Church Communion and Evangelisation

Make the parish shine with the colours of the rainbow


Carlo Santoro

The author, a priest from the diocese of Lecce, has been parish priest of Arnesano, a small community in the province of Salerno, Italy, for the past seven years.  Taking the popular religiosity as his starting point and inspired by the spirituality of unity of the Focolare, he has transformed the traditional Christmas novena into a  period of evangelization..
Being One: You were still in the seminary when you got to know the Focolare Movement.  What struck you most about it?
I was in my fifth year of High School when a priest invited me to live a phrase of the New Testament with him: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Rom 13. 8).  I accepted the suggestion because it seemed a very beautiful thing to me to base my Christian life on the Word rather than on other practices such as particular prayers or devotions.  I never remotely imagined what this simple suggestion would end up bringing about in my life.  From that day 25 years ago which I remember and celebrate every year as the day of my encounter with God, living the gospel has completely changed my life.
What I experienced personally can be summed up in what the apostle Peter says in his first letter: “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God” (1Pet 1:23).  What struck me about the style of life that was being proposed to me was that it produced simplicity and profundity. 
Without anyone telling me to, I began to pray, and discovered that everything that I had learned in my five years in the seminary was drawn into a new harmony around the person of Jesus, no longer seen as an abstract idea but experienced as a living person who was acting in my life.
My vocation to follow Jesus also became clearer to me.  But without doubt the most overwhelming effect, for me who was very timid, was the birth of a new family-like atmosphere among those who very quickly became attracted to the new life that I had come to know through that priest.  What grew up among us was a relationship that seemed to mirror the first Christian community.  It soon brought us to placing both our spiritual and material goods in common.  Clearly this style of life had a considerable influence on my priestly formation, so much so that with some of my friends this experience of communion continues to this day.
After we became priests we were able to set up house together giving life to that which Chiara Lubich calls a “focolare”: a family like that of Nazareth, whose one rule is reciprocal love that generates the presence of Jesus promised to two or more united in His name (cf. Matt. 18:20). 
Being One: Here in the south, perhaps more than in other parts of Italy, the idea of the parish priest living in the parish is very strong.  How did the parishioners react to your decision to live with other priests and therefore not reside in the parish?
In the beginning they found it difficult to understand.  Very soon, however, they came to realise that the roots of my priesthood for them were to be found in a shared life among diocesan priests.  Not only did they not lose anything, but they gained much.  Now they are no longer surprised that, at times, I must leave the parish a little earlier in order to prepare dinner for the others.  In fact, very often now they bring gifts not only for me but also, as they say, “for the rest of the family”!
Some years ago, at the request of some young people in the parish, I organised a meeting for them with the priests of my focolare.  They visited our house and were struck by its harmonious simplicity.  And we were literally overwhelmed by their intriguing questions firstly about the practical aspects of our life, and then more and more about our relationship together.  What emerged for them in the course of the meeting was that what we were trying to live together as priests, sharing a common life in communion together, was the true novelty of the gospel.
One day a woman who was getting on in years asked to speak to me and during the meeting she told me about her life.  She came from a family of believers and received formation in a very renowned religious institute, and up to then had felt she was a good Christian.  ‘But’ – she told me – ‘this “new” Christianity that you preach is a real revolution’!
It wasn’t that I had done anything extraordinary.  Sure, I had prepared the homily as best I could and prepared the liturgy trying to make sure that the beauty and harmony of God would radiate.  But it was the life born from the spirituality of unity, lived at home with the other priests, that entered into the hearts of many.  There is such a thirst for this life.
I tried to make sure never to lose any opportunity to sow this “new” way of being Christians.  I did so through homilies, catechesis, the traditional feast days and the processions, school camps and children’s activities.  For example, I remember once, in the month of May, we had an initiative with the children of “discovering” how Mary dresses. Every morning before school we met in the parish to attach a particular garment onto an icon of the Virgin Mary.  Upon this garment was written a Word of the Gospel. The idea was that we would then go out and try to live that word during the day in order to offer to Mary on the following day at least one concrete experience, written on a piece of paper, of what we had lived of that Word of the Gospel.
After only a few days this moment in the morning became for many an appointment not to be missed.  The box at the feet of Mary soon contained many new ‘lived Words’ and we also, like Mary, became “clothed with the Word”.
Being One: Tell us about the Christmas novena experience?
In November of 2000, wishing to prepare the community to celebrate the second millennium of the incarnation, I wanted to choose a theme that would speak of the ‘newness’ that Jesus brought on earth with his coming.  No matter how much I tried, I failed to find anything particularly interesting to develop during the novena.  The novena itself was something that the pastoral council had for some time organised as an opportunity to give the proper place to Jesus, who had been evicted by all the consumerism, at Christmas.
One day, however, while listening to something Chiara Lubich said in commenting on the  newness that the Gospel lived can bring into every aspect of life, I got an idea.  I thought, yes, nothing remains outside the Gospel: all the aspects of life such as money, work, evangelization, prayer, care of one’s, health, the environment, study, communication – all of these concrete aspects of life become transformed in love, illuminated in a new and “revolutionary” manner.
Yes, I had found it!  Showing how these seven aspects of life are transformed in love could be the guiding principle of the novena.  It seemed that Jesus was saying to me: “I came on earth to colour it with the colours of Heaven”.  I immediately communicated the idea to the other priests who supported it.
