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from issue no. 11 - 2004

What makes the Church ever younger

A talk with Cardinal Ersilio Tonini: «I believe that the morning prayers on which our mothers were very keen were the salvation of the Church. We must get them back. If we bishops were to launch that program, instead of big gatherings…»

by Lorenzo Cappelletti and Giovanni Cubeddu

Cardinal Ersilio Tonini

Cardinal Ersilio Tonini

The meeting with the cardinal was arranged at the “Cappellette of San Luigi”, the ancient Rospigliosi Palace beside Saint Mary Major, traditionally so called as the one time quarters of the Imperiali Missionaries, where many Roman boys over the past two centuries prepared for First Communion (among them Pius XII, simply Eugenio Pacelli in 1886). And where many saintly priests have resided: from Francesco Maria Imperiali himself to Saint Giovanni Battista De Rossi, from Giuseppe Rinaldi to Pirro Scavizzi.
The cardinal arrives from the back, stepping lively (he is coming from the recording of a television program) and only later does he recall with pleasure that the place is familiar to him, which there and then he had not recognized. He praises its fine transformation into a place of austere hospitality, still full of the fascination and energy of the Catholic faith that can still be breathed in some parts of Rome.

The talk begins from what we have before our eyes: an unimaginable de-christianization, to adopt the words of Cardinal Ratzinger of some years ago …
TONINI: The most tragic moments of the Church are the moments of the youth of the Church. Saint Augustine was almost obsessed by the destruction of Rome. First of all, because it was Rome and, secondly, because the pagans put the blame for the destruction on the Christians. At the beginning of The City of God, he says,: «But do you really believe that the Church, the Gospel, will not get a leap forward from this?». He says that the youth of the Church coincides with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: «Haec iuventus Ecclesiae».
There, in this moment, when we are disoriented and distressed and it seems to us that the world is moving towards total destruction, I am inwardly convinced that from this tragedy… what will emerge? Well, the time of divisions and oppositions is coming to an end and the time of identification is beginning. That is, nations are disappearing, past history is losing its weight and we are becoming aware that the same is happening as it did to the Hebrews, who needed deportation in order to understand. The big challenge, looking at the future, is right here: whether we succeed in staying together or not, as the great book of Alain Touraine says, Pourrons-nous vivre ensemble? Égaux et différents.
History, unlike what the Greeks said, is not circular, but is an arrow moving towards the future. The Church is for the future, the Gospel is all in the future. Or not? Now I say: the Church is mother in this sense, the task of the Church, increasingly so, especially after the Council, is to be responsible for what is to come. Without even doing it intentionally, the Church possesses the title itself of “catholic”, “kathólou”, “all together”. Augustine had already understood that the battle was against those who wanted the Church to be solely African [the cardinal refers naturally to the long disputes with the Donatists, ed.]
the apse of  the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

the apse of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna

What you said at the start about the Church brings to mind Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam, the fortieth anniversary of the publication of which falls this year. What do you think of it?
TONINI: That encyclical has such a mild tone! The Pope presents himself almost as asking pardon, on tiptoe, he speaks about himself in a subdued way, he’s of a sweetness, of an enormous delicacy, anxious and at the same time extremely daring. And you understand very well that the Pope has the future in his hand. As in the other encyclical on world economy, the Populorum progressio. No pontificate should be compared to another. Some people suggested calling the reigning pope “Great”. Personally I hope he doesn’t accept. It’s a formula that was all right centuries ago, it’s not all right today, today we must be humble, simple, be anxious about our own position. My mother used to say to me: «Save your soul, child!» Monsignor Tettamanzi’s mother, when she heard that her son had been appointed archbishop of Milan, said: «Let’s hope vanity doesn’t take hold of him». These are formidable things.
Today we don’t realize that what’s at stake is the first article of the Credo, the property of God is at stake, man is usurping the property of God. The American researcher Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans, suggests using the genes of plants, animals and man to make a totally new being, which will no longer be a man and which, according to Stock, «will free us from the slavery to which nature has condemned us up until now». There are people who want to get rid of the being created by God. God would be deprived of his creation. The mystery of the Incarnation will also disappear, because if human nature is destroyed, it’s a failure of the Incarnation, so to speak. Within ten or twenty years these real problems will explode. The young people now growing up will arrive ready for the most extraordinary event in the history of the world, when Parliaments decide whether the property of God deserves respect or not, whether it can be transmuted or not? This is why the Church must ask itself how to retrieve the attraction it held last century. One time a child could base itself on the example of the parents, on their encouragement, and then there was always the sense of obedience. Now the child follows only what attracts him.
The Church must be able to be attractive …
TONINI: Clearly. If it doesn’t know how to attract, what’s it for? Because the Church is love, and love is attraction. We repeat things “in the name of Christ the Lord”, but up to what point do I and Christ the Lord, the two I’s, the self and You, love each other personally? Christ did not come to make men honest, Socrates was enough for that. To admire man, to speak well of his spirituality, Socrates and the great thinkers were enough. It’s different. Christ is a taste of God, that’s the point. And the life that God lived in the body of the man Christ he wants to live within us. It’s him who wants to work within us, and so he asks that I lend myself to him and allow him to inspire and guide. When I read Simone Weil, who at a certain moment cries out: «Why is it good that I should be and not God alone?» I felt a blow, as if I’d been clubbed. And sometimes I repeat: «Why is it good that I should be and not God alone?» Evidently because I have a task, the task of loving, which then is this: to allow Christ to love others in me. After which it is clear that you see things differently, you see them with the eyes of Christ.
The risen Jesus with Thomas and the other apostles, mosaic, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The risen Jesus with Thomas and the other apostles, mosaic, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The point is that personal love for Jesus which Jesus himself generates, according to the experience of many mystics. Little Teresa of Lisieux used to say: «When I am charitable it is only Jesus that acts in me» …
TONINI: One needs to distinguish explosive mysticism from the other hidden mysticism in which the Church abounds. As when my mother said to me at eight years old: «Prepare yourself, lad, because the Lord has good for you to do». Or when, at fourteen or fifteen, seeing me holding a missionary magazine, my aunt said to me: «You don’t want to be a missionary, do you? You know that your family’s poor and owes money. What’ll they do without you?»; and my mother, the following day, told me that her sister, my aunt, had told her everything, and said: «Son, don’t listen to her. We’re poor, but what the Lord wants from you we want as well». She saw into everything. Like when, some days before her death, I said to her – I wanted to delude her: «Mamma, in a few days you’ll be home and in five years, when I’m a priest, you’ll come with me», and she replied: «I won’t get there, you know, I am not worthy». And then, the evening before dying, she said to my father: «Let’s say the rosary, because I shall die tomorrow evening». And it happened, in front of her five children, with total serenity. There.
Tonini at three years old in his mother’s arms

