Father Carlos Azpiroz Costa

Dominican Father Carlos Azpiroz Costa will spend his first St. Dominic's day as head of his order Aug. 4.

Dominican Father Carlos Azpiroz Costa will spend his first St. Dominic's day as head of his order Aug. 4.

The 44-year-old from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected the 87th Master General of the Order of Preachers on July 14, the second non-European to hold the post since the order's foundation in 1215 by St. Dominic. He spoke from Providence, R.I., to Register Correspondent Paul Burnell, shortly after the election.

What was your family like?

My father was an agricultural engineer, my grandfather and grandmother on my father's side were from Navarre, Spain. That is why my family name is Azpiroz — it is Basque. My mother was a very devout Catholic. At the same time she was quite silent — today I would call her contemplative. As the years have gone I have understood more and more about my mother.

My father would go to Mass every day. He was always helping vocations. He was always giving money for vocations but never wanted his name to appear.

I remember when I was 10, I went to my mother and told her I want to be a Marist Brother (our school was run by the Marist brothers).

I remember she told me, “You are so young. You must wait.”

I remember thinking, “My mother doesn't believe in God.”

When I was a teen-ager, I was always going to parties; I was the kind of person who doesn't stay at home. But, again, at 16, I told my mother, “I think I want to be a priest.” I got exactly the same answer: “You must wait and finish school.”

In 1979, when I was near the end of my civil law degree, I decided finally to enter the Dominicans.

I talked with my father (my mother died in 1976). He said “OK, if that is what you desire. But finish the civil law course first.” We were alone in my father's bedroom and he told me, “Your mother desired [the priesthood] for you.”

I was shocked. She had never pushed me to make this kind of decision.

My parents were very quiet. You never heard them shouting. Our house was like a priory. I once asked my friends if we could study at our house — it was very big; it had four floors. But they thought it would not be quiet. When they came they were amazed.

Throughout your teen-age and student years, there was a military junta in power in Argentina. What are your recollections of growing up in that time?

The year 1978 was a very exciting year for me as a student, but it was also a painful time for the country. Argentina won the soccer World Cup in Buenos Aires and everybody went crazy, but there were some terrible things happening at the same time.

I was president of the student body at Pontifical Catholic University in Buenos Aires. I was 22-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.

I was not very conscious of the political situation. For me, studying civil law was a very important link to reality, but I could never open my eyes to the real reality outside — it is part of the story of our country at the time.

Some of my brothers were studying in the U.S.A. at the same time, and when we used to have discussions about the social and political situation, I was shocked. It was another world.

I remember being on a train and hearing about sociology and having a big discussion with my brother about Marx and Engels — it was a new world. This opened big questions in my life. I found the answers in becoming a Dominican which I saw as not going out of the world but going, in one sense, deeper into the world.

You are a canon lawyer and a theologian with a largely academic background. Some people might wonder how much of the real world you see.

I teach theology to different levels of people. I teach many lay people. I teach lawyers, engineers, economists, all boys around the 22, 23, 24 age group.

It is a big challenge, because they may have learned their catechism when they were younger and nothing more.

Outside of the academic year, it is very exciting because we have a missionary commitment. We go in teams of priests, sisters and lay people to poor missions. Although Argentina is 90% Catholic, there are places that a very isolated and very poor and they may only see a priest once a year.

Why do you think the order has elected a Latin American to the post of master general?

I wasn't present at the election. I was attending the chapter as a peritus [adviser]. When the chapter was discussing the candidates, I was asked to answer a few questions, and then I had to leave.

I do not know what was in my brothers’ minds that they decided to elect a Latin American, and that they elected a younger man. It was a chosen by a secret ballot — which has been the method since the beginning of the order.

You recently described the Dominican family as being like a symphony orchestra — how would you describe the role of the master general in that orchestra?

I am the person who takes the instruments round to the musicians (laughs).

I think the Holy Spirit — or St. Dominic — is the conductor. We are a really deep democracy, not in the sense of having a ballot on everything but in the sense that we have to reach a consensus.

In the Dominican family the role is to push the life of the ideas discussed at chapter. As the major superior of the brothers, the master has very important powers in ensuring a moral sense of unity for the brothers.

