An idea for the new evangelization
This year before every event at the Spoleto Festival — which took place from 29 June to 15 July in Perugia, Italy — the presenter of the programme for the day announced not only plays, concerts and ballets but also seven homilies on the seven deadly sins. Yes, homilies, those boring sermons that everyone shuns like the plague but that this time, on the contrary, drew hundreds of people to the Church of San Domenico: a throng, continuously swelling despite the heat of the sultry afternoon. However, this was not solely due to curiosity to see and hear close up such famous figures as Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi or Br Enzo Bianchi, for even lesser known people, such as Mons. Andrea Lonardo, who preached on the vice of gluttony, received as much attention.
This project was popular because the preachers — all good speakers and well prepared — were talking about our lives and explaining in a new way the sense of discomfort and unhappiness which plague us. We have long been used to explaining away our existential difficulties using psychological parameters which, being reduced to a common denominator, all to often means blaming others for our errors or, even less honourably, looking to the movement of the planets.
The Spoleto homilies instead offered a different font for reflection, taking up again concepts that seemed to have been forgotten. Many of the habits considered praiseworthy today are in fact vices that poison the soul and, hence, life. Overeating, longing for a career and income, the quest for pleasure at any cost, the nihilism of those who do not believe in anything preached by so many of our highly esteemed maîtres à penser: these are not healthy practices but rather lead to anxiety, depression and loneliness.
It was Archbishop Rino Fisichella who framed this issue in the inaugural homily, which was on pride, the mother of all vice. For, as he explained, all other vices derive from this one, that is, from the human presumption of being able to dispense with God and disregard his commandments. And Archbishop Fisichella explained that giving into vice tends to take root, transforming a single wrong act into a noxious habit. The most disturbing vice, the most difficult to diagnose, is acedia which strikes at the heart of virtue, negating all meaning. Mons. Pierangelo Sequeri enlightened a very attentive audience on acedia, which he referred to as an aversion to spiritual seeking and an obsessive withdrawal into narcissism. He told the story of a medieval Benedictine, Othlo of St Emmeram, who was smitten by this vice but was able to fight and overcome it.
All seven homilies were filled with illuminating citations which recalled or taught that Christian culture is a treasure trove of texts, full of knowledge of the human soul, on which it is always possible to draw profitably, even many centuries later. Few of the listeners — many of whom are not used to going to church — actually knew that not only does envy poison the heart but also destroys human relationships, as Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia clearly explained; or that there is also a spiritual greed, perhaps even more hateful than material greed, practised by those who are miserly with their time or so attached to their status that they will give in to no one, as Archbishop Renato Boccardo told listeners.
Vices can be insidious because they also have a positive facet, such as anger, which — Prior Bianchi said — even Jesus felt, but without becoming a sign of contempt for the other person as frequently happens with human anger. And in any case we must always remember that every vice has an opposite, a positive side, Cardinal Ravasi went on to say, which is why he introduced his talk on lust with a reflection on love.
At the end of the Festival director Giorgio Ferrara mentioned the success of the sermons in a discourse, which was obviously based on attendance and the reactions of critics, but let us remember that this initiative, in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, is an excellent example of communicating the Christian Tradition outside its classic context. In this way, it introduced so many who would not normally enter a church to hear Mass — and to a homily, to the wealth of thought and inspiration offered by a great tradition which — as many seem to have forgotten — can rightly claim to be an expert in humanity.
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