On the morning of 30 September in St Peter's Square, 19 bishops and 2 presbyters were created cardinals of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis. Among them, the former Prior General of the Order of St Augustine and Bishop of Chiclayo, the current Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, Monsignor Robert Francis Prevost OSA
Cardinal Prevost received the cardinal's biretta in front of a gathering that included Fr Alejandro Moral Anton and his council, Fr Miguel Angel Orcasitas, former General of the Order, Fr Anthony Pizzo, Provincial of the Province of Chicago - the new cardinal’s circumscription of origin - various provincials and superiors and, in short, a large representation of brothers and sisters of the Augustinian community, as well as his blood and diocesan family.
During his brief address, Fr Prevost, on behalf of all the cardinals, spoke of how "the fundamental thing for every disciple of Christ is humility", knowing that the new task entrusted by the Pope to the new cardinals is "a call to humility." In view of the imminent start of the Synod of Bishops, Prevost pointed out that "being a synodal Church that knows how to listen to everyone is the way not only to live the faith personally, but also to grow in true Christian brotherhood" and that "the Church is fully such only when it truly listens, when it walks as the New People of God in its wonderful diversity, continually rediscovering its own baptismal call to contribute to the spread of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God." Finally, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops asked Francis to pray for the new cardinals, so that "they may contribute to making the door of the universal Church more ready to open, more ready to welcome, more able to listen to all."
The previous day, in the midst of a hectic schedule, the General Curia office had the privilege to have a quiet chat with him, to learn about his work as Prefect, his vision of the episcopate, the challenges facing the Church today, as well as less well-known aspects of his life, such as his love of tennis, reading, long walks and longer chats with friends.
Bishop Prevost, in January 2023 we heard the news that Pope Francis was appointing you as Prefect at the head of the Dicastery for Bishops. How did you welcome the news?
The fact that Pope Francis asked me to accept this mission came as a surprise to me. I had been part of the Dicastery for several years - since 2020 - and when he told me that he was "thinking about this possibility", I told the Holy Father: "You know that I am very happy in Peru. Whether you decide to appoint me or to leave me where I am, I will be happy; but if you ask me to take on a new role in the Church, I will accept." And this is because of my vow of obedience. I have always done what I have been asked to do, whether in the Order or in the Church. And that's when he told me: "Pray that I make a good decision." And well... The rest is already known... It is an honour to receive this mandate but, honestly, it is difficult for me to leave Chiclayo after so many years, more than 20 years in Peru, being happy doing what I was doing. So, now back in Rome, a city with which I am obviously very familiar. Every day I say to myself: "Lord, all this is in your hands. Give me the grace I need to bring this task to a successful conclusion. And as I have tried to do throughout my religious life, I said yes, go ahead with the great adventure of being a follower of Christ.
What is the day-to-day life like within the Dicastery?
The Holy Father, as part of his ministry, has the responsibility to appoint bishops, to choose who will be called to be one of the successors of the apostles. On the one hand, my ‘job’, if you will, or my service to the Holy Father and to the Church is to help in that process of identification, of selection of good candidates as bishops in different parts of the world. Not in all of them, of course, since in some this work is carried out by the Dicastery for Evangelisation. So one could say that the selection of bishops is therefore a significant aspect of my work. On the other hand, one of the main duties of the Prefect is to accompany the bishops, men ordained to the episcopate, as they - as priests - gain experience and advance in the way of the Lord. This work demands that, above all, we stay by their side, seeking more effective ways for the pastors of the People of God to know that they are not alone. To this end, we have gone ahead this year with the course for new bishops that typically takes place every September here at the Holy See. We also offer retreats and ongoing formation that can help them to govern and care for the clergy in the specific difficulties that arise.
What fundamental trait would you say is necessary to be a good bishop?
To be a good shepherd means to be able to walk side-by-side with the People of God and to live close to them, not to be isolated. Pope Francis has made this very clear on numerous occasions. He does not want bishops who live in palaces. He wants bishops who live in relationship with God, with their brother bishops, with priests and especially with the People of God in a way that reflects the compassion and love of Christ, creating community, learning to live what it means to be part of the Church in an integral way that necessitates a lot of listening and dialogue. We are almost on the eve of the opening of the next Synod on Synodality, which means recognising how important this role is within the Church. A bishop, therefore, has to have many skills. He has to know how to govern, to administer, to organise and to know how to deal with people. But if I had to point out one trait above all others, it is that he must proclaim Jesus Christ and live the faith so that the faithful see in his witness an incentive to them to want to be an ever more active part of the Church that Jesus Christ himself founded. In just a few words: to help people come to know Christ through the gift of faith.
A few hours after being created cardinal, what would you say are the main challenges facing the Church today in spreading the Gospel to an increasingly unbelieving society?
The mission of the Church has been the same for 2000 years, when Jesus Christ said: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:19). We have to announce the good news of the Kingdom of God at the same time that we understand what the Church is in its universal reality. This is one of the things I learned while I was Prior General of the Augustinians and it has certainly been a great grounding for the role I have now. There are many different cultures, many different languages, many different circumstances around the world where the Church responds. So when we list our priorities and weigh up the challenges before us we have to be aware that the urgencies of Italy, Spain, the United States, Peru or China, for example, are almost certainly not the same except in one thing: the underlying challenge that Christ left to us to preach the Gospel and that this is the same everywhere. The priorities of pastoral work will always be different from one place to another, but recognising the great richness of diversity within the People of God is tremendously useful because it makes us more sensitive when it comes time to better reach out and respond to what they expect from us.
