New Evangelization: The Testimony of Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine
By Marina Corradi – Avvenire*, 29 November 2012
That black tunic fluttering along Canabière Street, among a crowd more North African than French, makes you turn around. Check it out, a priest, and dressed like once upon a time, on the streets of Marseille in Southern France. A dark-haired man, smiling, and yet with something reserved and monastic about him. And what a story behind him: he sang in the nightclubs in Paris, was ordained only a few years ago and since then has been pastor here, at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul.
But in reality the story is even more complicated: Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine, 53, is a descendant from a Russian Jewish grandfather who immigrated into France and had his daughters baptized before the World War Two. One of these daughters, who escaped from the Holocaust, brought into the world Fr. Michel-Marie, who on his father's side is half Corsican and half Italian. (What a bizarre mix, you think: and you look with amazement at his face, trying to understand what a man is like who has such a tangle of roots behind him). But if one Sunday you enter his packed church and listen to how he speaks of Christ with simple everyday words, and if you observe the religious slowness of the elevation of the host, in an absolute silence, you ask yourself who this priest is, and what it is in him that draws people, bringing back those who are far away.
Finally you have him in front of you, in his white, monastic rectory. He seems younger than his years; he does not have those wrinkles of bitterness which mark the face of a man with time. There is a peace upon him, a joy that is astonishing. But who are you?, you would like to ask him immediately.
In front of a frugal meal, the highlights of an entire life. Two splendid parents. The mother, baptized but only formally Catholic, allows her son to go to church. The faith is imparted to him "by an elderly priest, a Salesian in a black cassock, a man of generous and boundless faith”; the desire, at the age of eight, to be a priest. At thirteen he loses his mother: "The pain devastated me. And yet I never doubted God.” Adolescence, music, and that beautiful voice. The piano bars of Paris, which may seem little suited to discerning a religious vocation. And yet, while the decision slowly ripens, the spiritual fathers of Michel-Marie tell him to keep to the nightlife of Paris: because there as well a sign is needed. Finally the vocation pays off. In 1999, at the age of 40, his childhood wish comes true: a priest, and in a cassock, like that elderly Salesian.
Why the cassock? "For me" – he smiles – "It is a work uniform. It is intended to be a sign for those who meet me, and above all for those who do not believe. In this way I am recognizable as a priest, always. In this way on the streets I take advantage of every opportunity to make friends. Father, someone asks me, where is the post office? Come on, I'll go with you, I reply, and meanwhile we talk, and I discover that the children of that man are not baptized. Bring them to me, I say in the end; and I often baptize them later. I seek in every way to show with my face a good humanity. Just the other day" – he laughs – "in a cafe an old man asked me which horses he should bet on. I gave him the horses. I asked the Blessed Mother for forgiveness: but you know, I said to her, it is to befriend this man. As a priest who was one of my teachers used to tell those who asked him how to convert the Marxists: 'One has to become their friend,' he would reply."
Then, in church, the Mass is stark and beautiful. The affable priest of Canabière is a rigorous priest. Why take so much care with the liturgy? "I want everything to be splendid around the Eucharist. I want that at the elevation, the people should understand that He is here, truly. It is not theater, it is not superfluous pomp: it is inhabiting the Mystery. The heart too needs to feel. He insists a great deal on the responsibility of the priest, and in one of his books – he has written many books, and still writes songs sometimes – he affirms that a priest who has an empty church must examine himself and say: "It is we who lack fire." He explains: "The priest is 'alter Christus,' he is called to reflect Christ in himself. This does not mean asking perfection of ourselves; but being conscious of our sins, of our misery, in order to be able to understand and pardon anyone who comes to the confessional."
Fr. Michel-Marie goes to the confessional every evening, with absolute punctuality, at five o'clock, without fail. (The people, he says, must know that the priest is there, in any case). Then he remains in the sacristy until eleven o'clock, for anyone who might want to go to him: "I want to give the sign of an unlimited availability." Judging by the constant pilgrimage of the faithful, in the evening, one would say that it works. Like a deep demand that emerges from this city, apparently far removed. What do they want? "The first thing is to hear someone say: you are loved. The second: God has a plan for you. One must not make them feel judged, but welcomed. They must be made to understand that the only one who can change their lives is Christ. And Mary. There are two things that, in my view, permit a return to the faith: the Marian embrace, and impassioned apologetics, which touches the heart."
"Those who seek me out," he continues, "are asking first of all for human assistance, and I try to give all the help possible. Not forgetting that the beggar needs to eat, but also has a soul. To the offended woman I say: send me your husband, I will talk to him. But then, how many come to say that they are sad, that their lives are no good . . . Then I ask them: how long has it been since you went to confession? Because I know that sin is a burden, and the sadness of sin is a torment. I am convinced that what makes many people suffer is the lack of the sacraments. The sacrament is the divine within the reach of man: and without this nourishment we cannot live. I see grace at work, and that people change."
Days given in their entirety, on the streets or in the confessional, until night time. Where does he get the energy? He – almost shyly, as one speaks of a love – talks of a deep relationship with Mary, of an absolute confidence with her: "Mary is the act of total faith, in the abandonment beneath the Cross. Mary is absolute compassion. She is pure beauty offered to man." And he loves the rosary, the humility of the rosary, the priest of Canabière: "When I hear confessions, I often say the rosary, which does not prevent me from listening; when I give communion, I pray." You listen to him, intimidated. But then, should all priests have an absolute dedication, almost like saints? "I am not a saint, and I do not believe that all priests must be saints. But they can be good men. The people will be attracted by their good face."
Are there any problems, in streets with such a strong presence of Muslim immigrants? No, he says simply: "They respect me and this garment." In church, he welcomes everyone with joy: "Even the prostitutes. I give them communion. What should I say? Become honest, before you enter here? Christ came for sinners, and I have the anxiety, in withholding a sacrament, that he could bring me to account for it one day. But do we still know the power of the sacraments? I have the misgiving that we have excessively bureaucratized the admission to baptism. I think of the baptism of my Jewish mother, which in terms of the request of my grandfather was merely a formal act: and yet, even from this baptism there came a priest."
And the new evangelization? "Look," he says as we say goodbye in his rectory, "the older I get, the more I understand what Benedict XVI says: everything truly starts afresh from Christ. We can only return to the source."
Later, I glimpse him at a distance, on the street, with that black garment ruffled by his rapid stride. "I wear it, so that I may be recognized by someone I might never meet otherwise: that a stranger, who is very dear to me."
*Avvenire is the daily newspaper of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Italy.