Benedict XVI's Homily in Viterbo

«Prayer Is the First Form of Charity»

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VITERBO, Italy, SEPT. 6, 2009 ( Here is a translation of Benedict XVI’s homily at a Mass he celebrated while on a pastoral visit to Viterbo.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters!

The setting in which we celebrate the Holy Mass today is truly unusual and suggestive: we find ourselves in the valley in view of the ancient city gate of Viterbo called «FAUL;» the letters stand for Fanum, Arbanum, Vetulonia and Longula. On the one side there stands the imposing palace, at one time a residence of the Popes, which in the 13th century — as your bishop observed — saw five conclaves; we are surrounded by buildings and spaces, witnesses of many events of the past, and today the fabric of the life of your city and province. In this context, which recalls centuries of civil and religious history, your whole diocesan community is gathered, at least in spirit, with the Successor of Peter to be confirmed by him in fidelity to Christ and his Gospel.

To all of you, dear Brothers and Sisters, I offer my grateful thoughts with affection for the warm welcome you reserved for me. First, I greet your pastor, Bishop Lorenzo Chiarinelli, whom I thank for the words of welcome. I greet the other bishops, especially those from Lazio with the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, the dear diocesan priests, deacons, seminarians, religious, the young people and children, and I extend my remembrance to all the members of the diocese, whom, in the recent past, I saw gathered in Viterbo together with the Abbey of San Martino al Monte Cimino, and the dioceses of Acquapendente, Bagnoregio, Montefiascone and Tuscania. This new configuration is now artistically sculpted in the bronze doors of the cathedral that, as I began my visit in Piazza San Lorenzo, I was able to bless and admire.

With deference I turn to the civil and military authorities, to the representatives of parliament, the government, the region and province, and in a special way to the mayor, who acted as the bearer of the cordial sentiments of people of Viterbo. I thank the security forces and greet the numerous members of the military who are present in this city, along with those who are engaged in missions of peace in the world. I greet and thank the volunteers and those who helped to make my visit possible. I reserve a very special greeting for the older people and those who live by themselves, the sick, those in prison and those who were not able to take part in this meeting of ours of prayer and friendship.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, every liturgical assembly is the space of the presence of God. Gathered together for the Holy Eucharist, the disciples of the Lord proclaim that he is risen, that he is alive and the giver of life, and they bear witness that his presence is grace, is a task, is joy.

Let us open our hearts to his word and welcome the gift of his presence! In the first reading the prophet Isaiah (35:4-7) encourages «those whose hearts are frightened» and announces this stupendous novelty, that experience confirms: when the Lord is present, the eyes of the blind are reopened, ears of the deaf hear, the lame «leap» like a stag. Everything is reborn and everything revives because wholesome waters spring up in the desert. The «desert,» in its symbolic language, can evoke the dramatic events, difficult situations and solitude that often mark life; the most profound desert is the human heart, when it loses the ability to hear, to speak, to communicate with God and with others. One then becomes blind because he is incapable of seeing reality; he closes his ears to not hear the cry of those who implore his help; his heart is hardened in indifference and egotism. But now — the prophet announces — all is destined to change; into the «arid land» of this closed heart a new divine blood will flow. And when the Lord comes, he will say to «the frightened of heart» of every age, «Courage, fear not!» (35:4).

The Gospel episode narrated by Mark in which Jesus heals a deaf mute in pagan territory (7:31-37) connects well here. First he encounters and cares for him with the language of deeds, more immediate than that of words; and then with an expression in Aramaic he says to him: «Ephphatha,» that is, «Be open,» giving that man hearing and speech. Full of wonder, the crowd exclaims: «He has done all things well!» (7:37).

We can see in this «sign» Jesus’ ardent desire to conquer in man the solitude and incommunicability created by egotism, to give a face to a «new humanity,» a humanity that listens and a humanity of the word, of dialogue, of communication, of communion with God. A «good» humanity, as all of God’s creation is good; a humanity without discrimination, without exclusions — as the Apostle James admonishes in his Letter (2:1-5) — so that the world truly be a «place of genuine brotherhood» («Gaudium et Spes,» 37) for all, in the opening of the common Father who created us and made us his sons and daughters.

Dear Church of Viterbo, may the Christ whom we see in the Gospel open the ears and loosen the tongue of a deaf mute person, reveal your heart and always give you the joy to listen to his Word, the courage to announce his Gospel, the ability to speak with God and thus to speak with your brothers and sisters, and finally, may he give you the courage of the discovery of his face and his beauty! But, so that this might happen — St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio recalls (I will be traveling to Bagnoregio this afternoon) — the mind must «go beyond everything through contemplation and go beyond not only the world of the senses, but also beyond itself» («Itinerarium mentis in Deum» VII,1). This is the itinerary of salvation, illumined by the light of the Word of God and nourished by the sacraments that are common to all Christians.