However, I was unsure how to go about it.  I began looking for material I could use but I couldn’t find anything that would be easily understood, something that would fit ordinary everyday language.  In the end I said: “it’s up to me to write something, drawing from the fountain of light and wisdom that comes from the life of communion that I’m sharing with other priests”.
And so, every day, entrusting my hands and heart to Jesus, I allowed him, in the style of a personal letter, to reach my parishioners.
In order to be certain that every page was an expression of His light, I always reviewed it with someone, so that the presence of Jesus, promised among two or more united in his name, would help me remove what was superfluous and add what had been omitted.
One letter each day, then, addressed to the believing community, to explain how every aspect of our daily lives acquired its true meaning in the incarnation.
So economy has changed face, becoming no longer the art of earning but rather the art of giving.
Evangelisation is not a “constant advertising” by priests, sisters and at most some lay volunteers, but an irresistible desire to “proclaim to the world” the joy of having a Father who loves us.
Prayer too has assumed a new dimension: no longer repeating formulas by rote or mumbling prayers, but a profound need of intimacy with Him who provides everything and to whom everything returns.
How we treat our body has also been transformed.  It’s no longer a question of appearances, but rather a real respect for what we have been given to us in order to be able to reach out concretely to our brothers and sisters.
Beauty too is part of this “Copernican revolution” brought about by the arrival of Jesus.  Instead of an exaggerated attention to everything one sees, with Jesus we search for that true harmony established by God right from the beginning of creation in everything and above all in us.
The whole area of studies too has abandoned its cocoon of a knowledge displayed ostentatiously, in order to acquire the wings of wisdom to soar to where the truth resides.
Finally, the whole area of communication is also new in Jesus.   Perhaps, up to now communication has often been mostly identified with gossip, but now it is transformed into a vehicle for the circulation of a life that is authentic, one born from reciprocal love and one that causes a continual youthfulness to blossom in us and among us.
Every day, I focussed on one of these aspects.  I was amazed at the results.  As the days passed an increasing number of parishioners came to me to tell me how they had come to realise that the Gospel touches all aspects of life and makes them new and beautiful.
The “Jesus-letters”, as we called them, ran for nine days.  They became an important daily meeting point.  People took on a commitment to put each point into practice. For instance, following the letter about the communion of goods, some of the parishioners brought me a big hoard of money saying: “we had put this aside for Christmas gifts to ourselves, but we have understood that this year the gift must be offered to others”.  On the day of the letter about harmony and beauty, a Carmelite sister said to me: “today I’ve been doing everything out of love to help Jesus make the world more beautiful, beginning with my convent”.
Being One: How come the novena ended up the subject of a publication?
Every evening, during the liturgy of the novena, we used to read the “Jesus-letters” in Church.  Immediately some people asked for copies in order to be able to re-read them calmly at home.  Soon the letters began to circulate among others, also via Internet.  In this way the “Jesus-letters” (as everyone was now calling them) came into the hands of a Paulist Sister.  She was very impressed both by the form as well as by the content and passed them to her editors.  They immediately showed great interest and, to my great amazement, they proposed publishing the entire work.
How could I not take up the opportunity to “shout from the housetops” what I myself had had heard from others and what had changed my life!
Being One: Did anything change in the parish? Did you receive any echoes from those who read them?
There’s no such thing as a magic wand in pastoral activity! And I certainly don’t delude myself into thinking that a novena would be sufficient to change a parish, but it certainly gave a strong impulse towards a change that is now taking place in the parish community.   I see people moving from an anonymous faith, based on tradition, to a more joyful Christianity, lived as a body.
I’ve noticed that people often refer to what they lived during the period of the Christmas novena.  They do so at confession, or during spiritual direction and in parish group discussions.  So I can see that it certainly left a mark on the lives of many and on the community as a whole.
I received a number of lovely e-mails after the novena.  I’ll read you extracts from two of them.
The first is from some girls who wanted to share with me their way of using these “letters”:
“Your letters are extremely original!  It is certainly a unique method, one that is within everyone’s range and enables us to understand better the mystery of the incarnation.
We spent a good deal of time reflecting on them.  Then we came up with the idea that we should share them with others.  But how?  It was the novena itself, as it was conceived, that gave us the idea.  We decided that we would deliver the letters, each day, to every family in the parish.  And so, each day we copied them, put them in envelopes, and then went from house to house delivering them, without being seen.
Keeping up the commitment wasn’t easy, but in spite of the work, the snow, our other commitments in the parish, and the embarrassment and fear of being seen, the letters arrived, punctually, in every house.
In the beginning there were various reactions: some didn’t know where they came from, others asked who was writing to them and others asked why they were receiving them.  However, (and we learned this later), more and more people started to look forward to getting this letter every day.  Many became quite enthusiastic to find out what was the proposal contained in the “Jesus-letter” for that day.
When it became clear, at the end, that it was we who had acted as “postmen” for Jesus, they thanked us for helping them to live that Christmas well.  And for us too, this undertaking to try and help others became a very original way to prepare well for Christmas.”
The second one comes from the Provincial House of the Pauline sisters.  A sister, happy to have used the little book in her community with the other sisters, wrote to me: “Thank you because you have helped us to pray and to love one another more, so that love and peace in the world will grow.  In the name of the Lord I encourage you to continue.”
Being One: In a word, what impression has this experience left within you?
The conviction that we all have the possibility of having Wisdom, because, if we love we participate in the Light of God.  We only need a little courage to find new ways, that at times appear unexpectedly, in order to give to many what we have freely received.

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