​Fall 2006

An Interview with Anthony Mancini, Auxiliary Bishop of Montreal

by Domenic Cusmano

Accenti Feature : An Interview with Anthony Mancini, Auxiliary Bishop of Montreal by Domenic Cusmano
There is an informality about Anthony Mancini that is quite surprising. He smiles broadly, dispelling any preconceived notions of severity and weariness one might expect from a high-ranking churchman. His congenial laughter and easy manner put one quickly at ease.


But these attributes should not be mistaken for laxness, when it comes to matters of conviction. As Montreal's auxiliary bishop - appointed in 1999 - Monsignor Mancini speaks his mind frankly, articulating complicated ideas in straightforward terms. It is clear to the listener that there are certain concepts, no matter how unconventional he may appear, that are simply not negotiable.


Bishop Mancini's willingness to speak candidly about his roots and to answer questions unfettered by "political correctness" is refreshing - perhaps indicative of a newfound elan in the Catholic Church. Approachable though he may be, however he never loses site of the message he is conveying or the spiritual foundations that support it.


Anthony Mancini came to Canada from Italy with his parents in 1948 at the age of three. Like many Italian immigrants after World War II, his is a story of adversity overcome. "Our village [Mignano Montelungo in the province of Caserta] was on the main road between Naples and Rome," he recalled during our interview. "Montecassino [the site of some of the fiercest fighting in World War II] was just a little north of our village, and it was bombarded and destroyed. My parents' house was burned to the ground. There was not much point in staying there."


The move to Canada seemed obvious, especially since a physical link to the country already existed. "My mother's father had been one of those first-wave immigrants who came to Canada at the turn of the twentieth century. He crossed the Atlantic fourteen times. His intention was to go back to Italy for good, but then the war started. His wife died, his children, including my mother, got married. So in the end he decided that there was no point in going back."


Instead it was the Mancinis, three-year-old child in tow, who joined the grandfather in search of a better future in a foreign land. "My father took a leave of absence from his work in Italy. He was the town secretary. He got a job working for the CPR [Canadian Pacific Railway] a week after we arrived, and he worked there until he retired." The family settled in an area just north of Montreal's Little Italy. "Within a year of our arrival my father, with my grandfather's advice, bought a house. My mother has lived in that same house since 1949, across the street from the old Holy Family Parish on Drolet and Faillon streets."




ACCENTI: What was it like growing up in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s?


Bishop Mancini: For my parents, and particularly for my mother, looking back on it now, I think it must have been really difficult. I can't even imagine how they could leave what they knew and come to a place about which they knew absolutely nothing. I think my mother suffered a great deal during those first years. My father went off to work. So he had the possibility to speak with some of the men who spoke Italian. But my mother was left alone with me. It was very difficult to do even ordinary things, like shopping. My mother tells the story of the first few days after we arrived. We couldn't stay in the house all the time. So we went for a walk. She saw what was obviously a grocery store, and in the window she saw a bag that she understood was flour. She recounts going in and simply pointing to the bag of flour, and then trusting the guy to pay himself with whatever money she had, and how that was a great accomplishment for her that day. When we went back home she made homemade pasta. And when my father and grandfather came home from work, there was this great jubilation.


ACCENTI:: What is your fondest memory as a child?


Bishop Mancini: I enjoyed my first experience going to school. I was five years old. I went to the school that was attached to Madonna della Difesa Church, Saint-Philippe Benizzi. There was a sister in charge of first grade. I don't know how she and my mother got into a conversation, but I ended up staying there. So I did my first year of school when I was five years old, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was afterwards, when it was officially time to go to school when I turned six, that we encountered difficulties. The French school wouldn't take me. A lot of other Italian children, I discovered afterwards, were not received into the French schools - contrary to how things turned out later on. And so, we ended up going to the local English school. But even there, they didn't want to take me.


ACCENTI: Why not?


Bishop Mancini: I don't know. Maybe it was a problem for them to receive this immigrant kid, who couldn't speak English. A neighbour of ours called the Montreal Catholic School Commission, English sector, back then. And she said to whomever she spoke to, that this boy wants to go to school. He hasn't been accepted. If they don't take him, well, he's going to go to the Protestant school. And that was a big threat in those days, I guess. And here I am. Maybe I'm a bishop today because somebody allowed me into a Catholic school back then [laughter]. I realize now that being from an immigrant family, my parents were very, very protective. There was a lot of things I didn't do. I never became a great hockey player. I never became a great swimmer or a great sportsman [laughter], because that just didn't fit into the mindset at the time.


