Archive | March, 2009

Verso l’Alto- Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

13 Mar

In the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, one is never far from mountains. The district owes its name to a contraction of an Italian phrase, “ai piedi del monte”-“at the base of  the mountain.”  (1) Turin is nestled against the northern bank of the Po River, whose headwaters are in the Pian del Re on the slope of Monte Viso, 56 kilometres south of the Piedmontese capital. (2) In the shadow of the Alps, Turin has a long and storied history. Nearby, the Carthaginian army leader Hannibal invaded Roman territory in 218 B.C. (3) The Holy Shroud of Turin, which was brought to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist by the royal House of Savoy in 1578, draws devotees to the city. (4) Turin took its place as a major intellectual and political centre by the 19th century. It is the birthplace of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, a proponent of the unification of Italy that by 1870 had resulted in the seizure of the Papal States. (5) Piedmont then gave rise to a successful automobile industry, with the foundation of the automakers Fiat and Lancia.  (6) Economic prosperity coincided with the predominance of liberal ideas in politics and in the media. Gazzetta Piemontese, a pro-republican and pro-national unification newspaper, was founded in Turin in 1867 and was bought in 1895 by Alfredo Frassati, who changed its name to La Stampa. (7)

For historical, political, and economic reasons, Turin retains its fame to the present day. Its geographical setting has also increased Turin’s standing as a world-class centre of sports- the city hosted the twentieth Olympic Winter Games in 2006 and is home to Football Clubs Torino and Juventus. (8) Turin was also home to a young man, Pier Giorgio Frassati, son of Alfredo Frassati, who was largely unknown except by his family and friends. Pier Giorgio Frassati was handsome and physically fit. He was  proficient skier, swimmer, and mountain climber who belonged to the Italian Alpine Club, and he often led groups of university students on climbing trips to nearby peaks. On June 7, 1925, a companion photographed Pier Giorgio ascending a face in the Val di Lanzo. He is shown with both feet wedged into footholds and both hands gripping the rock above, poised to pull his powerful body upward. “Al piedi del monte”- “at the base of the mountain”- he is gazing toward the heavens. On the photograph, Pier Giorgio Frassati later wrote another Italian phrase, “Verso l’alto,” which translates into English as “toward the top.” (9) That had become Pier Giorgio’s motto, and was as much about a look toward Heaven, the ultimate goal, as it was a testament to a well-developed life of prayer and to an acute sense of social responsibility. The climb during which Pier Giorgio Frassati was photographed in the Val di Lanzo was his last. He died less than a month later, but in his short life he strove for the summit both physically and spiritually and is an example for our time, particularly for youth, of a grateful response to God’s universal call to sainthood: “Verso l’alto!”

While Pier Giorgio Frassati had little personal personal celebrity, his family had become distinguished by the late nineteenth century. Pier Giorgio’s father, Alfredo, was a successful entrepreneur. At twenty-six years of age, Alfredo Frassati bought Gazzetta Piemontese, thereafter named La Stampa– “The Press”- and then became its editor-in-chief. (10) Owing in part to the regionalized political and social organization of Italy, little newsprint was read far beyond the city of its origin, and the majority of Italian newspapers were not daily but were weekly or monthly publications. La Stampa differed from this trend. Founded as a daily newspaper, it rapidly became distributed and read throughout Italy and by Italians living abroad. La Stampa was known for its informative and concise articles, and it was one of the first Italian newspapers to print correspondence from readers, an innovation that evolved into the letters-to-the-editor sections in contemporary publications. (11)

