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Interview with the new Master of the Order, the Very Reverend Carlos Alfonso Azpiroz Costa, O.P.

Interviewed by Fr. Claude Vézina, O.P.

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Q. Brother Carlos, can you tell us a bit about your upbringing in Argentina, and about what lead you to the Order of Preachers?

A. Well, I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 30 of 1956. I will turn forty-five this coming October. I am the eighth of a family of fourteen--thirteen boys and one girl. One of my brothers died in 1988, he was young, so now we are thirteen. I could say my father was an agronomic, or agricultural engineer, my grandfather and grandmother on my father's side were from Navarre, Spain. This is why my family name is Azpiroz--it is Basque.

My mother, also, played a key role in my life : she gave me my basic faith values. Raising fourteen children, she did everything with great finesse and wisdom. I would add that with grace and utmost discretion, she was a model of christian life. I found it difficult to identify what social class we belonged to, but we did not lack of the essential. We received a good education, but we had a very simple style of life. I always got my older brothers' clothes, and we always shared our toys and things, so in a way that was a sort of preparation for common life! My house was like a priory, so to speak. I have wonderful memories of my family life. I studied in Colegio Champagnat, under the direction of the Marist Brothers.

Q. Was there a family ranch in Argentina?

A. My father worked as administrator of the properties of the family in Buenos Aires City, and was also very dedicated in administrating a ranch. This is still today for my brothers and nephews a place where they get together. When I get the opportunities for holidays I go with them there. It was also a place to grow up and work. My father wouldn't have us resting all the time during holidays, however, he would give us work to do. We were there to work and learn things, not just look at the sky.

We also played soccer and sports of all kinds when we were young. We loved horses. When you have a big family, you also have a lot of friends. Small families sometimes close their doors on the others, but my house was very big, and so we had friends over and also, being a friar, Dominican brothers would come over, eating, sharing, playing soccer, discussing--living! We had great time.

Q. How about your education?

A. I was a student in civil law at the Pontifical Catholic University in Buenos Aires, Santa Maria de Buenos Aires, and some of my professors in theology were Dominicans. This was back in 1978, a very exciting year and also a very painful time, because Argentina's political and social situation was uncertain. I was not very conscious of the political situation. I was twenty-two years old, but I was pretty certain I would become a priest. That year was very special. I had had a girlfriend, but we had ended our relationship. We didn't end it because I wanted to be a priest. There are often unconscious things at work in our hearts. When I was finished with secondary school, I was sure I wanted to be a priest, but I began to study civil law because the study and practice of law was very much part of my background and I also liked it. I enjoyed it very much.

I had two teachers, Dominican teachers, who taught moral theology, and I was very interested. I was a man with many questions in the classroom, every day. I liked to talk a lot. They invited me to the priory and I felt honored! So in 1979 I went to spend a few days at the novitiate, just for a little experience of Dominican life. I didn't have much time since I was in my last year of studies. I was president of the Center of Students of the faculty, which had democratic elections. We were also at this time under a military government, but the Catholic University was allowed to have this student center. So, we represented a group during an election, we won, and we worked one year doing social work--including teaching academic subjects, giving conferences, teaching sports, preparing students for confirmation, and other things. It was important for us because we where amongst the few who where concerned by social issues and worked with the poor.

But I went to the novitiate and when I finished my days of retreat, I felt certain that this was the place for me. I was then twenty-three. I remember celebrating my twenty-fourth birthday in the middle of my novitiate. These days that is considered too young! But in 1980 it was more normal to follow a vocation at an age like that. There were twelve of us in novitiate, and six brothers and priests remain from my class. But anyway, in my case, I truly believe I heard the voice of Jesus calling me to the Order. I tried to finish the course work for my degree, but I failed my very last final exam, just a week before I was due to enter the Order. So I went to the novitiate and completed my exam after taking first vows. So I am a lawyer in the sense of having fulfilled all the academic requirements.

Q. Are there any particular Dominican figures or mentors, either inside or outside your province, who truly inspired you?

A. At the beginning, of course, I must say there were two brothers who inspired me. One of them, a student brother who was in simple vows and an assistant at the Chair of Moral Theology, has since left the Order. He is a very good man. He still works in schools on educational issues with the dominican brothers. The other brother, Father Miguel Cardozo, was at that moment master of students at Santo Domingo de Buenos Aires, and he is still a member of that community. Then, of course, there was my master of novices, Fray Vicente Argumedo.

