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from issue no. 05 - 2012

Christianity: a simple story

Meeting with Don Giacomo Tantardini at the Fabio Locatelli Cultural Center of Bergamo 15 December 2000

by Don Giacomo Tantardini

Let me start with a verse from a poem by Charles Péguy that summarizes somewhat what we have now heard. Péguy says in one of his poems to the Virgin of Chartres: “They have said much, O Queen of Apostles / We have lost the taste for speeches / we no longer have altars, if not yours / we know nothing more than a simple prayer”.

I believe that when Péguy at the beginning of the century went on a pilgrimage to Chartres to ask for the grace of healing for his children... the children were not baptized: Péguy cohabited, so to say, with a Jewish woman who had refused to baptize the children. So Péguy could never have a Christian marriage and could not receive the sacraments of the Church, and yet I believe that Péguy was the greatest poetic witness of these last centuries, the greatest after Dante. The Lord’s grace is given according to the measure of the gift of Christ, as He wants.

They have said much, O Queen of Apostles / We have lost the taste for speeches / we no longer have altars, if not yours / we know nothing more than a simple prayer”. But even so I have to talk this evening. So I would like to say just three things that I think are things that the Church’s Tradition, that the simplicity of Tradition (simple prayer recalls the simplicity of Tradition), that the simplicity of the Christian Tradition, especially for Christmas, says again, repeats.


God calls Adam and Eve after the Original Sin, Palatine Chapel, Palermo

God calls Adam and Eve after the Original Sin, Palatine Chapel, Palermo

1. There is a dogmatic expression that the modern world, especially in recent decades, the world, that world that is in the Church, especially the world that is in the Church, has tried as if to censor. Instead, nothing of human life is understood and Christianity is not understood if we do not start from here: original sin. Original sin. It is that all men, except Mary, are born with original sin. Nothing is understood of life, nothing is understood – says the last Ecumenical Council of the Church in a very beautiful expression – of human society, if you do not start from here: that men are born evil. As Jesus says: “You who are evil”. “Why do you call me good? Only God is good”. “Si homo non periisset, Filius hominis non venisset”, so St Augustine summarizes the Church’s conscience: if man had not sinned, the Son of man would not have come.

I would like to take the beginning of Alessandro Manzoni’s hymn Il Natale [Christmas]...

Alessandro Manzoni in many ways is not, as it were, a contemporary author, because he describes in his wonderful novel, I promessi sposi [The Betrothed], the Christian condition as already given and therefore does not talk about us, because today that condition no longer exists. Perhaps the most current page of The Betrothed is that which describes the conversion of the Unnamed, when, after that night, he sees the people glad to go and welcome Cardinal Federico and asks himself: “What do all these people have to be happy about?”. This is the most contemporary page. “What do all these people have to be happy about?”. And the curiosity to see why these people are happy arises in his heart. This is the page that describes how one can become a Christian today... Alessandro Manzoni’s ancestors are from my country which is Barzio, a small town above Lecco, and the grandfather of Alessandro Manzoni was called Alessandro because the patron saint of Barzio, as the patron of Bergamo, is Saint Alexander. And I think that also the author of The Betrothed is called Alessandro because of this... Other reasons make him close to me. Although, I repeat, Manzoni in many ways is not relevant, he is certainly not like Péguy.

The hymn ‘Christmas’ begins with the image of that mass of rock that fell from the mountain top and now lies on the bottom of the valley: “There where it fell, immobile / it lies in its indolent imposing mass, / Neither, to change for centuries / nor to see the sun / from its ancient summit / If a friendly force / does not draw it up on high”. It is impossible that the rock that falls from the mountain-top into the valley can see the sun again from the summit, if a friendly force does not take it and carry it back up. “Thus lay the miserable / Child of the first fault”. So lay man, child of the first sin. Like that. “Where the proud neck / could no longer raise itself“. And this I think is the most realistic definition of original sin.

