Mgr Follo, 2016 © Courtoisie De La Mission Du Saint-Siège À L'UNESCO

Archbishop Follo: Salvation is a Gift and a Struggle

With the invitation to strive of receiving the Word spoken to our heart and let ourselves to be shaped by the grace which transforms.

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Roman rite
XXI Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – August 25, 2019.
Is 66, 18-21; Ps 116; Heb 12, 5-7.11-13; Lk 13, 22-30
Christ Door, Way, Truth and Life
Ambrosian rite
Sunday before the martyrdom of Saint John the Precursor
2Mac 6,1-2.18-28; Ps 140; 2Cor 4,17-5,10; Mt 18.1-10
Children understand and accept the Truth
1) How to save yourself.
If we read carefully the Gospel passage of this Sunday, we realize that to those who ask him: «How many will be saved?», Jesus doesn’t tell how many will be saved but indicates what must be done to avoid being excluded from salvation. In fact, the Savior answers: «Strive to enter through the narrow door, because many, I say to you, will try to enter, but they will not succeed» (Lk 13:24). The question attracts abstract attention towards others, but the Savior’s response fixes concrete attention on those who question him because the real problem is not whether others are saved but how we can save ourselves. Then, the Savior concludes his answer with a surprising statement » And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.  For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. «(Lk 13: 28-30).
This last sentence affirms with strength and clarity that the proclamation of the Gospel brings with it the reversal of the «normal» criteria of evaluation. Many of those who thought that they were certainly admitted to the banquet of salvation, will be excluded. Others (such as pagans, sinners) will come from all over the world and will be admitted into the house of the heavenly Father. God’s criteria are different from how we think – Jesus reminds the men of his time and us – and therefore it is as if he would tell us «Do not lose yourself in secondary matters, do not judge the situation of others (Will they be admitted? Will they be excluded?) but work for yourself, because all of you are sinners «.
We sinners strive to enter through the narrow door, which is narrow «not because it is oppressive, but because it asks to restrict and contain our pride and our fear and to open ourselves with a humble and trusting heart to Him, recognizing that we are sinners in need of his forgiveness «(Pope Francis).
One arrives at this door from the east, the west, the north, the south, and from all directions: they are the four directions which indicate the cross. All enter from here because salvation is exactly the cross, love and God’s mercy.
This is the reason why the last are first and the first are last. Once the first know that they are the last, they too are first, but if they believe that they are first, they are the last. However, if they are last then all goes well. In summary, Christ tells us that the problem of salvation is the only real problem. Salvation is the love and grace that He has for each of us and that we must begin to exercise among ourselves.
Finally, salvation is not a problem of number because it is the work of God who wants everyone to be saved1 and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Therefore, to the question «Lord, will only a few people be saved?» (Lk 13, 23), the Messiah responds to us: «Strive!» (or better: «Struggle»2).
2) The struggle for salvation.
The struggle of which Jesus speaks, in the light of the good news (the Gospel), is the struggle against self-sufficiency and against the richness of the heart which is concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes and pride of life.
Jesus invites us to welcome the saving power of God, engaging with all our strength in the good fight of faith passing through Him who is the Door for which we succeed in entering the heart of the Father.
Those who enter through this door are the poor in spirit and those who have full and painful awareness of their spiritual poverty, of the imperfection of their soul, and of the scarcity of good that is in us. Only the poor who know that they are poor and suffer from this poverty, strive and struggle to get out of it begging for mercy.
Witnesses and examples of this are the Apostles, to whom much has been forgiven because, except at some time, they had faith in him, strove to love him as he wanted to be loved and because, having abandoned the Love in the Garden of Gethsemane, they never forgot him and left for eternity the memory of his words and his life.
This is the favorable time when the door of Salvation is open. It is in fact the time when the Father invites us to conversion through the apostolic preaching. Wisdom consists in readily accepting this invitation which implies
– a struggle for perseverance: «In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.» (Heb 12: 4),
– an effort of fidelity in everyday life: «Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’»(Mt 25:21),
