WORD OF GOD
SCALABRINI AND THE WORD OF GOD
1. If we consider the three most significant activities of Bishop Scalabrini - his work in favor of the deaf and dumb, the catechism, and migrants - we notice that they have an underlying common denominator, namely, the word of God: the word of God as handicapped, developed, and deprived. The maxim that faith is born from hearing cannot be applied to the deaf and dumb, since they are unable to hear the word: "Religion, as you know, is revelation, and revelation is word; indeed, the divine intelligence cannot communicate itself to the human intelligence except through the word" (Pastoral letter of 1880, on the deaf and dumb). The Catechism is the Gospel, the glad tidings of Jesus, or, better still: "The Gospel can be called the book of Jesus’ catechisms" (The Catholic Catechism, p. 102) .
Lastly: "The problems of our emigration can be summed up in this: loss of faith through lack of religious instruction.... Ah, the misadventure of being deprived of that spiritual bread of the word of God!" (First address on emigration). Here Scalabrini, who had compared a deaf and dumb person to a foreigner, also compares an emigrant to a deaf and dumb person regarding the word of God.
2. If Scalabrini was "the apostle of the catechism" (Pius XI), he also exercised the prophetic mission in its irreplaceable form of preaching the word of God, with both the liturgical action of the homily and the more strictly didactic one of catechesis. We have over two thousand pages of his homilies, which were generally written out in full. We should also remember the special form of catechesis of the word represented by the seventy pastoral letters. However, he understood homilies and catechesis not only as teaching but as teaching that has the direct aim of changing a person’s life, leading people to follow Christ. This teaching of course used different methods. In the homilies it was celebrational, solemn, biblical, patristic, liturgical, full of unction and incentives, while in catechesis it was more discursive and had broad freedom of movement. Moreover, in his homilies, the relationship between theology and morality, between what has been done and what is to be done - the so-called dialectic between indicative and imperative - follows in the footsteps of Paul: first (and in a 4:1 proportion) what God has done for us, and then what we should be doing for God.
3. From the writings which deal expressly with the word of God, we quote some passages from the Pastoral Letter for Lent 1897 on "The Divine Word" and a shorter extract from the Second Address to the Third Synod (1899), under the title "Eucharistic Preaching." Scalabrini’s thinking on the word of God is vast if we take account of his practical activity as catechist and pastor and also his theoretical activity in the field of catechesis. Here we offer only a few representative elements.
4. The most striking feature of this remarkable organizer of the catechism, this concerned and inspirational pastor of souls, is the spirit of faith in which he sets himself - and wants us to set ourselves - before the word of God; for the word of God has an effectiveness of its own over and beyond that of the media, as well as an interior Teacher whom we must learn to listen to even more than to any speaker who speaks from outside. Priests have a reason for both humility and consolation in a thought expressed to the Third Synod, p. 243- "Do not be discouraged by fear that the faithful will not understand, for understanding of the mysteries flows not from natural intelligence, but from the light of faith, which God infuses into hearts during preaching." And the following thought embraces the full implications of being "God’s fellow workers" (1 Cor 3:9): "The word of God loses none of its value and remains always the word of God, even on the lips of the most worthless of priests .... The Word of God obliges himself to pass through his mouth, just as on the altar he obliges himself to pass through the hands of even the most imperfect minister. God ... did not want the effectiveness of these ministries entrusted to man to depend on the virtue or holiness of the man in question, because otherwise people would be obliged to this man for their sanctification and salvation. The effectiveness of God’s word ... is linked neither to personal gifts, nor to skill, nor even to the holiness of the minister, but to the divinity of the ministry, to the word of the man, to the extent that this word speaks of Jesus Christ and in the name of Jesus Christ, or, rather, inasmuch as Jesus Christ speaks in the man" (1897 Pastoral Letter).
Here Scalabrini puts back into perspective the importance of the minister, who is a servant who works with others in a field that is God’s. What counts is God; it is Christ.
5. The pastoral letter from which we quote here is divided into three parts:
Why should we listen Lo the word of God? From whom should we listen to it? How should we listen to it? He answers the first question by saying that we must listen to it "precisely because it is the word of God," and the word of a God who became man to give us this word full of truth and life, capable of illuminating the mind and moving the will. He answers the second question by saying that we must listen to it from those whom the Word of God has authorized to be ministers of the word: the Pope, bishops and priests (a reminder of the tragic context of the Miraglia schism of those years!). He answers the third question by saying that we must listen to it with attention, and with the firm intention of practicing it. We shall quote particularly from this last section.
"[Eucharistic] Catechesis - with its dogmatic, liturgical and moral sections - should not be dry and purely theoretical, but fervent, inspired and practical, illuminating the mind, and leading the will to good resolutions" (Third Synod, V, 3).
