* * *
Dear Doctor Scalfari,
It is with great cordiality, although only in broad lines, that with this letter I would like to respond to your letter, addressed to me on July 7 in the pages of La Reppublica, with a series of your personal reflections , which you then enriched on the pages of the same daily on August 7.
I thank you, first of all, for the attention with which you read the encyclical Lumen fidei. The intention of my beloved Predecessor, Benedict XVI, who conceived it and to a great extent wrote it, and which I inherited with gratitude, is directed not only to confirm in the faith in Jesus Christ those who recognize themselves in it, but also to arouse a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those whom, like you, describe themselves “a non-believer for many years interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Therefore, it seems to me that it is nothing other than positive, not only for us individually but also for the society in which we live, to pause to dialogue on a reality as important as the faith is, which calls to preaching and to the figure of Jesus. I think there are, in particular, two circumstances that today render this dialogue right and proper and precious. Moreover, as noted, it constitutes one of the principal objectives of Vatican Council II, desired by John XXIII and the ministry of Popes that, each one with his sensibility and contribution, from then to today has followed in the track traced by the Council.
The first circumstance – as recalled in the initial pages of the encyclical – stems from the fact that, in the course of the centuries of modernity, we have witnessed a paradox: the Christian faith, whose novelty and incidence on the life of man since the beginning were expressed in fact through the symbol of light, was often referred to as the darkness of superstition that is opposed to the light of reason. Thus between the Church and the culture of Christian inspiration, on one hand, and the modern culture of Enlightenment stamp, on the other, there has been incommunicability. Moreover the time has come, and the Vatican in fact inaugurated the season, of an open dialogue without preconceptions, which opens the doors for a serious and fecund meeting.
The second circumstance, for one who seeks to be faithful to the gift of following Jesus in the light of faith, stems from the fact that this dialogue is not a secondary accessory of the existence of the believer: it is, instead, a profound and indispensable expression. In this connection, allow me to quote an affirmation of the encyclical, which in my opinion is very important: because the truth witnessed by faith is that of love – it is underlined — “it is clear that the faith is not intransigent, but grows in coexistence that respects the other. The believer isn’t arrogant; on the contrary, truth makes him humble, knowing that, more than our possessing it, it is truth that embraces and possesses us. Far from stiffening us, the certainty of the faith puts us on the way, and makes possible witness and dialogue with everyone” (n. 34). This is the spirit that animates the words that I write to you.
For me, faith is born from the encounter with Jesus. A personal encounter, which has touched my heart and given direction and new meaning to my existence. But at the same time an encounter that was made possible by the community of faith in which I have lived and thanks to which I found access to the intelligence of Sacred Scripture, to new life that, as gushing water, flows from Jesus through the Sacraments, to fraternity with everyone and at the service of the poor, true image of the Lord. Believe me, without the Church I would not have been able to encounter Christ, also in the awareness that the immense gift that faith is is kept in the fragile earthen vessels of our humanity.
Now, it is precisely beginning from here, from this personal experience of faith lived in the Church, that I feel at ease in listening to your questions and in seeking, together with you, the ways through which we might, perhaps, begin a segment of the way together.
Forgive me if I do not follow step by step the arguments you propose in the editorial of July 7. It seems to me more fruitful, if not more congenial, to go in a certain sense to the heart of your considerations. I won’t even enter into the explanatory way followed by the encyclical, in which you perceive the lack of a section dedicated specifically to the historical experience of Jesus of Nazareth.
To begin, I observe only that an analysis of this kind isn’t secondary. It is, in fact, by following the logic that guides the unfolding of the encyclical, pausing our attention on the meaning of what Jesus said and did and thus, in a word, on what Jesus was and is for us. The Letters of Paul and the Gospel of John, of which particular reference is made in the encyclical, are constructed, in fact, on the solid foundation of the messianic ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, which reached its decisive culmination in the Pasch of Death and Resurrection.
Therefore, one must be confronted with Jesus, I would say, in the concreteness and roughness of his event, as is narrated especially by the oldest of the Gospels, that of Mark. One sees then that the “scandal” that the word and practice of Jesus caused around him stem from his extraordinary “authority”: a word, this is, that attests from the Gospel of Mark, but which isn’t easy to render in Italian. The Greek word is “exousia,” which literally refers to that which“comes from being,” which is. It’s not about something exterior or forced, therefore, but of something that emanates from within and that imposes itself. Jesus, in fact, strikes, breaks, innovates beginning with – He himself says so – from his relationship with God, called familiarly Abba, who gives Him this “authority” so that he will exercise it in favor of men.
So Jesus preaches “as one who has authority,” heals, calls the disciples to follow him, forgives … all things that, in the Old Testament, are of God and only of God. The question that return most in Mark’s Gospel is: “Who is he who …?” and which refers to Jesus’ identity, is born from witnessing an authority that is different from that of the world, an authority that is not aimed at exercising power over others, but of serving them, of giving them liberty and the fullness of life. And this to the point of putting at stake one’s own life, to the point of experiencing incomprehension, betrayal, rejection, to the point of being condemned to death, of sealing the state of abandonment on the cross. But Jesus remains faithful to God, to the end.
And it is precisely then – as the Roman centurion exclaimed at the foot of the cross in Mark’s Gospel – that Jesus shows himself paradoxically as the Son of God! Son of a God that is love and that wishes with all His being that man, every man, discover himself and also live as His true son. This is, for the Christian faith, the certificate of the fact that Jesus is risen: not to triumph over those who rejected him, but to attest that the love of God is stronger than death, the forgiveness of God is stronger than any sin, and that it is worthwhile to spend one’s life, to the end, witnessing this immense gift.
