This conference, given in a more complete form in video-conference May 4th, 2020 for all of the members of the Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo, is now available for everyone. It reflects on the experiences related to society and the Church in Italy and Europe.

An unexpected, unknown, and lethal guest

 

It has been two months since the Coronavirus seated itself at our table like a guest, unexpected, unknown, and lethal; above all, unexpected. Even though, after the fact, some – even important – scientists said that they had anticipated it; even though, in certain restricted and closed places of research, for years now there has been talk of the next hypothetical pandemic, in reality, no one sounded the alarm in time, not even when the epidemic exploded in China. Even the epidemiologists who would go on to curse those who underestimated the danger, made the same error publicly at the beginning of the outbreak.

The unforeseen is the motor of history. Some empires last for decades or even centuries, and then they crumble (what is left of the kingdom of Genghis Khan or of Tamerlane?) The work of some great men is undone when the empire dissolves (think of Alexander the Great or Napoleon). Otherwise, on the contrary, apparently small facts provoke epochal changes (like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that in 1914 lit the fuse of World War I).

Freedom is the factor that governs history. And freedom cannot ever, in any way, be boiled down to a question of “cause and effect”. This clarification  leads us to a few deep questions: what is man’s place in history? And, if there is a God, what is His place? Can we think about the fight between good and evil as key for understanding what happens or is everything only governed by chance?

The virus is here with us, an unknown guest. A few months now from its appearance, it is likely that it has already undergone several mutations. Scientists, whose recent dominance of mass media coverage has been inversely proportional to the few certainties that they had to communicate, do not know how to speak adequately about the Coronavirus. They do not know how the pandemic will develop in the near future nor when we can consider it definitively “defeated”. But, above all, the scientists are divided among themselves.

On this point, I would like to cite a text of Professor Stefano Zamagni, a friend and economist from Bologna, President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences: “Too long has the illusion been cultivated that new, convergent technologies would be able to guarantee us a linear development, without any limits on its outcome…With a full and hearty recognition of the fundamental role of science, it is necessary to admit that it is just as erratic as other human practices. Myths are always dangerous, in whatever ambit they take form.”[1]

The intrinsic fallibility of science is a truth which we must take seriously, without, of course, forgetting the enormous and meritorious efforts of many scientists working to help humanity, which deserve our gratitude. The absolutely grave thing is that some scientists are affirming the  absolute scientific certainty of what they sustain, which, unfortunately, is often in total contrast with what others believe. Quite often, science, in our time, would like to propose itself as religion. In the humility of many researchers it truly does accomplish important progress. In the pride of others, however, science appears to us as an intolerant “new religion” that would like to label as “ignorant” those who do not bow before its theses.

Thus, we have touched on one of the most dramatic and evident  aspects of the present crisis: that man has arrived at this moment of worldwide difficulty having been strongly self-convinced of his own immortality and power. Every limit or fragility had to be hidden,in order  to then be overcome. There was to be no more talk of death. Discussion of sickness was to be had only in light of its defeat. Even through certain neologisms common to our Western societies, there were no longer any persons who were handicapped, blind or mutilated. All of this is a great, desperate attempt to hide any limit and any wound, in order to exorcize them. These two months have brought this great attempt to the ground. Perhaps only temporarily. But that would be the true tragedy. Man has become manifest in all of his nudity, in his anguish, fears, fragilities, in all of his solitude. Above all, man has appeared in the most terrible experience imaginable: solitude in front of death. In front of one’s own death. Cardinal Scola spoke about this in his article for Il Foglio (Italian newspaper).[2]

 

The virus is not only an unexpected and unknown guest, but also a lethal guest. It uncovered, with great force, the structural contradiction of the life of man already contemplated by so many thinkers, such as Pascal. Man aspires with all of himself towards the infinitely great; he has within himself an inexhaustible expectation of something without end, and yet, at the same time, he can be defeated and killed by the infinitely small.[3] This fearful contradiction places an unavoidable question within our lives: who am I? Am I destined towards my fulfillment or to be lost in nothingness?

In these weeks we have seen, thanks to the shamelessness of television, images of abandoned caskets, those dying in the hospital with whom it was not possible to communicate, the cancellation of funerals. That which man has always felt to be one of the highest expressions of his own humanity, or, the cult of the dead, has been impeded, leaving a wound in many people that will never be healed.

 

The Experience of Believers

 

It is certainly too early to attempt a significant and synthetic reading of the experience of believers during this time. A few things, however, may already be said. The virus has precluded us from physical participation in the life of our communities, and, above all, from the eucharistic celebration with the people. It is impossible to live without receiving the eucharist. I myself emphasized for my Church, in this state of emergency, that the eucharist was celebrated daily by priests for all, in order that its effects might have been showered nonetheless upon the whole Christian people. And this is a sacrosanct truth. Even when there is no physical lay participation in the sacrament, the Mass celebrated by the priest is always the Body of Christ given “for all” and the Blood poured out “for all”. But we cannot think that this situation can last forever. A tree may resist the winds of the tempest for a certain time, even if its roots are compromised, but it cannot resist over a certain limit.

