Wednesday 28 January 2015

Florence and back

The trip to Florence went very well yesterday. Joaquim D’Souza and I took the 0950 FrecciaArgento to Florence S.M.N. We were wondering who would come to pick us up, and I was about to say to Joaquim, look at those two there, they look like Salesians, when I realized that they were: Casti and Kamil Pozorski, a young Polish confrere now incardinated into ICC. Casti was looking somewhat older, and we learnt that he had passed through a very bad moment after transferring to Florence, but was better now. Kamil instead turned out to be qualified in church history, and passationately knowledgeable about Florence. Since we had time, he took us to San Miniato on the hill overlooking Florence. I had been there once before, perhaps during the 26th General Chapter, but these places are worth visiting again. San Miniato is ancient, dating back to a small chapel erected over the remains of the martyr of the same name, and then rebuilt in the early Renaissance Florentine style, with the white and green marble striped façade that is well known from the Duomo, but very old inside. The Florentines consider San Miniato as the Gate of Heaven: Hic est Porta Caeli, we read on the marble step of one of the doors. Dante, at least, believed it was.

Inside we had an interesting meeting. There was a rather senior Olivetan monk standing there, and because of Abu Ghosh I helloed him and we introduced ourselves. His name was Bede, and the little tinkles of English in his almost perfect Italian betrayed him as an American, and he turned out to have visited India for one of the ecumenical or monastic or dialogue meetings of the 1970s. He had been to Mumbai, Pune and even Nashik, we were surprised to learn, and even remembered a few words of Marathi. In Pune he had met Sara Grant, and had stayed at Christa Prema Seva Ashram with her. In the south he had met Bede Griffiths (it was Bede who conferred his own name on this monk), and had reached just after Abhishiktananda had left the ashram. Fascinating to meet one of the ‘relics’ of the heyday of interreligious dialogue in India.

Lunch with the Florence Salesian community was interesting. Kamil said they had had some apprehensions about Bregolin, but were instead pleasantly surprised and delighted at the way he was fitting in. He said the community was very happy and was doing well. Besides Casti, they have also two from MOR: Errando, who I was surprised to find here, and the parish priest whose name I forget.

We spent a half hour chatting with Casti after lunch. He told us some stories which we had never heard from him.

At around 1445 Bregolin dropped us off at the bank of the Arno, and then Kamil took us for a walk around of Firenze sconosciuto. He serves as assistant parish priest in three small and very ancient parishes on the Oltre Arno, one of them being Santa Lucia de’ Mignoli a Firenze, and the other Santa Felicita a Firenze. The churches are gems, and full of precious works of art, at least those that have not been disposed of down the centuries.

Santa Lucia de’ Mignoli is situated on the Via Cassia coming from Rome. It contains a painting on wood of Santa Lucia dating back from 1300, and another rather famous one called Conversazione dei Santi, depicting John the Baptist and others around the Virgin. There used to be five other panels which have now been dispersed around the world, one of them depicting a young John laying down his clothes, Giovanni Battista nel Deserto. It appears that this was quite a popular theme in the past.

Next door is the local Lutheran church with two pastors, husband and wife, and a very good relationship between Catholics and Lutherans. Outside Santa Lucia, on the via Cassia, is a plaque commemorating the arrival of St Francis of Assisi in Florence, in 1211. As we walk gradually up the road, we turn left and arrive – surprise – at the house of Galileo Galilei, and his workshop next to it, with a commemorative plaque and nothing else, except some perhaps ancient murals on the outside. Down the road, instead, leads us eventually to Santa Felicita a Firenze. Here, the extraordinary Mannerist painting of the Deposizione dalla Croce, vivid colours and remarkable faces, the dead Christ being carried, not to the tomb, but to the altar, by angels and men, with Mary looking on in pain, and the artist himself lending his face at the extreme right. A remarkable composition, soon after Michelangelo. The church also has the first painting of the death of the seven young Maccabees that I have seen, with the mourning mother dominating the scene. It would appear that Santa Felicita herself had a similar story, and there is another painting showing her mourning over the martyrdom of her sons.

