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Pope Francis: Reading Don Giacomo’s sermons is good for the soul

Pope Francis pens the preface to “È bello lasciarsi andare tra le braccia del figlio di Dio”, a collection of homilies by Fr Giacomo Tantardini, published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV). Here we offer an unofficial translation of the Pope’s preface.

By Pope Francis

This book collects the homilies of Don Giacomo Tantardini, a Lombardy-born priest who with great passion carried out his apostolate almost entirely in the Eternal City. Over the years his homilies spiritually nourished thousands of young and not-so-young people who crowded the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls on Saturday evenings. No one was distracted when he preached: every word stayed in the heart and illuminated lives.

It was in this paleo-Christian church, where the relics of the holy deacon Lawrence are venerated, that I, too, met Don Giacomo. As I have already had the opportunity to mention in the monthly 30 Giorni on the occasion of his death in 2012, the last image I keep of him is “during the confirmation ceremony at St. Lawrence Outside-the-Walls, with his hands joined, his eyes open and amazed, smiling and serious at the same time” (“My friend Don Giacomo,” 30Giorni, No. 5, 2012). He was already seriously ill, we prayed for his health … and he gave thanks with a gesture that was one of hope for recovery and, at the same time, of confidence.

The decision to publish the texts of his homilies (from 2007 to 2012) is not only a tribute to the memory of this priest, who was a lively spiritual son of Fr. Luigi Giussani. Reading and meditating on his sermons will do our souls good even today, because they communicate to us the original essence of Christian life. There is always a need in the Church to recover the essential.

For too long we have reduced Christianity to a code of rules or a voluntaristic effort, but all moralism ultimately leaves us with a sense of failure and sadness. In Don Giacomo’s meditations, the great protagonist is always Grace, because he was aware, having experienced it, that God’s initiative always goes before and anticipates our every intention, kindling a desire for good for us and for our neighbour, especially the one most in need. Don Giacomo always associates the word “Grace” with another word, which makes it concrete: “attraction,” because the Lord always attracts us with the charm of His humanity.

One of the Gospel episodes the recurs most in Don Giacomo’s homilies is the conversion of Zacchaeus: a “traitor of the people,” whose unexpected change comes about when, having climbed that tree out of curiosity, he crosses Jesus’ gaze: “Zacchaeus comes running down full of joy . .. this gaze is a pure reflection of being looked upon; this is the only gaze that is not powerless, this is the only gaze that is full of joy, this is the only gaze that man does not possess, because it is only being looked upon” (Homily, Nov. 3, 2007).

This is why prayer becomes the most important dimension of life. “He who prays is saved” is a motto of St Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori that Don Giacomo, not surprisingly, loved very much. Prayer is not a devotional escape from a “wicked” world. It is asking, from deep within oneself, what gives meaning and the possibility of joy to life. It is asking for Him to come and inhabit our lives: “One hopes by saying, ‘Come.’ The child does not hope abstractly for his mother, the child hopes that his mother will be close to him; Christian hope is the same. Christian hope expresses itself in the question, it expresses itself by saying, ‘Come, come’” (Homily, Dec. 1, 2007).

The language of Don Giacomo is simple, but one can feel in these pages the breadth of his reading, from the theological thought of the beloved St Augustine, to the poetic prose of Charles Péguy, to the “little way” of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus: “When I am charitable it is only Jesus who acts in me” is his favourite quote.

There are many homilies that touch the heart. The most moving is surely the last, dated Saturday, 31 March 2012, just a few days before his death, which ends with a simple sentence, uttered with difficulty – as we read in the book – with a thread of voice: “How beautiful it is to let oneself go in the arms of the Son of God.” There was his whole life and preaching in those few words delivered to his friends and to all of us.

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