treating human life like a Joker

Joker movieI saw the movie Joker yesterday. This is possibly the most satanic film I’ve seen since Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I’m referring to its vision of the human person, and its insistence on a world without forgiveness, and thus a world without hope.

It is dark in a way that is more extreme than the truth, and political in a way that is even more polarizing than our current climate.

And then there is the gratuitous, intimate on-screen violence.

I predict it will leaven the culture in a very bad way. Two thumbs down.

I’m reminded of a quote from Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book titled Image of Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi:

Amorality is worse than immorality. The immoral man can repent his moral failure, he can turn back to his depth, whereas the amoral man has condemned himself to the periphery and finds no way back, when he has committed something objectively immoral.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had a moral compass I could accept.

But the Joker truly is the hero in this new film, convinced as he is of humanity’s total depravity. Nothing in this movie ultimately proves him wrong. I’m not a Calvinist, so I find that problematic.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck (aka Joker) is very compelling. However, I thought the character study was quite uneven… at times nuanced and thoughtful, and at other times, as hyperbolic and binary as a two-year-old in the throes of a temper tantrum. I suppose one could argue that faithfully reflects a certain sort of mental illness; I don’t know.

The movie never suggests that the evil that overtakes Arthur Fleck is anything more than of human origin; it never makes a nod to the supernatural (either divine or demonic), which is another reason I consider this movie satanic in character.

As a result, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the movie is willing to — at least partially — scapegoat those who suffer from mental illness. And our culture needs that right now like a hole in the head.

On the other hand: I felt the movie consistently allowed the Joker to claim victim status, without ever really holding him to account… It was more interested in shaming the aggressors than in recognizing that the Joker had choices.  For instance, the talk show host played by Robert De Niro was portrayed as a hypocritical scold. In this sense, Joker rather reminded me of Mystic River; my review of that movie can be found here.

I do think the story touches on several wounds in our culture: among others, our fascination with posturing, shaming and scapegoating (three catalysts of the phenomenon of social media); the modern tendency to descend into narcissism and solipsism; and the insistence on denying transcendence, which reveals itself in the myth of self-manufacture, most especially through gender ideology.

One story problem — something shared by many films today — was the lack of an ending. At a certain point in the film, after one of Arthur Fleck’s unmitigated victories, the screen just went dark, after throwing up a stylized title screen with “The End” on it.

Maybe the audience was supposed to feel like the Joker’s next victim at the end: lights out, so to speak. We, too, had been victimized, or at least robbed. The Joker is on us:

There are a lot of mirrors in Joker—many shots of Fleck looking at himself, his clown makeup smeared by blood and tears. But the ghastly images of Fleck are less disturbing than what the film reflects back to us: a society strangely intoxicated by macabre spectacles but oddly resistant to confronting the realities of evil, least of all in our own hearts.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers may be laughing all the way to the bank. Joker has broken box office records for October, raking in $93 million on opening weekend, with a $55 million budget. If the filmmakers had any reservations about what they created, that kind of windfall is sure to anesthetize their consciences. I do hope they set aside some of the profit to pay for support for those left behind after the next mass shooting; it’s not a question of if, but only a question of when.

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 26

The movie has nothing beneficial to say to us; it is devoid of what Pope Benedict XVI once described to educators in the United States as “intellectual charity”:

Within… a relativistic horizon the goals of education are inevitably curtailed. Slowly, a lowering of standards occurs. We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom. We witness an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. And particularly disturbing, is the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk’, bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.

How might Christian educators respond? These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call “intellectual charity”. This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience “in what” and “in whom” it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.

Lately, I’ve been listening with great interest to Eric Weinstein’s new podcast, The Portal. I find it fascinating as an analysis of the conversations we are not having as a culture because of a de rigueur climate of political correctness and shaming which inhibits the free expression of ideas. He describes a global phenomenon of preference falsification, with the 2016 US presidential election as an example of how disastrous it is when people no longer express their political opinions in the open, but save them for the ballot box alone. The idea of preference falsification is one I think it would be valuable to explore, and a Joker movie could provide a powerful dramatic way to examine the theme. But this movie had nothing meaningful to offer in this regard. Alas, it was too much to hope for from Hollywood.

