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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Valerio Ciriello S.J.

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: You are the chaplain at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland. Could you describe the process of becoming a chaplain?

Valerio: In the Jesuit order one’s mission is assigned by the Father Provincial, competent for the territory, in my case the Swiss Provincial.

In January 2020 my provincial announced to me that, among other things, my mission after the end of my theology studies in Paris would be that of university chaplain at the University Campus of Lucerne.

I accepted this mission, even though with some internal hesitation. I started at the beginning of August 2020 to work. I must say, that contrary to my initial skepticism, I am enjoying the job of university chaplain very much. In fact, I think it is the best job I have ever had to date. I have a great liberty in how to structure my “mission” and which tools I consider the most appropriate for the very different people that I meet in my work.

Dr. Knight: You are the chaplain of a very prestigious institution what does that mean? In other words what does being a chaplain entail? How would you encourage the cross-cultural competencies?

Valerio: In my opinion, it is not the prestige of the institution that should inspire and guide our work as educators, and as “spiritual” workers even more, but rather a deep awareness of the enormous responsibility we have toward this very variegated audience. We must be conscious that the students represent perhaps more than any other generational and social group, the future of our society, and ultimately of our existence on this planet. This a tremendous challenge that we must take extremely seriously!

Consequently, before wanting to educate no matter who, we should be conscious of what kind of thought or example I want to pass on to the younger generation.

In this regard, one must be careful not to try to spread one’s own values or worldview to students, but rather it is about giving students all the possible information and inputs they need to draw their own conclusions. In short, it’s about encouraging, challenging, and even provoking the student so that he or she can break free from their preconceptions and open to new ideas, thoughts, and knowledge. All human growth is directly proportional and correlated to the openness of our frame of mind that we demonstrate toward others within the framework of a constantly changing world.

Moreover, we need to take into consideration that both the university environment in Switzerland as well as society itself are quite secularized. Many traditional chaplaincy tools, like the constitution of bible groups, are likely to raise the interest only of an extremely small audience.

Consequently, I see my mission as someone who must do a huge balancing act between a very narrow traditional audience, and a large mass of students who show very little interest in religion in general. Yet, I cannot ignore these latter, quite the contrary, I am here to serve everyone and everywhere! Being a Christian, especially a Catholic, chaplain in such a context is challenging but inspiring as well, because it forces me to understand and to comprehend the world as it is, and not as I would wish it to be.

In fact, the world has always been pluralistic, from the beginning. Then the various vicissitudes of human history, often tragic circumstances, have made us think that in each historical moment a part of humanity could impose on others its own vision of the world. But this way of encountering those who are different with regard to worldview, culture, religion, racial background and any other circumstance that differentiates us from our fellow human beings, is a way of proceeding based on confrontation rather than on encountering fellow human being eager to build a common future together!

It is no coincidence that in biology, we speak of biodiversity as that natural balance that must exist between different forms of life, so that each form of life can continue to exist without risking succumbing to the disruption caused by one of its components, and risking to break down the whole ecosystem. Similarly, our communities, our societies and ultimately our world, are not meant to become an indistinct homogenized mass of people, as if the only expression of life on earth should be that of “homogenized yogurt”! Instead, it should be that of an enormous diversity that enriches our own existence as well as that of our entire planet.

Robert Kennedy once said: “We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all.” On the contrary, he invited us to “remember that those who live with us are our brothers and sisters, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek - as we do - nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

This is the spirit with which I hope every day to inspire my own life and actions, before even hoping and pretending to inspire the life of any other fellow human beings.

Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a chaplain? What other ministries have you been involved in?

Valerio: As I have previously indicated, I received the announcement that I would become a university chaplain in January 2020. At that time, I was in Vienna for the scholastics (Jesuits in formation) gathering of the future Central EuropeanProvince of the Jesuits. In a conversation with my Swiss provincial, which lasted no more than fifteen minutes, I was briefed on this mission.

Perhaps, my previous apostolates during my philosophical and theological studies in Paris influenced in a way my “call to be a chaplain.” In Paris, I had the opportunity to guide a confirmation group for young adults for one year as well as a group of “young Christian professionals”, called MCC in France, for four years. I must say I really enjoyed these apostolates. This finally brought me to become the responsible of the youth mass of the Jesuits in Paris, which is called in French “La messe qui prend son temps”, for over two years. About 200 young adults participated every Sunday evening in this mass. In all these cases, I never could have thought that I’d enjoy these apostolates at the very beginning, but they turned out to be among the most fruitful experiences of my whole life.

