Fr. Bartolomeo Sorge – a former director of our magazine – died in Gallarate on the morning of November 2, 2020, having turned 91 a few days earlier. Born on October 25, 1929, on the Island of Elba (Rio Marina), where his father was on military duty, he always proudly remembered his Sicilian roots on his father’s side and Venetian ones on his mother’s.
At the age of 17 he entered the novitiate of the then Venetian-Milanese Province of the Society of Jesus at Lonigo and completed with aplomb the various spiritual and cultural stages of a Jesuit formation. After his theological studies in Spain, he was ordained a priest in 1958 and went on to specialize in Social Sciences in Rome at the Gregorian University.
In 1966 he was assigned to La Civiltà Cattolica – then directed by Fr. Roberto Tucci – as a “writer,” covering political and social sciences and current issues in the light of Catholic social teaching. These were the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, full of enthusiasm and desire for renewal, as well as fomenting debate and tension. His work appeared frequently in our journal, and he also earned a solid reputation as a lecturer with his brilliant oratorical style, his exceptional ability to present complex issues with clarity, his smiling face, and his positive approach.
Among the great themes he dealt with in those years were those found in the encyclicals Populorum Progressio and Octogesima Adveniens. His articles on “Christians for Socialism” were memorable and widely read. During his 18 years at La Civiltà Cattolica, Fr. Sorge wrote about 110 articles and notes. In 1973, with the appointment of Fr. Tucci as director of Vatican Radio, Fr. Sorge, already deputy director, became his natural successor. Between 1974 and 1975 he participated in the important 32nd General Congregation of the Jesuits, known for the debate on the relationship between faith and justice, in which Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio participated. In 1975 he celebrated with enthusiasm and joy the publication of the 3000th issue of La Civiltà Cattolica.
His status in the Vatican during the pontificate of Paul VI grew, including intense dialogue with the Secretariat of State, in particular with the Section for Extraordinary Affairs, for which Archbishop Achille Silvestrini was then responsible. His voice was also one of the most listened to in the Italian Church, then led by Cardinal Antonio Poma and Archbishop Enrico Bartoletti. A defining moment came in the great National Ecclesial Conference on Evangelization and Human Promotion in 1976, where he was among the leading contributors and, after the sudden death of Archbishop Bartoletti, he delivered the concluding speech, receiving wide acclaim.
It is no secret that after Albino Luciani’s election to the pontificate, the new pope, who knew Sorge well and held him in high esteem, thought of him as his successor in Venice. But this was not to be. Then, in the first years of John Paul II’s pontificate, the harmony between Fr. Sorge and the new orientations of the high ecclesiastical officers diminished. In 1985, after more than 10 very intense and fruitful years of leadership of La Civiltà Cattolica, it was time for a change. In his farewell article, Fr. Sorge thanked in particular Paul VI, Cardinal Villot, Secretary of State, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Jesuits, and Archbishop Bartoletti. He was aware that he had led the journal during the crucial years involving the implementation of the orientations of the Second Vatican Council in the Church and in the contemporary world. He passed on the baton to lead La Civiltà Cattolica in the new pontificate of John Paul II to his successor, Fr. GianPaolo Salvini, with confidence
At this point a new chapter opened for Fr. Sorge. Among the great problems of Italian society at that time, the fight against the Mafia was certainly one of the most serious and urgent. Thus the superiors of the Society of Jesus proposed to Fr. Sorge that he commit his reputation and skill to this front in Palermo, a symbolic and strategically crucial city, where the Jesuits had already been active for years in the field of social commitment, but there was then a need for new resources and new ideas.
Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, Archbishop of Palermo, was pleased with this project, and Fr. Sorge, with admirable, readiness and enthusiasm, threw himself into the new battle. After all, he had never forgotten his Sicilian roots. Above all, however, the commitment of lay Christians in society and politics, in the spirit of the Council, had always been one of the themes on which he had most insisted.
The results soon came. Fr. Sorge and the new Pedro Arrupe Political Training Institute had a very important role in the famous “springtime of Palermo” and became points of reference for many forces courageously engaged in society and the Church for the renewal of the city and of Sicily as a whole. The annual inauguration of the Institute’s activities involved events of great importance, as when Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, or Cardinal Pappalardo came to participate. The very idea of “schools of political formation” to promote the involvement of the laity in society spread rapidly, giving rise to a series of similar initiatives in every part of Italy, even if unfortunately not all the hoped-for fruits were to follow. These were dramatic years, the years of the attacks on Falcone and Borsellino. Sorge too received threats from the Mafia and for a long time needed a police escort. They were present also at night near the residence of the Technical Institute where he lived and worked. But he was not afraid to expose himself to risk and to intervene. The situation was extremely complex and there was no lack of disagreements, even among the Jesuits, as happened with Fr. Ennio Pintacuda. But this is the price of working on a difficult frontier.
In 1996 his period in Palermo came to an end and he headed to Milan. This was no surprise. From the perspective of the Italian Jesuits, Palermo and Milan were for decades the two main loci of study, commitment to social issues, where collaboration was promoted. In Milan, the magazine Aggiornamenti Sociali was published at the Social Studies Center of the Jesuit residence of San Fedele. Fr. Sorge would be its director for exactly 13 years, from the beginning of 1997 to the end of 2009. In this magazine he published at least 100 editorials, practically every month, keeping himself active and fighting on all current issues through his writings, conferences and interviews. In the meantime he continued to go to Palermo to teach at the Arrupe Institute. It was not enough. From 1999 to 2005 he also directed the magazine Popoli, which continues the tradition of Jesuit missionary magazines attentive to international current affairs and dialogue with religions.
In 2009 the tireless Fr. Sorge turned 80! It seemed that the time had come to retire from journal management and teaching, although it would certainly not be a time for inactivity. He remained always busy and available. He resided in Milan until 2016, when he moved to Gallarate for better assistance, while continuing to involve himself in current issues, such as the reception of migrants, with that freedom of spirit and speech that characterizes those with the wisdom which comes with age.
About two years ago, while being taken to a conference, he was involved in a serious car accident. But he recovered. At the age of 90, in the autumn of 2019, he had the joy of participating in Rome, together with the fathers of Aggiornamenti Sociali, at a papal audience, in which Pope Francis – who always remembered him with great esteem – once again showed him his personal affection.
The memory of Fr. Bartolomeo would be seriously incomplete if we did not also talk, at least a little, about his priestly and religious life. He would get up every morning before dawn for prolonged personal prayer and the celebration of Holy Mass. He regularly made spiritual retreats at the Benedictine Abbey of Citerna (Perugia). He was readily available for conversations and retreats, especially for priests, and many lay people remember with gratitude and enthusiasm his priestly service, which they enjoyed on many occasions over the years. His religious commitment and observance of the vows were absolutely commendable. For many years, in Rome, Palermo and Milan, he also served as superior of the religious community to which he belonged, in a prudent, humane and cordial manner.
He was a sincere believer and animated by a deep Marian devotion. Concluding his farewell from Aggiornamenti Sociali, he wrote: “I will insist in prayer that God bless the magazine and its great family […] and I will continue to entrust it to the Mother of Divine Grace, whom I have learned to invoke with the title of ‘true director of Aggiornamenti Sociali’.”
Doubtless, no one is perfect, not even Fr. Sorge, but his open and cordial smile and his unalterable serenity showed a soul united to God without uncertainty, happy to respond fully to his vocation to serve others in the Church and in the Society of Jesus. We remember him with affection, esteem and gratitude.