The word of God is living and effective
Commenting on the famous hymn to the word of God found in the Letter to the Hebrews, Scalabrini highlights the illuminating virtue of intelligence and conscience - which is a quality of the word of God - but he highlights, above all, its effectiveness, in other words, its capacity to move the will, providing motivation to its mysterious mechanisms, so that it will carry out the will of God. The word of God has the capacity to make saints! Scalabrini had apparently realized what experimental psychology would later say: that the will is moved not so much on the basis of exercise, as on that of motivations, in other words through values.
God’s power working in the soul is infinite and ineffable. As St. Paul says: "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4:12).
The word of God is living: it is the very life of God which in a certain sense animates his word and makes it operative. It is active: it has the divine omnipotence at its disposition, ready to carry out whatever it commands. It is sharper than any two-edged sword: just as a two-edged sword penetrates more deeply, so does the word of God, piercing to the division of soul and spirit: we can say that this instrument of God divides the sensitive soul [= sensitivity] and the spiritual soul into their potential parts, delving into man’s deepest self, and working whatever God wants within the person’s spirit. To the division of joints and marrow: the most intimate folds, the most hidden thoughts, the hidden, subtle motivations that determine the will to act. Discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart: the active, effective word sees everything, makes everything clear in the soul, giving a judgment of discernment, leading the soul back from iniquity to justice and reconciling it with God. "For thy immortal spirit is in all things!" exclaims Solomon. "Therefore thou dost correct little by little those who trespass, and dost remind and warn them of the things wherein they sin, that they may be freed from wickedness and put their trust in thee, 0 Lord" (Wis 12:1-2) (Address 2 to the Third Synod, pp. 236 - 237) .
Jesus devoted himself to the ministry of the word for three years: "I must preach the good news... for I was sent for this purpose" (Lk 4:43). And he says "for this purpose, as if this were the only task of his divine mission.... Jesus then gave the apostles the gift of working miracles as confirmation of their word of truth (First Synod, p. 22).
The Word of God, strenght of will
Original sin caused the most serious wound to the will, which often does not have the strength to do the recognized good and to live a life of holiness. John calls this strength "spirit," and it is the Holy Spirit who "instructs the heart" and "moves from understanding to conscience" and from conscience to the morally good deed, exemplified in the Christian social life.
However, it would serve little purpose if our intellect were illuminated to know the truths of faith and enjoy their fruit, if our will were not moved to embrace them. And the divine word provides for this too in a wonderful and most effective way. "My word is the spirit of life," said the divine Redeemer. It has the virtue not only of changing wills, but of purifying hearts, forming saints: "For the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true" (Eph 5:9). Just as the light of the sun circulates throughout the universe with rapid immediacy in order to communicate its rays and effects - which are the source of life - to all things, so the light of the word of God, full of splendor and fire, and no less rapid, incessantly streaks through the world of souls, infusing warmth and life into every part of it: "His word runs swiftly" (Ps 147). Everything moves and is animated by the word: holy thoughts, chaste affections, generous intentions, magnanimous undertakings, are born and multiply through it; and the Church is crowned with all the flowers and fruit of the most beautiful virtues through it. No word is more effective. Human wisdom has, of course, spoken magnificent sentences and wonderful pages on habits and duties, virtues and passions, their causes and their remedies, and these pages and books contain useful truths, and even flashes of real genius. But why is it that so many beautiful words are incapable of repressing a passion, correcting a vice, exercising a virtue, or reforming - I will not say a people, a city, a family - but even a single soul? Ah, because man’s word is not spirit and life if it is not spoken in the name and through the authority of Jesus Christ. Separated from their eternal principle in other words, the creative Word - you will see the very doctrines of the Gospel immediately struck by sterility, like plants that cannot flower, still less bear fruit, far from the climate in which they were born. Leaving aside the supernatural virtues which are obviously the reserved treasure of the Catholic faith, where will you find instruction capable of forming the good man, my dear ones - the instruction which, after illuminating the spirit, leaves the heart by no means indifferent, which passes from the intelligence to the conscience and directs thoughts and deeds to the faith, which makes children respectful, wives faithful, servants trustworthy, the rich charitable, the poor resigned, merchants upright, craftsmen hardworking? No, you cannot have this wholesome instruction except through the word of God.
Preachers should remember that although their words do of course have the purpose of illuminating the mind, their main task is that of touching hearts ... and the homily should always have a practical goal, even if it is a panegyric (Second Synod, II, 18).
The Word, heard and not read!
"We must first of all listen to the word of God, my beloved children," he had said. And here he returns to the question, with a thought that has been revitalized by post-conciliar reflection: the word of God, which has in itself "the divine efficacy," is the word proclaimed more so than the word read and meditated on. Here he is referring above all to the proclamation in the eucharistic liturgy. Jesus gave the Apostles a message, not a book! The "reason" for this efficacy is worthy of note: "the very special outpourings of his grace" which accompany preaching.
