The Way of the Cross is an experience to be lived and for this reason it is a road to be discovered. Step-by-step, without haste, without giving in to endless distraction, and asking for the grace to be able truly to identify in first person with the cross of Christ, we begin to know God and, therefore, we begin to know man.
God appears to me in the awesome wonder of His love and I cannot avoid anything that God is calling me to accomplish along the way of the cross. God is love and for this reason He is absolute correspondence, immeasureable fullness, and endless mercy (cfr. Psalm 16:11). However, God is only so according to the criteria He determines, and by way of the path He forges. The “road” is God’s freedom united with our own in order to be made like Him. His love is overwhelming for this reason: He loves our freedom so much that he does not interfere in order to keep us from sin. Though He wishes to move us towards ultimate good, He allows us to choose roads that lead us far away from Him, while constantly providing the way for us to start over and be rescued from our nothingness.
This is how God appears to us on the way of the cross: as a lover seeking the beloved, willing to enter the dark pit of our existence. Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death you are with me (cfr. Psalm 23:4).
Milciádes is a nine year old boy that sustained a severe head injury. The doctors have concluded that he has very little brain tissue. Children in this condition, if left untreated, die within two years. That’s why his case is quite extraordinary because when he is spoken to he reacts and even smiles. Before being admitted to the clinic his father forced him to beg on the streets. Marianna still remembers the first time she saw him: “The first time I saw Milciádes he was lying on his bed holding his paralyzed arm with his good one. He didn’t move or speak. What I saw before me affected me so much that I couldn’t go near him. A few days later he came down with a case of the measles and the patient next to him, a five year old child, had to be moved. This left Milciádes completely alone. He began to cry inconsolably. I decided I had to do something to relieve of some of his pain. I approached his bed and broke out with the only song I knew how to sing in Spanish. Something akin to ‘Pop goes the weasel’. Milciádes immediately began to laugh. As the days went by, each time I walked into his room and said, ‘What’s up, Mil?’, before he could even see my face he began to look for me reached out to find me with his good arm. All of this is amazing to me given that a child in his condition does not normally respond to stimuli. I realized at that moment the amazing power of Christ to make his Presence known.”
Marcos is a 40 year old man diagnosed with AIDS. Marianna, Chiara, and Anna remember one thing in particular about him: he insisted he wanted his picture taken. “In all of his years – Chiara explained – no one had ever taken his picture. But the smile with which he requested his picture be taken helped us realize that this man was not afraid to die.” He told them on several occasions: “I have already found paradise right here, where I am. That’s why I am not afraid of what happens next.”
Mariela was 31 years old and had given birth to two children, the father being the man she lived with. She had breast cancer but ultimately the cancer spread to her bones and to her brain. When she arrived at the clinic she spoke with no one. She was extremely angry. Two days later, she began to smile. She finally asked Fr. Aldo to administer the sacrament of marriage to her and her long time companion. She died a few days later wearing her wedding gown, her hair and nails done, and smelling of fine perfume. Mariela died smiling. “She had understood – explained Marianna – that the grace she received in this place was worth more than life itself.”
January 26, 2007
My stay in Nairobi is coming to its end. I have met so many people, witnessed so much faith and poverty, joy and illness, hope and misfortune. Most of all, however, I have spent a lot of time with our four priests and have become familiar with their particular responsibilities. I have visited with the various parish groups, the schools that we have opened. I leave here convinced that the path we have begun to tread is the correct one: that of education. And not only for us, but for Africa. We are doing something useful not just for the Church but for these communities, as well. I hope that my diary has been useful for all those persons that wished to have news from me while in Nairobi. I also hope that the diary has afforded the opportunity for further reflection. My luggage awaits, as well as all those persons that I wish to bid farewell.
Good-bye Nairobi, farewell Africa.
January 25, 2007
We are back from two days at Lake Nakuru, one of the many volcanic lakes of the Rift Valley, famous for the thousands and thousands of flamingos that populate the rivers. We toured the savannah and the forest in our Toyota. We saw antelopes, gazelles, zebras, rhinos, buffalos, baboons, giraffes, and hyenas. Along the lake there were swarms of pelicans and flamingos. We held the meeting of the house in this earthly paradise knowing full well that it is an oasis in the middle of a very different world. Here in Nairobi the Social Forum against globalization has begun. It is very anti-Bush (the billboards here refer to him as “number one in terror”). The thousand or so persons that are here for the forum don’t come from Africa, but from the western world. Everything looks really old—70s sort—with a mirage of revolution. I think the path of education that we have chosen is a much more interesting one. Creating new leading classes via long and arduous work, but classes comprised of people fascinated by education. Saving the poor through the conversion of the hearts and minds of the rich and powerful. Today we will discuss the following topics: the young, school, education. Tomorrow will more than likely be a “vacation” day. Friday we will hold an administrative meeting and during the evening we embark on our trip back to Italy. Today I’ll have lunch with AIDS patients at our meeting point that gathers them in and takes care of them.
