God & I: Fr. Oliviero Svanera

January 04 2018 | by

WHO WERE the most important people in your religious formation as a child?

My parents were my first teachers in the faith, and their influence was deep. I grew up in a very simple environment of prayer and devotion, in close contact with my parish and serving as an altar boy. Our family used to pray the rosary very regularly. Later on, as a teenager, I had the good fortune of meeting a number of friars who were examples of Franciscan joy and who introduced me to the wonderful figure of Saint Francis.


When did you conceive the idea of becoming a Franciscan friar?

I entered the Minor Seminary at Rivoltella sul Garda (near Brescia in northern Italy) at the age of 11. At that time I had no idea of what a ‘Seminary’ was. I only knew that I was going to a boarding school. I had already been to a preparatory school camp, and I had liked it, so I welcomed the idea of doing my junior high school at that Minor Seminary, which was run by the Conventual Franciscan friars.

I liked the life with my schoolmates. We were in a playful, relaxed environment, which also cultivated a sense of dedication to studying and a healthy and peaceful religious education. Almost all of my classmates eventually became lay people. Of two classes, totaling 50 children who had begun junior high with me in 1969, only one person, and that is me, chose to remain. In fact many had chosen that Minor Seminary not because they wanted to pursue a religious vocation, but only because the school was renowned for the quality of its education and the healthy environment it provided.


You professed your solemn vows in 1984. From that moment of total consecration to God and the Church, have you ever thought you might have made a mistake?

At the age of 18, that is, long before my solemn profession, I felt the call to religious life. In those years I came in contact with the Charismatic Movement, and I had the experience of seeing a light, of hearing an inner voice, a call that required an answer from me. The solidity of that call became firmer in the years ahead, during my theological formation. However, I cannot say that my vocation has always been unshakable. My life path is more or less similar to that of many other religious. At first you have many fears and doubts; you do not feel prepared to preach, to hear confessions… however, you are sustained by a great deal of enthusiasm.

 After this the years of sober maturity arrive. I am now 58, but when I was around 40 I went through some difficult moments, similar to those mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy, “Midway upon the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.”

Whatever you choose in life, whether it is the religious or the lay life (married or single), or whatever profession or career you choose, a critical phase always comes. You become aware of possessing a certain experience of life and you begin to look at the future with different eyes. You begin to question if you did the right thing when you were 20, if you were then mature enough to make the right choices, or if you had been conditioned. When this happens it is necessary to re-energize, to purify the path undertaken in youth in order to embark on a second vocation, and this is a difficult and critical moment. However, if it is undertaken earnestly, both faith and the commitment to religious life and the priesthood re-emerge at a level of renewed awareness and gratitude toward God.


What image do you have of God?

The image I have is an evangelical one. I often image Jesus’ face looking with love at the rich man. In Mark 10:17-22 it is written that Jesus looked at him and loved him. I imagine Zacchaeus on the sycamore tree with Jesus gazing up at him from below with a look of love. I imagine Jesus’ loving gaze toward the adulterous woman, and toward Matthew the Publican while sitting at the tax collector’s booth.

I am fascinated by the figure of St. Francis who, on the one hand, gazes with ecstasy at the San Damiano Crucifix, where Jesus has a radiant face with open eyes and, on the other hand, then gazes at the leper, who also reveals to him the face of Christ, the face of mercy and tenderness. So my image of God is that of Jesus who says in John 10:10, “I have come to give life and to give it to the full.”


People who are in love desire to have an intense relationship with the beloved. How do you cultivate a deeper relationship with God?

As a priest the Eucharist is an essential part of my daily life, which I experience as a grace, a privilege, but also as a great responsibility. A grace because, to celebrate and consecrate the body and blood of the Lord is a great gift arising out of priestly ordination, but it is also a responsibility because one must then transform this gift into life. Union with God through the Eucharist gives me peace and strength. The essence of my union with the Lord is based on the Eucharist and on hearing the Word of God; it is then extended through personal and communal prayer.

In reference to the love between two people, what else nourishes their relationship except for dialogue and the signs of tenderness and intimacy? These are the only real signs of a preferential, faithful love, and this, I believe, is also applicable to the relationship between Christ and a consecrated soul.


When talking to God have you ever felt a breakdown in communication? That no one was at the other end?

Moments of crisis and of faith are certainly possible. The silence of God is real and tangible. These are difficult moments in which it is important to return to the image of the merciful face of Jesus I have just spoken about. However, whenever I experienced these difficult moments, I never sought specific answers, but I just said to myself, “Jesus himself went through trials – let’s just think of his Passion – he did not seek any explanation as to why he could no longer hear God and felt lonely. He just abandoned himself with trust to the Will of the Father. Therefore, the only weapon I have, which I have always felt as very effective, is that of entrusting myself to God in prayer and perseverance, even in a very simple way, like praying the rosary. In fact, in some moments one feels like the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross.


Was there ever a moment in your life in which you felt that God was particularly close to you?

On a number of occasions. During senior high school I had a kind of mystical experience. I was spending more time in prayer, sometimes even during the night. It was the time when I had to decide on whether I wanted to become a novice or not. I was feeling a kind of resistance to becoming a Franciscan friar. I saw that my friends were either getting engaged or going back home with their parents… and I was asking myself, “And what about me? What’s to become of me?” The answer that I was hearing in my heart was, “I have reserved you for myself. I have called you. You are precious in my eyes. I want you to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and of St. Francis.” Above and beyond all my doubts and fears this was the voice I was hearing clearly.

