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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Matthew Santucci

Gordon: When did you attend Fordham University, what degree did you earn? Can you also tell us a bit about your experience there?

Matthew: I attended Fordham University from 2015 to 2018. I actually transferred my sophomore year; for my freshman year I was in Florence, Italy in Marist’s program and the Lorenzo de Medici Institute. This program, the Freshman Florence Experience, allowed students to spend the entirety of their first year abroad; as far as I know it's one of the only programs in the U.S. like this. I can not overstate how important this was for my personal formation. Being 19 and living abroad (alone) for the first time was a rewarding experience; it allowed me to travel, to truly be independent, to experience all of the richness of Florence. I was also a history major and, so, there was really no better place to study than Florence.

I transferred to Fordham (at their Rose Hill campus in the Bronx) in my sophomore year. Though I “missed” a year, so to speak, I was incredibly grateful for quickly I was able to integrate on campus. I joined the men’s rowing team (a sport I picked up in High School and continue to do until today) and was appointed in a special session as the interim VP of Rose Hill (for the Student government).

The decision to study at Fordham was motivated not only by the rigor of their academics, which was underscored by the Ignatian spirituality (being a Jesuit school), namely the idea of cura personalis, or the ‘care for the entire person’. My decision was also motivated by the desire to be in a city. Coming from Connecticut, New York City was close: it allowed me to see my family more often after being away for a year. I also wanted to be in NYC given how much it offered young students, not only in terms of professional opportunities, but also in terms of cultural events, museums etc. It really is a unique place; it is truly an international city with a rich tapestry of different cultures.

At Fordham, I earned a major in History and a minor in Italian. There were three different areas that I was primarily interested in: the Florentine Renaissance, the Baroque (and counter-reformation), 20th century Germany and Britain. I also studied German (which I started learning independently in high school) and also took a senior year capstone in Positive Psychology (despite not being a psych student); to date, that has been one of, if not the most, influential courses I’ve taken in my academic career.

As I already mentioned, I focused a great deal on the 20th Century, especially on Germany. This has always been an area of particularly interest for me, from a very young age. In my senior year I was drafting a proposal for a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Heidelberg to study the construction of Catholic identity in Germany during the Second World War; it wasn’t selected, but who knows maybe that would be a project to pick up again in the future!

Gordon: Share with our readers an overview of your work as Fordham Political Review Editor-in-Chief. When did you serve as Editor-in-Chief Fordham Political Review, and what are some of the more memorable stories that you covered?

Matthew: I came on the FPR in the Fall of 2015, as a content editor. It was an exciting time as it coincided with the beginning of the 2016 presidential election. There was a lot of energy on campus (as we had two very active chapters of both the College Democrats and the College Republicans) – there was a notable interest on campus, in terms of political engagement and conversation. I think part of that was to the specific historic moment (which reflected a broader shift going on in the US); there were, after all, many personalities in the primary. On the one hand, you had a crowded Republican primary, with names such as Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush (who went into the primary as the favorite), and Ben Carson; then, of course, there was Donald Trump, who upended almost everything we knew about politics (what was and was not acceptable).

In the Democratic field there was Hillary Clinton, who was the presumed nominee, despite there being other candidates. However, just as Trump presented a change(shift) to the Republican Party, for the Democrats there was the independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Bernie was the antithesis to Hillary in many ways. Like Trump (though arriving at a very different, let’s say end result), Bernie tapped into a burgeoning (growing) populism and broad discontent in America; he represented the outsider, the grassroots movement whereas Hillary was seen as the embodiment of the political elite, the status quo. It was, then, against this backdrop that I came on the FPR; it was an exciting time!

One of the most memorable moments was in the spring of 2016, at a lecture at Fordham Law, I interviewed Dr. Cornel West – a reputable American philosopher and then Bernie Sanders surrogate. It was the first interview I conducted and to do so with such a high-profile figure was an honor.

