I desire simply to share a few points of meditation that accompany me in this time, ranging from my vocation and mission, to the situation in the church, to the forthcoming Synod of Bishops that will focus on young people, which I will participate in alongside the other superiors.
Mission emerges in prayer
I’ll begin from a Gospel reading that we heard a few weeks ago during the holiday, from the fourth chapter of Luke. Jesus had visited Nazareth and was sent away harshly, and he then went to Capernaum where he could evangelize, work many miracles, and drive out many demons. He lived in the house of Simon Peter, where he had healed Peter’s mother-in-law. We do not know how long he remained there. But one day he left the house early, as I think he did daily, to pray in a deserted place. Perhaps with time everyone had more or less discovered the place where he went to pray. For this reason, the crowd searched for him tirelessly, day and night, and managed to track him down. We are at the end of Luke chapter four, and in chapter five we’ll see the scene where the first disciples are called, after the miraculous fishing catch from Peter’s boat (Luke 5:2 and the following verses).
At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:42-44).
What struck me and caused me to reflect in this last part of the fourth chapter of Luke is the total concomitance of solitary prayer and mission for Jesus. The way this event is recounted is remarkable. It says that Jesus left for mission not from Capernaum, meaning that he did not return to the house of Peter to say goodbye and pack his bags, or to have breakfast, but that he left directly from the place he was praying to go towards “the other towns.” Even more than this, it’s as if the crowd, finding him in prayer, had seen that he was leaving from there, that from there he must leave on mission and “proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God” to the world. Certainly, the crowd had said this because they couldn’t find him in the city. But meeting him in the desert, they could breathe a sigh of relief: “Thank Goodness you’re still here!” Instead they perceive something new, something strange, that He was effectively leaving Capernaum. And Jesus confirms this perception, this fear, and describes the urgency that arose in him during prayer and that they had perceived in contrast to their expectations: But he said to them, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.”
It is as if mission, for Jesus, the urgency of mission, is born directly from prayer. In this scene, Luke places in Jesus the overflowing of mission from solitary prayer, meaning, to be solely with God, solely with the Father. Jesus did not need to go to the desert and pray to know the mission entrusted to him by the Father, because already in the instant of the Incarnation, that moment of fragile irruption of the eternal into time, the conception of the Word in the womb of Maria, already in that instant and from that instant everything was sure and decided, everything was completed. Already in that instant, the eternal decision of the Trinity to save and redeem humanity through the mission of the Son entered with Jesus in time and in the world. And yet, as he withdrew from the city to pray, Jesus teaches us that prayer is like a return to the first most fragile irruption, a reliving of it, and with it the awareness and actualization of mission.
Jesus did not live a dichotomy between prayer and mission, because for him there was no separation between being sent and being the Son of the Father. In the relationship with the Father, Jesus directly lived the mission that constituted this relationship. For Jesus, mission was his identity with the Father, as these essential phrases from the Gospel of John reveal: The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him (John 8:29). Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father (John 14:9). The identity of Jesus was his identification with the Father. In prayer, Jesus was alight with this mystery, and his entire mission consisted in going wherever to radiate the mystery of the Father in the person of the Son. And he passes down to us the act of beginning from the source point of prayer. Paradoxically, if Jesus fled from the crowd to retreat and pray it was precisely because the crowds, and the disciples the first of all, found him there, in that desert, in that position, in that attitude that embodied the eternal mystery of the Son sent by the Father in space and time, without the Father abandoning him, and without the communion between them and the Holy Spirit lessening. God expands without thinning out, because God is love. For this reason, encountering Christ in prayer, one encounters him in mission. And encountering him in mission, one encounters him in prayer. And Christ wants to transmit this unity, because we are not called to live anything if it is not Christ himself. No ecclesial vocation exists if it is not Jesus himself, his life, his prayer and mission.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy spirit.” (John 20:21-22).
What do these words, this breath mean? It means that Jesus communicates to us his mission together with his intimacy of love with the Father, the Holy Spirit. He communicates to us his mission with the communion with Him, and through Him with the Father. For this reason, mission and prayer coincide, and the crowd recognizes a unity in Jesus.