I do recommend The Portal podcast. The topic of preference falsification is discussed most thoroughly in episode 4: Timur Kuran: The Economics of Revolution and Mass Deception.

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution? On this episode of the Portal, Eric is joined by renegade Economist Professor Timur Kuran whose theory of Preference Falsification appears to explain the world wide surge towards populism, and is now threatening to rewrite the core tenets of modern economics.”

Eric Weinstein

Last night, after wasting 150 minutes on Joker, I spent 15 minutes watching Rabbi Sacks. Very clarifying:

For a slightly different take, see the review by friend and fellow Act One alumnus Carl Kozlowski: Sympathy for the Devil.

Also: Steven Greydanus critiques the film in his characteristically thoughtful and nuanced style; he mentions a dimension of the film that I omitted, and does so in a way that includes no spoilers (kudos, Steven):

Arthur’s descent into violence seems to have a liberating, empowering effect on him. By making spectacular use of a gun, he gets the attention and even apparently the celebration that all mass shooters desire.

Or does he? One can choose, not unreasonably, to regard some or all of the denouement as a self-gratifying delusion. (I know where I would draw the line between reality and fantasy.) Regardless, though, Joker does nothing to cross-examine the Joker’s experience of triumph. On some level the film offers a mass-shooter fantasy fulfilled.

You can read his full review in the National Catholic Register.

Act One @ 20

I’m in Los Angeles this week, to attend a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the Act One program:

ActOneEmailLogoAct One is a Christian community of entertainment industry professionals who train and equip storytellers to create works of truth, goodness and beauty.

The celebration is happening today (Saturday, August  17) at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood.

Here’s a summary of what will be happening:

As part of our year of twentieth-anniversary celebrations, ACT ONE is hosting a day of thoughtful consideration of what we, as a community have learned. We are calling it, “Towards an Authentic Christian Cinema”.

Our speakers and topics for the day will include:

“Religious Metaphors in Art and Movies”

by Enzo Salveggi

Enzo Selvaggi leads a team of designers, artists, and craftsmen to create singular, compelling liturgical space and sacred art through the firm he founded in 2008, Heritage Liturgical. Through acclaimed murals, award-winning mosaics, exquisite hand-carved statuary, authentic french paneling,  decorative finishes and effects, and fine art both new and antique, artisans at Heritage employ the grammar of traditional art to create spaces of aesthetic value and spiritual meaning. American-born, Selvaggi grew up in Italy and continued his university education in the Tuscan hills, where his connection to art and architecture blossomed. Tapping into his traditional European education, Selvaggi weaves the ancient canons of composition with the dynamism and breadth of contemporary styles and techniques.

“Towards a Christian Aesthetic of Cinema”

by Dr. Zach Cheney

Zach Cheney is an assistant professor of Screen Studies in the Department of Cinematic Arts at Azusa Pacific University. He is also a graduate of Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, GA), Covenant Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO), and San Francisco State University. He has presented at numerous academic conferences on film and media, as well as published an essay on Alfred Hitchcock in the anthology Faith and Spirituality: Masters of World Cinema, Vol. III, published by Cambridge Scholars Press in 2015. His current undertakings include expanding his dissertation into a book manuscript along with a book-length project addressing film and media studies within a biblical-theological framework.

And much more including Dr. Barbara Nicolosi on Flannery O’Connor and Haunting Moments as well as writer/producer, Thomas Bernardo, from the hit show, “Bosch,” on the topic of “Making Television Through A Christian Lens.”

We will also have panels discussing successful writers groups and how to get your indie projects off the ground.

Plus a lot more surprises throughout the day!

Reconnect with your Act One classmates, meet lots of new friends from the other groups, and thank the faculty who have served throughout these last two decades.


