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from issue no. 05 - 2005

Signs of spiritual friendship

Community of spirit in Saint Benedict, Don Luigi Giussani and Pope Benedict XVI

by Don Giacomo Tantardini

Doubting Thomas, fourteenth-century Master of the Sacro Speco, Upper Church, Subiaco

Doubting Thomas, fourteenth-century Master of the Sacro Speco, Upper Church, Subiaco

I have been asked to write an article on Saint Benedict, Don Giussani and Cardinal Ratzinger, who, elected successor to Peter, has chosen the name Benedict also out of devotion toward him who – having written for himself and his friends, considering themselves «little busy / nobis negligentibus, a small rule for beginners / minimam inchoationis regulam» (Rule, chapter 73) – became, like Abraham, father of a countless progeny.
between Christianity
and the human
The hundredfold

I would like to begin these signs of «community of spirit» (Phil 2, 1) in Saint Benedict, Don Giussani and Pope Benedict XVI taking as my starting point the lecture by Cardinal Ratzinger in Subiaco, on 1 April 2005, on “Europe in the crisis of culture”, not least because it was precisely in Subiaco, in a small hermitage in the mountains near the Sacred Speco, that Don Giussani, in the summer months, at the close of ’sixties, used to spend days of spiritual exercises with young people who had expressed the desire of dedicating themselves to God in the priesthood or in the consecrated life.
Obviously I don’t intend to comment on that last lecture of Ratzinger as cardinal, the clarity and simplicity of exposition of which make it easy for all to grasp its truth and beauty. I only intend to indicate the human position that those words witness. A mind, a heart that the apostle Paul describes in a phrase among the most quoted by Don Giussani : «Examine everything, hold on to what is good» (1Th 5, 21).
In fact, on the one hand, in all frankness «the development of Enlightenment culture» is judged « absolutely the most radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but of the religious and moral traditions of mankind» to the point of stating that «a confused ideology of freedom leads to a dogmatism that is revealing itself ever more hostile to freedom» and «a philosophy, that does not express the whole reason of man, but only a part of it, cannot, because of that marring of reason, be considered rational at all». On the other hand, to the question «whether this is a simple refusal of the Enlightenment and of modernity», Ratzinger answers: «Absolutely not». Not only because «from the beginning Christianity understood itself as religion according to reason», identifying «in the philosophical Enlightenment» of those times «its precursors», but also because «it was and is the merit of the Enlightenment to have reproposed those original values of Christianity and to have restored to reason its own voice. Vatican Council II, in the Constitution on the Church in the Contemporary World, newly highlighted this profound correspondence between Christianity and the Enlightenment, trying to arrive at a real conciliation between the Church and modernity, that is the great legacy to be safeguarded by both sides».
The expression «profound correspondence between Christianity and the Enlightenment» is striking. It seems to me that precisely this surprizing recognition can provide a glimpse of «the community of spirit» between Ratzinger and Giussani in conceiving and living the Christian experience. What indeed is the Christian experience if not the awareness of the correspondence between the event of Jesus Christ and the exigencies and evidences of the heart of man? The Christian event, while its gratuitous positing of itself highlights the presumptions, partialities and contradictions of human efforts, fulfils every human expectation to overflowing. There is a Gospel word, maybe the one most repeated by Giussani, that indicates this dynamics: «the hundredfold». It was moving to hear Pope Benedict, at the end of his sermon during the mass opening his ministry, repeat, addressing the young people, that same word, «the hundredfold», to describe the proprium of the Christian experience and of his own personal experience. «And once again the Pope [John Paul II] meant: no! whoever lets Christ enter, loses nothing, nothing – absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship do the doors of life open wide. Only in this friendship are the great potentialities of the human condition truly disclosed. Only in this friendship do we experience what is beautiful and what frees. So, today, I would like, with great strength and great conviction, out of the experience of a long personal life, to say to you, dear young people: be not afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and gives all. Whoever gives himself to him, receives the hundredfold. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find real life. Amen».