We have been deprived, furthermore, of customary human relations and of those fragments of common life that represent, in our communities, the Eucharist lived out.

Despite all of this, during these weeks of pandemic, we have been witnesses to a certain beautiful flourishing of faith and charity, signs of the creative work of the Spirit through the freedom of believers. Many catechists and educators created new ways of communicating and relating to their students, many adults began to pray the rosary daily in evening appointments, and much more. The Internet, which too often had been used for flippant or negative purposes, became inhabited, many times, by prayer, by praise, and by the search for spiritual and cultural growth.

At the same time, a diffused sense of weariness is also present. Man cannot, in fact, for very long, repress his need for personal, and not virtual, relationships, a need that makes up part of his very being. Even the highest forms of monastic vocation, such as the Trappists or Cistercians, have daily moments of communication in the physical presence of the others. Everyone in these months has experienced the beauty of being able to see each other and to listen to each other through video calls, but we have also known the strong, intrinsic limit of this way of communicating. In some way, we are like those great characters who, in an act of love, grasp at shadows, like Achilles who, in the Iliad, attempts to embrace his friend Patroclus who appears in a dream[4], or Aeneas, in Vergil’s Aeneid, who would like to hold the shadow of his deceased wife Creusa, but, “three times her image fled my useless hands / Like weightless wind and dreams that flit away”[5].

In these months, some believers have even said: “The liturgy is so beautiful in streaming!” Or: “The Mass is worth the same, even if it is virtual”. And still: “The image of the Pope in a deserted St. Peter’s Square was the most striking event of these months. What problem is there, then, in continuing to celebrate without the people?” I too think that the figure of Pope Francis in the deserted square was a powerful image, as was his pilgrimage to the feet of the crucifix of san Marcello al Corso. But we cannot take these expressions as an alternative to the daily bread of Christian life! It is Pope Francis himself who puts us on guard against a “gnostic” Christian life, one that comes entirely through “streaming”[6]. Unilateralism is always a negation of the truth.

From this point of view, the weeks past have shed light on two dramatic truths: first, a widespread and profound ignorance of the Christian message; and, second, a deeply rooted secularism, which has by now become commonplace.

 

1. An ignorance of Christianity

 

I perhaps have never so intensely and profoundly perceived the generalized ignorance of our society towards essential truths of the Christian life. Many do not know the value of Confession, of the Eucharist, of gathering in community, of the common life, of sacraments in general…We must ask ourselves a radical question: what have we taught to our people?

The pandemic has cast a light on a longstanding ignorance , whose roots, perhaps, stretch back to the 50’s or 60’s. The Second Vatican Council was a reaction to the lack of existential weight that Christian truths carried for the people. But during the Post-Conciliar period  truths of the Creed were reduced  to a solely humanistic level. It wasn’t clear how to marry the truth of Christ’s proposal with the experience of life that it permits and discloses.

It is known that in every human existence, we are given to live distinct moments, as biological evolution shows us. I cannot ask a child that which I can and must ask an adult, just as the fascination of the encounter cannot and should not be weighed down by knowledge and commandments that can only be discovered little at a time. At the same time, hiding the truth does not make life any easier. Silenze, if not outright censuring, of uncomfortable or difficult topics, for example death and Paradise, have not intensified but have instead diminished Jesus’ appeal. We can also think of the experience of virginity, which no one talks about anymore: does it intensify or diminish Jesus’ appeal? And what’s to be said of Christian family life, of bringing children into the world, educating them, and of the gratuitous gift of self in order to share life with others that characterizes so many charitable works?

As I have had the opportunity to say in many other occasions, psychology and sociology have taken the place of the faith. All of this has happened in a subtle and dramatic way. Faith was not denied explicitly, but it was sustained that it coincides with the contents of the truths of human sciences. This coincidence had already been foreseen, announced and diffused more than two centuries ago by Hegel, beginning with his early work, The Life of Jesus[7], that was then developed enormously  and given a hefty foundation in his “philosophy of the Spirit”. He had not intended to kill Christianity, as Feuerbach and Marx would want to do, but replace it. Hegel had imagined a momentous work of “removal” (Aufhebung), aimed at emptying the transcendent value from the fundamental truths of life

 

2. The Marginalization of the Christian Community

 

