Papal Homily for Visit to Leo XIII's Birthplace

“Represented a Church Capable of Dealing With the Great Contemporary Questions”

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CARPINETO ROMANO, Italy, SEPT. 5, 2010 ( Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI gave today when he visited the birthplace of Pope Leo XIII, Carpineto Romano, to mark the 200th anniversary of that Pontiff’s birth.

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Dear brothers and sisters!

First of all, permit me to express my joy in finding myself with you in Carpineto Romano, in the footsteps of my beloved predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II! And it is also a happy circumstance that has called me here: the bicentennial of the birth of Pope Leo XIII, Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci, which took place March 2, 1810, in this beautiful town. I thank you all for your welcome! In particular I greet with gratitude the bishop of Anagni-Alatri, Lorenzo Loppa, and the mayor of Carpineto, who welcomed me at the beginning of the celebration, along with the other authorities present. I offer a special greeting to the young people, in particular those who took part in the diocesan pilgrimage. 

My visit, unfortunately, is very brief and is restricted to this Eucharistic celebration; but here we have everything: the Word and the Bread of Life that nourish faith, hope and charity; and we renew the bond of communion that makes of us the one Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We have heard the Word of God and it is natural to receive it in this circumstance thinking again of the figure of Pope Leo XIII and the legacy that he has left us. The principal theme that emerges from the biblical readings is that of the primacy of God and of Christ. In the Gospel passage, taken from St. Luke, Jesus himself declares with frankness the three conditions necessary to be his disciples: to love him more than any other person and life itself; to carry one’s own cross and follow him; to give up all one’s belongings. Jesus sees a great crowd that is following him together with his disciples, and he wants to be clear with everyone: following him is demanding, it cannot depend on enthusiasm and opportunism; it must be a reflective decision made after asking one’s conscience: Who is Jesus for me? Is he truly “the Lord,” does he take first place, like the sun about which all the planets turn? 

And the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, indirectly suggests the reason behind this absolute primacy of Jesus Christ: In him are the answers to the questions that man asks in every age about the truth of God and himself. God is beyond our reach, and his designs are inscrutable. But he wanted to reveal himself in creation and above all in the history of salvation, until in Christ he fully revealed himself and his will. While it remains true that “No one has seen God” (John 1:18), now we know his “name,” his “face,” and also his will, because they have been revealed to us by Jesus, who is the Wisdom of God made man. “Thus,” the sacred author of the first reading writes, “men were instructed in what is pleasing to you and were saved through wisdom” (Wisdom 9:18).

This fundamental call of the Word of God makes one think of two aspects of the life and ministry of your venerable fellow citizen who we commemorate today, the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII. Before all else it must be stressed that he was a man of great faith and profound devotion. This always remains the basis of everything, for every Christian, including the Pope. Without prayer, that is, without interior union with God, we can do nothing, as Jesus clearly tells his disciples during the Last Supper (cf. John 15:5). 

The words and deeds of Pope Pecci revealed his deep religiosity; and this had a correspondence in his magisterium: Among his many encyclicals and apostolic letters, like the string of a necklace, there are those of a specifically spiritual character, dedicated above all to the growth of Marian devotion, especially through the rosary. It is a real “catechesis” that stretches from the beginning to the end of the 25 years of his pontificate. 

But we also have the documents on Christ the Redeemer, on the Holy Spirit, on consecration to the Sacred Heart, on devotion to St. Joseph, on St. Francis of Assisi. Leo XIII was especially close to the Franciscan family and he himself belonged to the Third Order. I like to consider all of these different elements as various facets of a single reality: the love of God and of Christ, which absolutely nothing must come before. And this his first and principal quality, Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci learned here, in his native town, from his parents, from his parish.

But there is a second aspect, which derives from the primacy of God and of Christ and that one meets in the public action of every pastor of the Church, especially of every Supreme Pontiff, with the characteristics proper to each one. I would say that precisely the concept of “Christian wisdom,” which already emerged from the first reading and the Gospel, offers us the synthesis of this position of Leo XIII — it is not by chance that it is also the “incipit” of one of his encyclicals. Every pastor is called to transmit to the People of God, not abstract truths, but a “wisdom,” that is, a message that joins faith and reason, truth and concrete reality. Pope Leo XIII, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, was able to do this in one of the most difficult historical periods of the Church, remaining faithful to tradition and, at the same time, measuring it with the great open questions. And he succeeded in his efforts precisely on the basis of the “Christian wisdom,” founded on sacred Scriptures, on the immense theological and spiritual patrimony of the Catholic Church and also on the solid and limpid philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he appreciated in the highest way and promoted in the whole Church.

