Not yet 50 years of age, Fr Alexandre Awi Mello has served as Secretary of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life since 2017. As the director of the national Schoenstatt Movement in his country, he was able to closely follow Pope Francis on the first international journey of his Pontificate on the occasion of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. In this interview with L’Osservatore Romano, the Brazilian priest recalls his experience during those days and speaks of the prospects of youth ministry in this time marked by the pandemic.
From 22 to 29 July 2013, exactly seven years ago, the people of Brazil — the nation with the highest number of Catholics worldwide — were able to see with their own eyes the new Pontiff who had come there to celebrate what had been described as “a WYD with the Samba beat”. As a native of the ‘carioca’ metropolis, what personal memories do you hold most dear?
I remember, first and foremost, the warm welcome that the Brazilian people and young people from the entire world gave the Pope. He himself said that it had made an impression on him. I cherish the memory of countless gestures of affection between the Holy Father and the people, as for example, the private meeting with eight young inmates. On that occasion, his capacity for listening — a very attentive, patient and empathetic listening — affected me deeply. What was also meaningful to me was the day that I accompanied the Holy Father to the Marian Shrine of Aparecida. In fact, we had met there in 2007 to work together during the unforgettable experience of the fifth General Conference of Latin-American and Caribbean Bishops, the guidelines of which still mark his Pontificate today.
In Pope Bergoglio’s first WYD, many were very surprised by the invitation he made to the Argentinian youth to “make noise”, to “create a bit of confusion”. Do you think that invitation was received? Can one speak of a new generation of Catholics who are no longer closed up in the sacristies, but capable of going out into the world, as the Pontiff continues to ask?
That meeting with young people from Argentina was unscheduled and his discourse was completely spontaneous; you could see that his enthusiastic pastor’s heart was overflowing. In that period I was working in Brazil with young people, and I can assure you that the Pope’s invitation was very well received. It was the first sign of the importance that young people would have in the course of his Pontificate. With the WYD in Rio and the strong missionary impulse given to young people, the Pope was starting a journey, which culminated in the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, and in the publication of the Exhortation Christus Vivit that followed it; a journey that continues at a full pace toward the many initiatives of our Dicastery and throughout the world.
Having a significant role at the WYD in Rio, would you ever have imagined you would be later called to organize another one on the American continent, the one in Panama in 2019?
Being an interpreter for the Pope in Brazil was an extraordinary experience, to say the least! In reality, I did not have much work to do, because the Pontiff communicated very well with the Brazilian people and everyone understood the power of his gestures and the tenderness of his words! I would have never imagined, then, that I would collaborate so directly in organizing another WYD in Latin America, much less that I would do so within the Holy See. But I have to say that, on a strictly personal level, the experience in Panama surpassed the one in Rio. Working at the 2019 WYD was a powerful experience of ecclesial communion: the professionalism and the joy of the local organizing committee, along with a great openness and flexibility, made a really profound impression on me.
Among the members of the Schoenstatt Movement, to which you belong, devotion to Our Lady is deeply rooted. From that perspective do you think Francis is a Marian Pope?
I have no doubt about this. More than just a simple devotion, it is a true Marian spirituality, rooted in the holy People of God, which marks the vision and the ecclesial project of his Pontificate. I had the grace to interview him twice, to write a book and a doctoral thesis on this subject.
The Pope’s love for Our Lady has to do with the vision of an outward bound Church, with the revolution of mercy and tenderness, and with the figure of a Church with a feminine and motherly face, which he is promoting more and more.
Lastly a question on the next World Youth Day event, which will take place in Lisbon, Portugal, in August 2023. Initially planned for 2022, it has been postponed by one year due to the coronavirus emergency. Do you think that the limitations and isolation imposed to deal with Covid-19 could distance young people from religious practice?
I honestly think that the pandemic may be an ideal opportunity for the Christian proposal to reach young people in different ways. The importance of family and personal ties, communication, care among the generations, solidarity and so many other Gospel values are spreading in various ways at this particular time.
The Church herself is also learning to speak other languages. I hope that, when the pandemic is overcome, the WYD in Lisbon can be a great occasion to gather the lessons learned today, offering young people from the entire world the opportunity to meet again personally in order to nourish their faith as disciples and to feel sent as missionaries, in perhaps a difficult and uncertain future, “to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring”, as the Holy Father says. I imagine young people who, on returning to their countries, feel called to commit themselves to new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity, and who can ‘infect’ their communities with renewed Christian hope.