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from issue no. 12 - 2005

Grasping the essential with clarity

A reflection by the archbishop emeritus of Florence on the encyclical of Pope Benedict

by Cardinal Silvano Piovanelli

On this page, some details of the frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto, Padua

On this page, some details of the frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto, Padua

When the discalced Car­me­lites of the convent of the Santa Teresa in Florence got word of the title and the topic of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, they exclaimed almost in chorus: «It’s him!».
Yes, it’s him! Pope Benedict loves grasping the essential with clarity. And grasping not cathedratically and with abstruse arguments, but with profundity and simplicity at the same time, in such a way as to be understood by all.
Even the way of announcing the publication was unusual, almost familiar. He spoke about it impromptu to ten thousand faithful at the Wednesday general audience, making known that the drafting of the text, his working on it, the translation, had required more time than foreseen («finally on 25 January my first encyclical will be published!»), and admitting that the delay was providential because it made publication of the encyclical coincide with the Feast of the conversion of Saint Paul and the conclusion of the week of prayer for Christian unity.
It’s him! In a conference at the “Meeting for friendship among peoples ” in 1990 he bravely said: «The idea is spread today here and there, even in high ecclesiastical circles, that people are all the more Christian the more they are engaged in ecclesial activities. There is a push towards a kind of ecclesiastical therapy of activity, of keeping busy; there’s an effort to assign a committee to everyone or, in any case, at least some commitment within the Church. In some way, so it’s thought, there must always be some ecclesial activity, one must speak of the Church, one must do something for it or in it. But a mirror that reflects only itself is no longer a mirror. A window that, instead of enabling an unhindered gaze towards the far horizon, stands like a screen between the observer and the world, has lost its meaning. It can happen that a person engages uninterruptedly in associational, ecclesial activity, and still be in no way a Christian. It can happen instead that another person lives simply by the Word and the Sacrament alone and practices the love that comes from the faith, without ever appearing on ecclesiastical committees, without ever being concerned with the novelty of ecclesiastical policy, without belonging to the Synod and without voting in it, and nevertheless he is a true Christian. It isn’t a more human Church that we need, but a more divine Church; only then will it also be truly human... The more organization we construct, be it also more modern, the less space there is for the Spirit, so much less space for the Lord, so much less freedom. I think that we should, from this point of view, begin an examination of conscience in the Church, without reserve at all levels».
The most important thing for the Church, then, is not doing, but being: choosing, as Mary of Bethany, the better part, sitting at the feet of the Beloved and drinking His word with joy. Certainly not so as to live a solitary inwardness and hunched in on oneself, but so as to give strong witness of that Love, that through us wishes to reach all.
It’s him! He who acknowledges his teacher in Saint Augustine. Who, commenting on the epistle of John the Apostle, wrote: «“God is love”: a brief phrase, only a paragraph, but what a weight of meaning it contains» (In Ep. Io.,1). «What more could he say, O brothers? If there were not in all this Epistle and in all the pages of the Scriptures no praise of charity apart from this single word that we have heard from the mouth of the Spirit, that is that God is charity, we should not ask more» (In Ep. Io., 7, 4).
«Strive as man may to love God: absolutely he will not find him if not in the fact that he has loved us first. He has given himself as object to love, he has given us the resources to love him. What he has given us for the purpose of being able to love him, hear in more explicit fashion from the apostle Paul, who says: “The charity of God is spread in our hearts”. But how? Perhaps by our efforts? No. But then how? “Through the action of the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”» (Sermo 34, 2).
The washing of the feet