Alfredo Frassati was highly skilled in a wide array of disciplines. Prior to his entry into journalism, he had earned a law degree from the University of Turin. In 1913, his political involvement led to his appointment to the Senate of the Kingdom of Italy. At that time, he was the youngest Italian senator. (12) Remarkably, Alfredo Frassati maintained his political neutrality as editor of La Stampa in a period of heightened instability and factionalism in Italy’s government. He was a liberal republican with strong opinions, but Alfredo Frassati was prudent in expressing himself, especially in print. His political views meshed well with his approach to religion. Although he had been baptized and raised a Catholic, he had lost his faith in his youth. (13) In matters of both political and religious belief, Alfredo Frassati lived as a practical agnostic; his faith was of little importance to him. However, he was respectful in dealing with his political opponents and allies alike, and refused to author or to print in La Stampa any aricles that attacked the Catholic Church. (14)

In 1898, Alfredo Frassati married a painter, Adelaide Ametis. Their marriage was troubled almost from the start. (15) The couple had two children. Their first, Pier Giorgio, was born on Holy Saturday, April 6, 1901. A daughter, Luciana, followed on August 18, 1902. (16) Alfredo Frassati’s busy career often kept him away from his family. Pier Giorgio began to receive his primary education at home in 1907. (17) Adelaide Ametis helped with her children’s schooling, but Luciana and Pier Giorgio felt the frequent absences of their father. Pier Giorgio was under constant pressure to follow in Alfredo’s footsteps and eventually to take ownership of La Stampa. Luciana was arguably more free to discern her life’s vocation, since her parents’ expectations of her, as influenced by the culture of the time, were more relaxed than for their firstborn son. (18) From his early childhood, though, Pier Giorgio developed aptitudes and interests that increasingly differed from those of Alfredo Frassati. Pier Giorgio and Luciana also shared a deep spirituality that confounded both their parents, in particular their father.

According to Luciana Frassati, Alfredo’s incomprehension of religious matters was less of an impediment to familial harmony than Adelaide’s agitated character. While Alfredo was recognized in public and in private for his honesty, statesmanship, and moral fortitude- all qualities of a great servant of one’s country, Luciana sensed that her mother’s public displays of devotion were not replicated in her more hidden actions:

Our father’s agnosticism hurt me much less than the Ametis household’s ‘piety’. We never heard a word against the Church from him, whereas our mother’s hypercritical temperament might have created an impression of [anticlericalism]. In her own family, nothing was looked at from a really Catholic point of view. Our mother and her sister, who would not have missed Sunday Mass or days of obligation for anything, were never seen by us to visit the Blessed Sacrament or to go to Benediction. They never went to Communion or were seen to kneel and say a prayer. (19)

In fairness toward Adelaide Ametis, many of Luciana’s criticisms against her mother were for traits not uncommon in the most faithful Catholics of the early twentieth century. For example, to partake of the Eucharist regularly was novel, although people might have attended Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation. Pope St. Pius X, who led the Church from 1903 to 1914, was inspired by a movement toward frequent reception of Reconciliation and of the Holy Eucharist that had begun to spread within religious communities. This new sacramental appreciation in the Church met skepticism among local superiors in some Orders, who were wary of lessened reverence for the Lord’s Supper that might have resulted from too frequent reception of the Eucharist. Undaunted, Pope St. Pius X made significant liturgical reforms and gave the Church’s official sanction to daily Communion for those who wished to receive it. (20) Few laypeople were immediately affected by the changes. On the other hand, Pier Giorgio and Luciana had been taught about the value of a close relationship with Jesus Christ through the Blessed Sacrament. (21) Such devotion was almost unique outside of religious congregations at the time. Thus, the argument of Basilian Father Thomas Rosica concerning Pier Giorgio’s deep faith and influence on future generations  is all the more persuasive that “Pier Giorgio listened to the invitation of Christ: ‘Come and follow Me.’ He anticipated by at least fifty years the Church’s understanding and new direction on the role of the laity.” (22)

Nearly forty years after the death of Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the  Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, was the first document of the Council to be promulgated. The Council’s attention to the Eucharisitic celebration led logically to its definition of the Church’s mission, as in the Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes:

The mission of the Church… is fulfilled by that activity which makes her, obeying the command of Christ and influenced by the grace and love of the Holy Spirit, fully present to all… in order that by the example of her life and by her preaching, by the Sacraments and other means of grace, she may lead [all] to the faith, the freedom, and the peace of Christ, that… there may lie open before them a firm and free road to full participation in the mystery of Christ. (23)