So, these experiences helped me to overcome my own prejudices, fears, and limits, while showing me how good it was that as a Jesuit I am bound by the vow of obedience. That allowed me to grow beyond my small desires and inspirations, in order to open myself up to an infinity of possibilities that life offers us and with which it surprises me even more than I would have ever imagined by following only my personal wishes.

Besides my work as university chaplain, which is my main activity, I also work for the Lassalle-Institute, where I am responsible for the following branch: “Future generations and ecological transition”. For example, at the end of August of this year we are organizing an “Eco Summer Camp” for young people, students and young professionals residing in Europe between the ages of 18 and 35 with an academic background. Participants who are interested in widening not only their personal knowledge about ecological issues, but in experiencing a unique opportunity to enlarge their own network in meeting peers and experts from all over Europe. Among the keynote speakers we will have even a Professor from Georgetown University, Dr. Gael Giraud.

In fact, there are many points of contact between my work as a chaplain and this one for the Lassalle-Institute.

Dr. Knight: Could you tell us how your Catholic faith plays into being a chaplain? What that means?

Valerio: As a university chaplain, but especially as a Christian, I must be open and welcoming to everyone, not just towards those who share my Christian faith or even only my Catholicism. But that doesn’t mean at all that my faith doesn’t play an essential role in my life and in how I interpret my role as a university chaplain. Indeed, it is precisely the teaching of the gospel, the way how Jesus was open and welcoming towards others that should guide my own behavior towards my fellow men and women. As Jesus met people on equal footing, without considering himself special or superior, but rather serving everyone, so do I hope to meet my fellow human with the same love and attitude.

Dr. Knight: How about an easy question: what is your favorite film at this time? Book?

Valerio: Well, I’ve been looking forward for over a year to finally watch the latest “James Bond” movie, but every time it is postponed anew. I like this kind of movie, where the distinction between good and evil is so easily feasible.

Unfortunately, our human reality shows us quite the contrary. This is an invitation to every one of us not to fall for the temptation – as it happens in this kind of movie – “to look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eyes”(Matthew 7:3-5). But as Jesus teaches us, we should look at first inside of ourselves instead of looking – often with ideological glasses – at the world around us. Good and evil are generated inside our own souls before they find a way into the visible reality.

I like to read very much, and it is part of my path to become a Jesuit. I have probably never been reading so much as during my novitiate (Jesuit training period of two years). At the moment I am reading the following two books at the same time: “Jesus: An Historical Approximation (Kyrios)” by Jose Antonio Pagola (2014) and “Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future” by Pope Francis (2020) as interviewed by Austen Ivereigh. I warmly recommend the reading of both books!

Dr. Knight: As a chaplain you take part in public administration, politics, and diplomacy. What does the interaction mean to you?

Valerio: I love a quote I once heard in a superhero movie, but which is quite older than the movie itself: “With great power there must also come great responsibility”. I interpret this quote the way Saint Paul handled his relations with the most different people of his time as reported in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. […] I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

This few sentences of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians is in my view a masterpiece of diplomacy and shows a deep knowledge of the human soul by the apostle.

In summary, it doesn't matter whether those we meet are important or not, rich, or poor, what matters is in what spirit we meet them. Paul adapted himself to any interlocutor he met in his life, but always with the goal of not seeking his own advantage, but the common good of all in accordance with his mission!

The temptation in dealing with so-called important personalities is to be dazzled by their charisma, instead of remaining faithful to the light of one’s own mission. In addition, from my personal experience, I have learned that most of the time, these types of personalities, at least those of a certain moral character, hate flatterers and prefer a natural and spontaneous relationship with their conversational partners.

At the end of the day, they too need sincere and true relationships in order to live and grow, just like the rest of us.

Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that the use of social media assists you in your work in the University? Do you think about knowing/loving/serving God through their ‘cyber-neighbor’? Do you have favorite YouTubes about assisting those in need?

Valerio: Communication today takes place in a multimedia way, and the younger generations, e.g., the students in my case, use these channels and the succinct and specific language of these media.

