Saint John Calabria
October 8, 2004
As I am speaking with you today, there is an authentic autographed note of Saint John Calabria being auctioned on the internet. The highest bid at the moment is $150.00 US. For those of you who are computer literate it might be interesting for you to go to eBay and read the description of this offering. Whatever else I cannot think that this is in the spirit of your saint whose birthday and canonization we celebrate today.
There are almost one thousand sites that deal with your Founder, the bulk of which are in Italian, of course, and a few in rather stilted English translations of the Italian sites. The bulk of them speak of St. John’s simplicity, his incredible generosity, and his willingness to make acts of faith in those who had often lost all faith in themselves and in whom all others had lost faith. I am sure you know his life far better than I do although I have had the privilege of assisting with the English translation of Father Peter’s book and also the constitutions of the “women servants” as you were originally called.
Who among us is not impressed with the young boy who had to go to work at the death of his father and who continued private tuition toward his desired priesthood? We can only begin to imagine what this experience taught him about what would be the life’s work of most of his peers. Again, how much he must have learned during his two years of military service when he rubbed shoulders with soldiers from all over Italy and began to experience first hand the needs of not just his part of the country but of the whole nation. We know how his mission to street children began with the taking in of one child who had run away from a gypsy encampment, as the story goes. The aged and infirm would also play a special part in his mission as a “lighthouse” or “beacon of light” to the whole world, the inscription on his tombstone.
There are so many dimensions of his life that we might celebrate, but I want to speak with you today about one particular expression of his, the mission he gave to both the men and women’s communities which he founded, and indeed to the association of lay people who would work with him. It is this:
To prove to the world that Divine Providence exists, that God is not a stranger, but that He is a father, He thinks of us on condition that we think of Him and do our part which is that of seeking first and foremost the Kingdom of God and His Justice. (Matthew 25)
Every word of this mission that Don Calabria gave to you is of even more significance today then when he gave them to you. Let me try to make my point. In a very real sense this mission is encapsulated in that popular expression, “God helps those who help themselves.” Our part is to make real among humanity the charity and justice which are God’s will for all of us. No matter our caste, creed, or community Jesus came that we all might have abundant life.
St. John died just at that point when our Catholic scripture scholars were becoming part of the mammoth new understandings of those documents. Until about 1950 there had been reluctance on the part of Catholics to join in the efforts of our Protestant brothers and sisters in looking at these documents and plumbing their depths. We know more now about the context in which the scriptures were written and how special was Jesus’ insight into the reign of God among us.
What was it that Jesus preached and St. John surely had in mind when he gave his commissions to you? Jesus preached that God was Lover and Friend and not an Enforcer. Jesus preached that God’s nature was loving kindness and his purpose was compassion and justice or charity and righteousness as some of your documents put it. But what do these words actually mean and what do we know about them now that we did not know fifty years ago at the death of your founder?
What we know now is that handouts are not enough. We must give people “hands up” if we are to treat them with charity and justice in today’s world. We know what it is that people need to live an abundant life today. They want and need food, clothing, and shelter. Without those they are not able to live humanly. But all the research and evidence also says that people want some leisure for reflection, education to get jobs and ongoing education to keep them, and some part in the making of decisions which will affect their lives. That means access to the political, social, and economic possibilities of their time and place.
Without working with our people to secure and insure these possibilities, we are being neither charitable nor just. We should not be making decisions for our people but with them and we need to begin this at the earliest possible stages of their human growth and development.
Some of you have heard me ask, for example, for a balwadi in Peti Chua based on the Montessori Method. Maria Montessori developed her educational principles precisely for the poorest of the poor in Trastevere to help them to learn to think, to take responsibility for their lives, to give them at least an equal playing field in terms of their more affluent peers. It was not long before this superb method got co-opted by the wealthy to the professor’s despair but she proved that these children could learn to be loving, caring, generous, and response-able. What better beginning can we give to any child?
Your Founder says that when we are doing our part to make the reign of God real among us, the world sees and experiences God as loving, caring, Life-Giver, which is what a true parent is. God becomes real for us, alive among us, and familiar with all our wants and needs. God is then not a stranger among us but a welcome companion. The first part of the mission cannot be accomplished without the second. Your Founder knew that and made that insight his gift to you.
For so many people today their concept of God is more of a Divine Bungler than a caring Life-Giver. St. John lived through two world wars. But since his time we have lived with many, many more and indeed today, depending on how one counts them there are nine to nineteen conflicts of one sort or another going on. For many God is a stranger. Despair seems to be replacing hope on many fronts. Sometimes one can almost taste the sadness in people’s hearts.
Today calls you to look again at the spirit of your Founder. He does not ask you to imitate him in any kind of slavish adherence to those works which he undertook. He asks you to look long and hard at what will make for sustainable, integral human development of yourselves and those whom you are committed to serve. In that and in that alone, will you be beacons of hope, lighthouses to your world, in your time and place as St. John was in his. Amen.