The church itself is a jewel, not surprising since the ruling Medicis used to attend mass from the balcony, or better their private secret passage over the city, with even an outlet allowing them to come down for communion. The passage or walkway can still be seen, and used to pass freely through private houses, churches, and so on. Parts of it can be seen still over the Ponte Vecchio and in the Palazzo Pitti.

And underneath the church, ongoing excavations of another ancient church, perhaps dating back to the Syrian Christians who seem somehow to have brought Christianity here, over the via Cassia. Parts of the via Cassia too, with tombs beneath it, inscriptions in Greek and perhaps in Syriac. The local historian was passionate, and we had to interrupt her explanations with a promise to return again.

And then Santo Spirito, with a work of the young Michelangelo: a crucifix carved in wood, a little less than life size, originally hanging over the main altar, and now in the baptistery, more accessible to the eye. A remarkable piece of work, though the Christ is somewhat too young and gracile, not surprising when you learn that it was carved – some say overnight – by the 18 year old artist, with a 14 year old boy, dead a few hours, as his model. The trademark close and accurate knowledge of anatomy, down to the torsion of the body because of the left leg crossed over the right for the crucifixion. The crucifix was believed to have been lost, but was rediscovered in 1962, or identified among the many works of art in the same church, painted horribly over and disfigured, and now restored. A remarkable piece, a for me unknown part of the history of Michelangelo. It would seem that his carvings and paintings reflected his own age, more or less. The Christ figure here is young; the David is somewhat older, but still very young; and the Christ figure in the Last Judgment of the Sistine chapel is a much older young man, as is also the Adam of the creation scene. (Angela Merkel had passed through the city the previous day, and the effects were still to be seen, mainly in the caricatures of imitation Davids with the face of Renzi. The papers also carried Adam-Renzi being created by God-Berlusconi – spoofing the Nazareno pact between the two politicians for the election of the next President of Italy.)

And finally a plaque commemorating Don Bosco: Don Bosco used to stay here, in the Uguccioni house near Santa Maria Novella, when he used to visit Florence – which, I learnt, was the capital of Italy before Rome became available. Vittorio Emmanuele II had even shifted from Turin to the Medici residence at this point. And our Don Bosco used to come to Florence to negotiate bishops for vacant sees. Talk about the politics of the Our Father. He was neck deep in politics. What he forbade to his sons was party politics.

And then the train, this time a FrecciaRossa – though I can’t tell the difference between FrecciaArgento and FrecciaRossa – back to Rome.

Giuseppe Casti, doctoral thesis on the Assam Salesian missions

Giuseppe Casti. "La missione dell'Assam dall'arrivo dei Padri Salesiani alla sua elevazione a diocesi. 1922-1934." Moderatore: Willi Henckel, OMI. Pontificia Università Urbaniana, Facoltà di Teologia, Roma novembre 1975.

Sunday 25 January 2015

A Sulcorna story

The other story Casti told us was about Sulcorna. It appears that he used to spend time with Moja in the early days, when Moja still had only the tarpaulin stretched out under a tree. It seems that they had some goats, and that one day they found one quite mangled up by a leopard. Another time, Mora and Casti went out hunting, Mora skirting a thicket on one side, and Casti on the other. Casti reports having heard steps behind him, but he did not turn around, hoping it was a "stupido animaletto." It turned out to be a tigress. Mora said it had stopped following Casti, probably because his path had taken him away from the place where the tigress had her cubs.... And thankfully the tigress was not hungry. Otherwise, something like
There was a lady of Niger,
who went for a ride on a tiger,
They returned from the ride,
with the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.
But then Casti and tigress don't rhyme.

A Don Bosco Panjim story

Fr Joseph Casti was telling us how, in Panjim, Moja and he had sent away all the other salesians to the villages, and the two of them had remained behind, with guns, to protect the property against the "Indians" who were "invading" Goa in 1961. The extraordinary thing is that they heard a knock, they warned the chap to go away, when they heard him say: "Father, open the door. I am a past pupil of Don Bosco, and I have come with a garrison to protect you. Nobody will touch you." They opened the door, and with the garrison around, Don Bosco was not touched.

