ROME — Talk to people close to Pope Francis about Vatican reform and you will often hear from them a frustration that he has named too few people to top positions who share his vision and outlook.
Those he has — such as former Dallas bishop Cardinal Kevin Farrell, whom he fingered as prefect of the new dicastery for laity, family and life in August last year — were the reccomendations of others rather than his own personal acquaintances.
That was until Wednesday’s announcement of Farrell’s number two, the first secretary of the dicastery for laity, family and life — a key appointment for one of two vital outward-facing dicasteries that will help the Vatican better engage with humanity’s real issues.
Father Alexandre Awi Mello, national director for the Schönstatt movement in Brazil, has a resumé that any head-hunter would naturally seize on for the role: His experience in youth ministry, years of pastoral work with families, expertise in spiritual direction, and theological naus make him just the man for implementing Amoris Laetitia and reaping the fruits of next year’s synod on youth and vocation discernment.
Awi even has a new book on the latter topic — El Arte De Ayudar (‘The Art of Helping’) — just out in Spanish.
But what makes the appointment even more interesting is his close personal connection to Francis, one that dates back to the great Latin-American bishops’ gathering in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007 — the workshop, you could say, for the Francis papacy.
The 47-year-old, who joined the Brazilian navy before being called to the priesthood, was one of the secretaries on the final document’s drafting commission led by the then cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires.
It was an intense bonding experience for the commissioners: after many late nights working against an impossible deadline, they produced a powerful document that today underpins the program of the universal Church.
Particularly remarkable were Aparecida’s words on popular religiosity and the significance of Marian shrines. This is one of the reasons Awi was on the commission: Schönstatt in Latin America has had a special role running many of those shrines, and Awi is an expert Mariologist.
In his writings and interviews, Awi refers often to a core tenet of the “people theology” school that God reveals Himself in the ordinary faithful people, and that Catholic ecclesiology requires a pastoral conversion in order better to hear that voice.
When Francis went to Brazil for his first foreign visit as pope, for World Youth Day in July 2013, he asked for Awi as his secretary and translator. Awi helped draft and revise his texts during the visit, as he recalled a year later to the Brazilian magazine Epoca. “Do you think I’m being too hard on the bishops?” Francis asked him at one point.
Awi says they laughed about the similarities with the Aparecida experience. “But don’t worry, this time I won’t keep you up until two in the morning,” Francis assured him.
At the end of the trip, Awi gifted Francis with an image of Schönstatt’s ‘Mother Thrice Admirable’ Madonna, which the pope keeps by his bed at the Santa Marta.
Awi then visited Francis a number of times to interview him for a book on the meaning of Mary in his life. Maria É Minha Mãe (‘Mary Is My Mother’) came out in Portuguese in 2015, and later in Spanish and German. An English edition is expected soon.
In April 2015, Awi gave a talk in Chile in which he revealed something that to this papal biographer is pure gold: A letter from the pope in which Francis reveals that bitter family arguments in his childhood lay behind his search for a “culture of encounter.” (If you speak Spanish, it’s 14 minutes into this video).
“In my family there was a long history of disagreements,” the pope told him. “Uncles, cousins, fought and fell out. Whenever these were mentioned or they anticipated some fight, as a child I used to hide and cry a lot, and sometimes I offered some sacrifice or penance so that it wouldn’t happen. It wounded me a lot.
“Thanks be to God, Dad, Mom and we five siblings lived in peace,” the letter went on. “But I think this history as a child greatly marked me and created in my heart a desire for people not to fight, to stay united, or if they fought, that they should be friends.”
It was an unusually intimate story to reveal. The pope adds in the letter that he had reread what he had just written and “it makes me ashamed,” before adding: “but I believe in that in this story there is something like the seed of what with the passing of the years I would conceptualize as a ‘culture of encounter’.”
While being warm and direct, Francis is also notoriously self-protective, famous for his inscrutability and seldom revealing much of his emotional life. With Awi, however, he has clearly done so — a mark of the trust and bond between them.
In an interview with the Chilean site Portaluz, Awi says that “before the Virgin [Francis] is like a child. The statement ‘she is my mother’ reveals all. He says: ‘I believe she is the only person I can cry to.’”
The interview reveals a bright, passionate theologian deeply in sync with the pope who has clearly got him to open up in a way no author yet has.
At one point the interviewer tells Awi: “Listening to you, it’s impossible not to see how tied you feel to Pope Francis.”
Awi laughs, but doesn’t deny it. “I really identify with his ideas.”
Whatever else can be said about this appointment, one indisputable fact glares out above all the others.
A senior official has arrived in the Vatican who is utterly, unapologetically, and wholeheartedly a Francis man — not just straight out of the heart of Latin-American pueblo theology, but who is also close to the heart of the man himself.
Por fin, some might say.