For many he was a brother in faith, for others a spiritual guide, and for still others a companion in ideological, political and cultural battles, with the courage of his convictions and great foresight. Ernesto Balducci was all of these and one of the great intellectuals of our time. This booklet contains a selection of words written and spoken by him. Whoever had the opportunity to listen to Father Balducci even once and cannot forget him, will find these pages franked with the same mark of his passion and intelligence which fascinated them.
These articles are translated without permission from some of those reproduced in ``Balducci: Le sue parole'', a supplement to the Italian periodical `Avvenimenti' (`Events'), published in April 1993.
Martin Guy, Catania, 25th April 1994.
Ernesto Balducci was born in 1922 in the mining town of Santa Flora on the slopes of Mount Amiata in the province of Grosseto in Tuscany. When he was twelve, his father was laid off and Ernesto left home to work for a blacksmith, name of Manfredi, ``an anarchist persecuted by fascists''. But in November of the same year the Scolopi, a religious foundation for the education of the poor, offered him a free place in seminary. He studied theology at Rome, and Letters and Philosophy at Florence.
The foundation of the Centre for Christian Commitment in 1952 gave him the opportunity to deepen both his friendship with Giorgio La Pira and his relationship with the author-priests of Milan and the disciples of Maritain, known as the `Little Brothers'. In 1958 Balducci founded the monthly review `Testimonianze' (`Testimonies'), which he directed for thirty- four years. In 1963 he publicly defended the first Italian conscientious objector, Giuseppe Gozzini. This, and the subsequent trial, gave the bishop of Florence, monsignor Florit, the opportunity to `exile' Balducci. He stayed in Rome until 1965 when, thanks to the direct intervention of Pope Montini, he returned to Tuscany. Not in Florence, though, where bishop Florit was still involved in his battle against La Pira, but at Fiesolana Abbey, two hundred yards from the border of the diocese of Florence.
However, he was able to dedicate less and less time to his studies within the tranquil abbey walls. Most of his days were stolen by the review `Testimonianze', by the publishing house `Cultura della pace' (`Peace culture'), by his collaboration with daily papers and other reviews and by his direct and generous presence at dozens of demonstrations and debates all over Italy. He campaigned against the madness of war, both before and after the Gulf war, and used the five hundredth anniversary in 1992 of the discovery of America, as the occasion to put the very foundations of modern culture in question, and these campaigns became a point of reference for the exterminated `peaceful people'. It was, in fact, while returning from one of these debates that Father Balducci was involved in a car accident. He was admitted to hospital in coma, and died on the 25th of April 1992.
Ernesto Balducci is buried in Santa Flora cemetery.
(From ``The Closed Circle'', an interview held by Luciano Martini, pub. Marietti, 1988)
When I was twelve, instead of preaching in the temple like Jesus, I put on a little overall and went into a blacksmith's workshop. I did my eight hours' work every day for almost six months. I helped shoe horses and donkeys, build bed frames, weld bits of iron together, shape reinforcing rods on the anvil and finish pieces of work off, file in hand, in the vice. Some of my friends smile at these memories as if I were just trying to attract attention, but in reality I know what it's like to carry the yoke of hardship. I remember the day when I was sitting on the steps of our house and mu father told me that I'd have to give up my mania for book for ever because he'd already found me a job. He was unemployed at the time and couldn't make ends meet. I cried, but without rebellion. I started my new life, which would have been definitive, but the Scolopi heard about me through a friend of my mother, Domenico Bulgarini, writer and literary agent (and later a publisher himself), and offered me a free place in November 1934. The truth of the matter is that I had abandoned my deepest aspirations without reservations. I had made the same sacrifice as Abraham, and those six months were an extraordinary schooling.