January 20, 2007
Visited the Wendani and Kahawa neighborhoods that are in the parish. These last few years have seen the construction of new buildings that stick out like soar thumbs amidst poorly constructed homes in an area lacking a sewer system, paved roads, and the presence of a sanitation department. Fr. Alfonso knows a lot people and as we tour the area many greet and are greeted by him. He often stops to ask for news about someone or another. We approach a home where a woman is holding her son. He is skin and bones, suffers from a deformity, and is very small. He is 16 years old but doesn’t speak and is affected by a number of illnesses. His mother tries to feed him some cereal but he is not able to ingest anything. This family receives assistance through our sponsorship program. We visit the clinic run by our parish. I am told that there is a bit of a wait because it is Saturday morning. The people that frequent the clinic most are ill with malaria or tuberculosis. Others come for HIV tests. The clinic is in need of more modern equipment. That’s why we have asked the Knights of Malta for assistance. Afternoon: rest. During the evening I’ll read a few pages from Claudel. Tomorrow, January 21, 2007, I will celebrate mass at the parish. After mass I will meet with the Pastoral Council and speak on the topic of co-responsibility. On Sunday afternoon I will meet with the CL community. January 22 and 23 I will go on Safari in a national park. I’ll take up my diary again on Wednesday, January 24th.
January 17, 2007
I spent the morning at the nuncio’s office. Two hours of conversation with nuncio, Monsignor Alain Lebeaupin. We discussed various topics. Together with Valerio and Carlo, at noon, we will go to the Gitega slum, the largest slum in all of Africa; one million people! There is an elementary school there run by volunteers in the CL movement. They will receive us with song and dance. The school takes its name from the famous book by French author Antoine de Saint Exupery: The Little Prince. In my opinion, it is a very important initiative given the dramatic circumstances (and location) that it finds itself in. A ray of light amidst unimaginable degradation. January 16, 2007 Today will be a day completely dedicated to the schools. During the morning I’ll visit the San Kizito professional school which has its origin in the movement of Communion and Liberation and is led by Fr. Valerio since its beginning (1992-93). It trains carpenters, electricians, hydraulic technicians, iron workers, tailors and seamstresses, electronics technicians, auto-body repairmen…. It is truly a model school and is admired in Kenya. Each program lasts two years. Every year almost 200 students obtain a diploma. Next to the school is a furniture maker that makes large wooden furniture for homes and hotels in the entire country. I will speak to a group of young workers about my conversations with Fr. Giussani and about the meaning and value of work. I will then visit Otunga High School which opened two years ago. It is also an initiative of the movement of CL. The school will soon move to a new building that is now under construction at the parish where the Carovana Middle School will also be housed (the elementary schools will remain where they are along with the E. Mazzola Day Care). During the afternoon I will meet with the teachers of the day care and of the Carovana Elementary School. We will discuss their experience as teachers and the miracles that occur when children live a non-authoritarian relationship with their teachers. The discarding of formalism and authoritarianism is a new frontier in African education. January 15, 2007 Today is a touring day. I rest as my Sunday was quite intense. During the morning hours we will spend some time discussing the various responsibilities we have in the life of the movement of Communion and Liberation. I will take-up the same themes from our previous discussions. During the afternoon I will read Ratzinger again (Faith, Truth and Tolerance – that will be more or less the theme of the next Meeting in Rimini and also the subject of Angelo Cardinal Scola’s book about Giussani). I’ll read from a foray of books in the library (Claudel and Danielou). During the evening I’ll read Guareschi’s surreal Don Camillo books. January 12, 2007 In my spare time, I continue to write my lessons for the retreat in March on the feminine in the Church. Reading Ratzinger’s books on the topic, I have been able to discover almost by accident, the continuity and the evolution of his thought process over the years. It would be interesting to do a study of Ratzinger during the Council and of his theology beginning in the early 70s, without pre-determined text to defend, but with the purpose of actually taking a look at reality in light of his writings (even those of a later period). I have prepared the homily for Sunday’s mass, which I will be celebrating. I am really looking forward to the African liturgy (replete with song and dance). Perhaps we are already becoming acculturated and haven’t even noticed it. At noon I will visit the parish day care that was inaugurated five years ago. The children, who number the maximum capacity allowable, are waiting for me at the front entrance where we will sing and dance together. They will want to be picked up and have their pictures taken, they’ll have gifts to give me (their drawings). Afterwards I’ll have lunch with them. A lovely (and delicious) plate o rice and beans. The older children (5 years) help the younger ones while at the table. These children are a joy that I have not known before. Their education is the great thing that can be accomplished in and for Africa. January 10, 2007
First I will celebrate mass for them and then I will speak briefly of my various meetings with Mother Teresa. Later I will visit the various areas of the home: it houses more than 300 people among which are very young children abandoned by their parents; older children that are mentally and/or physically handicapped; women with mental illnesses (I am told that men live in another house). This is also the house where the novices to Africa come to live (currently numbering 57). It is a microcosm of the ills of the world that through the presence of the Missionaries of Charity becomes a expression of the ability of the faith to render human even the most deplorable conditions. Upon my return home this evening, I will read to the other priests a chapter of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed.
January 8-9, 2007
I continue my diary.
In the morning the entire group met for three hours to discuss the topic of evangelization. After having shared with everyone the reason for my trip and for my extended stay among them, I decided to limit myself to listening and taking notes. I listened to all four of our priests as they discussed several areas of their mission. They told me about the small groups of 10-20 people (called Jumujas) that make up the larger parish community. Each priest meets on a weekly basis with the small groups in his care. It provides an excellent opportunity for people to gather together in order to listen and to talk with one another. Without ever even planning it, these groups now total a few hundred people. What about the rest of the community? The Holy Mass on Sunday is very well attended. I think people are drawn to the community by the beauty of the recently built church. A weekly catechetical lesson is offered to the entire parish (a school of Christianity). The participation seems to vary significantly. Its structure is now being rethought. It seems that a longer, more intense and perhaps even, a more all-encompassing preparation is required. This preparation is being discussed with the group of people involved. We must find a way to “enter” into their language and understand what fascinates them. A possible solution would be to offer everyone that attends a short written text (the important points of the homily? a judgment on what has been occurring? a brief phrase that introduces what will be discussed more in depth in the school of Christianity? Perhaps all three are needed).
