Some time ago I had the opportunity to visit the cooperative Nazareno di Carpi, an organization that takes care of disabled children. One day they showed me around and had me visit the various parts of the cooperative. It was a sunny day, a little muggy, a typical day in Italy’s Po Valley.
I met a handful of kids who, helped by their teachers, were busy rehearsing for a theatre production. I remember one of them whom I’ll call “Luca”. He was wearing a cowboy hat that was a bit too small for his large head, and he was carrying a plastic pistol. The children performed a few scenes from their play just for me, full of moments of shyness and moments of exaggerated euphoria. They were well behaved, kind, and above all, happy. They were happy that I was there and they were in silence, because I listened to them and watched them. They were happy to give something of themselves to me. At the end I gave a round of applause and they were even more content, especially Luca with his pistol.
Our visit carried us to the jobs department where I met “Luigi”, a boy who was injured in an accident, who is now in a wheelchair and almost blind. I spent a bit of time with him and he talked to me about what he does. He showed me some of his work and invited me to have a cup of coffee with him. While we were in front of the coffee machine he realized that my name was Francesco and he asked me, “So are you the pope?” When I told him no, he became sad, noticeably downcast. But he forgave me all the same and offered me his friendship and a cup of coffee.
Next we went to the art department. There I met “Paolo”, a boy with Down syndrome. He was painting, completely bent up over the table, intensely focused on his work, tracing out lines and filling in spaces. The teachers explained his paintings to me and told me about his exceptional gifts, which have been recognized even by art critics. At one point in our conversation Paolo realized we were talking about him. He slowly backed away from the table, leaving his drawing in sight. With his look and his hand gestures he motioned for me to come closer. Without using a word, he made clear to me that this painting was his. He was proud of his work. Viewing the painting attentively and without haste, I made an effort to gather in its meaning. Then, addressing Paolo, I complimented him for his work. He silently shook my hand and bent back down over the table and carried on with utter dignity.
I left in the afternoon. It was a simple day and at the end I felt very grateful. They were true encounters, pure encounters. Those children shared something precious with me: their drawings, their work, their time. They shared themselves, their strange and kind personalities. There’s hidden warmth in the act of sharing, in the gift of oneself. I saw a place where, in some way, loneliness seemed more difficult and companionship more stable. Sharing life allows us to enter mysteriously into the secret of God’s life, a secret that he began to reveal to us when He became man.
(photo Emma Huang – Portrait Painting)
To introduce us to the profound meaning of what happens to you today and in reflex to us, let us place ourselves on the same wavelength of the question that Andrew and John directed to Jesus: Master, where do you live? (Jn 1.38).
As well as this evening we also ask: “Where do you live?”. To be able to stay with Him, we must know where he lives. Your “yes” today is placed on the path that you are completing here in the seminary, a path in which you learn where Jesus lives and how to stay with him. To know Jesus, to know Him interiorly, profoundly, to experience him constitutes the fullness of our existence.
The question of the two future apostles responds to a question of Jesus, who asks them: what are you looking for? (Jn 1.38). We too are asked this evening by Jesus whether we really seek him. We too respond: “yes, we want to find you, we want to stay with you, to learn from your voice the wisdom which guides and governs the world, to learn from your heart the charity which heals the wounds and makes possible unity”.
“Where do you live?” is a question which makes one immediately think of a home. To stay with you, we must come to your house. The theme of the house runs the course of the Old Testament. To give a house to God was the dream of David, the realization of Salomon and the project of renewal following the exile.
The psalms remind us: The one thing I ask to the Lord, this alone I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to taste the sweetness of the Lord and admire his sanctuary (Psalm 26.4); Blessed is he who lives in your house: always sings your praises (Psalm 83.5); Lord, I love the house where you dwell and the place where your glory dwells (Psalm 25.8); for what joy when I said to myself: let us go to the house of the Lord (Psalm 121.1); We will quench ourselves of the goods of your house, of the holiness of your temple (Psalm 64.5).
To you as well this evening you are being given a house. This house in which you have lived these past few years is revealed in this liturgical gesture as being the house that God has assigned you forever. On the depth with which you enter this house depends the good and happiness of your life.
To enter this house certainly means getting to know the people which make it up, recognizing the profound links that make us one body. Above all the discovery of the reasons which generated this house, the motives through which God willed and follows our story with paternal benediction.
A recent translation of the Bible translates the question of the apostles: where do you dwell? This expression brings us to a more profound consideration of the story told in the Gospel. Through the question of the dwelling, the apostles want to discover what is the secret and profound place in which Jesus lives, the place in which his heart reposes and is nourished, where he remains. At the same time this point inaugurates his public life, the long and frenetic itinerary of the journey which will bring him to the village of Judah, to Galilee and to Samaria, Jesus constantly remains near the Father. One cannot go if there is not, at the same time, a place where one remains. He came from very far away, he is the eternal Word of God that has become man, but always remaining near the Father. It is here where he would like to bring his own, it is here where he would like to bring us.
To go to the Father we must become one with him. Indeed he said: Who sees me, sees the Father (cfr. Jn 12.45). To know the Father, we must know him. To remain in the Father we must remain in Him. For this reason the Gospel of John, which opens with this revelation that Jesus makes to us of the place in which he remains, will close, in the fifteenth chapter, with an insistent reminder to remain. In seven verses the verb is repeated nine times.
