From Basketball Player to Cardinal

Interview with Peruvian Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 27, 2001 (Zenit.org).- When Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima was created cardinal by John Paul II last week, the Peruvian made history.



Not only is he the first cardinal to come from the Opus Dei personal prelature, but he is also the first player of a national basketball team to receive the honor of a red hat.

In this ZENIT exclusive interview, the cardinal reviewed the most important moments of his life: from the way he discovered his vocation to the priesthood, while a player for the Peruvian basketball team, to his attitude vis-à-vis the Fujimori presidency.

--Q: How did you merit to be here in Rome to receive a cardinal´s biretta? How did you decide one day to leave behind what you had, basketball, your engineering career, to follow Christ in the priesthood?

--Cardinal Cipriani: In the first place, I think that everything is born in the family. We are 11 brothers. My father was a doctor, my mother a homemaker. I can recall a thousand details of daily life. For example, when we went to bed at night, my mother used to come to each one´s room to help us to thank Jesus and to offer our day.

My father, who was a surgeon, a specialist in ophthalmology, manifested in his very career a great concern for others, and a desire to help them.

Later I entered the school of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, nuns from the United States, and I still remember one of the nuns, when we arrived in school early, seated on a bench and calling all of us who passed by, to come to talk to her about any topic.

Now, almost 50 years later, despite the fact I have forgotten many things, I remember that religious perfectly. Why? I don´t know. Because of her goodness, dedication. She left her mark.

Then I went to the Marists´ school of Santa Maria, where I had two great friends. The first was the basketball trainer, Father Heil, who is still alive at 82; the other was the soccer trainer, Brother Mark, who is also alive. I have always had a great love for sport. They also left their mark.

--Q: It was at that time that you discovered a great passion for basketball?

--Cardinal Cipriani: They both ingrained in me a serious spirit of sport: to learn to struggle, to be optimistic, to train. Then I went to the National Engineering University, and I began at the same time to be dedicated to basketball.

[Cipriani was a player of the Peruvian basketball team that held first place in the Bolivian championship of Barranquilla, Colombia, in 1961. He played for the national team for six years, until the end of the 1960s, winning important trophies in South America.]

--Q: It could be said that you discovered your vocation on the basketball courts?

--Cardinal Cipriani: All this was shaping my soul a bit. I don´t know. God knows more. Then, when I had my 18th birthday, an Opus Dei priest asked me if I thought of the possibility of following God. I answered yes, but the truth is I hadn´t thought much about it.

In my home we simply breathed Catholicism. I had been taught to have a certain discipline of work and then, when I was asked this question, I realized what it meant for the first time. I realize that I have received the grace not to be afraid every time the Lord has asked me to take another step.

Therefore, when God willed it, he came close and knocked on my door. I often ask myself: Why did I join Opus Dei? I don´t know. The call was certainly clear but, what made me think of it? I did not try to figure it out.

How have I arrived at being a priest? Well, I don´t know that either. And bishop? And now cardinal? I can give answers but, in fact, there are none. It is not the sum of calculations. What do I take away? What do I lose? How will it be? I have never calculated.

--Q: What do you now owe to sports?

--Cardinal Cipriani: Above all, I believe sports have given me the God´s gift of ease to relate to people. It is very easy for me to be with people of any age, social condition or circumstance. Sports helps you not to have barriers. This has helped me a lot in the priesthood.

In the second place, I would say that in sports, one works as a team. One person doesn´t win, the whole team does. Moreover, I have played basketball especially. This also leads one to see the need to be organized. Each one has to give his best.

The leader is not the one who carries a plan forward. He is the one who creates conditions in such a way that each one can give the best of himself. He is not the one in front carrying the flag. This is also very important in the priesthood and the episcopate.

In the third place, as in sports, it is very important to know how to struggle. Life, for a man who wants to be loyal in the Church today, is a real struggle. Today we cannot say that the Church is synonymous with success -- on the contrary.

The Pope says it very well: It is not right to seek popularity, when the doctrine of the Church is unpopular. That struggle, which is much [like it is in] sports, is daily today. In this world, the Lord wants the Church and pastors never to lose the light of hope through fear.

--Q: Let´s talk about Peru, the country of which you are primate, which has experienced one of the gravest institutional crises of its history. Through videos transmitted on television, the world discovered how Vladimiro Montesinos, President Alberto Fujimori´s trusted man, the head of the National Intelligence Service, was corrupting a congressman with cash. Other videos showed that this case was only the tip of the iceberg.

All this forced Fujimori to leave the country and resign. A few days ago, when John Paul II received the new Peruvian ambassador to the Holy See, he said that when a democracy loses its values, it ends by becoming totalitarian. Peru has been a case in point.

--Cardinal Cipriani: I do not like to speak in the first person, but a few years ago, when the newspaper El Comercio asked me a question about Vladimiro Montesinos, I answered that I prided myself for not knowing him. Proud because I felt from the very first moment that he was a strange, dark man.

