‘The church is not dead,’ Cardinal François Bustillo of Corsica says

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Cardinal François-Xavier Bustillo of Ajaccio, on the French island of Corsica, greets well-wishers in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican after a consistory where Pope Francis made him and 20 other prelates cardinals Sept. 30, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

(OSV News) — When Cardinal François-Xavier Bustillo walked across St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 30, happy Corsicans cheered the tallest and probably most smiling cardinal on the day of the latest Vatican consistory. He had also just made it to the cover of the top French magazine, Paris Match, that introduced him as “the French cardinal the whole world talks about.”

“Cardinal François Bustillo is a happy man; that is his first quality” — this is how Luc Bronzini has spoken of the Bishop of Ajaccio, whose diocese covers the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Corsica has belonged to France since 1768, although its inhabitants claim a degree of autonomy, for which French President Emmanuel Macron recently expressed his support.

Bronzini works closely with young people in the Church and often sees the 55-year-old cardinal. “When he was appointed cardinal, Msgr. Bustillo immediately associated the Corsicans with his joy,” Bronzini told OSV News. “He told them that a bishop alone is a sad bishop, and that he was happy if they were happy!”

“What draws people to him is that he radiates joy of living,” Laetitia Pietri, journalist and manager of the Christian radio station RCF Corsica, told OSV News. “He conveys his enthusiasm for being in the church. Eight hundred people accompanied him to Rome when he became a cardinal! I will never forget the popular jubilation we experienced there with him.”

“It was a bit like a soccer stadium,” Bronzini added. “But when he celebrated Mass the day after, the atmosphere changed. His message was clear: ‘My job is to pray and proclaim the Gospel.””

A unique background

It’s easy to spot the cardinal in a crowd, as he is almost 6 feet high. His gray Franciscan habit is very simple, and he greets everyone with a warm smile. “You feel important and valued when he talks to you,” Pietri said.

Cardinal Bustillo speaks French with a unique accent, which tells his personal story: Born in Pamplona, Spain, he studied in France before joining the Conventual Franciscans in Padua, Italy, at the age of 17. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1994, he returned to the south of France, first to Toulouse to study theology, then to Narbonne, where he founded a Franciscan monastery, and finally to the Marian city of Lourdes.

“I have always been fascinated by secularized France,” Cardinal Bustillo told OSV News. “In such an ecosystem, you have to be an authentic Christian, without any artifice. There may be indifference or hostility, but actually there is often expectation.”

“Difficulties stimulate,” he added. “Young people know nothing about the Gospel today in France. But we are not going to lament like Calimero. It is a wonderful challenge!”

Appointed in Corsica as a bishop in 2021, Cardinal Bustillo rediscovered an atmosphere of religious culture. Whether believers or nonbelievers, Corsicans go to church on their village’s patronal feast day. “He is very much at ease on these occasions,” Aline Castellani, mayor of the picturesque village of Piana, told OSV News. “He talks to everyone without barriers. People find him extremely likable.”

“He also plays an important role in soothing people’s pain, after a bereavement or a tragic event,” Castellani added. “He tries to bring down tensions, and helps people get along.”

Don’t be afraid

Tensions were high in March 2022, a year after a Corsican nationalist, convicted of murdering a prefect of Corsica, Claude Erignac, in 1998, was killed in prison by a fellow inmate and jihadist. “Many people, especially the young, saw it as an attack by the French State on Corsica,” Pietri explained.

Then-bishop Bustillo published a letter written in Corsican: “Dear young people of Corsica, repair trust, create a tsunami of hope, imagine a liberated, pacified and reconciled society!”

“He played a real calming role at the time,” Pietri said. “People were invited into the churches to light a candle. He did not want them to stifle their anger, but to express it in a different way.”

“There is a lot of violence in the world today, in wars, but also on social networks, and in families,” Cardinal Bustillo told OSV News. “Death is everywhere, and the driving force behind actions is often fear. We tend to develop a tribal logic of distrust, which consists in protecting our own, even if it means attacking others. But our driving force, as Christians, is the Gospel, which tells us about God’s love as the power of life, able to overcome fear. This is a powerful message that we must give to our contemporaries.”

For Cardinal Bustillo, fear must first be banished inside the Church. “Many Catholics are afraid right now,” he said. “Afraid of growing secularism, afraid when the pope calls for greater responsibility in front of the tragedies of migrants, afraid that he will upset the church when he convenes a synod on its future,” Cardinal Bustillo said.

“But let’s look at the Acts of the Apostles; when there were difficulties, the apostles talked together. It is healthy to talk! So let’s not be afraid and listen to the pope’s entire message when he speaks, without paying attention only to what is frightening. The pope also celebrates Masses, talks about the Gospel, and invites us to ‘greatly rejoice’ in God’s love!” he said.

A church alive

“We are in ‘hope and love deficit’ inside the Church at the moment,” Cardinal Bustillo continued. “We divide ourselves instead of supporting one another.”

“Some are attached to the traditional liturgy, others are more charismatic. Ecclesial maturity is about everyone being what helps him become better. Some need the beauty of the liturgy — let them continue. Others need to reach out to the world — let them. Differences are beautiful and should not lead to division,” he said.

Cardinal Bustillo does not shy away from difficulties, admitting that the Church had a hard time coping with her responsibility regarding the sexual abuse crisis. “A process of purification was necessary,” he said. “Innocent people have been desecrated. We cannot preach morality if we ourselves have done evil.”

“But we dared to cleanse the house,” the cardinal added. “We did not remain passive. In France, the church took concrete action. We have to work now to write luminous pages, after these dark pages.”

Looking on the decline in the number of priests in the Western world, Cardinal Bustillo brushed pessimism aside.

“There have always been lean times in the church,” he told OSV News. “I am confident! The church is not dead! She can provide abundant values of life and joy in a society bathed in vagueness.”

“Cardinal Bustillo is a great opportunity for Corsica,” Bronzini concluded. “He has set the bar very high over the last two years. Now that he is a cardinal, he can be a great opportunity for the universal church, as well.”

Caroline de Sury

Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.