INTERVIEW with Fr. Egon M. Zillekens •
From Monday 23 October until Friday 27 October 2017 the members of the General Presidium were in Rome for their annual closed conference. An official report on their meeting with Cardinal Farrell, Prefect of the dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life has already been published, and the photos of the encounter with Pope Francis before and after the early morning Mass in Santa Maria in the Osservatore Romano, as well as the sermon of this day are already circulating round the world
Immediately after his return from Rome, Fr Egon M. Zillekens gave an interview to the editors of schoenstatt.org.
What were your impressions of the encounter with Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life? What did you find particularly important?
Cardinal Kevin Farrell doesn’t know Schoenstatt – that was the first surprise. As a priest and bishop in Washington and Dallas he had never came across Schoenstatt.
During the first part, as we introduced ourselves and our communities, I was particularly impressed by the way he spoke about his goal and his task to strengthen the laity and prepare them for their task in the Church, and how he then said: That was the great goal of the Council, and it is something that you in Schoenstatt recognised and tackled over a hundred years ago. Those were the words of the leader of the new dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life in his very first encounter with Schoenstatt: Fr Kentenich anticipated the Council.
He then went on to say very clearly that in a Church with ever fewer priests, that has to live and work because of the personal conviction and decision of the individual Christian in the world, this can only happen through the laity and the families.
He talked about his own family, and this applies to what we all experience: It is possible that the children still go to Church, but the grandchildren?
That is why Pope Francis stresses these three factors: the laity, the youth and the families.
Cardinal Farrell listened very intently when our families representing the Federation and Institute talked about their initiatives in the field of marriage and the family. He told us that marriage preparation, and marriage accompaniment, as well as the formation of family trainers, are very important, because “we priests are less credible in the preparation and accompaniment of couples”, so “couples have to prepare couples”, and these couples who accompany others need to be prepared and accompanied. I was very impressed when he said that perhaps the greatest “sin” of the Church since the Council has been not to prepare and accompany couples and families sufficiently.
Among other things, we gave the Cardinal the book with Pope Francis’ Address during the audience on 25 October 2014 in Spanish and English. When he spoke about the “Family”, the Pope had recommended precisely the points the Cardinal had just spoken about.
Later we realised that we had met the Cardinal exactly on the anniversary of the audience, 25 October, three years after we had met the Pope.
What was it like to have “our” Fr Alexandre present at this meeting as the Secretary of this dicastery?
It was something really special. I met Fr Alexandre just after our arrival, and we were immediately on a friendly footing. We had only met at the end of August, and we had talked about his new task. After our meeting with the Cardinal, we all went to Fr Alexandre’s office and also looked at the very beautiful chapel in which there is a precious relic of the blood of Pope John Paul II.
The design behind the altar in the chapel shows a sprouting seed bearing rich fruits. It suits this place to perfection.
What was your personal impression of the encounter with Pope Francis?
We were there by 6 a.m. and everything was locked! At that time there was no traffic in Rome and the trip from Belmonte to the Vatican only took 25 minutes. At 6 a.m. the first barriers before the gates were removed and there were the usual thorough controls, and at 6.30 a.m. we went into the chapel. For me that was the first surprise and joy when we met the new Director of Adveniat, Fr Michael Heinz SVD and his predecessor, Bernd Klaschka with whom I had been a missionary in Latin America. Of course we immediately talked about his predecessor, Fr Dieter Spelthahn, a Schoenstatt Father. When he was a young priest in La Plata, Fr Juan Pablo Catoggio had come to Schoenstatt – so there was an immediate bridge. Fifteen priests had come to this Mass, three of them Bishops. Some officials showed us our seats and made it very clear that no one might take photos. One of the officials invited Mr Kanzler and Mr Neiser to do the piccolo servizio, that is, to bring up the wine and water at the Offertory to the altar and serve at the Lavabo. Afterwards at breakfast we teased them, saying they were now clericetti, little clerics. Neither of them had been altar servers before!
Then we waited for the Pope …
What was my impression of the Pope? There are a number of different aspects.
A meditative priest who is very close to Jesus
The Pope left the sacristy, somewhat bent, a heavy footstep, very unassuming and modest, like a simple, elder confrere. He comes so close to us through the many things that are published …
I thought of his comment before the conclave that after the travelling Pope and the learned Pope, there would have to be a Pope who applies things and is very close to Jesus.