I would like to take up some spiritual and pastoral points about this road that you too, beloved Church of this land, are called to travel. Education in the faith — as search, as Christian initiation, as life in Christ — is a priority that is very close to the heart of your bishop. It is the «becoming Christian» that consists in that «learning Christ» that St. Paul expresses with the formula: «It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me» (Galatians 2:20). The parishes, families and various groups are involved in this experience. Catechists and all educators are called to commit themselves; the schools are also called to make their contribution, from the primary schools to the University of Tuscia, which is growing in importance and prestige, and, in particular, the Catholic school, with the Istituto Filosofico-Teologico «San Pietro.» There are models that are always relevant, authentic pioneers in education in the faith from which to draw inspiration. I gladly mention, among others, St. Rosa Venerini (1656-1728) — who I had the joy to canonize three years ago — a true forerunner of girls’ schools in Italy, during the Enlightenment; St. Lucia Filippini (1672-1732) who, with the help of Venerable Cardinal Marco Antonio Barbarigo (1640-1706), founded the worthy «Maestre Pie.» One could still happily draw from these spiritual sources to confront, with lucidity and coherence, the current inescapable and pressing «educational emergency,» a great challenge for every Christian community and for society as a whole, which is precisely a process of «Ephphatha,» of opening the ears, loosening the tongue and opening the eyes.

Along with education, the testimony of the faith. «Faith,» St. Paul writes, «works through charity» (Galatians 5:6). The charitable work of the Church takes on a face in this perspective: her initiatives, her works are signs of faith in and love of God, who is Love — as I amply noted in the encyclicals «Deus Caritas Est» and «Caritas in Veritate.» This is where voluntary service flourishes and must always increase, whether at the personal level or the organized level. In charity this voluntary service has its propulsive and educative organism. The young St. Rose (1233-1251), co-patroness of the diocese, whose feast is celebrated
during this time, is a radiant example of faith and generosity toward the poor. How can one not also recall that from her monastery St. Giacinta Marescotti (1585-1640) promoted Eucharistic adoration in the city and gave life to institutions and initiatives to benefit prisoners and the marginalized? Nor can we forget the Franciscan witness of the Capuchin St. Crispino (1668-1759), who continues to inspire worthy aid groups. It is significant that in this climate of evangelical fervor many houses of consecrated life were born, for both men and women, and in particular cloistered monasteries, which constitute a visible reminder of the primacy of God in our existence and show us that prayer is the first form of charity.

Emblematic in this regard is the example of the Trappist nun Blessed Gabriella Sagheddu (1914-1939): in the monastery of Vitorchiano, where she is entombed, spiritual ecumenism continues to be proposed, nourished by the incessant prayer, strongly solicited by the Second Vatican Council (cf. «Unitatis Redintegratio,» no. 8). I would also like to mention another citizen of Viterbo, Blessed Domenico Bàrberi (1792-1849), the Passionist priest who, in 1845, welcomed John Henry Newman — who later became a cardinal — into the Catholic Church. Newman was a high profile intellectual and a man of luminous spirituality.

Finally I would like to touch on a third point, a pastoral one: attention to the signs of God. As Jesus did with the deaf mute person, God continues to reveal his plan to us through «events and words.» Listening to his word and discerning his signs must be the work of every Christian community. The most immediate of God’s signs is certainly care for one’s neighbor, according to what Jesus said: «Everything that you did for these least of my brothers you did for me» (Matthew 25:40). Furthermore, as the Second Vatican Council affirms: the Christian is called to «stand before the world as a witness to the resurrection and life of the Lord Jesus and a sign of the living God» («Lumen Gentium,» no. 38). The priest, whom Christ has chosen entirely for himself, must first of all be this. During this Year for Priests, pray with greater intensity for priests, for seminarians and for vocations, that they be faithful to this vocation of theirs! He must be the sign of the living God, as every consecrated person and all the baptized must likewise be.

Faithful laypeople, young people, families, do not be afraid to live and bear witness to the faith in the various spheres of society, in the multiple situations of human existence! Viterbo also has a prestigious figures in this respect. On this occasion it is a duty and a joy to remember the young Mario Fani of Viterbo, founder of the «Circolo Santa Rosa» («Circle of St. Rose»), who then, along with Giovanni Acquaderni, of Bologna, started the Catholic Action movement in Italy. The seasons succeed each other, social contexts change, but the vocation of Christians to live the Gospel in solidarity with the human family does not change or go out of fashion with the passing of time. This is social commitment, this is the service proper to political action, this is integral human development.

Dear brothers and sisters! When the heart is frightened in the desert of life, do not be afraid, give yourselves to Christ, the firstborn of the new humanity: a family of brothers built up in freedom and justice, in the truth and charity of the sons of God. Saints who are dear to you are part of this family: Lorenzo, Valentino, Ilario, Rosa, Lucia, Bonaventure and many others. Our common Mother is Mary, whom you venerate with the title of Madonna della Quercia (Madonna of the Oak) as patroness of the whole diocese in its new configuration. May they guard you always in unity and nourish in each of you the desire to proclaim, with words and deeds, the presence and love of Christ!


[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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