We cannot limit ourselves merely to responding to isolated questions. But perhaps these questions are a good starting point in order to arrive at a systematic and critical proposal. If this does not occur, maturity of thought and a convinced and free adherence, is not possible. Later we spoke about liturgy as the road of evangelization. We also talked about the use of song and dance. That’s how we ended up discussing evangelization as being tied to the celebration of the sacraments, especially those of baptism and marriage. Later, I was updated on the diversity of community life and movements that have a presence in the parish: Catholic Action, Communion and Liberation, the Charismatic movement, and the Marriage Encounter (a movement that I am familiar with, founded in Spain, that branched off from the Equipes di Notre Dame)…. There are currently four Schools of Community being run in the parish that meet on a bi-weekly basis.
Fr. Valerio joined the discussion by speaking of our house as “a fountain of evangelization”. But is this really the case? Are we aware of the sacramental value of our house? Are we really “together” in our works? Or are we lone rangers? Is our passion for people authentic, or are we merely “service providers”? Are we closed in upon ourselves as a parish, or are we open to all the people we encounter?
Fr. Agapitus added some important comments on the topic of dialogue in and out of the house. He spoke of being able to draw others in and becoming genuine collaborators. He later spoke of his mission with the children (600 on Sunday!). He then went on to talk about the social activities: long distance adoption as a way to help families educate their children; the medical clinic and its possibilities; the Meeting Point for aids victims (70 HIV positive patients); the care of the physically and mentally handicapped. I decided to leave my comments regarding all of this for our next meeting.
Tomorrow, during daylight hours, I’ll write the meditations for the March retreat I am giving to our female Missionaries while in Germany. The theme will be the “feminine” side of the Christian experience.
In the evening, we will meet with the board of Urafiki Foundation from which the elementary and the middle school had its beginnings (Carovana). This board is now directly involved in the work of the schools. Together with the day care named after Emanuela Mazzola and the high school named after Cardinal Otunga, these schools hold much promise for the future.
But we’ll talk about this more in the days ahead.
In between flights (01/06/07)
I leave for Nairobi by way of Zurich early in the morning with Carlo. A direct flight is not available from Italy; in fact, it’s been this way for many years. The first time I went to Nairobi was in 1991.
At that time, Alitalia had a direct flight to Africa via Gedda. I still had to travel to north Africa in order to reach the southern end of the continent. The fact that this is the case in Italy leaves a lot to be desired.
This is my 5th trip to Nairobi. In 1991, I came in search of a teaching job for Vincent Nagle at Catholic University. But everything changed when Vincent became ill and, after recuperating, was sent to the United States. In 1991 Fr. Valerio was the only member of our Fraternity in Nairobi.
My second trip was in 1996 (if I remember correctly). I came to visit the house that was eventually founded with Roberto Amoruso. The third trip was in 2001 for the inauguration of the day care center. After having spent more than 20 years in Uganda, Alfonso Poppi joined Frs. Valerio and Roberto. We were given the care of St. Joseph’s parish in western Nairobi. We set up a temporary structure to serve as the church and began construction of the day care. This was made by possible by the generosity of the Mazzola family. Today the neighborhood is adorned by a large steeple and our house is the heart and life of the area’s social activities. Both a middle and a high school have been opened but I’ll talk about all this much more after I visit them.
From the airport home Nairobi appears not to have changed. Yet somehow, things are different. New neighborhoods (there are now over three million inhabitants) and asphalted roads. Daniel arap Moi, the much feared president, is no longer in power. Is there less corruption? Is something new occurring? I’ll try to discover it. We arrive at our house at 8 o’clock p.m. local time. It is truly beautiful, just as we planned it together. From the terrace the imposing view of the church is seen. What a joy to be a part of something so great and so beautiful! I hope the local people are proud of it, too.
The Pope stepped up the platform in the outer courtyard while the youth choir from Fr. Ghio’s nearby parish, the “Navicella”, sang the “Te Deum” in German. At the end of the visit, His Holiness greeted all of the people in the community. The Holy Father was accompanied by Camillo Cardinal Ruini and the auxiliary bishop for this area of downtown Rome, Monsignor Ernesto Manara. After having listened to brief speeches given by Guerino Di Tora, the Director of the local diocesan Caritas office, and some of the volunteers and visitors of the Center, the Holy Father spoke about the significance of the Center. “This place is somewhat of a symbol for all of Rome. In this place it is possible to find the presence of Christ in the brother that gives you something to eat. It is only by adhering to the message of love that is communicated by the Nativity of Christ that it is possible to experience the depths of true joy.”
The very joy lived by Roberto, a 40 year old man that spoke as representative of all those that benefit from the Center’s services. “In this place, Your Holiness, I have not only been able to find a plate of food, but the family that I lost”. The day ended with the Holy Father’s Apostolic blessing and an encore performance of the “Te Deum” in German, one of the Holy Father’s favorite hymns.
Now it was time to get back to an ordinary day. As all of the visitors began to vacate the premises, at the main entrance gate, all of the Center’s “ordinary guests” began to arrive. All those persons that everyday at Noon arrive and are offered their daily bread.
In the few evenings I have free, I have decided to re-watch some pieces by Pirandello on DVD, that came as a gift with some magazines. Pirandello foresaw the crisis that would seize the European man in 1900 and he conveyed this through stories about the collapse of the middle-class family, which, according to him, marked the end of the family as an institution. This relationship, articulated by the playwright, between the difficulties of man and those of the family, made me reflect.