SCHEDULE FOR THE DAY

  • 9:00 am – Welcome/Opening Remarks (James Duke)
  • 9:15 am – “Towards a Christian Aesthetic of Cinema” (Dr. Zach Cheney)
  • 10:00 am – “Religious Metaphors in Art and Movies” (Enzo Salveggi)
  • 10:45 am – Break
  • 11:00 am – “A Tribute to David, Ava, and Jack” (Charles Slocum)
  • 11:15 am – “Act One…The Next Twenty Years” (James Duke)
  • 11:30 am –  “Writing Groups That Work and Last” (Panel Discussion)
  • 12:15 pm – Lunch
  • 1:30 pm – “Making Television: A Christian Lens” (Thomas Bernardo)
  • 2:15 pm – “Just Get it Done: Getting Your Indie Project Off the Ground” (Panel Discussion)
  • 3:00 pm – “Flannery “OConnor Meets Sergei Eisenstein: Moment Centered Cinema” (Dr. Barbara Nicolosi)
  • 3:45 pm – Time of Prayer & Celebration
  • 4:30 pm – Event Concludes

You can still register at the door for the conference, though it’s too late to sign up for lunch. 🙂

Here are two video interviews about the history of Act One with founder Barbara Nicolosi:

marriage and the possibilities of human love

This week, while sitting in a bakery, I picked up the June 30 edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune and read this sobering headline:

Weddings a less religious affair: Church weddings are now a minority, as Minnesota couples choose convenience over tradition

The cultural shift described by the article is very dramatic:

Religious institutions hosted only 22% of weddings in 2017, according to a survey by the Knot, a leading wedding news website. That’s a swift decline from the 41% in 2009.

Barns, ranches and banquet halls are among the top beneficiaries of the shift.

Catholic churches have been particularly hard hit. The number of weddings nationwide plunged from 326,000 in 1990 to 143,000 in 2018 — despite an increase in the Catholic population. In Minnesota, there are half as many Catholic church weddings today, with 3,100 last year, as in 1990.

In just ten years, the number of marriages performed by religious institutions has dropped by 50%.

And then this story of how it is playing out:

Even some couples whose first choice is a church ceremony often change their minds because of requirements. Raised Catholic, Emily and Joe Beckers expected to be married in a Catholic church. But the Maplewood couple was put off by the marriage preparation classes, which seemed too “faith based,” and the required weekend retreat with other couples. They also wanted a personalized wedding ceremony and worried that couldn’t happen.

There was even a bigger hurdle. Joe Beckers was divorced, and for the marriage to be recognized in the church, he would need to get an annulment of his first marriage.

The wedding plans shifted gears, and they ended up at Embassy Suites in St. Paul.

Said Emily Beckers: “We were able to tailor every detail to our relationship.”

God, the sacraments, and the church are fading in the minds of young couples. No longer are these things considered important to the success or vitality of their relationship. What matters more is the ability to make the ceremony a triumph of self-expression. Is it any wonder that marriages fail so often? They are little more than houses built on sand.

Pope Saint John Paul II was prophetic in his sense about the direction that marriage was headed with young people. He describes the dynamic delicately and profoundly in his play about the sacrament of marriage. One of the characters in the drama is an old jeweler, a man who prepares the rings for young couples. He represents the priest, the witness of the sacrament and the one who, in the person of Christ, offers the blessing on behalf of the Church.

CHRISTOPHER
When we took the rings I felt your hand trembling….
We forgot to pay attention to the face of that old man,
whom Mother told me about: his eyes are said to be very expressive.
It is not our fault that we read nothing
in his eyes; and he said little — things we knew anyway.
So do not be surprised, Mother, that his words left no trace
(things we knew anyway — we did not sense greatness),
and Monica’s trembling hands told me much more.
I was engrossed in her being moved, and in my own
experience of her being moved, which I shared fully
— and I saw us two deep down in our experience:
I think I love her very much.