I was a content editor until December 2016, when I was selected by the executive board to become the new editor-in-chief. It was a great privilege, as the FPR was not just a platform, a magazine, it stood at the fulcrum of political activity on campus. As editor-in-chief I oversaw the direction of the publication and oversaw the publication of our biannual print edition, which required a lot of work, of course, but we had an incredibly talented and dedicated team – that makes all the difference. I really loved this work because it allowed students to share their opinion, to have a voice. It was also a catalyst for debate and discussion on campus – there were many instances when students would debate online or perhaps at the cafe over a recent article (there were also moments when I received emails expressing, let's say, their “spirited” disagreement with an article). That's the beauty of having an unbiased platform, though; it allows for debate and the exchange of ideas – we need more of that now, especially in the current climate where free speech is no longer regarded as a given and there are some who want to silence dissenting opinions.

Gordon: When did you attend Luiss Guido Carli University, what degree did you earn, what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite?

Matthew: So after a year of working in NYC, traveling, and coming back to Connecticut (right before the pandemic), I decided to apply to LUISS. I started my Master’s program there in August 2020. The decision to attend LUISS was twofold. First, and perhaps most importantly, I knew I wanted to come back to Italy. After the year I spent in Florence and having spent much time here on holiday (having a network of friends and family), I knew I wanted to come back to Italy; here, I feel truly at home. The second reason for selecting LUISS was the rigor and reputation of its political science program – as of this year it was recognized as the number one school in Italy and number 2 in the EU for political science – a source of great pride for all us alumni and current students. Having a background in history prepared me for the study of International relations; understanding change over time, the historical context of conflict and political systems is fundamentally for understanding contemporary situations and, in turn, allows us to prepare for the future.

The coursework was very intense (and we had many incredible professors), but it definitely gave us a solid foundation (both in a theoretical and practical sense). By far, my favorite course was Chinese Studies, taught by Professor Silvia Menegazzi. I’ve been fascinated by China for some time, as a culture, a geographic unit, a political force, and as a concept. Afterall the name China is a Western construction, the Chinese use the word 中国 Zhongguo, or Middle Kingdom and that reflects how they view themselves and their place in the world. This course provided an overview, lets say, of the Chinese character; it spoke about the construction of Chinese identity (from a historical perspective), but it primarily focused on contemporary China – the building of the One Belt, One Road initiative, the changes happening in modern China under Xi Jinping. The work done in this course helped me better understand what motivates the CCP and Xi. This notion of National Rejuvenation and the process of Sinicization are fundamental to understanding modern China.

I wanted to continue studying China (and work with Professor Menegazzi) and ended up writing my thesis with her!

Gordon: Can you speak a bit more about your thesis?

Matthew: Absolutely! So the title of my thesis was “Nihil sine Episcopo: Political Tension and Future Diplomacy and the People’s Republic of China”. Nihil sine Episcopo is a phrase attributed to St. Ignatius of Antioch and it means ‘nothing is to be done without the bishop’; it reinforces the importance of apostolic succession for the Church and that the bishop. It also represents the importance of communion (and hierarchy) flowing from the pope to his bishops, from the bishops to the priests and down to the laity.

So, the central question I tried to answer in my thesis was: Is there an intractable moral and ideological conflict between the PRC and the Vatican? That is to say, does the ecclesiology of the Church (e.g. its teaching on the magisterial authority of the pope to select and ordain bishops) preclude it from fully recognizing (and engaging diplomatically) the PRC?

So, to answer that question I broke the thesis down into four chapters. The first discussed the introduction of Catholicism in China (with the arrival of Fr. Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit missionaries in the late 16th century). From there it discussed some of the issues they faced, namely in the post-Ricci period where there was heightened tension between the Jesuits and the mendicant orders, between the missionaries and Chinese, and between the pope and emperor. This resulted in what we now know as the Chinese Rites Controversy, which officially ended in 1938. This was essentially a ban on ancestral veneration and the veneration of Confucian images for Chinese Catholics. The Chinese saw this as the church imposing itself in domestic Chinese affairs, whereas the church saw this as idolatry and syncretic, and thus incompatible with the faith. Thus, we can see the clear interaction of the theological and political (and how often it is hard to discern between the two). It is also important to note that the Church (the Pope) was also stymied by the European powers, namely the Portuguese and later the French, who controlled the mission networks (so we see how they were instrumentalized for political ends). This, of course, had a lasting impression upon the Chinese.

