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Monsignor Gherardini: The Priest, The Teacher, The Friend

Monsignor Gherardini: The Priest, The Teacher, The Friend

by Fr. Stefano Carusi

“Pray for me, because the hour is near.” For almost a year already, these were his parting words when he always accompanied a guest to the door, after a visit. And the beautiful smile of someone who was at peace, calm and relaxed, who knew that among a thousand human limitations, that he had fought his battle, bonum certamen certavi (I have fought a good fight).

For a while, it was time for a life of prayer and rest, in his “hermitage,” inside the palace of the Canons of Saint Peter, at the Vatican. But it was not always this way, on the contrary. The situation of the crisis in the Faith in the Church and his worry – I would dare say anguish – to know what the Lord was truly asking of him, wore him out, almost exhausted him. He, who had already expressed himself long-ago in 1967 concerning the danger of the plans concerning the New Offertory of the Mass, as he loved to recall, confessed that in certain moments he didn’t have the strength to write and to speak, to the point where it was lawful to ask himself if there hadn’t been some preternatural intervention which wanted to gain his silence or inactivity. I cite from memory “if I have to say all that there is to say about the Council and that which followed it, I have to be resistant” he said on the phone, still in 2008.

Monsignor Gherardini reflected a long time on the opportunity for a written contribution of his, on the subject. And the choice was painful. Speaking of his past at the Lateran University, he said: “I was terribly afraid of giving scandal about the Church, especially to seminarians, given my role as professor.” Those who knew him, realize that his reluctance in expressing himself publicly on all these evils afflicting the Church wasn’t the excuse of the careerist, but true worry, deriving in part from his Roman spirit, and in part from the formation received by the priests of his generation. Then, candidly, he admitted: “for years I was grasping at straws to be able to read number 22 of Lumen Gentium in harmony with Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church.” With the intellectual honesty that always accompanied his steps, he declared that in the end, he had to surrender and openly admit that not even the Nota Praevia (Explanatory Note at the end of Lumen Gentium) was satisfactory on the question of Papal Primacy and on Episcopal Collegiality. He also wrote, and signed his work with name and last name, on many other controversial points, with humility and strength, with love for the Church.

The moment of the decision came: “I knew that I had the ability, and I arrived at the conclusion that God was asking me for it, I did not want to present myself before Him, for Him to tell me: ‘You could have done this, but you didn’t do it.” And so, almost in one go as he did when he had the inspiration, and with the ease of one who has full mastery of the subject, he wrote Concilio Vaticano II, un discorso da fare (published in English as: Vatican II: A Much Needed Discussion) and also in 2009, for Disputationes Theologicae, wrote Quale valore magisteriale per il Concilio Vaticano II (What Magisterial Value for the Second Vatican Council), an article which was in the works for a year, but it was as if he did not feel ready. Then he called me, happy, and told me in a high-pitched voice: “Here is what you asked me for insistently.” Yes, because Msgr. Gherardini was also a man of effective and refined linguistic expressions, although sometimes uncommon ones. He used the Italian language in an enchanting and nonchalant way, even though occasionally, one needed to reread two or three times his “Asian” phrasing.

To those who would shyly make reference to his style - not always the easiest - he would respond dryly: “I write this way.” But then, kindly, he admitted that those many subordinate clauses could require a certain effort on the part of the reader, not to mention translations… but the complexity of what he wrote, and the delicacy of the subjects in which the doctrine and the authority of the Church were on the line, required an appropriate linguistic expression, far from modern rationalism, and sic et non (yes and no) situations.

Certainly a man of character, he said of himself: “I never was afraid of anyone, I have been imprudent sometimes, but if the principles were on the line…” and recounted when he had to respond to the famous Cardinal who did not hazard to intervene on the editorial line of Divinitas, because “it’s mine, the periodical is mine!”, so – taking all the responsibility upon himself – articles of “theological complaisance” would not be published. In October 2014, when dense clouds were seen on the horizon, supporting us in some battlefield choices he told us not to forget that “we live in tremendous, most difficult times” and then added, almost meditatively: “keeping [fast to] principles is already huge.” As if to tell us, to not ask for more than fidelity. And he continued: “availability for suffering is needed, one cannot not suffer” and concluded bitterly: “today there are no witnesses, prayer is important but isn’t enough, martyrs even to the point of blood are needed,” and then added “true blood.”