Abbey of the Sacro Speco, Subiaco

Abbey of the Sacro Speco, Subiaco

The permanent beginning
and the contrast
with the spirit of utopia
These very scriptural words («He who follows me has eternal life and the hundredfold here below » cf. Mark 10, 29-30) recall what Cardinal Ratzinger himself – in 1993, introducing Un avvenimento di vita cioè una storia [An event in life, that is, a story], the collection, published by Il Sabato, of interviews and conversations with Don Giussani – described as «the contrast with the spirit of utopia». And it was not so much a matter of the contrast, though «decisive», with worldly utopias, as of «our temptation» (words of Giussani in October 1976), that is the temptation for us Christians, «immediately after a just intuition» of the Christian event, «to slip slightly or a great deal into the privilege given to a project».
The hundredfold is not the outcome of a project, of a program. «My real program of government is that of not doing my own will, of not following my own ideas, but of setting myself to listen, with the whole Church, to the word and will of the Lord and let myself be led by Him, so that it is He Himself who leads the Church in this hour of our history», Benedict XVI said again in the sermon of the mass opening his ministry. The hundredfold here below, like the eternal life, has a beginning, a “permanent” source (each word from the first appearance of Benedict XVI in St Peter’s Square, that was packed with Romans hurrying to see the new Pope, remains in the memory: «Trusting in his permanent help»). The «permanent» beginning is Jesus Christ, the Lord risen.
«The Church is living because Christ is living, because he is truly risen» (Sunday 24 April). And on Sunday 1 May, when, addressing the Churches of the East which were celebrating Easter, he repeated with force «Christós anesti! Yes, Christ is risen, is truly risen!», the immediate applause that rose from the square packed with faithful up to that window was very fine.
Here the communion of mind and heart among Saint Benedict, Benedict XVI, Don Giussani and the most ordinary believer is luminous and total.
«Don Giussani always kept the gaze of his life and heart fixed on Christ» (Cardinal Ratzinger, in Milan cathedral, at Guissani’s funeral). «We need men who keep their eyes looking at God, learning from there true humanity» (in Subiaco). And, again in Subiaco, Cardinal Ratzinger concluded his lecture by quoting the more beautiful phrase that Saint Benedict repeats twice in the Rule: «Put absolutely nothing before Christ who can lead us all to eternal life». Here, chapter 72: «Christo omnino nihil praeponant». In chapter 4: «Nihil amori Christi praeponere/ put nothing before the love of Christ».
When, from this permanent prae-ponere/put before, one slips into the privilege given to a project, to a program, then «work wearing and wearisome, heavy and bitter results» (again Giussani in October 1976). Of «bitter zeal that distances from God and leads to hell» Saint Benedict again speaks in chapter 72 quoted by Cardinal Ratzinger in Subiaco. And in chapter 4 he writes: «Zelum non habere», that in Gospel terms we can translate as «don’t concern yourselves» (cf. Mt 6, 25-34).
This love of Christ that always comes first (it is a matter of His love: «… they consider that that good that is in them cannot be from them, but from God and so they magnify the Lord who works in them», Prologue to the Rule), this look fixed on Him generates «a good zeal that distances from vices and leads to God and to eternal life» (again from chapter 72 quoted by Cardinal Ratzinger in Subiaco). «And to be presence does not mean not expressing oneself: presence is also an expressiveness. As mode of expression utopia has discourse, the project and the anxious search for means and organizational forms. As mode of expression presence has acts of real humanity, that is, of charity» (Giussani in October 1976).
How amazing it is, even from a human point of view, and how Catholic it is, even from a theological point of view, that each good deed, each good work should always arise and bloom out of something that seems nothing: attraction (L’attrativa Gesú, [The attraction of Jesus], the title of a book by Giussani, Rizzoli), out of something that seems nothing such as a look (Guardare Cristo, [Looking at Christ], the title of a book by Ratzinger, Jaca Book). As one has taken by the hand and «led by the Gospel/ per ducatum Evangelii» (Prologue of the Rule). So, «by really seeing Christ», one understands that «encountering Christ means following Christ» (Cardinal Ratzinger at Giussani’s funeral). So one understands why Saint Benedict inscribes «putting nothing before the love of Christ» among «the instruments of good works» (the title of chapter 4: Quae sunt instrumenta bonorum operum).
Even the good work par excellence, that is, the liturgy, making exception for the validity of the sacraments, would be reduced, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, to «a celebration of itself», to «theater», were it not a «thinking of Him», a being «turned to the Lord». It would become a burdensome formalism, burdensome because constructed by us. It would lose that transparency of beauty that (Ratzinger reminded us in one of his finest interventions, at the Eucharistic Conference in Bologna in 1997, referring to an ancient legend about the origins of Christianity in Russia) filled the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir of Kiev with amazement when they attended the sacred liturgy in the Basilica of Santa Sophia in Constantinople. «What struck them was the mystery as such, that precisely by going beyond discussion let the power of the truth light up reason ».