What is original sin? Don Giussani, in the last volume of the series that collects the dialogues in a house of the Memores Domini, says: “What is original sin? What is the pride of original sin? It is the affirmation of oneself before that of reality”. Man sees nothing but himself. Fallen from that height he does not see anything other than himself. The affirmation of himself before that of reality. There is a verse of the hymn that I will read in its entirety because it is so realistic, “Whoever among those born to hate”. Born to hate. Like that. The human condition is like this. A few weeks ago it struck me that a non-Christian, non-Catholic writer, Norberto Bobbio, receiving an award from the University of Stuttgart, quoted Hegel (Hegel master of all, unfortunately, in recent decades), quoted Hegel in one of his few realistic expressions when he says that human history is none other than a great slaughter-house. It’s so. Human history is none other than a great slaughter-house. Human history, St Augustine says, taking the example from Rome, from the history of Rome that was founded by a fratricide, goes from murder to murder. “Whoever among those born to hate”. Born to hate. Not for the creating act. The creation is good. But in fact, for original sin, one is born to hate. And even good things, beautiful things, immediately decay into strangeness. And from this condition of original sin experience can be gained, man gains experience. Great poetry does nothing other than talk of this. To recognize the effects of original sin faith is not necessary, human intelligence is enough. Not to recognize the effects of original sin is a question of non-intelligence, is a question of illusion, is a question of idealism.

Whoever among those born to hate, / Whoever was the person, / Whoever inaccessible to the Holy One...”. How christian Manzoni is at this moment. “Inaccessible”: to the Holy One whom he cannot reach, to the unknown Holy One, to the Holy One whose face is unknown. And if someone says God exists but does not see Him (St Bernard says in a Breviary reading at Christmas time), after a while, how can he recognize that He exists, if he cannot come to Him, if precipitated to the bottom of the ravine, he cannot arrive to the light of the beginning, to the light of the dawn of the first beginning of creation? How can he say that it exists? “Whoever was the person, / Who to the inaccessible Holy One / Could say: forgive?”. Forgive! “Who to thank, who to curse?”, asked Cesare Pavese in one of the last sentences of his journal. Who to thank, who to curse if the Mystery is there but is inaccessible, is there but without a face, is there but incomprehensible, is there but cannot be known? “Make a new everlasting covenant? / From the infernal victor / To tear away his prey?”.Who could tear his prey away from the devil?

This is the first suggestion: one is born with original sin. And the dogma of the Church says that original sin injures man in naturalibus, in his natural dimensions. It not only makes consistence impossible. For example, one knows that abortion is a sin, but then is inconsistent. But it is not only that. Original sin also prevents in the long run the realization that abortion is a sin, because original sin injures humans in their natural intelligence: because of original sin intelligence as such is itself obfuscated, not only is the will weakened. So even what is natural, what is creaturely, even what is against the heart, against the creaturely gesture, man is clouded in recognizing it. Not that he cannot recognize it, but he is cloudy inside. Reality cannot be understood, the world cannot be understood if we do not start from here. The world we live in cannot be understood, the circumstances in which we are cannot be understood.


<I>The Annunciation</I>, with the scene of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after the Original Sin, Beato Angelico, the Prado Museum, Madrid

The Annunciation, with the scene of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after the Original Sin, Beato Angelico, the Prado Museum, Madrid

2. What remains in this condition? The inaccessible Mystery, which has no face, and man, to whom the light (the light means the surprise of creation, which is good), this light, is no longer familiar. It is no longer cara beltà, no longer dear beauty, the creation, but it is strangeness, enmity, so much so that Cain kills Abel. What is left? The heart remains. The heart is wounded, but the heart remains the heart. This is the other great thing that Catholicism says. Wounded, clouded in the recognition of the true and weakened in the ability to be consistent with the true, yet the heart remains. The heart of man remains. The heart that our mother, our father gave us, that God has given us through them, remains the heart. That is, the heart remains waiting, waiting to meet something. The heart remains a plea to be content, the heart remains a plea for happiness. The wounded heart remains heart.

