The 15th January 2022 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the Venerable Fr. Bernardino of Portugruaro (1822-1895). Elected Minister General by Pope Pius IX,  he remained at the helm of the Order for 20 years and had the mission of rebuilding the Franciscan family after decades of difficulties, oppression and governmental suppression both in Europe and in the rest of the world. On this anniversary the Office of Communications of the Order interviewed Fra Massimo Fusarelli, Minister General, on the importance of renewing Franciscan identity in our times, and the assurance of “believing still in a new beginning and a new departure”.

What are the typical elements of the Christian and Franciscan personality of Fra Bernardino da Portogruaro?

Two hundred years ago the Venerable Fra Bernardino Dal Vago da Portogruaro was born in the strong and noble land of Friuli and from the beginning of his life, in his family, he showed an open character, a very strong will and an ability to be passionate about and love what was entrusted to him.

At 18, in the prime of his youth, he followed the Franciscan vocation and began his journey in the Order, while Europe was undergoing a very profound change.

Throughout his life he will live in a turbulent era, and for this he trained to become and be a friar in difficult times and never gave up. We recognize this as a character of his humanity and his faith, supported by the fact that he has always had a vision capable of expressing the faith and Franciscan life immersed in his present and looking to the future.

In 1869, 153 years ago, Father Bernardino was elected Minister General by Pope Pius IX.
What were the challenges he had to face being 47 years old at the time?

Fra Bernardino, at the age of only 33, became Minister Provincial in Veneto and immediately proved his abilities, especially as a great organizer. He then became General Definitor, staying six years in Rome. He was in poor health and had to spend long periods in bed. Even in this situation he always knew how to go forward. When he becomes Minister General, a figure is enough to tell what reality he is facing: at the end of the 1700s, before the French Revolution, the Order of Friars Minor had 77,000 friars. Seventy years later the Order had 7,000 friars: it had lost 70,000 members due to repeated suppressions and secularizations that had emptied the convents, dispersed the religious and brought to an end that community reality, of preaching, of service that was the life of the Friars. minors. Then Bernardino becomes General and finds a dispersed Order that has also lost much of its inner and spiritual strength due to lack of elements.

In number 10 of the Final Document of the 2021 General Chapter we read: “The task of renewing our Franciscan identity requires discernment, study, formation and action”.

When today we talk about Quaracchi in Florence and the Sant’Antonio International College in Rome, we are talking about the legacy of Brother Bernardino.

What vision did Fra Bernardino have of these places?

When Fra Bernardino becomes General, but already earlier in his experiences of government, he is clear faced with the few remaining and  many missing friars, a new departure, a new beginning must be put into action. So Bernardino does not just fix what was there, what remained. Several of his letters, and he has written thousands of them, make us understand his thought: it is useless to make something live by force, rather we try to make it be reborn, by finding new ways to have vocations, and this new way is found by establishing the Seraphic Colleges, that is in assuming the education of children and young people to orient them to the Franciscan life. For this reason he also faced much opposition, because it was a novelty in the Order and also in religious life, but in the end this proved to  be the means by which Bernardino was able, especially in Europe, and throughout Europe, to attract a new generation of Franciscans. Bernardino knew that it is not enough to find vocations, it is necessary to formalize not only in the small geographical reality where they live in Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Poland, Germany and Croatia, but also in the wider context of an international dimension. That is why Bernardino founds the Collegio Sant’Antonio in Rome, in via Merulana, so that friars of different nations, studying together, receive this world view of the Church, the Order and the Mission. And so Bernardino seeks strong foundations in the Franciscan tradition such as, for example, the study of the works of Saint Bonaventure and then of Duns Scotus and of the great Franciscan masters, in order to be able to read these works in their original language, to study them. The Quaracchi College of Florence had and still has this objective today.

And today, what does the International College in via Merulana in Rome mean?

To continue to be a place where the friars see and experience that our Order is an international family. We enter a Province, we grow up in a Province, in a Custody, in a linguistic and cultural area, but it does us good to breathe  in a greater atmosphere and also to study in Rome, where study can also take on this colour of internationality, and also catholicity of the Church, that is, of seeing the Church and the world according to the whole and not according to the part. For this we still need Sant’Antonio and we want it to have a future and we work for it.