Once again, the past pupils seem to have saved Panjim. The other story I have heard is about Fedrigotti coming to Goa to close this work that had begun without permission. At the layover in Karachi, he met two past pupils who spoke so glowingly of the work, that he began to waver in his decision. When he came to Goa and saw the work, he decided the work had to stay. And so it did. 

Thursday 22 January 2015

Blessed Laurita Vicuna...

This is how Laura Vicuna really looked: the only known photo to have been discovered of the young girl. You can see that she was quite different from the traditional images. Because her mother was Mapuche, like Zepherino Namuncura. I am wondering why that fact have to be so carefully hidden all these years....

Her father was a prominent aristocrat, a military man in Chile. Someone said that "they could not get married" because the mother, Mercedes, was Mapuche. 

Laura Vicuna could well be patron of many youngsters - and many salesians too - with difficult family backgrounds. To be kept in mind, however, is what a young salesian said to me: "all families are dysfunctional." Perhaps the only difference is that things are more dramatic and more visible today.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Breaking boundaries

"For he is our God
and we the people who belong to his pasture,
the flock that is led by his hand." (Psalm 94 [95])
I become aware of the enormous particularity of the feeling here, the feeling of the people of Israel, in the past and even now: we the people who belong to his pasture, the flock that is led by his hand.
And the huge political overtones. The controversy. The conflict.
Yet: love reaches the singularity of the person. God does not love in general. He loves this person, these people. Israel. I need to feel the particularity of this love: How wonderful that you are! How wonderful that you exist! And then, one day, perhaps, like Jesus, with Jesus, this love will burst its own boundaries to reach out, cross barriers, to other particularities, to other persons, to other individuals, to other peoples.
And then it becomes possible to say: "I love the Buddha." "I love the Prophet." And "I love the Latter Day Saints, and Luther, and Calvin, and whoever." The commandment covers everyone, excludes no one: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself.

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Salesian spiritual direction

The peculiarity of Salesian spiritual direction or accompaniment is its community nature. This is true. And yet I think that the weak point lies in the personal-individual dimension. True, Don Bosco's individual direction was simple and brief; it was the whole ambient, the environment, the relationship that was the determining factor. But in our changed context, which is not a mono-agent monocultural context, do we need to change? In my experience, certainly, the personal moment cannot be played down. 

Salesian charism at the service of the church

Fabio Attard brought in a new dimension: the Salesian charism at the service of the church, the community of believers. Don Bosco, the charism, the ministry for youth, these are not something only for internal consumption. They are a gift of the Spirit to the church and to the world. So: the possibility of writing for more than the Salesian Society, or the Salesian Family, or the Salesian movement. One of the 'audiences' of Don Bosco was the community of the faithful, most especially the simple people.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Multiplying compassion

Not a story I like very much, but the point is good: the point is the multiplication of compassion. Something that not even Jesus can do with a flip of his fingers. 

Miracles in Vain

When Jesus multiplied bread and fish near the lake of Galilee, close to Capernaum, people could not believe their eyes. They had a good meal and collected the left over in twelve baskets. Several in the crowd, a couple of apostles too among them, wanted to catch hold of him that day itself and declare him their King! That would solve all their problems of food, they thought! Realizing the danger, Jesus ordered his apostles to get into the boat and packed them off to the other side of the lake. He escaped to the mountains to pray to his Father, to overcome his own possible temptation of becoming an earthly king! This was a temptation that he had already once successfully staved off in the desert. Satan had tempted him to turn stones into bread! The evil one had promised to return with his temptations. Here again he was, in the crowd!

