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"The Field Hospital of Twitter Followers"

Alessandro Gnocchi
Mario Palmaro

It is not necessary to be that old to have an idea of what a Cronicon was and, perhaps, also to have glanced at one. It was the diary in which every priest wrote down the noteworthy events of the parish of whose cure he had been entrusted. Some of them shone like literary jewels, because the old priests, after finishing the breviary, did not have to watch TV or be on Facebook or Twitter. They prayed, they studied, they read, and if they had a talent to write, they used it in the daily chronicles of their flock. In any case, each in his own way, handed down a keepsake of the memorable events in their parish, among which they never missed noting how many communions they had distributed.

Today, instead, one counts the number of followers on Twitter. But it is one thing to count the communions of the flock that one knows sheep by sheep. It is another thing to count the clicks of an unknown world. It is one thing to unite oneself to the Mystical Body of Christ feeding bodily of his Body and Blood, and another thing to feel that one is part of a community without the necessity to show one’s own body.

The emphasis on ten million followers reached on Twitter by Pope Francis does not contribute to holding the two levels of communication as separate. On the contrary, it results in substituting the concept of conversion for the concept of success, the one thing that the world is able to understand and to promote. The means of communication that are naturally worldly, are not able to permit one to deal with things that involve hard work like a radical change of life. Everything must be easy and within everyone’s reach: if the Catholic Church wants to be there it must become a phenomenon that is able to be dealt with like all the others. The pax mediatica does not extend beyond the confines and the laws of the media-sphere.

But the idea that for the Catholic it is permitted to have a peaceful rapport with the world is an illusion that one cannot even define as charitable. It is founded on the conviction that there would be no hostility from the world in its confrontations with Christ. Even more, the world on its own would listen to the proclamation of the Gospel that, up to today, the inadequacy of the Church and her Tradition had rendered impossible. This misunderstanding rises from the overshoot of the classical distinction of two concepts of the world that live together in all the Gospels and in the Tradition. There is one world that is the object of the love of God that should by loved by the Christian. But there is also the word “world” used by Christ to refer to the kingdom of the Enemy that has in the rebellious angel its undisputed prince. A Catholicism that forgets this nature of the world is no longer, strictly speaking, a true Catholicism. It becomes a religion of “good will”, destined to be dissolved on TV in an painless way, perfect for one evening performance with high ratings.

“The dialogue of the Church with the world of which today we hear so much talk”, wrote the Dominican Roger Thomas Calmel in 1967, “can never be that of two people speaking to each other on a plane of parity, in whatever way one thinks of the world. The first things that are striking in the encounter between the Church and the world is the transcendence of the Church and her irreducibility….The result of this is that the encounter between the Church and the world can never be like two friendly companions who begin a dialogue as equals, on a summer night, under the trees in a public garden. The only authentic and saving encounter of the Church with the world is that of the Confessors without stain, of the inflexible Doctors, of the faithful Virgins and of the invincible Martyrs, covered in the red tunic colored by the blood of the Lamb….We must separate ourselves from the world when we are not able to do as the world wishes without offending Christ.”

These are words that sound strange, especially if one is preparing to fit out a field hospital where one does not deal with subtleties. But, even when one treats someone with first aid, even more if one does it for souls, it is necessary to pay attention to the place in which one raises the camp tents. Not all of the campgrounds are equal. Concerning this the Thomist doctrine of the Three Cities comes to our aid. There is the city of God, the Church, essentially supernatural, without sin although made up of sinners. Her fundamental task is to proclaim the Gospel, to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice, to save souls. Obviously this does not mean that the Church not does not bring benefit to the building of civilization, and therefore there is no opposition between the essential and primary mission of the Church, the salus animarum, and the promotion of a more human civilization.

The second is the city of Satan, made up of the three concupiscences that man carries within himself and from the action of Satan. This city is in perpetual development, and works again and again without pause its assaults on two different levels. Above all, on the religious level, in the most intimate essence of man, through its false priests and its false dogmas. And then on the level of political society, where it dedicates itself to shape customs, to change laws, to transform the authority that governs citizens.

Finally, there is the human city, in which cultures and civilizations succeed one another as they unwind through the ages. This city has organization, laws, customs, and authority, all of which are better or worse according to the influence exercised by the other two cities. The city of men enters constantly into the sphere of attraction of the two supreme cities, suffering the imperious advance of the prince of this world. Nevertheless, the city of Satan never manages to impose itself in the whole city of man. In some little, out of the way church there will be always be a priest who celebrates the Mass in a holy way; in a little apartment a solitary old woman with unshakeable faith will say the Rosary; in a hidden corner of a House of Divine Providence a Sister will look after a baby considered by all as having no worth. Even when all seems lost, the Church, the City of God, continues to radiate its light on the City of Man.

A Catholic raised in the shade of this doctrine, simple and efficacious, would have to know that the persecution of the world in confrontations with the Church is unjust, but understandable. In fact, it is impossible for an act of making peacce to come about. It would not be other than by an incessant, dramatic and universal request to conform oneself to the man of the Cross: an unpardonable affront and an incomprehensible request for the prideful modern world.

