God & I: Cardinal Gambetti

April 12 2021 | by

YOU graduated in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Bologna, but chose the Franciscan life a few years later. Why?

In actual fact I had already decided to become a friar before graduating. I finished my studies because I only had a few remaining exams to pass. In any case it was worth it because the experience in my dad’s factory and my Engineering degree were of great help in overseeing some renovations in the friaries of my province and then in the Sacro Convento in Assisi.

I first felt a call the priesthood when I was 11. One day our parish priest said, “If any of you would like to enter the seminary, please let me know!” and I felt as though he was talking directly to me. However, I later embarked on other paths because I wasn’t sure that I would be happy being a priest. I even got engaged; I was probably just very afraid. I was living without any real direction in life, and I slowly drifted away from the Church. In the meantime, I did my military service.

One day I went to confession at the Basilica of St. Francis in Bologna, and the friar asked me if I had ever thought about becoming a priest. The question stayed with me, but I felt uncertain because I had a girlfriend. Then I attended a vocational camp in Assisi, and after this I definitely felt called by God. So, once I had finished my Engineering studies, I entered the seminary.


How did your family react to the news that you wanted to become a Franciscan friar?

They were happy that I had returned to the Church, but when they learned that I wanted to become a friar all hell broke loose. My mother, who is excitable by nature, reacted very badly and started shouting; my father, who was perhaps the person who suffered most because he hoped I would be his successor at the factory he had established, he remained mostly silent, but was clearly against it. My brother was also very angry; he thought I should continue my career and get married. We were a simple family, and my parents had sacrificed a lot to allow me to study. Later it was very beautiful to see how my family members gradually changed attitude and began to accompany me. My mother had prayed to St. Anthony for my return to the Church: when she finally accepted my decision, she began to joke about her request to the Saint, saying, “Too much grace, St. Anthony!” In the end they were all very happy with my choice.


For many years you were Custos of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. What does that role involve?

In its DNA that role consists of being responsible for the community of the friars. The Custos must keep an eye on the social dynamics between the friars. He must also look after the liturgical life at the shrine, and everything that has to do with preaching and the pastoral dimension. In Assisi we guard Francis’ mortal remains; we are therefore a reference point not only for the Conventuals, but also for all the other Franciscan families.

I also had to make sure that the Franciscan spirit continued to blow among the friars through the activities taking place in the shrine. The Basilica not only has a national role because Francis is Italy’s patron saint, but also has a world role because of his international appeal. The Basilica is a religious, cultural and historic-artistic center of world relevance. As Custos I had to relate to the political and cultural institutions throughout the world.


What was it like to be Custos during the terrible days of the pandemic?

In the first months of total lockdown Assisi was a like a ghost town (something that had never been seen before, not even during the 1997 earthquake when I was a student there). So we friars took care of ourselves a little better, especially our life of prayer and meditation. We did more manual work and tried to find ways to stay close to people and to help wherever we could, but it wasn’t easy.

I hope the pandemic has given a wake-up call to the system that’s ruling the world, especially here in the West; a world that’s incapable of finding answers to the challenge of globalization. Our social and economic order is proving incapable of dealing with the new variables that have intervened in history.

When I learned that Pope Francis had written the encyclical Fratelli Tutti I was filled with enthusiasm because it was as though he was offering the world a broader horizon within which to rethink the social, economic and political system. The encyclical was signed at the start of last October precisely in Assisi.


You met many famous people when you were Custos at Assisi. Could you describe a personal encounter that made a deep impression on you?

I was deeply impressed by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. I have great admiration for her as a person. She gave me the impression of being a very simple, affable, sensitive person who is, at the same time, capable of listening in a deep way and changing opinion if necessary – maybe this is the reason why she was able to govern for so long.

I became aware of this because the first time I met her, we talked about a specific subject. Then, when I saw her the second time more than a year later, we talked about the same subject again, this time in the presence with the King of Jordan. On that occasion I said to myself, “Isn’t it surprising how she still remembers what we had spoken about!” She is a woman who is capable of listening; she is gifted with a very practical type of intelligence which is capable of going beyond the theoretical level. I believe that Angela Merkel is a firm believer in the European dream.

She is also the daughter of a Protestant pastor, so therefore she has a strong religious sense; she surely has her own spirituality. I went down to the Tomb of St. Francis with her, and in the way she stands beside you, you sense that she is a person who is moved by the sacred, art and beauty.


How did you learn you had been chosen by Pope Francis to become a cardinal?

In a very amusing and surprising way. On 25 October last, I was talking to someone when my phone started ringing insistently. I looked at it and saw that, among the many calls, there was one from the Bishop of Assisi. I immediately thought that something bad had happened in the Basilica where they were celebrating Mass to mark the 34th anniversary of the ‘Spirit of Assisi’, the historic prayer meeting for peace which took place in 1986 at the urging of Pope Saint John Paul II.

That Mass was attended by TV and newspaper journalists, so I had thought something had gone wrong. So I finished my call, and was about to call the Bishop when the phone rang again. This was a friend who works for Alitalia, the Italian airline company. He had booked a flight for me for the next day. So, I thought they must have cancelled the flight because of the pandemic. As soon as he heard my voice he said, “Congratulations!” I answered, “What are you talking about?” But he kept on congratulating me, and said, “I was watching the Angelus on TV when the Pope announced the new cardinals, and he pronounced your name!” I was stunned for a moment, then I thought it was a practical joke, and I started to laugh. I said to myself, “If this is true, then the Pope has an amazing sense of humor!” Then I checked the Vatican website, but I found nothing there. So I called the Bishop to ask him why he was calling me, and he confirmed everything, saying, “Look, it’s true. The Pope himself said it.”