Apostolicam Actuositatem, Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, had declared that “in the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission.” (24) This document then expounded on the function of different groups of laypersons. The Decree’s treatment of the role of children, “according to their ability… true living witnesses of Christ among their companions,” (25) and of youth stemmed from the example of young modern figures like Pier Giorgio Frassati, who in a special way carried Our Lord, the “Light of Nations,” (26) to the world in which they lived. Apostolicam Actuositatem includes this reflection on the vocation of young persons in the Church:

[They] exert a very important influence in modern society… Their heightened influence… demands of them a proportionate apostolic activity, but their natural qualities also fit them for this activity. As they become more conscious of their own personalities, they are impelled by a zest for life and a ready eagerness to assume their own responsibility, and they yearn to play their part in social and cultural life. If this zeal is imbued with the spirit of Christ and is inspired by obedience and love for the Church, it can be expected to be very fruitful. They should become the first to carry on the apostolate directly to other young persons, concentrating their apostolic efforts within their own circle, according to the needs of the social environment in which they live. (27)

Those words aptly describe the life of Pier Giorgio Frassati. Beginning six decades before Vatican II, Frassati, the young layman, lived the Christian vocation recognized by that Ecumenical Council as the essence of the Church’s mission. Biographer Ann Ball illustrates that even as a small child, Pier Giorgio Frassati deeply recognized the needs of others, especially of the poor. Upon learning from his mother what an orphan was, Pier Giorgio, in tears and unable to sleep, descended the stairs to where his parents were entertaining guests. He asked his mother if Jesus were an orphan. In an effort to comfort her son and to return him to bed, Adelaide Ametis told Pier Giorgio “that Jesus had two fathers, one in Heaven and one on earth.” (28)

When Pier Giorgio was just four years old, a poor woman appeared outside the Frassatis’ home with her child. Pier Giorgio realized that the child was barefoot and quickly gave the shoes and socks that he had been wearing to the destitute woman. His parents were awestruck at Pier Giorgio’s spontaneous generosity. (29) The poor were a common sight near their house, such that Adelaide and Alfredo Frassati paid progressively less attention to them over time, but Pier Giorgio could not simply ignore the plight of the disadvantaged. Once, when Alfredo had turned away a man of unkempt appearance who reeked of alcohol, an inconsolable Pier Giorgio ran to his mother, whose only recourse was to send her son after the beggar to ask him to return so that he could be given some food. (30)

A champion of the poor from a young age, Pier Giorgio Frassati was never as distinguished a student as he was a social activist. After three years of home schooling with the assistance of a Salesian priest, Pier Giorgio and Luciana were sent to a state-run school  in Turin.  (31) Both struggled through three years there. In 1913, the same year as Alfredo Frassati’s appointment to the Senate of Italy, both children failed their exams, although Pier Giorgio, the heir and firstborn son of an elite family, aroused the dissapointment of his parents more than Luciana did. (32) As a result, Pier Giorgio was transferred to a Jesuit private institution where he was educated for four years. His lack of academic success was not attributable to a lack of effort. (33) Nevertheless, Pier Giorgio continued to perform poorly in class, even under the helpful leadership of the Jesuits. In 1917, he failed a grade for a second time, and was again moved to new surroundings, the Social Institute of Turin, or Sociale, also a Jesuit school. In a letter to his friend Carlo Bellingeri, Pier Giorgio Frassati lamented the results of his exams, but looked forward to the following year during which he would simultaneously complete his last grade level and remedial courses from the previous year:

Maybe you already know that I failed. I really didn’t think about [failing] Latin. I was worried about composition and instead the opposite happened. I will go to the Sociale, where I’ll attend second year classes in hopes of taking the first year exams in February. (34)