I will read two passages of the finest poem of Leopardi Alla sua donna [To His Lady], when Leopardi says that what he wanted in a woman’s beauty was a greater beauty, a beauty that could finally satisfy the longing of the heart. But he adds that this was a dream from when he was an adolescent. Becoming an adult one realizes that this dream is no longer possible. “No hope of seeing you alive remains for me now / I no longer have any hope of seeing you alive”. O beauty, I no longer have any hope of seeing you alive. I no longer have hope, here in this life, of meeting that unexpected thing, that unpredictable thing, that my heart is waiting for. “Already at the dawn / of my dark, uncertain day”. Human genius lies in the prophecy of Christ. Not in the sense that it anticipates Christ, not in the sense that it makes Christian speeches. But in the sense that it awaits Him, requesting or cursing, but it awaits Him. “Already at the dawn / of my dark, uncertain day”. “Uncertain”. If the Holy One, if the Mystery is inaccessible, what can man do if not be uncertain? What can man do? Man cannot be condemned, man cannot be condemned for his nihilism, man cannot be condemned for his ‘non faith’. What can be done, if the Mystery has no face? What can be done? Also because nihilism (St Augustine in this anticipates and responds to Nietzsche) arises from the fact that one realizes that the God one says he affirms is a projection of himself, that is that he realizes he doesn’t exist. If God is a projection, an image of oneself, one realizes that that God does not exist, he is nothing. Nihil est, he is nothing. “… of my dark, uncertain day, / I imagined you a fellow traveler on this arid round”. I thought to meet you in this arid land, to meet what the heart is waiting for. “But there’s no thing / that resembles you on earth”. But on earth I met nothing, nothing that merited my heart to its very depth. So many things (Leopardi also had many women), but nothing, no one who really deserved my heart to the very bottom. “But there’s no thing / that resembles you on earth. And if someone / had a face like yours, in act and word / she’d be, though something like you, far less beautiful”. Here is the insight that can only be grace: but even if there was one thing that looked like you in the face, in acts and words, “she’d be, though something like you, far less beautiful” than what my heart waits for.

This poem ends with a prayer, the most beautiful prayer of an atheist, because Giacomo Leopardi was an atheist and a materialist. No devotee wrote a prayer like this to the Mystery that was revealed: “Whether you are only one of the eternal ideas / to eternal wisdom you refuse to be / arrayed in sensible form”. If you, O beauty, if you, O what the heart is waiting for, if you, O what the heart pleads, if you, happiness, are one of the eternal ideas, that refuses to be clothed in sensible form. “To know the pains of mortal life / in transitory spoils”, and here on earth refuse to experience the troubles of this life that runs towards death, “From here, where years are both ill-starred and brief, / accept this hymn from your unnoticed lover”.

From here, where years are both ill-starred and brief”. This is Christian realism. From an atheist, but it is Christian realism. It is human realism and therefore a prophecy of Who created the heart like this. From here where things pass by instantly. The beautiful things also pass by instantly, even your baby’s smile, that of the child, even affection for the woman you love. “From here, where years are both ill-starred and brief, / accept this hymn from your unnoticed lover”. The heart remains, the heart that waits for something like that. But man (and we still use an expression of Augustine, who was in the Church perhaps the most humanly fascinating witness to this heart), man is far from this heart, fugitivus cordis sui. Man is far away from this plea and man is satisfied. He is satisfied. And what is he satisfied with? With usury, lust and power. And there is no religion that holds. He is satisfied with these three things, money, lust and power, those who believe in God and those who do not believe. And this is one of the most impressive things about De civitate Dei of Augustine. Belief in God does not in itself change life, in itself it does not change life. All the books of Augustine’s De civitate Dei are relevant. In the eighth, ninth and tenth books Augustine speaks of the philosophers who have known God, who recognized the existence of God. Yet in the end “they thought they had to offer divine honor of rituals and sacrifices to the devil”. Satanism can also be the consequence of proclaiming oneself a believer in God, because belief in God does not really change your life. It is something else that changes your life. If belief in God changed life there was no need for Mary to give birth.


