If you’re a young Italian and have an idea that could make money but can’t get a loan from the bank, don’t worry: there’s a bishop who can help. His name is Francesco Cavina and he is Bishop of Carpi, a diocese in the region of Emilia-Romagna.
In the wake of an earthquake that devastated the local economy in 2012, he created Fides et Labor, an initiative in which the Church serves as the guarantor of interest-free loans to young people. The scheme has proved so successful that other dioceses, including the influential Archdiocese of Bologna, have followed suit.
Giuseppe Torluccio, a professor of economics at the University of Bologna, is president of Fides et Labor.
“Essentially we are talking about a financial transaction with reimbursement, and it is done by a bank, because other entities may not be allowed to do it,” he tells me. “What the diocese does is to guarantee the fund. It is not just a charitable activity. And it’s not a model like that of [Muhammad Yunus’s] microcredit. It is closer to the model of cooperative banks.”
I recently caught up with Bishop Cavina in Bologna and asked him about his pioneering project:
How does Fides et Labor work?
The project is aimed at people under 30 in the Diocese of Carpi. The projects these young people propose are evaluated by a technical committee consisting of a manager, a lawyer, two entrepreneurs, a consultant, a university professor and a priest. If the committee believes that the project has a chance of being realised then it is financed. The upper limit of the loan is €15,000 (£11,800) and the money will be returned without interest.
Among the projects funded so far there are a restaurant and a bar. And of the 20 projects we have funded, 19 are returning the loan without problems.
How did you come up with the idea of lending money to young people?
Every week I meet young people and talking to them I could see they were creative and rich in ideas. But they discovered the impossibility of realising the projects they had in mind for very practical reasons: the banks would not lend them money because they didn’t have any guarantor, especially after the earthquake. From those meetings a question arose: what could I do to ensure that the hopes of these young people did not fade away?
Your diocese was heavily affected by the earthquake. There were only three useable churches out of 59, with a total damage to Church structures of around €86 million (£68 million). So where did you get the money to pay for this project?
Providence did not fail to make itself felt. During an audience after the earthquake Pope Benedict took an interest in the situation and wanted to know how things had evolved in Carpi. I told him the truth and the Pope was struck by the fact that I did not have a house to live in. He expressed a willingness to intervene. The next day his secretary called me and told me that the Pope had donated €100,000 (£79,000) to the bishop, who could use it as he wished. I regarded this as a sign of providence and I thought: I should put this money at the disposal of the project for young people. Then some entrepreneur friends contributed as well. And we have gathered the surprising sum of several hundred thousand euros.
Have you had the chance to meet Benedict XVI again to tell him about the project?
Of course. I told him about the project and he asked me in amazement: “Has so little money really achieved so much good?”
What are the benefits for you – or rather for the diocese?
We do not gain anything from an economic point of view, because we do not ask for interest. The diocese launched the project because the bishop preaches faith in providence. We can’t simply preach it: we must also believe in it.
Do you consider yourself a “social” bishop?
No, a doctrinal one. The history of the Church teaches us that there is no opposition between doctrine and the social commitment of Christians. On the contrary. The greatest saints engaged in the social sphere were also the most faithful to the Church’s teachings. It would be ideological to say that a bishop who seeks to be faithful to the Church’s teachings and tradition should not be involved in social issues.
Should we expect more initiatives like this?
We intend to act together with Caritas to help older people who have lost their jobs. We have contacted a number of entrepreneurs. We ask them if they will allow these people to join them for a period of work paid for by Caritas.The good that is done for free has its reward, not only in the Kingdom of Heaven but also here and now. The Lord pays plentifully for what is done for his sake.
Paolo Gambi is a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald
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