How can we carry out the "New Evangelization" - a theme shared by recent Popes - especially in the West, where vocations are floundering and young people seem increasingly detached from what the Church has to offer them?
Let us go back to World Youth Day in Lisbon. There I had the privilege of accompanying Pope Francis and was able to see thousands of young people looking for experiences that would help them live their faith. First of all, our priority cannot be to look for vocations. Our priority has to be to live the good news, to live the Gospel, to share the enthusiasm that can be born in our hearts and in our lives when we truly discover who Jesus Christ is. When we stay walking with Christ, in communion with one another, in that friendship with the Lord and understanding how great it is to have received that gift, vocations come. It is true that in some parts of the world right now, for various reasons, there are fewer vocations than in the past. And while, of course, it is a concern, I don't think it is the main one. If we learn to live our faith better and learn to invite and include others in the life of the Church, especially the young, some vocations will still come to us. Moreover, I think we have to see the lay person as a lay person. It is one of the many gifts that has evolved over the last few years: discovering that they have a very important role in the Church.
"The latter lose sight of the fact that from the very creation of the world, the gift of nature, the gift of human life, the gift of so many different things that we actually live and celebrate, cannot be sustained by making up our own rules and only doing things our way". Cardinal Robert Francis Prevost OSA
As long as, as Pope Francis says, they do not assume the role of the clergy and do not become clerical, and live their own baptismal vocation of what it means to be part of the Church, we begin to live with greater clarity. I believe that the witness of religious life, although the numbers may be fewer in the future, still has a capital value because of what it means to live that aspect of consecration, of total surrender of one's life to the Lord and to the service of others. The priesthood has, and will continue to have, a very important role in the life of the Church and of all believers. Therefore, I would say that developing a fuller understanding of the Church and continuing to live that ministry - the ministry of the priesthood - with its enormous wisdom, can help us to live better with the problems that might lie ahead and to strengthen the conviction that we are still moving forward, that the Lord does not abandon his Church. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow. Personally, I live this reality with great hope.
In your opinion, how can one deliver unity from within diversity?
It is a real challenge, especially when polarisation has become the modus of operating in a society that, rather than seeking unity as a fundamental principle, goes instead from extreme to extreme. Ideologies have acquired greater power than the real experience of humanity, of faith, of the actual values we live by. Some misconstrue unity as uniformity: "You have to be the same as we are.” No. This cannot be. Nor can diversity be understood as a way of living without criteria or order. The latter lose sight of the fact that from the very creation of the world, the gift of nature, the gift of human life, the gift of so many different things that we actually live and celebrate, cannot be sustained by making up our own rules and only doing things our way. These are ideological positions. When an ideology becomes master of my life, then I can no longer dialogue or engage with another person because I have already decided how things will be. I am closed to the encounter and transformation cannot, as a result, take place. And that can happen anywhere in the world on any issue. This obviously makes it very challenging to be Church, to be community, to be brothers and sisters.
How does the figure of St Augustine help you in your daily life?
When I think of St Augustine, his vision and understanding of what it means to belong to the Church, one of the first things that springs to mind is what he says about how you cannot say you are a follower of Christ without being part of the Church. Christ is part of the Church. He is the head. So people who think they can follow Christ "in their own way" without being part of the body, are, unfortunately, living a distortion of what is really an authentic experience. St Augustine’s teachings touch every part of life, and help us to live in communion. Unity and communion are essential charisms of the life of the Order and a fundamental part of understanding what the Church is and what it means to be in it.
What might you say to seminarians who, in their formative period, may experience a moment of weakness or self-doubt in their calling?
I suppose the first thing I would say are the words that Christ repeated so many times in the Gospel: "Do not be afraid." The Lord calls - and his call is true. Do not be afraid to say Yes. Do not be afraid to open your heart to the possibility that the Lord is calling you to religious life, or to Augustinian life, or to the priesthood, or to other forms of service in the Church. I remember when I was a novice, an older friar visited us and simply said one word that still resonates with me: persevere. We must pray for that perseverance because none of us is exempt from difficult moments, whether we are married, single or as Augustinians. We cannot give up at the first difficulty because otherwise, and this is important, we will never get anywhere in life. Perseverance is a great gift that the Lord is ready to offer us. But we have to learn to embrace it and make it part of our life, to be strong. It is one of those gifts that builds over time, in the small trials at the beginning that help us to be stronger, to be able to carry the Cross when it becomes heavier. It helps us start to move forward, and then keeps us advancing.
Finally, what do you like to do when you have free time?
I consider myself quite the amateur tennis player. Since leaving Peru I have had few occasions to practise so I am looking forward to getting back on the court [laughs]. Not that this new job has left me much free time for it so far. I also really enjoy reading, taking long walks, and travelling - seeing and enjoying new and diverse places. I enjoy relaxing with friends and meeting a broad range of different people. Different people can greatly enhance our lives. And, to tell the truth, as an Augustinian, having a rich community built on the ability to share with others what happens to us, to be open to others, has been one of the greatest gifts I have been given in this life. The gift of friendship brings us back to Jesus himself. To have the ability to develop authentic friendships in life is beautiful. Without a doubt, friendship is one of the most wonderful gifts that God has given us.