Cardinal-designate Michael Fitzgerald, former apostolic nuncio to Egypt who at one time was also president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, ambles through the living room of his rectory in Liverpool, northwestern England and produces two letters of congratulations.
He has a chuckle: “The message is very kind but there is a mistake,” he says. “I am not the second English cardinal, I am British. You won’t find a drop of English blood in my veins!”
In any case, it is not for his nationality or his episcopal seat that Pope Francis asked this priest of the Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) to join the circle of his closest advisors.
“It is an act of justice,” the pope replied to a journalist who was asking him on the flight back to Rome from Madagascar in early September.
“I have never wanted or sought honors,” says Cardinal-designate Fitzgerald. “And then, at 82, will I really advise the pope?”
He looks at the interpretations he reads here and there dispassionately: is it a question of the pope “strengthening his team”, with one eye on the election of his successor?
Or rather, through his appointment, as well as that of the current President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Bishop Miguel Ayuso Guixot, and the Archbishop of Rabat, Bishop Cristobal Lopez Romero, is it a desire to place interreligious dialogue at the heart of the service of the Church and the Gospel?
Archbishop Fitzgerald himself is careful not to make a decision and prefers to speak of “recognition.”
In fact, he perfectly embodies these new Francis-style cardinals, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the “princes of the Church.”
A ‘White Father’ from a young age
From the permission obtained from his parents, both Irish, to let him join the minor seminary of the White Fathers in Scot land at the age of 12, to his appointment in 2002 as head of the dicastery in charge of interreligious dialogue, he considers each of his appointments in Rome, Uganda and Sudan as a coincidence… or act of providence.
All of them have oriented him a little more toward the study of Islam and meeting Muslims. Each time, he bowed to the will of his superiors… and is surprised that we are surprised.
“It’s part of our oath of obedience: you can always refuse, but you need good reasons to do it,” he says.
He directed the Pontifical Institute for Arab Studies and Islamology (Pisai), founded by the White Fathers from 1972 to 1978 and had a number of students, including Brother Christ ian de Chergé, the future Prior of Tibhirine.
Still “without having sought it out”, he accepted in 1987 the post of secretary of what is still called the “Secretariat for non-Christians”.
John Paul II, anxious to develop relations between believers, later transformed it into a Pontifical Council. For 15 years, he faithfully assisted Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze in his efforts to put dialogue at the service of peace, before one day learning of his appointment as president of this dicastery.
The election of Joseph Ratzinger, under the name of Benedict XVI, in 2005, marked a turning point in his career. The new pope’s lack of interest in bringing religions closer together is well documented.
The following year, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was entrusted to Cardinal Paul Poupard, already in charge of culture, with Archbishop Fitzgerald being appointed nuncio in Egypt.
“Perhaps the intention was to merge interreligious dialogue into intercultural dialogue?” he wonders out loud, remaining faithful to his extreme discretion on the subject.
A few months later, after a speech in Regensburg, Germany, which caused a vigorous uproar in the Muslim world, Benedict XVI reversed his position and restored his independence to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, placing at its head a seasoned diplomat, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.
From Jerusalem, where he retired seven years ago, Cardinal-designate Michael Fitzgerald received some signs of Pope Francis’ affection for him: he was entrusted with “a mission in Lebanon.”
“But I didn’t think I would be created a cardinal during Benedict XVI’s lifetime,” he acknowledges.
Surprisingly, despite the years that have passed, we can feel some Roman reflexes, when he is surprised, for example, by these appointments that “do not respect tradition.”
“I will not force the next pope to live in Sainte-Marthe,” he also announces with a smile on his face, referring to Pope Francis’ choice to renounce the papal apartments.
Outside the talk of schisms
In the meantime, and while Vatican rumors swirls about “schism” and sexual scandals, Cardinal-designate Fitzgerald is pleased to be “outside all this.”
His concern today is very different, as he has just returned to his native England, more than 50 years after leaving it. Together with three priests from his institute, he took over an almost abandoned parish in Liverpool.
In agreement with the diocese, the European province of the White Fat hers wanted this “integration” in England to have a double mission: the service of migrants and dialogue with Muslims.
They must therefore find a way to establish contact with the inhabitants: Chinatown on one side and the “Baltic triangle” on the other, named after the former sailors who used to land there.
“In the past, Liverpool was best known for the Beatles. Today, it seems that its main religion is football,” says Fitzgerald who is to be made a cardinal on Oct. 5, buying his bread in front of a huge graffiti representing the coach of the Liverpool Football Club, winner of the Champions League last season.
He also said he was ready to “give support” to the actors of Islamic-Christian dialogue in the United Kingdom.
It is on this lifelong struggle that he is most vocal: “In Al-Azhar, Abu Dhabi or Jerusalem, Pope Francis shows us how to do it: through direct contact and without being locked in prescriptions or barriers,” he exclaimed. “He’s a free man, and we need free men!”
When it comes to electing a successor to the Bishop of Rome one day, the soon-to-be Cardinal Fitzgerald, because he is over 80 years old, will not vote. But he will participate “in the discussions” and “will be happy to support the direction taken by Francis.”