ACCENTI: What led you to the priesthood?


Bishop Mancini: That's a big question. The story that I've heard over the years from members of my family is that as a kid, right from the time I came from Italy, I used to somehow or other play at being a priest. And I would always apparently say, when I grow up I'm going to be a priest. But the real impact in terms of the priesthood and the desire to be a priest came from my encounter with some of the priests who were at Holy Family Church. The pastor there, at the time that I was growing up, was Father Walter Sutton. He was very significant to me as a person and as a model. The other person who influenced me a great deal, and he's still there, is Father John Baxter. He came to Holy Family as a young priest. And more than forty years later he's still there. Being a priest just seemed like a way of being with people that made sense for me. Of course, there were other people along the way who were important. But those two men were very, very significant in terms of that decision.


ACCENTI: In practical terms, what does a bishop do on a daily basis. In other words, what's your job?


Bishop Mancini: [Laughter] Make sure the Church stays alive! [more laughter] My job, the bishop's job, I mean, if you're going to do a definition is that we are, first of all, the successors of the apostles. When you think about that, you know that's quite something. You are one of those who now, in the twenty-first century, is carrying on the task that Jesus asked these first twelve guys to do. In practice we have three words that describe what we do. One is to teach, the other is to sanctify, and the third is to govern. A bishop's task is to teach the message of Christ. We make sure that the instruments for sanctification are available. In other words, the sacraments. Not just the rituals. We have to see to it that baptism makes sense, that confirmation makes sense, that marriage makes sense, that the priesthood makes sense. Which is what sanctification means - to be a saint. To belong to God's family. The bishop is the one who has the responsibility to make sure that the life of faith is available. The third part is that we are there to govern. This doesn't mean that I tell people what to do. It means that you're there to give guidance and make sure that things make sense, and all the administrative stuff gets done. I do a lot of financial worrying, trying to find personnel to cover all of those things. We're going through a difficult time right now in the Church.


ACCENTI: Which leads to my next question. In the last couple of decades or so, a lot of churches have closed. Some have been turned into condos. How do you respond to that? How do you make the Church relevant today?


Bishop Mancini: There's a number of questions in what you're asking. One of the things that I want to clarify is the impression that we have somehow or other sold all kinds of churches that have been turned into condos. We haven't. There is only one church that was sold that was turned into a condo. And we got so much flak over that, that probably isn't going to happen again [laughter]. But the fact that we are in the process of having to sell churches is symptomatic of the fact that we are living in a changing world. The Church in Quebec is no longer what it was. In the 30s and 40s the Church was everywhere. In those years in Quebec, the Church was the State. The Church ran everything. We ran the schools, we ran the hospitals, we ran the social services. You had priests and nuns and all kinds of people doing all these things in the name of the Church. But in point of fact, they were doing social work, and education, and medical care. That all got taken over by the state. So the place that the Church occupied shifted. And, of course, added to that, we had people who, for any number of reasons, started to take their distance from the Church. We are no longer a Catholic province as we thought of ourselves in those days, and we cannot keep all the heritage we received from the past.


ACCENTI: The demographics have changed...


Bishop Mancini: We were living in a society where ninety-nine percent of the population was baptized and considered Catholic, where a small family had four children, and where ten children was not abnormal. Now we're in a society where people are not getting married as they used to, the average size of a family is 1.2 children, the divorce rate is over 50%. The other phenomenon that has altered things is immigration. We've got more people coming from various parts of the world and from very different cultural backgrounds.


ACCENTI: But to get back to the group of people who still consider themselves Catholic, because I think that is where the problem is. What do you make of the "occasional Christians," those who want to have a church wedding, have their children baptized, do their confirmation, etc., who want the appearance of being Catholic, but not much more?


Bishop Mancini: It's not something I'm particularly happy about. Obviously, my hope and desire is that someone who wants to be a Catholic, will be a Catholic one hundred percent of the time. That someone may not wish to be is perhaps indicative of the fact that they don't appreciate it enough, or they may not have understood it enough. Being a Catholic simply for cultural reasons has only a certain degree of value, but it doesn't have a very high value, simply because it won't hold up for very long. Being a Catholic and being a Christian right now in our world has become a very demanding and very personal commitment. What happens when someone is operating out of the cultural perspective - sort of the Easter and Christmas type of Catholicism - when they come to church and they want their child baptized, they're always surprised to find that the priest is being a real pain because he's demanding so much: "Well, what do you mean I have to go to church? Or what do you mean I have to come to three or four or five meetings to learn something about my faith?" It surprises people. And initially, of course, it irritates. And in some cases it even angers. But what I think we are also learning in the last few years, particularly since we have no longer been able to count on the schools for religious instruction, is that parents now are saying, "well, yes, if this is a value, I guess I'd better find out more about it. I'd better get into it." In the last four years or so we've introduced into our English-speaking parishes the Faith First Program. This is transforming our parish communities. Suddenly, you've got children, and you've got young parents, and it's beginning to be fun. And people are beginning to learn things that they never knew about their faith.