Another fact, perhaps more grave than the previous, is the absolute marginalization not only of the Christian message – in a moment in which the dramma that we are living would require, as is said in a secular context, a “supplement for the soul” – but a marginalization also, and above all, of the Christian community. We must think about what this means for a country like Italy, that for two thousand years has seen a poetic, artistic, literary, architectonic, urbanistic and musical humanism that sorges directly from Christianity. If we were to all of a sudden remove the cathedrals, the churches, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Saint Francis, Dante, Galileo, Leonardo….what would be left of Italy? Certainly its secular traditions and the other religions – all respectable and important. But even these would be terribly impoverished of the bond with the life of the Christian community that gave them, even dialectically,  history and vital nourishment. The preoccupation for Christian communities in this time has found little space in newspapers, on television, on the Internet, and in the thoughts of those who govern. When the Church proposed, after months of obedience to the directives of the government, justified by charity, the need to begin to celebrate the Mass again with the people, in an absolutely regulated way, the response of many states was a firm no and many, I think, even without bad intentions, said: “Mass is not an essential business.” The social value of Christian life is no longer perceived. If before I was lamenting the waning of the value of the truth of the faith, now, I am speaking about its historical weight.

To this end, I would like to quote some lines from Professor Zamagni: “It is not the State that holds us together and physical separation is not enough for us. Public institution and separated individuality do not give any motivation to live together. And yet, “family”, “community” and “nation” are among the most mistreated and vilified words of the last decades…the State cannot become a totalizing institution, because it belongs to the order of means and not of ends.”[8]

 

The occasion

 

All of the considerations I have made thus far would be completely misleading if I were to stop here. In reality, what is happening right now is also a great occasion for our life, a strong call to re-read our own personal story. It could be the theme of a great novel, centered on the encounter between God and man.

My Jewish friend from Jerusalem recently told me that the only possible comparison we could make to our current situation is that of the “great flood” and she asked me how many of us could board the ark. I responded that today the ark is quite large and that everything depends on us. Yes, much depends on us.

As I said at the outset, all of the events of these months happened when we weren’t prepared. But it’s often this way in God’s meeting with man. God is not at the origin of this epidemic, neither is He the cause. But He is using it to show us what happens when humanity abandons God and to renew the covenant made with Abraham and with Noah, definitively sealed in the blood of Christ and in His resurrection, but unfortunately forgotten by man. God always renews his pact, through the holy shoot (cfr. Is. 11:1), through places of small growth capable of rebuilding His people. He continuously calls us to respond to His covenant, with a new and different awareness. He calls us to be people and communities in which an awareness can mature that is deeper and truer  to what is essential for life. St. Paul VI, when he was still Archbishop of Milan, spoke of Christ as being “necessary”. His words should be taken up again[9].

All of the provocation that God sends our way is contained in this reminder: “Do not avoid the present, even if it is overwhelming and undesired. Profit from this evil time.” St. Paul said the same thing to the community of Ephesus: Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil (cfr Eph. 5:15-16). Alessandro Manzoni, author of The Betrothed, placed similar words on the lips of his character, Cardinal Rodrigo: “Let us buy back time”, or, in other words, let us rediscover the true weight of our days, their true value. Let us renew our awareness of the occasions that are given to us[10].

We are being given an occasion, a “kairos”: a certain time that engages us in a special way and from which we can emerge either better or worse. We have seen certain examples during these weeks that allow us to hope: the impactful generosity of many priests and healthcare workers. Some priests have died, just as many doctors and nurses have given themselves up to the point of giving their lives. I think then of the sacrifice of many families who stayed close to their sick, and who constantly improvised new forms of play and of closeness for their children who were suddenly relegated to the home for too long of a period. But everything needs time and reflection  in order to become a new garment for our lives. The generous gift of self needs to settle deep within us, otherwise it can generate negative and depressing reactions in us.

Next to these expressions of charity, which sink their roots into many centuries of Christian history, we have also seen much desperation and cynicism. Only faith truly generates patience, without forgetting that it is not some magic medicine. Our psyche has been tested, and it is not enough to just pray so that it might be healed, even if prayer is the most formidable of medicine that we have at our disposition. You will see from this point of view the long work that awaits us.

Perhaps we are rediscovering the truth of that phrase of Saint John Paul II, so beloved to Fr. Giussani, which he pronounced at the beginning of his pontificate in Norcia, celebrating 1500 years since the birth of St. Benedict: “It was necessary that the heroic become normal, everyday , and that the normal, the everyday, become heroic.” [11]

During this time, many of us have felt close to the end. However, this is not a negative or depressing thought. It can be, on the contrary, a glimpse of the truth. Finally. Feeling that the end is near, in fact, does not mean desiring death as much as desiring that paradise enter into our daily lives with greater power and capacity of illumination. It is the desire to see Jesus, so as to enlarge the horizons of our gaze and of our heart.