The problems he described coincide with those that come up in the almost daily meetings that I have with people who come to me for advice or help. If Pirandello was right, the dark path along which our families are walking is the result of the blurred awareness that man has of himself, consequently, the path towards a new beginning coincides with that towards the rebirth of the personal identity.
The human being lives in a condition of constant need. He needs other people to live, to become aware of himself, to become aware of his cultural, sexual, and moral identity. The first people that he experiences as ‘other’ from himself are his parents. Then there are friends and teachers. But one of the parental figures can be torn away from his family by death, and a family can fall apart for serious reasons. It is not my intention to pass judgment. Instead, I wish to indicate a real ideal, that can make life easier. Without doubt, having parents that love each other, in times of tension, trial, and difficulty as well, is a good thing for any child. Of course, people are going to do what is possible, but I cannot help indicating what I deeply desire for everyone, in other words, what has been prepared by God for each one of us. Parents ought to separate only due to extremely serious reasons. It must be the very last resort, a decision taken after long thought, and always for the sake of the children. Since I want to avoid any misinterpretation of my desire, as a magic formula or as an abstract idea, I am going to explain how this wish can become a reality. First of all, they must have friends who can advise and encourage; then there needs to be financial assistance for the children’s education, to prevent parents from being overwhelmed by their jobs when they should be with their children; they must have schools that can share the burden of education. Priests also ought to consider helping families as one of the primary responsibilities of their ministry. Above all, it is necessary to trust in God, to ask for His help, and to start praying again in our homes, even a few minutes every day: before each meal, before going to bed, in the morning, before going out. To recite simple prayers such as the Hail Mary or Our Father or the Angelus. We must be brave and confess to God our difficulties and ask for His help.
Today we are overwhelmed by information: fertility and sexuality have been separated, the male and female are no longer relevant. “We must break free from any predetermination. It’s up to us to decide if we are male or female; if we want to be in a stable relationship with a man or with a woman; if we want to have children or not and the children we are going to have.”
Alongside with the negative aspects of our times, we also have to acknowledge the steps forward that have been made, such as welfare policies that provide support for families and for maternity; medical research on fetal diseases, clinical tests to investigate the reasons of infertility, etc. But despite these positive developments, we have to bear in mind that our happiness depends on our acceptance of the objective data that exists before us and makes our growth possible: we receive our sexual identity, just as falling in love is a free act and a child is a gift. If the fundamental structure of our life is discarded, we won’t be following a path towards a greater good, but towards greater confusion which will make everyone more unhappy.
Christmas brings the Holy Family once again to our attention, who through their normality preserved something exceptional. Their normality was made up of the mutual trust between Joseph and Mary, who truly loved each other and faced together the exceptional destiny of their child, a boy like any other boy, who was, however, born through God’s will, with no intervention of his earthly father and who was God made man. How open to the unexpected, how great and confident is the soul that was dwelt with that Presence. I pray that it will be the same in the families of my readers.
In the picture: on the first page, mosaic by Marko Rupnik: Nativity, in the Chapel of the Adoring Nuns in Lenno, Como. The picture is taken by a calendar available on the website: www.lipaonline.org.
Four years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope and took the name Benedict XVI. Four years is too short to allow a view, even just a summary of the dawn of a pontificate. One’s thoughts run immediately to the twenty-seven years of the reign of John Paul II. Yet we must not forget that Joseph Ratzinger is already eighty-two years old; he is aware of this; and that he has therefore wanted to impress a clear path upon his pontificate, knowing to do only the essential and very incisive.
He probably does not believe that it is effective to move people from one task to another. This was done at the beginning of his pontificate, but then it was stopped. He prefers the interior change of individual persons, as was clearly requested in his surprising Letter to the Catholic Episcopate. He is convinced that God can do anything, even change the heart of the ecclesiastics and open them to a truer account of the good of the Church and their own lives.
What are the lines of this concentration? First, its focus is directed at the liturgy. One of the last books published before his accession to the papacy, Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy, if reviewed today, may be a useful key to understanding the totality of this pontificate in its development so far. I do not want here to refer to the motu proprio concerning the rehabilitation of the Mass of St. Pius V, but something much deeper, the same concept that Ratzinger has of the liturgy as the moment of the manifestation of God’s absolute prior initiative in human life, his grace, his mercy, and at the same time his ability to intervene in history, to give shape to existence, to accompany, visibly and invisibly, the paths of the cosmos toward their recapitulation.
Whoever wants to understand something of this pontificate must read and reread carefully the homilies of Benedict XVI, especially those given during important liturgical moments, Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost. This was noted several times by Sandro Magister in his articles. In those texts, Joseph Ratzinger clearly appears as a new Leo the Great, a new Ambrose, a new Augustine, one who is able to draw an existential pedagogy from the liturgical itinerary, revealing all the way of man towards God and of God towards man.
There is no lack, of course, in these homilies, of the depth of the history of the Church, the ancient liturgical prayers, especially Latin, from which Ratzinger draws freely to show the continuity of tradition and its efficacy. But also the liturgical gestures, timing, space. For him, everything is revealing a pedagogy of the renewed world. It is as if Benedict XVI had renounced discerning what to do depending on its immediate efficacy. He knows that the crisis of the Church and in the Church is profound. He wants to sow deeply.
