The pandemic that has descended upon our world has dramatically brought to light at least two great questions, which are related: what is our relationship with death? And: what is the right relationship between the person and the State, or, in general, the power that guides society?
Both of these questions touch not only the lives of all men, but also go to the heart of the work of salvation that Christ has worked by becoming man, dying and resurrecting; since they so deeply touch Christ’s saving work, they also touch the message of liberation that we are called to bring to the men of our time. From its response to these questions, the timeless originality of Christianity emerges in great evidence, and it does so today as well.
I would like to share with you a few thoughts on the relationship with death that Christ teaches us to have.
Christ freed us from the fear of death
Between 1835 and 1840, when he was a thirty-year-old newly ordained priest, Gratry wrote a brief meditation on death which explores a few themes that were most dear to him, such as the strong hope in a Christian rebirth of Europe, which he saw was tired and tried by the trauma of the Enlightenment. In the first lines of this meditation, Gratry describes the type of relationship that the practical wisdom of the carnal man establishes with death. His words describe an experience that we have often and all over, when we come across the relatives of the gravely ill and dying: “When a man is about to die […] it is a duty to lead him to his fatal end. We surround him, we tell him that we have come to wish him well, and the lie in this supreme ceremony is a sacred duty. We fool him like a sick child, we accompany him to the abyss, amusing him with anything else, cradling him with hope to put him asleep. We declare to him that the moment that is coming is still far away; then, suddenly, he rushes towards it suddenly, and we turn away brusquely so as to see nothing and distance ourselves. This is still today, for us, the manner in which we bury those that we love.” And he adds, polemically: “[…] Our pagan customs render us timid before death. From infancy, adults and educators teach us to fear it, fleeing from it at every cost; they make it into a fearful mystery of which one must never speak. And certainly it is bitter and difficult to die when no one teaches you how, when we are left to die alone, when they try to trick us even to the last moments, to prevent the one dying from knowing what is happening to him.”
Grartry wrote this almost two centuries ago, two centuries that have only confirmed and accentuated the censure of death that the French writer saw the signs of in the superficial attitude of his contemporaries, even among many Christians.
Alongside of this observation of Gratry, I would like to place a passage from Cancer Ward, the great novel of Solzhenitsyn, in which the contrast between a Christian mentality and every mentality that denies transcendence emerges in a clear way.
In the initial part of the novel, we are presented with one of the characters who will populate the hospital, the setting for the story. His name is Efrem Podduev. Solzhenitsyn depicts him with three rapid brushstrokes: “[…] wide shoulders, powerful legs, and a lucid mind.” He is not yet fifty, possesses a physical stature extremely resistant to fatigue, and was a great worker, as well as a great drinker and womanizer. “There was nothing that kept him in one place, neither a piece of land, nor an apartment, nor a family. The only thing that he liked was to live freely and to have some money in his pocket.” This man has a primitive interiority, incapable of rising above material reality. He is a kind of little Prometheus, a Nietzchean superman who remains, so to speak, beyond good and evil and who affirms himself in his own sphere of action using force. But he is also a mass product of the atheistic materialism in which he was educated. And it is this that makes him interesting to Solzhenitsyn, who always keeps his eyes peeled for those small and large resurrections of the human being who is suffocated in the grasp of ideological totalitarianism.
Poddeuv is therefore the incarnation of the spirit of our time, lived out in an unaware and banal way. The health that he had always enjoyed and the ease with which he could always bend situations to his advantage have convinced him that he is invincible. At the first stirrings of sickness, therefore, he had pretended to not understand. For a long time, he then said to himself that everything would have worked itself out and that he would keep going. “Podduev had always been ready to live, not to die. This transition was beyond his strength; he didn’t know how to accomplish it and he pushed it away by staying on his feet, going to work every day as if nothing was the matter and feeling proud of his force of will.” It is the image of the man whom we encounter every day, who continues to put off the appointment with himself.
But then a thought surprises him. A memory comes back to him of the way of living that characterized the people who had been educated by the Church, the generation before his, man for whom God was still a reality: “From his youth, Efrem had heard, and he knew that he and all of his companions thought the same way, that the young were more intelligent than their elders. The old, in all of life, never had the courage to go to the city, while Efrem at thirteen was already galloping there, shooting off his pistol, and, at fifty, he had by now caressed the entire town as if it were a woman. But now, going up and down the roads, he thought of how those older Russians had died in their little town on the Kama. They didn’t give themselves airs, nor seek to defend themselves. They didn’t brag that they would not die but all of them tranquilly accepted death. Not only did they not try to deter a final reckoning, but they prepared for it little by little and in time, deciding to whom to leave the mare, to whom the donkey, to whom the caftan, to whom the boots. And none of them would have been afraid of having cancer.”
“The worst thing that can happen to man is to be superficial,” wrote Don Massimo Camisasca – and in fact, our practical materialism makes us superficial – “to not live a sense of time as occasion, instant by instant. Time lived as a response to Christ takes away life’s first enemy, which is fear. Where there is fear, there is not Christ. As St. John says, in love there is no fear (1 John 4:18).” The Russian farmers that Poddeuv spontaneously remembers did not have fear or, better, fear did not dominate them. And in this way, even when faced with death, they chose, decided, disposed of their things and of their life, they were able to bid farewell to their loved ones; they were, in a word, free.
