Mission is at the center of everything I have lived and continue to live with you and with my Church. It is also at the heart of my reflections, both what I have meditated on and especially concerning what I have received.
I asked myself this morning: “What can I say about my missionary experience?”. I will say, as I have always done, and as I do more and more frequently, simply what I am living. Or perhaps that which I would like to live, which I am already living in part. Because in the tension towards infinity there is always a present experience.
Mission is the work of God
The first word I want to speak about flows from the impression I had upon entering this room on the first night. I saw the massive banner with the image of Bogotá, a city where we have a house of mission, and I said to myself: “Where did all this come from? Where did all our missions come from?”. Maybe you are not able to understand, but when someone is at the origin of a reality as significant as the Fraternity of St. Charles and then moves away, or is distanced, every time he sees it again is a shock. And a shock of no small importance. It is part of the positive aspect of sacrifice that God asks to every person who wants to become an adult. Therefore, the first image that I would like to arouse in you is wonder in front of the work of God. I was amazed when I entered here and listened to your interventions, by the frequent reference to the work of God in what you shared. Among other things, knowing the various priests who were speaking, it was evident that they were not saying their own words. Or rather, they were their own words, but aroused by Someone else who dwells in them. The beginning of God’s work – how many times have we repeated this between us and how many times have I reminded myself of them! – is something so small. Like the two or three drops of water that leave the basin thus beginning the flow of a river. The image of the river has been accompanying me these days: a river of grace whose limits we do not know. Listening to what you shared about who you are meeting, the sick, young people, the schools… everything is truly a river of grace! A river that has God at its origin, a river chosen and determined by Him alone.
The great work of our life is not deciding what to do, but adhering to what is asked of us. This does not mean renunciation of our freedom: every human decision carries the persons freedom, includes our creativity, our fatigues, our refutations, our conversion, and finally, our recognition: “Yes, Lord, you are everything”. Mission is not a “part”, perhaps the most important, of Christianity. Mission is Christianity.
I remember a phrase of Father De Lubac, who said: “The more you speak about mission, the less you live it”. He was right in the sense that often the words, for how we use them, obscure reality more than revealing it. Returning to the beginning, not as an archaeological project, but to recognize that everything comes from God. In this sense the cappellette in via Liberiana, in Rome—the first location of the Fraternity of St. Charles—, were our Bethlehem, our grotto, there didn’t seem to be much, but actually there was already everything. Just like the ‘yes’ of Mary.
As I grow in maturity, through the experiences I am living, the event that I look at with the most attention, the most joy, but also the admiration and dismay, is the ‘yes’ of Mary. Apparently there was no one; however, millions of angels and saints were present, the saints of the Old Testament, waiting for that ‘yes’. St. Bernard describes this event with theatrical drama (ref. Bernard of Clairvaux, Homilies on the Madonna, 4, 8-9).
We can also think of the hiddenness of Jesus’ life, his need to withdraw before manifesting himself, the solitude of the cross, the mystery of the resurrection. The beginning, and beginnings in general, are always surrounded by a simplicity which then, little by little, generates ever new stories, in proportion to our ‘yes’, which relives the ‘yes’ of Mary, which had God as its main actor. God who sent his son.
In summary: mission is to adhere to the will of God, to enter the life of the Son. There are not many missions, there is only one mission: that of the Son who seeks man. We must enter into the mission of the Son, into his life, into the personal reality of Jesus Christ who seeks man and is sought by man.
Christ seeks man and man seeks Christ. Man looks for him in many different ways. There is no man who is not looking for Christ. God dwells in the depth of every man, every man is an image of God. We must help men to recognize this and to protect it; to identify Christ who lives at the core of their life and to guard this image and likeness, calling it by name. The whole mystery of Baptism is here: being called by name. Nothing else. Mission is entirely the work of God that takes place and is perceivable only to shepherds and angels. To the extent that we become shepherds, we also become poor in spirit. Only then do we see God at work. When we are full of our problems and blames, we no longer see God, but only ourselves.
God chooses to send
Now I would like to speak about another word, which is also related to the theme of mission and my own life. Saying that mission is only the work of God does not take away from the event that happens between God and man. God chooses, to send. Following the mystery of birth, or within the mystery of birth, there is the mystery of election: “I might not have been, and yet here I am”. Why do I exist? To be chosen. After all, at the heart of man’s reflections from the past thousand years, all the art, poetry, literature, and music, everything is connected to two mysteries: being born and death. Birth and death are two events that one cannot transcend, they are events that cannot be diluted. It’s true that today, in some cases, people decide to be blonde of brunet, with blue or brown eyes… But none of us was able to decide whether to exist or not. Unfortunately, and tragically, today we are moving towards the possibility of deciding one’s own death, or even worse, to leave that decision in the hands of others. In any case, nobody can avoid the mystery of death. God chooses. Following the mystery of being and the mystery of birth (you can read the conversation between Giussani and Testori on this topic), comes the mystery of election. When I was in India, in some terrible areas of Calcutta and Mumbai, I asked myself: why didn’t God want me to be born in India? Why did He mysteriously save me from being in this great intersection of people, condensed, where one dies on top of the other? Why did he want me to be born in Italy? Why did he order things in such a way that my parents moved to Milan and I encountered Giussani? See, this is the mystery of election.