Fra Bernardino great reformer of the Order. What legacy has he left us?

Fra Bernardino da Portogruaro wanted to give more strength to the service of the Minister General. In his time, for historical reasons, the Minister General practically ruled Italy and little more. The rest of the Provinces were entrusted to other Vicars. Instead, he concentrates the government of the Order more in the General Curia, and it is he who brings the General Definitors to the Curia as a stable community of government. Previously the Definitors remained in their Provinces and the General was alone with the secretaries.

In this way, with him, the identity of the Curia really changes, which we find again after more than 100 years. Yet another invention of Father Bernardino in the Curia: he invents the Secretary General for the Missions. It wasn’t there before. He was also Procurator General for the Missions, in charge of seeking funds, and from here he shows that the concern of the missions is not only of the Provinces, but of the Order. From here he laid the foundations for that rethinking of the Curia that will take place in the 1900s.

In the document “OFM General Chapter 2021, Mandates and Orientations, number 29 reads:” The Minister General and his Definitory should start a global revision of the structural organization chart of the functioning of the Curia and the Order, starting to simplify it and activating a circularity capable of expressing our charism today in a more concrete way, through the Secretariats, Offices and other structures of the Order ”.

After 127 years of the death of Friar Bernardino, today, what does it mean to reform the Curia?

For us today, reforming the Curia, renewing it, means above all promoting collaboration within, between Secretariats and Offices, with the Minister and the General Definitory, to accompany together the journey of the Order in the world.

There is a job, we would say today, to be achieved by networking and less in watertight compartments. This is very important.

Externally, it means increasingly promoting communication which is not only communicating news,  but also asking ourselves “who we want to be” and “who we are in the Church and in the world” and therefore enhancing communications with the Provinces, with the Custodies, with all our realities, also the Poor Clare Sisters and the Franciscan Family, so that the Curia becomes not only a bureaucratic place where files arrive to be processed, but it becomes a place more and more, and it already is, in which we want to grow in animation and service to the whole Order, because today, in the time of globalization, I believe that no one is saved alone. We really need to be together, to network more. We are also called as Curia, as Definitory, to accompany the Provinces, the Custodies in those Franciscan realities that are born, accompanying those who are younger, and guiding those who in a certain way die and are transformed to live the time of the end. All this demands more from our service, our attention and for this we need a more agile Curia and truly capable of responding to these challenges.

Finally, dear Minister, what can be the message of Br. Bernardino that you want to convey to the whole Franciscan Family?

Fra Bernardino da Portogruaro in his time believed in a new start, in a new beginning. He not only kept what was there, but looked ahead; he was not discouraged by the immense difficulties he experienced in his time, but, I repeat, he was able to look ahead with a profound motivation of faith. I believe that, in this historical moment, as Friars Minor we need to believe again in a new beginning, in a new departure and we can believe that it is possible to reform the Order in the sense of returning to the form of the Gospel which is the heart of our life: living the Gospel as brothers capable of listening to the Lord and men and of proclaiming this Gospel that we have accepted. This is the heart of our identity, as poor among the poor, with respect for the common home and for all men.

We need to believe more, I would say, that this new point, this new departure is possible and is already taking shape; we need an extra boost. I want to give this message: let’s cultivate hope, let’s not be discouraged, let’s try to look forward! I would say to those brothers, especially those who struggle most, to see a future, a development, even in our presence and in our life. And I would also say it to those who are perhaps interested in the Franciscan charism: being a Franciscan means cultivating this hope, believing that God is good and that with him we are truly at the service of the goodness that is in creatures and in the world, also recognizing many hardships and difficulties but going through them with confidence. In short, a message of hope, not at a low price, but the hope that comes from the Gospel of Jesus: a hope that is the Cross of Jesus and of his resurrection! Pilgrims of hope, then!

I hope that this word will help us to live today as men, as Christians and as Franciscans.