The washing of the feet

«If everyone were to sign themselves with the Cross, if they responded “Amen” and all sang “Alleluia”; if all received baptism and came into the churches, if they built the walls of the basilicas, the fact remains that only charity distinguishes the children of God from the children of the devil. Those who have charity are born of God, those who have it not are not born of God. This is the great criterion of discernment. If you had all, but lacked this sole thing, what you have would not serve you; if you have not other things, but possess this, you have fulfilled the Law» (In Ep. Io., 5, 7)
In a very fine passage Augustine clarifies the way in which charity does not consist mainly and simply in a “doing”, that might also be the expression of an egotistic and proud love, that wants to be praised by men: «See the great works that pride achieves: note well how they are so similar and almost equal to those of charity. Charity offers food to the hungry, but pride also does so: charity does this so the Lord may be praised; pride does so to give praise to oneself. Charity clothes the naked and pride also does so; charity fasts, but pride also does so, charity buries the dead, but pride also does so... Through this clarification the divine Scripture invites us to come back into ourselves, to come back into our inwardness from this superficiality that flourishes the self before men. Go back into the inwardness of your conscience, question it. Do not look at what flourishes outside, but what is the root that is buried in the soil».
«God does not forbid you to love creatures, but he does forbid you to love them for the purpose of obtaining happiness from them» (In Ep. Io., 2, 11).
It’s him! How many times the word love or something corresponding has sounded on his lips!
In the sermon of the mass opening his Petrine ministry he exclaimed: «To feed means to love, and love means also being ready to suffer. Love means giving the sheep true good... Pray for me, that I learn to love the Lord ever more. Pray for me, that I learn to love his flock ever more... Pray for me, that I do not flee before the wolves in fear». «Each of us is wanted, each of us is loved, each is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than being reached, surprised by the Gospel, by Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than knowing Him and communicating to others one’s friendship with Him».
To the First Communion children he had received in Saint Peter’s Square on 15 October he explained: «Adoring is saying: “Jesus, I am yours and I follow you in my life, I would never want to lose this friendship, this communion with you”. I could even say that adoration in its essence is an embrace with Jesus, in which I tell him: “I am yours and I beg you also to be always with me”».
At the opening of the Conference of the diocese of Rome on the family, he stressed: «The vocation to love is what makes of man the genuine image of God; he becomes like to God to the extent to which he becomes someone who loves».
In Bari, closing the National Eucharistic Congress, the Pope reminded us that at first Augustine had difficulty in accepting the prospect of the “Eucharistic meal”, that seemed to him unworthy of God: with ordinary meals, in fact, people become stronger, because it is they who assimilate the food, making it a component of their own bodily reality. But later Augustine realized that in the Eucharist things go in exactly the opposite direction: the center is Christ who draws us to him, he makes us a single thing with him and in this way also includes us in the community of the brethren… We cannot communicate with the Lord, if we do not communicate amongst ourselves.
To the young pilgrims in Cologne he said forcefully: «It is not ideologies that save the world, but only turning to the living God, who is our creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is truly good and true. The true revolution consists solely in turning without reserve to God who is the measure of what is right and at the same time is eternal love. And whatever could save us if not love?».
Noli me tangere

Noli me tangere

Evil and suffering, above all the suffering of the innocent, but also the gratuitous hate and cruelty of so many, remain the scandal that makes hope difficult. Today life has no meaning for many people. Knowing that God has limitless love for all of us, men and women, and for the whole of creation, and that he gave his only Son to save the world, gives a meaning to life.
It’s him! I have the encyclical in my hands, but I still haven’t cut the pages. What I have said so far was prompted by the pertinent expression of a community of discalced Carmelites. I shall read this first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI with care, not forgetting that – as the fox says to the Little Prince in the Saint-Exupery story – «one does not see well except with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes. Men have forgotten this truth. You must not forget it».
I trust that all the people to whom the letter is addressed – the bishops, the presbyters, the deacons, people in Orders and all the lay faithful – reading with their hearts the words of Pope Benedict, make what the new pope solemnly declared at the start of his Petrine ministry into the project of their lives: «My true project of government is that of not doing my will, of not pursuing my ideas, but of setting myself to listen, with all the Church, to the word and will of the Lord and letting myself be guided by Him, so that it is He himself who guides the Church in this hour of our history».

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