Let’s return to St Augustine
"To speak of the Church only in terms of planning leads ineluctably to think that, in the end, it is men who are at the origin of the act of faith. And this is the transposition, in pastoral terms, of the thought of Pelagius".
Interview with Francesco Moraglia, Patriarch of Venice
Interview with the Patriarch of Venice Francesco Moraglia by Gianni Valente
“We will not be able to offer appropriate responses without a new acceptance of the gift of Grace, we will not know how to win men over to the Gospel except by returning ourselves first of all to a deep experience of God”. Thus, Benedict XVI spoke to the Italian bishops’ meeting in plenary session, on 24 May last. As the Year of Faith approaches, the Successor of Peter never fails to suggest the only thing that he really seems to have at heart. These are confused times, to be regarded, however, with “a grateful look because of the growth of good grain even in a land which is often arid”. Times when even the current ecclesiastical reality seems to make more evident and luminous the words of Jesus: “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15, 5). “I am with you always, even until the end of the world” (Mt 28, 20).
In this framework Monsignor Francesco Moraglia lived the early stages of his ministry as the new Patriarch of Venice. His answers, in the interview that follows, are a simple aid to live the forthcoming Year of Faith as a propitious time. Clearing the field of any risk of ecclesial ‘self-occupying’.
The new Patriarch of Venice Francesco Moraglia during the inauguration ceremony, 25 March 2012 [© Federico Roiter]
FRANCESCO MORAGLIA: Summoning the Year of Faith, the Holy Father has always wanted to indicate what is always – therefore even today – the foundational reality of the life of the believer and the Church, that is the faith.
It is precisely the conception we have of faith that will determine the consequent way of understanding Christianity; and faith, being the beginning of the Christian life, then, what the evangelist Mark says about the parable of the sower is valid for faith: if you do not understand this, how can you understand all the other parables? In short: depending on the idea that we have of faith, one kind of Christianity or another originates and spreads.
The newspapers are saying: this Year is to ‘revitalize’ the faith. But is this in our power? Are we – the Church, the Pope, or the faithful – the artificers of our faith?
The Church, the Pope, the faithful, as well as theologians, are not at the origin of the act of faith and of the life of the believer.
For this we must pay attention to the way we speak. In the human and ecclesial ambience language is of prime importance; now, speaking of the Church only or primarily in terms of programming, as well as reducing evangelisation to a matter of language, leads ineluctably to think that, in the end, it is men who are at the origin of the act of faith. Thus everything is reduced to a human operation. But this – considering it carefully – is the transposition, in pastoral terms, of the thought of Pelagius; in my view, today more than ever, the name of Augustine must resound, to whose school all of us, pastors and faithful, must return.
To return to your question: the Church, the Pope and the faithful can – properly speaking – revitalize the faith, first of all, by placing it with renewed strength at the center of Church life and proposing it as a way of life, better, as the serious case of the Christian.
How does faith begin? Can it be the result of an educational plan that makes the religious sense of man emerge?
I limit myself to saying that faith, since it is the conclusion of grace, is a pure gift! I would not like, in fact, especially given the actual context, that by softening the force of that affirmation to end up – as I said – by describing faith in too human terms. Certainly, the expression: faith is pure grace, should be understood in the sense that faith is always offered to us in a human way or, that is, by consulting with our freedom and never precluding it, as with our responsibility.
How do you keep, nurture and increase faith? How do you not lose it? Is it a question of tenacity?
Faith is maintained simply by living it every day in the company of the Church; day after day, therefore, there it is nurtured and grows belonging to the world of faith and renewing every day the choice of faith; in other words, letting oneself be carried by the faith and remembering that – in the concreteness of life – in the end, everything is a gift for the Christian. Certainly, to discover oneselves creatures and to rejoice in being so, to perceive ourselves in our own persons and in our own history as part of a whole, of a project that always precedes and accompanies us, this is, we can say, grace at work. I find particularly effective the expression used by Benedict XVI in Porta fidei: “Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy ...”.
When we speak of faith, the appeals to the Spirit, to Grace, to Jesus, sometimes appear as ritual forms, premises obligated by ecclesial ‘jargon’, before moving on to the ‘true discourse’ where the emphasis is placed on strategy, on the formula to adopt, on the educational plan entrusted to us.
Sometimes it also happens that these references are almost entirely absent from the language of one who professes himself a Christian! So the fundamentals of baptismal life are missing. This is an even more serious matter if we think that language is the highest form of expression of a person’s culture; in some catechesis, for example, the confession of Jesus the Savior was transformed into Jesus understood as a master, then friend, then as a spiritual force.
But if faith, which in a person’s and the Church’s life is essentially a gift and fulfillment, is degraded to this dimension, and everything tends to be pastoral planning and human construction, harnessing the Spirit in organizational decisions, then even salvation becomes a fact of pure theological design and pastoral organization. Examples can be multiplied, here I will limit myself to indicating one in a celebrative liturgical field: the creative hyperactivity and a certain protagonism in front of the assembly.
