By Cardinal Mauro Piacenza
We have arrived at the heart of our Lenten journey, and every journey has a destination. Where are we trying to arrive at? Saint Paul, our formidable Lenten interlocutor, gives us the answer, and he does so with an expression that is as simple as it is clearly sculpted: in Christ!
In short, it is a matter of discovering that the meaning of the world is a Person, a Person who is the presence of the Eternal in the world. Hence, he is also the meaning of my life. It is he who makes life worth living. The choices of faith are nothing other than the concrete expressions of this utterly simple, fundamental option, namely choosing to find fulfilment in Christ. Christ is the way chosen by God to come to meet us. He is God, translated into human action.
We call ourselves Christians. It is a beautiful thing to call ourselves thus. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that this significant name was first coined in Antioch. In the East this name is particularly important, and it is not given superficially. For the name expresses the person. It is certainly not by accident that the Savior calls himself Jesus and that Jesus himself changes the name of Simon, son of John, calling him Peter (Rock). Hence, one who is called a Christian is one who lives from Christ and is lived by Christ—mihi vivere Christus est. Everything we have, we have from Christ, and for us Christ is everything. To live solely from Christ is to live everything else because of Christ—this is what it means to be Christians.
Saint Thomas tells us clearly that a man cannot fully enjoy something when that which he enjoys does not satisfy him. When He becomes the sole reason of my life, then Christ becomes the marvellous wellspring of my joy. This is the plan of the Eternal Father. Indeed, because God does not think us, apart from Christ. Our life has no meaning outside of him. God fills with grace the humanity of Christ, and then he leads us to his feet and says to us: draw from him, take from him. We recall the gospel theophanies: when the Father intervenes and speaks, he always says the same thing: Ipsum audite, listen to him, and in listening take everything from him. From him wells up that overflowing life from which we must live (in him you are made full, who is the head of all principality and power Col 2:10).
From this utterly simple design of God is derived the highest law of the spiritual life, which Saint Paul expresses in the formula I cited at the beginning, namely in Cristo. If the exegetes are correct in their counting, then Saint Paul uses this word 164 times. We will understand better what the apostle means if we consider the expressions that he uses, together with the preposition with (Lat. con). For example, com-mortui, con-resurgere, con-glorificavit…. It is as if to say that our lives cannot be uncoupled from Christ. Christ is more mine than anything else; he is more mine than my own limbs. The martyrs were willing to part company with their limbs rather than parting company with Christ. Who will separate us from Christ? Paul exclaims triumphantly. The saints were living examples of all this.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux said “He does all things in me, I do nothing.” She did nothing, but allowed it to be done, in the spirit of Mary’s fiat, by never offering the slightest resistance to the divine will. This reminds me of another beautiful expression which Father De Caussade put in the mouth of Christ: “I wish to do all things in you; allow me to do so.” Christ, who down here on earth no longer has a visible face, nor hands, nor feet, takes me and makes use of me and through my hands succors the poor, with my feet goes out to meet my brothers and, through my heart, loves.
All this cannot remain at the level of theory, but must be translated into practice by us; we have to live it in order to draw from it all its beauty. In practice I must offer Christ every area of my life. Date locum Domino, give space to the Lord, as Saint Ambrose used to say. At the end of each day, I should ask myself in prayer, to whom did my day belong today, Lord? Was it mine or was it yours? Many times, perhaps, the Lord will tell me, I would not have done such a thing as that, or at least I would not have done it in that way…
When we love, this form of behavior is logical, inasmuch as when we love we feel the need to become like the person we love. We might call it the mimicry of love. I should be able to say to myself in all truthfulness: “I do not want to live anything that Christ could not live in me.”
But all this can happen only on condition that Christ is my contemporary. Otherwise it is not the living Christ. Christ is my contemporary, he is next to me and saves me, not from outside, but from within and from close by. Jesus was quite clear when he revealed this contemporaneous dimension of his existence for all times: I will be with you all days. Let us never forget this. The Church does not forget it, and at the most solemn moment of its Liturgy, during the great Paschal Vigil, she inscribes this on the Paschal Candle, this lighted candle which, with its flame, is the symbol of that living presence of the Lord at her very heart: Christus heri, hodie et in saecula, ipsius sunt tempora – Christ yesterday, Christ today, Christ always; all time belongs to him, all ages. Every fragment of time belongs to Christ. Indeed, we can truly say that Christ is the eternal now! We can say that our earthly life is the return journey to the Fathers’ house, a journey made with the most gentle and understanding of brothers by our side. It is the scene of Emmaus, lived out in our life’s daily journey.