Christ Freed Us from the Prison of the Instant
Christ, therefore, freed us from the fear of death. He didn’t take it away; the repulsion that our being experiences for death remains, and, with it, a certain fear. And we, as St. Paul says, resist being stripped of our bodies and would instead like to be clothed with something beyond, so that what is mortal can be absorbed by life (2 Cor 5:4). But death has been given a meaning. And how? By the offer of a real and infinite horizon to our instant. While still remaining in an enigmatic condition (cfr. 1 Cor 13:12) and in an obscurity that endures even now, we know that our death is, in reality, our true birth. The Church has taught us to live this life as a beginning and pledge (cfr. 2 Cor 5:5) of something that will never finish.
This incomparable gift that is the Christian faith and the position of expectation which it establishes in us (“I look forward to the resurrection of the death and the life of the world to. Amen”, as we repeat every Sunday in the Nicene Creed), gives time its true meaning and, therefore, frees us from the limits of the instant in which we would otherwise suffocate.
In the culture in which we are immersed, ultimately nihilistic, the dramatic and melancholic sense of the fleetingness of the instant – that in and of itself is a sign of the profundity of the human soul and of its ultimate destiny – breaks down in the affirmation of its own inconsistency, of its own lack of sense. How many of the men who live around us drown the unease and the desperation in the most extreme forms of the dissipation of the self? But how can you flee from anguish if you perceive yourself as running towards the inevitable and definitive abyss of nothingness? How many Podduev, in our cities, work like machines in order to anesthetize the fear of death? Instead, all that we live that is rooted in the relationship with Christ lasts forever. “The ephemeral (in the ontological sense),” wrote Giussani, “since it is something that exists, is always beautiful! It is the ephemeral (in a negative sense) if it is utilized badly, not according to harmony, because that which remains is the true. If you use it well, it remains forever: Even the hairs on your head are numbered […]. You will lose nothing anymore!” This is the positivity of the Christian soul that Giussani passed down to us. The same positivity gives, even to an illiterate farmer from a tributary of the Volga, the force to look at that final passage “tranquilly”. Precisely because it is eternal, our present instant has value, has meaning, and, therefore, can be truly lived. Only from the reality of heaven, from the definitive profundity of existence, can come the ultimate motivation for us to live the present. Otherwise, it would be right to consume it, like everyone does. Instead, we are called, indeed, pushed by the logic of the faith to make it sacred. To redeem it, as St. Paul says (cfr. Eph. 5:16).
The connection between the present and the “eternal” or, better, the manifestation of the “eternal” in the instant, places us before the substantial question of every human life and our own personal life, of its final truth and of its becoming true moment by moment. At the end of a pamphlet dedicated to the mystery of the Resurrection, Danielou wrote this brief, powerful statement, from which emerges the radicality of the Christian vision of life: “For the Catholic faith, the frontiers between the beyond and the here and now become undefinable. In truth, between that which we are today and that which we will be eternally, there is not a great difference. Eternal life will show only that which we will have loved on the earth; in other words, eternal life will only ratify those things to which we will have adhered during this life, bringing them to the fullness of their realization. The perspective of eternity, therefore, so different from an evasion, impregnates, rather, this present moment with a meaning full of consequences since we will be eternally that which we will have been during our earthly existence. Our present life assumes in this way its dramatic sense. It is given to be loaded in the greatest measure possible with love.” Redeeming time, which means, therefore, above all, living our own adhesion to Christ, responding to the call of love that comes from Him in every moment. Our “yeses”, those that Danielou calls “our adhesions”, the gestures with which we affirm Christ, either visibly or in secret (Mt 6:4.6.18), are decisive for eternity.
“Love determines the future,” as Karol Wojtyla puts in the mouths of the protagonist couple in the first act of his noted play, The Jeweler’s Shop. This quote is speaking about the love between an engaged couple and the future of their matrimonial life. “The future,” says Andrew, telling his love story with Teresa, “has remained for us unknown, but we accept it without any perplexity. Love has beaten every perplexity.” The present reality of reciprocal love is the seed of every successive development and the way to launch oneself into the risk of what is to come. But the spousal metaphor speaks implicitly of our relationship with God. The affirmation of the betrothed reveals therefore something even on this level; rather, it becomes here like an equation that one can read in two ways. The love with which I fill my present instant, as Danielou says, determines the future; it is the seed of its completed development. And, reciprocally, the “forever”, or the Love as the ultimate horizon of the instant, determines this present instant and as it were impregnates it with a call to fill itself with that love that makes it eternal. It gives it a weight, as Ada Negri said, but in reality it makes that same weight light: my yoke is in fact sweet and my burden is light (Mt 11:30). The one who undertakes the yoke of the love of Christ receives in exchange a lightness that is otherwise impossible when looking to the end of his life.