Your last role was procurator general of the order in Rome, which involves dealing with friars who wish to be dispensed from their vows. How did that affect you?

I have done this for the last four years. It is very special, very delicate situations you are dealing with through papers and documents, not directly. Every case is different.

It shocked me, but it has opened my mind and heart to the compassion of St. Dominic. There are brothers who leave because of very, very different situations, but I try to open my mind to understand these people. These people are very isolated brothers and some are helped to come back — for others, it's too late. You have to be a shepherd and some sheep are lost; I am not entering into the moral question here.

Is there a generation gap between younger, more tradition-minded Dominicans and older friars?

It has opened my mind and my heart to understand our vocation, which is a beautiful vocation.

Your order has many notable saints. Who are your favorites?

St. Dominic, of course, and St. Thomas Aquinas for his open mind and stand for freedom, especially in intellectual life.

The first biography of a saint I read in my life was St. Martin de Porres; he has a special place. My novitiate was in the Priory of St. Martin de Porres, and I was later prior there. So he is special. Also, he is from Latin America and represents a mix of cultures and the special graces between Spain and Portugal. I also admire a lot of other theologians and brothers who are still living.

Your order has also had its fair share of rebels. Are there any of those you admire?

Remember St. Thomas Aquinas had his problems in Paris.

Father [Marie-Joseph] Lagrange [the scripture scholar who founded the Jerusalem Biblical School in the early 20th century] gave the Church a new approach to the Bible, although he had many critics. I am also very impressed with the French in the ‘40s and ‘50s, men such as Father Jacques Loew and Father Chenu [members of the Worker Priest movement which was halted on the instructions of Pope Pius Xll].

When they were asked for silence they obeyed; this is why I love them.

Father Lagrange was never a rebel like John Lennon. He gave the Church a new approach to the Bible and when he was asked to be silent, he obeyed.

Your predecessor Father Timothy Radcliffe wrote of a generation gap in the order between the Post Vatican II brothers who abandoned a certain amount of your tradition, and the new breed of young brothers who are seeking a return to a “classical” form of religious life. How do you view this situation?

This is a great challenge. A lot of young people like these kind of things. We cannot reject them because they are not like us. At the same time, the order has an experience of freedom, an open-minded and open-hearted tradition of eight centuries.

I thought before I entered the order I knew everything about it. Now I realise I knew nothing. It is a place where you can find peace, freedom, fraternity. Talk of freedom seems to be unusual from the lips of a canon lawyer.

You have said that the emphasis on preaching is very important for the order. Is that really still true?

I think the order's gift is to be preaching. The faith comes to us through our ears. The gift of the order — to preach — is to open hearts and to open minds.

We need to preach the truth today not as a list of contents but as Jesus the person. The Dominicans love the truth as a person, not an intellectual approach.

Today, a lot of people do not believe in God. We must dialogue with these people in a special way with the language of human beings and interreligious dialogue by respecting different positions, saying we love the truth as a person. We must be proud of our Friend the Truth and give the whole truth. We must not just say beautiful things to someone's face.

According to Father Radcliffe you have a good sense of humor and are a good impersonator. Who or what do you impersonate?

I like to mimic many things. I like to impersonate Italian people using cell phones and the different gestures they make — they're crazy but they're lovely! In the middle of meetings I have impersonated animals just to cool things down if the meeting is getting too tense.

Do you think it is significant that you are following an Englishman on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas War between Britain and Argentina?

When Father Timothy Radcliffe was elected, I was in Rome. A Spanish brother asked me how I could be happy that an Englishman had become master. I said, “I am happy that Timothy Radcliffe is the master of the order, and not the president of Argentina.”

I have learned a lot from this man. He has opened my mind and my heart with his example and his preaching.

In the corridor of our curia is a beautiful gallery of portraits of our masters, and I wanted to play a little joke on him when he was first appointed.

I knew him already and I knew he had a sense of humor. I had a tiny copy of the official photo of him from a chapter so I had it set in a tiny frame and hung just after the portrait of the previous Master. As we walked down the corridor with the superior of the sisters who look after the brethren, he stopped and just stared at it.

I was worried, at this point, that he wasn't taking the joke well.

He turned to the sister and said in very bad Italian but 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 it in my personal office just to have the smile of Timothy every day in front of me.

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.