In light of these considerations, we understand two other initiatives that I put at the same level as attention to the liturgy. I’m talking about the Pauline year and the announcement of the year dedicated to the priesthood. Through the current Pauline year, Benedict XVI wants to return to the roots of the Church and at the same time promote an exposition focused entirely on the faith in Christ and on Christian doctrine. For Paul, there is only Christ, and Christ crucified and risen. He never addressed in his letters the childhood of Jesus (everything is concentrated in four words: born of a woman), he did not speak of life in Nazareth, or even three years in the apostolic community. For Paul, the Jesus that interests him is specifically the Jesus of the passion, death and resurrection, who has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, the Son of God made flesh. The Pauline year permits sensitive and attentive pastors to repropose the heart of Christian experience in such a vital way.
Similarly, and with the same radicality, Benedict XVI knows that the most serious crisis of the Church today is the priestly life: teachers are scarce, uncertain lessons are taught in many schools of theology. There remains an emotional crisis for many priests, marked by loneliness and withdrawal. But most of all in many countries, there is a progressive reduction of the People of God, whose education and growth is the primary purpose of the life of the priest. It is therefore no accident that Pope Ratzinger wanted this year of the priesthood, linking it to the 150th anniversary of the death of the holy Cure D’ars.
One last remark: the heart of the Pope looks to the east, Russia, China. In his book on Benedict XVI, written after the appointment of the pope, and that remains the only book on this interesting pontificate (Benedict XVI: The Choice of God, Rubbettino editor), George Weigel, providing precisely this attention of Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “Asia is the continent that has seen the biggest failure of Christian mission in two millennia.” He adds: “China may be the largest field of Christian mission of the twenty first century.” But even India, where we witness today a horrific persecution of the small Catholic minority, is an important reference point. Its profound Hindu and Buddhist culture engages Christian wisdom and the belief in salvation that only comes through Christ.
A violent person who was shown mercy. The personality of Paul of Tarsus mirrors our modern life.
If tonight I wished to talk about Paul’s doctrine and thought, it would take a very long time. Instead, I want to do something simpler, but, in my opinion, more important: I want to instill in you the desire to meet St. Paul, even if only for the time he is mentioned in the Sunday liturgy. I want to show you the aspects of his personality that are the most striking to me. Consequently, I am not going to mention many of the fundamental themes of his theology; I apologize in advance for leaving them aside. Like a painter, I want to sketch a portrait of his face.
Let us begin with the words of a letter addressed to St. Paul:
“All human generations will not be enough to be educated by your writings and, through them, to be led to their complete fulfilment.” The author of these words is Seneca. Despite the fact that the exchange of letters between the philosopher and Paul is generally considered inauthentic – though some scholars, such as Marta Sordi believe that they could be – they remain a fundamental witness to Paul’s role in the first centuries of the Christian era. Indeed, the letters date no later than the 4th century A.D.
Paul of Tarsus is surely one of the greatest figures of human history. It is as if he were many personalities at once, united by a single understanding of the purpose of life. I am first going to describe his strength and then his tenderness.
As a young man, Paul became a disciple of Gamaliel, a leading rabbi, and he was devoted to reporting and persecuting the Christians. These he rightly believed were following a heresy dangerous to the Judaic law and were sustaining a mysterious force that called for an equally forceful punishment. He describes himself and the energy that animated him as follows: “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy” (Timothy 1:13). “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth…. Many of the saints did I shut up in prison … and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26: 9-11). Finally, he writes in a letter, very briefly: “I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).
After St. Stephen was stoned to death, which Paul assisted at and approved of (Acts 7:57; 8:1), a change occured in the depths of his soul, surely initiated by the Holy Spirit. Holzner writes: “The scene of St. Stephen’s stoning recurs in his memories many times (Acts 22:20 and 26:10; Galatians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 15:9). Saul never forgets that day, and the memory of it torments him until the end of his days.” St. Augustine writes. “If Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have had St. Paul.” This was the beginning of the long path that led to a new understanding of his past life.
He discovered that his pedantic application of the law was nothing more than the attempt to forget that he couldn’t bring about his own salvation. He realized that he could not follow the law as he wanted—the same law that he wanted to devote his life to and which represented God. He realized that sin ruled his life. It was not a matter of denying the law, but of finding a way to live it, and that way was not to be found in the autonomous willpower of a man.
The conflict within his personality
“He was tortured by the inner conflict between what he willed and what he actually did.” On his own, Paul would not be able to give an answer; he would have been caught by a terrible depression, which can affect passionate spirits like his. He experienced a deep inner restlessness that demanded a definite and extreme love. In this agonizing conflict between his awareness of evil in himself and of the goodness of his personhood, he was saved by Jesus, since he could not compromise as a hypocrite might.
The experience of grace
In the common human experience of absolute powerlessness, grace was the foundation that supported Paul. The word “grace” has been used so often and in so many ways, that it has lost the power of its original meaning. For Paul, “grace” coincides to a great extent, if not exclusively, with the person of Jesus. A significant example of this can be found in his writings: “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Romans 16:20; 1 Corinthians 16:23; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 1 Timothy 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:18; Philemon 1:25). This word is even used to name the person of Jesus: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). It is always used as a declarative genitive, having an explanatory function: the grace of Christ, the grace that is Christ.
We are also touching here on one of the most meaningful aspects of Giussani’s teaching. It was not accidental he favoured St. Paul’s epistles his whole life, along with John’s gospel. According to Giussani, the grace which is the essence of God’s life reaches us through an encounter: “The Christian event is an encounter. It is a human encounter in our ordinary, everyday life. A human encounter through which a man called Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem at a precise moment in history, is revealed as important to the very heart of our life.”
