When Pope Francis holds a consistory for the creation of new cardinals next month, one star of the show will be Archbishop Mario Zenari, the pope’s envoy in Syria, who has stubbornly refused to abandon his post amid the hardships and dangers of that country’s bloody war.
[On Sunday, Oct. 9, Pope Francis announced a consistory on Nov. 19 for the creation of 17 new cardinals, including 13 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope. Crux is offering a series of profiles of the new cardinals.]
Every time a pope holds a consistory, meaning the event in which new cardinals are created, there tends to be one figure in that crop of new cardinals who stands out above the rest in terms of the “buzz” factor, either because of their personal story, or the circumstances of their appointment, or both.
Next month, it seems highly likely that the star among the new cardinals of 2016 will be Archbishop Mario Zenari, presently the pope’s nuncio, meaning his ambassador, in Syria.
First of all, the appointment itself is break-the-mold. In centuries past there have been cardinals who served as papal envoys, but the practice over the last 100 years or so has been that nuncios hold the rank of archbishop. If they become cardinals it’s only at the end of their career, usually after they’ve been called back to Rome to take over some Vatican department, or assigned to lead a major diocese.
Thus Archbishop Angelo Roncalli was named a cardinal in 1953 while serving as the papal nuncio to Paris, but that’s because Pope Pius XII was shipping him off to become the new Patriarch of Venice.
Zenari, however, isn’t going anywhere, but instead will remain on the ground in Syria as the pope’s eyes and ears amid that bloody conflict.
Second, Zenari belongs to a grand tradition in Vatican diplomacy of refusing to leave one’s post when things get rough. It was the same instinct that led the future Cardinal Fernando Filoni to remain in Baghdad in 2003 as American bombs began to fall, after every other Western official had fled the city, and declare that staying in place was “nothing exceptional.”
Likewise Zenari has refused to abandon Syria, saying two years ago, “how could a representative of the pope flee the place where they need him most?”
“For me this mission is a privilege given to me by God, and it’s a very touching experience on the human level.”
As a result, by making Zenari a cardinal, Francis is not only honoring his personal courage, but also clearly expressing his solidarity and support for the people of Syria struggling with the fallout from their ongoing war. The pope said as much in his announcement of the new cardinals on Sunday, referring to Zenari as his envoy to “beloved and martyred Syria.”
Born in 1946, Zenari hails from the town of Villafranca di Verona in northern Italy, a town which, among other things, was the site of a peace treaty that ended the 1859 Austro-Sardinian war, so he knows something from his own family history about the human cost of armed conflict.
As it happens, Zenari was back home on Sunday for a lunch with friends from school, held at a restaurant in Custoza called Antico Ristoro, when his cousin Mario Cordioli reached him on the phone to congratulate him for being named a cardinal by Pope Francis in his noontime Angelus address that day.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said, saying he’d been caught completely off-guard.
Zenari was ordained a priest in 1970 and entered the Vatican’s diplomatic service. Over the years he’s seen more than his fair share of combat zones, including stints in both Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka, before his present assignment to Syria in December 2008.
Over the last eight years, Zenari has become an important voice for civil society in Syria, including the country’s small but significant Christian minority.
Last year, for instance, Zenari denounced the present conflict in strong terms.
“We can’t tolerate a war like this, a war without rules, in which humanitarian standards have been ignored from the very beginning,” he said. “We can’t tolerate that it’s children, women, the elderly and unarmed civilians who are paying the price … it’s unacceptable, we have to stop this way of prosecuting the war, we have to stop the war.”
Yet even amid the horrors of the conflict, Zenari also says he’s had glimpses of grace.
“By now there are more than a thousand workers in the humanitarian sector who have lost their lives, and many have been young,” he said. “We must not forget them. For sure, we have to see the atrocities, but we also have to see these young people who’ve given their lives to help others.
“Think about the roughly 20 people who were killed in an attack on a humanitarian convoy. We have to be grateful to these people and these organizations, which include social workers and helpers from the Church … we’ve also had Christians who lost their lives in these humanitarian missions.”
In the end, Zenari says he remains hopeful about Syria’s prospects.
“I already witnessed a miracle three years ago, when an American intervention against Assad over the issue of chemical weapons was headed off at the last minute. I don’t see why we couldn’t have another miracle today,” he said in September.
Some time back there were rumors in Rome that Francis might be considering replacing Zenari, given that it’s a hardship assignment and he’s already been carrying its weight for eight years. The consensus, however, was that it would be almost impossible for someone else to construct the web of relationships Zenari enjoys with the Assad government, the opposition, and the leaders of the six different Catholic churches in communion with Rome represented in Syria.
In any event, Zenari had no interest in leaving. He believes that by staying with their people amid the hardships, Christian clergy and religious are winning respect also from their Muslim neighbors.
“I’ve seen that even in villages where Christians and Muslims live together, everyone appreciates it when the priest or religious stay in place, because the presence of a man of God is a comfort … in the Middle East this counts for a lot, religious values and the presence of a consecrated person matters to everybody, Christian and Muslim alike.”
In the end, Zenari insists that getting a cardinal’s red hat is not a personal honor: “This isn’t a recognition of me, but a sign of closeness to Syria, a people marked by war, blood and death.”
Still, that probably won’t stop Zenari from being one of the most sought-after figures during the Nov. 19 consistory, giving him yet another chance to tell the story of the people he simply refuses to abandon.