The blacksmith, name of Manfredi, was an anarchist persecuted by fascism. He was profoundly wise and of robust moral dignity, and taught me to look at things from below with an open mind and with anger, but also with a sense of humour. In the toilet of the workshop the following writing stood out: ``Saranno grandi i papi, / saran potenti i re, / ma quando qui si seggono, / son tutti come me'' (``The popes might be great, / the kings might be mighty, / but when they sit down here, / they're all just like me''). And he swore with great imagination while he beat the iron on the anvil. My mother had warned me about this, but in the long run, thanks to Manfredi, I was able to tell the difference between working-class swearing, which is a religious phenomenon, and middle-class swearing, which is repulsive cynicism. When I told him that I was leaving for the Scolopi's College the following day, he put his hands on my shoulders and said solemnly: ``Don't let yourself be fooled by the priests!''. Thirty years later, when the newspapers were talking about my conviction for the defence of conscientious objection, I happened to be in the graveyard in front of my father's gravestone. I hadn't seen Manfredi any more. He came up to me, touched my shoulder and said, as if we had parted company the day before, ``Ernesto, they didn't manage it!''. His pride touched me deeply like a blessing from God.
(from ``The World of the Hidden Man'', lectures held in the parish of St Bellarmino in Rome, published by Borla, 1991)
The outline I've presented so far also lets me explain - and here we come closer to purely evangelical matters - the fact that one can address a man in two languages. The first is the cultural language, as I am doing with you now. At the moment I am seeking to use a language laid down by our linguistic conventions, by the dominant semantics, by our culture. What I want is to make myself understood. However, I address myself to the educated man, to the man that is familiar with certain premises that I can take for granted, such as the syntax and vocabulary that I use and the cultural references that I have made.
However, there is another language that addresses the hidden man, and it's not the cultural one. The cultural language, among other things, requires people ready for work. The prophetic language is addressed to the hidden man, who is not satisfied with the codified language that we use every day because that language doesn't say anything. The hidden man is an infant. Anthropologically speaking, `infant' means `that does not speak', but he can't find the right words because the ones he uses are drawn from those that the educated man has beaten into shape in his linguistic forges. Even so-called human reasoning is reasoning that is fine for the educated man, but not for the sic et simpliciter man in absolute. The hidden man doesn't adapt himself to the language of reason because it doesn't translate all his expectations and isn't fit to express his intuitions. The real language is the prophetic one which, by cultural standards, is an unacceptable and mythological language. When I make the announcement, not to an assembly like this one - in which I presume that there is consensus on many values, even at the level of faith - but to any assembly, ``Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek'' some people might feel uneasy but in reality something responds inside each of us. It's the hidden man who gets to his feet, who hears an announcement of which he's already had forebodings. That's why prophetic language brings joy. It declares that the impossible is possible, which is sacrilege for the common culture because culture has its highest point in the distinction between the possible and the impossible. When is it that a child is educated to be as one should, to be a man like us? When he learns along the way that you can do this and that you can't do that. Once he's understood it all, the child adapts and remains within the confines laid down by his culture. He won't have many dreams, except for the ones he goes to recount on the psychoanalyst's couch. The hidden man's dreams, said Bloch, are not the ones dreamed with one's eyes shut - those are fruit of the subconscious that is the residue of the present, they are the things we have rejected, the larvae that walk the night - but the ones dreamed with your eyes open, the forbidden ones. Things dreamed with your eyes closed feed a respectable profession like psychoanalysis, and do no more than permit the psychoanalyst to explore a man's archaeology, but not his future. In the hidden man instead, there's the future. His time is the future, not the past.
The prophetic language is the one that puts the hidden man in touch with his future. That's why even people without the Christian faith hear the sound of music that they cannot ignore, music that responds to their expectations. Then the cultured man takes over and one acknowledges one's faults. As D'Annunzio said in a famous letter from France, ``I come bearing good news. I have returned pagan''. When one returns pagan, one returns more tranquil. Since the hidden man, by which I mean a collection of possibilities projected onto a future, is to be found in each of us, the evangelical announcement is for each of us. The culture passes but the Gospel remains. I don't even want to sacralize the Gospel here because the words of which it is made up are also cultural. Whoever wrote the Gospel used the words of the culture of his time, so much so that now it doesn't suit me to use some of them any more and it's not for nothing that, with prophetic liberty, I abandon them. I am not tied to words, and let this be said to the custodians of orthodoxy. It's not words that count because, as Paul says, ``The letter kills. It is the Spirit that gives life''. Even the letter of the Gospel can kill. Heaven only knows how many it has killed! It is the Spirit, that is to say the true meaning that can be comprehended in the osmosis between the spoken word and the expectations of the hidden man.
(from ``Francesco d'Assisi'', published by Cultura della pace, 1989)
It's difficult to imagine what the world will be like seen from not just the male viewpoint. Because one thing is sure, that, so far, the eye that has looked at the world to give it form and meaning has been the male one. Women too have learned to look at themselves and to pose according to the requirements of the male eye. Now that the world, as seen by the males, has become unlivable, we can warn that, if there will ever be a world free of violence, in which respect for life is the first principle of humanity's new `religio naturalis', then that dark force that our biophysical structure harbours and whose primary act is to be found in sexual violence against women, whether carried out or desired, will have been brought to light and definitively eliminated. What's more, the ideal woman, with which male chauvinist culture, both sacred and profane, has enriched our memory, doesn't convince us any more. It was the male that constructed those ideals, during his uninterrupted domination of the world, including the ideal of the Mary the Virgin. Those ideals, whether we're talking about Taide or Teresa of Lisieux always reflect the vision of that eye, sometimes invisible but always omnipresent, that humiliates women or exalts them according to the cunning versatility of Eros.
If anyone appeared in the past intent on extricating themselves from their culture's mechanisms - always and everywhere a sexist culture - to propose a man-woman relationship independent of that structural bond that governs us, his followers soon took steps to bring the transgression back within the prevailing order. From the lines and between the lines of the gospel it's easy to tell that, in his way of life and in his preaching, Jesus of Nazareth completely broke the sexist rules that are so dear to legalists, libertines and ascetics, and raised women to the full dignity of personhood. But as soon as he became a memory, the substance of his teaching was integrated into the rigid requirements of the culture of the greek-roman world, modified just enough to be able to call itself a Christian culture. Saint Francis of Assisi was not Jesus, and was much more integrated into the culture of his time than the Messiah. And who would be surprised? However, his return to the gospel `sine glossa', that is without the additional interpretations made by the male hand, couldn't fail to affect radically his way of thinking and of treating women. It's just that he had to invent his new way of life within an institution whose doctrine on women came under the heading of `contemptus mundi' and within a social context where, for example, it was quite inconceivable that women could lead a friar's life, dedicated to manual work, to living together with no guarantee of privacy and to moving about without a fixed home. Such women were conceivable, but only as prostitutes.
Every culture has a certain systemic cohesiveness, in that its legal, economic, ethical and religious elements all condition each other so that, if one of them changes, the system reacts either to reinstate it or to drive it out. You can't change the way you treat women and leave the rest of the cultural system intact. To a certain extent, the same thing happened to Saint Francis as happened to Jesus. Almost the only memory we have of him is the one his disciples passed down to us and, even though his disciples meant to respect the truth of the matter, they told it in a way that conformed to the culture of the time, also because they wanted to edify and consolidate the conventional discipline. However, they weren't able to suppress women like Chiara and Jacomina of the Seven Suns from Francis' affectional life. And what they have recounted is enough to put forward the conjecture, with good foundations, that when, after his conversion, Francis took leave of the world, he did not, as one might imagine, take leave of women. He rediscovered them, but not just, as one might have thought, within the sphere of his rigid ascetic battles, that is to say as a peril, but at a higher level, where his eyes contemplated the ``Highest, omnipotent good Lord'', who has made all things good - and therefore women too. On this level all creatures live together in a loving relationship in which neither the dynamics of biological necessity nor aggressive and lustful impulses come in to it, and in which, without making any concessions to our genital differences, men and women are integrated in line with that human completeness to which the Bible alludes mysteriously when it says that God created man, ``and created him male and female''. But the eye of God, let it be known, is not male as was the eye of Pope Innocence III, who loved to call himself his vicar.
(from ``Avvenimenti'', special edition, 23 January 1991)
The 17th of January 1991 is a date that will be remembered as the end of a long phase in human history, that of Western supremacy. The bombs that fell on Baghdad were supposed to be, as Bush said, the start of the liberation of Kuwait but in the real dynamics that are tearing down the old hierarchy of the nations, they signal the dismal start of the war between North and South. It's a war signed with trembling hand by Italy, and with firm hand by England and France, the two nations that created the countenance and the rules of the modern age.
The modern age probably ends with the genocide of the Middle East, just as it started five hundred years ago with the genocide of the American Indians in the far West. ``It's terrifying and it's wonderful, we're making history!'' said the American soldiers in the front line the other night, on hearing the roar of the bombers heading for Iraq. It's true, we're making history, but we're making it after an arrogant and wily tyrant like Saddam succeeded in dragging the great nations of the West step by step into the circle of his own madness.
