Portugal: The poet who can’t say no

Portugal: The poet who can’t say no

The Vatican’s new librarian is a force of nature

Fr José Tolentino Mendonça once showed up on my in-laws’ doorstep, suitcase packed, ready to go on a retreat which was actually taking place a week later. The 52-year-old, whom the Pope has appointed as the Vatican’s new librarian and archivist, is an accomplished poet and respected biblical scholar, with many books published in both fields. But he is also a poet when it comes to organising his schedule. He hates saying no, so sometimes ends up double-booked and has to postpone appearances at short notice. Luckily for him, he is impossible to remain cross with, being prone to hugs and bearing a passing resemblance to a giant teddy bear.

Born in Madeira and ordained a priest in 1990, Fr Tolentino has since become the Portuguese Church’s point man in relations with the cultural world. He led the cultural commission of the bishops’ conference for several years and in 2010, during a visit from Benedict XVI he organised a meeting with Portugal’s cultural elite, catching the eye of the Vatican, including then Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

His appointment comes just months after he led this year’s Lenten retreat for senior members of the Curia, where his reflections, called “In Praise of Thirst”, were said to have impressed the Pope.

Fr Tolentino has faced criticism from more conservative sectors of the Portuguese Church because of his pastoral work with gay people. His writings have also attracted controversy: for instance, he wrote an enthusiastic preface for a book by Sister Teresa Forcades, a nun who supports women’s ordination, same-sex marriage and legal abortion. His own orthodoxy, as laid out in his homilies and his writing, has never been questioned.

He is currently vice-rector of the Portuguese Catholic University, a post he will have to leave. Although he was widely expected to take up a higher service in the Church, his lack of administrative skills meant being a diocesan bishop never seemed on the horizon. Running the 500-year-old Apostolic Library, on the other hand, seems tailor-made for him, given his passion for the field of books and culture. In Portugal his voice will be missed.