We don’t have to live for the “afterlife”, as Christian pedagogy and preaching underlined above all in the 19th century, but to live “the afterlife in this life”. Think here below of the things above (cfr. Col 3:1), as St. Paul said of the fruits of the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Christ, in fact, illuminates every moment of history and of our present; we can see it, we know it and we can experience it daily.

The great temptation of the present moment is that of throwing ourselves either towards the past or the future: lamenting a bygone past or evading the present in a future that, in reality, we cannot even imagine. Salvation, instead, comes from recognizing the signs of God in the present.

We could define this period of our lives as the occasion for a “test of faith”. As St. Peter wrote in his first letter: Our faith is more precious than gold, which is also tried by fire (cfr. 1 Peter 1:7). A “test of faith” pushes us to discover what sustains our life, what is the ultimate foundation that determines every instant and that no hostile force can eliminate. In the epidemic, I see a battle between God and Satan, a battle that involves all men. I found the Gospel verse chosen by Pope Francis for the prayer vigil in St. Peter’s square to be greatly significant: the storm on the lake (Mark 4:35-41), which contains two fundamental questions of Jesus: Why are you afraid? Do you not yet have faith? (Mark 4:40). This test given by the present moment truly allows us to see on what we base our life and our life.

 

Two concluding points

 

  1. To conclude this reflection, I would like first of all emphasize the importance of common life. It may seem contradictory and almost ridiculous to speak about common life in this context, yet it’s not. Precisely the physical distance that we must experience (I prefer this expression to “social distancing”, which seems to me profoundly inaccurate) has shown us all that, even through many difficulties,  there is hidden value in being together as a family. Common life – as we know – exasperates and enlarges our fragility, but reinforces good ideals. The impossibility of living close and “normal” relationships allowed many people to understand how precious common life really is, if lived in an authentic way – which means not for rivalry, possession, or exploitation, but as a reciprocal richness, support, and valorization. Common life is the heart of the life of the world, called in communion with the Father and our brothers and sisters. The physical distance from our communities and friends, that we are obliged to have, is a purification from the evil that we have lived for a long time in our individualism and oppression of the other.
    What’s more, the impossibility to participate in the liturgy of the eucharist may have been paradoxically a privileged way to rediscover the absolute importance of the community in our lives. Common life is not a artifice to make us feel better or a form of support in difficult moments. It is the flame that helps us look at the Body of Christ as a community animated by the Spirit and by the concrete participation of all of the members in the life of one single Body.
  1. During these past few weeks we have discovered with more certainty how much men and women of our time, Christians and not, are waiting to be helped to pray and to learn from us how. Every Christian is called to become a master of prayer. The psalms, the celebration of the Mass, the readings of the Missal, the rosary, and eucharistic adoration need to more consciously stimulate our lives. From “duties” they need to turn into unavoidable discovery and company. In this way, we are able to make space in our hearts for God’s presence, welcome the gift of joy and truly become missionaries, capable of announcing the Gospel of freedom and peace to everyone that we meet on our path.

[1]  S. Zamagni, La pandemia da Covid-19: factum et faciendum. Un apporto dall’Osservatorio Giovanni Bersani, 22 April 2020, pro manuscripto.

[2] A. Scola, “Oltre il dramma del male. Antidoto alla solitudine”, Il Foglio, 22 marzo 2020.

[3] As Pascal wrote: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (Thoughts, 347).

[4] Cfr. Homer, Iliad, XXIII, 99-10.

[5] Virgil, Aeneid, II, 792-794. Translation Sarah Ruden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. Cf. See also the encounter of Aeneas with his father, Anchises: Aeneid, VI, 700-702.

[6] Cf. pope Francis, “Familiarity with the Lord”, Homily of the Daily Mass Live Streamed from the Chapel of Casa Santa Marta, 17 April 2020.

[7]  G. Hegel, The Life of Jesus, 1795.

[8] Zamagni, La pandemia da Covid-19: factum et faciendum, cit.

[9]  G. B. Montini, Omnia nobis est Cristus. Lenten Pastoral Letter to the Archdiocese of Milan, 1955.

[10] “Let us buy back time: midnight is approaching, the Bridegroom cannot delay; let us keep our lamps lit. Let us present our wretched hearts to God, so that it may please Him to fill them with that charity that repairs the past, secures the future, that fears and confides, weeps and rejoices, with wisdom; that becomes, in any event, the virtue which we need. ”A. Manzoni, The Betrothed, XXVI.

[11]  John Paul II, Homily at Norcia on the occasion of the Pastoral Visit to Cascia and Norcia, 23 March 1980.

 

(notes from a lesson given by Msgr. Massimo Camisasca to the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo, translated by Vincent Petruccelli, printed with permission)

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