– a devoted acceptance of the Word: «But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. «(Jn 1, 12-13).
3) Ascesis of communion3
The struggle to which Christ invites us can also be called ascesis4, for which we also speak of ascetic exercise. However, it must be kept in mind that ascesis is not gymnastics and not even a struggle that tramples on others but on oneself. In my opinion, it is first a way of «struggle» (and there are many ascetic methods) whose main purpose is the communion with God. It is above all a journey, a pilgrimage that is called ascetic because it involves an exercise, a constant, astonished and energetic tension upwards, committing one’s life to the desire for holiness through a «rule» of personal ascesis, lived communion and charity. For example, John Climacus (who lived between the 6th and 7th centuries) in his book The Ladder of Heaven claims that the Christian in this world is a passing stranger who tends to the city of God advancing in the desert full of dangers and without consolations, like the Jewish pilgrims in the desert trying to reach Mount Sinai where God gives the Law for the covenant of communion.
«Ascesis is precisely this: that it becomes familiar in us, despite everything, the question of the presence of Christ in every situation of life. Christ, Presence that saves. We have to walk without ceasing to ask5 «and to keep alive the wonder of being loved.
The human person is traveling6 because he is away from his home (like the prodigal son) and his house is somehow impossible to be reached by his own strength. He can be healed by grace, and ascesis is only a consequence of this grace that the Father gives with his forgiveness.
Of course, it should be kept in mind that spiritual effort and ascetic life are facilitated and authenticated by the following of an authoritative person and immanence in the community of the Church.
Consider, for example, the consecrated Virgins who live following the example of the life of Christ and are called to be the living exegesis of the Word of God to which they are invited to approach constantly. Nourished by the Word, which is heard, accepted, contemplated, celebrated daily, and lived as an imperative of life, they celebrate the Trinity, are a sign of fraternity and are the servants of charity. Saint John Paul II quotes the Apostle Paul to affirm that »  the task of the consecrated life is to work in every part of the world in order to consolidate and expand the Kingdom of Christ, bringing the proclamation of the Gospel even to the most far-off regions» (Vita Consacrata, 78; cf. Lumen Gentium, 44 ).
Christianity is not a rule to be executed, but a love to be followed humbly, as the Ambrosian Gospel of today reminds us: «Truly, I say to you: if you do not convert and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven» (Mt 18, 3). And “what else does it mean to become children if you don’t become humble?” Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was asking himself.
To live love and save oneself, one needs the effort to take the path with humility and, as Cardinal John H. Newman taught, to have the «cult of domestic affections», namely the love of relatives and friends that is «the source of a more extended Christian love «. The domestic affections lived in a concrete community with others are a school that requires acts of donation and self-denial (therefore of ascesis) making love strong and persevering.
1  Cfr, Jh 3,16-21, 6, 26-70; Mt 19, 14-29; Rm 10, 5-21; Ef 2. 1-10; Tim 2, 1-8.
2 To the letter, Jesus says, «fight to enter by the narrow door», in fact, «the Greek text is:» agonized «= struggle, hence the words» agon «and» agony «. Besides, Christ is going to Jerusalem to face his passion, his agony.
3“Ascesis of communion “is an expression and the title of a book by Don Divo Barsotti.
4 from the Latin ascesis that derives from the Greek ἄσκησις derivation of ἀσκέω that is «exercise». The definition is spiritual and physical «exercise» or «practice» composed of prayer, meditation and various activities, including physical ones, to tend towards inner perfection by detachment from the material world in order to ascend to Heaven. Judgment on reality without alienating, unreasonable preconceptions requires a «detachment from oneself» (see Lk 17.33), a laborious work which, in the religious tradition, is called ascesis, and which can only be achieved by the persuasion of the » love to ourselves as destiny, as an affection to our destiny which is God.
5 Luigi Giussani, Alla ricerca del volto umano. Contributo ad una antropologia, Milan 1995, page 92.
6 Ysabel de Andia, “La Voie et le voyageur, Essai d’anthropologie de la vie spirituelle”, Paris, Editions du Cerf, 2012, pages 1024. It is an anthropology essay that presents man on his way to God, from earth to sky. «Stranger and traveler on earth» (Heb 11: 13), man follows the way of God who reveals himself in Christ «Way, Truth and Life» (Jn 14: 6).

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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