One curious thing about being named a cardinal of the Catholic Church is that recipients of the honor are almost always caught unaware. Celestino Aos of Chile, for example, was having Sunday breakfast Oct. 25 when he took a rather irritated phone call from his sister.
“As soon as I picked up, the scolding began: ‘Why didn’t you tell us anything? People are congratulating me and I knew nothing’!” Aos said.
Despite being 75, the Spanish-born Capuchin noted that his sister is actually older than he is, joking that she therefore has the “hierarchical standing” to scold him as much as she wants. Nevertheless, he said his first reaction was to become defensive, assuming he was the victim of a prank.
It was no joke, however – someone quickly sent Aos a recording of the pope’s announcement that day at the end of his noontime Angelus address, and he knew it was for real.
“When I heard that tape, I assumed he did, in fact, mean me,” Aos deadpanned.
The day was already a busy one: Chile was holding a plebiscite to determine if the national constitution, adopted under former dictator Augusto Pinochet, needed to be re-written and, if so, by whom. The result was yes, and by an ad-hoc commission.
By the time he “fulfilled my right as a citizen to cast my vote, no one knew [I’d been made a cardinal], so I was able to do so at ease,” Aos said.
The consistory for the creation of thirteen new cardinals is set for Nov. 28, but due to COVID-19 travel restrictions it’s not clear if the new members of the college of cardinals will actually be in Rome. No communication has yet been issued to the cardinals-elect, so with less than a month to go, Aos doesn’t have a plane ticket or any other travel plans.
“If they tell us that we can, and, in fact, must travel to Rome, I’ll try to organize the trip,” he said. “If not, we’ll pray from here and place ourselves in the hands of the good God, the pope, the other cardinals and the entire Church, because there’s no borders for prayer.”
Aos sees the appointment as an added responsibility, mostly in terms of appointments to offices of the Roman Curia, meaning the central government of the Church, but he doesn’t expect much to change in his day-to-day running of the Archdiocese of Santiago.
With his new red hat, the prelate said, he will try to “answer to the needs of the Holy Father and the Universal Church, but beyond these new tasks I might be given, I will continue here in Santiago, where I receive the help of many: the auxiliary bishops, the vicars, priests, deacons, religious and the laity. The bishop is in a way the head of the diocesan church, but we are all the church.”
In a time when the expression “new normal” has become a cliché, Aos said he’s yet to find his own as the head of the archdiocese of Santiago, where he’s been in charge since 2019. Between his appointment first as apostolic administrator and then archbishop, the social explosion in Chile, the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions, there been little for him to do but “be confined like a monk, at home, praying and working.”
The capital of Chile was in the eye of the storm in 2018, when hundreds of allegations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up throughout the country were made public, forcing the entire bishops conference to present their resignation to Pope Francis. Santiago was ripped apart by the scandals and accusations of inaction against the last two archbishops, Cardinals Francisco Errázuriz and Ricardo Ezzati.
Santiago is also the home of Chile’s most infamous pedophile former priests: Fernando Karadima and Cristian Precht, both of whom were expelled from the priesthood in 2018.
Aos was tapped by Francis to lead Santiago in March 2019. Previously, he’d served as the bishop of Copiapó since 2014. His experience in this relatively sleepy diocese in the northern part of the country did little to prepare him for his new task that has many open fronts: the abuse crisis, the pandemic, and also social protests that saw two Catholic churches burn to the ground on the Sunday previous to the constitutional referendum.
“I see the Church in Chile as a Church that discovers itself, that looks at itself and finds deficiencies: sees that dark and dirty face of the abuses that should never have happened, and we’ll continue to work so that they never happen again,” Aos said. “But the Church also finds this senseless, crazy, always destructive violence that leads to churches being burned. And it pains us, not only for the buildings, that were emblematic, but for the Christian communities that are suffering because they lost their house of prayer.”
The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the parish of the Carabineros, Santiago’s police force – were targeted amidst broad national demonstrations ahead of the referendum. The spark that ignited the movement to change the constitution was a modest increase in the subway fare, and observers have been unable to identify one reason for the two churches to have been targeted- both this year, and last October, when the protests began, and a first attempt to set the churches ablaze took place.
Aos too, was unable to pinpoint one reason, but acknowledged that “there’s no doubt that society is angry, particularly with everything that represents an institution,” and the Church is one.
“But it cannot be denied, and it surprises us, it pains us, that this rage, this anger, targets religious institutions in concrete, specifically the Catholic Church,” he said. “These weren’t occasional events or accidents. They were vandalic attacks, violent and planed out.”
Yet, despite the uncertainties brought by 2020, Aos sees the Church in Chile as characterized not only by failures but also beauty, citing “initiatives the Church has had during the pandemic, such as the soup kitchens, setting up a phone line for people in challenging situations to be able to speak; centers opened in schools and parishes to help migrants and quarantine those who had COVID. There has been a long list of beautiful actions, also in hospitals.”
With most chaplains being too old- hence at risk- to minister with patients with the new coronavirus, the archdiocese set up a small army of young priests who were prepared both spiritually and health-wise for the task of caring for those who tested positive for the virus.
“I can tell you with joy that there was not a single person hospitalized who requested spiritual aid during these months who didn’t receive it,” Aos said.
“In many, many ways, the Church in Chile is beautiful, trying to answer to the many new challenges, even if these actions are not ‘noisy ones,” he said. “But love, after all, is silent.”
Due to the situations surrounding his appointment to Santiago, many of the interviews Aos has given in the past 18 months turned around the abuse crisis.
Asked about what he would like to focus on if he was interviewing himself, the neo-cardinal began by noting that “I don’t forget the victims and survivors, I don’t forget those who suffer, who are many in this challenging world. But I would like to, above all, highlight this other face: there’s much good in the world, there are many holy people.”
“Spring is underway in Chile, and you can look down and see the dirt in the streets, litter everywhere,” he said. “Or you can lift your eyes and see the beauty of the flowers, the trees… The good in the world. The mothers who love their children unconditionally, parents who make sacrifices for those they love, young people volunteering their time to help others.”
“As a Church we must recognize that we have deficiencies and sin, that has many faces: abuse of minors, infidelity, violence, corruption. But the beauty of love also has many faces, and we must recognize it in the Church too. I believe that the strength of love is more powerful than sin, and I would like to focus on that love and hopefully be someone who invites others to hope.”
“God is doing wonders, he has not abandoned us,” Aos said. “Maybe we’re going through a cross with the pandemic, but God has not left us alone, and he is always wonderful.”
The cardinal elect is not a man who avoids talking about the misgivings of the Church, but he’s not a man who only focuses on them either. If Pope Francis were to ask him for advice regarding what to do, for instance, with the Roman Curia, Aos would tell him “what St. Francis told the friars.”
“Whoever asks, I would give them the same advice: to the pope, to myself as a cardinal or to you as a Catholic – observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ that’s full of hope and love, and also of mercy, because we’re all sinners,” Aos said.