In an interview from 1998, they asked Cardinal Biffi, “So they say that we are destined to eternity…What happens the moment after our death?” He responded: “I know that which has been said to me from the one who came from the other side. […] I know what Jesus Christ has said to me: […] that, in the beyond, He is immediately there, He is the ultimate port of human existence.” The interviewer then continued, “Then, in the end, you have a serene idea of death?” And the response: “[…] I have bet my life on Him and I don’t even know what color His eyes are! I mean, it will be a pleasure to finally meet Him!” In this smile of Biffi, we can find again the same Christian tranquility before the inevitable that the farmers of Solzhenitsyn had.
“Have I reached the end of my life? […] Where are you, amorous Presence…And after, what will be?” These are the last words that Gabrielle Bossis wrote in his mystical diary, the 25th of May, 1950. A few days after, he died of cancer, at seventy six years of age after having lived for many years a most particular experience of the dialogue with Christ. To his questions quoted above, Jesus answered: “I will be there; it will always be Me.” Our present instant is the beginning of something that does not end: our relationship with Christ.
These same great Christian things, lived and testified to by the most different person with infinite variantes in the history of the Church, were recalled to us by Don Massimo in the homily for the funeral of our dear brother Antonio Maffucci: “The death of Fr. Antonio, which happened in this strange way which impeded our saying goodbye, reminds me with great simplicity and serenity of approximation of my life’s completion. As St. Paul invites us to, we must aspire to things above and think of the things above (cfr. Col 3:14), not absolutely to escape our present life, but to last with more profundity and intelligence the eternal that already is hidden in it like embers beneath the ash.” And would it not be beautiful if it could be said of each one of us, at the end of a life given to Christ, that which don Massimo said of Fr. Antonio: “Thank you, Fr. Antonio, for your given life, not only and not so much given without holding anything back, but given without vainglory, without thinking twice! Thank you for your joy, for your infantile freshness, for your love for Christ and for the Church.” Thank you, Fr. Antonio, for making your life a gift! Life has meaning and it is definitely full, full of eternal glory, in as much as it is given. In the measure in which, in other words, we make an expression of our love to Christ through the love of others.
We must say to all that life is eternal
If all of this is true, then it is urgent to say to all that life is eternal! The world, surrounded by the darkness of meaninglessness, is waiting for this announcement. And this is our task as Christians and missionaries.
On the 8th of October, last year, Cardinal Camillo Ruini received Patrick Valena and Carlo Menozzi as representatives of a group of new priests to whom was entrusted a parish of Sassuolo, his native city. In conversation with our two priests, who were interested in understanding better from where to begin their work of education, he said, “For your ministry as parish priests, it is fundamental that you have something to say, a culture, a message to propose. If you live your ministry like this, then the people will follow you with simplicity and immediacy.” Already this is an affirmation not to be taken for granted. Then, he specified: “The central themes of preaching today, according to me, must be anthropology and eschatology. In other words: the dignity of the human person and the openness to eternity. We must transmit the idea that man is not reducible to the material and cannot be understood exhaustively only through psychology and sociology. The openness of man to the spiritual, to the divine world: this is fundamental and must be preached among your people. On this is played out our fight against the world,” our fight for the salvation of so many Efrem Podduevs that we encounter every day, our work so that faith can become again culture in the hearts and in the minds of the people entrusted to us. “It is not only a question of faith, it is also a philosophical theme that reason can recognize” and therefore a terrain upon which we can encounter everyone, the Cardinal added. “And then the proclamation of eternity: this is the heart of Christian faith. It is the only perspective that truly counts.”
Ruini concluded: “Your mission is beautiful: priests among the people, speaking, preaching, sharing life with others, judging things together. Be courageous: the people need pastors who think and who speak without fear. The people need guides.” I make my own and pass on to you all this invitation of the cardinal to have the courage and to the freedom of thought that comes from the faith, from the liberation that Christ has brought to our lives.
Lesson given to the members of the Fraternity of St. Charles in a video conference, January 18, 2021.
Paolo Sottopietra is the superior general of the Fraternity of St. Charles. In the photo, Francois-Xavier De Boissoudy, The Paralitic of Capharnaum, 2016)
 Auguste Joseph Alphonse Gratry, Méditations inédites, Editore Charles Douniol, Parigi 1874 [pubblicazione postuma]; in italiano, nell’antologia curata da M. Barbano, La sete e la sorgente, Società Editrice Internazionale, Torino 1949, pp. 585-592.
 Ivi, pp. 585-586.
 Ivi, p. 586.
 Aleksandr Solženicyn, Cancer Ward, p. 108.
 Ivi, p. 110.
 Ivi, p. 109.
 Aleksandr Solženicyn, op. cit., p. 111-113.
 Massimo Camisasca, Il tempo ha un nome, 31 marzo 2012: https://www.ilsussidiario.net/editoriale/2012/3/31/il-tempo-ha-un-nome/262951/.
 Luigi Giussani, Affezione e dimora, BUR, Milano 2001, pp. 156-157.
 Jean Daniélou, La risurrezione, Edizioni Cantagalli, Siena 2009, pp. 124-125.
 Karol Wojtyła, The Jeweler’s Shop, 76.