Tonini at three years old in his mother’s arms

As for mysticism…
TONINI: As for mysticism! In how many simple people, who perhaps don’t even know it, do you see in the confessional (I’ve learned a great deal in the confessional) that the grace of God works, the doing good of God works. Grace is this doing good through which God then becomes flavorful, becomes an infinite good. Because of which you look at things the way he looks at them, you get the tastes of God, and then the weakest and the poorest you feel to be yours.
Who wouldn’t like to have a bigger heart?
TONINI: Perhaps we don’t notice that in the first article of the Creed («I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth») we are recalling the birth of the world and our own birth. I think that the morning prayers on which our mothers were very keen were the salvation of the Church. We must get them back, re-launch this program (if we bishops were to launch this program instead of the big gatherings…): morning prayers. Which means waking up and being reborn like the first time. I wake up and I want to shout: I am, I see, I feel! I’m still not used to being here. It was my mother who taught me about surprise. Sometimes when I put on my socks, I look at my veins and say:«Just look at that». When I’m washing my head, ever since I’ve known that the human brain contains 40 billion neurones, I say to myself: «In here there are forty billion neurones!» Those splendid pages of Péguy’s Véronique! I’d like the whole world to know those opening pages. Look at birth. I always say to parents: «Is it true or not that when a child was born to you, born from you but not made by you, it was the greatest spectacle in the world?» We’ve lost the appreciation, the surprise of being.
Tonini young seminarian

Tonini young seminarian

One last thing: hope, what Péguy calls the childlike virtue. Childlike virtue because the child is hope, the child trusts totally. At the moment in which we trust totally in God, as a child, then we have the greatest honor imaginable and it is what most touches the heart of God. The prodigal son, when he comes back, has hope mixed with fear, which the father belies immediately, because he makes him understand that having him back is a gain, not a loss. To believe in this love of God who considers me one of his glories… On the other hand it’s certainly not poetry, it’s Jesus who says so in chapter seventeen of John’s Gospel. Teilhard Chardin used to say that every time one picks up the Gospel there are two things to do. First, to remember that facts are true. Second, that the stake is you. When I’m consecrating at mass I say: «This is my body», and I do it as something mechanical without being aware that I am there in the middle, I’m a … servant, nothing more.
Another delicate question, which has to be well set out so that it doesn’t cause argument, is the place of the hierarchy. I’m afraid that because I’m a cardinal people will think of me as a success. I’m immensely afraid of that, since I’m here to bear witness instead. The Lord has given me a great grace, but if I’m a bishop it is not that I’ve succeeded more than others. I have more responsibility, that’s for sure. Even if, as things are, because of the increasing importance of the mass media, there’s no point in being a cardinal if you only come out with banalities. A cleaning woman could say things that touch the spirit more than a cardinal. But beyond that, careerism is a very dangerous thing in the character of a pastor, of a bishop and upwards. And where it insinuates itself it destroys everything. Saint Augustine says that «he who seeks in the Church something that is not God, is a mercenary». We are witnesses. We should rather see to it that there is always a capacity to love, the desire to say of every person that I meet: «This is a son of God, what can I do for him?»

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