In many speeches, faith is identified e contrario, as if its affirmation was primarily a response to trends and cultural currents of the modernity in which we live. What do you think of this type of approach? Faith has as its first expressive attitude the cultural rebuttal of non-faith?
Yes, it is true, the risk indicated actually exists.
Faith, above all, must be true to itself, that is it must say Jesus Christ, say it well, say it to everybody, say it in an understandable way and begin with – as we learn from Verbum Dei – the Word of God transmitted by the Church.
The criticism that was addressed to some manuals coincided precisely with allowing itself to get caught up by certain ‘issues’ that it wanted to refute, ending up, however, by reducing or even distorting, in an unacceptable manner, the truth of faith which, in itself, it wanted to announce.
Specifically, to take advantage of the occasion of the Year of Faith, what should be done? Take initiatives? Make speeches?
Faith is the response to a person – the person of Jesus Christ – so the speeches, conferences, seminars alone are again insufficient before the human-divine reality of faith; they would be sufficient were the faith to locate itself, exclusively, on the human level, if it were a pure ethical choice or a philosophical dissertation. Faith, however, asks to be cultivated and experienced in its sacramental reality, namely, its human and divine reality.
I am convinced, therefore, to give an example, that a more intense participation and a more careful education in the liturgical celebration, on the part of the People of God – pastors and faithful – in view of a renewed life of charity towards God and one’s neighbor, would be a suitable proposal, a correct starting point, in view of the Year of Faith.
This has to do with, I repeat, involving the whole ecclesial community in the event of Easter – death/resurrection – of Christ; in this way we are immediately conducted to the center of the salvific event which can only be gathered in faith; the heart of the Eucharistic act is characterized, precisely, as mysterium fidei.
Jesus and the Samaritan woman, detail of the mosaics from Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice
It involves many things. I will indicate one which, however, seems to aid in understanding: I allude to the use of the possessive adjective ‘our’, placed before the noun Church; this is a mode of expression that says, closeness, affection, sympathy toward the Church but if you don’t have the awareness to keep it united to another expression: ‘His’ Church, the risk is to make us consider the Bride of Christ as our creature, our product, a human achievement that, in the end, precisely because it is ‘ours’ we can always and newly reconstruct or deconstruct at will. Instead, the Church, above all, is His, that is Christ’s Who, according to the beautiful symbolism of the early patristic centuries, then recovered in the Middle Ages, is the sun, while the Church is placed as the mysterium lunae and is completely illuminated by the sun.
Sometimes, even in our recent ecclesial events, this perception of the wellspring of the Church seems to become obscure for many Christians, with a type of reversal: from reflection of the presence of Christ, we pass to perceiving the ecclesial complex as a reality committed to attesting by itself its own significant presence in history. And such attestation of itself is presented as a way of ‘demonstrating’ the credibility of Christianity. What can these dynamics lead to?
If you lose sight that the Christian event is something real and historical, dealing with flesh and blood, then this fact leads us to a ‘spiritualist’ vision that can no longer intercept the real man made, in fact, of flesh and blood.
In this way, if you lose sight that the Church is the Body of Christ, then, in every situation, the Church will be in search of its legitimacy and affirmation, becoming self-referential. Think about the two disciples of Emmaus who, not aware of the Risen Lord, continue to talk about their problems, their sorrows and fail to open their eyes on Him and see Him.
It is the ever possible drama of the self-reference of the Church, that means: loss of its sacramental identity; the Church, in fact, Vatican II again reminds us, in Lumen Gentium, is a sacrament of Christ and, thus, the obfuscation of such reality is not trivial.
Similarly, sometimes it seems that the intention of attesting the faith in the world is to be entrusted to extraordinary or even spectacular initiatives.
But to set out along this road is to be in conflict with what Jesus said and did in the Bible, and with the same realities of human life, made up of everyday gestures. The Church, in this way, would self-destruct; you can not live, in fact, by extraordinary things, but by ordinary things: the things of every day; the Gospel is not for a few elect and not made up of things experienced only once. On the contrary, it is a matter of salvation every day and for every man.
The beginning of the Year of Faith coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of Vatican Council II. Some attribute directly to this event the crisis of faith, coming to interpret it as the origin of the regression of Christianity or even as a tool of penetration of non-Catholic thought into the Church. What do you think about this?
My ordination took place in 1977, so I can speak of having been born theologically and as a priest after the great ecclesial event of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. If we reread the texts of the Council, if we interpret its spirit by the letter and not against the letter, if we don’t launch ourselves in statements such as ‘out of loyalty to the Council it is necessary to go beyond the Council’ (a phrase in which everyone can find what time and again, they like best), then we cannot but consider the Council as a true grace for the Church of our time. Also here, once again, Benedict XVI has indicated the main road to us talking about the hermeneutics of reform in continuity and distancing himself from any hermeneutics of rupture.