I admire my brothers, I truly love the brothers. Fray Domingo Basso - I prefer to say "Fray" rather than "Father" - Fray José María Rossi, to name just a few. But it is unfair to single out only a few when I have such deep affection for so many many of the brothers I know in Argentina and elsewhere in the Order.

Then I was very surprised at Santa Sabina, of course, to find how truly warm and affable both Timothy and Damian Byrne were. It's edifying when the Master of the Order is down-to-earth. Damian I remember as a very impressive man, a simple man, who truly lived poverty, who had a sense of the mission of the Order, and he could do a lot of things. As I said, I truly admire my Dominican brothers.

Q. Among the various ministries that you have been engaged in, which are those that you knew were touching upon the very mission of the Order, and why?

A. I remember years ago, we tried in a provincial assembly to plan a project for the province, and it was very important to arrive at a deep and commonly held understanding of the intellectual life of the Order, and at the same time, of the mission of the Order to the poor--a mission in the traditional sense, a mission to the poor--initial evangelization.

Teaching for me is my favorite work. Teaching a variety of people. I taught many years in the Catholic University: I taught theology to many different students, those studying civil law, economics, engineering and a lot of different careers. I taught them all theology. So the challenge of teaching theology to people who perhaps do not know anything about Jesus Christ is very important. But a mission with lay people and sisters together to people who have never heard a preacher is also very important, especially in poor areas. In Argentina we have a lot of places where there is a lot of pain. And working in these places opened my mind because I didn't really know the reality of my country and the Church until I was a Dominican. It's strange: sometimes people think we know nothing about the world because we are religious, we live in cloisters, and so on. But it was precisely being a Dominican, that opened my eyes, opened my ears, opened my mouth, to understand the reality--the real reality--of the world! This is strange, no? People say "you live in priories, you're outside the world," "you're not in a secular institute--how could you know?" But I know, I understood, the real problems of the world being a Dominican, and that's what we show to the people, whether in a university faculty or in a mission among the poor.

Q. Can you think of a funny situation that you ever found yourself in as a religious?

A. In my life as a religious? Oh, yes! I remember one of the most beautiful experiences was to be coordinator of our provincial assembly during two years. Our province, the Argentinean province, has a beautiful custom: once a year, for three days, all the solemnly vowed brothers gather together to reflect on different issues. Of course, it was a time of joy, to have fun, to sing, and I remember a lot of very joyful moments. I used to try to make my brothers laugh, encourage them to play and have fun and sing. This is the first thing that comes to mind.

But one event stands out for me. It has to do with when Timothy Radcliffe arrived at the curia. You know that corridor at the curia? Well, in that corridor is a beautiful gallery having all the portraits of the Masters of the Order. Timothy's portrait had just been put on the wall a few weeks ago... and it is beautiful. But I wanted to play a little joke on him. I felt confident doing this since I knew him already, since as provincial of England and a member of the Directorium of the Angelicum, he used to come to Santa Sabina. Since I was the bursar of the convent, I obviously got to meet him. And I knew he had a sense of humor. I am Argentinean and he is English, but we understood one another. Anyway, when he came to Santa Sabina as newly-elected Master of the Order, on September 5, 1992, I had a tiny copy of the official photo of Timothy from the Mexico City Chapter, and I had it set in a tiny frame. I then hung it on the wall of the corridor just after the full-sized portrait of Damian Byrne. I only asked permission of the prior, and he thought Timothy would not be angry.

I took his bags, and started leading him to his new quarters. As we passed through the corridor I pointed out to him the portraits of the Masters. At this point the superior of the sisters community walked in--the sisters who take care of the brethren there at Santa Sabina. As we walked down the corridor, Timothy eyed all the portraits slowly, all these enormous, grand portraits, and then finally he arrived at Damian Byrne's, and then looked ahead at this tiny little photo of himself on the wall right after Damian--and he stopped and just stared at it. I was worried at this point that he wasn't taking the joke well. I said to myself, "Oh, mamma mia, please!" He turned to the sister, and said in very bad Italian but in very good humor, "don't worry, I'll get bigger with the help of your pasta in the next nine years!" I still have that tiny photo to this day and will put in my personal office just to have the smile of Timothy every day in front of me.