We discover in this way the more profound and true meaning of our house: it does not exist to close ourselves in it, but instead to open us to always new dimensions of the life of the Father. Whoever is faithful in little will receive much. Whoever embraces the humble dimensions, which are sometimes scandalous for their weakness and poverty, of our human companionship, will be guided to experience God, to know God, He who we cannot contain and which our mind cannot measure.
This, in the end, is the truest secret of the celebration this evening: through daily and apparently banal things, we are guided towards profound and abundant joy.
I wish to each one of you to live and to renew each day this experience: within the house of men, lives the house of the Father, in which you will live forever. Amen.
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).
Friendship is the most beautiful thing in life. I don’t know how one could live without it. The pope has said that with baptism we enter a community of friends, who will accompany us until death. This is precisely what we have been studying during these days, looking at one of the best known mediaeval fathers, Aelred of Rievaulx, who is sometimes called the Bernard of England. He writes that friendship is first of all a pedagogy. Secondly, it is a stairway to friendship with God. His whole pedagogical structure is based on this: if you are a friend of God, you will be a friend of human beings; if you are a friend of human beings, you will approach God. Of course, this means a path of great humanity, freedom and respect.
This morning we were commenting on a statement of Cardinal Scola: “The relation with the other is always both an embrace and a clash.” The other is different, he is otherness. If you truly want to enter with respect and fidelity into that otherness, you must accept suffering. The experience of friendship, then, passes through suffering. Authentic friendship respects otherness. This means to accept what is different with gratitude, because the different completes me. This risk of mutual belonging is described well by John Paul II in Novo millennio ineunte: “The other is part of me.” I must love my brother to the point of intuiting his desire, and going out to meet it. The other is never a stranger, he is part of me. He is necessary to my path of conversion, necessary for my progress in life. We are always moved at this level, and precisely this level means friendship.
Friendship is not merely a pat on the back. Friendship is to commit oneself to the good of the other, a passion to walk together, a desire to will the same things. In our order, we are beginning to use a term again that we coined 30 years ago, but which didn’t have much success at the time: the term “common vision”. A community must move according to a common vision, or it will not be able to formulate that purpose that is essential for a full acceptance of everyone. This means a risk of friendship, of trust, of giving the other credit; an acceptance of difference as richness, even if it may hurt me or cause suffering. Now we have the joy of seeing that things have progressed. Aelred says that friendship is the only pedagogy for living together: I like you because you are here, because you exist. You are necessary for my conversion, my sanctification, my walk towards God. I like you because God has put you in my life. It is a much deeper reality. I cannot conceive of a different way.
When I first entered the monastery, the silence was extremely rigorous. You couldn’t say even a single word. The only possibility for communication were the famous hand signals that expressed what you wanted to say. I can’t say whether it was hard or easy, it’s just the way it was. I remember two basic things that made a taste for silence possible for me. First, night prayer, the time dedicated to the vigils in the middle of the night, the office of readings and the nocturnal lectio. To be able to await the dawn as a sign of the encounter with the coming day, with Christ the light: this anticipation was almost palpable in the atmosphere. Even if someone were incapable of silence, it was an education in savoring something that was of the essential to the night and essential to night prayer. Second, slowly realizing (I am speaking of almost 50 years ago) that silence did not hinder communication. I remember my joy one day when I was able to recognize my sisters by the shoes they were wearing. I could name each of them from their shoes! It was a taste of the possibility of a much deeper communication.
There is another aspect that goes back to the experience of the first Lents. There was a lot of work then, because we only worked in the fields, and food was scarce. We got a boiled egg at Easter and Christmas – the rest of the year it was vegetables, pasta and a bit of cheese. During Lent we even went without that. Of course, the silence made all this weigh on us more heavily. Toward the end of Lent, a wave of giggling began in the novitiate that went on forever. We giggled in every room and every corner… it was non-stop laughter. Perhaps from that moment I understood that silence was this possibility of communicating, in the midst of such essentiality, the joy of being alive. This has always remained with me as a great joy. Today, silence is very different. First, because we no longer work in the fields. Work today requires explanation, mutual clarification. Dialogue has become part of relationships among the Trappists. The hand signals have disappeared; words are used when necessary. What has remained, however, and is something that fascinates me, is the use of words only for what it is truly worth saying, for saying what is essential. Using words for chatting, like most people do, makes no sense to us. We continue to teach an essentiality in relationships that gives words the weight they should have, meaning that superficiality is excluded and we gradually enter a reality of greater content. This is only possible, however, if there are some truly strong moments in life. For us these are above all the nocturnal times, when the silence in the universe of creation truly enters you, even through the pores of your skin.
If one lives silence, he ends by loving silence, and understands that silence is truly a music, because it gives you the possibility of perceiving all of reality in a way that noise never can.
Faithfulness to origins and mission
One must be very faithful to origins. If someone has not known how to receive, he will not know how to pass on. We have experienced this often in our foundations. Which have been our most successful, our most beautiful foundations? Those that have remained faithful to their roots, never betraying the originary source of their consecration, their ministry. In these places there is truly a common vision. Vitorchiano has handed on to them a vision, a life, a purpose, a way of being, that they have lived completely. In doing so, the original sisters of the new place have assumed this vision, transforming it into something unique to that place, though still universal.
I want to recommend to you that, wherever you go, don’t invent anything. Propose to the people the proposal you have received. Make sure that the people intuit, recognize and see in you the grace that has formed you. For us, the possibility of maintaining a unity among our foundations depends on the consciousness of having received something unique, extraordinary, essential and strong, that has shaped our lives, giving them meaning. It is this that we simply want to live in the place where the Lord calls us.