ROME – One notable aspect of the death of Italian political giant Silvio Berlusconi this week has been a contrast in how top-ranking church officials have responded, with close Pope Francis allies walking a cautious line while others, historically closer to Berlusconi’s conservative coalition, have been more fulsome in their praise.
Speaking to journalists at a book presentation in Rome Tuesday, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna limited himself to saying he would accompany Berlusconi’s funeral Wednesday with prayer, calling it “a moment of recollection, of prayer…in which you also find something that unites in diversity.”
“It will be a moment of unity in entrusting him to the mercy (of God) and the beauty of the life that doesn’t end,” he said, saying that he first met Berlusconi in the 1990s when he was a young priest assisting in negotiating the Mozambique peace accords through the Community of Sant’Egidio.
President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) and the pope’s personal peace envoy to Ukraine, Zuppi said the peace agreement had already been signed and that Berlusconi was in Rome, so “we asked to meet with him, and we met with him right away to ask for support.”
At the time, Berlusconi welcomed them, gave his support, and said he wanted to “do the same thing in Italy,” he said.
Zuppi said the Mozambique delegation was “very happy for the welcome and the sympathy that he showed them.”
Touted by many as a frontrunning papabile, meaning a top contender for the papacy in the next conclave, Zuppi is seen as a Francis ally who shares much of the pontiff’s pastoral vision and social agenda.
The longtime head of Italy’s center-right Forza Italia political party, Berlusconi led the Italian government, composed of a center-right political coalition, from 1994-1995, from 2001-2006, and again from 2008-2011, making him the longest-serving Prime Minister in the history of the Italian Republic.
A billionaire and influential business titan before his venture into politics, Berlusconi remained a key personality in the Italian political and business spheres long after his final term as PM.
Widely celebrated by some while criticized by others, whether for his politics or scandals in his personal life, Berlusconi was also deeply controversial, especially among the Catholic hierarchy, and he remained so until his death Monday at the age of 86.
While timidly acknowledging Berlusconi’s willingness to welcome and engage, Zuppi’s remembrance of Berlusconi fell far from high praise, and a statement he released on behalf of CEI was equally mild, calling Berlusconi an “entrepreneur in various sectors of the country’s social, cultural, and financial life” and ticking off various positions he held, while offering condolences to the family and assuring them of his prayer.
Pope Francis’s own telegram was equally reserved, merely referring to Berlusconi as “a protagonist of Italian political life, who covered public responsibilities with an energetic temper.”
Yet despite the subdued tone taken by the pope and his close allies, other more conservative-leaning prelates who worked with Berlusconi were not shy about heaping praise on the former Prime Minister and his political accomplishments, despite a less-than-saintly personal life.
Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who for 15 years served as president of CEI and whose tenure as head of the Italian bishops largely coincided with the peak of Berlusconi’s own political career, told Italian newspaper Avvenire, the official paper of the Italian bishops, that he was “very saddened by the death of Silvio Berlusconi.”
“He was a person of great intelligence and generosity. He had historic merits for Italy, above all having impeded the ex-communist party from coming to power in 1994,” he said.
Ruini also lauded Berlusconi for his contributions in “the establishment of bipolarism” in the Italian government and for having done “very well in foreign policy.”
“I was one of his friends…I will celebrate Mass for him, so that the Lord in his mercy welcomes him into his eternal fullness of life,” Ruini said, saying his relationship with Berlusconi while head of CEI “was always correct” and voicing hope that someone would take a full account of his political legacy.
Similarly, Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, also lamented Berlusconi’s death, saying, “I was convinced that he had been admitted for a checkup and I thought it was something minor. Poor thing.”
“I will remember him in prayer. He is a man who has done so much for Italy,” Re said.
Berlusconi’s funeral took place at the cathedral in Milan Wednesday, and was presided over by the Archbishop of Milan, Mario Delpini.
Some 15,000 people were present in the main square outside of the Milan cathedral, and more than 2,000 gathered inside, including family members, friends, and various political and ecclesial leaders and representatives.
Italian President Sergio Matarella and Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherring, apostolic nuncio to Italy, were among those in attendance.
In his homily, Delpini refrained from outright praise and openly alluded to the different opinions about Berlusconi and his legacy, reflecting on the identity of man as someone who searched for life, love and joy.
Referring to Berlusconi’s business ventures, Delpini said, “When a man is a businessman, then he tries to do business. He therefore has customers, he has moments of success and moments of failure, he ventures into reckless enterprises. He looks at the numbers and perhaps forgets about the criteria. He has to do business.”
A businessman, he said, “has to do business,” and when a man is a politician, “he tries to win. He has supporters and opponents.”
“There are those who exalt him and those who cannot bear him,” Deplini said, saying in modern times, a politician “is always a partisan.”
When the politician is a man has a high profile, he is always on stage, and always has “admirers and detractors. He has those who applaud him and those who hate him.”
“Silvio Berlusconi was certainly a politician, he was certainly a businessman, and he was certainly a figure in the limelight of fame. But in this moment of farewell and prayer, what can we say about Silvio Berlusconi?” Delpini asked.
Berlusconi, he said, was “a man: a desire for life, a desire for love, a desire for joy. And now we celebrate the mystery of fulfillment.”
“Here’s what we can say about Silvio Berlusconi. He is a man, and now he meets God,” he said, saying, “He finds in God his judgement and his fulfillment.”
Daniele Capezzone, a former member of parliament and former spokesman for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, said the homily was “clever, because it’s susceptible to opposing interpretations.”