How can someone manage to live for almost 70 years in such a long-suffering land? “For someone in religious life, it’s not a question of how long, but of mission. You need to be there where people most need to be loved.”
That was how Archbishop Armando Bortolaso described his vocation in 2013 – explaining the deepest meaning of his choices as a person, priest and bishop. He left us on January 8 at the age of 91, at the El Houssein house of the Salesians in Beirut, after having lived almost 70 years in “his” land, the Middle East.
Born in the Veneto region in northeast Italy in 1926, he went to Jerusalem in 1948. He had joined the Salesians and celebrated his first mass in 1953 in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, before taking on various roles in Israel, Lebanon and Syria.
“A man of dialogue,” “a front-line bishop,” “builder of unity”. Those remembering him describe him in a number of ways that offer profound insights into this humble, open man. He had an unshakable faith in unity, which he lived and preached as the one destiny of all peoples, especially his beloved Syrians. He lived with them for 22 years, 10 of which were as Apostolic Vicar.
“Syria is my second homeland,” he affirmed in an interview. “To know that ‘my’ people are wracked by suffering; to see Aleppo, a blessed city, reduced to ruins, and the churches destroyed, these cherished ancient Christian churches, makes my heart ache. This is also because of the widespread indifference to this tragedy as it is happening.”
Due to his vast knowledge of the Middle East, Archbishop Bortolaso was able to analyse the causes of conflicts clearly and soberly while identifying ways toward solutions. He also had an enlightened and prophetic approach, the result of his firm faith in the love of God, who never forsakes his children even in the most desperate of circumstances.
Following the war in 2006, he wrote from Lebanon to Fr. Arrigo, a priest in Vicenza. “Amid the many disasters in this war, we have witnessed something wonderful and new. Many Muslims are searching for and finding refuge with Christians who, setting aside the painful scars of the civil war took in the refugees and befriended them. This living together as brothers and sisters is something very new and would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. For now it is just a small seed, yet tomorrow it could become a giant cedar, extending its branches throughout this land famous for its cedars.”
Armando Bortolaso learned of the Focolare spirituality in Belgium at the end of the 1960s. You could say that unity and dialogue became his life’s compass. For many years he was committed to the life of fellowship among the bishop friends of the Focolare, to the point that a group of bishops in the Middle East grew up around him in Lebanon, also wanting to go deeper into the spirituality of unity.
In another interview about the complex situation of the war in Syria, he said, “I always thought that those who direct their lives towards unity are cantered on the heart of Jesus. So I said to myself, ‘you are not the only the Bishop of the Latins, but the bishop of Jesus, and Jesus has 22 million people here in Syria.’ I have tried to live in unity always and with everyone – my priests, the religious, the faithful, with the bishops and with Christians of the Orthodox and Protestant Churches, and with Muslims.”