Thursday, June 12, 2008

Alessandra Borghese: the prodigal daughter

European aristocrat, Princess Alessandra Borghese, talks to Peter Stanford about her well-documented return to Catholicism

The reformed rake is a familiar figure in the religious canon from the parable of the prodigal son onwards.

Alessandra Borghese: the prodigal daughter
Princess Alessandra Borghese

Princess Alessandra Borghese, 44-year-old scion of one of the grandest of Italian noble families, famous for its popes, cardinals and glorious villa and park in the centre of Rome, may never quite have been a rake, but otherwise neatly fits the mould.

In the 1990s, she was one of those European aristocrats whose names we came to know only because they were forever appearing in glossy magazines, attending all the right grand weddings and openings. She even published an A-to-Z guide to good manners with her great friend, the German Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, better known in the society pages as the 'punk princess' or 'Princess TNT'.

Alessandra Borghese's personal wealth - her mother, Countess Fabrizia Citterio, was one of the heirs to the San Pellegrino water fortune- funded her very own cultural centre in Rome, and she married into more money in the form Greek shipping tycoon, Constantine Niarcose. All of which feels a million miles away from the slight, guarded woman sitting opposite me, sipping an espresso in a London café, her clothes simple, her face without a hint of make-up, and her conversation all about God.

In 1999, she recalls, looking me straight in the eye, she had a meeting. 'Catholicism is not a philosophy, neither is it a theology, but it is a meeting with a person. So the moment you meet Jesus Christ, your life can change radically. That is when I started to look at everything differently.' Borghese has since that meeting, become Italy's best-known born-again Catholic.

Her 2004 book, With New Eyes, the story of her return to the fold, was a bestseller in her home country and over much of Catholic Europe. She has followed it with four other equally successful, equally personal, devotional works, including In The Footsteps of Joseph Ratzinger, her first outing in English, published this month.

As we talk, I find myself more than once referring to her conversion, but, as she points out, that is not the right word for she was raised Catholic. "I was brought up to know that my family had given a very important pope to the church, Paul V [at the start of the seventeenth century], so important that his name is written on the façade of Saint Peter's Basilica itself, along with our coat of arms.'

As she quotes the Latin inscription, she raises the little finger of her left hand to show me the same crest on the small ring she is wearing. 'But for me growing up, that was all history. I didn't participate in it.' She was, she says, 'very conformist' as a young woman. 'I couldn't care less about praying, about the Church, I had to be emancipated.'

Her distaste for such a notion is immediately apparent but is revealed in full later, when the question of women priests -banned by Catholicism - comes up. 'If you're Catholic and want to be a woman priest,' she protests, 'join the Anglicans or the Protestants. Why do you want to change the Catholic tradition according to your point of view? If you look at Holy Mary, you see that her grandeur was not because she did anything, but because she was able to stand behind something bigger.' It is not a position that sits easily with contemporary secular norms, but Borghese has a rather aristocratic disdain for conventional wisdom.

Her attachment to traditional Catholic values is as fierce as it is unapologetic. On the evening of our meeting, she is due to address an audience at the Brompton Oratory, bastion of the unreformed approach to the faith in London.

Her own successful career, as an author, has nothing to do with female emancipation, she insists. 'Sometimes you should try to make a step back, not forward, and you can be very useful to a bigger scheme. I know its difficult because we live in a society where we are all pushed to be in front, to be visible. If you don't appear, you don't exist. You have to be seen, be successful, be good looking, be cool. But it just isn't true.'

There is, arguably, an autobiographical reference to her own younger days in there. Was there a particular trigger for her return to Catholicism? The same date she quotes for it was also, I point out, the year when her husband died, reportedly of a cocaine overdose. 'No, it was not because of that. I wouldn't relate it to that.'

Up to now fluent, she suddenly gets flustered. 'No, no'. She pauses. 'My reasons were more banal. That is why I wanted to write it. Because it can happen to anyone.'

When With New Eyes first appeared, she recalls, she was overwhelmed by letters from people who had had similar experiences of drawing closer to God. Or who wanted that to happen. 'I think they felt encouraged because I was such an inappropriate person for this to happen to. But that is what made me so appropriate.'