Pier Giorgio Frassati persevered at Sociale until he received his high school certificate in 1918. (35) While his studies were not his strength, Pier Giorgio’s spiritual life flourished in his six years under Jesuit influence. He received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time on June 20, 1910, at the Church of Corpus Domini, followed by his first Holy Communion at the Chapel of the Sister Helpers of the Souls in Purgatory on June 19, 1911. Four years later, on June 10, 1915, Pier Giorgio was confirmed in his home parish, Our Lady of Grace, or “La Crocetta.” (36) Alfredo and Adelaide Frassati ensured that their children received the Sacraments, but they misunderstood and discouraged the adolescent Pier Giorgio’s increasing religious activities, fearing that his proximity to the Jesuits would lead him to become a priest himself. (37) Pier Giorgio was undeterred; within a year after his move from state school to study under the Jesuits, he had joined two Catholic student groups, the Apostleship of Prayer and the Company of the Most Blessed Sacrament. (38)

After his high school graduation, Pier Giorgio Frassati enrolled in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Royal Polytechnic of Turin. (39) His goal was to become a mining engineer, for professional as well as for spiritual reasons. He desired “to serve Christ better among the miners,”  (40) whom Pier Giorgio saw as among the most unhappy workers. Pier Giorgio Frassati had long been interested in helping the poor and those engaged in wearisome or in dangerous labour. He went on to become an active member of the Young Catholic Workers while he was a university student. However, his father did not approve of his field of study. He hoped instead that his son would inherit his newspaper business, but Alfredo Frassati was afraid to approach Pier Giorgio directly, so he sent a fellow La Stampa journalist to relay his message. “With  tears in his eyes” but ready to do as his father wished, Pier Giorgio asked the emissary, “Do you think this will please Papa?” The journalist nodded, to which Pier Giorgio replied, “Well, tell him I accept.” (41)

Soon thereafter, post-World War I Italy began to descend into political turmoil. Alfredo Frassati resigned his seat in the Senate when Benito Mussolini led the Fascists to power. (42) Despite that small act of protest, Pier Giorgio’s father was appointed Italian ambassador to Germany. The family thus moved to Berlin, which put a hold on the intended transfer of La Stampa from Alfredo to Pier Giorgio Frassati. There, the Frassatis were guests of the family of theologian Karl Rahner in Freiburg, among other German elites. (43) Pier Giorgio also continued his engineering courses, albeit from a distance. He had  become involved in more faith-based assemblies in Turin, including the University Students Nocturnal Adoration Group as well as organizations with international reach such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society  and Pax Romana, in addition to the Young Catholic Workers. (44) Consequently, Pier Giorgio Frassati kept in regular contact with his peers in Turin, often travelling to Italy for meetings of the groups of which he was a member. Those conferences occasionally led to confrontations with Italy’s Fascist authorities, as during a demonstration at the Young Catholic Workers Conngress in Rome, when Pier Giorgio Frassati was arrested after another protestor’s banner fell into his hands. He used its pole to fend off blows from the police. (45) In another incident, after Alfredo Frassati had criticized the Fascists in a La Stampa editorial for the murder of Giacomo Matteotti, an oppostion politician, for which he would later need to sell the paper to  Giovanni Agnelli of the Fiat Group to protect his family (46), the Frassati home in Turin was broken into by a police squad. Pier Giorgio singlehandedly fought off the squadristi with his fists, chasing them down the street and shouting at them: “Blackguards! Cowards!” (47)

Although Pier Giorgio Frassati never hesitated to protect his family or the Church, he disliked violence. He once remarked that “it is not those who suffer violence that should fear, but those who practice it. When God is with us, we do not need to be afraid.” (48) Arguably, he was as embarrassed as the thugs who attacked his home, as the event was reported in the local newspapers. (49) Pier Giorgio preferred more pacific means of witness to the Gospel, as Dominican Brother R.F. King points out:

His first priority, in every case, was to emulate the spirit of the Beatitudes, to be poor and meek, to mourn his own sins and those of the world, to hunger and thirst for justice, to show mercy, to keep his heart pure, and to make peace wherever he could. He did not attempt to draw attention to himself, but his quiet persistence at helping the poor, at promoting peace through justice, and at encouraging his fellow students to greater devotion to God left its mark. When anti-clerical activists attacked priests and religious, he defended them with his own body. If asked to speak, he would note that the basis of all true social reform was the supernatural charity which is a gift from God. Prayer and the Sacraments formed the foundation for the… apostolic work he saw as the calling of laypeople… His brand of heroic virtue was the everyday sort of getting up each morning and holding nothing back, but giving each moment and action totally to the service of God and neighbour. (50)

Pier Giorgio especially valued service to God, to his family, and to the poor. When his fellow students asked Pier Giorgio to go with them to a pub, he would suggest that they accompany him to pray before the Blessed Sacrament prior to their night out. Pier Giorgio joined the Dominicans as a tertiary, taking the name Girolamo after Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican who preached against the moral decadence of the Borgia family and of Pope Alexander VI and who was hanged for his efforts.  (51) With his companions, Pier Giorgio created an informal group in 1924, “Tipi Loschi”, rendered in English as “the Sinister Ones”, “the Shady Characters”, or “the Riff Raff Club”, to further their work among the downtrodden. (52) Within “Tipi Loschi,” Pier Giorgio was known by the humourous nickname “Robespierre,” after the French Revolution-era insurrectionist. (53) At the time, Pier Giorgio Frassati was in love with a young woman, Laura Hidalgo. They might have married if not for the opposition of Pier Giorgio’s mother, who saw Laura’s lower social class as incompatible with that of the Frassatis. Pier Giorgio obeyed his parents, who were soon to become separated anyway. On his decision not to marry Laura Hidalgo, Pier Giorgio asked rhetorically, “Why create one family to tear apart another?” (54)

By the autumn of 1924, Luciana Frassati was preparing to wed Jan Gawronska, a Polish diplomat. (55) With the Frassati family permanently back in Turin after a stay in Berlin, Pier Giorgio returned for another year at Royal Polytechnic. The beloved grandmother of Pier Giorgio and of Luciana became terminally ill. Two months into the academic term, Pier Giorgio ‘s closest friend, Marco Beltramo, was accepted into the Air Force academy after passing his entrance exams. Pier Giorgio Frassati wrote to Marco Beltramo to congratulate him, although he lamented that they would be apart until Marco’s graduation. Optimistically, Pier Giorgio concluded, “Let me remind you that in three years’ time when you finish at the academy, one of the first flights you make must have Robespierre aboard.” (56)

Pier Giorgio and Marco never flew together. As university classes ended in the spring of 1925, a strapping Pier Giorgio Frassati continued his visits to the poor of Turin. He was also an avid attendee of the theatre and opera, and a voracious reader who was able to quote entire sections from Dante. (57) He took his friends to climb in the Val di Lanzo on June 7, 1925. Then his grandmother’s health took a final downturn three weeks later. Pier Giorgio’s mother confronted him as his grandmother lay dying in the family home: “It seems… that whenever you are needed you are never there.” (58) She did not realize that Pier Giorgio had fallen three times on his way to his grandmother’s bedroom to pray at her side and had managed to pull himself ahead only by grasping the wall in the hallway. (59) Pier Giorgio was being paralyzed by poliomyelitis that claimed his life in just five days. From his deathbed, twenty-four-year-old Pier Giorgio Frassati wrote a barely-legible note to his friend Grimaldi to ensure that Converso, a poor beggar, would receive his medication. In his polio-stricken hand, Pier Giorgio instructed Grimaldi: “Here are Converso’s injections; the receipt is from Sappa [the pharmacy]. I forgot about it. Renew [the prescription] from my account.”  (60) Serene to the end, Pier Giorgio had remarked, “I believe that the day of my death will be the most beautiful day of my life.” (61)