<I>Repose on the Flight into Egypt</I>, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Repose on the Flight into Egypt, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

3. It is because of this that we celebrate Christmas. Do you understand? Because if belief in God changed life, there was no need for what happened two thousand years ago. Not only: we could not be grateful as we are grateful. When two thousand years ago in that country, on the border of Palestine, in Galilee of the Gentiles, the angel Gabriel was sent to a Jewish girl named Mary... It all started there. The inaccessible Holy One, the One who created the heart good... (but original sin brought about this condition because of which man is in fact satisfied, cannot but be satisfied with lust, money and power), the inaccessible Holy One became flesh in the womb of a woman. A fact. That simple story began there. And it began precisely as a story, as a simple story. It started with “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee”. And this little Jewish girl, who did not understand immediately, was distressed and wondered what this greeting meant. And the angel said to her: “Fear not, Mary, you have found favor with God”. And then this little girl expressed that “Yes”, that ‘’Here I am”, due to which man has hope of being saved. Without that “Here I am”, all the belief in God does not give hope to people. That “Here I am” begins a story, a simple story. A story that says that He Who began like this with Mary (“You have found favor with God”) is He, is He Who carries out this beginning. In fact think of the Virgin. Think: she remained in this “Here I am”, even when the angel left her. Think of the comfort... (this is one of the things that impresses me most, that most moves me in regard to the Madonna), think of the first comfort that she had, the first confirmation that what she had heard was true, when like every woman she realized she was pregnant. It must have been something other worldly. Because it meant that the promise was real, that promise to which she had immediately said “Yes”, to which she had immediately said, “Here I am“, that promise was real, that which Another had started would be fulfilled. And likewise the other comfort that amazes and moves me is when the angel says to St Joseph in a dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not hesitate to take Mary as your wife: for that which is born in her is of the Holy Spirit”. And think, because we can imagine ... (it is some thing else compared to all the religions of this world, it is something else. It is a story of men, of youngsters, they were two youngsters), think what it was for Mary when Joseph took her with him. It was another confirmation, another confirmation that that meeting, that “Hail, full of grace” was real. And then they both went to Elizabeth, because the angel had told her that Elizabeth was also pregnant, and this fact also confirmed that “Hail, full of grace, do not fear, Mary”.

Why is Christianity a simple story? It’s a simple story (we use a word that the Church has used for two thousand years) because it is grace, because it is an event and therefore a story of grace. If it was not grace, it would be something complicated. Why is human religiosity not simple? Because it is born of man. Because it is the good attempt of man, beginning from created things, to recognize the Creator. But this is not a simple thing, it’s something exhausting. The dogma of faith says: it is an exhausting thing, a thing for the few, something that, even when religiosity reaches its goal (the Mystery exists), is mixed with errors. These are the words of the dogma of the Church. Not only is it for the few, not only is it exhausting, but when one arrives at saying “God exists”, this assertion is mixed with errors. Instead, two thousand years ago something that is very simple started. It was promised to that girl that she would conceive and give birth. And in those nine months, very many most human facts... First of all she realized she was pregnant (and that her stomach became bigger as the stomach of any pregnant woman). And the witness of Joseph who, in obedience to the Mystery greater than himself, took her with him. And the witness of her cousin Elizabeth: she also had a son. And that Christmas, that first Christmas, when for the first time the eyes of two youngsters, Mary and Joseph, saw God. They saw God. And so Christianity began. They did not believe that God exists, no, this is also believed by Muslims who in this religiosity are perhaps more religious than us, but they did not see. They did not see – but yet it came about – and in religiosity and morality they may be more moral and more religious than us. Because of this Paul VI was great when in Rome he didn’t do anything to prevent the building of the mosque, and in fact, to those who told him he had to obtain reciprocity, he said the Church does not lower itself to this level. But it’s another thing. Christianity is something else compared to all the religions of the world, to all the morals of the world. It is that two thousand years ago a boy and a girl, Joseph and Mary, saw God with their eyes, not in a mystical vision. Mary gave birth. And Joseph and she looked at him in wonder. This is how the Christian story began. They were there looking at God. And then that same night, the angels announced to the shepherds that in the city of David (for God is faithful to his promises), “in the city of David a Savior has been born for you”. And the shepherds went, they went and saw a baby. That child was God. So when in the Creed we say “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God [that child], begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through him all things were created, for us men and for our salvation [for us men, for man who is content with lust, usury and power, for this man, not for men of good will (the good will is His), but for this concrete man], for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven and through the Holy Spirit He became incarnate...”.