MONICA
We were taken up with each other — how could we tear ourselves away…
He did nothing to fascinate us…
he simply measured, first, the circumference of our fingers, then of the rings,
as an ordinary craftsman would. There was no artistry in it even.
He did not bring us closer to anything. All the beauty remained
in our own feeling. He did not widen or narrow anything
…I was absorbed by my love — and by nothing else, it seems.

TERESA
This frightened me, however… Does the old jeweler not act anymore with the force of his eyes and his word? Or is it that those two are unable to feel that force, hidden in his look and his speech. Is it that they are different?…
What are you building, children? What cohesion
are these feelings of yours going to have beyond the old jeweler’s message
of which the vertical axis cuts across
every marriage in this world?

The Jeweler’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla

Clearly the Church has its work cut out for it if it hopes to be given the opportunity to assist young couples in preparing well for marriage in any kind of meaningful way… leading them beyond the fantasy and the sentimentality, toward the bedrock of a love that pours itself out selflessly on behalf of the beloved.

For more about the play The Jeweler’s Shop, click here.

The Jeweler’s Shop

In the fall of 2014, Open Window Theatre in Minneapolis performed The Jeweler’s Shop, one of my favorite plays. It was written by Karol Wojtyla (who later became Pope St. John Paul II).

The Jeweler's Shop - Open Window Theatre

On Wednesday, October 22, 2014, immediately following a performance of the play, I joined three others in a panel discussion of the text. I don’t know nearly as much about John Paul II, the theater, or the play as the others on the panel, but on the basis of my sheer enthusiasm for the play, I was invited to participate.

Here’s a short description of the play, from the official English translation:

Love is “one of the greatest dramas of human existence,” writes Pope John Paul II. In this illuminating three-act play — here in the only English translation authorized by the Vatican — he explores relationships between men and women, the joys — and the pain — of love and marriage. The action unfolds in two settings at once: a street in a small town, outside the local jeweler’s shop (people go to buy their wedding rings there), and the mysterious inner landscape of personal hopes and fears, loves and longings. Each act focuses on a different couple: the first happily planning their wedding, the second long-married and unhappy, the third about to marry but full of doubts. Writing with power and understanding about a love that survives the grave, a love that has withered and died, a love budding out of complexes and insecurities, the Pope addresses such fundamental human concerns as: What does it mean to fall in love? When do we know that a love is real — and can it last? If it dies, how do we go on living — and loving — again? There are no easy answers, and there is no happy ending — such is the nature of men and women, and such is the nature of love — but there is hope, if we only acknowledge our need and accept the risks of a deep and lasting commitment. This is a play full of wisdom on a subject of great relevance to all, and it provides a special insight into the thoughts of the man who, like no other, has captured the imagination of people of all faiths throughout the world…. Karol Wojtyla — Pope John Paul II — has long been involved with the theater. As a student of literature, then priest, bishop and archbishop, he acted, directed, wrote dramatic criticism, made a Polish translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and has authored six plays. (source)

The panel discussion lasted about an hour. Here it is in audio format:

the grace of Pentecost, and loving the Church

Back in January of 2008, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, preacher to the papal household, gave two talks in Los Angeles at a gathering of the SCRC about Pentecost and loving the Church.

Today, in honor of Pentecost, I’m posting a transcript of most of the second talk.

Cantalamessa’s words about divisions in the body of Christ, each person seeking the good of the other, and the importance of loving the Church and sharing her shame, seem particularly timely.

The whole presentation is worth a listen.

 

I’ve divided the talk into thirteen sections. Veni, Sancte Spiritus!