The next weekend too there was a big crowd around him. They were attracted by the possibility of getting food! This time the apostles began to have pity on them!
Philip said to Jesus: “Jesus, look, these people have been following you around for the whole day. Now it is evening and this place is deserted. Where will they go?”
“Well, are you going to do something for them?” Jesus asked with a smile.
Philip was embarrassed. In the meanwhile Simon, the Zealot joined him: “Are you joking? We thought that you would do something.”
Jesus heaved a sigh. “All right. Make the people sit in groups. Has anyone brought some bread or fish? Bring them to me.”
“Not even that boy has brought anything this time,” replied Simon somewhat awkwardly.
Jesus controlled himself and asked for baskets. As he raised his eyes to heaven to invoke his Father, some baskets were filled with bread and others with fish. Immediately the apostles and some other volunteers passed the baskets around. All had their fill.
“Collect what is left over,” said Jesus.
After going around a little Judas said: “Sorry Lord, nothing is left over this time.”
“Nothing at all?” He was surprised.

A week later Jesus was near Bethsaida, on the north eastern side of where the Jordan joins the lake. But the crowds traced him. He received them well, cured their sick and told them several parables about the Kingdom. The evening came and the people were still milling around with no signs of going home. The crowd was waiting in expectation. Jesus did not need any prompting this time. He decided to work the miracle all by himself, that too, in an uncharacteristic dramatic manner.

The people sat on the beach sand in small groups and the apostles stood around Jesus in attention. This time no bread was brought and not even baskets were collected. Jesus flipped his fingers and two hundred baskets appeared in front of him. He pointed his finger at them and they were all filled with fresh and sweet smelling loaves. He flipped his finger again and hundred baskets appeared close to the water. Jesus looked at the water and waved a sign as if to welcome the fish. Immediately hundreds of big fish began to swim to the shore and by themselves jumped into those baskets! His onlookers were dumbfounded! A third time he flipped his fingers and small bundles of firewood gathered in several places and caught fire. They were the ovens for cooking the fish! Jesus ordered: “Take this and distribute.” He then left them, walking a few feet away and began to pray alone to his Father. He was really upset!

His silent meditation was interrupted by some confusion in the crowd. A section of the crowd was on its feet shouting while some were eating and still some others leaving the place with bundles of food. Simon and James, the son of Alphaeus came over to Jesus.
“What is the problem? Have you collected the left overs?” asked Jesus.
“Left overs?” quipped James. “Lord, we are running short.”
“Running short?” Jesus almost shouted.
“What you produced is not enough,” said Simon. “Look there, some people on their feet. They did not get anything. Could you please…errr… multiply some more bread?”
Jesus looked straight into their eyes. They looked down to the ground embarrassed. He got up and walked towards the crowd. First he saw the Bartholomew and Judas Iscariot standing there protecting ten baskets of bread and five of fish.
“What is this for?” Jesus demanded.
Judas hesitated: “We have put these aside for us… I am… the administrator and it is my duty to  reserve something for ourselves.”
“So much? I see that my apostles are exceedingly prudent,” he remarked. Moving further he saw some people leaving with bundles of food, collected for a few rainy days; some had grabbed entire baskets and some were obviously over-eating. Naturally, food did not reach all!

“Gather the crowd together again,” Jesus ordered, anger visible in his eyes. No one dared to say anything. They moved close to him and sat down, including those who did not get enough food. He let his gaze wander over the crowd, observing the well-fed and the famished, the fittest and the weakest, the grabbing and the deprived! Finally his eyes also halted on his apostles, who were in-charge of the just distribution!