Some people might object, saying that by reading good books we can certainly learn the same truth that comes to us from the preaching of the word of God. Yes, I answer, and there is nothing more praiseworthy; but reading it is something very different from hearing it, because the written word does not have the hidden virtue, the divine efficacy, of the preached word. The reason is that the Lord accompanies the preaching of his teaching with very special outpourings of his grace. This is why Jesus Christ describes those who listen to his word, not those who read it, as blessed:
"Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God" (Lk 11:28). Just read the stories of the Church and examine daily experience, and you will see that conversions rarely, very rarely take place through good reading, but very often through the preached word. The very conversion of the world is owed not to the reading of holy books, but to the preaching of what is contained in the holy books.
The spiritual life, with faith as its principle, communicated by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, does not come to us except through the ministry of the same Apostles and their successors. Indeed, Jesus Christ did not tell the Apostles to go out into the world and tell men that he would speak inwardly to each of them in their heart; nor yet that they should go out into the world, and, after writing down the facts of his life and his teachings, offer men this book, leaving each of them to himself to draw from it the truths that he had revealed to them and that they ignore at the peril of their eternal salvation. Instead of saying this, Jesus Christ told them: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mk 14:15-16).
Attention and respect while listening
The moral section is fully supported by theology. Having seen the analogy between the table of the word and the eucharistic table, it follows that attention is needed, because while the preacher speaks from outside, Jesus speaks from within and from heaven! It also follows that the priest and his word, clothed in his personal gifts, even holiness, are secondary to the proclamation, which is always made by Jesus Christ. The energy of the word is owed wholly to the Spirit. The present extract contains a kind of challenge to pay more attention and respect to an inadequate instrument in order to receive a supplementary lesson from the "Master who is within" - a recognizable reference to Father Miraglia, who had caused a schism in Piacenza partly through his skill as a preacher. The description of the gospel word as "a letter sent to you by your heavenly Father" is taken from St. Augustine, and the context is one of liturgical celebration.
It should be heard with attention, and, in the words of the holy doctor Augustine, just as we use great care when the body of Christ is distributed to us, making sure that none of it falls to the floor, we must take similar care with the divine word so that none of it is lost and falls from our hearts while we think or talk of other things. Nor is this a vain scruple, because (concludes the saint with words that make us tremble) someone who listens negligently to the word of God is no less guilty than someone who lets the least particle of the body of Christ fall to the ground. Then too, we should not forget, dearly beloved, that while the preacher speaks to us from the pulpit or altar, Jesus Christ speaks to us from heaven; the sound of words strikes our ears from outside, but the Master is within; and we must open the ears of our spirit to his word, even more than the ears of our bodies. He makes us understand in a hidden but very clear way what he wants of us. In the second place, the word of God should be heard with respect. So, my dear ones, away with idle curiosity, the spirit of criticism, immodesty in dress, gossip, signs of impatience or boredom. No pretensions of sublime concepts, elegant phrases, ornate clothes. When our Lord walked the roads of Palestine in poor clothes, was he not the same God who appeared one day on Mount Tabor, shining with light and mantled in glory? Was he, before that, less worthy of respect? So, too, when the priest’s words are presented to you in poor clothes, what does it matter when you can recognize Jesus Christ in them? The gospel word is like a letter sent to you by your heavenly Father. Now, a loving son does not stop to see whether the paper is good or bad, or the letters clear or smudged; he hurries to see what his father has to tell him. So too, in the case of sacred preaching, attention should be given not to the person who is speaking or the way he speaks, but solely to the truths he proclaims. Then your heart is bound to be seized by the most loving and deep respect.
The Word of God must be put into practice
Two thoughts are highlighted, both leading in the same direction: the word must not only be understood, but also loved - or, to use his felicitous expression, "transformed into affection" - for love is also the best way to understand it, as well as to translate it into practice. The word must also be meditated on. Indeed, for Scalabrini meditation in fact brings light to the conscience and force to the will - which is like saying that meditation produces "the firm intention to put the word into practice": it makes us become "saints"!
Lastly, the word of God must be heard with the firm intention of putting it into practice. For what is its purpose, dearly beloved? That of making us good Christians, Christians in mind, Christians in heart, Christians in deed. Should it make us Christians in mind? Then we must meditate on it. Hearing the word of God and then not thinking further about it is, according to the Apostle St. James, like someone who looks at his own face in the mirror and passes on. What impression is he left with? None. Only with reflection does man learn to know what he is and what he should be, to think and judge as a Christian in all circumstances. Should the word of God make us Christians in heart and deed? Then it must be transformed into affection. Not only must we understand the truth. We must love it; and not only must we love it, we must put it into practice: speaking the truth in charity (Eph 4:11), as St. Paul teaches. The sign that the divine word has borne its fruit in us are our deeds, because if faith without charity is dead, charity without deeds is not charity. When God speaks, he lets us know what we must do, but at the same time he makes us put into practice what we know.