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from issue no. 04 - 2005

The story of a little (publishing) miracle

In the early ’eighties a pamphlet was printed in Rome as an aid to a good Confession. Reprinted several times, the print-run numbered more than half a million of copies. Recently the simplest prayers of the Christian life have been added to the pages on Confession. The new edition of the small book has a preface by Cardinal Ratzinger

by Lucio Brunelli

 Above, the prayer booklet  “Chi prega si salva“;  below, the book on Confession, that 30Days published in different languages two years ago.

Above, the prayer booklet “Chi prega si salva“; below, the book on Confession, that 30Days published in different languages two years ago.

At the start it was a very slim booklet. Sixteen pages, format 10x14. On the frontispiece a quotation from the Polish philosopher Stanislaw Grygiel (a sentence commenting on the first encyclical of John Paul II, Redemptor hominis) and the title without frills, written in large characters, Lenten-purple in color: The Sacrament of Penitence or Confession. We were in the early ’eighties. And no one then could have imagined that the “mini-vademecum” on Confession, taken from the old Catechism of Saint Pius X, would become a small best-seller. More than half a million copies, adding up the various editions that followed on one another up to the latest version. Chi prega si salva(Those who pray save themselves), enriched by the most beautiful prayers and chants of the Christian Tradition and with a preface by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
But more amazing yet is the genesis of this book. It came out of an experience undergone in Rome. It was conceived in particular for those young people and adults who – attracted by significant meetings – were approaching for the first time or making return, after years of neglect, to Christian practice. Persons of all ages, gender, culture and political opinions. It was not a question of indoctrinating them, on the model of political party schools or, worse, of the religious sects; it would in any case have been a waste of time: usually those involved were people endowed with enough healthy critical spirit. Just the attraction felt in meetings with people already Christian made it reasonable to ask the priest, or friends with greater experience, what the Church requires, concretely, from those who want to enter on the Christian life. Confession, also from an existential point of view, was often the first step.
The trouble with the official catechisms – then in circulation - was their incurable diffuseness. A sea of words in which, in the end, it was hard work even to detect the simple and essential terms of the sacrament: the examination of conscience, the distinction between deadly and venial sins, the grace of forgiveness. Paradoxically the question-and-answer formula of the old Catechism was much more useful. Taking from that source - and other documents of the Magisterium – it was possible to abridge into a few pages everything the ordinary believer is required to know in order to make good use of confession.
It was not a nostalgic operation and even less an ideological reaction to the decrees of the Vatican II Ecumenical Council, from which, on the contrary, one was increasingly learning to know and respect the spirit of dialogue and openness toward one’s fellowmen. It was indeed the stunning discovery of the unknown treasures of Tradition. Treasures of life. Liberating simplicity. The author of this article – one of the “neophytes” to whom the book was addressed – recalls his surprise on learning from those pages, for example, that according to Catholic doctrine two out of four of the «sins that cry out to God for vengeance» (textually) were social sins: the «oppression of the poor» and the «cheating of workers of their wages». For one who as a boy had wanted (like so many) the communist utopia and allowed himself to be infatuated by the verses of Pasolini and De André, the surprise was to discover that the anti-modernist Pope was more to the “left” than so many modern churchmen. If one indeed had at heart the fate of the “oppressed”, there was no need to go chasing after Marx; it was enough to draw on the Tradition of the Church. And in fact, with what wonder one browsed the brief and practical list of the «works of corporal mercy» recommended to all believers: to feed the hungry, give shelter to strangers, visit the sick and imprisoned… The adorable concreteness of Christianity.
One had thought of Tradition as a closed room. Now we were discovering it was an open window. Light and fresh air. Tradition, obviously. Just like Catholic ethics. Not moralizing: the grudge of the miserable who can’t bear that others should enjoy themselves.
Don’t think, however, that all these fine existential discoveries were a way out of the condemnation of individual sins. The indications of the small book were and are very clear in that regard. Detailed. There is no better literary synthesis of the model of confession we were offered than a passage from Miguel Mañara by Oscar Milosz. Where a newly converted Don Juan knocks at the door of the monastery of the Caridad, in Seville; deluges the abbot with tears and mystical expressions of reformation, but is soon halted by these words: «Repentance of the heart is nothing if it doesn’t rise up to the teeth and doesn’t flood the lips with bitterness… Say: I have done this, I have done that other. Speak…». And then the good Mañara talks and talks… Murders and rapes, not exactly the scruples of a college of young misses… And he can’t stop, he continues reciting. Until he is in torment for his iniquities. And then the elderly abbot halts him, again. «No need to speak more about these poor things, these foolishnesses, my great baby, do you understand? They’re tales to leave to those that great pride in peccadilloes still torments…».
The inexpressible experience of mercy. So thousands and thousands of young people and not so young have discovered the heart of the Christian experience. Some days before his condition plummeted, Don Giussani suggested as a thinking-point for Easter 2005 the ancient preface of the Ambrosian Liturgy: «You have stooped over our wounds and you have cured us giving us a medicine stronger than our sores, a mercy greater than our guilt. So sin also, in virtue of your invincible love, has served to elevate us to the divine life». The utility even of sin. In stirring the pity of an Other. Because it is not us, by our own efforts, by our own will, who gain the sighed-for happiness.
Pius XII used to say in the ’fifties that the drama of modernity is to have lost awareness of sin. Today, perhaps, people are living through a greater drama. Having lost all illusion of the natural goodness of mankind, they experience evil as a dark, destructive and incurable remorse. They no longer know, because they no longer experience it, that their own evil can be healed and forgiven. And this probably is precisely the cause of that immense affective and psychological frailty that is visible to all, above all to the young.
The return of the prodigal son, Rembrandt, etching, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

The return of the prodigal son, Rembrandt, etching, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

All this we learned, thanks also to the book on the Sacrament of Penance. Even those who had been going to Church for years began to use the booklet. Many priests and numerous parish communities – first in Rome and then in other cities - requested it. A spread outward from below, spontaneous. Both the weekly Il Sabato and the monthly 30Days gave it to their readers as an insert. Providing telephone number where individual believers or parishes could ask for further copies at a moderate price. The reprints came every few years: October 1990, November 1991, February 1995… In ecclesiastical circles some people turned up their noses, not understanding the positive and non-polemical spirit of the initiative. But there was important recognition also. In May 1995 the regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, Monsignor Luigi De Magistris, sent a letter of praise (and some precious suggestions) to the editor of 30Days. Adding that the book had been «pointed out by us of the Penitentiary to the central Committee for the Holy Year in relation to the preparation – when the right time comes - of booklets for the pilgrims». And that the idea was exceedingly wise could be seen afterwards, when we journalists witnessed the great influx of pilgrims for the 2000 Holy Year, who were often not helped at all, however, with simple means to experience the essential dimension of every jubilee year, precisely the Sacrament of Confession.
In fact, given the great demand, reprints of the book continued throughout the ’nineties. The last one I have traced dates to 1998. Three years later, the first edition of Chi prega si salva (Those who pray save themselves) was published. On its own it sold 120,000 copies. The pocket 10x14 format remained. But the pages grew to 134. To the old part on Confession were added other sections with the more important prayers of Christian piety: from the Angelus to the Regina Coeli, to the Acts of faith, hope, and charity, to the mysteries of the Holy Rosary.
The spirit has always remained that of the beginnings, 25 years ago. And the most incredible thing, today, is to see boys and girls, with clothes and hobbies like their contemporaries, reciting the same prayers as our grandmothers, with the same adorable simplicity and feeling. True metropolitan miracles.

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