It wasn’t until the pontificates of Benedict XV and Pius XI that there was a massive shift in the Church's musicology and, then, In 1924 Cardinal Celso Costanitni convened the first synod on Chinese bishops and in 1926 the first six indigenous Chinese bishops were ordained in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, directly by the Pope.

The second chapter spoke about the relationship (from an ideological point of view) between the Church and communism, looking at papal encyclicals, canon law, papal directives etc. From there it also looked at practical examples (of papal diplomacy) episodes of the Holy See’s interactions with the different states, especially looking at Ostpolitik. In the context of China, it looked at the Cultural Revolution and thus set the context for the contemporary political climate on the mainland. The third and fourth chapters looked at this very contemporary situation, from Pope Benedict's 2007 letter to the Catholics in China, the illicit ordinations of 2011 and 2012 up to the 2018 Sino-Vatican Accord and its subsequent renewal in 2020 and 2022. I approach this question from the perspective of the Chinese, so looking at how in the last 20 years things have changed for Catholics. As you know there is the ‘Official’, or Patriotic, Church governed by the CCPA (Chinese Catholic patriotic Association), which answers directly to the party; and then there is the underground Church, which has been loyal to the Pope. Since Xi Jinping came into office there has been an intensification of this process of Sinicization and relations between the Holy See and the PRC are no doubt tense – this we saw with the arrest of Cardinal Zen in 2022 and later that year when Bishop Peng Weizhao was installed as bishop Jiangxi, a diocese not recognized by the Holy See. It is an incredibly complicated situation.

Gordon: What is one of your favorite memories when you were at Luiss Guido Carli University?

Matthew: During my ‘white semester’, which is free of regular coursework, I started the preparation for my thesis. I was also starting with my internship in the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. So, in the preceding weeks, I decided to undertake a pilgrimage, to reflect on the upcoming year and, let’s say, gain clarity. I also wanted to do this to detach from social media, school, and to spend time deeping my prayer life. This was during Lent 2022 and so I really wanted to focus on the penitential nature of Lent and the passion.

I decided to do a segment of the Via Francigena (a historic pilgrimage route running from Caterbury to Rome. I didn’t do the whole thing, I walked from the city of Lucca (in northern Tuscany) to Rome. In total it took 13 days and was a total of 450 kilometers.

Though it might sound a bit cliché, this was a truly life changing moment. When you embark upon a ‘cammino’ like this you have certain expectations (or maybe a lack thereof), but I can attest that whatever you expect, it is nothing like it (and I mean that in the best sense possible). For me it was a moment of clarity, a break. On the cammino you there is a supercharged spiritual life, there is a sense of the sacred. Afterall you're traveling along the same route where pilgrims for a millennium have walked to come to Rome. There were days when it was sunny, others when it rained even one day (walking from San Gimignano to Siena) where it started to snow! But you have to persist. Though there were parts where I walked for hours and hours without seeing another person, but it wasn’t lonely. I was immersed in the beauty of God’s creation, passing by medieval monasteries hidden in the forest, or a roadside shrine. The last day I woke up at 4 a.m. to be back in Rome for the Palm Sunday procession (in St. Peter’s); it was an emotional experience and fitting end to the pilgrimage.

Gordon: When were you at the Tort Division (SLU Unit) NYC Law Department, State of Connecticut Office of the Attorney General and later at the Staff Attorney's Office, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and what did you enjoy most while you were there?

Matthew: While in undergrad I was very much considering law school. I really enjoyed legal reasoning (it is built upon a very methodical form of reasoning) and being interested in politics, law was a natural outgrowth of that. It is for that reason that, during that time I did these three internships, to gain, let's say, a practical sense of what working in a law firm is like and also to see how that differed between different areas of law (from the court of appeals to the State attorney general’s office). I did a bit of legal research and writing, mostly on case law and in preparing written memoranda for the staff attorney’s. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue a career in law, but I am grateful for these experiences as they prepared me for what I am currently doing.

