How did the presence in the United States of the Fraternity of St. Charles begin?
It began with me, when I did my year of diaconate in a downtown parish in Sacramento, California, at the invitation of the pastor. A few months after my arrival I was joined by Antonio Baracchini. Fr. Massimo Camisasca came to visit us twice during that year. It was not possible, however, to become established in that diocese.
After that first attempt, for about two years Antonio and I served in a parish in Tampa, Florida. There too, in the end we were not welcomed by the bishop. Of course, at that time – the early 90’s – we were taking our first steps, and we were very inexperienced. After Agostino Molteni, the first to go on mission, in Brazil, it was us. We didn’t know very well what it would take to open a house. We learned through the experience that the only way to become established in the United States would be to receive and accept an invitation from a bishop.
And did a bishop invite you?
Yes. After some time, I expressed to Fr. Massimo my desire to pursue my Licentiate at the John Paul II Institute in Washington. There I met Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, who had a lively interest in the experience of the movement started by Fr. Giussani. One day he invited me to lunch. I spoke to him of our desire to find a way to establish our mission. He immediately took out his cell phone, called a friend of his and told him about us. On the line was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, at that time bishop of Fall River, Massachusetts. The result of the conversation was an appointment with him in Washington three days later. I was very nervous; it was the first time that I had to speak for the Fraternity before such a person. I had prepared my presentation. Bishop O’Malley entered the waiting room dressed as a Franciscan; we shook hands and sat down. I began by saying that I was from the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, and he responded: “Yes, I know.” I told him of our interest in a stable presence in the U.S. “Why don’t you come to Fall River?” was his open and generous response. He didn’t need great speeches or explanations; he simply invited us to settle in his diocese, south of Boston. And so we opened the first house: myself, Vincent Nagle and Antonio López.
How did you live that first experience of being established in America?
Fr. Massimo’s closeness to us, especially through his many visits, was extremely important. I remember once he told us that he saw our house as being entirely sustained by the ideal. In fact we lived very intensely the great ideal of following the Church, of following Jesus Christ and of making him known as we have known him. As for the parish, at Fall River we found a wonderful community of elderly people, with whom we developed an excellent relationship; but there were few young families.
Then you left Fall River. Why?
In 2000 the bishop asked us to move to another parish, in a bigger city: Attleboro. Here we began an excellent relationship with the parishioners. The diocese, however, had to reduce the three parishes in the city to one. We offered to take charge of this project, but the diocese made other choices. In the meantime other bishops had begun to request our presence. In particular, the invitation of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado immediately caught our attention. He wrote us after reading Fr. Massimo’s book, “Together on the Road”: he was struck by our desire to live a common life as priests. In our dialogue with him an important prospect opened: the possibility of a missionary presence and a community to serve. All of this led us to a decision to move.
Not without sadness did we tell the bishop of Fall River that we would be leaving. We continue to cherish a great respect for Cardinal O’Malley and his successor. We are very grateful for all the years during which we were able to serve them; but I believe this was a step indicated to us by the Lord.
So now there is a house of the Fraternity in Denver…
The archbishop received us very much as a father. He entrusted to us a parish serving Broomfield, a small town founded only 30 years ago, 20 minutes from Denver. He has given us a great opportunity. Myself, Fr. Gabriele and Fr. Accursio can work together: I am the pastor, Gabriele is chaplain of the high school, and Accursio teaches and is chaplain in the parish middle school. The fact of having well-functioning Catholic schools in the parish gives us the opportunity to proclaim Christ to many young people. Moreover, what makes us joyful and confident in our task is the possibility offered to us in the house of continual challenge and support.
I am certain that without the 20 years of experiences – and ups and downs – we would never have reached where we are now. I remember with gratitude all those who participated in, and made their contribution to, this history, especially Vincent Nagle and Luca Brancolini, my companions in the house for years. I also think of the many seminarians who spent a year of formation with us. Many of them are by now on mission in the world; I follow them closely and pray for them.
What is Denver like?
Above all, it is a very young city. Think of it – the first settlements were established here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains only 150 years ago.
In the parish we have found a lively community, with many young families. Many people, after much wandering, have found a home in the U.S. – people from South America, from the Far East, but even from many other parts of the U.S.
Among others, the story of a refugee who fled Vietnam in the 70’s has impressed me. At the time he was 20 years old. Attempting to escape the horrors of the war, he was shipwrecked twice and tortured. On the third try, he reached the U.S. He didn’t know a word of English. He studied and worked non-stop in order to found a family. His wife is Catholic, he is Buddhist. He has gone to Mass every Sunday for 20 years. Now he has decided to ask for baptism. Behind every person we meet there is a story of suffering and of hope, either waiting to meet Christ or to know him and love him more deeply.
“A city on a hilltop” is how John Winthrop, perhaps the first American historical figure, described the ideal that brought the first pilgrims from England to the New World. From the beginning, their ideal was one of founding an unambiguously Christian society which could enlighten, even from such a distance, a Europe torn by wars of religion. I have only been in the United States for a few months, beginning a year of overseas formation in our house in Washington; and yet, in such a brief time, I have seen that this ideal is still very much alive in the stories and lives of Americans. Even today America, despite a history rich in contradictions, at times even wrenching, feels itself the bearer of a mission. You notice it as soon as you arrive; it’s impossible to ignore.
Especially at school. The families I meet, often very large, truly believe in constructing works of value. If there is something they hope in, they throw themselves into it completely: time, energy, money. There isn’t the cynicism that often hangs over all of our initiatives in Italy, leading us in the end to prefer that everything stay as it is.
Teaching in America, I face young people who have never had contact with a tradition. Not only have they read very little, but they have never seen a Roman ruin, a mediaeval church or a baroque altar. If on the one hand this is a problem – because they lack a unifying and critical vision – on the other hand it makes the students open to everything.
All that is needed is someone capable of accompanying them in the discovery. In Italy, our tradition and our history, if there is no one to introduce us to it, becomes a huge moloch that keeps us from advancing; it fills us with prejudices and makes us cynical.
I am reading Dante with one of my Italian students. How wonderful to see his excitement as he encounters a master who helps us open our desires to the whole universe, both the visible and the invisible.
All in all, during these months I have felt a burning desire that the American people could have a truly Catholic experience. The Fraternity, in my life, is a company of men which bears within itself a perspective – Christ’s perspective – of complete openness to the world. Indeed, our life in the house and our mission are not a retreat on a hilltop, but a lived communion.
VATICAN CITY, FEB. 13, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Saturday upon greeting the priests and seminarians of the Fraternity of St. Charles on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the community.
* * *
Dear brothers and friends,
It is with real joy that I meet with you, priests and seminarians of the Fraternity of St. Charles, who have gathered here on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its birth. I greet and thank the founder and superior general, Monsignor Massimo Camisasca, his council and all of you, relatives and friends who are part of the community’s circle. I greet in particular the Archbishop of the Mother of God of Moscow, Monsignor Paolo Pezzi, and Don Julián Carrón, president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, which symbolically expresses the fruits and the roots of the work of the Fraternity of St. Charles. This moment brings back to my mind my long friendship with Monsignor Luigi Giussani and bears witness to his charisma.
On this occasion, I would like to respond to two questions that our meeting suggests: what is the place of the ordained priesthood in the life of the Church? What is the place of communal life in the priestly experience?
Your birth from the Communion and Liberation movement and your vital reference to the ecclesial experience that it represents, there is placed before our eyes a truth that was reaffirmed with particular clarity from the 18th century onward and that found a significant expression in the theology of Vatican II. I refer to the fact that the Christian priesthood is not an end in itself. It was willed by Christ in function of the birth and the life of the Church. Every priest can therefore say to the faithful: “Vobiscum christianus, pro vobis sacerdos” (With you I am a Christian. For you I am a priest.). The glory and joy of the priesthood is to serve Christ and his Mystical Body. It represents a very beautiful and singular vocation in the Church, which makes Christ present because it participates in the one and eternal priesthood of Christ. The presence of priestly vocations is a sure sign of the truth and the vitality of a Christian community. In fact God always calls, even to the priesthood; there is no true and fecund growth in the Church without an authentic priestly presence that sustains and nourishes it. So I am grateful to all those who dedicate their energies to the formation of priests and the reform of the priestly life.
Like all of the Church, in fact, the priesthood too must continually renew itself, rediscovering in the life of Jesus the most essential forms of its own being. The different possible roads of this renewal cannot forget some elements that must not be given up. Before all else a profound education in meditation and prayer, lived as a dialogue with the risen Lord present in his Church. In the second place a study of the of theology that permits an encounter with the Christian truths in the form of a synthesis linked to the life of the person and the community: only a sapiential outlook can see the value of the force that the faith possesses to illuminate life and the world, continually leading to Christ, Creator and Savior.
The Fraternity of St. Charles has underscored the value of communal life during the course of its brief but intense history. I too have spoken about it on various occasions before and after my call to the chair of Peter. “It is important for priests not to live off on their own somewhere, but to accompany one another in small communities, to support one another, and so to experience, and constantly realize afresh, their communion in service to Christ and in renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven” (“Light of the World,” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010, p. 149). The pressing matters of this moment are before your eyes. I think, for example, of the lack of priests. Communal life is not first of all a strategy for responding to these needs. Nor is it, in itself, only a form of help in the face of the solitude and weakness of man. All of this may certainly be true but only if it is conceived and lived as a path for immersing oneself in the reality of communion. Communal life is in fact an expression of the gift of Christ that is the Church, and it is prefigured in the apostolic community from which the priesthood arose. What the priest in fact administers does not belong to him. He rather participates with his brothers in a sacramental gift that comes directly from Jesus.
Communal life thus expresses a help that Christ provides for our life, calling us, through the presence of brothers, to an ever more profound conformity to his person. Living with others means accepting the need of my own continual conversion and above all discovering the beauty of such a journey, the joy of humility, of penance, but also of conversation, of mutual forgiveness, of mutual support. “Ecce quam bonum et quam iucundum habitare fratres in unum” (Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity) (Psalm 133:1).
No one can assume the regenerative power of communal life without prayer, without looking to the experience and teaching of the saints — in a particular way the Fathers of the Church — without a sacramental life lived with fidelity. If we do not enter into the eternal dialogue of the Son with the Father in the Holy Spirit no authentic communal life is possible. It is necessary to be with Jesus so as to be able to be with others. This is the heart of our mission. In the company of Christ and of our brothers each priest can find the energy necessary to care for people, to provide for the spiritual and material needs that he meets, to teach always with new words, dictated by love, the eternal truth of the faith for which are contemporaries too thirst.
Dear brothers and friends, continue to go out to all the world to bring to everyone the communion that is born from the heart of Christ! May the experience of the Apostles with Jesus always be the light that illuminates your priestly life! Encouraging you to remain on the road that you have traced during these years, I gladly impart my blessing to all the priests and seminarians of the Fraternity of St. Charles, to the Missionaries of St. Charles, to their relatives and friends.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
© Innovative Media, Inc.
Together with some other seminarians, I go to a children’s hospital once a week for charitable work. We try to visit every room to talk to the children and their parents. We then invite them to pray and sing with us in the hallway, so that they can see something beautiful in one of the last places they would choose to be. We do not know what to expect every time we come into a room. There are times when a knock at a door could be answered with a look that tells us that we are the last people they would like to see no matter how big our smiles might be. Some want nothing to do with religion and tell us explicitly to get out of the room. Others will try to debate with us about what they perceive to be the mess in the Church or doctrines that are difficult to explain in ten minutes. At the end of the visit, we feel uncertain whether we actually made their situation worse.
But there are also times when we are received with open arms, as if we were the people they have been looking for all this time. I remember a parent telling me, “You know, I did not go to church today because I had to stay with my son here in the hospital. Yet, when I do not go to God, He comes to me.” Those are the times when we understand that God put us there for a reason. It gives us a sense of pride because we recognize that we have brought hope, while at the same time we have a feeling of inadequacy because we know only too well that we could not have brought such a thing on our own. With these sentiments somehow mingled together, we cannot help but simply be joyful and thankful that God has brought these people to us.
It is difficult to understand what we are actually trying to do in this place since every Saturday afternoon brings about a different experience. Why do we really come to this place that gives us contradictory feelings? What can we actually do to make their situation better? What I cannot doubt is the fact that no matter how beautiful or awful the day is, their faces are imprinted in my heart throughout the day and even the whole week. From a face of a baby crying or a look of a father that is fighting to stay awake because he stayed up the whole night, to a person who does not answer one question that was asked—I cannot help but start seeing that reality is not indifferent towards us. It asks us to listen, to be compassionate, and most of all, to be faithful.
The most beautiful experience thus far is how my brother seminarians keep these faces in their hearts throughout the day. I hear them at every Sunday Mass asking God to bless the families they have encountered. They pray rosaries, speak about their experiences with the families to each other, and offer their daily work for them. Sometimes I even begin to feel guilty that I do not feel the same way for these people as I wish I would. The seminarians remind me that I cannot be indifferent towards reality. Friendship does such things: it takes away our indifference before reality. But it is not just that they make me sympathize with these people, although that is a great grace in itself. My brothers help me understand that I need the friendship of Christ, that my life must become a response to God’s claim upon us. Without my brothers, I would become suffocated by the fact that I cannot do anything to really help those who are in need. Without the face of Christ, I become crippled by my own ideas and preconceptions and lose my posture before reality. The Fraternity helps me to understand that the proper attitude before everything is that of prayer and offering. As Pope Benedict said, “Those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them” (Deus Caritas est, 42).
A few days ago we began Lent.
I want to share some reflections with you that have been with me during these days, and that I have already put before the seminarians.
Lent invites us to leave behind the image we have of ourselves, to encounter God and to be able to find our I in him. It is he who opens wide the true dimensions of our personality. It is he who teaches us what the good would be for our lives, and what are the paths to reach it. Of course, in this transition we have the impression of dying. Fr. Giussani commented countless times on this experience of mortification as being like death. It seems like you have to leave everything.
Sacrifice is to leave space for the Other. To let the Other occupy a space in my life, to gradually enter my life until he fills it completely, until he becomes my I: it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Gal 2,20). Sacrifice is to leave space for Christ. It is the Passover, the passage from the apparent to the real, from the devil to God, from the I as the meaning of everything to God as the meaning of everything.
The purpose of Lent is not mortification, but that each person would find himself: the one who loses himself, finds himself. Sacrifice is the path which is necessary for our nature, which is inclined to evil and division, to be able to discover its identity.
But it is not a sudden passage. It requires much time. The common meaning of sacrifice, which is by no means trivial, is suffering. Why do we think of these two words as strongly connected? Why does making a sacrifice cause us to suffer? Because it involves a change. It is a sacrifice, because it is the passage to a greater good in which we do not yet fully perceive the light. But God guides us and fills us with consolation.
In the eleventh chapter of The City of God, St. Augustine says that the one sacrifice is communion. The one sacrifice is the passage to communion, to be able to say: “you are my I.” The one sacrifice, therefore, is love. It is the great revolution introduced into the world’s history first by the prophets, and then by Jesus. His love makes possible every sacrifice to affirm the other, even the sacrifice of one’s life. This is why the Church identifies virgins and martyrs with the highest form of love, because virginity and martyrdom testify that the greatest joy in life is to affirm the other, to affirm that everything is the other.
The little Lenten sacrifices we did as children made no sense except from this perspective: to affirm the fact that the other is everything. Likewise, the sacrifices that the Church invites us to live during this time of Lent, such as fasting, almsgiving and prayer, are not a renunciation, but an affirmation. In this sense sacrifice is an anticipation of the Resurrection.
Sacrifice, then, is the path to communion, it is the space we open to the Beloved. It is also true that in the supreme moment in the history of the world, sacrifice and communion are two words that indicate the same reality: the Eucharist. In the Eucharist we come to perceive that sacrifice is already communion, it is already everything, because sacrifice is to make space for the Other, and this is already everything.
(Letter sent to the priests of the Fraternity of St. Charles, February 2010)
in the photo: Way of the Cross in Siberia
Friendship is the most beautiful thing in life. I don’t know how one could live without it. The pope has said that with baptism we enter a community of friends, who will accompany us until death. This is precisely what we have been studying during these days, looking at one of the best known mediaeval fathers, Aelred of Rievaulx, who is sometimes called the Bernard of England. He writes that friendship is first of all a pedagogy. Secondly, it is a stairway to friendship with God. His whole pedagogical structure is based on this: if you are a friend of God, you will be a friend of human beings; if you are a friend of human beings, you will approach God. Of course, this means a path of great humanity, freedom and respect.
This morning we were commenting on a statement of Cardinal Scola: “The relation with the other is always both an embrace and a clash.” The other is different, he is otherness. If you truly want to enter with respect and fidelity into that otherness, you must accept suffering. The experience of friendship, then, passes through suffering. Authentic friendship respects otherness. This means to accept what is different with gratitude, because the different completes me. This risk of mutual belonging is described well by John Paul II in Novo millennio ineunte: “The other is part of me.” I must love my brother to the point of intuiting his desire, and going out to meet it. The other is never a stranger, he is part of me. He is necessary to my path of conversion, necessary for my progress in life. We are always moved at this level, and precisely this level means friendship.
Friendship is not merely a pat on the back. Friendship is to commit oneself to the good of the other, a passion to walk together, a desire to will the same things. In our order, we are beginning to use a term again that we coined 30 years ago, but which didn’t have much success at the time: the term “common vision”. A community must move according to a common vision, or it will not be able to formulate that purpose that is essential for a full acceptance of everyone. This means a risk of friendship, of trust, of giving the other credit; an acceptance of difference as richness, even if it may hurt me or cause suffering. Now we have the joy of seeing that things have progressed. Aelred says that friendship is the only pedagogy for living together: I like you because you are here, because you exist. You are necessary for my conversion, my sanctification, my walk towards God. I like you because God has put you in my life. It is a much deeper reality. I cannot conceive of a different way.
When I first entered the monastery, the silence was extremely rigorous. You couldn’t say even a single word. The only possibility for communication were the famous hand signals that expressed what you wanted to say. I can’t say whether it was hard or easy, it’s just the way it was. I remember two basic things that made a taste for silence possible for me. First, night prayer, the time dedicated to the vigils in the middle of the night, the office of readings and the nocturnal lectio. To be able to await the dawn as a sign of the encounter with the coming day, with Christ the light: this anticipation was almost palpable in the atmosphere. Even if someone were incapable of silence, it was an education in savoring something that was of the essential to the night and essential to night prayer. Second, slowly realizing (I am speaking of almost 50 years ago) that silence did not hinder communication. I remember my joy one day when I was able to recognize my sisters by the shoes they were wearing. I could name each of them from their shoes! It was a taste of the possibility of a much deeper communication.
There is another aspect that goes back to the experience of the first Lents. There was a lot of work then, because we only worked in the fields, and food was scarce. We got a boiled egg at Easter and Christmas – the rest of the year it was vegetables, pasta and a bit of cheese. During Lent we even went without that. Of course, the silence made all this weigh on us more heavily. Toward the end of Lent, a wave of giggling began in the novitiate that went on forever. We giggled in every room and every corner… it was non-stop laughter. Perhaps from that moment I understood that silence was this possibility of communicating, in the midst of such essentiality, the joy of being alive. This has always remained with me as a great joy. Today, silence is very different. First, because we no longer work in the fields. Work today requires explanation, mutual clarification. Dialogue has become part of relationships among the Trappists. The hand signals have disappeared; words are used when necessary. What has remained, however, and is something that fascinates me, is the use of words only for what it is truly worth saying, for saying what is essential. Using words for chatting, like most people do, makes no sense to us. We continue to teach an essentiality in relationships that gives words the weight they should have, meaning that superficiality is excluded and we gradually enter a reality of greater content. This is only possible, however, if there are some truly strong moments in life. For us these are above all the nocturnal times, when the silence in the universe of creation truly enters you, even through the pores of your skin.
If one lives silence, he ends by loving silence, and understands that silence is truly a music, because it gives you the possibility of perceiving all of reality in a way that noise never can.
Faithfulness to origins and mission
One must be very faithful to origins. If someone has not known how to receive, he will not know how to pass on. We have experienced this often in our foundations. Which have been our most successful, our most beautiful foundations? Those that have remained faithful to their roots, never betraying the originary source of their consecration, their ministry. In these places there is truly a common vision. Vitorchiano has handed on to them a vision, a life, a purpose, a way of being, that they have lived completely. In doing so, the original sisters of the new place have assumed this vision, transforming it into something unique to that place, though still universal.
I want to recommend to you that, wherever you go, don’t invent anything. Propose to the people the proposal you have received. Make sure that the people intuit, recognize and see in you the grace that has formed you. For us, the possibility of maintaining a unity among our foundations depends on the consciousness of having received something unique, extraordinary, essential and strong, that has shaped our lives, giving them meaning. It is this that we simply want to live in the place where the Lord calls us.
Of Jewish origin (through his mother); an Islamic scholar; formerly a Buddhist adept. Now, a Catholic priest in the Holy Land, after working in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. If you wanted a poster boy for the postmodern concept of globalization, you could find it in this missionary from California, a “beanpole” of almost 2 meters (“6 feet 2 inches, to be exact”) who can’t be missed in the alleys of the Holy City. He is Fr. Vincent Nagle, priest of the Fraternity of St. Charles, stationed in Jerusalem since 2007. After first teaching English at the Catholic University of Bethlehem, he then headed the Catholic parish of Nablus: “The patriarch sent me. No priest would look after the place,” he says. He is now the assistant pastor at Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority, also serving as the spiritual father to two houses of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s sisters.
“I am certain of Christ.” Padre Nagle often repeats this phrase, which manifests a faith rooted in long experience. But what can it mean in the Holy Land – that place of contradiction, of division among Christ’s followers, crisscrossed by perennial hatreds between individuals and peoples? “Here Christians are 1.3% of the population, and one can feel isolated. But I can’t come before Christ and think of myself as other than being in an ongoing experience. Often I say to myself: if I am here in the Holy Land, it is not to improve the situation of Christians, but because Someone sent me. I see this from the changes in the lives of some of those around me: when there is someone who no longer has reasons to live, and at a certain point he finds them, I know Whom he has encountered. When I see patriarch Twal confronting impossible questions and then, after a night of prayer, go out ready to face the situation, I understand that I am certain of Christ”.
This “Christian certainty” has its roots in Fr. Vincent’s life story, which is colored by adventure. “I was born in San Francisco into a family with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, the 6th of 8 children. The first 4 received a Christian education (Catholic school, parish, etc.), but the four younger ones, myself included, much less so. My dad had begun to have “problems” with the Church, given his far-left orientation. I was 4 when the family moved to the country, still in California, near the sequoias. It was there that 1968 hit … three years earlier was ’65, when there began to be hippies and flower children. My mom followed a guru; at 15 my oldest sister became a fervent Buddhist, and for years, I went to Buddhist meetings. We were immersed in the spirit of the times.”
Vincent began high school near San Francisco, and a friend who attended a Catholic parish invited him to a meeting: “But the content of the faith wasn’t there. The Church in the United States at that time was soaked in the dominant progressive culture.” The awareness of being Jewish remained very alive in the young Californian: “When they asked me if I was going to join the army, I said no. But I added: for Israel, yes! My mom instilled in me a strong Zionism: I knew all about the Holocaust, the Nazi persecution…”. Vincent then began to attend college: “I understood that there was Someone in the world, that religion could not be reduced simply to living together happily, that there was something that could change people’s hearts. A priest said to me that this was Jesus Christ. I had never read any Christian authors, because I thought they weren’t worth my time, so convinced was I that they were ‘anti-human’. Then my mom’s guru, during a discussion on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, blurted out: ‘But of course it’s true! If we have come from the divine, we must return there with our bodies.’ It was at that point that I began to read Christian writers.”
Vincent continued his studies at the University of San Francisco, which is a Jesuit university, but he found little of Catholic inspiration there. He signed up for humanities, devouring the classics of western thought. After finishing his studies, he went to Morocco to teach English, from 1981-1983. “My colleagues were members of the Muslim Brotherhood (one of the most important organizations in radical Islam, ndr). It was they who forced me to take seriously the question of God. I remember one night when we were talking, they said to me: God is God; he is not according to your idea of him.’ And I understood simply that He is God, and I’m not. I had done a lot of Buddhist meditation, but I had never prayed. I wrote to my mother, asking her to send me something to pray with: she sent me a missal from a Catholic goods store. Later I found a rosary, and began to use it.”
Vincent then experienced a rather intriguing parenthesis: from 1983-1985 he taught English to Saudi Arabian spies at a secret center near Riyadh. Then, back in the U.S., he studied literature at Berkeley. There he encountered his old milieu, that of the American left: environmentalism, the homosexual movement, supporters of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. “I read the writers of the Catholic dissent, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx. But I felt I was onto a treasure, a diamond that was in the Church, even if it was covered by 30 feet of mud – but it was there. And I wanted to know more. I understood that many of those around me had no interest in this diamond – they only wanted to remake the Church. I looked for someone who would help me rediscover that treasure. I began to spend time with some traditionalist Catholic students, but this began to make me always angry at progressive Catholics, because I thought they wanted to destroy my treasure. It was at that point that I met Communion and Liberation. For me it was precisely – a liberation! I understood that everything about Christianity simply boiled down to a question: come and see!”
From there, everything flowed for Vincent like a waterfall of grace: he entered the seminary of the Fraternity but, having already studied theology in the U.S., was directed to study Islam at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI), where he had Maurice Borrmans and Samir Khalil as teachers. Then he was transferred to the U.S., where he was a hospital chaplain, and finally to the Holy Land. “I am certain of Christ.” After such an adventure, the certainty of this truth for Fr. Vincent is a diamond to be invested in over time.
Now available on YouTube, the full video of Fr. Vincent Nagle’s mission in the Holy Land. Watch here.
Our life is defined by what attracts us, not by our limitations. When someone travels, he always has the destination in mind, and this awareness also determines his itinerary. If someone undertakes a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, or Czestochowa, or Chartres, what dominates his heart? His desire to arrive. If we were to hear again the testimonies of the seminarians who traveled the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela this year, we would surely be struck by the fact that the moment of greatest emotion for them was their arrival in the plaza in front of the Cathedral, where they knelt down and sang Non nobis Domine.
Our goal dominates our life, determining and illuminating the steps we take every day. This fact shows the profound difference between every kind of human messianism and Christianity. Human messianism, indeed every revolutionary ideal, must necessarily deny the present so as to affirm the future. “The lives lost now, the sacrifices of today, don’t matter – they are necessary for a better tomorrow.” In Christianity, on the other hand, the goal illuminates and energizes the present, giving us light and good judgment concerning it, and the strength to live it.
Sure, the pilgrim’s feet are sore during the journey, but the pain is not everything: desire for the goal and being with others makes the challenge bearable. The same is true in a life enlightened by Christ: the evils we suffer do not define us. This is not to minimize what we suffer, but we can get through it, and even turn it to our advantage: because of the humiliation it costs us, our suffering can become a springboard for our lives.
I want to use the image of a pilgrimage to describe our path toward affective maturity, which is, in the first place, made possible by the presence of an authority. Without an authority, there is no guide on the pilgrimage of life, no direction, no certainty about the road to take. It is this certainty, in fact, that sets boundaries for our limitations and sins. This certainty of the road makes it so our limitations and sins don’t have the last word, but are confined and, little by little, if God wills it, sometimes even overcome. Echoing a saying of Fr. Giussani, we are mendicant pilgrims. We are pilgrims on the road, but we are not stragglers, people without a goal, going this way today and that way tomorrow – this is not a pilgrim. A pilgrim is a person in whom the goal is alive, which is precisely why he can reach it. The goal is alive in him because others are with him, travelling toward the same goal. There is nothing static about our company, nothing pre-defined, nothing that stifles the personality, the originality of the I. On the contrary, everything is for us and for our growth, because each person’s uniqueness can contribute to generating glory, which is multi-colored.
Love of God, self and neighbor
Jesus’ saying, which is also found in the Old Testament, comes to mind: “Love God with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself” (cf. Mt 22, 37-39). I want to say at least a few words about each of these three loves: of God, of neighbor and of self.
Reading the gospel we note the insistence with which Jesus invites us to love God with our whole self. At the same time, he speaks of love of neighbor as being a love that is similar to our love for God (cf. Mt 22, 39). Why is this so? We can also think of John who says: “How can you love the God you do not see, if you do not first love your neighbor whom you do see?” (cf. 1 Jn 4, 20). Which comes first?
The contradiction here is only apparent. To love God with our whole self means that the transformation of our life is never-ending. The one who attracts us is infinite, and can never be reduced to the idea that we have of Him. Within the carnality of our earthly lives, there is an infinite who attracts us.
Affective fulfillment is not in the first place something that I do to love others, to tolerate others, to make myself better. Affective maturity is to adhere to the One who attracts me. He attracts me above all through his active Spirit, through his Son who speaks to me. He attracts me through the body of his Son. This is affective maturity, to let ourselves be attracted: Amor meus, pondus meum. We are familiar with this saying of Augustine, because we read it every year in the breviary: “Weight doesn’t only go down, but to its proper place. Fire goes up, a rock down, both moved by their weight to seek their place. My weight is my love; it takes me wherever I go. Your Gift ignites us, and carries us upwards” (Confessions, 13, 9). This is that delectatio victrix that Fr. Giussani cited in one of his earliest texts: the infinite that attracts me. This infinite, however, is not an infinite sentiment, or an infinite experience – it is a Person. The infinite is a You, made flesh.
This is affective maturity: to not resist the One who attracts me. But the infinite attracts me through his Spirit, and I can never separate his Spirit from his Body – which is how we begin to discover love of neighbor. Why did Jesus say that this commandment is like the first? Because I cannot love the God that I do not see, if I do not love the neighbor that I see. The place where God attracts me is in the human reality in which he has set my life. This human reality is made up of an infinite series of relationships, ranging from the people who have most affected my life to those whom I met only for a moment, but who, without my being aware of it, have left something within me. The “neighbor” is a neologism invented by Jesus. It is the infinite that reaches you through the people who are closer to you than others. He has put them precisely where they are so that the infinite would not be an idea, a mere sentiment, a party, a faction, an ideology. The greatest grace that God can impart to a man or a woman’s life are the people that he has them encounter, and the companionship that these people provide for them. The infinite bonds spoken of in the Song of Songs are above all in our everyday encounters.
Purification of love
Christ attracts me primarily through things and people. My wounded, tired soul could stop at that. Idolatry is nothing other than to confuse the creature with the Creator, which is why there is a continual need for the purification of love.
My comments here come directly from a saying of Fr. Giussani that I have referred to many, many times and that, in the book I wrote about him, I cited as one of the loftiest, most impressive and truly innovative points in the Church’s recent history: the definition of virginity as distance in possession, or possession that includes distance in it. We must take this expression in its entirety. In it is the exaltation of the human in Christ, which so characterized Fr. Giussani’s entire life, and the inevitability of sacrifice, which he always cited as the condition of the road. No one wants to do away with or repress friendship and sentiments, or to put them “in parentheses”, but we must be very clear and ask ourselves: what does God want of me? And what does that mean for the other, in light of the road that God has assigned to him?
Christ is not paradoxical. Christ gives us an abundance of human affections to help us to understand what it means to love him. It doesn’t scandalize me when someone says: “It seems that I love that person more than I love Jesus”, because our path towards the Infinite is without end, and, before you love the God that you don’t see, you love the neighbor that you see. But love the neighbor that you see so as to walk toward God, to walk toward the fullness of yourself.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (cf. Mt 19, 20): this saying brings us to the deepest heart of the revolution brought about by Jesus, the same revolution that He expressed when he said: “The one who loses his life will find it” (cf. Lk 9, 25), the same revolution that he brought in saying: “I have come that you would have life, and fullness of joy” (cf. Jn 10, 10; Jn 15, 11). Jesus came for our fulfillment. Someone who does not love himself cannot love God and others. “They believe that they love God because they don’t love anyone”, wrote Simone Weil.
You cannot love yourself if you do not acknowledge that you have received your being from the One who made you – that you are a creature. In this way you discover the positiveness of creation. Then you discover that you have been saved, you discover the preciousness of Christ’s death and resurrection; and finally you discover that you have been called, you discover the privilege of every vocation.
These loves – love of God, love of neighbor and love of self – are a single love. They are a description of the movement of love. Since God is infinite, I must learn to be patient with my limits, and indeed that there are some limitations that I will have until the end of my life. Perhaps God will save me precisely because, humiliating me through those limitations, he will compel me to pray, to acknowledge him, to love him. “So that I would not become too elated, he gave me a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me” (cf. 2 Cor 12,7). These are the words of St. Paul! Certainly, many of the affections that arise in our lives speak to us of a new richness that awaits us. But when they become disordered, they also point to a gap in our existence.
Love of work
Every responsibility that is entrusted to a person is a fundamental path of love. For every person, in fact, work is the channel for his expression. It brings him into relation with others and with the whole world, and in it he responds to the one who has called him. This is why we must change the way we look at work, acquiring, in our prayer, a passion for the responsibility that has been entrusted to us, and at the same time a detachment from it. It is true that in the Christian life we experience the unity of what, in the world, is divided. How can you be passionate and detached at the same time? Is it possible? Definitely. Not only is it possible, but it is desireable. Only in this way can a person find the truth of himself. Life calls us to let those we have given birth to and raised walk by themselves. It is very difficult to detach ourselves from those we are tempted to possess.
We would never leave our children and our friends, or abandon them, even if they are called to travel a road that we had not foreseen. We should not be offended by the fact that one day we are here, and the next day we are called to be somewhere else. Certainly there will be a period of adjustment, perhaps even some regret or nostalgia, but that’s it. We should attend to what we are being asked at the present moment, knowing that what we have done up until now is never lost – not a moment will be lost. This certainty makes us experience a fullness in the moment, in the present. Why does the Church suffer? Because everybody feels they have the right to do what they want, disregarding even the Pope. No one obeys any more, no one is prepared to recognize the glory that is within obedience.
Is to give oneself to “empty oneself” (cf. Phil 2, 7)? Yes, but with a special emphasis: that charity, when it is shared, is never diminished. When I give myself wholly to Christ, I am filled a hundred times over.
The seed must die to give way to the plant. To die is to learn a language. To learn Hungarian, for example, means to die, because we must forget something first, otherwise we will not be able to learn the language. The same with Chinese. To enter into a place to the point of being immersed in that place, to the point of becoming of that place, without losing oneself: isn’t this the second chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Philipians? “He did not consider his equality with God a treasure to be grasped, but emptied himself, to the point of taking on human form, of becoming man” (cf. Phil 2, 6-7). And he did so that we might become God, divine, partakers of the divine nature, as St. Peter says (cf. 2 Pt 1, 4). This is the description of what mission is. (Notes from an address to the priests of the Fraternity of St. Charles, July 2009)
A new documentary video covering the Fraternity of St. Charles’s mission in and around Jerusalem is now available for sale. Watch the trailer here, and purchase the DVD at www.dischiespartiti.com or www.itacalibri.it. The video is available in English, Italian, and Spanish.