Now the immense Arab community can see the splendour of the Western world with its own eyes and understands what it had already guessed, that it's no longer the case to trust the institutions which are supposed to uphold International Law, but which only listen to the voice of the law when it coincides with the peremptory voice of the market. Islam has tried the ways of western modernization for a decade or so, but now it has all the proof it needs that those are not its ways and is in danger of taking the threatening ways of fundamentalism. It's quite likely that, in the short term, the wonderful and terrifying brute force of the western coalition has had the upper hand, but it is certain that it has forever cut off, in the deep consciousness of the peoples of the South, the hope for a peaceful conquest of the right to take control of their own history.
At this moment I find myself, with suffering and humility, asking the offended peoples - the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Eritreans, the Somali and every other people of the Earth whose rights have been left unheard - for the grace to consider me one of them. ``Don't despair'', I would like to say to them, ``there are millions and millions of us within the steel walls of the West living your desperation as if it were our own, and preparing to create a new world together with you, held together by rights and not by terror of the Great Gendarme''.
(from ``Avvenimenti'', 15th May 1991)
I advise readers to go and fish out page 17 of `La Repubblica' of the 4th of this month. Look at it with a single glimpse, as you would a poster. Appropriately enlarged, it could be used in elementary schools as a useful teaching aid to explain the arduous problems of North/South relations.
The pictures on this page speak for themselves. Bang in the middle, the advertisement for ``Nivea for men'' stands out. Four fingers move voluptuously (you can tell by the slight smile on the lips) from collar to chin, brushing the shaved skin with well-visible fingertips. Gaudy writing at chin height reads ``Discover the pleasures of the flesh''.
It's the emblematic image of a civilization that now goes as far as to propose the ideal of erotic narcissism in its most innocent offshoots and on the most unthinkable occasions, according to the unfathomable market genius. Right above it, under the title of a blood-curdling article - ``Half a million dead in Bangladesh'' (in the column of the article, at the same height as the tempting slogan, I read ``...one can clearly smell the acrid stench of rotting bodies and meat...'') - there are three photos of the ``biblical drama''. Butted up against the ecstatic face, the tiny body of a baby plunges into the water with its arms splayed like an inverted cross behind the huge carcass of a drowned animal.
The two pictures ended up side by side by chance, but chance is often the instrument of genius. Explain in class, if you please, that the little body that is drowning is the South of the world (the majority of humanity) that is drowning, explain that in the disconcerting serenity on the face of that new-born child falling asleep in its underwater grave, there is the infinite patience of the world's poor, the patience that permits us to live in this splendid forgetfulness, with our beautiful ``soft and elastic facial skin'' that radiates perfume and health.
Of course, you'll be accused of demagogy, but don't let yourself be intimidated. You're on the side of truth, the harsh truth that has statistical evidence on its side. And if you say, passing from ethics to politics, that to judge any party programme or any government project, one should confront it directly with the intolerable contrast between these two worlds, the North discovering the pleasures of the flesh and the South discovering the horrors of the abyss more and more every day, you will have indicated the path of justice, off which there is no hope of salvation. There's no hope of salvation, I say, in this world because, as believers know, in the other world these children, rising up out of the abyss, will fly as angels.
(Father Balducci's last sermon, at Fiesolana Abbey on Easter Day 1992)
Year after year we reread the same narration of the faith's central event but we always have the impression of staying on the outside of that humanly incredible event. At least, that's what I suspect, because it can't be demonstrated. We can't demonstrate that the meaning of our existence over time and the meaning of the resurrection are one and the same. We can only go by what has been testified: Jesus of Nazareth was freed from death, not according to his own personal destiny, but as the first-born of a new creation that affects us all. It's a fundamental point because if that event was projected onto the whole universe, our duty takes on a new meaning. Otherwise we are in Death's sepulchre with all our fables, and when time ends, the void will take up absolute sway again. In our most intimate selves we are always on the horns of the dilemma between life as the meaning of it all and death as the meaning of it all. But a way out of this dilemma has been shown to us, and it's a way that we shy away from. What am I trying to say?
We tend to limit the fact to that one magical, miraculous moment - in some way miracles always fascinate or perturb us - but we haven't fully accepted the circumstances in which that fact came about, described crudely by Peter in his first epistle in these words, ``He who came back to life is a delinquent hung on a piece of wood''. He is condemned by common accord of two powers, the religious and the political. His crime was that he liberated the oppressed from the power of the devil which, in mythological language, means oppressive power such as illness, hunger and marginalization. He had dared to pronounce words of praise specifically for the excluded ones. He said ``Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the persecuted, blessed are the poor...''. He pronounced unacceptable words which, if accepted, make the established order crumble, both the established order of his time and the established order of 1992. If the poor of the Earth get to their feet we are all ruined. We are well off because they are sitting in the shade, in the power of the devil. If, by chance, someone should break that spell, it would be the end for us.
We always crucify Christ! This is the truth. Even in 1492, the Church read these phrases and Christians wept with compassion, while at the same time they were crucifying Christ all over the place, and on the other side of the Atlantic for sure. A page of testimony from that epoch was read here on Good Friday, written by Bartholomew de Las Casas in which he tells of incredible crimes committed by Christians, cross in hand. There was one that has left an impression on me for its cruelty, and that would be quite unbelievable if it weren't for the authenticity conferred by a witness. Amongst other crimes, thirteen gallows were erected to hang innocent indians. Twelve were consecrated to the twelve apostles and the thirteenth to Jesus Christ. How is such madness possible?
The logic of this madness can be found by following the chain of deductions that lead to a premise. The premise from which that crime derived is that Christians, inasmuch as they believe in Christ, Lord of all the Earth, have the right to possess whatever there is on the Earth. The logic of the crucifixion is turned on its head and becomes the logic of domination. This premise made possible the extermination of the American Indians, even more terrible than the gas ovens. But we forget all this. Our religious faith shrugs off ugly memories and marginalizes them so as to carry on living in self-satisfaction. But this way we will never find faith in the resurrection.
It doesn't surprise me that there is a lot of misbelief amongst us. It's obvious. Sometimes non-believers have an advantage: at least they're sincere. We don't really believe in the resurrection. We don't accept the implications. We're happy that someone has been freed from death. Among other things, although we have many blessings on this earth, it's very nice to think that there will be another one after our death. We insert it into our consumerist and hedonistic ethics. How nice! We can be free from death! Our faith is not true faith because true faith is the full acceptance of the plan for this liberation that Jesus carried out and paid for with his life. We are believers in the resurrection in this sense and since we are living on the frontier of the historical epoch in which we grew up, we must pick out the many messages that arrive on this frontier. When we talk about the grace of God we must not - and here too we have been misled - think of some invisible interior event that the Holy Spirit makes happen inside us and then, maybe, each of us is very content that the eye of God has come to rest on him. There's a hidden narcissism in this way of thinking. No, God's messages are alarming and they come from the whole of humanity. When we meet the poor of the Earth and they speak to us, it's God's Grace that comes to greet us. When they speak to us without anger, but with love, like brothers, you almost forget the abuse they have suffered and Grace gathers us up inside itself. We know what resurrection means for humanity. It's when most people come out of the grasp of the devil. I don't want to recite the names of the devil, although I have many in mind. However, they are names that signify a heel standing on the heads of the poor, the plugged mouth of he who has truth to speak and, amid public euphoria, forgetting about those who cannot share our banquet, even within the opulent society. I have read that in well-off Europe there are thirty million poor below the minimum subsistence level. Who remembers them? Being free of the devil means freeing ourselves too, freeing ourselves from this lie. That is to say, in Paul's symbolic words, it means ``to celebrate this feast not with the leavening of malice and perversity but with unleavened sincerity and truth''.
Year after year Easter rolls round, but they don't form a sequence. They're not repetitive. I was struck by a painting of Oscar Romero that is all over Latin America. He was killed precisely because he announced the resurrection. He said ``I rise again with my people''. The people's devotion to him is based on this phrase: ``You have risen again in your people''. Our worry is that it'll slip into politics. These themes have wide impact, both in the religious and civil spheres. But we mustn't go into politics. Jesus didn't go into politics. He addressed himself to the common man. He wanted to free the common man, and announced this liberation. We must open our hearts to this announcement, otherwise we are a perverse generation and we won't be forgiven.