But, if even this continues to be the nature of the Church, one cannot say that the task has been carried out efficaciously. There is at least a well grounded fear that the number of followers on Twitter is inversely proportional to the strength and the clarity of the message. A serious preaching on the Last Things, a threatening description of a Hell that is anything but empty, the painful highway that passes through the narrow gate, the tartness of dogma, the rigor of reason: these do not seem to be material for many clicks of approval. Catholics, believing or not believing, prefer by far to play around with a “happy” idea of mercy, almost as if everyone could continue to be as one is, and to do what one does without ever having to give an account for one’s acts. A similar conception of mercy is able to reheat the heart of a don Rodrigo, certainly not the heart of the Innominato. And it is certainly more Tweetable than that, for example, which Padre Pio used to say: “I have more fear of the mercy of God than his justice. The justice of God is well known; one knows what are its laws that govern it, and, if one sins against and offends the divine justice, one can make an appeal to mercy, but if one abuses mercy, to whom does one have recourse?” And yet, one cannot say that Padre Pio did not have a large following. But his success walked along paths different from the paths of the Internet. Who walks with the one who is suffering learns how to suffer; who goes along with a blogger learns how to blog.

The temptation of an easy Christianity, without work and without sacrifice, seems made to measure for men who have been bred, brought up in a world in which even the other pillar of formation, the school, for ten years has been undermined…..
The demolition of the little platform on which stood the teacher’s desk has ended up distorting the normal relationship between the teacher and the student. The “tu” substituted for the “Lei” has made of the teacher a simple peer to the learner. The downgrading of formal language in every day speech has brought about a change in the contents of what is taught. The idea that the instruction and education at an early age of every student was already sufficient has led to the conviction that it is enough as it is and to the negation of any necessity to improve a student’s education.

The four axes along which moved the devastation of the school are replicated in the form, content and the method by which the Catholic liturgy was reformed. It is enough to think of the destruction of the altar rails and the transfer of the altars into the nave in the form of a simple table, the priest turned to the people instead of turned to God as the sort of a simple presider of an assembly, the repudiation of the Latin language for that of the vernacular, the irruption of the so-called theology of the Pascal Mystery that treats every man as definitively saved, sufficient in itself and therefore in the condition to not have to adore God, but to celebrate the feast itself. Perhaps it is not by chance if, at the origin of the revolution in school education, we find a priest.

In a world, as much in civil as in religious life, that languishes because of the lack of sacrifice and reverence, it is necessary to restore Someone and Something to sacrifice oneself for and to revere. Benedict XVI had tried to do this by restoring the Cross at the center of the altar and Communion received kneeling and on the tongue. This was not a scene at a field hospital, but touched directly souls because it was the fruit of the knowledge that man is a rational, and therefore liturgical, creature. Man is a creature that, thanks to the gestures and words given as a gift, and therefore irreformable, is able to elevate himself towards God and escape from the demonic. In the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, they explain how the devil does not have the capacity to know the thoughts of men because he is of a different nature, but that he can guess at their thoughts by the movements of their bodies. From this comes the importance of bodily comportment and the veneration that Catholicism has always nourished for the one who makes perfect gestures creating a ring of inviolable purity and performing an exorcism intended for the one who stands near him.

All of this demands hard work, demands discipline and ascetical practices, demands that one stand close to the Cross and fulfill divine justice cooperating with the passion of Christ. This arises from what exists in the life of man in its most dramatic form: sin, understood first as an offense to God and only then as an injury to creatures. But if, as the theology dominant today teaches, man is saved due to the sole fact that he is in the world, if sin is reduced to a social act, if it is not necessary to bring reason into line with a truth wrapped in mystery, the hard work no longer makes sense.

After such a change in its horizon, the liturgy, culmen et fons of the Christian life, assumes a purely social value, it speaks of man to man, and it is transformed into a social matter. It is not by chance that today the homilies of the Pope are collected and transmitted with an ardor perhaps excessive while his celebrations of Mass slide into second place. This is a typical modern tic. While there was a time when the splendor of the liturgy made one see a sermon, however brief, as a somewhat bothersome interruption, today the accent placed on the sermon makes one feel
as if any claim that the liturgy may make is somehow intrusive.

The nakedness of the discourse has the upper hand over the veil of the liturgy. But the sermon, on its own, just because it is naked, is not capable of gathering what is essential. The condition of the man who has lost the state of grace with the sin of Adam renders him unfit for such a task. Man, by himself, is no longer able to perceive the ultimate meaning of things and for this reason the liturgy, until it surrendered to the charms of enlightenment, always assisted him, re-clothing the material matter that he has before his eyes. The veiling becomes in this way the visible sign of the nimbus of grace and holiness, become visible to the eyes of man. The purpose of veiling is not to hide an object from sight to make it a secret. The material aspect of things that are veiled is recognized, but alone does not say anything about their ulterior nature. To say it is instead the veil that covers them. And, if the veil is parted and in the same way the other veils are parted that are superimposed, there is one more veil that one encounters: The Host itself, as one popular Eucharistic hymn sings: “under the veils that the grains of wheat make up”.

Perhaps it is this splendor, humanly useless, that is what is urgently needed in a world that has stopped using its intelligence the day on which it lost its sense of shame.

[First published in Il Foglio. Translated by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla]