Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“Stir into Flame the Gift of God”

FSPs from East Africa join in the celebration.
Lately whenever I’ve come to Rome, I stay as far away from major events at St. Peter’s Basilica as possible. I expect to be jostled in a crowd, but shoved is another matter. There’s just way too much of that for my endurance. I’m happy enough to watch them on TV in the safety of the convent. That’s what I did for the opening of the international Synod of Bishops the Sunday before last. I made an exception, though, to join 40,000 other people in the fiaccolata, or candlelight procession, on Oct. 11, that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II and the beginning of the Year of Faith. I carried a hope that would not disappoint.

That day would have also been my mother’s 88th birthday. When I think of faith formation I think of her. I remember sitting with her as she taught me my Bible stories and catechism in preparation for first Communion, helping me to memorize the prayers I didn’t know yet and to color the pictures in the workbook—which I still have! (I had to go to my father, though, to learn how to draw a beard on St. Joseph.) From Daddy, who picked up a children’s missal for me, I got a jumpstart on the Mass responses and what they meant. So did my sister.

It wasn’t just the transmission of information that shaped us, but how it was communicated—a witness of faith in love. I could never have put it into words then, but the message we got was: “This is so valuable that the most important and loving people in your life are taking time out of their busy day to share it with you.” If anyone questions the enduring value of family catechesis, they didn’t have our parents.

When any of the instructors in our charism course speaks about the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the spectacular impression made by the gathering of 2,400 bishops and other participants, they’re almost at a loss for words. Every one of them ends up exclaiming, “You had to be there!” The rest of us have to take it on…faith.

One of the profs for our course on the Pauline charism is Sr. Filippa Castronovo, FSP. She teaches a series of classes on Paul and Alberione, our founder. We ran into her at the fiaccolata. She took a few minutes to reminisce with some of us about “the Council days.” She was a postulant back then, just beginning her life in community. She had come from a small, culturally homogenous, Italian town, which made even ordinary life in Rome an adventure. Add what seemed to be every bishop from every race in the world, “with their stories and their slides,” and she had memories for a lifetime. Sr. Filippa said that experience alone opened her eyes to a wider world. Paul would have been able to relate.

Fr. Cosimo Semeraro, SDB, a professor at the Salesianum, leads us in a study of the Church’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries, the period of our founders’ lives and of the Pauline Family’s first years. He tied Vatican II to Vatican I, which took place between 1869 and 1870. If you’re like me and you have some familiarity with Church history, you may have seen Vatican I as just a blip on the screen. Yet, it was the first ecumenical council that drew bishops from the Far East and the Americas. During Council sessions these bishops were unable to speak about the situation of the Church in their countries. It didn’t stop them, though, from talking, both before and after the Council, to anyone who would listen. Also because of the press, their accounts and insights were disseminated everywhere. Fr. Semerero didn’t hesitate to assert that the missionary institutes that arose since then are the direct result of this fertilization. He looked around at the seventeen of us from five Pauline institutes in twelve nations, and declared, “Your presence here is a fruit of Vatican I!” He added that even the Salesians, like similar congregations that were not founded specifically to share the Good News with those who’ve never heard it, felt the impetus of the Council and established their first foundations in Latin America shortly afterward.

Antonio & Fernando distribute candles & the SSP's Famiglia Cristiana.
A lot of Paulines were present in St. Peter’s Square the evening of the candlelight procession last week, giving thanks for the gift of Vatican II. Most of us were either too young to remember it, or still only in the mind of God. But we are its heirs. So were the young members of Italian Catholic Action I met, which numbers 400,000 laity strong in parishes throughout the country. I had no idea Catholic Action was still around! It was these laity who organized and led the event, something that, from what I could tell, didn’t happen fifty years ago. With its call to the laity, Vatican II made that possible—a delight and a source of prayer for me that night. As one reader proclaimed a passage from Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, I was moved to plead for a rebirth in the missionary spirit within the laity of North America and all over the world. Sharing the faith is their baptismal right, and it’s our role as their Pauline sisters and brothers to support them.

Pope Benedict recalled Bl. John XXIII’s “unforgettable words” at the candlelight procession in 1962, when he invited parents to give their children a good-night hug from the pope. Benedict XVI repeated that invitation to the parents who were listening to him anywhere in the world, a world, he reminded us, that is sinful but redeemed, and so, carries the promise of hope. We all need to stir the embers a little—or a lot. When we revive the gift of faith that we have (cf. 2Tm 1:6) we can warm a part of our world and shed the light of our faith-life on whatever darkness lurks in its corners. May other candle bearers do the same for us.

The candlelight procession in 1962

The anniversary procession in 2012

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