THEME 8: Our Only Debt
By Fr. Giuseppe M.Cagni, CRSP
At the conclusion of the Fourth Commandment St. Anthony M. Zaccaria condenses the whole doctrine he has exposed in St. Paul's sentence, "Own no debt to anyone except the debt that binds us to love one another" (Rom 13:8).
The phrase, quite bold in itself, seems to have almost a reductive tone, instead it is terribly challenging. The Apostle Paul completes it saying that it "has fulfilled the law," while we say that it is the summary of the whole Gospel and its spiritual life.
The neighbor, in fact, for our Saint is everything. It may seem strange since God is our whole. But God is invisible, cannot be experienced, cannot be grasped (Sermon IV, 110); instead we are concrete and in need of concrete things, to render human that is authentic our relationship with the Lord. We could not pretend for Christ to protract to infinity his life on earth for our sake, but although we live in the era of faith, we still need a minimum of concrete not to build up in the sky. The Lord knows it, and has provided for it putting on our side our …neighbor.
The neighbor, I was saying, is everything for our Saint, because we cannot go to God unless we go through our neighbor. There is no other way, "Throughout the whole Scripture, my friend, you will find that God sets up your neighbor as an instrument to reach His Majesty" (Ibid, 113). And he quotes chapter 25:40 of St. Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus says, "I assure you, as often you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me." As a follower of St. Paul he could not miss the passage in Acts 9:4, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Persecuting the Christians, Paul is persecuting Christ, because the Christians are Christ. More modestly our Holy Founder says our neighbor "is the one who receives what we cannot give to God" (Sermon V). He is the only means, there are no other, or there are but they are not for sure.
From this we can understand what a central role our neighbor, the love toward our neighbor, plays in the spirituality of our Holy Founder. Not for nothing he was a doctor, that is, a practical man. He knew that in spiritual life the great risk is illusion. He wanted "true and real, not imaginary" virtues (Constitutions IX). This is why he was situating them in the context of concrete and often radical experiences, so that they would emerge from life itself And since he knew that the virtue which easily is a subject of illusion, is the love of God, he has bound it tightly to the love of neighbor on a Scriptural foundation, "If anyone says, 'My love is fixed on God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar" (1 Jn 4:20)
For sure the leading virtue is the love of God. We have to love him "with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and with all our mind" (Lk 10:27). It is the first Commandment; it is the vow that all Christians, Religious or not, have professed at Baptism But how, the Saint asks, do we acquire a great love of God? And are we sure to have it?
The answer is clear, "One and the same thing helps you to acquire it, to increase it, to augment it, and in addition it shows when it is there. Do you know what it is? It is charity the love of our neighbor" (Sermon IV). He continues saying that "God has put man as our neighbor to test us" (Ibid, 110, 112), as a verification. He insists, "The means of God's love is the love for our neighbor" (Ibid, 119); and following God's style who in his work uses various media, he continues, "The man who wants to reach God has to use another man as his means" (Ibid, 111); "we need man as our means to reach God" (Ibid.); "God usually operates in this way, one man with another" (Ibid, 112); "does not God work in the creatures through the creatures?" (Ibid, 110).
Therefore, our neighbor is a sacramental reality through which God reaches us and we God. Our contact with God takes place in and through our neighbor. "Our neighbor … is the one who receives what we cannot give directly to God" (Letter II) To give is the essence of any love. Even our love for God wants to be expressed as a gift, and since "God does not need any of our goods" (Ibid, 21), God has put beside us our neighbor, so that we could express our love for Him in a gift, since we really give to God what we give to our neighbor. Moreover, our neighbor itself becomes for us a supreme gift, because it allows us through itself to realize our supreme desire: to reach God.
There is no greater exaltation of our neighbor than this. Surely, so many other aspects of the theology of charity are present to our Holy Founder'. we have to love our neighbor because the others are like us, because God's love for them is infinite, and is glad to see them loved, while is saddened when they are saddened (Sermon IV), because the sure deep need of man is to have a little love (Ibid, 112), because love is the first lesson taught by the Incarnation (Ibid, 107), because only love sustains and fulfills us (Ibid, 109). All these aspects are true and profoundly inspiring, but not as much as considering our neighbor as the supreme benefactor, because it is through him that we reach God.
In this light human rapport is illumined. Fraternal love remains always a debt, the only debt; but we gladly pay it off, as a ride leading us to encounter our loved one. In the journey our heart is transformed: from a "stony heart" becomes a "natural heart" (Ez 11: 19; 36:26). From the heart, then, the conversion moves to the whole being bringing the reality of our Holy Founder's wish, "In everything be motivated by charity" (Sermon III).
(original text in Ecco dei Barnabiti, 1991:2)
All the 13 Spiritual Themes of St Anthony M . Zaccaria were translated from Italian by Fr. Frank Papa, CRSP and edited by Ms. Fran Stahlecker.