This mystery is true for everyone, because just as it is true that each person was born, it is also true that each person is chosen by God. This mystery remains incomprehensible in our earthly life. Therefore we don’t need to waste time trying to respond to these questions: “Why here and not there? Why me and not you?”. We need to look at the answer to these questions, which is the preference of God and Christ for me. It makes no sense to ask “why love loves?”.
Instead, it is necessary to open up every day to this love, to this preference which, on the flip side, is always a responsibility. In fact, just as there is no other initiative than that of God, so too, there is no other love than that of the Father for the Son. There is no other love. There is a participation in that love, not another love. Our mission is born from the discovery of this election, the discovery that he chose me because he loved me. He loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20): this sudden revelation that Saint Paul received was the spark and fire that fueled his whole life. If we don’t enter into this fire, we can’t understand what mission is. “No, it is not a question of justice between you and me, but only of charity”. In these words of Paul Claudel in The Annunciation to Mary there is, in my opinion, a whole theology of mission, a theology of the Church, a theology of revelation, which we should perhaps rediscover and continue to deepen.
The third word I would like to share with you is this: after the surprising work of God who created the universe out of nothing, which therefore includes us and this Fraternity; and after the surprise of the election that should make us all tremble a little; the third surprise, the most shocking, is that God not only chose me, but chose me a sinner. Only over time this awareness grows in us. As the years pass, the perception of my sins increases enormously and could even paralyze me, if it did not point me to the tenderness of Christ.
Recently Mother Cristiana Piccardo, who was abbess of Vitorchiano for many years where she accompanied the reform of the monastic life after the Council, and who has now lived in Venezuela for more than twenty years, came across the Fraternity’s journal and something I had written about her. She wrote me a letter saying: “Most Reverend Excellency, I happened to come across the journal of the Fraternity from a few months ago. Here things usually arrive three or four months late. I read the page you wrote about me. I felt an immense shame because appearances are one thing and substance another. I am oppressed by my many sins, whatever God has done through me is His only, because alone I am simply incapable. But this does not stop me from saying thank you for the passion with which you have always accompanied my poor life”. Christ’s tenderness is not something sentimental. Christ’s tenderness is the most incomprehensible thing in life: it is the fact that he loves my nothingness. Mission is fundamentally this: to be an echo of Christ’s tenderness, to love the nothingness that is in the other. Above all and before all else, it is loving the nothingness of my brothers, of those who are in the house with me. That tenderness that should be present between us, we are often unable to express, because many times we have no mercy on each other.
Speaking about Christ
As a fourth point, I would like to emphasize that mission means entering into man’s life to make him know God who lives in him, and the Son who loves him. Mission is transmission of knowledge. I would like to insist on this. First of all, mission is knowledge of Christ, because He is the missionary. Do you remember that beautiful text by Fr. Giussani in which he says that if they were to ask Christ “Who are you?”, He couldn’t have said anything but: “I am the missionary of the Father”? (see L. Giussani, Vita e spirito nel sacerdote cattolico, 19 October 1993). I was very impressed with the meeting we had yesterday, when we listened to two of our priests who are hospital chaplains in Prague and Bologna, on the theme of closeness to the sick and dying. We are sent to make Christ known, not simply to keep men company, because the true companionship for men is Christ. Of course, not whoever says Lord Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 7:21). It is not a question of displaying membership to a party, or showing off through words and knowledge. It is a question of guarding Christ within oneself, so that he may emerge as soon as a crack opens. We must be bearers of Him, not of ourselves. Through us, it is He who must reign. We should try, when we think it’s appropriate, to begin to pray with those we walk with.
Mission is to speak to Christ and to speak of Christ. Today the importance of witness is rightly highlighted, but the importance of the Word is not highlighted sufficiently. Perhaps too many times, and this is undeniable, the Word “Christ” is juxtaposed, misused. This however does not mean that we must fall silent. The word “Christ”, that is, the proclamation of Christ, is the whole of mission. We are not called to bring a worldly ethics or human wisdom. We are called to bring Another, to bring Him, to reveal Him.
When, Every evening before falling asleep we pronounce in the Canticle of Simeon: lumen and revelation gentium, “light to enlighten the Gentiles” (Lk 2,32), we speak of Christ as the one who removes the veil from peoples reality and reveals their task in the world. This is precisely what it means to speak of Christ: to remove the veil from life and reveal its meaning. Thus one understands the importance of approaching the person of Christ also through study, during the seminary years, but also as priests.
To speak of Christ we must show ourselves to be fathers, mothers, friends. Being fathers and mothers for the people who are in need is a fundamental path of the revelation of Christ. Whoever is called to the priesthood, or to religious life like our Missionary Sisters, is called to the manifestation of fatherhood and motherhood, to accompany people. If there is no one accompanying, speaking is often in vain.