Q. If you had to address young men or young women trying to make sense of their lives today, or thinking about consecrated life, what would you tell them?

A. For me, consecrated life means having your feet on the ground but no ceiling above your head. Some people think consecrated life is confining. No! No ceiling means that there are no limits above, but one must of course be well grounded, grounded in reality. And I think for this you have to have a gift from God. The temptation today is alienation from the world--because some people don't like the world as it is. But with great horizons, without any ceiling over your head, without confining walls, but walking ahead with Dominic and I think that many youth should know the great challenge to preach as a Dominican. I am not talking about the friars and sisters only, but also about laity. They should have great confidence. This is my personal idea.

Q. Given your knowledge of law and your experience in working as a canon lawyer, how would you describe the genius and the spirit of the Dominican constitutions?

A. I don't want to exaggerate, but I always say that the constitutions of the Dominican Order--the most important bequest to the Order by Saint Dominic himself--is a spiritual book. But it is not a mystical work. Some holy people have left the Church diaries and journals, like Blessed Pope John XXIII. Some, like Saint Ignatius, left us spiritual exercises. But Saint Dominic gave us our constitutions. The constitutions give confidence to the brethren to trust in the others, because the other men speak a word of light and a word of grace for me. The constitutions are a cathedral of constitutional law. And they make us more confident among each other. We don't wait for a word from the abbot, for example--I'm not against abbots, of course--but our priors are not abbots; our provincials are not abbots. So, they provide for real discussion and listen to the words of others, and that is a real gift of God. And they allow us to lead a merciful life toward others. This is, for me, the constitutions.

Q. In light of the new challenges facing our world today, what are some of the issues you would prioritize? Are there any specific orientations you would like to impart to us Dominicans?

A. Well, we'll have to see what the Chapter says. The Acts of the Chapter themselves should be our guidelines for the next three years. We are not beset by fears. I don't have any personal agenda, because I'm here to hear the brothers and to see how the Acts come out. Of course, the first week, prior to the election, also was a special week just to share together aspects of contemplation and preaching in a globalized world. But, as I told my brothers when they asked me what I thought were two of the most important topics in the Church and the Order today, I told them, first, interreligious dialogue between the major religions, and second--and this could be the background for a lot of discussion for the next millennium--human rights. Because a lot of people do not believe in God, and we must preach through some common background. It is impossible to have dialogue without a common background, as Saint Thomas said.

Q. Which is the most significant Word of the Gospel that speaks to you?

A. For me, my favorite passage of the Gospel is when Jesus encounters Peter by the seaside and asks him three times "do you love me?" This was after the passion and the three denials. Peter says, "you know all things, you know that I love you." This is my favorite, because it takes both, the knowledge of God, since it has Peter saying, "God, you know me, you know that I love you"--love and an intellectual view of God. At the same time it is different from Peter's earlier confession at the miraculous catch of fish, "Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man"--I am a sinner. Earlier on he was too concerned about himself. This second confession he focuses more on Christ: "You know all things."

Q. We often hear the Dominicans should be at the forefront of the apostolic field, at the frontiers of evangelization. What are some of the new apostolic fields in which we should be engaging?

A. I think there are a lot of frontiers that we need to consider. I remember with a special gratitude the Chapter of Avila's Chapter and its frontiers. I think it was a beautiful description linking that Chapter with the priorities enumerated in Quezon City in 1977. It tried to elaborate the priorities of Quezon City in a fresh approach. And I think they express for me in a wide sense the mission of the Order. But, again, I shall wait for the Acts.

Q. Any word of hope you would like to share with the Dominican family?

A. Well, I didn't attend the meeting in Manila, since not everyone could go and I was working in Santa Sabina. The theme was "new voices for the third millennium." This meeting gave us a sense of celebration, to celebrate our common vocation. The Dominican family is like a symphonic orchestra. In a symphonic orchestra, of course, there are all sorts of types. You have everything from bass drummers to flute-players. Some might not like the flute or the drum, but when all the musicians play together, the symphonic orchestra sounds good. And the different parts need each other. Truth is a symphony, truth is our music. And if I could impress on the mind of all the capitulars one recollection of Timothy, it is that he invited us time and again to sing a new song. And through the music of truth we are a symphonic orchestra. puce


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