I want to speak about the charismatic renewal being an authentic way of living Christian and Catholic life, but not in a theoretical way, more in a practical way. Just telling my own experience: how I experienced the charismatic renewal, what blessings it brought to my life… because in doing that, you can recognize maybe blessings the charismatic renewal has brought to your life, and people who are here for the first time maybe can be encouraged to receive this blessing, to open themselves to this blessing.

the grace of repentance

In 1975, I started hearing about a new way of praying. A lady who I accompanied in her journey went back from a retreat house in Milan, and said to me, “I have met there strange people. They raise hands, they pray in a very joyful way, they even speak about miracles happening among them.” As a traditional and wise spiritual director, I said to this lady, “You never go again to this retreat house.” But women don’t give up easily, you know. So she obeyed, but she kept inviting me to some prayer meetings of the charismatic renewal. And I remember one day, I was in Rome, there was a prayer meeting in a religious house, and I was there, very critical. I was somehow scandalized the way they spoke about the charisms… “The Lord gives you this charism. The Lord gives you this other charism.” This seemed to me to be quite an inappropriate way of speaking of the Holy Spirit. The leaders of the group knew my position, so secretly, they said to the people, “Don’t go to this particular priest. He’s an enemy of the charismatic renewal.” But seeing a priest among them, people would approach me and ask for confession. And listening to these confessions was a big stroke, because I had never seen such a deep and pure repentance in my life. These people showed what Jesus meant when he said, “When the Holy Spirit comes, He will convince the world of sin.” They were really convinced of sin, in such a way that I had the impression that sins fell down, like stones, and at the end there were tears and joy. And I said to myself, “This must be the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no other explanation.” I was shaken. I remember this moment as the first time when I felt shaken, as when somebody shakes a tree. But somehow – I’m ashamed to admit it – I resisted. I started being curious, being interested. I gave a course at the University on the first charismatic and prophetic movements in the Church, trying to understand something of what was going on.

weeping for the divisions in the body of Christ

In 1977, again a lady – a different lady – there are many ladies in my life! – all have played a positive and wonderful role as instruments of God – a lady offered four tickets to come to the United States – all included – to attend a charismatic ecumenical rally in Kansas City, in July 1977…. So I came to Kansas City. There were 40,000 people there – 20,000 Catholics and 20,000 from many other Christian denominations. In the morning, we met separately, each church, and in the evening, together in the stadium. I always remember – I have mentioned it time and again – a detail of this meeting. One evening, one of the leaders took the microphone and started saying, “You bishops. You pastors. Moan and weep because of the body of my Son is broken. You people, you men and women, moan and weep because the body of my Son is broken.” And little by little I saw people start falling on their knees around me, until almost all this huge crowd was a single people sobbing out of repentance for the divisions in the body of Christ. And all this while there was a phrase written electronically against the sky: “Jesus is Lord.” It was a prophetic vision. I had the opportunity of mentioning this vision while preaching to the Papal household, because I said, “If one day all Christians shall be united, it will be like this: when we are all on our knees, repenting under the lordship of Christ….

being convinced of sin

I remember one day we were praying… there was a prayer meeting, and I still had objections: “What am I looking for here? What can these people give me that I don’t possess? I am already a Franciscan, I have a beautiful spirituality in my order.” Especially the phrase, “I have already Saint Francis of Assisi as my spiritual father.” At that moment, again, a lady… opened a Bible, and without knowing anything, of course, and it was the passage where Saint John the Baptist says to the Pharisees, “Don’t tell in your heart, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” I understood that the Lord was speaking to me, so I stood up – I didn’t speak any English, I spoke Italian, but everybody seemed to understand – and said, “Lord, I will never say again that I am a son of Saint Francis of Assisi, because I realize that I am not. And if it is necessary to receive this grace to become a true son of Saint Francis, I accept.”

the grace of surrendering to the Lordship of Christ

Allow me to share another detail. One evening I was walking in the park of this religious house, and the Lord spoke to me through an image, as He does very frequently. And the image was this: I saw myself (mentally) as a man upon a chariot, holding the reins of the horses. And I understood that this an image of me in my life as a man wanting to be in control of his life, and decide himself where to go. At a certain point, it was as if Jesus stood up beside me and very gently said to me, “Do you want to give me the reins of your life?” There was a moment of panic, because I understood that this was quite serious! But by the grace of God, I understood that I could not be in control of my life: nobody can. We don’t know what tomorrow we shall be. So I said, “Yes, Lord, take the reins of my life.” I share this detail because I am convinced that it is very important to receive for the first time, to receive again, the Holy Spirit, to surrender in this way, to give the Lord the reins of our life…. Making the Lordship of Christ effective, real.

