Agrigento, Italy, Feb 13, 2015 / 02:03 am
Archbishop Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento still feels himself more of a priest with concern for the poor than a cardinal, even though he will be given the red biretta this Saturday.
His local Church includes Lampedusa, the small Italian island near Tunisia which is the destination of many African and Middle Eastern emigrants, and which was the destination of Francis' first trip outside Rome after his election as Pope.
"I wear the wooden cross made by the immigrants hosted in Lampedusa," he said, indicating his pectoral cross, in a Feb. 11 interview with CNA.
"Thinking of the immigrants who made this cross helps me reflect how today, respect for the life of the other is not given the proper priority."
Such concern for the poor has always been pivotal in his priestly ministry.
Archbishop Montenegro was born in Messina, on Sicily's northeastern tip, in 1946. He attended St. Pius X Seminary in the city, and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Messina in 1969, at the age of 23.
He served in several parishes and was private secretary for two of the diocese's archbishops, director of the diocesan Caritas, a spiritual director at the minor seminary, and vicar general of the archdiocese.
In 2000, he was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Messina-Lipari-Santa Lucia del Mela – his home diocese, which had been united with two other local Churches in 1986. While auxiliary bishop, he became president of Caritas Italy.
He was appointed Archbishop of Agrigento, in the southwest of Sicily, in 2008.
As Archbishop of Agrigento he has been confronted with the crisis of migrants from Africa – the island of Lampedusa is actually closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. Immigration has long been a concern for the island.
Since 1988, almost 23,000 people have died in the stretch of sea between Africa and Lampedusa – 330 of them in the latest tragedy, which took place Feb. 10.
Archbishop Montenegro stressed concernedly that "these are just the known data … how many people have died and we do not even know of it?"
"As a bishop, I feel questioned and provoked by the pain of these brothers who knock on our doors and ask to be welcomed," he said. "Questioned, because we cannot continue to watch them die, and remain indifferent. Provoked, because history must change; but it cannot change for the worse."
The archbishop's concern for the migrants is shared by Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in 2013.
"Any time I talk with the Pope, he asks me: 'What is going on in Lampedusa?' And he proved to be very attentive to the situation on the island when he sent a Nativity set to Lampedusa. The Nativity is set in a barque, and Joseph leans outside the barque to pull an immigrant out of the sea," Archbishop Montenegro recounted.
"For Pope Francis, Lampedusa is a small piece of a new world where poverty and acceptance may be combined together."
Archbishop Montenegro has been president of the Italian bishops' commission on migration and the Migrantes Foundation since 2013.
He explained that all his priestly life has been characterized by concern for the poor, and this has brought him "to see life through a different lens: there are people who have to die in order to live, there are people who make of essential things the inner sense of their life … we have to take this into account."
"The Gospel is about the poor: if we removed from the Gospel the pages about the poor, only the cover would remain," he stated. "So if I want to live the Gospel, I must take the poor into account. And if I take the poor into account, perhaps I can really meet Jesus, since he identifies himself with the poor. Remember what he said? 'Whatever you did unto the least of my brethren, you did unto me.'"
The archbishop said his appointment as cardinal now pushes him "to set my gaze on a larger scale … my attention was focused on Lampedusa, on Agrigento, on Italy, but now I have much more to look at."
"Sicily can be an example of welcoming and dialogue," he said. "For instance: in Lampedusa there is a small shrine, beyond the parish, and there are grottos there where Muslims and Christians met to pray a very long time ago… they did this before any discussion about ecumenism or interreligious dialogue emerged."
Archbishop Montenegro is also known for his concern about the Mafia, which he has called the most pressing issue facing the Agrigento archdiocese; in 2012, he denied a Church funeral to a known Mafia leader.
Archbishop Montenegro is one of the 20 bishops who will be made a cardinal at the Feb. 14 consistory being held in the Vatican, and one of 15 who, being under the age of 80, would be able to vote in a papal conclave.