Paul experienced this encounter on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Now, because of paintings by Michelangelo and Caravaggio that spontaneously come to mind, you are probably imagining St. Paul galloping on his horse and falling, suddenly dazzled by a powerful light. None of this is found in the epistles or in the Acts of the Apostles.
Paul never uses the word “conversion.” He speaks instead of “revelation” and even more often of “vocation.” He goes through a very precise and real experience: God calls his name, and, despite the fact that He is actually telling him off, shows that He cares about Paul as no one has before. Paul is shocked. The One he has been persecuting responds with mercy, saving him from a desperate life and opening up the possibility of a new existence full of discovery and adventure. Jesus revealed the secrets of centuries, and Paul experienced an endless love beyond all human comprehension. In one of his letters, he wrote: “He loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The pronoun “me” carries the shock Paul experienced when he was actually touched by the endlessness of God, mercifully bending down over our nothingness, allowing us to be part of His greatness.
Why was Paul chosen?
The love that Christ manifested for Paul, like any other true love, cannot be explained. Nonetheless, this answer leaves us dissatisfied. We want to enter, on tiptoes, into the Mystery of this love. Why did Jesus choose Paul? Were the Apostles he already had not enough? Most importantly, were Peter and John not enough—the one that loved the most and the one that was the most loved? What was He looking for in Paul? What did He want from him? We cannot escape these questions, just as we cannot escape the fact that in His earthly life Jesus chose to surround Himself with diverse people. Of some we know their temperaments, characteristics, reactions, even their work. Only consider John, who from being “the son of thunder,” vehement and restless, became the symbol of meekness and love, enveloped in the embrace of his Friend.
Jesus wants to be surrounded by this diversity: He picks whomever He wants—He chooses through mercy—so that no one is left aside. He is aware that no one, however great, can express all the different facets of His divine humanity. It is not by chance that many gospels exist, making up for the fact that Jesus Himself did not leave any writings, and that the Church chose four of them. Jesus is the focal point, both in the history that originates in Him and in the lives of the men that He called and who became His reflection the more closely they followed Him. The saints are the reflections of those aspects of Jesus’ humanity that are not explicitly recounted in the gospels. I like to consider Paul, together with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the author of the “Pentateuch of the New Testament,” just as there is a Pentateuch in the Old Testament.
The diversity of His choices shows that Jesus is interested in bringing “communion” among people. Jesus chooses different people and to each of them assigns a task that cannot be carried out by anyone else. Each of us should reflect on the fact that in Jesus’ eyes every person has an absolutely crucial role; we are given a task that cannot be carried out by anybody else, and if we neglect it, it will remain unaccomplished.
Jesus chooses us for our unique personalities. He does not want to change them in any way. He doesn’t want to bewitch us. Paul’s experience shows this dramatically. Jesus chose Paul notwithstanding his violence, but precisely because of it. He actually wanted to make use of Paul’s great energy, just as He made use of Peter’s childish impetuousness or St. Francis’ dramatic playfulness or Thérèse of Lisieux’s essential simplicity. Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul, but the structures of their personalities, their limits and their sins, remain unchanged and a part of their new life. The Church is not afraid of tension. The tension between St. Paul and St. Peter was very strong, so strong, in fact, that if the Holy Spirit had not been present, they would have simply fallen out. St. Paul had unbounded culture and a complex temperament, neither of which St. Peter had. Peter is all of a piece, he is carved in stone—he betrayed Jesus and cried. Paul represents instead psychological complexity: Peter sinned through an excess of simplicity, Paul through an excess of complexity.
Was Paul a difficult personality?
Romano Guardini in his book Jesus Christ points out that Paul’s highly problematic personality continues even after his encounter with Jesus: “He must have felt strongly inferior and so tried to compensate through the continual recollection of his experience of Christ, as well as through endeavors and achievements that reached the limit of human capabilities.” Jesus takes advantage of this duality in Paul’s personality. “He was a troubled man,” writes Guardini. Commenting on a passage in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, when Paul speaks about his physical weakness (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), Guardini observes that Paul has a high opinion of himself which is wounded, but then recovered through his interior experiences. “The passage provides extensive evidence of the abrupt and violent manifestations of his life sentiment that were far from being balanced.”
It is therefore not surprising that alongside “his total and enthralling commitment, there can also be discerned in Paul’s personality a moving tenderness,” as Holzner writes. “Under the shining sight of the resurrected Christ, Paul is overwhelmed by endless energy focused to one purpose. Fanaticism is changed into the capacity for love which manifests itself later with the tenderness and meekness of a mother.”
His inner itinerary is crystal clear: Paul sees in the people that follow him, in the little communities that are starting to grow in the ocean of the Roman empire, the face and presence of the One who loves him. For him there is no difference between loving Christ and loving His people. This is what Jesus taught him when He asked, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). Looking at the love literature of the past centuries—from the works of Ovid, Horace, Dante, Petrarch to the longing for love expressed by our contemporary writers—a comparable ardour is not to be found, whether towards individuals or whole communities, an ardour at once tender and virile. Let us take a look at some of his expressions of love.
To the Philippians: “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8). Still addressing them: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (1:21-24). From the epistle to the Corinthians: “What I want is not your possessions but you” (2 Corinthians 14). In the same epistle: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit? “ (1 Corinthians 4:21). “So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well” (2 Corinthians 12:15). “We have … opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also” (2 Corinthians 6:11-13). “Make room for us in your hearts. … I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you” (2 Corinthians 7:2-3).
He describes his affection for the communities as a father or a mother might.