At this point, after having considered the foundation, that is, faith and the spiritual life, and therefore the general framework of the message of Leo XIII, I can turn to his social teaching, made famous and timeless in his encyclical “Rerum novarum,” but also richly expressed in multiple interventions that constitute an organic body, the first nucleus of the Church’s social doctrine. We take our cue from St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, which happily the liturgy has us read precisely today. It is the shortest of all the Pauline epistles. During a period of imprisonment the Apostle transmitted the faith to Onesimus, a slave from Colossae, who had fled from his owner Philemon, a wealthy inhabitant of that city, who, along with his family, had become Christian through the preaching of Paul. Now the Apostle writes to Philemon, inviting him to welcome Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ. The new Christian brotherhood overcomes the separation between slaves and freemen, and it triggers in history a promotion of the person that will lead to the abolition of slavery, but also to the overcoming of the barriers that had existed up until then. Pope Leo XIII dedicated his 1890 encyclical “Catholicae Ecclesiae” precisely to the theme of slavery.

From this particular experience of St. Paul with Onesimus there can develop a broad reflection on the movement of human promotion brought by Christianity to the path of civilization, and also on the method and style of this contribution, conformed to the evangelical images of the seed and the leaven: Christians, acting as individual citizens or groups within the reality of history, constitute a beneficent and peaceful force for profound change, actualizing the development of the potentialities within reality itself. This is the form of presence and action in the world proposed by the Church’s social doctrine, which always points to the maturation of consciences as the valid and lasting condition for transformations.

We must now ask ourselves: What was the context in which the man who would become Pope Leo XIII 68 years later was born? Europe was feeling the effects of the great Napoleonic storm, which followed the French Revolution. The Church and many expressions of Ch
ristian culture were radically called into question (one thinks, for example, of the efforts to count the years no longer from Christ’s birth but from the beginning of the new revolutionary age, or to remove the names of the saints from the calendar, the roads, the villages…). The people of the countryside certainly were not favorable to these changes, and remained attached to religious traditions. Daily life was hard and difficult: the sanitary and dietary conditions were very poor. Meanwhile, industry developed and the workers’ movement along with it, which became more and more politically organized. The Church’s magisterium, at its highest level, was moved and helped by reflections and local experiences to elaborate a comprehensive and prospective reading of the new society and its common good. Thus, when he was elected to the pontifical office in 1878, Leo XIII felt called to bring this reading to completion in light of his ample knowledge of international breadth, but also of many initiatives launched “in the field” by Christian communities and men and women of the Church.

There were in fact dozens and dozens of saints and blessed since the end of the 1700s to the beginning of the 1900s who sought out and took — with the imagination of charity — many roads to actualize the evangelical message within the new social realities. Without a doubt these initiatives, with the sacrifices and reflections of these men and women, prepared the soil of “Rerum novarum” and of the other social documents of Pope Pecci. Already at the time that he was apostolic nuncio in Belgium, he had understood that the social question could be dealt with positively and effectively with dialogue and mediation. In an age of bitter anti-clericalism and of volatile demonstrations against the Pope, Leo XIII knew how to guide and support Catholics along the path of constructive participation, rich in contents, firm about principles and capable of openness. 

Immediately after “Rerum novarum” there was a real explosion of initiatives in Italy and other countries: associations, rural and artisan banks, newspapers … a vast “movement,” which had an enlightened guide in the Servant of God Giuseppe Toniolo. Thus a very old but wise and farseeing Pope was able to introduce into the 20th century a rejuvenated Church, with the right attitude to face the new challenges. He was a Pope still politically and physically a “prisoner” in the Vatican, but in reality, with his magisterium, he represented a Church capable of dealing with the great contemporary questions without complexes.

Dear friends of Carpineto Romano, we do not have time to go deeply into these matters. The Eucharist that we are celebrating, the Sacrament of Love, recalls us to the essential: charity, the love of Christ that renews men and the world; this is the essential thing, and we see it well, we almost perceive it in St. Paul’s expressions in the Letter to Philemon. In that brief missive, in fact, one feels all the meekness and at the same time all the revolutionary power of the Gospel; one grasps the discreet and irresistible style of charity, which, as I wrote in my social encyclical, “Caritas in veritate,” is the “principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (1). 

With joy and with affection, I leave you with the old and ever new commandment: love each other as Christ has loved us, and with this love be the salt and light of the world. In this way you will be faithful to the legacy of your great and venerable fellow citizen, Pope Leo XIII. And let it be thus in the whole Church! Amen, dear brothers and sisters!

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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