It is a telling point, and, in making it, her confidence returns quickly. But what gives Borghese's new book its particular charm is that, for all her protestations of being ordinary, she clearly retains a privileged entrée in church circles. As In The Footsteps of Joseph Ratzinger demonstrates.

It is a kind of voyage around the Holy Father. Or, to be more particular, a voyage around his native Bavaria, in the company of Gloria von Thurn und Taxis whose 500-room Schloss St Emmeram is located there. 'To call it a house,' Borghese admits, 'might provoke a smile'.

The two princesses travel to various sites associated with the young Pope Benedict, meet his brother, also a priest, and end up, as the book's climax, being summoned for a private audience with the Pontiff as he makes his first visit to his homeland since his election in 2005.'Gloria and I,' Borghese writes, 'had intended to mix with the crowds and wait for the Pope anonymously. However, Providence arranged things otherwise.

The mayor, whom we had met only a few weeks previously, invited us to sit in seats that had been reserved for him…Entirely unexpectedly, [the Pope] also paused to greet us. I enthusiastically told him how much I had been struck by the beauty of his land. Kind as always, he nodded and thanked me'.

Sometimes, we have a tendency to see rulers - be they kings, presidents, prime ministers or popes - in terms of their policies rather than simply as individuals. With her unique access to man who, since his election, has not given interviews, how, I wonder, would Borghese describe the private Benedict XVI? 'He's very polite. He makes me feel immediately comfortable and important to him.

He looks into my eyes and asks me how I feel, how things are going, with a sweet politeness. And then he is a simple and straightforward person. Maybe a little bit shy.' Her focus on his roots in Bavaria inevitably raises the question about Benedict's attitude, as a young man, to the Nazi party. For, as she points out, Markel am Inn, where he was born in 1927, lies just across the river from Braunau am Inn where, 38 years earlier, Adolf Hitler, had entered this world.

'There is nothing to defend the Pope's reputation about,' she protests. 'People have tried to find hidden things, relationships with Nazis, but there is nothing. He was a young boy. He was a soldier. He did his job. He did what every other young boy would have done then. And then he became a priest. There is nothing to be discovered. No scandal.' Her expression makes plain there nothing more to discuss.

What, I can't help asking, do her old friends, from her pre-1999 days, think of her now in her role as arch-Catholic? 'Of course, they think I am strange. People look at me in a weird way, but others respect me. It is life. It doesn't worry me. Because the great thing when you rediscover faith is that you don't feel alone anymore. And so you are stronger.' The inference is that she felt alone before that rediscovery. 'No, its not that I felt alone, rather that, even though I had everything, something was missing.'

In the Borghese family tree there is a line that leads back, some say, to Saint Catherine of Siena, the fourteenth century mystic. She was, like many saints of the church, someone who turned her back on worldly goods in order to follow God. Is such a renunciation something Borghese has contemplated? She laughs at the comparison. 'I am a million kilometers away from being such a saint. But everybody has his or her own big or little mission.'

Hers, she makes clear, is simply to write, to be, as she puts it, 'a witness to the possibility in our age of rediscovering faith'. In her quieter moments, she works as a volunteer helper at the French Marian shrine of Lourdes - an experience that she has made into a book, just out in Italy and already, she tells me, another bestseller. And, recently, she stood as a candidate for the Italian Senate, on the list of the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats. 'But there was no hope of being elected,' she stresses. ' It is a tiny party, though if the electoral rules had been different. I could have won a seat.'

We are just moving on to her political ambitions - she is charmingly but firmly refusing to be drawn on what she thinks of Silvio Berlusconi - when we are joined by Gloria von Thurn und Taxis and her daughter. They are in London too and there are plans to visit Christie's. 'I think we have finished,' Borghese says. Her voice goes up at the end, as if asking a question, but her intention is clear.

I slip in a final question. When she looks back to her 'other life' in the 1990s, does she have any regrets? 'No,' she fires back immediately, 'because I haven't lost anything. I am a much freer person. Much more open to the world, so I see that time as a sort of preparation. I don't want to change what has happened. I want to change what I am living now.'

  • In The Footsteps of Joseph Ratzinger by Alessandra Borghese (Family Publications) is available from Telegraph Books for £7.95 + 99p p&p. To order, call 0870 428 4112 or go to

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