Today in Novena’s series on the new cardinals announced by Pope Francis last September 1 we turn our attention to José Tolentino Mendonça, Archivist and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church since September last year.

Media reports suggest that after he receives the red hat on October 5, Tolentino could replace Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi as President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and become Vatican ‘Culture minister’.

Whatever his future destination, Tolentino’s great spiritual wisdom is particularly inspiring and incisive, as this selection of a few of our favourite quotes of his shows. 

1. “The world is an enchanting place”

My childhood was an experience that I could describe as an experience of spaces.

I was born on Madeira. At the age of one I took a trip with my mother on the Príncipe Perfeito ship. We went to Angola where my father was already. I went with my brothers; I was the smallest. From Lobito [a city in Angola – ed.], my memories are of the breadth of space. The houses were big. The spaces where we played freely were huge. My father, my uncles: a family of fishermen.

I remember a trip I made with my father. In my mind I was going fishing too. I found myself, beyond the typical seasickness of a beginner out to sea, on the boat’s edge, looking at the scenery. Unexplored beaches, cliffs, the blue of the sea, the bottom of the sea… I would have been seven, eight years old.

This contemplation aroused in me a huge, enormous emotion. My mouth gaped. As if that untouched life of the world’s landscape had an impact on me that I couldn’t express. But I kept those images, collected them inside me…

I don’t know if it was the beauty. It was the world itself. The world as an enchanting place: an original purity.


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2. “I hate moralism”

Christians know that we are all capable of abject things. I hate moralism. I think that moralism distorts the encounter with ourselves and humanity. What happens to others happens to each of us. The very Christian Dostoyevsky said: “We are responsible to all for all”…

We are petty, banal, egotistical, resentful. If we are not aware of this, we cannot achieve transformation.

The first condition of transformation is nudity. Being able to tell your truth. I love Flannery O’Connor, who is to me, alongside Pasolini, a spiritual master.

She [O’Connor] shows a world that one would describe as monstrous. Of serial killers. Of people capable of everything. “This world is us”. Until the encounter with grace happens. It is this meeting that transforms our lives.

I think you cannot divide [humanity] between good men and bad men…

3. “I don’t have anything to say to believers”

I don’t have anything to say to believers. I really believe what Simone Weil says: “There are two men, one says he is a believer, the other says he is an unbeliever. He is closer to God than the believer”.

Prof. Eduardo Lourenço [a Portuguese philosopher – ed,], a few years ago, when asked what he thought of God, said: “The important thing is not what I think of God. It’s what God thinks of me”. That is the question.

Today, more than a crisis of believing, there is a crisis of belonging. Where do the things I believe find a community, an anchorage? We’re living a crisis of belonging…

There is more difficulty in belonging than in believing. It is no coincidence that today we speak of cultural believers. Portugal, culturally, is a Catholic country. This does not mean that Catholics are the majority of the population. Practising Catholics are a minority…

This is the great challenge facing the church today: the ability to dialogue with believers who do not recognise themselves as members of the Church.

4. “Wonder”, the antidote to being on autopilot

In the voyage within the great danger is doing for doing’s sake… It’s as if we were on autopilot in our lives.

Wonder is being able to open our eyes and realise who we are. It is to look critically at our own reality. It is that freshness that allows the Spirit to infiltrate our lives.

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5. “Thirst, a necessary place on the Christian journey”

Believing isn’t about having the solutions, or about having found the answers.

Believing is about being on a the path, being in the tension…

In this sense, rather than being satisfied with God, we believers learn the benefits of thirst: the importance of living while desiring God.

A believer doesn’t “have” God; a believer doesn’t tame Him with rituals and beliefs. He lives in the expectation of God and his revelation which, to a large extent, is always surprising.

Therefore, thirst is a necessary place in the Christian journey.

6. “Theology cannot be ideology”

Theology cannot be an ideology nor can spirituality be confused with a set of abstractions.

Literature brings up stories of life, models of what has been lived on a personal level, and applies them to an overall reflection.

The great advantage of using the biblical text and the Christian spiritual tradition with anthropology, cinema, literature, painting and the arts in general is that all together make a real life translation of the Christian message possible.

7. We musn’t limit what ‘pro-life’ means

We cannot limit the defence of life to concrete situations of the course of existence; we must support the human person in all circumstances.

Pope Francis calls us to see a brother in each human being.

Christianity must embrace humanity, especially the most fragile and vulnerable, in a clear, unambiguous option for the poorest.

8. “It’s no accident that so many are giving the Church another chance because of Pope Francis”

This Pope has been an extraordinary powerhouse for contemporary Catholicism, because he has brought in that thirst, that dream of a Christianity capable of getting out of itself and generating a culture of encounter, of service to humanity.

It’s no accident that so many people are giving the Church another chance because of Francis.

(Quotes 1-3 from an interview with Público in 2012; quotes 4-8 from an interview with Vida Nueva in 2018)

Next on Novena:

Eight quotes to know and share from Cardinal-elect Matteo Zuppi


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.