the joy of proclaiming the Gospel

So when I received the baptism in the Spirit, all of the prophecies were about a new ministry of preaching the Gospel. Somebody said while they were praying, “You will experience a new joy in proclaiming my word.” Now by nature I am not a joyful person. Not being that. On the contrary! Quite on the contrary. But when I proclaim the word of God, there seems to be a joy going out. I have a program on the Italian state television each week, on Saturday evening, on the Gospel, and they say that more than what I say, they are interested in the joy I share with them.

union with the suffering of Christ

Well, nothing special happened during my baptism in the Spirit except that, when they said to me, “Now choose Jesus as your personal Lord,” I lifted up my eyes, and I met the crucifix which hung above the altar, and in a flash it was as if Jesus said to me, “Be careful. The Jesus you are choosing as your Lord is not an easy Jesus. It’s me on the crucifix.” Now this helped me, because still I harbored some feelings that the charismatic renewal might be something superficial, emotional. At that moment, I understood that the work of the Spirit takes us straight to the core of the Gospel, which is the cross of Jesus. And how many times later on, I had to confirm the truth of this.

experiencing Scripture as a living word

The day after, I left the place to reach my friary in Washington, and on the plane I started seeing or realizing that something had happened. When I opened my breviary, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Psalms seemed to be written the day before for me. And I understood that one of the first results of the coming of the Spirit is that the Bible becomes a living book, not just a book full of beautiful stories and truth, but a living book, where you can listen to the voice of God. How many times later on I could verify this among very simple people. I like to share the story – some of you may have heard because I have given my testimony many times – to confirm this: how the Bible becomes precious for those who have been touched by the Holy Spirit. I was in Australia – preaching a mission in Australia – and the last day, a simple man, a worker, came to me, saying “Father, I have a problem in my family. We have a boy of eleven years who has not yet been baptized, and the reason is that my wife has become a witness of Jehovah, and doesn’t want baptism to be mentioned. So if I don’t baptize him, I am not at ease with my conscience because, when we married, both Catholics, we promised to raise our children in the faith. But if I baptize the boy, there will be crisis in my family.” I said, “Leave me time… give me tonight to reflect. Come tomorrow and we shall decide.” The day after, this man came to me. I could see that he was very relaxed, very radiant, and said, “Father, I have found the solution.” I was relieved because I hadn’t found one. “Yesterday, after speaking with you, I came home, and I prayed for a while, then I opened the Bible. And I happened to fall upon the story, the passage where Abraham takes his son Isaac to the immolation. And I have seen that when Abraham takes his son Isaac to the immolation, he doesn’t mention anything to his wife.” It was a perfect discernment, because it’s true! I baptized the boy myself.

in prayer, the Spirit draws us into Trinitarian communion: each eager for the good of the other

Then when I arrived at my friary in Washington, a second sign: I was attracted to the chapel. So prayer had been rather difficult for me, but now I was attracted to the chapel and the prayer acquired a new dimension – the Trinitarian dimension – which is the real sign of Christian prayer. It means that it’s not just a creature speaking to his Creator. Christian prayer – prayer in the Spirit – means that God is bringing you… you are praying with God… the Holy Spirit is praying in you. And I understood, without any theological inquiry, how the Father is eager to speak [and] reveal things about his Son, Jesus. How Jesus is eager to reveal to us the Father. Each person being concerned about revealing the other, not himself. If you pay attention, Jesus always reveals the Father. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t proclaim his name – his name is ruah – but never in the New Testament does the Spirit say, “I am ruah.” He always teaches us to say, “Abba” or “Maranatha.” So each person is eager to reveal the other, which is the Trinitarian law. And if this law would be applied in the family, the wife speaking always good to the children of the father, the father defending the wife… If this law was applied even in our religious communities, oh, what a difference! Everybody being eager to speak good, not evil, for the other.