To the Corinthians: “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:14:15). To the Thessalonian community: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
On the cross with Christ
After the encounter on the road to Damascus, Paul conceives himself as completely dominated by Jesus. It is difficult to convey the power of his words. In the epistle to the Romans, he uses the expression “Servant of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1). The word “servant” conveys the deep desire to live close to Him, to serve Him, as much as he could. This is the great experience of Paul: the freedom to serve Jesus. “Freedom” does not simply mean having no master. Man feels free when he finds the One that fulfils his humanity because He is the Lord who created us and who knows us the most deeply. Joan of Arc said, “God must be served first.” The medievals wrote, “To serve God is to reign.” By using that opening sentence in his epistle to the Romans, “Servant of Jesus Christ,” Paul wants to express his boundless love for Him, which he fulfils by becoming tiny, i.e., “paulos,” in order to serve the infinite greatness of the Son of God made man. He was called to be an apostle by vocation (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1). That is, he was called by Jesus through the will of God. Some in the Church struggled to accept that this man, who had never met Christ and who had even been one of His persecutors, could claim to be His apostle. Suspicion of his person never left him; it was like rust, a disease that led to his death, if it is true that in the end he was turned in by spies envious of his position (cf. letter of Pope Clement III). This is the reason why; he repeats throughout his life that he was the apostle “sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). He was chosen to preach to all people on earth, not only Jews. Jesus, before ascending into Heaven, did actually say, “Go into all the world” (cf. Mark 16:15 and Matthew 28:19). Then He chose this man from Tarsus, and this commandment became the foundation of all the churches in the Mediterranean region. Some of the Apostles travelled to Egypt, others to India; they never forgot Jesus’ commandment. But Paul was called to bring the Gospel to heathens (cf. Romans 1:1). He plays the main role in this explicit revolution. He does not want a reward because he is not acting on his own initiative, but for a task that was entrusted to him (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:17). He was called and sent into the world by Someone else. Paul sees everything through Jesus’ eyes, and he is interested in everything simply because everything leads to Jesus: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). He did not gain his knowledge because he studied a theory, but because it was an actual experience. Through Paul, the experience of resurrection lives on, and by being part of His grief, he has become like Him in His death (cf. Philippians 3:10-11). He is a prisoner of Jesus (cf. Philemon 1:1). This identification with Jesus is the profound source of Paul’s action. It is the same kind of physical experience as that of St. Francis and Padre Pio, who both experienced the Crucifixion through the Stigmata. Nonetheless, it’s he, Paul, who was the first to write, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). Nobody else dared to say the same thing. It is a difficult experience to understand and to penetrate; we perceive the impossible deepness of Paul’s identification with Him, feeling both attracted and rejected. It is worth it to learn by heart the line taken from the epistle to the Galatians because it has often been commented upon, recalled, and repeated by Father Giussani, along with the most meaningful of its original translations. I can still hear him saying, or better, shouting, “I live, but it’s not me living, it is Christ living in me.” Again: “Despite living in the flesh” – not by chance he chose this line as the title of one of his books – “I live in the faith of the Son of God.” Through grace Paul completely identifies himself with Jesus, and in fact this gift is offered to all who are baptized.
It was Paul’s particular merit to reveal this reality of Christianity: Christians are actually born anew in Christ, they are one with Him. It is Christ who lives in this time in history and in this condition. Through the fragility of our flesh, He becomes concrete for every man, at every time in history.
Follow my example
“I wish that all men were as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:7). Paul’s experience with Christ is so strong that he wishes every one could live as he does, could share his gift, could enter into the relationship that he lives with reality. He does understand that this is not possible in practice since everyone has received a particular gift from God, different for each man. But his invitation remains unchanged: “Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16). Thanks to his role as God’s ambassador to different people, in different nations, with different languages and cultures, he is well aware that unity does not equal uniformity. In Paul’s personality a radically monotheistic Jewish experience is combined with the elegance of the Greek language and spirit and the awareness of superiority as a Roman citizen. Each aspect must be united but not levelled: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12: 4-7).
Paul recognises that people are sent by Christ as apostles, as prophets, as teachers, or with various other gifts (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28). The radical choice that shaped all his life and his vocation made it possible for him to deal with different social realities, to face the most diverse problems and not to be afraid of the most dramatic crises.
Paul had amazing physical strength, as the details of his trips show: the miles travelled on foot or by boat, though the desert, towns, and cities of his times. His travel companions struggled to keep pace with him. Christ surely used the gift of such great strength as an instrument to spread the Gospel. The trait that’s most interesting to us is Paul’s willpower. In the First Letter to the Corinthians (4:10-13), he describes his life in a concise autobiography. In it, the verbs are plural—he always travelled with someone else, as Jesus had commanded His disciples: “We go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands.” Then he clearly expresses his willpower: “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”
“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service” (1 Timothy 1:12). According to Paul, everything originates from this point: Jesus’ voice, His Person, His presence that is constantly at Paul’s side, speaking to him. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
A strange conflict: strength and weakness
Paul experiences once again a strange conflict. The force that leads him to accomplish endeavours that astonish many Christians coexists with a feeling of constant weakness. The contrast that animated his life is powerfully manifested through the outward antithesis between strength and weakness. St. Paul seems to be saying: since I am weak, since I am aware of my misery and of men’s misery, since I am aware of my fundamental inadequacy, I am ready to receive everything from the Spirit of God (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10). From the Holy Spirit, Paul actually does receive the strength that has been described earlier. Those who do not trust in themselves can completely abandon themselves to God, and from Him they will receive the energy for the most difficult and unforeseen missions.
