We wanted to know them, to understand their situation. There was also a logistical reason … for example, among the handicapped were deaf people. We had to come up with structures so they could participate. Also, every night during the Jubilee year we held an evening prayer service in St. Peter’s Square with the pilgrims. Anyone who wanted to come was welcome. Our instinct was that most pilgrims had their own program during the day, but before going to bed we could gather them in the piazza, under the pope’s window, for prayer. We held a very brief liturgy of the word, usually 20 minutes, every night, rain or shine --with the wind, with the heat in August, no matter what. The liturgy was held in whatever was the principal language of the pilgrims who were there that night. Sometimes it was led by a cardinal, or a bishop, or the head of the delegation. It consisted of a 1-2 minute greeting, a short reading from the gospel, a brief commentary, an Our Father, and a prayer to the Madonna. Then the pope would give a brief final benediction from his window. I was there every night, and I spoke with the pilgrims, with the volunteers. I also helped lead the singing. All this meant I was immersed among the people. Sometimes I even led the prayer, because every now and then someone was missing at the last minute. This was a great experience. I remember another moment, a photo of which was actually published in L’Osservatore Romano. We held a lunch for the poor with the pope, people from all over the world, including non-Catholics, non-Christians. They brought their children, and we started to play ring-around-a-rosy. I took my zuchetto and put it on the head of one of the children. The pope was there, and I put the child in his arms. Then I and the rest of the children formed a ring-around-a-rosy around the pope. It was beautiful.

This sort of experience must have reminded you of the reason for all your work.

Of course. You can never let this drop from view, because this is the soul of the Jubilee.

Would you say you’re a changed person because of the Jubilee?

Well, certainly it left its mark on me, it enriched me. It effected me profoundly because I was able to be in contact with so many kinds of people, from politicians to the sick, from children to the poor to orphans … all this allowed me to see the Church and the world with a new vision, certainly more spiritual.

I imagine it also gave you a more cosmopolitan perspective, since you were in contact with people from all over the world.

Every nation of the earth. In fact, this turned out to be a great help in my present work, since I was in contact with all the dioceses of Africa, of Asia, of Latin America, also North America, from where so many people came. I saw both their small problems and their great challenges. This gave me a sense of the universality of the Church.

The Jubilee was directed, after all, at the mission of life for the Church, at the New Evangelization that must be incarnate in the people. It’s clear that this included everyone, and thus it helped me see also in the mission territories where the difficulties are, where the problems are of dialogue and relations with other religions, where the political challenges are. For example, some pilgrims came from countries where the government created problems with their visas, and this helped me understand the situation of the Church there. It opened a window for me onto the universality of the Church, which I encountered here every day, day after day, in this work. The experience of Africa and Asia was very important. Also Latin America, because this congregation has 100 dioceses in Latin America. We also have dioceses in the north of Canada, and even in the United States. Propaganda Fidei is responsible for Alaska! The bishops of Alaska are thus nominated by Propaganda Fidei. Then we have several countries in Europe -- Kosovo, Albania, Kazakhastan, Mongolia, etc. This dimension of the universality of the Church became much clearer for me. Even now when the bishops from these countries visit me, they often show me books and other initiatives they launched during the Jubilee Year that continue today. They say, ‘We know that you were the general secretary of the Jubilee, and we want to show you what we did. These could be initiatives of charity, social initiatives, or other activities, but they are Jubilee initiatives that are still alive.

Are there strategies of methods of evangelization you discovered during the Jubilee Year that you’ve been able to apply here?

Certainly. Trying to put the directives of the pope into action for the Jubilee, we launched a number of initiatives that continue today in countries all around the world.

For example?

For example, the letter of the pope recommended undertaking works of charity. In many mission countries, small medical centers were created during the Jubilee Year. In other cases, schools for illiterate children were opened, or perhaps centers against the spread of AIDS. They continue in operation today, because obviously they respond to real needs. Those needs are with us today and we have to respond. For me, all this is a continuation of the soul of the Jubilee.

So there’s a sense in which the transition from the Jubilee to Propaganda Fidei was a natural one?

I don’t know if it was natural, because I still have to confront the concrete problems of the job every day. But in a certain way, I believe the Jubilee experience adapted me to this work, giving me a sense of the problems of the Church in the world, especially in the mission countries.

The grand event of the Jubilee Year was World Youth Day. Do you think youth therefore have a special vocation in the reawakening of the Jubilee experience you’re talking about?

I believe so. It’s necessary to point out that there was a great preparation for World Youth Day in all the dioceses. The youth were prepared. It’s not just that they participated, but how they participated -- with respect for the environment, respect for others … everyone marveled at it. It didn’t just happen, it was well prepared. This experience left its mark on the youth, in part because they needed precisely such a strong response to their own identity as young people. Because the entire Jubilee was in a sense about the future, to prepare the Church for the future, the youth felt themselves in a certain sense the protagonists of this Jubilee. They understood that the Church of the future depends on them. They are the Church of the future. This awareness of their own responsibility created a great capacity among the young the commit themselves to Christian life. I believe this was demonstrated also in Canada. It gave hope also to young people who couldn’t participate, that there’s hope for building what Pope Paul VI once called a “civilization of love.” They can help construct the Church on a solid basis, giving a contribution that’s neither ephemeral nor superficial, but something that takes their life and transforms it. They’re swept up into living this commitment with joy.

Can we say that in 2000, a “Jubilee Generation” was formed?

Certainly, because it left a mark on everyone … on those young people who participated, and those who didn’t. It provided a new standard for assessing the importance of their own youth. It was a response to the need, this questioning of the youth of today. They found this response and expressed it in the most beautiful manner.

What can you suggest concretely for a diocese or a group in the Church that wants to revisit the Jubilee?

I would say, take in hand the document of the pope, Novo Millennio Ineunte. There you’ll find the guidelines for living the spirit of the Jubilee and projecting the spirit of the Jubilee into whatever you want to do. In fact, this document on the basis of the Jubilee experience picks up the core ideas of the two documents that preceded it. If you take up these documents seriously, whether you’re a bishop or a pastor, a minister to youth or to the family, and use them to develop a pastoral program, you’ll find incredible richness. These documents don’t just condense the spirituality of this great pope, but they give expression to his way of seeing the Church and living the Church in this particular period.

Will there be a Jubilee in 2025?

The tradition that’s been created is to have one every 25 years. Thus we can say the next appointment for a Jubilee should be 2025. At first, it was every 100 years, then every 50, now it’s every 25. Hence there should be one in 2025 … let’s hope.

One hundred years from now, will we look back on the Jubilee of 2000 as a turning point for the Church?

Certainly it left its mark on an epoch, in part because the global tension surrounding the passage from one millennium to the next was quite strong … remember the ‘Y2K’ problem and all the rest. There was much fear. The Jubilee gave a dimension of holiness to all this, and I’m certain it changed something. To what extent this influence will endure, I don’t know. But certainly it won’t be possible in the future to talk about this moment in history without reference to the Jubilee.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 2003

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