I add this. After Mary and Joseph, after those thirty years in which the Eternal, Who began to exist and grow over time (the Eternal, remaining eternal, began to exist and grow over time and to count the days, hours, months and years, like every child), after those thirty years that He lived in Nazareth, in obedience to His father and His mother, the mission began, when the first two, that afternoon, on the banks of the Jordan, met Him, when John and Andrew, after John the Baptist had indicated “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him Who taketh away the sins of the world”, followed Him. They followed Him attracted by Him. And then Jesus turned to these two young men ­– Andrew was married, so he will have been a little older, but John was just a youngster – He asked of these two young people a question: “What do you seek?”. This thing always strikes me. They did not respond to Him we seek the truth, we seek happiness, they didn’t even say to Him that we seek the Messiah. They had Him whom their heart sought in front of them. They had Him in front of them. The heart is infallible, in this the heart is infallible. There is a beautiful thesis of Catholic theology that speaks of the infallibility of faith. The infallibility of the magisterium is secondary with respect to the infallibility of faith. Faith is infallible. What they were looking for, what the heart wanted, they had Him before them. So to that question, “What do you seek?”, they respond by asking the only thing that could be asked. When one encounters what the heart desires one can only ask that this thing will remain. “Master, where do you live?” That is “where are you staying?”. Where are you staying, in order to stay with you? Publicly, here. There, with Mary and Joseph, let us say, privately. The thirty years of private life, private but with very many public episodes: the shepherds, then the Magi, then when twelve years old in the Temple... But still a private story. Here is the beginning of the public story, the story of why we’re here tonight. Because of which there exists in the world this simple story of people amazed because they have met Him. A simple story: they were amazed because they met him and then having once met it depends on Him, it does not depend primarily on you, it depends on Him to remain with you. It is simple because of this. Otherwise – given that the beginning of Christianity is grace (if one is Christian, this must be said) – a different dynamic is introduced. No! Once met, what happens? What have you done to meet Him? Nothing. So, look, do not busy yourself, because it depends on Him. It depends on Him Who met you and remains faithful. It depends on Him that He remains faithful, it does not depend primarily on your faithfulness. It depends on Him. It is simple because of this. It is simple because not only does He meet you, not only is it He who went to the meeting in the beginning, but it depends on Him Who remained with the first ones, it depends on Him that the day after He did it over again from the first ones, it depends on Him that the day after that ...

