While waiting for the visit of Pope Francis, Cristóbal López Romero, Archbishop of Rabat, explains the priorities of a Church that wants to be a Samaritan one
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:46
Interview by Claudio Fontana
Cristóbal López Romero was appointed Archbishop of Rabat on December 29, 2017, and entered the Diocese on March 10, 2018. After holding various positions in Paraguay, Bolivia and Spain, the new ministry forced him to start again, but did not find him unprepared. Seven years in Morocco, from 2003 to 2010, as director of a Salesian school, taught him how to engage in a dialogue with Muslims. While preparing to receive the Pope's visit, he shared his experience with us in this interview.
Your Excellency, what does the Pope’s visit mean for the Church in Morocco and for the whole country?
For us, the Pope’s visit means many things. Firstly, that the Pope appreciates and loves this country, just as he appreciates the efforts that His Majesty and all the people have been making for a long time in order to improve people’s living conditions. Secondly, that he wishes to strengthen, here and everywhere in the world, interreligious dialogue and, more concretely, the Islamic-Christian encounter. Thirdly, it means that the Pope approves and encourages the journey of this small Christian community, visiting us when we celebrate the jubilee year for the 800 years of Franciscan presence in this land, on the same anniversary of the encounter between Francis of Assisi and the Sultan al-Malik in Egypt.
The Pope comes to fulfill his mission to confirm us in the faith, to support our hope (“Servant of Hope” is the visit’s motto) and to ignite love in us. Francis is a Pope who does not preach only with words and documents, but speaks and communicates the Gospel with gestures and facts, such as coming here, even before visiting other traditionally Christian peoples and nations.
Before being appointed Archbishop of Rabat you had already been in Morocco from 2003 to 2010, as director of a school. Can you tell us about your experience?
I spent almost eight years in Kenitra, a city of more than half a million people, north of Rabat. I am a Salesian and I was director of the Don Bosco school. I did not teach, but every day I would talk with the boys, with their parents, and attend meetings with the teachers. In primary and secondary school, they were all Muslims. There were only two Catholics: the school and me. All the teachers were Muslims and only sporadically we had French collaborators who were Catholic. The experience was very interesting because, although they were all Muslims, the school was truly Salesian.
What do you mean? How is it possible to call Salesian a school where everyone is Muslim?
The family spirit, the environment of the educational community, the amiability, the preventive system of Don Bosco, the religious sense (not Christian, but Muslim) are the elements that characterize that school even today. Every Friday the Qur’an is proclaimed, and this was my personal decision. I used to stand next to the boy who was reciting the Qur’an into the microphone, and pray by myself, as a Christian.
The Don Bosco school is part of the ECAM (Enseignement Catholique Au Maroc, Catholic teaching in Morocco), a coordinating group that brings together 15 schools, mostly attended by Muslims, which follow the same educational project. When I read the project, I thought: there are no explicit quotations, but this is the Gospel! And in the same way, when Muslims read the educational project they say: this corresponds to our religion. For me this is an example of interreligious dialogue: as Christians and Muslims, we work together with the very same educational project that aims to form «honest citizens and good Muslims» [referencing to Don Bosco’s quote «honest citizens and good Christians»]. Dialogue, in fact, does not only consist in theological discussions, but is articulated on four levels: the ordinary level of life, friendship and conviviality. Then there is the second level: working together for the great causes of humanity: education, health, human rights... The third level is the theological level: sharing the faith that each one is living. This third level is also present in ECAM schools. For instance, there is a group of teachers who hold meetings to talk about Easter Sunday, the Islamic feast of sacrifice, Ramadan, women according to their respective religions. These are all moments in which faith and religious practices are shared.
Who are the interlocutors of this theological dialogue?
They are the teachers of our schools, selected among those who are more open and have a greater desire to stay close to us. Then, the apex of dialogue (the fourth level) would be the mystical one: praying together, or at least praying each in his own way but together. It is clear that the simplest and most important level, because it concerns everyone, is the first one, that of friendship, then followed by that of working together, and gradually by the others. ECAM finds a place for almost all levels: the first and the second on an everyday basis, the third less frequently, and the fourth only occasionally.
In the school in Kenitra, do the teachers know who Don Bosco was?