a noticeable change

Well, after three months, I came back to Italy. This was my three-month honeymoon. I came back to Italy, and the people who had known me were very surprised. Some said, “Oh, what a miracle! We have sent to America Saul, and they have sent us back Paul!” I started to join people when I was able in these prayer meetings, sharing in their enthusiasm. This was a wonder, because when you discover this new world in the Spirit… you may have been baptized, ordained, even consecrated bishop, but nevertheless it is always a new discovery. It’s discovering a new world of freedom, joy, enthusiasm, spontaneity… I started to join these people.

the vocation to be an itinerant preacher

One day I was praying in my friary, my room, and the Lord again spoke to me through an image. Nothing miraculous or exterior, but something which has changed my life. And the image was this: While I was praying with closed eyes, it was as if Jesus passed in front of me. It was precisely the same Jesus as when he came back from the Jordan, right after his baptism, radiating the power of the Spirit and ready to start preaching the Kingdom. And passing in front of me in my heart, I felt he was saying, “If you want to help me in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, leave everything and follow me.” Now as a Franciscan, I was supposed to have already left everything… but the Lord knew very well I was very rich – rich in honor, in culture… Now I understood what he meant. He meant, “Leave your teaching position, your chair, and become an itinerant preacher in the style of your father Francis of Assisi.” I remember, I don’t know why, that I was afraid because Jesus seemed to be in a hurry. He invited me but didn’t stop. I was afraid of not being ready to give an answer. But by the grace of God, at that moment I understood what grace means… how grace can work with your freedom, without oppressing your freedom, but nevertheless, doing everything. By the grace of God, at the end of this prayer, I found in my heart a full “Yes, Lord. Yes.” Everything I had striven for fell down.

the importance of obedience in discernment and submission to the word of God

I started making a retreat to prepare myself. I was in a friary in Switzerland, and then I came to Rome to ask the permission of my superior, because as a religious, I couldn’t act on my inspiration. This is quite important: you can’t act on your own inspiration. You need confirmation somehow from your superior, spiritual director, confessor, your bishop, because you will never know if this was just your feeling or the call of God. At that moment I discovered what obedience means, what a gift it is in the Catholic Church to have a clear authority that can confirm you and make you sure that this is it. So I went to my superior, and he said to me exactly what any bishop or any provincial superior would say in that case: “Let us wait one year.” This is a very wise answer. I waited one year, I came back, we prayed together, and he said, “Yes, it is the will of God. Go.” So I started preparing myself, and when a phone call came from Rome it was my General Superior again, who said to me, “John Paul II has appointed you as papal preacher. Have you any serious reasons to say no?” I tried. I tried honestly to find some reasons, but apart from a certain nervousness, I didn’t find serious reasons, so I had to accept. This was back in 1980, twenty-eight years ago. So I started preaching Lent. So this ministry means that I must give a meditation to the Holy Father, the cardinals of the Roman Curia, the bishops and prelates working there – about sixty or seventy people – to the Pope… the Pope is always present. Every week in Lent and Advent…. So I started this strange ministry, which is very meaningful not because of me, the preacher, but because of what the Pope says to the whole Church with this practice. He gives an example of submission to the word of God. With all he has to do, he never misses a sermon. Sometimes going out after preaching, I see heads of state waiting to be received by the Pope, and he is there listening to a simple priest of the Catholic Church….