I won’t delve into this in depth, but in every vocation or state of life, also for him whose vocation or state of life is not defined or definable except by baptism, in every vocation fundamentally it is only a question of living this vocation, this mystery of adherence to Christ who adheres to the Father, this mission of Christ sent by the Father. And the fact that the wellspring of mission, no less than the infinite and universal mission of Christ himself, and thus of the Church, is the intimacy of a personal relationship with God, from heart to heart, in the silence and solitude of the desert, should help us to definitively simplify any discourse and project regarding the mission of the Church in the world.
Transmitting to young people the breath that frees
From here I’d like to move to the theme of the next Synod of Bishops: young people. We could make all the possible analyses on the condition of youth, and it is good to do so, if only to realize that it is a condition of today that is very complex. But it is also important to re-center everything in the faith that the only thing young people of today truly need, as in all times, is to encounter Christ in the mission of the Father towards them, as is the mission towards every man. It strikes me how in the gospels, Jesus’ encounter with young people, children, whether they are living or dead, healthy or sick, is expressed as an encounter that “lifts up” the young person. Jesus, in one way or another, says to the youths he encounters, whether they’re rich or poor, even those who have died, as with the daughter of Jairus or the son of the widow of Nain: “Rise up!” (Mark 5:41, Luke 7:14).
Jesus encountered young people who were impoverished and worn down, like the young rich man, in the sadness of not encountering the meaning of his life, a meaning that he finds in neither riches nor formal fidelity to the rules (Mark 10:17-22). He met young people sunk into death, which sums up everything that stops life from flourishing, from growing, from giving itself. And to all, in one way or another, he said “Get up! Arise! Revive! Grow! Follow me as a model of life that is full and happy!” And his words, when heard, were effective, realized what he said: the young arose, revived, grew.
This is to say that Jesus offered to young people, as he did to everyone, an effective authority, because, auctoritas, from the verb augeo, dictates the capacity to “make grow.” Jesus offered an adult presence to young people, that accompanies them to grow, to mature in their life.
The gestures with which Christ expressed his authority in the relationship with young people are beautiful and significant. He gave them his hand to get up, as with the boy who was convulsing. Jesus drove out a demon that had possessed him, and everyone had thought the boy dead: But Jesus took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up. (Mark 9:27). The tremendous and divine authority with which he drove out the impure spirit of the child (Mark 9:25) becomes a paternal tenderness that takes you by the hand, meaning it accompanies you so that you may grow, so that you may stand on your feet, so that you may have a human stature. Before, this boy was constantly seized and thrown to the ground by the demon, as his father explains to Jesus: Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid (Mark 9:18). The demon is the unauthoritative power, the power that is not auctoritas, the power that does not help you grow, that throws you to the ground, in the throes of a convulsive, animal instinct. The demon is the power that seizes you without giving you your freedom.
What a contrast this is with Jesus who took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up! The “hold” of Christ, the grasp of the hand of Jesus, is not to take away freedom, but to activate it, to exalt it. The companionship, support, and accompaniment of Jesus is the pure authority, that wants nothing but the growth of the young person, without the smallest trace of possessiveness, manipulation, or seduction. The words that the gospel writer uses are also beautiful, losing a bit of their intensity in translation: ἤγειρεν αὐτόν, καὶ ἀνέστη, and in latin: elevavit eum et surrexit (Mark 9:27). In these two words (elavavit and surrexit: raised and stood), and in their sequence exists the entire meaning of human and Christian education that we’re called to transmit. Because the subject of elevavit is Christ, while the subject of surrexit is the boy. The authority of Christ is this help, this sustainment, that raises the young boy so that he himself can arise, get up, stay on his feet. And thus the transmission of a gripping humanity, of a capacity to stand and to walk, which transmits itself from the freedom of the father to the freedom of the son, from the freedom of the master to the freedom of the disciple. Just think how this authoritativeness of Christ, in every modality, is the absolute opposite of any form of child abuse! He who abuses, on the other hand, embodies the exercise of the power of the devil, who seizes, throws down, and makes of you what he himself wants, leaving you alone and lifeless on the ground. But let’s also think about how Jesus, his authority, his being as Father, Mystery, are an ineradicable possibility to help those who have been abused to find, with freedom, the stature and full humanity that has been thrown to the ground and trampled.