The Christian faith believes this: that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give his life to open to all the way of love. Because of this you are right, egregious Doctor Scalfari, when you see in the Incarnation of the Son of God the foundation of the Christian faith. Tertullian already wrote “caro cardo salutis,” the flesh (of Christ) is the foundation of salvation. Because the Incarnation, namely, the fact that the Son of God came in our flesh and shared our joys and sorrows, the victories and defeats of our existence, to the cry of the cross, living everything in love and fidelity to Abba, attests to the incredible love that God has for every man, the inestimable value that he gives him. Because of this, each one of us is called to make his own the look and the choice of love of Jesus, to enter into his way of being, of thinking and acting. This is the faith, with all the expressions that are described unfailingly in the encyclical.
Always in the editorial of July 7, you ask me in addition how to understand the originality of the Christian faith in as much as it is founded on the Incarnation of the Son of God, in regard to other faiths that gravitate instead around the absolute transcendence of God.
The originality, I would say, lies precisely in the fact that the faith makes us participate , in Jesus, in the relationship that He has with God who is Abba and, in this light, the relationship that He has with all other men, including enemies, in the sign of love. In other words, Jesus’ offspring, as presented by the Christian faith, is not revealed to mark an insurmountable separation between Jesus and all others: but to tell us that, in Him, we are all called to be children of the one Father and brothers among ourselves. The singularity of Jesus is for communication, not for exclusion.
Of course from this also follows – and it isn’t something small – the distinction between the religious sphere and the political sphere which is sanctioned in “giving to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” affirmed clearly by Jesus and on which, laboriously, the history of the West was built. In fact, the Church is called to sow the leaven and the salt of the Gospel, and this is the love and mercy of God that reaches all men, pointing out the celestial and definitive goal of our destiny, whereas civil and political society has the arduous task of articulating and embodying in justice and solidarity, in law and in peace, an ever more human life. For one who lives the Christian faith, this does not mean fleeing the world or seeking hegemony, but service to man, to the whole of man and to all men, beginning from the fringes of history and keeping awake the sense of hope that drives one to do good despite everything and always looking to the beyond.
You also ask me, in conclusion of your first article, what we should say to our Jewish brothers about the promise made to them by God: has it all come to nothing? Believe me, this is a question that challenges us radically as Christians, because, with the help of God, especially since Vatican Council II, we have rediscovered that the Jewish people are still for us the holy root from which Jesus germinated. In the friendship I cultivated in the course of all these years with Jewish brothers in Argentina, often in prayer I also questioned God, especially when my mind went to the memory of the terrible experience of the Shoa. What I can say to you, with the Apostle Paul, is that God’s fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed and that, through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this, we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church, but also as humanity. They, then, precisely by persevering in the faith of the God of the Covenant, called all, also us Christians, to the fact that we are always waiting, as pilgrims, for the Lord’s return and, therefore, that we must always be open to Him and never take refuge in what we have already attained.
So I come to the three questions you put to me in the article of August 7. It seems to me that, in the first two, what is in your heart is to understand the attitude of the Church to those who don’t share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that – and it’s the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.
In the second place, you ask me if the thought, according to which no absolute exists and therefore not even an absolute truth but only a series of relative or subjective truths, is an error or a sin. To begin with, I will not speak, not even to one who believes, of “absolute” truth, in the sense that absolute is what is inconsistent, what is deprived of any relationship. Now truth, according to the Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship! So true is it that each one of us also takes up the truth and expresses it from him/herself: from his/her history and culture, from the situation in which he/she lives, etc. This doesn’t mean that truth is variable or subjective, quite the opposite. But is means that it is given to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”? In other words, truth being altogether one with love, requires humility and openness to be sought, received and expressed. Therefore, it’s necessary to understand one another well on the terms and, perhaps, to come out of the tight spots of opposition … absolute, to pose the question again in depth. I think that this is today absolutely necessary to initiate that serene and constructive dialogue that I hoped for at the beginning of this my response. In the last question you ask me if, with the disappearance of man on earth, the thought will also disappear that is able to think of God. Certainly, man’s greatness lies in his being able to think of God. And that is in being able to live a conscious and responsible relationship with Him. However, the relationship is between two realities. God – this is my thought and this is my experience, but how many, yesterday and today, share it! – is not an idea, even though very lofty, fruit of man’s thought. God is reality with a capital “R.” Jesus reveals it – and lives the relationship with him – as a Father of goodness and infinite mercy. Hence, God doesn’t depend on our thought. Moreover, even when the life of man on earth should finish – and for the Christian faith, in any case, this world as we know it is destined to fail –, man won’t stop existing and, in a way that we don’t know, also the universe created with him. Scripture speaks of “new heavens and a new earth” and affirms that, in the end, in the where and when that is beyond us, but towards which, in faith, we tend with desire and expectation, God will be “all in all.” Egregious Doctor Scalfari, I thus conclude my reflections, aroused by what you wished to communicate to me and ask me. Receive it as the tentative and provisional but sincere and confident answer to the invitation to escort you in a segment of the road together. Believe me, the Church despite all the slowness, the infidelities, the errors and sins she could have committed and can still commit in those that accompany her, has no other sense or end but that of living and witnessing Jesus: He who was sent by Abba “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
With fraternal closeness,
Francis[Translation by ZENIT]