Then he went to the Ambo and he was a completely different person:
Lively, passionately pastoral – the parish priest of Santa Marta.
He spoke without notes about the readings of the day and came alive, like a parish priest speaking to a familiar parish. The Osservatore Romano calls the rubric and the texts of his morning Mass “the parish priest of Santa Marta”. It’s true! He is passionately and dynamically pastoral.
This was followed by a very reverent and prayerful celebration of the Eucharist, calm and deeply moving, and then a long thanksgiving during which the Pope in his white cassock sat on a simple chair and gazed at the picture of Our Lady. We remained very quiet, particularly the man who suddenly had the Pope sitting next to him!
Carrying out his duties – he also does that
After Mass the moment arrived when the Pope shook hands with each one. The two photographers were there and the Pope was – how should I put it? – pushed where he had to stand and where all formed a queue to shake his hand. My impression was that it was an act of carrying out his duties, which he has to do on countless occasions.
Then came the personal encounters and time stood still
He listened to each one, and took time for each one very personally. We Schoenstatters let the others go first and waited, but then we were told that each one would meet the Pope.
The first was Fr Juan Pablo Catoggio, who was greeted with a warm and friendly embrace. He gave the Pope a copy of Heavenwards in Spanish and a card we had all signed. I was the second or third. I had the book Living with Mary and gave it to him and looked into his eyes while presenting the book and said to him in Spanish, “It’s also in German, we translated it!” There was a moment of silence, he looked at the book very carefully, and it seemed to me that he knew which book it was. Then he bowed slightly and said in German: “Thank you!” Everything was so spontaneous and personal.
After all had shaken his hand, we wanted a group photo with him, which he gladly agreed to.
In the end he said, “Pray for me!” and one of the Presidium said spontaneously, “We really do so!” It sounded so funny that we all started to laugh, and Pope Francis laughed heartily. As we laughed he said, “A favor de mi o en contra de mi?” – For or against me? We all burst out laughing.
Then the question immediately arose: Why did he say it just to us? Was it a joke, or was there more behind it? I personally felt addressed by this question, it was more than a joke or figure of speech.
After that we went to the Sisters of Mary in the Cor Ecclesiae Shrine and sang the Magnificat in thanksgiving. The Sisters gave us a wonderful breakfast.
Did you meet other people in that week?
Yes, we were the guests of the Sant’Egidio community and were received by their Secretary General, Cesare Zucconi. It is amazing what this young community achieves. Recently they were the initiators of the World Meeting of Peace, “Paths of Peace” in Muenster, which was also attended by Chancellor Merkel. This community has negotiated ceasefires and peace accords, and it is a leading voice in the question of abolishing the death penalty and refugee politics. Their political involvement is only one aspect. Behind it is the idea of friendship with the poor, which becomes very practical in the requirement that each one has a friend among the poor. This is only possible with prayer, actually prayer is central in Sant’Egidio, a community like Schoenstatt that was founded by young people.
The friendship between Don Cesare and Fr Heinrich Walter was obvious. They have collaborated for years in the “Together for Europe” movement. I was also impressed by the rooms in the former convent that is now the home of Sant’Egidio.
I became aware of the closeness, but also the differences, of our Movements.
Personally I took along a saying of Don Cesare: Everything works only through dialogue.”
What was your impression of Belmonte? The official opening of the conference centre will take place in three weeks.
This time we were able to live in the house and we felt at home. Each evening there was Adoration in the shrine.
On our last evening the small Schoenstatt Movement of Belmonte had prepared a May devotion and afterwards there was an evening of piano music, dancing, songs, wine and pizza. The home bishop of Fr Marcelo Cervi was there, as were his parents. There was a really relaxed and happy atmosphere, and that is how we experienced our whole time in Rome as the General Presidium – a good and open climate.
That day (26 October 2017) it was exactly 52 years since Fr Kentenich inspected the property. To mark this occasion a text by Auxiliary Bishop Tenhumberg was read out.
What is the actual subject matter of such a closed conference of the General Presidium?
A report by the international co-ordinating office will be published and I wouldn’t want to anticipate it here.
Thank you very much, Fr Zillekens, for the interview.
Original: German, 29.10.2017. Translation: Mary Cole, Manchester, UK