ACCENTI: The Church is under pressure to modernize. There are demands for the ordination of women, for gay rights, for relaxing the rules on birth control, for stem cell research, you name it. How does the Church deal with this? Can the Church be modernized?


Bishop Mancini: Of course the Church can be modernized. We are modernizing all the time. But being in the modern world, or for that matter, being in the post-modern world [laughter] doesn't mean that we have to do everything that everybody else is doing. Or that we have to think like everybody else is thinking. That's just giving way to political correctness. It may be that being in the world that we are in, such as it is - secular, modern, post-modern - what we need are people who are going to give witness to the fundamentals of what it means to be a follower of Christ. That requires the type of commitment that will allow someone to stand up and say what he or she truly holds and believes about marriage, for instance. As opposed to simply letting someone else dictate what that definition might be and saying, well, it's the government and there is nothing we can do about it. Stem cell research. You throw that out. That's a very complicated scientific issue. The problem in stem cell research is where you get the stem cells. No one is saying that stem cell research is not important or significant, or that it shouldn't be pursued. But what we are saying is use the proper means to get to the material that will allow you to do the kind of research that's required, as opposed to taking a facile approach. Adjusting to the demands of the modern world is something we are doing all the time. The Pope's recent comments were precisely on the relation...


ACCENTI: I was coming to that... [laughter]


Bishop Mancini: ... on the relation of religion and science, and the place of rationality in religious beliefs, and in the way that God is to be perceived and understood in the context of that approach.


ACCENTI: We are seeing the rise of so-called right-wing Christian fundamentalism in the United States. We recently elected a right-wing government in Canada. This may lead some to conclude that more people are espousing religion. On the other hand, behaviours associated with vice are rampant in our society. People gamble, are using recreational drugs, and pornography has gone mainstream. What do you make of this paradox?


Bishop Mancini: I think that there is a lot more presence of religiosity. There are movements that are religiously inspired. Some of those are fundamentalist. Some of them are conservative. And some of them are liberal. But they are all religious. The question becomes, which one do I support, or which one do I find myself inclined to feel most at home in because it corresponds to what I believe? Liberal and conservative are political labels, not necessarily religious. When you are talking about a religious conviction, as a Catholic and as a bishop, my position is to try and maintain equilibrium. In the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, In medius stat virtus. Virtue is found in maintaining the middle. In North America my concern is that we've relegated religion and faith to the realm of the private - to the realm of the individual. As a result, we've eliminated from that discourse any possibility of influence on the social and public environment in which we operate. But there is a difference between private and public as there is a difference between private and personal. As an individual and as a person who has faith, my faith is personal. It's not just private. It is not what I do in the quiet of my home. I'm a Catholic. That's a personal conviction, but it has public ramifications, because as a person I live in society.


ACCENTI: That raises the issue of opposing religions. I don't mean opposing in a negative way, but our society makes room for people of different faiths. How do you reconcile the Catholic view with the Protestant view, or the Christian view with the Muslim view, etc., in the public space?


Bishop Mancini: The issue is one of dialogue. Respect, tolerance and dialogue are essential for people to get along. In the same public space you've got people with different political views. They learn to live together. The object of the exercise is to maintain harmony, where peace is central, where we want people to live together in justice. There is something about being human that crosses denominational lines. Part of the dialogue among the religions is to be able to get at that understanding of the dignity of the human person, which is at the root of all religious beliefs. The fact that we have a multi-religious society in this city, for instance, is a wealth. It's up to us to find the ways of recognizing the value inherent in each one of our religious convictions. We cannot imagine, at least I cannot imagine, a society that becomes so neutral that its values are somehow going to be upheld by some charter of rights or by some anonymous government agency. The purpose of religion - Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or not - is to provide society with the foundational values for cohesion. It is up to those religious institutions and those religious convictions to provide people with that which will hold the pieces together. In a society where the government runs everything or where political correctness puts you in a situation where you can't say anything about anybody, what you end up with is nothing. You end up with something that is so neutral that in the end what we do supposedly out of respect for each other's values, we end up actually diminishing the strength of the values of a particular society. So what are we here for? We are here to be human beings. And how much more can we help a human being to see himself and herself as a human being, but to draw upon the roots of our religious convictions, to identify those values for ourselves. The Jewish tradition will bring to us a perspective. The Muslim tradition will bring to us a perspective. The Catholic tradition will bring to us a perspective. When we get together to talk amongst ourselves, my first intention is not to turn the one who thinks differently into a Roman Catholic. I'm speaking with you because you want to know something about me. I'll be glad to listen to something you might want to say about yourself. The result of the dialogue is that we will be mutually enriched by recognizing in each other those values that we can respect in one another.


