01/31/2023, 17.43
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New vicar: the 'challenge' of unity and changing Saudi Arabia

by Dario Salvi

Speaking to AsiaNews Fr. Aldo Berardi, appointed Jan. 28 as vicar of the North, confesses his "surprise" at the choice, combined with the "awareness" of operating in a territory he knows. His years of mission in Bahrain and visits to the region. Respect for Christian rites, cultures and traditions. Pope Francis' recent apostolic trip was a "historic" occasion to bring together the faithful from across the vicariate. 

Rome (AsiaNews) - The vicariate of Arabia is a "melting-pot," a region made up of "different realities" in which the challenge is to ensure "the unity of the Church" and, at the same time, to enhance "the beauty of this diversity" that constitutes "a grace." 

With an attitude of "surprise," but at the same time "obedience" and "awareness" of operating in an area he has already become familiar with, the newly appointed vicar apostolic of northern Arabia Fr. Aldo Berardi is preparing for his new mission.

In this interview with AsiaNews, the priest of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Captives, (Trinitarians) for whom until now he served as vicar general, recounts his "amazement" at the appointment made official on Jan. 28 and the coming weeks of preparation. With the date of his episcopal ordination and departure for the region - at the moment he is in Rome - yet to be decided, because "Easter and Ramadan add up: an opportune time must be found." 


The 'challenge' of diversity

As the Church of North Arabia "we must be guarantors of unity" while respecting "the different rites, cultures and traditions" of the various communities.

"Ours is a fragile beauty," he stresses, "which allows us to learn as I did over the years in Bahrain at the liturgical level, the customs. Thinking of the Gulf, the reference to mosques, the holy places of Islam (Mecca and Medina) is inevitable, but "we also rediscover a Christianity of earlier times with bishops, monasteries and churches thanks to historical and archaeological research that in recent years bears fruit."

Before Islam took over, there were "two bishops in Bahrain and one in Saudi Arabia," valuable testimonies that it is important for "our Muslim friends to know as well."

The Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia extends its jurisdiction over four states on the Peninsula with different situations socially, politically, in terms of Christian presence and religious freedom: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the latter nation in which no other places of worship outside Islam are allowed.

In 2020, the year of the death of the last vicar Msgr. Camillo Ballin who was succeeded as administrator by Msgr. Paul Hinder - formerly vicar of southern Arabia - there were nearly 2.8 million baptized people out of a population of about 43 million.

The territory is divided into 11 parishes and the headquarters is in Bahrain (a nation that recently welcomed Pope Francis), in Awali, where the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia is located.

"One of the challenges of the mission," Fr. Berardi says, "is to find our own way of being Catholic, without feeling isolated. To become a true vicariate, taking into account the social and economic reality. Catholics are a minority but they must know how to value works, starting with the theme of charity" in a region where "the migrant issue" is growing, as emerged during the World Cup in Qatar.

"There are several parishes," he stressed, "that work in social work, but we need to develop the sector even more. While not doing geopolitics, the Church should not limit itself to providing food but reflect on the many fields of action, respecting being guests and foreigners. Understand the limit and find new ways to act, just as we need to balance local reality with social justice. These are reflections that will have to be made with clergy" to respond to the mission of the Church's social doctrine "in an ever-changing world: attention to the fragile, danger of new conflicts, praying - a lot - for peace and tolerance." 

Roots in the land of Arabia

The newly appointed vicar apostolic of North Arabia was born Sept. 30, 1963, in Longeville-les-Metz, France. After attending the first cycle of studies in Philosophy at the Grand Séminaire in Villers-lès-Nancy and, after a missionary experience in Madagascar, he entered the Order of the Holy Trinity and Captives in Cerfroid (France).

He attended the second cycle of studies in Theology at the Grand Séminaire in Montreal, Québéc (Canada) and obtained a Licentiate in Moral Theology at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome.

He worked with Caritas, served in a psychiatric prison with specific training in mental health, and then undertook studies in Arabic language and Islamology at the Dar Comboni School in Cairo, Egypt.

In 2007, his first experiences in the land of Arabia at Sacred Heart Parish in Bahrain; from 2011 to 2019 he was parish priest of Saint Arethas et Compagnons Martyrs in the Apostolic Vicariate of the North, then the post of vicar general of the Trinitarian Order.

As is already evident from his personal history, the newly appointed vicar has firm roots in Arabia, a region where he has worked for a long time even if there is no lack of "surprise" at being appointed in a land so far "under the pastoral leadership of the Capuchins. However, the order to which I belong invites to go to the peripheries, to redeem and liberate the 'captives' according to the Latin etymology [prisoners, ed.] and that is why I accepted."

He was previously based in Bahrain, but he is familiar with the whole region having made several trips. Then there is the case in point of Saudi Arabia "where, although the only religion allowed and recognized is Islam, one million Christians live for work purposes.

" A community that must be followed carefully, and discreetly, a difficult and often hidden reality that deserves to be recognized. One million people who pray in private, who cultivate their faith in their families and nurture it through the Internet and social media.

"With Covid-19 the world and the Church have discovered the potential of the internet and social even for mission, for prayer," Fr. Berardi recalls, "but this approach in Saudi Arabia has been active for a long time. In these 15 years the reality has changed, the country wants to open up to tourism and economic activities, attract foreigners to invest so its integration must also be rethought."

In the past migrants, including Christians, would move to the Wahhabi kingdom the time they needed for work then leave, while today it is the Riyadh authorities themselves who are looking for ways to make them stay, to attract human and non-human capital.

"So places to gather and celebrate will be needed, especially Christmas and Easter, and in this perspective the push coming from the youth for innovation and change is important."

"One perceives," he adds, "a need for change, while respecting tradition and the reality of the place: just think of Valentine's Day, which today is celebrated with flowers and chocolates while until a few years ago one was arrested even for wearing red clothes. The religious police were attentive and vigilant, while now we see hearts in department stores." 

The Pope an element of unity

In such a diverse reality, the pope represents an element of unity and encounter as emerged during Francis' recent apostolic trip to Bahrain and, before that in 2019, to the United Arab Emirates.

"The authorities in Manama," he explains, "are open and available to dialogue also because here, a rare example, there are Christians who are citizens of Bahrain and there is a local Church that, little by little, is growing. The pontiff's passage was a blessing and opened new avenues of dialogue, mutual understanding and tolerance." His presence made it possible to rethink intercultural relations not only with the leadership, but at the level of the population, which "in general has shown itself to be open and welcoming."

"We have taken the first steps," he continued, "and now we must reap the benefits for all the nations in the area. The visit was also a rare, if not unique opportunity to bring together all the faithful of the vicariate, to bring together people from different countries, a precious moment of unity and confrontation, especially for young people."

He concludes, "it is a historic moment that it is up to us as a Church to enhance and promote in the future. Finding opportunities for our realities to come together not only in conjunction with big events abroad such as World Youth Days, but with local initiatives. For example, promoting vicariate-level pilgrimages to Lourdes, Fatima, while Jerusalem is easier to reach for us as individuals." 

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