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
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.
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.
Prayer establishes a bond between our lives that would otherwise be impossible, since it leads to the discovery, like a treasure slowly lifted out of the depths of the sea, of the mysterious and profound unity in which God has bound all of humanity. Indeed, the deepest essence of prayer is intercession: «To intercede, to ask on behalf of another, is the prerogative of a heart that is in sympathy with the mercy of God. Christian intercession is an expression of the communion of saints », says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is the priest in particular who situates himself as one who intercedes for all – a bit like Moses, who raised his hands during the battle, and offered his sacrifice for the whole people (cf. Ex 17,8-14). This is clearly seen in the words recited at the moment of consecration: «This is my body, this is my blood, given for you ». At its heart, prayer is always intercession, and intercession is always an offering of oneself. Thus when we recite the psalm, saying: «Lord, my strength, my fortress, my rock» (cf. Ps 17,3; Ps 30,4; Ps 117,14), we also say these words for those who are unable to say them. They are of decisive importance for those people as well. In this way we understand the priestly significance of baptism, and the significance of the ordained priesthood. Through the latter, in the eucharistic sacrifice, the common priesthood becomes objective supplication and offering. Here we see the cosmic value of the eucharistic sacrifice, which encompasses the entire history of the world each time it is offered. This is so true that it is impossible to celebrate Mass conscious of its nature or to participate in it attentively, without bringing to it everything that has been lived during that day, that hour, that week. Not only the people we have met, but also those whom we will never meet. In prayer – the place where everyone becomes a priest – each of us brings the mystery and life of all to Christ, and especially of those who do not pray or do not know how to pray, those who have stopped praying or have never learned how.
A new translation of one of Fr. Camisasca’s fundamental works has just been published by Human Adventure Books. It is available on Amazon.com and other bookselling sites. A brief description of the book follows:
Mons. Massimo Camisasca, founder and general superior of the Fraternity of St. Charles, has educated priests and seminarians for twenty-five years. The first part of this book contains several lessons given to his seminarians during their formation. The second part is articulated around five words: the three “classic” terms (poverty, virginity, and obedience) are completed with reflections on fatherhood and fruitfulness. “The world needs fathers, and Christ wants us to become fathers, an echo as it were of He who gave us existence and the light to live by, He who has saved us from nothingess and has opened the door to the greatest adventure there is: forgiveness. We are called to meet men and women everywhere and without fear, as traveling companions. We are called to be the embrace which does not hold back before the sick, the elderly, children, the abandoned, the dying. With them, we begin to experience the relevation of the glorious life which has no end.”
Shortly before summer, a young mother in one of the villages where I carry out my pastoral work died tragically. She fell sleep with a lighted cigarette, and was suffocated by the beginnings of a fire. She left three children, by three different fathers. She had been baptized two years earlier, together with her mother. She had a strong desire to overcome her alcoholism, which we had spoken of many times, including during her baptismal catechesis. I spoke with her on the phone a few days before she died – she wanted to know what time Mass would be celebrated on Ascension…
In my relations with this woman animated by good and sincere intentions – which, sadly, remained only intentions – I became conscious of the fact that the Lord gave me insight into her limitations so as to show me my own.
The news of her death reached me unexpectedly, and I wept. I wept for the bond that had been established between us, in which I found myself also to be needy, a beggar. I wept for her three children. For two years they had been living in an orphanage about 200 kilometers away, but spent the summers with her. The next day, I left for the woman’s village, planning to stop first at the orphanage. During the trip I would communicate the terrible news to the children; but how, and when?
I prayed as I went to the orphanage. I knew the director had not told the children, who weren’t the least surprised that I came to pick them up, since there was only one day left of school. The smallest, eight years old, got in the car and said right away: «Mommy will be so happy we’re coming today!». They like me, and speak quite freely with me. At one stretch, while we were looking out the windows at the magnificent landscape, deep green from the constant rains, I said to them that God is great to have given us such a beautiful world. I began to speak of creation, and of the Creator, encouraging them with questions: «Who created all this? Who created us?».
Little by little, I moved the conversation to life, and death, reminding them of their grandfather’s death and funeral two years earlier: «Where is your grandfather now? Who knows?… Do they weep in Paradise?…».
The moment had arrived: I stopped the car, and told them that their mother was now flying toward heaven, and that we all needed to pray a lot for her to help her in that flight. I tried to help them understand that what they would soon see would just be their mother’s body: she had died on this earth, but her soul was still alive and one day, when God wills it, we will see her again.