As soon as I began my work as a university chaplain, I immediately realized the importance of using a language and means of communication adapted to my audience.

Nevertheless, nothing can replace an in-person meeting between two or more people. However, with the pandemic unfortunately still not under control, one must try to do the best with the different multi-mediatic possibilities.

We offer Zoom meetings and meditations, and we use Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook, in order to spread our programs and messages. Nevertheless, at the moment, we do not use YouTube at all. It might be that this will change soon.

Dr. Knight: As a chaplain you are able to educate and spiritually form many students in the society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart?

Valerio: Whatever I do, I do it with the guiding principle of opening the spirit of the students as much as possible to a culture of encounter and exchange as equals among others, even to their professors or lecturers they meet during their studies.

For example, I notice and/or hear very often that not many students ask questions during a lecture or a conference. I find this attitude quite disastrous! Because today’s students are tomorrow’s "adults" who will not put the right questions to their bosses at work or to the company they work for, or to their political leaders. By doing this, they are content to live in their own little "safe" world that they have carved out for themselves, closing themselves off from the rest of the world no matter what may happen to it!

Moreover, if there is one subject that needs to be addressed today in a special manner and as an absolute priority, it is our attitude towards our planet. Not only is the "ecological transition" part of my work, but I believe that is the number one priority in the world. In fact, all the problems we have today regarding the destruction of biodiversity, wars, senseless consumption of natural resources, immigration, respect for life and so on, find their deep roots in our ability or not to relate to our natural habitat and to our fellow human beings. If we are not able to invert our instinctive “predatory” nature into a more respectful and cooperative nature, the future ahead of us will not look particularly bright!

Dr. Knight: Do you think that Art and Music assist people in getting to a more successful position in their lives?

Valerio: Before answering the first part of the question, we should understand what is meant by the concept of a "successful position". In the past probably more than today, art and music have been instrumentalized by the ruling class in order to control the “masses”, by impressing them with the beauty of their buildings or artistic crafts, rather than by the benefits and virtue of their policies towards the people in need for instance.

Nevertheless, this would be a one-sided reading of history. Personally, I believe that the longing for beauty is deeply rooted in the human soul. Art and music are probably the most treasured ways to express the desire for beauty.

The question that we should ask ourselves thus should be, what do we do with these instruments of beauty? Do we use them to elevate our souls and awareness to the all magnificent beauty of life? Or do we use the beauty of art and music to cover the darkness of our own personalities? Or to escape from the imperfect reality in taking music and art as a kind of opium to relieve the pain of an empty existence?

In my view therefore, it cannot be said that music and art as such are always capable of elevating our souls and making us better people (i.e., a “successful position”) for the sake of the humanity. Nothing can be used properly without proper discernment!

For instance, music has been used in the past to rile up soldiers against their enemies, but this should not be the aim of music and arts.

To sum up, music and art, if used properly, can open our souls, and make us more sensitive towards our fellow human beings!

Dr. Knight: What other issues do you have as a priority for our work as a society in regard to making your Catholicism as a Jesuit (priest) more evident?

Valerio: As men and women of a multi-millennial institution and a multi-secular Jesuit order, we should have a greater sensitivity towards history and especially be able to pass it to our fellow men and women.

Unfortunately, I do not always have the impression that this is the case. Despite the vast historical material at our disposal, the Church as an institution but as well as a global and local community, has not truly always learned the countless lessons that history taught us. If such an ancient institution is not able to draw the right conclusions by its own history as well as by the general history of mankind, who else will be ever able to do so?

By way of example, the Church as a global but also local institution should have raised itself more often and more systematically and explicitly against the attitude of certain states to resolve disagreements with other states by violence and war rather than by diplomatic and political intervention.

The consequences of certain unnecessary and harmful wars are evident for anyone to see, just think of the wars in Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan, not to mention the war in Yemen. They did not make the world a better place, on the contrary, the amount of human suffering they have created is beyond the pale. And yet, some politicians insist on pursuing this kind of bankrupt foreign policy.

Well, I think that as men and women of the Church, we must preserve a peaceful coexistence among the various peoples, knowing that: “for all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

Thank you very much for your interest and the opportunity of this interview dear Dr. Knight.

Thank you for doing this interview to help all of us understand your work better and to live a life in Communion with Christ.

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