Gordon: When did you start serving as an Intern at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See (Vatican) Office of Public Affairs and what are your primary responsibilities?

Matthew: I started in the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in May 2022 and left at the beginning of April in 2023, right before my graduation from LUISS. It is impossible to overstate how important (and formative) this experience was for me. I was in the office of Public Affairs, where we managed the communications of the Embassy across social media platforms, as well as the internal communications. We also were in charge of the relations with journalists, thus maintaining the embassy’s contacts with the outside world. And so I started off working on managing and curating content for social media. The embassy is, in a way, a lens through which people can see what is going on at the Vatican, especially for issues that were of mutual importance for the U.S. and the Holy See. In this way we were unique mission. Given that the Holy See has no real territory to speak (besides Vatican CityState), nor any truly permanent, we were also speaking to the broader Catholic world. So it was a great responsibility to carefully communicate what was going on, as well as to commemorate days that were of interest (feast days, important papal events, things of that nature).

From there, I later started writing some reports, speeches. This dovetailed nicely with the work I was doing on my thesis and allowed me to have a better grasp of policy. It was also through the embassy that I was able to experience a range of just truly wonderful opportunities, that otherwise I would not have been able to. I accompanied a visiting delegation in August 2022 to the consistory for the creation of new cardinals, a visit to the Vatican Observatory, the Apostolic Library, and was at St. Peter’s for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Next week I will be greeting the Holy Father after his Wednesday weekly audience. I am truly blessed for all of the beautiful opportunities that came about from this experience and the precious mentorship.

Gordon: What impact has your work had upon your faith?

Matthew: I would actually like to invert that question and talk about the impact my faith has had upon my work. My work, or rather my conception of work, has been deeply influenced by Opus Dei’s spiritual mission. In The Way, St. Josemaría Escrivá said, “Add a supernatural motive to your ordinary work and you will have sanctified it” (The Way, no. 359). Work, then, becomes a way to serve, a means of sanctification – it allows us to give our talents, passions to the service of others; our spiritual life is not just interior, but is reflected in our day to day actions. If I am working on a project I say, Lord, I offer this up to you. It does matter hw mundane a task may feel – what is important is that we do it joyously.

Work and faith, then, go hand in hand. We see this reflected also in the Rule of Saint Benedict in the well-known phrase: Ora et labora (work and pray). Though a rule governing monastic life, I find it applicable into our modern ‘secular’ context. I find this especially important in our world now, as things become more secular, more chaotic and transactional, and ultimately more estranged from Christ.

Now, I am undertaking a new project at EWTN’s Vatican bureau. I am incredibly excited to begin this new chapter!

Gordon: What are the challenges for young Catholics?

Matthew: Being young and a practicing Catholic (or really religious in general) is met by many with suspicion and is even seen as an act of rebellion. We live in a world where relativism is rampant; we’ve been told by society that you can, essentially, construct your own truth. And I think we are now seeing the ramifications of that in what is turning into an almost ‘post-Christian’ West. We’ve moved away from cult and, as a result, have lost our bearing, we’ve lost our roots.

I also see with my generation the effect of the inundation of information (the constant stimulation) on social media such as Instagram and TikTok. What I do see (and I speak to this from personal experience) is that we are, in a way, lost; we are the most connected generation, yet we are looking for something greater than ourselves. I think the Church has, in part, struggled to meet that need, to communicate to Gen Z. In a world that is superficial and transactional, we are looking for authenticity and stability. For me (and as it turns out for many young people) this has been found in a more traditional practice of Catholicism, namely through the traditional Latin Mass – in a world that has become so banal, the old mass takes us away from the here and now and transports us; it glorifies God and showcases the truly incredible mystery of faith. It really is the most beautiful experience this side of heaven. I truly do believe that the future of the Church lies in rediscovering the richness of its traditions, not by accommodating the zeitgeist. No one knows what the future holds, but we trust in the Lord, always.

Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.

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