the grace of a new Pentecost

Now this is an occasion to say something about the Church. I think the Lord has used me, this poor instrument, to let resound on the very heart of the Church the grace of a new Pentecost going on in the Church, because the second year I preached to the Pope, I had to speak about the baptism in the Spirit. And now, last Advent, after twenty-eight years, I felt again the need of addressing this issue – baptism in the Spirit – speaking about the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus as a relationship between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. I spoke about the baptism in the Spirit, because it is in the New Testament. It is not just something which belongs to the charismatic renewal. Jesus says, “You will be baptized in the Holy Spirit in a few days.” What did he mean by that?! Sometimes I raise my voice because some members of the clergy seem to consider baptism in the Spirit to be something strange, invented I don’t know by whom – Pentecost or some Protestants. It is there! When Jesus says, “You will be baptized in a few days,” what did he mean? You shall be baptized in water? What happened a few days later? Pentecost! So he meant Pentecost. So there is a perennial Pentecost and this grace maybe is received not always in the same way, not necessarily belongs to the charismatic renewal, but certainly it would be tragic if the leaders of the Church should decide while millions of people are experiencing this grace and have been empowered.

loving the Church and sharing in her shame

It has been an opportunity to let the institutional Church know and listen about this, but this has also been an occasion for me to convey to my brothers and sisters in the charismatic renewal the concerns of the institutional Church, the desires, the hope they have of the charismatic renewal and all the other ecclesial movements. And I feel the duty also to achieve this task of conveying to my brothers and sisters in the charismatic renewal what are the desires of the Church, even sometimes unexpressed… implicit. I think that the charismatic renewal should remain sane. Sane means focusing on the essential – sanctification and serving others with the charisms. So the charismatic renewal should not go astray in some very strange directions, focusing only on exorcisms or healings. These are a part of, but are not the essential. The essential is to let the Holy Spirit take away the heart of stone and give us the heart of flesh. Instruct us to bear the fruits of the Spirit. And one of the desires of the Church is certainly that we love the Church. Now the charismatic renewal has been perceived by the hierarchical Church as faithful. This has certainly been a mark which has helped the charismatic renewal being accepted in the Church, because already Paul VI said, “This is a chance for the Church.” And John Paul II, ten years later, said, “My predecessor, ten years ago, said this was a chance for the Church, and now I can confirm the truth of this word. It has been a chance for the Church.” So the charismatic renewal has begun with a strong connection with the institutional Church. There are usually no tensions about that, but something more is required: love of the Church. Solidarity with the Church. Especially moments like this, when because of the scandals, because of the uproar in the world, many Catholics feel ashamed to belong to the Catholic Church. Now, as in a family, we must share the honors and also responsibility of the Church. We should not consider ourselves outside and pointing the finger. We are members of the Church! A French writer, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, in a moment when his homeland, France, was in a humiliating position, subjected to the Germans and collaborating with the Germans, he said, “Because they are my people, I will not speak against them. I will not go around saying evil about them. A man doesn’t go around telling people that his wife is nothing good, is a prostitute. No! Once in the house, he will give vent to his rage, but he defends, because he feels part of her.” And the same applies to the Church. We should feel part of the Church, and pray, and atone for the other. I remember reading this passage from Erasmus of Rotterdam, the humanist of the sixteenth century. He was in relation with Luther, and Luther, in a letter, reproached him, saying, “Why do you remain in the Catholic Church, knowing how corrupt it is?” And he answered, “I endure this Church, in the hope that she will become better. Because she must also endure me in the hope that I become better.”

The Church is not defiled only because of sins of pedophilia. In the eyes of the media, yes, this sin seems to be the only relevant sin. But the body of Christ is defiled by any sin of pride, of lust, of avarice, of hatred… and who can say, “I am innocent”?…. So we must acknowledge what is evil, but not consider ourselves outside. I am very impressed by this phrase from the letter to the Ephesians: “Christ loved… loved… loved… the Church. Christ loved the Church.” Didn’t Jesus know what the Church was like? He knows that one of the apostles was betraying him, that others were quarrelling among themselves… he knew! He knew the real Church. But he loved the Church! And who are we to judge the Church and not love the Church?

In this moment it is particularly important that you Catholics in the United States show solidarity and suffering – suffering in your heart – but not abandoning the Church, not sitting outside and pointing the finger to the Church. And I think there is a secret, a spiritual riches in this, if in this moment we share in the shame of the Church… we share in the ignominy of the Church. There is a blessing. Then the Lord will use this opportunity as a purification: not as a punishment, but as a purification.