Later on I went through moments of loneliness. I had serious eye problems with the risk of becoming blind. However, precisely in that very difficult moment of life I experienced a sense of abandonment in God, and I have always felt that I was in God’s hands. Of course I had uncertainties, doubts, and the fear of becoming blind, but I was sure that, if it really did happen,  that it would be for my own good.


You are the Rector of the Basilica of St. Anthony, a shrine of world importance. What do you consider as your primary role in this task that has been assigned to you?

As a friar I draw inspiration from St. Anthony, who was, like St. Francis, a faithful follower of Jesus’ Gospel. I therefore feel that my first responsibility is that of being a faithful follower of St. Anthony, especially considering that the Rector of the Basilica represents the Saint in the eyes of the world. This, however, is the duty of all us friars of the Basilica, because what people demand of us is the ability to be welcoming, available and caring; in other words to communicate with words and deeds the Gospel of Jesus.


Saint Anthony died almost 800 years ago, yet millions of people continue to come to his shrine here in Padua. Why is this Saint still so appealing to people today?

There are two answers. The first is very simple. It is because St. Anthony performs miracles. He is the miracle worker par excellence. During the Exposition of the body of St. Anthony in the year 2000 I chose to wait in line for over three hours among ordinary devotees. What really struck me was that, in my conversations with the people waiting, almost everyone was saying that they had received some grace from the Saint. Now I find this truly amazing, and this fact leads us directly into the evangelical dimension of healings and miracles, a dimension which was of primary importance in the life of Jesus as well.

The other aspect of his life which makes him so appealing is that of the word. His writings and wisdom are universally recognized. St. Anthony was a man of prayer and an assiduous listener to the word of God. He also had great communicative skills, and all of his words and works, like those of Jesus, had the purpose of leading people to God the Father. And this is why people say, “Those who turn to St. Anthony ask and obtain.”

Even if people went to Jesus to obtain personal favors and healings, Jesus never turned them away, and St. Anthony did the same. St. Anthony also worked in favor of the sick and the oppressed. He defended the weakest and represented the interests of the oppressed against those of the powerful. This is one noteworthy aspect of his life, as well as the fact that he lived through difficult moments. In his 36 years of life Anthony experienced problems that are very similar in nature to our problems in the 21st century.


Among the many stories that pilgrims have told you is there one that particularly appeals to you?

There is one in particular. This is the story of a couple which was in the process of separating. One of the two had already left the marital home. Through divine providence both were inspired to seek the Saint’s intercession. Well, quite incredibly, they both found themselves at the same time at the Saint’s Tomb in the Basilica, with their hands on the marble slab. She turned and, who did she see beside her? Her husband! They had both found each other there at the same moment, with the desire for reconciliation. They had both grown stubborn in their views, perhaps out of pride, but as soon as they saw each other there their hearts melted and they embraced each other, because they understood that what they really wanted was to restore the harmonious family life they had before.


What is St. Anthony’s message to the men and women of today?

Strong messages are those of justice and reconciliation within the framework of faith. By justice we mean the fight against inequality and oppression with the weapon of God’s justice. It is interesting how the most diverse groups of people all turned to St. Anthony for help and advice. He was concerned with children, the elderly, husbands, wives, the rich, the poor, the learned, the simple, etc. Anthony, however could also be scathing against all those who exploited the poor, like usurers, for instance.

A major theme of Anthony’s message is also reconciliation, to which he dedicated so much time in his preaching and in the Sacrament of Penance. For him it meant to be reconnected to God. For instance, his work of reconciliation with heretics was undertaken using the instrument of dialogue, in accordance with the Franciscan ideal of peaceful dialogue. Anthony refused to adopt those repressive measures against heretics which were normal in his time.


Is there any saying of St. Anthony which particularly appeals to you?

Those who are not progressing are already regressing. This saying, which is attributed to St. Anthony, refers to that path of spiritual and moral development in which we are called to renew our lives. We must never get tired and stop, resting on our laurels for what we have already achieved.


BORN IN Lumezzane near Brescia in 1959, Oliviero Svanera obtained a degree in Moral Theology at the Pontificia Facoltà del Laterano – Accademia Alfonsiana (Rome) in 1991. He has taught Moral Theology at the Theological Institute Saint Anthony Doctor in Padua, of which he was also the director from 1997 to 2005.

Subsequently Father Svanera was Guardian of the Community and Rector of the Anthonian Shrines in Camposampiero from 2005 to 2014, and then Vicar Provincial of the Provncia Italiana di S. Antonio from 2013 to 2016. He has been the Rector of the Pontifical Basilica of Saint Anthony since 2016.

Fr. Svanera is one of the chief editors of the Italian-language theological magazine Credere Oggi, and has published numerous books in Italian on love and family values, the latest of which are: Sposarsi?Una scelta di libertà e grazia (EMP, Padova 2011); Tu sei amore. Una prospettiva francescana sulla coppia (EMP, Padova 2013); and Amori feriti. La chiesa in cammino con separati e divorziati (EMP, Padova 2013).

Updated on January 04 2018