Let us, therefore, open our hearts to the cosmic breadth of the Easter message and thank the poor that they speak to us, remembering our crimes, without resentment, awaiting the day when we will all be able to walk together, hand in hand, on the Earth created by God for our joy.
(from ``Legenda'', April 1992)
I was a child when, in the rigid and ascetic environment of my youth, I was told this edifying story. Saint Luigi Gonzaga was playing (did Saint Luigi Gonzaga really know how to play?) when a severe master came up to him and said ``If you knew that you would die this evening, what would you do now?''. ``I'd carry on playing'', replied the youth. What would I do? I often ask myself. I know the canonical response well: whoever performs the will of God need not worry about the time he has left. Nestling in His will, living or dying is the same thing and we are wrapped in eternity, which engulfs the moments that scare us as if they were nothing.
But this is the head's answer, so to speak. When I count the years that I probably have left, I feel in me the ancient, deaf fever of the desire to live, that masquerades as the reckoning of all the things I have to do. Freud put it well: in their heart of hearts, no one really believes in their own death. The death we talk or think about is always other people's. And one of his followers, Franco Fornari, with whom I enjoyed a fleeting friendship, was convinced that the evil that eats away at us inside is all caused by our rejection of death. One begins to live with the sombre feeling of the threat inherent in life, specifically that of death. This is where our folly of living without taking account of life's brief time span comes from, almost as if it were eternal. It's the most radical repression. But death is cunning, and we see it in the face of each one of our enemies. It's said that the idea of `the enemy' forms the basis of our civilization. That idea doesn't spring from the fact that there are enemies; enemies exist because that idea exists in us and inevitably gives rise to aggressive impulses. Destroying the enemy - it doesn't matter whether physically or not - is equivalent, in our heart of hearts, to destroying death, to cancelling the end of our time on earth. Peace would blossom in us like a spring of pure water if we were able to reconcile ourselves with death, as did Saint Francis of Assisi, who called it `Sister'. Maybe this is where perfect joy can be found.
It's from this mixture of lay and Christian reflections - Freudian and Franciscan - that for some time now I have derived the nourishment to live the time that is left to me. It is, however, a wisdom that not only I, but also the world in which I live needs.
It must mean something, too, that scientists keep telling us every now and then just how precarious life on earth is. When I was studying at University, even though the bomb had just exploded at Hiroshima, the official culture was dominated by the crusading idea of History as a prospect without end. The individual passes, but History remains. A well-educated lay conscience lived its brief time without anguish, sacrificing itself to the absolute Conscience whose time is History. But today, science has destroyed even this myth. We now know that the time left to humanity, closed within the inexorable law of entropy, is brief. What is more, we know that the aggression intrinsic in the same technology has abbreviated history's time span (someone has reduced it to a decade!) simply because it has thinned out the resources of energy with faustian arrogance and therefore with criminal folly. I am certain that, in the collective psyche (there is also a collective subconscious) this extreme precariousness of the future has caused a collapse in joie de vivre and, by reflection, a boost to endemic aggressiveness.
But this is only the external situation in which I must live the time I have left. I try to do just that, training myself to make gestures of friendship towards death, which is quite a different thing from flirting with the death instinct. The desire to live is, paradoxically, the gift offered to whoever is reconciled to death, to whoever lives each day that comes as a gift without worrying about tomorrow. One's works and one's days then gain their own inner light and fill up with fervour, that is to say with a calm care for life itself, with no need for illusions. The time that is left is the space within which I will be able serve the world, so that its vital potential develops in favour of human dignity.
Every other illusion regarding the ``magnificent destiny of progress'' has been snuffed out. Every day I receive news of peoples all around me that are tumbling into death, newly-born babies that, without having yet opened their eyes to life, fall back into the oceanic inertia of death. I feel that I am enjoying an illicit privilege when I realise, with joy, that I have time at my disposition to live and to fill with meaning. If we concentrate on our own ego, we enter into the fable of presumption because the ego is nothing more than the embodiment of primitive narcissism. The real self is behind that mask, where subjectivity implies in itself an `us' that includes the infinite galaxy of human and non-human subjects, the entire network of creation. I would like to live the time I have left abandoning myself to this invisible communion with everything. Might dying not be - as Heraclito said of old - like waking up?