The Year of Faith has its precedent in that declared by Paul VI in 1967, which culminated in the proclamation of the Creed of the People of God. How did you personally experience that period, how do you remember it?
Then I was a teenager, I was fourteen; I remember well, however, that there could be perceived in the media, and consequently in society, the growth of a climate of suspicion and certainly contrary to the magisterium of the Church. There clearly appeared the attempt to divide the ecclesial structure, contrasting the magisterium – especially that of the Pope – to that of the faithful, considered the true People of God. It was forgotten, or perhaps it wasn’t wanted that it be remembered, that Lumen Gentium, speaking of the People of God as the holder of the prophetic and charismatic power, says, quoting Augustine: “The universality of the faithful can not err in believing ... ‘when from the bishops to the last of the lay faithful’ (cf. St Augustine, De praedestinatione Sanctorum 14, 27: PL 44, 980) it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals”. Those were years when, with opportune catechesis, more support and accompaniment should have been given to the faith of the simple in the face of the overwhelming power of specialists.
The Year of Faith coincides with an economic crisis that is sweeping even the affluent society. Some will say that refuge is being sought in the spiritual to endure material problems. What does the faith, for example, have to do with the loss of work that is also in Italy causing anguish to millions of people?
This corresponds to a wrong idea of faith, those who take refuge in faith only so as not to succumb to material problems; the believer, in fact, is one who adheres to the Lord Jesus apart from the fact that things, humanly, go well or badly.
Faith, ‘especially’, is not about something that is collateral to man. The human being is not already complete in himself, regardless of his relationship with Jesus Christ. On the contrary, faith is what brings the human to completion respecting him in his specificity and autonomy.
That said, faith certainly provides support in a particular way to those who are experiencing hardships, helping them to live them and put them into a broader perspective; with this, however, faith does not relieve the believer from the obligation of taking all the steps that humanly must be taken and that are in his power to do.
In an anecdote that circulated in the theological context, some years ago, it was said that a ship was sinking, and then the captain ordered: “The atheists to the pumps, the believers to pray!”.
You were born and raised in Genoa and are now the Patriarch of Venice. Is there any particular feature that distinguishes and unites the faith of the people of the sea?
The love of their own history and the connection to their own roots, the keeping alive of the memories and traditions, the value given to popular religion and, again, understanding the meaning of life as a journey, of going towards a goal. So, ultimately, a great openness to the future and to others. On the other hand, the sea unites the shores of different countries and continents, the sea makes possible communication between people through meetings and trade but particularly cultural exchanges; and finally, the sea, precisely in its own immensity, becomes a symbol of God and His infinity.
The new Patriarch of Venice Francesco Moraglia during the inauguration ceremony, 25 March 2012 [© Federico Roiter]
My faith as assent to realities believed is, today, the same as that of so many years ago when I was preparing for first communion and when I was an altar boy; I consider this a wonderful thing because it says once again the truth of the Gospel. I refer to Jesus’ invitation: let the children come to me; the faith, thus, appears – as it really is – for all: children and adults, simple and learned, rich and poor; here, in a real sense, all the ‘democratic nature’ of the faith appears.
The manner of adherence, then, does not touch the substance of the act of faith that is, precisely, in grace, adherence to the mystery and not cultural elaboration. Precisely for this reason, the different and multiple ways of adherence, more or less cultivated, do not touch the faith itself, that is, the yes that saves.
And what indications will you give to all to live the Year of Faith?
The indication is to rediscover the faith in its own characteristics, overcoming every possible reduction and distortion. The risk is to make it an intellectual or sentimental reality, no longer grasping it as a salvific event that leads to the fulfillment of humanity; man can not do it by himself and faith allows him to fulfill his humanity; faith completes what my being a creature only glimpses and predicts.
Therefore, the indication of method that Jesus gave to his own, when he called them to the apostolate, is fundamental. When asked: Master, where do you live? Jesus responded by inviting them to follow him. We, too, at the beginning of this Year of Faith, as the first thing, need to rediscover the life of the Church as a sequela Christi. This has to do not only with living in the Church but, as Romano Guardini said almost a century ago, the Church. And to do this it is crucial to recenter oneself in a more authentic prayer – especially liturgical prayer – and rediscover the humble gesture of pilgrimage, a sign of a common walk towards the goal, which is the Lord Jesus, the beginning and completion of our faith.
Pope Luciani, he also Patriarch, gave his first catecheses as Pope on faith, hope and charity. In what way can his figure offer ideas for edification in pastoral activity?
This year marks the centenary of his birth, and we will attempt to celebrate it in a worthy manner. For some he was considered rigid or even criticized for being too faithful to the Pope and his magisterium. In fact he tried until the end to compose matters and find solutions to problems. And, more than thirty years after his death, a very vivid memory of Luciani remains in the people and parishes. The Venetians, both of land and sea, retain a grateful and affectionate remembrance of the passage of this patriarch. They remember him as a man of God, a pastor who has left a mark among the people, also with the concreteness of his homilies and his capability for dialogue and listening.