I think he was the cause of everything; I also pointed this out on July 28, when President Alberto Fujimori took up the post again, [saying that] he is under "an immense dark and asphyxiating tutelary power."

As we have seen, I think that, when respect for the dignity of people and institutions is lost, one can see how the trampling of justice becomes something very frequent. However, let us not simply blame a Mr. Montesinos, or a Mr. Fujimori, or a judge with a name and surnames. We must go to the foundation of life, of morality, of respect for the person, of love for truth.

--Q: This does not seem to be the Cardinal Cipriani of whom some of the media have spoken, accusing him of siding with Alberto Fujimori.

--Cardinal Cipriani: Now that Fujimori has fallen, there has been an attempt to create a kind of caricature, as if Monsignor Cipriani was part of the system.

I had close dealings with the president, as I was archbishop of Ayacucho, the cradle of Shining Path terrorism until 1999. When the desire arose in the people to put an end to terrorism, I found myself at the very center of the problem. This made me see Fujimori frequently and speak with him often on the way to reach pacification.

However, suffice it to look in the archives to realize that I never signed a blank check for him. I tried to do what the Church does in other countries: try to maintain cordial relations. However, I have been one of his harshest critics on some issues as, for example, his campaign against the family, which included massive programs of sterilization and demographic control. I was also one of the ones who most criticized his acceptance of Mr. Montesinos. When this caricature is resorted to, it is an attempt to abuse the image of Monsignor Cipriani.

--Q: What is the role of the Church in this Peruvian crisis?

--Cardinal Cipriani: I think that today the Church is almost the only institution that can in some way illuminate the situation in Peru. The Church is constructing the bases for a moral foundation of credibility, to enable us to get out of this crisis. As the Pope said, what is important is to recover those values based on concord and greater mutual respect, so that optimism will flower again.

--Q: The consistory in which you were created cardinal has broken a record: from it has emerged the largest number of cardinals from Latin America in history. Is something changing in the Catholic Church? Won´t America have to assume new leadership in the Church, when it seems that Europe cannot succeed in freeing itself from the grip of materialism and secularism?

--Cardinal Cipriani: I think the question is: What does God want from this era? I don´t know if the European missionaries of the 16th century were aware of what they were doing when they carried out the first evangelization of America, which was marvelous, with abundant fruits at all levels.

In the same way, I don´t know to what point America is aware that she is making a move that turns her into the continent of hope. I believe that America´s force does not have to come from a cultural, political or economic level. I think America has a more immediate, authentic faith, perhaps with a great need for doctrinal formation, but it is also a more spontaneous, free and immediate faith.

I think that what the consistory does is to represent more reasonably the numeric and historical reality. Therefore, with enormous respect for Europe, where it seems that the Church has been attacked by that secularism to which you refer, I think that, over there, in Latin America, having fewer economic means, less culture, it seems that secularism has had less weapons to attack popular religiosity. However, I don´t think that this should be given much importance. I think the consistory does no more than reflect a reality.

I can speak of Lima, the reality that is mine to live. Last year, 26 youths entered the major seminary, with an average age of 22-23 years. This year there are about 32 or 33. I understand that, if this continues, in a few years we will be obliged to send priests here, to Europe.

--Q: As first Opus Dei cardinal and primate of Peru, how do you see the future of Christianity over the next few years?

--Cardinal Cipriani: Above all, I believe that for a pastor, vocations are the soul of the Church. I think that the Lord is asking us to go out to sea and lower our nets, as the Pope says in "Novo Millennio Ineunte." I think it is a very strong call, which does not require any kind of analysis. Instead, what is necessary is prayer and confidence in the Lord to find vocations to the priesthood among the youth.

Of course I am the first cardinal of the Opus Dei, but I don´t think I was called because I am of the Opus Dei, but rather because I am archbishop of Lima and primate of Peru, a cardinal´s see for 50 years. However, I would also like to mention the Second Vatican Council´s universal call to holiness.

The great majority of Catholics, 99% of the Church, are people of the street. I think that the 21st century could be a revolution of the laity, but not against anything. The Church will always be sacramental and hierarchical. And the sacraments will always be sacraments as the Church has always taught.

However, I think that today the Church depends on those "long hands," whether they are called journalists, politicians, artists, people of the street, simple, poor, rich, black, white, yellow. In a world of such radical changes, as we are living in, I think it is absolutely unthinkable not to be conscious of the need to be saints in the midst of the world.

Monsignor Josemaría Escrivá was a pioneer in this spirituality. Of course, we cannot pretend that this vocation is exclusive. What is important is that we all feel that we have come into the world with a mission: to love God above all things, to seek eternal happiness, but through work, sport, the family, culture, friends, youths, the elderly. This could really be, as it already is beginning to be, a real revolution.