ACCENTI: On the news we are being told that we, Western countries mostly, are waging a war on terror. This war on terror has also been described as a clash of civilizations - East versus West, Christianity versus Islam, modernity versus traditionalism. What are your thoughts on that? Are we in fact embroiled in a clash of civilizations?


Bishop Mancini: Sure! Sure, it's a clash of civilizations. Someone used the expression "cultural war." It's a confrontation of cultures. But the difficulty in a confrontation is that its very nature implies violence, fear, and terror. No one has ever been convinced about the "goodness" of the other through violence, fear and terror. That's true, not only of whatever other religions are around, it's also true of our own. I mean, we never convinced anyone because we held a sword to his neck. All you're doing when you do that is you control the behaviour, but you don't capture the heart of the person. Right now there is a cultural conflict, but at the root of that conflict is not a true pursuit of justice, not a true pursuit of truth or understanding. A lot of the things that are going on are motivated by economics. When economics becomes the driving force, and when it becomes a false kind of economics which is driven exclusively by profit, then you end up wanting to impose your way. Force and power, whenever it is used inappropriately, always produces a negative response. That's what we're seeing right now. It's not just a clash of cultures; it's also a clash of some of the implicit values within the cultures. There's not a whole lot of understanding of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith or the Christian perspective or the Muslim point of view. How many of us know what's in the Koran? But all kinds of ink is being poured on the subject.


ACCENTI: The pope's recent remarks raised the ire of Muslims when, he quoted the fourteenth century Byzantine Emperor Paleologus, saying that the prophet Mohammed "has brought things only evil and inhuman." In your view, how can we reconcile Eastern and Western views?


Bishop Mancini: By not quoting people out of context, and by being able to catch the real message. The real message, what the Vatican and the pope and a lot of other people have been trying to do in the last few weeks is to get everybody to understand that the real message is not what was quoted. The real message is that we need to be able to talk to one another. We need to be able to respect certain basics about our human dignity. Very few people actually knew what the pope said. We have to put it in context. We need to be able to be a little more humble in terms of what we say, and we need to be able to recognize that there is a lot more to each others' points of view than we might think at first. Most of us in the West don't know anything about the Islamic faith, Islamic culture, the teachings of Mohammed or what's involved in the Koran. So what are we going to shoot off our mouths about that for? But I would like to have a reciprocal kind of reaction. I wouldn't expect someone in the Muslim world who has never spoken to a priest, who has never been inside a church, who has absolutely no idea what the Christian or Catholic faith is about, to all of a sudden start saying this is the devil incarnate. Reciprocity is very much at issue here. That's what respect is, right? Respect means, take a second look. Specto, spectare in Latin, to see, to look. Re-spect. Look again. And if you see someone you don't understand, or don't know anything about, don't say he's an idiot right off. Because if you do, you are indicating what an idiot you are. Take another look. Learn something about it. And maybe after that second look, you might discover that there is more to that person than meets the eye. No one ever questions the freedom that people have here to express their religion. But what about some other places in the world? That's what we also mean by reciprocity. The world we're in right now is changing, that's absolutely clear. Cultural war, yes. But part of the necessary conditions for an effective dialogue is that the two parties in the dialogue must have a very strong and stable self-understanding. For me to talk to anyone, I've got to know who I am. And with that self-knowledge, I'm in a position to receive the self-revelation of the one whom I know not as much or not at all. And in the process of that exchange, we will come out enriched. That's what I hope would happen in the space that is provided in our local environment by a society that allows us to be free in the expression of our religion. My freedom, though, presupposes that your freedom will allow me to exist, just as I will allow you to exist.


ACCENTI: Thank you.




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