The mercy of Christ
and the non-banalization
of evil
Among the instruments for good works Saint Benedict sets «never despairing of the mercy of God/ et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare» (chapter 4). A comfort to those who, like Benedict himself, consider themselves («nobis male viventibus», chapter 73), poor sinners.
Vesting of Benedict by the monk Romano and Withdrawal inside the cave in prayer, Magister Conxolus, Stories of Saint Benedict, Lower Church, Subiaco

Vesting of Benedict by the monk Romano and Withdrawal inside the cave in prayer, Magister Conxolus, Stories of Saint Benedict, Lower Church, Subiaco

The whole Rule precisely because it is a simple and humble letting oneself be led by the Gospel («per ducatum Evangelii»), is an admirable example of how «the mercy of Christ does not suppose the banalization of evil» (Ratzinger), of how «out of mercy the thread of the morality not only arises, but is there attested and rescued» (Giussani).
And having as ideal image of the Christian who «always repeats what was said by publicanus ille evangelicus/ that publican of the Gospel» (chapter 7), the Rule is the clear, brief, concrete proposal, first of all of the commandments of God, which Benedict lists at the beginning of chapter 4 with unsurpassed realism, and then of precepts that indicate what is to be done and what is to be avoided in the changing circumstances of life. Precisely because «the first thing/ in primis» to be done is «pray with a pressing demand (istantissima oratione) to Him who sees through to the end every good work begun» (Prologue); precisely because «the most effective instrument to use», for example towards a sinning brother, is «prayer so that the Lord, who can do all (qui omnia potest), work salvation» (chapter 28), the commandments and the precepts are proposed without eliminating or depleting anything.
«There is nothing more realistic than affirming just principles with fidelity. And time will produce the change. And the change come about will be sufficient to witness the miracle of God in us. And this fidelity in repeating just principles, those who have tried it only a little know how humbling it is» (Giussani).
The alternative to the moralism that condemns (others) lies in repeating what is good and what is evil together with the plea to Him who can do all. This re-peating, this re-asking «always, without tiring» (Luke 18, 1) is the simplest and humblest thing we can do, and «is proper to those who have nothing dearer than Christ» (chapter 5 of the Rule).
Which is why I would like to conclude these signs by thanking the person who, two months before being elected pope, agreed to write the introduction to a small book of prayers that also contains the how and what required to make a good confession.
«I am therefore very glad that 30Days should make a new edition of this little book containing the fundamental prayers of Christians that have grown over the centuries. They accompany us through all the events of our lives and help us celebrate the liturgy of the Church in prayer. I hope this little book may become a travelling companion for many Christians. Rome, 18 February 2005. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger».
Thank you.

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