“I have something to tell you all,” he began.
“The first time you did your part and I did mine. All of you ate well, and there were twelve baskets left over. The second time I did it all, and nothing was left over. Yet I know that I produced more than enough. Today you came searching for me all the way to this odd place. I worked this miracle in a dramatic manner, which I hate to do. And now, food is not enough.”
All were still. Not even the leaves on the trees moved.
“How would it be enough?” he shouted. Several in the crowd lowered they eyes. The message was going home slowly, at least for those who had ears to hear.
“Look at these poor people, hungry still. Is it my fault? Had I produced hundred more baskets it would still not be enough! I produced food for your need, not for your greed.”
“My Father too will not do it. What I have done for you three times, my Father does every day. He multiplies bread daily! Raise your eyes and look at the fields. You drop a grain of wheat on the ground and the earth produces a hundred. Is that not a miracle? Which of you with all your wisdom and skill can do that? Look at the sea. The fishes multiply in millions. All that is my Father’s work. Then why is food running short? Why are there poor people among you? Look at the animals in the forest. They never run short of food! Why? Because they satisfy their need, not gather out of greed.”
“You know what I am talking about. But it pains me to know that you refuse to learn the lesson. It will always be a pain in the heart of my Father, that there will be poor, marginalized, deprived and exploited people among you. Are they not his children, your brothers and sisters? My Father’s daily miracles are in vain, as what I have done today has been. I shall not multiply bread for you any longer. If you have not learnt so far, you will not learn anymore. Let him who has ears listen, and let him who has a heart understand!”

Jesus sat down, closed his eyes and remained silent. The crowd got up slowly to go home. When most of them had left, he opened his eyes to see a few people sharing  their bread and fish with those who did not get them. Water filled his eyes. They were tears of joy. While most people had stomachs, some people had also hearts! How he wished he could multiply compassion! But he knew that not even he, the Son of Almighty God, could do it with a flip of his fingers!

Tuesday 6 January 2015


'Home' is another great (and perhaps neglected) word in the scriptures. The FMA have in their recent chapter brought this word to centre stage, but perhaps it is even more central than we could imagine. The word brings back to me always the text from Sharon J. Doyle. For today, I just pull together earlier entries. The point is: Jesus is our Home, our Rest.

The gospel reading today: the Sadducees trying to trap Jesus about the Resurrection. Wyman commenting on the Resurrection, on Heaven, on our being on the way, on going home.

Home: such a word. Being at home. Feeling at home. Rest. Jesus at home in Capernaum: 'And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home' (Mk 2:1).

I could not help remembering Sharon J. Doyle in the wonderful monastic magazine Forefront 2/1 (1995) 35:

Sometimes just the name of a place strikes me and I am
smitten beyond hope of cure. It happened the first time I read Mt 4:13 as a monk
and that experience has never diminished:
He went and settled in Capernaum,
a lakeside town on the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali. In this way the prophecy
of Isaiah was to be fulfilled:

Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali!
Way of the sea on the far side of Jordan,
Galilee of the nations!

Oh, Galilee, the very mention of you quickens me. The
One I love prayed in your hills and walked on your waters; he sat on your shores
beside fishermen mending their nets and spoke of the lilies on your hillsides. There is no lasting home for us except in him. He is the
place! And his hand will throw open the gates of everlasting home for each of us.

Jesus: heaven: home. And the
wandering. The not wanting to return home. And yet the
desire. The call. The pull. The restlessness of our hearts. Made for him. Made
for home.
The other day we had the gospel passage that follows Jesus' Jubelruf: Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.

Ratzinger / Benedict XVI points out the deep meaning of rest here: I will give you rest: Jesus puts himself in the place of the Sabbath rest. He is revolutionary, and the Jewish scholar realizes that all too clearly.

Jesus is our Rest. He is our Home. He is our final destination.

How is my heart today? Is it at rest? Is it restless? If it is restless, why? And what can I do to reach rest? What am I doing that is preventing me from resting in the Rest? And do I want to reach rest?

And if I think it is at rest, have I truly reached the rest that is the Rest? Or have I perhaps mistaken some halfway house, some house along the way, for the Rest that is Jesus?

Saturday 3 January 2015

The Name

Don Maraccani reminded us that today is the optional memorial - which John Paul II restored to the liturgical calendar - of the Holy Name of Jesus. I was thinking: the liturgy of 1 January already celebrated the Naming of Jesus and his circumcision. The first reading from the Book of Numbers spoke about calling down the Name upon the People. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do not easily say God - they prefer to speak of the Name. Blessed be God would translate as Barukh ha Shem. And then the great passage from the end of Revelation: his Name will be written on our foreheads. And Jeremiah: We are called by your Name. Do not forsake us, O Lord our God! Jesus, the Name which is above every other Name. 