Andrew went home that night and said to his brother Peter: “We have met the Messiah”. Another thing that amazes me is to think that Peter the first time he caught a glimpse humanly of the Mystery made flesh was looking at the face of his brother. He had never seen Andrew’s face like that, he’d never seen his brother’s face like that, because grace has a reverberation in the human. It is visible, grace. It has an invisible source, but has a visible reverberation, the reflection of grace is seen, it is seen, and is unmistakable. The reflection of grace is infallible, it is unmistakable for any other kind of beauty. It is the beauty for which the heart was created. So it is not only He who comes forward to be met, but it He Who remains, so much so that the next day, when He saw Peter, He said to him: “You are Simon son of John, you will be called Peter”. And so from two they became three, and they went on like that for three years... Just like that. But think in those three years, think of who took the initiative. It was not of those who followed Him, the initiative was always His. Like when the rich young man, invited to follow Him, indeed, loved by Him... Jesus looked at him and became tender, He loved him. Yet he didn’t follow Him, and then Jesus said that it was impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and Peter asked: “But then who can be saved?”. And here is one of the most beautiful phrases of the Gospel: “And Jesus looking at them [looking at them, not theologising, looking at them] said: “For God nothing is impossible”. Looking at them, because what was evident to Him as Mystery, as a man He learned from the things that happened, as we learn from what happens. If Peter was there, if John was there, if Matthew was there (I was thinking today, seeing the paintings of Caravaggio, I thought of the Calling of Matthew by Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome), if Zacchaeus came down full of joy it means that for God nothing is impossible. Because Matthew was rich, indeed collected the money for the Roman invaders, and Zacchaeus, the richest man in Jericho... if they were there, it means that for God nothing is impossible. Jesus too, as man learned the nature of the Mystery from what happened. What He knew as God, as man He learned from experience. St Bernard says in one of the most wonderful phrases on the mystery of Jesus: what by nature He knew from all eternity (that for God nothing is impossible) He learned from human experience. He also was amazed when he saw Zacchaeus come running down. Consider the episode of Zacchaeus. This little man who had to climb a tree to see Him pass. This little man who was the leader of illegal gangs in the city of Jericho, and Jesus Who is passing by, looked at him and said, “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to your house”. He said nothing, he did not reply at all. Full of joy he came down. And then he distributed four times what he had stolen. But then, then! Immediately, full of joy he came down and ran to his house. Then it is simple, it is easy not only because the beginning is grace, but because each step is grace. St Thomas says in one of his most beautiful phrases (the Catholic Church, also using this phrase, last year, signed a document with the Lutherans, which said that on the essential aspects of the doctrine of justification Catholics and Lutherans recognize the same thing): “Gratia facit fidem”, grace creates faith. Faith is the recognition of this attraction, faith is the recognition of this meeting, faith is the recognized wonder of this meeting. “Gratia facit fidem non solum quando fides incipit esse in homine”, grace creates faith not only when faith begins to exist in a man, “sed quamdiu fides durat”, but for every moment that faith remains. In every moment, not only at the beginning, in every moment the initiative is His.

This afternoon I visited the Caravaggio exhibition here in Bergamo. Beautiful. We were guided by a priest who very humanly, in a very beautiful manner, described things. At some point, however, he said that Caravaggio expresses the struggle of faith. I would not say so. Faith, when it happens, is never exhausting. ‘Non-faith’ is easy. Yes, this ‘non-faith’ is easy. “Men of little faith, why do you doubt?”. It’s very easy, even for those who followed Him, ‘non-faith’ is very easy, it is easy to doubt, it is easy to curse, this yes. Because the grace of Baptism erases original sin, but not the consequences of original sin. ‘Non-faith’ is very easy, doubt is very easy, betrayal is very easy. Think of Peter: “Even if they all abandon you I will never leave you”. Three hours later... Three hours later! First of all, half an hour later, he had fallen asleep. And then, three hours later, he betrayed Him. Betrayal is very easy. But faith is easier. It is easier to have faith. If not, it means that you do not know what it is. It is easier, because when Jesus, after the betrayal, looked at him, it was easier to burst into tears, easier than anything else. Faith is easier. A difficult faith doesn’t exist. It’s easier. It is a non-Christian image of faith to say that faith is difficult. It’s easy, it’s even easier than betrayal. Think of that poor man Peter, that poor sinner Peter: when Jesus looked at him, it was the easiest thing in life to burst into tears, it was the easiest thing in life to begin to cry. It was the easiest thing in life to say: “How you love me, how you love me. And yet I betrayed you”. Faith is easy, it’s easy. There is no faith (this is a dogma of faith), there is no faith if the Holy Spirit doesn’t give the sweetness (speaking of sweetness, sweetness cannot be difficult, that would be inhuman), the sweetness to adhere. It is the Spirit, it is grace that gives the sweetness to adhere. The word sweetness is used: easier than that! Faith is easy. The instant afterwards, you may not believe. The next instant, you can swear, the next instant you can chase after money, lust and power. But if one has experienced this sweetness, he can run after it like all the others, but yet this sweetness is the easiest thing, is the easiest thing. And to cry after having chased after lust, money, power, to cry, because this sweetness comes back, because that look concerns you, beginning to cry is the easiest thing. Nothing is easier for the child who, after all the caprices of this world, abandons himself to the arms of dad and mum, there is nothing easier. You say it is difficult for the child? It would be inhuman if he didn’t abandon himself. It’s the easiest thing in the world to abandon oneself to the arms of dad and mum.