Do you think you’ll be able to take something of the spirit of St. Francis into the Sacred College of Cardinals?

I will rather try to take myself in the College with the distinctive traits of St. Francis: simplicity, gladness, fraternity, serenity and, above all, humility, which includes the capacity of knowing your place in the pecking order. Finally, I’ll try to be authentic and speak my mind.


The Pope is clearly inspired by the Poor Man of Assisi. Which of the Saint’s traits are most in evidence in his apostolic action?

Pope Francis is bringing traits of his own personality into the papacy: sobriety, poverty and closeness to all those who are suffering physically, morally and spiritually. There is a simplicity in the way he expresses his ideas that resembles popular, down-to-earth Franciscan preaching. He also has a depth that allows him to look at both the physical and the spiritual. Pope Francis is a born communicator; he is as natural when he is by himself in his chapel as when he is in front of everyone in St. Peter’s Square.

Now St. Francis was a little like him in this regard. St. Francis’ symbolic gestures have gone down in history. Pope Francis is also like this. In his Magisterium he immediately placed the spotlight on the poor, on peace, on the environment and creation. He then added mercy, which he defined in a Franciscan way. That’s why he came to the Porziuncola in Assisi for the Jubilee of Mercy. Finally, he touched the theme of fraternity. To us in the College of Cardinals he said, “Be worthless servants; our only fulfillment is in service.”


On October 3 last year, on the vigil of the Feast of St. Francis, the Pope signed, on the Saint’s Tomb, the encyclical Fratelli Tutti. What are your views on this document?

The Pope has written a document that offers us a horizon against which we will have to measure ourselves. Either we choose to be brothers and sisters, or we choose to go against one another. The encyclical is, in a sense, a summary of the Pope’s social thinking and is clearly in continuity with Laudato Sì.


If you had to explain God to a 6-year-old child, how would you go about it?

I would tell him that he should listen to his own heart; then I would talk to him about Jesus. I would tell him how good Jesus is and how he has immense love for all of us and I would say to the child, “Jesus is beside you; close your eyes and imagine him smiling at you; tell him about the things that are closest to your heart; ask him any question you like.” Then I would add, “Now remain silent in yourself and listen, because Jesus will let you know how much he loves you; he will answer you and he will tell you what he desires for you.” Then I would listen to him and if, as I believe, he has had an experience of Love, I would conclude by telling him that he had met God.


What aspects of the life of St. Anthony have struck you most?

What has always struck me about St. Anthony is his friendliness. He is able to immediately sympathize with you. I am also struck by the relationship between his preaching and social action, how he is able to explain daily life through the light of the Gospel. He was among the first to start that Franciscan tradition of bringing political pressure to bear on society; of grafting positive developments into civil society. In St. Francis’ footsteps, St. Anthony was the first to take our preaching to this level.


Easter will soon be upon us. What wishes would you like to send to our readers?

May Easter introduce all of us to a process of transformation from death to life and rebirth. Only those who allow themselves to go through a process of death with trust and hope, and who dwell within this for some time, have the chance to see that new life flourishing from their grave. In order to do this, we need to see the current crisis as an opportunity for change. If this becomes our attitude, then Easter will allow us to transform ourselves.


BORN IN Castel San Pietro Terme (Bologna) in 1965, Mauro Gambetti spent his childhood and youth in Imola with his parents Ermenegildo Gambetti and Maria Teresa Ceroni.

From his father, the founder of a mechanical engineering firm, he inherited a taste for invention, and after high school he obtained a degree in Industrial Plant Engineering from the University of Bologna. After college he did his military service in the army near Bergamo.

He became a postulant in the Order of Friars Minor Conventual in September 1992 and professed permanent vows on 20 September 1998 in the Cathedral of Imola. After his baccalaureate in Theology at the Theological Institute of Assisi, he obtained a licentiate in Theological Anthropology from the Theological Faculty of Central Italy in Florence.

He was ordained a priest on 8 January 2000 at the Shrine of the Most Holy Crucifix of Longiano. In the Spring of 2009, he was elected Minister Provincial of the Conventual friars of Emilia Romagna.

On 22 February 2013 Marco Tasca, the Minister General, appointed him General Custos of the General Custody of the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi, and confirmed his role until 2021.

During the Angelus of 25 October 2020, Pope Francis announced his nomination as Cardinal in the consistory of 28 November. This was the first time a Franciscan friar received a red hat since the 19th century: the last time was Antonio Maria Panebianco, who was made a cardinal on 27 September 1861. On 30 October he was nominated Titular Archbishop of Thisiduo.

In the consistory of 28 November 2020, Pope Francis gave him the biretta and the ring, making him Cardinal-Deacon of Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano. On 16 December he was nominated by the Pope a member of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Finally, on 20 February 2021, Pope Francis appinted him as Archpriest of Saint Peter's Basilica, Vicar General for the Vatican State, and President of the Fabric of Saint Peter.

Updated on April 12 2021