On July 4, 1925, [death] presented itself to him. With the marvelous confidence with which we had come to associate him, he met [God]: ‘Here I am, Lord.’ Then, calmly, he closed his eyes. (62)

To his parents’ surprise, thousands lined the streets for Pier Giorgio Frassati’s funeral. Most of the congregation was made up of poor people that Pier Giorgio served until the week before his passing. (63) Marco Beltramo walked in front of his closest friend’s coffin wearing his military uniform.  (64) An Italian politician mourned the death of the Senator’s son: “The best man in the world just died.” (65) The Royal Polytechnic Institute awarded Pier Giorgio Frassati a posthumous degree in mining engineering on April 6, 2001, the hundredth anniversary of his birth. (66) Alfredo Frassati returned to the Sacraments after Pier Giorgio’s death and, through several business ventures, mostly in the energy sector, he lived until 1961, his ninety-third year. (67) Luciana Frassati, a lawyer, lived to be 105 years old, dying in October, 2007. (68) She was the mother of six children, including Wanda Gawronska, whom I was pleased to have met during Rise Up, a Catholic Christian Outreach youth conference in December, 2008, in Toronto, Canada. Luciana was a tireless worker for Pier Giorgio’s sainthood cause, which is now being promoted by Wanda Gawronska. Pier Giorgio’s body was found to be incorrupt in 1981 (69), shortly after Pope John Paul II prayed at the grave in Pollone, Italy, of the person he called “the man of the eight Beatitudes.” (70) During a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square attended by thousands of young people, Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified on May 20, 1990. (71) When Pier Giorgio Frassati was no longer able to climb the mountains he loved, and never having flown with Marco Beltramo, God called His great servant to the greatest of summits- upward to the top, to Heaven, “Verso l’alto!”

Let us pray, in the words of Father Thomas Rosica, CSB, from the recent Rise Up conference in Toronto. (72) After each petition, the response is “Show us the way, Verso l’alto, upward to Heaven.”

Pier Giorgio, help us to strive for simple hearts, attentive to the needs of others, and friendships based on that pact that knows no earthly boundaries: union in prayer. If we do not know the road, and if we often abandon the path…

If by being superficial we have not put into our knapsack all that we need for the climb, and if we never lift up our gaze because we do not want to take the first demanding steps to set ourselves on the way…

If we lack the strength to overcome the most difficult passes, and if we have the strength but prefer to use it to turn back…

If we never pause to be nourished by the bread of eternal life, and if we do not quench our thirst from the fountain of prayer…

When we do not know how to contemplate the beauty of the gifts we have received, and when we do not know how to offer ourselves for others…

If we have committed many sins…

If we have lost hope…

Pray for us, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Show us the way, “Verso l’alto,” upward to Heaven and deep into the heart of God. Teach us how to be holy Saints for the Church and for the world, to give witness to the Beatitudes with our lives. Amen.


Prayer and Reconciliation- Reflection for Mass of March 6, 2009

7 Mar

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday of the First Week of Lent

World Day of Prayer

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28, Psalm 130: 1-6, Gospel of Matthew 5:20-26

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel once wrote that “to love someone is to say, ‘you at least will not die.’” (1) Those words encompass much of the meaning of Lent, a season during which we celebrate the absolute mercy of God. On Ash Wednesday, we were enjoined to repent from our sin and to believe in the Gospel. Lent is truly, then, a celebration filled with faith and hope in that good news of God’s love for us.

Scripture tells us that God, who breathed life into our earthly and earthbound bodies, “so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him…might have eternal life.” (2) By means of rhetorical questions, the prophet Ezekiel communicates a similar message to that of John the Evangelist: God is not pleased with “the death of the wicked,” (3) nor does He keep a tally of our sins in an effort to condemn us, but instead God goes to great lengths to persuade us to turn freely toward Him and away from evil. Our Father sent us Jesus, His Son who, after His baptism in the Jordan, spent forty Spirit-filled days fasting in the wilderness. Jesus encountered and rebuffed the deception of grandeur offered by Satan- of power that is impossible in the absence of a relationship with God.

