by Gianni Valente
Abu Dhabi (Agenzia Fides) - "I believe that there is no experience similar to this in the world. An experience in which all those who share the Catholic faith are migrants, and so in a sense we are all on the same level ", said Bishop Paolo Martinelli, about his experiences as Vicar Apostolic of South Arabia. After eight years as Auxiliary Bishop of Milan, the Capuchin Bishop of Milan is experiencing a vivid and surprising reality in the United Arab Emirates. A place and an interweaving of life situations that help him to have a unique perspective on things and to speak in the interview with Fides about the Synod that is about to open in Rome.
Bishop Martinelli, you too are taking part in the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the topic of synodality. But the synodal process also began some time ago for you and for the communities in your vicariate...
PAOLO MARTINELLI: We experienced the diocesan phase of the Synod very intensively, while I know that the path elsewhere was more difficult.
Bishop Paul Hinder, my predecessor, advocated the formation of a committee that would involve everyone. Not only the parishes, but also those who live in the so-called Labor Camps, who are only here to work and do not have their families with them. With a group of young people we were also able to get in touch with them, hear their experiences and their expectations. The synod also became an opportunity for a pastoral initiative that addressed real situations and problems. In the end, the material collected was enormous. We had almost 100,000 responses to the questionnaire, and many of them came not from individuals but from community groups, associations and movements. The result is a summary document that is also useful for grasping the general state of our Church and recognizing the great and widespread desire to share more, to walk more together, and thus also to show the face of a Church that is capable of more intensive testimony.
Which profile of the church has emerged? What are the special features?
MARTINELLI: Our population is very diverse and brings with it different traditions, languages and rituals. This becomes clear again and again when we visit parishes: there are national groups, language communities and those that belong to so-called churches “sui iuris”, i.e. that have specific traditions. The desire to share more of the great wealth we have, to exchange experiences and projects, has emerged during the synodal process at the local level. In this diversity we are a single church, and we are an apostolic vicariate not a diocese. And what we have in common is that we are all migrants. Nobody stays permanently. Everyone has come to these countries looking for work and everyone knows that they will stay there for perhaps ten or twenty or thirty years and then return to their countries of origin. This means that no one is a "citizen" and the Church is, so to speak, "pilgrimage" and bound to contingencies. During the Corona pandemic, for example, many lost their jobs and had to return to their countries of origin. And now there is a remarkable return.
An objectively singular condition. Don't the many identities and differences also lead to tensions?
MARTINELLI: There is this richness that the different traditions bring. You have to maintain your own traditions, but also learn to share them, recognizing what is already in common with others. And that is a great adventure, a path of exchange that continually enriches the life of the church. I think there is something prophetic about this for the whole world.
What are the "prophetic" features of this experience?
MARTINELLI: In my opinion, what is happening on the Arabian Peninsula should be followed with interest by the entire Church. On the one hand, we share a very simple, essential ecclesial experience. We cannot do great things, but must concentrate on the essential gestures of ecclesial life: the liturgical celebration, moments of catechesis and exchange... On the other hand, we note that the People of God has enormous wealth and also a great desire to participate in the life of the church. Our problem is that we don't have enough space for everyone. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays we celebrate mass from six in the morning to nine in the evening, and even during the week the churches are full at mass at half past seven in the morning: workers and students come to fill the cathedral and then go to school and go to work. They reflect the image of a simple Church rich in the traditions of Christian life. For me, coming from the West, it was a bit of a shock to see the people of God so passionately committed to the life of the Church, with the willingness to get involved in volunteering, and the catechists who animate the masses... all with a disarming enthusiasm for someone from the West, where many churches are half empty... There is a simplicity and vitality that I believe is worth looking at.
What role does the characteristic of provisionality, precariousness, that you mentioned play in this context?
MARTINELLI: A migrant church is by nature a "pilgrim church" that lives in the present and recognizes its "ephemeral" character. And even in the structures we build we have to take this fact into account.
Such a state can free you from the need to build something final on your own. How can this make the journey easier?
MARTINELLI: In our pilgrim and migrant Church everyone is like that, including bishops, priests and religious sisters. So we are all in the same situation. We must all learn to live the present with faith and recognize the transitory nature of what we are experiencing. And this makes us free and passionate in our daily lives.
How can the desire to witness to the Gospel of Christ be realized in the Arabian Peninsula?
MARTINELLI: In a context like ours, the Gospel can be lived and communicated through simple forms of witness. Obviously we are not doing anything that resembles proselytism in any way. For us, the first concern is to accompany our believers in their everyday lives. To support them in their problems. Not with the aim of "conquest", but to accompany everyone in an experience of faith, which as such becomes a witness in family life, at work, at school, in daily encounters with people of other faiths. Faith, born of grace, is open to meeting everyone and bearing witness, and it knows how to walk together with others, also by getting to know each other and overcoming prejudices. This is an experience that is particularly common in the Emirates, where even the authorities insist a lot on tolerance in order to promote coexistence, and this is how this “Abrahamic” house is created, in which interreligious dialogue takes place in the spirit of that in Abu Dhabi document on human fraternity signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed al Tayyeb. Along these lines, faith communities can learn to respect each other and recognize that together they can contribute to a good life for all.
From your description it is clear that you are interested in things and dynamics other than the issues that so many put at the top of the Synod's agenda, such as questions of sexual ethics or the redistribution of power structures in the Church...
MARTINELLI: Some of the topics that are presented by many media outlets as "hot points" of the upcoming synod discussions seem absolutely far away to us. They actually seem a bit like 'Western' concerns. And perhaps they are also characterized by a certain cultural gravity, compared to the freshness of an experience of faith that is completely immersed in daily life and recognizes faith as the essential thing that sustains one's path in life. This results in the desire to grow and walk together. This is who we are, and rather we must learn to accept each other as we are and respect each other in our differences. It's also about strong cultural differences, because someone who comes from India is different than someone from the Philippines, Italy or Nigeria.
Given all this, what are the things that need to be nurtured in order to grow together?
MARTINELLI: Essentially, it's about Christians being able to live together in these differences and to recognize and experience that everything can be recognized as a value and valued in faith. Because what holds us together is baptism. We have the same baptism whether we come from Sri Lanka or Pakistan or Lebanon or Senegal. We are so different, and yet the same baptism has made us all children of God and a part of the mystery of the Church. This is truly fascinating: to see all these differences united in the unity of the Church.
The Brazilian and Franciscan cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns used to say: "Living baptism is what makes us church, the rest is just offices and services".
MARTINELLI: If there is a common path to be taken in a synodal experience, then this is the path that takes us forward. (Agenzia Fides, 2/10/2023)