Not only does Paul experience such a strength, but he also wants his brothers experience it and he imparts this to them as a certain fact, as the following passage shows: “And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The strength to face temptation is the Spirit of God, a burning fire of charity. A few lines later he continues: “[Love] always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7). And: “Be men of courage; be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). Finally, the most impressive expression of this paradox: “In all our troubles my joy knows no bounds” (1 Corinthians 7:4).
Law and Salvation
When we read St. Paul’s letters, particularly the ones to the Romans and the Galatians, the possibility of salvation through the law is constantly discussed and questioned. Earlier it was mentioned that Paul was strictly educated in the law, not only the one received by Moses from God on the Mount Sinai, but also the hundred thousand rules that had been established since. It has been mentioned that after St. Stephen’s death, Paul’s solid faith – which he had so vehemently defended until then – started to crack. Maybe he could hear the echo of the words of the prophets, who foretold that hearts of stone would become flesh (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26) or that the time had come for a new circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25; Ezekiel 44:7; 44:9). The prophets had already opened a path towards the inner observance of the word, rather than excessive compliance with the letter of the law. This is where God talks to man and makes possible things that he would otherwise never be able to accomplish. It is the beginning of a revolution. The law has not been abolished. Instead, we discover that the law would remain just a tablet listing all our sins and our death if we were not enabled by God to love Him and our brothers. Since he had so violently persecuted Christians, it is not difficult to understand why Paul becomes so radical and bitter when he talks about this issue. For this reason his statements should always be considered in the context of a whole letter and in the tradition from which they originated and never analysed as isolated extracts, as Luther did. “We are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:15): this is what Paul cries out in the face of those who feel overwhelmed by thousands of impossible precepts. It is the declaration of a new freedom. Jesus told the Jewish people that He had come to free them, and they answered that they had never been slaves to anyone (John 8:33). Paul picks up on this confrontation. “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted” (Romans 6:17-18).
Paul is the author of an unprecedented cultural shift. Under the Mosaic law – or outside it – a man was suffocated either by the weight of his desire for good which he could not satisfy, or else by the weight of the commandments that he could not fulfill, no matter how hard he tried. As a result, he was more and more entangled in a deathly and sinful experience. Through Paul’s experience that man is finally given freedom. The only thing to do is to welcome Jesus the Saviour and to embrace His Spirit, which will lead to God. The essence is still obedience, but this time it is for life, not for death, as it was before.
At that time, “freedom” was one of the most important words of the Greek vocabulary. The free people represented the heart of the nation and of the city. Paul turns the meaning of the word upside-down: he reveals the slavery concealed behind that apparent freedom and the liberty disclosed by this new obedience.
Paul: the true Catholic
With the intervention of Paul, the new Christians are ready to welcome every nation of the world. Both a continuation of and a break with the Jewish faith, the Church is born of Abraham, but is not confined to just one ethnicity.
Paul never denies his Jewish heritage, though condemning his past as a persecutor. He always perceives the Jewish people as his dearest brothers, those that were preferred by God through eternal promises that cannot be retracted: “God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Paul even says that he would like to be extra-communicated in their favour, to be dismissed to leave enough room for them to enter. Nonetheless, he foresees that they will come back in a united Church, of which they remain the fundamental origin. John Paul II would say that we are their younger brothers; Paul calls Christians the “grafted branches” (cf. Romans 11:23-24). His attention is particularly focused on the heathens, who are the ones that he is called to convert to Christ. They comply with the laws of nature, and they act according to their reason, but we all know how fragile and weak human reason is. Paul’s aim is to spark the light of reason in every man, as a gift from God and made in His image. God can speak to everyone because of this shared humanity. He is not afraid of talking about a law written in the heart of each man (cf. Romans 2:15), which our conscience is a witness to and which surfaces in men’s reasoning. His confrontation at the Aeropagus in Athens is the chief example of this attempt. Even though he is apparently defeated, he is actually the winner, since on this occasion he outlined the path that he wants to lead every man on. He wants to give a name to the hidden God and to reveal that which man is waiting for, even without being aware of it (Acts 17:23).
The last theme I would like to touch on is Paul’s companions. Despite the fact that – as I have tried to make clear – he had a difficult personality, he always wanted to travel with some companions, and he even felt the need to have at his side some friends, to share Mystery he was experiencing and to educate them. They were not only people who executed his commands: the tension among them and the departure of some are a proof of this. The first Christian missionaries, as sent by Christ, went forth in groups of two. Paul’s companion during his first apostolic trip and then to Jerusalem for the council was Barnabas. He then travelled with Timothy, who wrote many of the letters with St. Paul and who would be the recipient of two of them. Paul identifies him as “a son.” In the letter to the Philippians (cf. Philippians 2:2), he writes that nobody else has his heart. Another companion was Silas or Silvanus, a Christian Jew who accompanied Paul on his second apostolic trip. In Ephesus, Paul met Aquila and Priscilla, a Roman couple who escaped after Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. In Ephesus Paul stayed at their house, and he met them again in Rome. Another of his close companions is Titus, and there are also all the trusted people that supported him throughout his trips: Phoebe the deaconess, that is, the manager of a domestic business; Stephana in Korinthos; and many more. Paul’s heart needs to flow into other people’s hearts. He writes to Timothy: “I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1;4); “Join with me in suffering for the Gospel” (2 Timothy 1:8). For all the above-mentioned reasons, it remains racking to read today the words that Paul wrote from his prison, when, at last, he was close to death. He writes to his beloved Timothy:
“Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message. At my first defence, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (2 Timothy 4:9-19)
Extract from a meeting organized by the Cultural centre E Manfredini – Bologna, 15th January 2009 www.centromanfredini.it