Christ so loved us that He went on to live as one of us, to teach us, to pray for us, and to die and to rise for us. During Lent, we journey with Jesus in the desert from His baptism to His death. Our lives naturally follow the same path as the life of Christ, with the same Divine call to welcome the mystery and promise of the Resurrection. A God who calls us together to accept such a wondrous gift is not limited by any human notion of justice. Therefore, Ezekiel reminds a people still in exile that it is not the Lord’s way but the way of the house of Israel that is not fair. (4) God is more than just fair to His people; He waits for us to repent and to respond in kind to His loving mercy. Both Ezekiel, in today’s first reading, and Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, emphasize that it is never too late to break from the course that leads to our ruin.

In addition, Jesus challenges us to act in God-like justice and not only in legalistic fairness toward our neighbour. As with God forgiveness is boundless, our reconciliation with each other is never too late if we are to gain Heaven. Jesus contends that it can be achieved even at the last minute- “on the way to court.” (5) If, on the contrary, we spout insults and put-downs, or persist in harbouring deep anger and resentment, we gradually destroy life, thus Jesus warns that we are in breach of the commandment not to kill and will be liable to human and to Divine judgement, and ultimately to Gehenna, the “hell of fire.” (6)

Deror Avi, Valley of Hinnom, October 19, 2007.

Deror Avi, Valley of Hinnom, October 19, 2007.

Jesus speaks of Gehenna, the Jewish equivalent to hell, in reference to the Valley of Hinnom, situated outside the southwest gate of Jerusalem, also called the Dung Gate. Gehenna conjured up mental pictures of horrors that actually took place in the Valley of Hinnom- it was Jerusalem’s garbage dump in Jesus’ time. Unclean animals and waste were burned there, and lepers scavenged the refuse. Gehenna had been the site of pagan human sacrifice and the final resting place of the bodies of executed criminals. (7) Not surprisingly, Gehenna evoked fear when Jesus mentioned it. The Valley of Hinnom brought two images to my mind: the bus route past the piles of garbage burning along the freeways in Cali and frequent walks through Windsor’s Malden Park, affectionately known as “the dump.” Just as the Valley of Hinnom today is no longer the vile rubbish heap it once was, as some efforts were being taken to clean up Cali while I was there, and as Windsor’s former landfill has become a pleasant place for a walk, so God wills to bring us to reconciliation- to transform our sinful waste into something beautiful and life-giving.

View from Malden Park, Windsor, ON

View from Malden Park, Windsor, ON

Reconciliation- the restoration and building of relationship with God and with humankind- requires us to pray for one another. Today we mark the World Day of Prayer, observed by several Christian traditions on the first Friday in March, (8) to bring to mind our need to pray for an end to divisions between baptized followers of Jesus. The section on prayer in our Catechism opens with a striking definition of prayer from St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

In her autobiography, St. Thérèse wrote: “…Prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” (9)

“Prayer is a surge of the heart…” When we pray, we recall with tremendous gratitude that, as we enter the Lord’s house to celebrate the Eucharist, God has already resolved to forgive us our sin.

“It is a simple look toward heaven…” We then acknowledge the Father’s presence and, to begin the Communion Rite, we appeal to “Our Father, who art in Heaven”, whose Kingdom we petition “to come”, and whose “will” we pray “will be done, on earth as in Heaven.”

At the climax of the Mass, we receive Jesus as a community of believers, the Body of Christ, and respond with our “cry of recognition and of love,” “Amen!”

Our prayer, our Communion, our Lent, our Mass, in a spirit of reconciliation, are greater than any infirmity or spiritual darkness. Thus we come, “embracing both trial and joy.”

We come together to celebrate before a God who is greater than sin, division, and even death itself. Our God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel to the repentant soul, “He shall surely live…” (10) So we ought to pray this for one another, that we all might come to everlasting life. For “to love someone is to say, ‘you at least will not die.’”