Revisioning the Holy Family

Even before the nuclear family became the norm in the West, we have been imagining the Holy Family of Nazareth as nuclear: father, mother, child - Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Filiberto Gonzalez Plascencia in his stirring homily reminded us this morning - or perhaps led us to imagine - that the families of the Middle East, certainly those in the time of Jesus, were not necessarily nuclear. I am thinking therefore of a group photo that would include Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Anne and perhaps Joaquim, and then those who are called brothers and sisters in the gospels - which, as anyone living in the East should know, brings in all those who are called cousins in English. Anybody willing to provide an image?

Francis on culture

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, has what Lonergan calls an 'empirical' notion of culture - which just means that every people has its own culture, there is no one thing call Culture with a capital C, a normative something developed in some place and in some particular time, with one particular language, one way of eating, one set of great books, one set of heroes, one particular history.... "The concept of culture is valuable for grasping the various expressions of the Christian life present in God's people. It has to do with the lifestyle of a given society, the specific way in which its members relate to one another, to other creatures and to God. Understood in this way, culture embraces the totality of a people's life. [Puebla, nn. 386-87] Each people in the course of its history develops its culture with legitimate autonomy. [GS 36]." (EG 115)
What then of Latin and Greek? Greek, of course, is the language of the New Testament, and of the Septuagint version of the Old - which, I learnt from Richard Amalanathan, is being recognized as of greater and greater importance, for a large variety of reasons. Latin? It is the language of a large part of the first great inculturation of the faith, as John Paul II puts it in Fides et Ratio. It is time for a second great inculturation, the same pope says, but - and I find myself in deep agreement with him - without abandoning the first. The 'permanently valid achievements' of the first have to be transposed into the second. And for that, we will always need some in the church who know the languages of that first inculturation, not only well but very well. The fusion of horizons demands mastery of both horizons. Bridges have to rest on two shores.

Grace builds on culture

"Grace builds on nature," we've heard that one endlessly. Is Pope Francis being original when he says, in Evangelii Gaudium: "Grace supposes culture, and God's gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it" (EG 115)? Absolutely indovinato, anyway! Vatican II, which the pope quotes here, integrated the insights of Hegel and other moderns - the human person is always situated in a culture: nature and culture are intimately linked (GS 53) - without succumbing to the inherent individualist atomism of modernity (the human person, by nature, stands completely in need of life in society and always exists in reference to society, [GS 25] finding there a concrete way of relating to reality. (EG 115)

Reading as spiritual practice

I've been thinking that what we really need to strengthen is spiritual formation and human formation. Filiberto quoted Chavez to me the other day: Chavez used to say, what we need is intellectual formation and formation of the heart. I was thinking: intellectual formation, well, we've done well for ourselves in that, the structures are in place, the programs are in place, we've done much in that field, there is already a system. But I think now that Chavez was right: there is a wealth and a possibility in the intellectual dimension of formation that we need to explore and insist on. And here I am not thinking only of improving the structures. I am thinking of the simple habit of reading. "Many religious are illiterate," someone once said. "They never read. They are too busy saving the world." The simple habit of reading: slow reading, meditative reading, of the gospels, of the New and Old Testaments. Because then there is the event of the word. "The coming to light of the text is at once the coming to light of the self." Cor ad cor loquitur. Deep speaks to deep. We are touched, changed, transformed. It is a way, a simple way, that cannot be neglected.
How many of us find time to read? and what do we read? and how? "As you eat, so you are." Deep insight there in the distinction between sattvic, rajasic and tamasic foods.
And reading, is one of the14 ascetical disciplines identified by the Protestant pastor Eugene H. Peterson in his wonderful book, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness: spiritual reading, spiritual direction, meditation, confession, bodily exercise, fasting, Sabbath-keeping, dream-interpretation, retreats, pilgrimage, almsgiving (tithing), journaling, sabbaticals, and small groups. Wow.

Featured post

Rupnik, “E se l’evangelizzazione chiedesse una novità nella vita consacrata?” English summary