After a long moment of silence, during which the children looked at each other, crying, the little one surprised me by saying: «Mommy is now with grandpa in Paradise». Those words expressed the certainty that had been born in them: their mother was no more, they could no longer see her – but she was alive. This certainty stayed with them during the funeral and the days that followed, during which they had to stay at the orphanage while their aunt sorted out the issue of their adoption.
Precisely that certainty was the greatest gift that the Lord gave me in all this, and it made an impression on all those who saw it. A woman of the village, for example, a friend of the aunt, asked me for a ride to Novosibirsk just as I was taking the children back to the orphanage. «I can’t understand how come they don’t cry for their mother», she said to me in amazement, «I would cry constantly ». I replied that in the hearts of those children, weeping had been replaced by the certainty of eternal life and the immense hope of seeing their mother again in heaven.
I was christened in the chapel of the Holy Innocents at the Mangiagalli clinic in Milan: my brother and I were born prematurely, and we could not be taken to a church outside the hospital. From its very beginning, my life has been marked by the Holy Innocents: those innocent children who were slaughtered by King Herod in the hope that Jesus would also be killed.
When, as a young man, I became interested in the liturgy, I was moved and almost shocked by the feast of the Holy Innocents. The Church places it after Christmas and the feast of St. Stephen and before the feast of St. John the Baptist. So, in the liturgy, the newborn Jesus is surrounded by Mary, representing virginity, and by the martyrs—the two fundamental ways to follow Him.
Who, then, is a martyr? The word “martyr” comes from the Greek and means “witness”; i.e., people who through their lives and choices and words point to Someone else, Someone who is the light and the foundation of their lives. They indicate the One who is discovered through them because He has been the greatest discovery of their lives. When talking about Him, telling stories about Him, and living for Him, the witnesses are necessarily confronted with some difficulties, and they have to overcome some obstacles. The most common ones are represented by those people who do not want to be disturbed in carrying out their every-day routine and who don’t want to meet new people who are a stimulus for change.
On the other hand, there are also people who perceive the presence of Jesus and understand that His primacy discloses an entire world, an entirely new world. It undermines the power of those who want to replace God with money, power, or the endless illusions created by their void promises. Jesus dwells on earth among His enemies. Bernanos wrote that He would be in agony until the end of the world. For this reason, Christians have been and always will be persecuted, until the end of time and in every part of the world. In places where the witness of the martyrs points to the new Lord who offers peace, forgiveness, and joy in their lives, the people begin to hate the lords who, like Herod did, feel threatened on their thrones.
The current and coming issues of Fraternity and Mission are going to be devoted to those parts of the world where Christians are at present harshly persecuted. If we forget about the present-day martyrs, it would mean that we have forgotten Christ and ourselves. We want to talk about them because they are an integral part of us, because they help us understand the dignity of our vocation, the great gift that we have received, and the reality that we have been bought at a high cost. They are aware of this. They know that they have been bought through the blood of Christ, and they are not afraid to shed theirs in the name Christ because they have actually experienced in their lives Jesus’ victory over pain and death. To become aware of the reality of martyrdom, beyond the pain and tragedy that it involves, creates the opportunity to develop a more honest and peaceful approach to our whole life—including our daily trials and tribulations. In this way we participate in His saving Passion.
I have been peripherally involved in the Holy Father’s Holy Land visit since November, when it was first openly discussed in a meeting between Patriarch Fouad Twal and some priests. The meeting became a bit angry, with opposition being hotly expressed. This opposition was based on the inevitable comparison that one makes between the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 that of John Paul II in 2000. That visit of John Paul II’s came at a time of hopeful celebration, especially for the Christian community. The peace process based on the Oslo Accords was a path to Palestinian Statehood that had made real progress. Though it was already stalled, yet it was still functioning and Palestinians in general felt that they were on the right road at last. Plus, it being the 2000th birthday of the Lord, there was a general feeling that this should usher in a period of peace and prosperity, with huge investments in tourism being made by the local Christians. So, although the Palestinians felt that the image of the Pope had been monopolized by the Israeli media for its own propaganda, yet the sense was that it was a time to confirm a positive path and celebrate a present hope. The visit was the pinnacle of that positivity.
Very little, if any, positivity is to be found in the Christian community today. This is partly due to the steadily worsening conditions for the Palestinians in general, with the virtual disappearance of any realistic prospect of a Palestinian state due to vast settlement movement in the West Bank and the building of the Separation Wall seeming to carve in stone the loss of Jerusalem and much other territory as well, as well as definitely separate a great number of families. Even more than that however, is the literal flood of Christian emigration following the outbreak of the second intifadah. Today the Christians are a very much reduced minority with disappearing prospects for peace or normality. The feeling then, at the meeting, was, “What is there to celebrate?” and “Won’t the Israeli’s just use the visit, like last time, to make propaganda, justifying themselves in front of the world, making the Pope’s presence into a valediction of their policies?” The general sentiment in regards to the proposed visit was decidedly negative. And then came the war on Gaza.
