Dearest Antonio, Michele, Emanuele, Luca and Patrick,
Today, the Church calls us to meditate on the life of St. John the Baptist, whose birth to Elizabeth and Zachariah, relatives of Mary, mother of Jesus, we celebrate today. Accepting this invitation, I would like to draw a teaching that can accompany you in your first steps of priestly ministry.
All of the Evangelists dedicated a particular attention to the dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist, and amply referred to the relationship that was formed between the two cousins, who were of the same age and who came onto the public scene almost contemporaneously. All of this attention is a sign of the veneration with which the first Christians looked to the person of the Precursor.
At the beginning of His mission, Jesus asked John to baptize Him. From that first occasion, the theme of their encounters was the way and the time in which salvation must have become manifest. John objected to the request of Jesus due to his unworthiness, but Jesus responded: Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (Mt 3:15). Later on, Jesus receives the disciples of John that came to bring him the questions of their master. John was present because he had been arrested and put in prison by Herod. Another time, the dialogue between them turned around the same center: Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another? (Lc 7:20): this was John’s question. Jesus sent messengers, telling them: And Jesus answered them: Go and tell John what you hear and see (Mt 11:4).Then, he listed the signals that the tradition considered the premonitory signs of the coming of the Messiah: The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me (Mt 11:5-6).
In front of the crowds, John had spoken of himself with a language that was always more negative: What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie (At 13:25). He had, in fact, explicitly affirmed to not be the Christ (Jn 1:20). It will be Jesus to establish, in positive terms, the place of John the Baptist in the history of salvation, eulogizing his function in extremely elevated terms: John, he said in public, is more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way before you. (Mt 11:9-10). Using all of his authoritativeness, he added, He is Elijah who is to come (Mt 11:14), to then arrive in the end at the recognition that strikes us the most: Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11).
What then can we learn from John? In what is his greatness manifested? I have chosen three characteristics of his person and of his action, and I offer them to you as an expression of my hope and prayer to God, that He might allow your lives as priests to be lived in the same way.
Above all, the spirit of conversion and penance.
From the time of his infancy, John was probably entrusted by his parents to a community that lived in the desert, in whose bosom he would have been educated in an austere way. It wasn’t a rigor that was an end in and of itself; on the contrary, it was a lifestyle that expressed the expectation of the liberator of Israele. Supported by the environment to which he belonged and moved interiorly by the Holy Spirit, John took upon himself, in a completely personal way, the task of awaiting the coming of the Messiah. He felt that God was going to come to visit His people. He realized that waiting means preparing and the preparing means preparing oneself. The lifestyle of John gave a form to this intuition. He felt called to the task of giving voice, with his own life, to the people that had to implore God to forgive their sins. And in this way, when he appeared on the public scene and began to baptize on the shores of the river Jordan, near the city of Jericho, exactly this happened: many ran to him to confess their sins.
Penitence, sacrifice, voluntary renouncement, fasting, prayer, silence, poverty: today, these words have become definitions of behaviors that are considered irrational. And they become this way always, and time and again, for the mentality of the world. They receive their real meaning, in fact, only in the experience of men called to anticipate the coming of Christ and for that reason to assume upon themselves the cry that the world does not know or does not want to express: the cry that asks God for mercy. In the invitation of John to penance, just as in every act of penance lived lucidly, the awareness that the mercy of God is a miracle is safeguarded, that it is a gratuitous gift that must be invoked.
Our world needs men who feel themselves called, like John, to incarnate this kind of vigilance, an expectation of Christ that returns to express itself as an imploration of mercy. My first wish for you is therefore this: that God allow you to be in the number of these men.
A second aspect that John testifies to us in his relationship with God is the humility in the consideration of himself and of his vocation.
John may have doubted Christ but he never doubted himself. While he was in jail, he had to cross a mysterious moment of trial in which all of the images with which he had imagined the manifestation of God were shaken, but he had never fooled himself thinking that he was the Messiah. John did not attribute to himself nothing more than the calling that he had received. He lived, in other words, a sense of his limits just as the reflex of his positive awareness of his task, of a luminous sense of his mission. I am the voice of one crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord (Jn 1:23).
And this is the second wish for you: that humility be, for you as well, the awareness of your mission, of your relativity to the work of God in history. That humility be for you the memory that we are servants of a God-Mystery, who works in mysterious ways. You all as well might find yourselves disoriented for the way in which God seems to conduct events, both in your own lives and in the that of the Church and of the world. God, in fact, makes his servants participate in his designs, but just in the measure necessary to the task to which he calls them to collaborate. In this way, he tries our faith. In the faithfulness to his way of acting lies our humility. And in humility, you will find our greatness.
In the end, I want to recall the aspect of the figure of John that maybe more than the others makes him actual: the passion for the truth of human relationships. It was a passion that brought him to martyrdom, which was a pretext for Herod to eliminate an uncomfortable voice that revealed too obviously the lie of his personal situation.
The crowds were attracted by the prophet dressed in camel skins (Mc 1:6), because they are struck by the decision with which he invited others to extirpate the evil that finds its way into familial and social relations, from the clearness with which that man pushed others to take the way of the truth. They went to him and asked, What then shall we do? (Lc 3:10). John responded with a simple radicality: He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise (Lc 3:11). To the publicans he said, Collect no more than is appointed you (Lc 3:13). And to soldiers, Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages (Lc 3:14). Even while welcoming them in the lines of those who were baptized, he corrected the Pharisees harshly, Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance (Mc 3:7-8). To the king Herod, who, when he heard him, was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly (Mc 6:20), he reminds with clarity, It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife (Mc 6:18).
The love for the truth and for justice in relationships between man and man, between man and woman, between groups within society, in the exercise of religious, political and military power, is tied to the sense of sanctity and purity of God that John lived in an extremely acute way. It is this perception of the irreducible sacrality of the divine that accompanied the great prophet Elia, whom John immediately called to mind in the collective imaginary.
The fire within for the truth and the surprising freedom of speech that John demonstrated were the strength of his predication. Observing the crowds that surrounded him and the attitude with which they came to him in order to immerse themselves in the waters of the Jordan, we understand that in the hearts of these persons, so different between them for social condition, a light had become lit. Before this prophet and under the impulse of his words, a possibility reopens of treating one another in a just way. Against any skepticism and any hardness of heart, the sacrifice necessary in order to love returned to being desirable. John, in fact, expressed with all of himself the imminence of the coming of God, and was a living sign of the foce of the newness that comes from on high. And where God is working – the crowds who listen to him intuit- everything is possible.
And so the third wish that I have for you is that it be granted to you to not fear in front of men, to not hesitate to indicate the path of the truth to those who live relationships wounded by or marked by weakness and sin. Often, the way towards the healing of such relations is exigent, and this can render our proposal timid. I encourage you then to be aware that, beneath every contrary appearance, the man who is wounded and unhappy awaits a prophet who can indicate a new path. If you will not let yourselves be held back by considerations of false prudence, God will help you to accompany the persons that He gives to you, giving you even the sweetness that will be necessary. There is a desire even more profound that I nurture for you: that God grant you to walk, in first person, the path of the truth and of love that you are called to indicate to others, according to the example of John, so that you can be for all the place where hope is reawakened.
Homily for the first Mass of Antonio Acevedo, Michele Baggi, Emanuele Fadini, Luca Montini and Patrick Valena.
Rome (Basilica of San Clemente), 24 June 2018, Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
(Pictured, an embrace during the Sign of Peace of the first Mass. Photo by Giulia Riva)