And Jesus wants to transmit his authoritativeness to his disciples, to the church, and to us. This paternal and maternal authority that offers a hand to raise you up so that you can revive, even from death, even from the apparent total annihilation of your freedom and dignity. In this episode of the demon-possessed and convulsing boy, while Jesus was on Mount Tabor for the Transfiguration, the disciples tried to free the child from the impure spirit without success. Knowing what had happened, Jesus got more than a little angry with his disciples (Mark 9:19), undoubtedly because they had pridefully thought that the power to perform this miracle came from themselves. After Jesus freed the boy, back in the house, the disciples, surely and fittingly humiliated by the whole thing, asked Him, Why could we not drive it out? (Mark 9:28), And Jesus gives a calm but sharp and clear-cut answer: This kind can only come out through prayer (Mark 9:29). It’s simple and at the core very illuminating for facing all the problems and challenges that we live today. We are called to have the same authority to resolve the crises of the world, and in particular of young people. But we are called to transmit to the world, and in particular to young people, the authority of Christ, that which he receives from the Father, as he submitted even Himself to prayer, to asking, to welcoming that which He is called to give.
To say that prayer is necessary—indeed, here Jesus considers it absolutely indispensable—does not mean that without prayer we lack an element needed to make an electronic device function. To say that prayer is lacking means above all that the totality of our relationship with the reality in which we find ourselves is lacking. It’s not an element needed to make an electronic device function that is lacking. It’s like insisting that the working device has a meaning by giving it to a group of monkeys. Without prayer, without asking—as Jesus lived it, as a relationship with the loving and constitutive dependence on God—we’re not here, being in the world doesn’t have a meaning, staying in front of life, in front of people, has no meaning. Imagine being before a boy like the one with demonic spasms, or many of the young people today! Without prayer, it’s like we put ourselves in front of reality with the substance of a ghost. Instead, what substance of self Jesus had in front of everyone and everything! Also in this episode, not by chance, he comes down from the Tabor, from a time of intense prayer in the desert, where he gave three of his disciples the ability to see the invisible, to see what happened when Jesus prayed, when for example he prayed the psalms and meditated on the Scriptures. The Transfiguration was indeed first and foremost the manifestation of the reality of Jesus’ prayer to the disciples. And we see that the effect of Jesus’ prayer was not to become more “spiritual” or more “mystical” in the trivialized sense of the term. On the contrary, it was as if Jesus returned from prayer more “incarnate”, because he returned, in a certain sense, more “sent by the Father”, more “in mission”. The effect of prayer in Jesus was exactly this steady hand that touched the outwardly dead child to raise him up, to revive him, to cause him to grow, so that he could stand on his feet, so that he could become a free man and an adult in life.
This authoritative hand of Jesus that educates, that helps a person to grow and to stand up on his own, this hand symbolizes the exceptional presence of Christ, of the Body of Christ called to grow in the world. For this reason, without the prayer of Christ, without the liturgy of the Church, the mission of the Church does not function, because without prayer, centered around the Eucharist, the Church does not incarnate the mission of Christ.
We could say that the mission of the Church is entirely illustrated in Jesus’ act of taking the child who has been beaten by the demon by the hand to raise him up so that he can stand on his own. The two verbs used are words that the New Testament employs to describe the resurrection of the Lord, and our resurrection in Him. It is a matter of communicating to young people, and to everyone, a pascal experience that reanimates their humanity and renders it mature and beautiful. It is exactly this that the Church, in particular through the next Synod, wants to and should rekindle in itself, in the conception and experience of itself facing the world of today.