As you can imagine, from any human point of view, there was no reason to welcome this visit. But my friends, and the Patriarch quickly reminded me that we start from something, from someone else that comes first. I quickly acquired an excitement and joy as it became clear that what I needed to live was to know and recognize this other who is my hope. The trip of the Pope, no matter what else it might or might not be, is for this: to confirm us in our faith. I could sure use that! “Come Holy Father! I am waiting!”
But how was I to communicate this to my parishioners in the besieged city of Nablus? The Christian community has in the past fifteen years declined from around five thousand to around six hundred people. The city has been closed since 2003. Many of its young people have died on its streets, in the sight of all, and many more have disappeared into Israeli prisons with no set sentence, just indefinite incarceration. They are always anxious to see any sign that they are making some progress towards freedom. The papers and television tell them that the Pope is only coming to make nice with the Jews.
More than a month ago at the Easter mass, I asked the visiting priest who had come to sing the mass (I am pretty good at celebrating the mass in Arabic, but have not yet arrived to singing the mass) to say an encouraging word about the Pope’s visit at the end of the service. He said, “I am against the Pope’s visit, and I know that you are, too. But he is coming and we are Arabs and Christians, so it our duty to welcome him.” I did not think that that was helpful.
From that time on I preached every sermon only on the coming of the Pope. For example, when Jesus repeats his blessing, “Peace be upon you,” is he or is he not the one able to give us peace? Is peace simply the product of a political/military process, or is it a gift from God? If it is from God, then we need to know this gift, that is we need to know Christ in order to share the gift of peace with everyone. Thus we need to be helped in our faith. We need the Pope to come. Most of my regulars warmed up a lot to the idea. But I could see that some, especially the parish council, who are more politically active, were not. Indeed I had not a few hot words with them. Their final word was, “You are not a Palestinian so you cannot understand.” The tension made my stomach hurt.
I was afraid that almost no one from the parish would be coming to the mass in Bethlehem, but we filled two busses with over one hundred people. There are only 250 in the whole parish. And when I saw my people at the mass, they were joyful, really joyful. They had truly seen that something else does indeed come first. We do not have to wait for this political outcome, or that mass media victory, or a military success. When he comes, he makes us glad. And our changed hearts give us the opportunity to walk forward in a different way, bringing the gift we have received.
Because once he was here, once his words of compassion and wisdom, his witness to faith could be seen and heard, then it was not about what the papers were saying, but about what my our hearts are waiting for. As I attended the different events with the Pope, and watched the events I was not present at on television, it was obvious that he was cutting to the heart of the matter. The question was above all God and man meeting in Christ, and man changed by this encounter to build a world that is human.
When he first spoke to the Christian community in Jerusalem he began with, “Christ is risen, Alleluiah.” He had to stop because of the long applause that greeted this declaration. He went on to say, “the Christian community in this City … must hold fast all the more to the hope bestowed by the Gospel, cherishing the pledge of Christ’s definitive victory over sin and death, bearing witness to the power of forgiveness.” In Bethlehem he said to the Christians, “Christ brought a Kingdom which is not of this world, yet a Kingdom which is capable of changing this world, for it has the power to change hearts, to enlighten minds and to strengthen wills.” To President Abbas he said, “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.” To President Perez he said, “security is a matter of trust, nurtured in justice and integrity, and sealed through the conversion of hearts which stirs us to look the other in the eye, and to recognize the ‘Thou’, as my equal, my brother, my sister.”
Perhaps people did not know that they had been waiting for the Pope to come, but when he came, they knew it was for them. That became clear to me especially at the mass at Nazareth, which had a record attendance for a Christian gathering in the Holy Land. People, order to get their places before security closed everything, had been up all night and now the sun beat down with force. Yet when, after communion – which frustratingly most people did not receive – there was an announcement asking for a minute of silence in order to offer God thanksgiving for communion through His Son, a wonderful thing happened. There in the midst of this enormous crowd, silence descended. I could hear birds, even far away birds sing. Nothing else. It was a sign that after all the noise, all the tension, all the skepticism, criticism and argument we were in the end simply grateful for this communion. And when one finds a true gratitude in his heart, his life starts anew.