<I>The calling of Peter and Andrew</I>, Caravaggio, Royal Gallery Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

The calling of Peter and Andrew, Caravaggio, Royal Gallery Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

I wanted to say one last thing. What does this grace without which he can do nothing ask of man? “May Your grace always precede and accompany us”, says one of the prayers of the Church. Lex orandi legem statuat credendi, so said the ancient formula that Pius XII cited, but perhaps foreseeing what would happen, he then changed to Lex credendi legem statuat orandi and that is that the law of faith establishes the law of prayer. But the old formula said that it is the law of prayer that establishes the law of faith. St Augustine, in response to the Pelagians, normally used this argument: You say that faith is not grace, then why does the Church pray that an unbeliever be converted? Either those prayers are just a way of saying, or it is God who converts the heart. You say that staying in the faith is not grace, but then why do we ask in the Lord’s prayer not to lead us into temptation? If it was our capability to overcome temptation we wouldn’t pray not to lead us into temptation. So it means that not to let ourselves be overwhelmed by temptation is grace. Either the Church says its prayers as a way of saying, or you must accept as Augustine said to the heretical Pelagians, that every step of the Christian life is grace, otherwise you should delete the prayers of the Church. “May Your grace always precede and accompany us, O Lord”. So what is man’s part in this journey in which the initiative is His? “If you do not take the initiative I do not start out”, said Pope Luciani the day before his sudden death. On Thursday night he died and on Wednesday he made the gesture that the Pope makes every Wednesday, speaking of charity. A gesture entirely focused on this one thing: if you do not take the initiative I do not start out. And he said, what does it mean to take the initiative? (and he quoted St Augustine, one of the most marvelous phrases of Augustine). It does not mean only that He attracts my freedom, but it also means that He makes me happy to be attracted. I am not only attracted, but He gives me the pleasure (Augustine specifically says voluptas, pleasure) of being attracted. If He does not give me the pleasure of adhering, if He does not give me the pleasure of following Him, I cannot follow Him. Not only does He attract the will, but He gives the pleasure of being attracted. It is one of the most beautiful pages in the ordinary magisterium of the Church, that speech on charity by Pope Luciani of twenty-two years ago.