The tears of Peter
But here we all feel the confusion in facing the grave infidelity that emerges with particular publicity in this time of the Church. No matter how we face this situation, it is inevitable that every conscious member of the People of God feels troubled, disturbed surely by what has been published, but also in the recognizing that he himself is a member of a church body so unfaithful to the witness of the good and true face of Christ that we are called to incarnate. Pope Francis, in his Letter to the People of God, recalls all of us to prayer and penitence, and it is surely the most just and adequate way to stay in front of situations in which the mystery of iniquity penetrates and contaminates the humanity of the church Body. Think of how Jesus was troubled when he perceived that Satan had entered Judas, had entered one of his apostles, one whom he had chosen from the beginning to express His authority of love and truth! After he took the morsel, Satan entered him. (John 13:27). Or when he heard Peter cry that he had nothing to do with Him. What sadness must have assailed the heart of the Lord, precisely when he most needed companionship and friendship! I ask myself if in this moment of the Church—but it has always been like this, because infidelity and betrayal have always accompanied the journey of the Church, as in the journey of our life—in this moment we should look more than anything to Christ himself, to Christ who was and is present in every innocent victim of sin, but also in every unfaithful apostle or disciple. In everything, in everyone, it’s Him, He who is abandoned, He who is scourged, covered in spit, He who carries the cross and is nailed to it, He who dies and rises from the grave.
It is as if all of the disturbance that we can feel in and for the Church causes a shock that prevents us as the Church from sinking into ourselves, from dozing in a disturbance without end, like getting lost in the fog without seeing a path to find our way out. Judas is drowned in the turmoil of his own unfaithfulness, because he did not turn back to Jesus. Peter looked at Jesus and felt all the evil that he had done to Him in denying him. He cried for Jesus. He finds himself with his heart catapulted in the love of Christ. And there is no better reparation for all of our unfaithfulness, and thus no better and more profound consolation of Christ, than a penitential love, than a love that suffers for Him. The sinners who bathed the feet of Jesus with their tears set right all of their unfaithfulness in comforting the Lord with their penitent love.
The prayer and penitence that the Pope asks of us does not serve first of all to clean or re-oder the image of the Church in the eyes of public opinion, or in the eyes of the Church itself, but to reawaken the tears of Peter in the church, the tears of the sinners that have gained forgiveness in loving Christ more, nourishing the salvific mission of Jesus by begging for His mercy.
Reconstructing the Church
Pope Francis’ Letter to the People is dated August 20th. It was the feast day of Saint Bernard of Chiaravalle, who spilled many tears for Jesus and his not always faithful Spouse.
This makes me think of a wooden low relief on the crown of Chiaravelle of Milan in the first half of the seventeenth century. It traces a scene that refers to the task of Saint Bernard to mend the schism of Peter of Leon in France, who became the antipope named Anacletus (Vita Bernardi, Book 2, Chapter 1). On the first level we see saint as an abbot kneeling in prayer. Rays extending from a divine cloud, in which we glimpse four angels, converge in his clasped hands. In the back it’s as if the oratory where Bernard kneels opens to a scene illustrating the immediate effect of his prayer. We see a dilapidated church, as if struck by an earthquake that has crumpled the roof, columns, and some of the walls. But next to this church in destruction we see four angels at work, perhaps the same ones from the cloud that hangs above Bernard. They are spiritedly working to reconstruct and restore the church, carrying and passing large rocks. This image illustrates the missionary value of prayer I spoke about at the beginning. It is not only that prayer that gives us the strength to build the Church or restore her when she is collapsing under divisions and the sins of her members. But prayer is already in itself “Opus Dei – the Work of God”, as Saint Benedict defines it in his divine Office of the monks. That is, God working through his angels, angels who can also be all the members of the Church—laity, religious, ordained ministers—sent by Jesus and with Jesus in the world to build and rebuild the Reign of God, which nothing, not even our misery and unfaithfulness, can ever arrest in the passion to save the world.
(Meeting with the Fraternity of Saint Charles in Rome, September 22, 2018)
(Photo above: a watercolor image by Father Mauro Giuseppe Lepori)