When I arrived, they did not know him. I showed a movie about him, I gave out books about his life and talked about him a lot. We also organized pedagogy formation days about him and the preventive system [the educational method, elaborated by Don Bosco and based on reason, religion and fondness, that opposes the 19th century repressive system and aims to put students in the position of not making mistakes, Ed.]. Since then, many teachers have become “fanatics” of Don Bosco, they studied him for a long time discovering the richness of his pedagogy. We even had one teacher who, while he was in Lyon to get his degree in educational sciences, found out that a Salesian congress was going to be held there and wanted to participate. During the meeting, a director of a French Salesian school asked: «How can we put Don Bosco's preventive system into practice when 20% of the students in my school are Muslim»? So, the teacher raised his hand and said: «I am a Muslim, in the Don Bosco school of Kenitra we are all Muslims, professors and students, and we put the preventive system into practice without any problem». Everyone was amazed. This applies to all ECAM schools. The school in Kenitra might be a bit peculiar because it has a religious community behind it but there are other ECAM schools where the director is Muslim. Yet, the educational project is truly Christian.
How many are the faithful in the diocese of Rabat?
We say 30,000, but it is very difficult to know exactly; about 75% of them come from sub-Saharan Africa, but there are also some Filipinos. It is a truly Catholic and universal church: there are faithful of 100 different nationalities, and priests and nuns who come from 40 different countries. On Easter Sunday I celebrated the Eucharist in Casablanca and there were 1200 people for a mass that lasted 2 hours. I think that it would be impossible for something like this to happen in Europe. Ours is a Church where there are more men than women, more young than elderly people, more black than white people. The average age is around 35 years old.
Based on this particular nature of the Moroccan Church, what are your priorities as Archbishop?
The priority is always one: love, as I mentioned during my ordination. This is my priority, to love people: the priests, the nuns, the faithful and all Muslims. I see myself as sent for and to everyone, not just to Christians: in my diocese there are not 30,000 people, but 35 million. The second priority is to build the kingdom of God. This is why, in my coat of arms, I picked out the motto: adveniat regnum tuum. Because the priority is not the Church: the Church is the instrument, the sign of the kingdom of God. So I must not worry too much that the Church grows in numerical terms, but that the kingdom of God develops. Translated, this means that justice, peace, truth, life and love must increase. Of course I am very happy that last year on Easter night there were more than 30 baptisms, and that last May I confirmed 70 people, but this is not the primary objective.
How can we make the kingdom of God grow?
Working with Muslims. Of course, to say that we are working to make the kingdom of God grow is our language. But if we say «we work so that women are respected», this is a common goal that for us coincides with the growth of the kingdom of God. Then there is a third priority: building bridges. In a world with so many wall builders, we want to build bridges. In my coats of arms, there is the sea, but there is also a bridge, which is the cross. We want to be small bridges, which is also the meaning of Kenitra (from the Arab Qunaitra, ed.). I wish that every Christian were a small bridge between Christians and Muslims, between Europe and Africa, between the rich and the poor, between the West and the East, following the Pope, who is the Supreme Pontiff.
In Europe, there is a lot of talk about migrants. What can you say about Morocco?
Many of the migrants arriving in Morocco stop there for a few years, but the goal is always to reach Europe eventually. However, this is difficult, risky and very expensive. Many of the migrants in Morocco are Cameroonians, Ivorians and Guineans, but overall they come from sub-Saharian Africa, from where they escape – and it is a human right – for economic and political reasons, linked to wars.
Ours wants to be a Samaritan Church. This is achieved above all with migrants, but also with Muslims who work in villages far from city centers. A lot happens thanks to Caritas Maroc, which works intensely with migrants. There is a program called Qantara (bridge) with 30/40 people working there. Here in Rabat there is the CAM (Center d’Accueil Migrants), and in Casablanca the SAM (Service Accueil Migrants) managed by Caritas. Then there are other smaller realities in Meknès, Fez and Oujda. Both for Christians and Muslims it is very important to welcome, accompany and help physically and spiritually. Even in economical terms, the welcoming of migrants is an important part of our budget. The service to migrants and the sick, as the sisters of Mother Teresa do in Casablanca, is the aspect where most concretely we live a poor Church for the poorest.