But what then is possible for man? I say it with the words of Don Giussani in an article on the Holy Rosary published in Avvenire on Sunday 30 April (in my opinion one of the most beautiful things absolutely, not only by Giussani, but of the whole Church in recent decades), “The answer to this Grace is completely in the prayer of which we are capable”. The answer to this grace (which is not just the beginning but at each step) is completely in the prayer of which we are capable. Our answer is a prayer, it is a plea. Our answer is the surprise of a plea, a plea like that of John and Andrew: “Where do you live?”. Faced with something so beautiful our response is: “Stay!”. Faced with so great a sweetness, our response is: “Do not forsake me, stay!”. Our whole answer is this, and it’s all the child’s response when his dad and mum love him. “Our answer is a prayer. It is not a particular ability, it is just the momentum of prayer”. It may be the baby’s cry that calls to dad and mum to love him. The crying. In the ancient liturgy there was a mass to ask for the gift of tears. We plead a lot more with tears than with words. The impetus, the impetus of a plea. Habet et laetitia lacrimas suas. Thus St Ambrose. When one is happy with this sweetness, this joy has its tears. Basically, joy is expressed only by crying. So Giussani says in that article: “Our answer is a prayer, it is not a particular ability, it is just the momentum of prayer”. Giussani adds (I read this because it takes up Péguy again with whom we started): “We enter the month of May [now we’re in the Christmas novena]. The Christian people for centuries has been blessed [the beginning is His: blessed] and confirmed in striving toward salvation [confirmed: because if He does not confirm, although we have encountered Him, we do not stay in the encounter. Thus the simplicity of Tradition. For example, a dogma of the Council of Trent says: “If one is in grace, without a special help of grace, one cannot remain in grace”. Do you understand how all of Christian life is supported by His initiative? If one is in grace, without a special gift of grace that may be pleaded, without an attraction that is renewed, one does not remain in that attraction. You cannot live on a past love, you cannot live on the attraction of yesterday, not even on the attraction of a moment ago. You cannot. You can only live of the present. So if anyone is in grace, to remain in grace the renewal of this special help is necessary]. The Christian people for centuries has been blessed and confirmed in striving toward salvation, I believe, especially by one thing: the Holy Rosary”. Christian life is simple, it’s simple. After decades of many words, so many struggles and so many challenges... There was an Angelus in which Pope Luciani said: “Less battles and more prayers”. The Christian people have been blessed and confirmed, I believe, by one thing: the recitation of the Holy Rosary.

And I end up by reading some verses of the poem by Péguy with which I began. He describes the remaining in this grace. “This is the place of the world where everything becomes easy”. Easy even sin, even betrayal, like Peter. Easy also the temptation to chase after lust, money and power. But easy to be hugged again. And to weep in gratitude. Easier. The difference is that those who do not experience it do not know this much easier thing. They know all the other things, but do not know this much easier one. Easier, more beautiful, more simple. Everything becomes easier. “The regret, the departure and also the event”. Also the recurrence of this wonder is easy: in Paradise it will be everlasting, here it is easy, here it is easy for it to happen again, not perennial. And St Augustine again says: the Lord also to His elect, to His holy ones can at certain times not give the winning attraction to himself because thus, experiencing being sinners, they place hope in Him and not in themselves. Easy. “And the temporary parting, the separation, / The only corner of the world where everything becomes docile. ... This that everywhere else requires an examination / Here it is no more than the effect of a defenceless youth”. What everywhere else requires an examination so that you have to prove yourself to be good. Also at home it is so, many times. You have to prove to be good. You cannot be a poor sinner. You have to prove to be good. Thus, to the fact of being a sinner like everyone else, you also add hypocrisy, which is the greater sin, that of the Pharisees. “This that everywhere else requires an examination / Here it is no more than the effect of a defenceless youth. / This that everywhere else asks for a postponement / Here it is only a present weakness. / / This that everywhere else requires proof / Here is only the fruit of a poor tenderness. / This that everywhere else demands a touch of skill / Here is only the result of humble ineptitude. ... This that everywhere else is a compulsion of rule / Here is only an impetus and an abandonment”. As Giussani says. Only the momentum of prayer, only the impetus of a plea. As the child during the day can break a glass many times. He might break it a thousand times and a thousand times say “Mum, help me not to break it”, this is the Christian man. “Mum, help me not to break it”. And it’s easier, happier for the child in his mother’s arms to say: “Mum, help me not to break it”, than even not to break the glass. “This that everywhere else is a compulsion of rule / Here is only an impetus and an abandonment; / This that everywhere else is a harsh penalty / Here is only a weakness that is raised. ...This that everywhere else would be a hard effort / Here is only simplicity and quietness; / This that everywhere else is the rough bark / Here is only the sap and tears of the shoot. ...This that everywhere else is only a perishable good / Here is only quietness and swift disengagement; / This that everywhere else is a swaggering about / Here is only a rose and a footprint on the sand. ... Many things have been said, O Queen of Apostles / We have lost the taste for speeches / We no longer have altars unless yours / We do not know anything other than a simple prayer”. Merry Christmas.

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