What I am telling you is what the saints—our best friends, in other words—have experienced, have lived. Think of Saint Paul, for whom in comparison to Christ everything faded into insignificance – indeed, as he says, became so much “rubbish.” Saint Thomas tells us, “If there were a book containing all wisdom, there would be nothing else to do but to get to know this book. And indeed, this book does exist: it is Christ!” And Saint Charles de Foucauld adds, “From the moment I knew him, I understood that I could no longer have gone on living except for him.”
We could say with Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, in a burning expression, that the saints represent an extension of the humanity in which Christ continues to make his face shine. But what is the meaning of this presence of the saints next to Christ? This is of interest to us personally, because we are all called to sanctity. The model, being Christ, is unattainable. Every human experience, even when marked out by heroism, can never be more than a faded copy of the divine original. Christ is undoubtedly the sole source of holiness and its inimitable pattern, but the phenomenon of holiness in the Church cannot be seen simply as the sum of “deficient” and faded images which can never match the original. It is a fact that they can never attain to it, but that is not all.
Saint Paul tells us that he longs to fulfill that which is lacking in the Passion of Christ. But is there really something lacking in Christ? Of course not, but we need to explain ourselves. The Word, in order to express himself and communicate himself to us, has chosen an individual human nature and has assumed it into the unity of his divine person. He has become man in the fullest and most real sense and has been born of the Virgin Mary. His assumed human nature, although perfect, did not succeed, during the brief span of time of 33 years during which he is called to live here below, in expressing all the divine riches that were in him. Put more simply, Jesus was not able to express all the divine riches that were in him, and consequently the Church assumes his “pleroma” and, mobilizing all its ecclesial forces across the centuries, continues to express the riches of the mystery that is in him. Hence, we are all mobilized on behalf of the Christus totus.
We know that the Church is the Body of Christ, the personal Body of the Risen One. Hence, alongside the individual Christ there is the Christus totus, the total Christ, that perfect Man towards whom the Church is journeying. Jesus has distributed the various different vocations, thereby organising the Saints for the work of ministry in view of the building up of the body of Christ, in order to arrive altogether in forming a unity among us, in building up that perfect man who realises the fullness of Christ (cf Ephesians 4:7-13).
It is here that we find the dynamic sense of our Christian vocation. In the measure in which each one of us opens himself up in this way to the action of Christ, we give him the possibility of living in certain existential ways that he was unable to live in his individual human nature, on account of the earthly conditions to which he was subject, through the reality of the Incarnation. Hence, the possibility is open to me to emphasize an aspect of his mystery that is in some sense original. For example, Saint Benedict and Saint Francis both reflected Christ, but not in the same way, nor with the same function within the heart of the Church. Each one of us is an original brushstroke in the great portrait painted by God throughout sacred history. The final result will be the masterpiece that will be the total face of Christ, in the fullness of his splendor. For this reason no saint, not even when starting from the same starting point, will ever slavishly imitate another.
The example of the saints is inspiring, but each one of us has also to reproduce Christ, in that particular original and unrepeatable manner that corresponds to our personal vocation, at the heart of the one great baptismal vocation. And so there is always something new to say. God is expecting my life too to say something new.
And what else is the life of the saints if not a sequentia sancti Evangelii? A page of the gospel, opened at the right page where everyone can read, including those who cannot read or write. How great is the Christian vocation, seen in this light! I am called to reveal, in some sense, a new feature of the face of Christ. Each one of us is a brushstroke in the fresco, a tile in the mosaic of the perfect Man. One might say, paradoxically, that God has need of each one of us in order to demonstrate the extraordinary riches of his grace, of his mercy towards us in Christ Jesus.
The total Christ is rendered by the totality of all of us, united in solidarity in a single destiny. We are called to enter together, to be recapitulated in the Lord Jesus, and in this way to enrich the canticle of praise that He raises up to the Father. The Saints, therefore – and we are called to become saints also – are not simply a cloak covering the outside of the Church; rather, they are like the flowers of a tree that show forth the surging vitality of the sap that rises through the trunk.
Within this framework, dear friends, I think we need to seek to live this last, intense stretch of the Lenten journey by digging deep within ourselves. Let us place this petition in the sorrowful and immaculate Heart of the Lady in White, whom the Redeemer gave us as our Mother at the foot of the Cross. Like John, who from that moment took her into his home, let us likewise do the same, taking her into our own interior home.
Cardinal Piacenza is Major Penitentiary at the Holy See’s Apostolic Penitentiary and President of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN). The Cardinal presented this Lenten meditation April 1, 2014 in Fatima, Portugal, to a meeting of the national directors of the agency.