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, a priest and a bishop. He left us on January 8 at the age of 91, at the El Houssein house of the Salesians in Beirut, having lived almost 70 years in “his” land, the Middle East.
Born in the Veneto region in northern 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 Sepulcher, before taking on various roles in Israel, Lebanon and Syria.
“A man of dialogue,” “a front-line bishop,” “builder of unity.” Those who knew him describe him in a number of ways that offer profound insights into this humble, open man. He had an unshakeable faith in unity, which he lived and preached as the one destiny of all peoples, especially of his beloved Syrians. He lived with them for 22 years, 10 of which 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 trace the causes of conflicts clearly and soberly while identifying possible 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 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. We 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 gathered 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 centered on the heart of Jesus. So I said to myself, ‘You are not 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, and the bishops, with Christians of the Orthodox and Protestant churches as well as with Muslims.”