I find these words that Fr. Giussani, often repeated to us, very pertinent today: “The greatest company is the community itself”. Fatherhood and motherhood must guard against being a call to oneself, a possession of the other. It is also true, however, that in the often fragile, faint and discolored realities of our communities, many people have a need, today more than ever, for a personal hand, someone who is the echo of the fatherhood of God and the motherhood of the Church.
Answer to some questions that were raised
The missionary method
One of you, a missionary in the United States, asked: “What does it mean to translate CL for the people to whom we are sent? What would Giussani do if he were to start today, in my position, from scratch?”.
How to live the Movement in America? It is you guys who should tell me, it’s not something I can tell you. You are the ones who are there. “Truth is born from the earth”: I think this phrase by Mounier, which has accompanied us for many years, needs to be reconsidered. The movement, like Christianity, does not grow because of a formula applied from above, but it is an experience that one lives and transmits to others while accompanying their life. And it is an experience that is kept alive to the extent that it is reborn in us, from within the place where we are. So, if at the beginning this experience can only be communicated through our own words, over time it must be said through the words that arise from them. Until it becomes something “theirs” with us, it will never be an experience that remains. To the question “What would Giussani do?”, I respond: “What are you doing, there, now, having within yourself the experience Giussani has brought you?”. Otherwise the question is not real. Nobody can say what Giussani would do. And yet, at the same time, we can affirm what Giussani would do, to the extent that what he has given is present in us and brought back to life through the people we meet. It is not easy, but it is truly the way we must go.
We know there is a temptation between two different extremes. The first leads us to say: “I must become like them”. The other, on the contrary, tries to convince us that they must become like us. The Church has traveled both of these roads, but she has also traveled a third, more complex road: that of generating the Word from within a people, a historical context, a language. The whole attempt is determined by the depth of the experience we live. For this reason the Fraternity’s task of having a “theology of mission”—we can call it—is very important, because you are all over the world. Maintaining the relationship with the Center of the Fraternity, and without losing yourselves, you need to take the necessary risks for this birth to happen within peoples, cultures and stories. Unity is the fundamental road. The birth of the Word within peoples is an arduous task, it needs two things: people with a certain genius and unity. Geniuses who know how to express what thousands and thousands of people put together would not know how to express, who give a direction. Then, unity: the unity of the people, of the community, the unity of the sensus fidei.
The true sense wounds
Some of you have talked about the big topic: wounds – fragility – need. I have talked about this topic many times and it is very important to me. Sometimes, however, I see that it is treated ambiguously. Certainly Christ met men and women in their needs. The need was the hole through which he entered their lives. This is also true for us. The needs are of different kinds: there are material needs, hunger, thirst, home … But all material needs contain at the bottom a spiritual need. The house, for example, speaks to us of the departure from solitude, which today seems to be the most radical, most widespread, profound and dramatic need. Then there are even deeper wounds: abandonment, betrayal, abuse. Today they are in great numerical growth, due to the deterioration of both civil coexistence and the values that have governed it so far. All these considerations are very important, but we cannot stop here.
The greatest wound in human life is the need for God. Certainly we reach the need for God through other needs that we have and that others have: through the needs we have we get to the need that we are. But our life can never find an answer to the wounds, if it does not reach God. This does not mean that all my wounds will all be healed. Maybe some will remain. Unfortunately today a “theology of wounds” and a “theology of tenderness” is becoming more popular, which I find dangerous if they are not placed within a total context. It is true, I repeat: God created the Fraternity to heal me from my wounds, not to cradle me in my wounds. To tell me: “Wake up and walk: as you walk I will cure you”. In this sense He heals us. He did not heal me from my wounds so that they would no longer be there, but because He manifests Himself and has manifested Himself in my life through them. This is healing. Today we often have a partial view of our wounds. For example: “That brother of ours is wounded because he no longer has a job or because his wife has abandoned him.” All serious and extremely important things, but we cannot stop there! What that person needs is a presence that tells them that they have not been abandoned, that there is Someone who does not abandon.
This is also the case within the Fraternity: it is true, there are wounds among us, but the biggest wound is that we forget God. Only if we get there can we heal the rest. Otherwise they will simply be moralistic remedies that we apply, like temporary patches. The biggest wound is the absence of faith, the absence of God’s gaze on life. God’s gaze is always composed of two moments (in a single gaze!): it raises us up, because it is mercy, but at the same time corrects us, because it is truth and justice.
Jesus says to the adulteress: “Has no one condemned you?”, “No one, Lord”, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again”(Jn 8: 10-11). I hear this phrase mentioned often, but the last part is usually omitted. Judgment and mercy always go hand in hand, because the judgment of God is mercy and the mercy of God is judgment. That God, to correct his people who had become idolatrous, allowed deportation to Babylon, is a fact that constitutes judgment and mercy together: it is the beginning of the return of the people to God! The Lord does not want evil, but sometimes allows evil because we have to rediscover the good. We can never separate judgment and mercy: they are two sides of the same reality.
Lesson at the summer vacation of the Fraternity of St. Charles. Campo Carlo Magno (Tn), July 26th, 2019.
(In the image, a moment of the summer vacation of the Fraternity of St. Charles and the Missionaries of St. Charles (21-28 July 2019).