Speaking then of blackmail and threats which were already in the air for everybody, and to which he was also subject in the past, he raised his voice and said only: “with Masonry, one never gives in.” Masonry hadn’t been spoken of, but – as the Thomists would say – he knew how to quickly return to the causes…

Arriving back home, I wrote those phrases down, they seemed to be almost a spiritual testament, and gave off a prophetic tone. At the end of the meeting, already aware of the few years which were left him, he said almost to reassure us: “as soon as I arrive up there, my first thought will be of you.” As if to say ‘look instead to the Church above, rather than the trifles of the men of the Church here below; when I will be there, I will help you.’ Msgr. Gherardini was a man of his word on earth, he will also be so from Heaven.

In the last encounters, every so often he would also remember the suffering of all those who had abandoned him; already in 2009 his taking positions earned him the desertion of old “friends,” then around 2014 with the new wind that was blowing, many chameleonic admirers of the great theologian started to not show up at his home, hiding themselves. He regretted this, but without great distress. His situation of “eremitical retreat” had already allowed him to think more of God, and gave him much time for prayer. And this serenity, by then almost that of the ascetic, could be seen in those deep blue eyes.

Much has been said of him as a theologian, and other things will be said. What shone the most, in our eyes, was that spirit of profoundly joining together speaking of the scientia Dei (the knowledge of God) and that vision, almost of an eagle in flight, which saw everything from on high, and as a whole. “I had great teachers” he laughed, as if to justify a talent he didn’t wish to attribute to himself. His grateful thoughts went straight away to Pietro Parente (to Parente the theologian, especially as such in the first years of study and teaching) and then to the unforgotten Monsignor Piolanti, who had taught him – a bit like Saint Thomas – to take the good wherever it is [comes from], purifying it of its contaminated surroundings, above all without losing oneself in ideologisms.

This too, is the Roman School. When there were disputed theological questions, to he who asked too-childishly for an almost peremptory judgment, after having categorically excluded the heresies which could arise from the discussion, he gave a response that was the culmination between the two extremes, availing himself of his recurring phrase: si vis theologus esse distingue frequenter (if you want to be a theologian, distinguish often), said without any haughtiness. 

And when a great theologian – already awarded with the highest ecclesiastical appointments, and in the ‘post-conciliar fervor’ perhaps more occupied with maintaining the prestige of [his] rank than defending fully the doctrine of the Church – had criticized a response of Msgr. Gherardini as being too strong, saying to him: “but what have you written?!” he responded simply: “I wrote what you taught me, when you were my university professor.”

But one who would see Msgr. Gherardini as only a theologian, would be mistaken. He himself often recalled that “the priest is father, teacher and friend.” He was a gentle and precise confessor, the presence of many Sisters present at his funeral bore witness to this. He had offered his spiritual guidance to them for years; perhaps not all of them had read his theological works, but all had experienced his depth and – it may be, with more gratitude than many theologians – they were all present to grieve for him on the day of the final farewell.

And then, “friend,” because Msgr. Gherardini had the highest concept of friendship, and because of this – where the love of truth imposed it, and because he spurned all duplicity – he knew how to withdraw his greeting, as the Gospel demands, in front of heresy or more simply, hypocrisy. But if he was loyal in friendship and if this was really based on unity of intent – idem velle, idem nolle (wanting the same things, rejecting the same things) – then one saw that beyond the appearance of the distinct, tall, very thin Tuscan ecclesiastic, there was hidden a heart which pitied the friend, without the shadow of affectation. Every kind of facade, especially curial, repulsed him. He cared about friendship, sometimes he suffered, admitting that one of his defects was that of struggling a lot, to see bad in his neighbor, then having to believe in him again, omnia munda mundis (to the pure, all things are pure). But then he raised his gaze on high, maybe also because of this,one of his theological efforts was dedicated to Mary. To the Mother of God he dedicated many pages, and recalled the glories of the Heavenly Queen with much wisdom and a son’s love,which leads one to think - to use the words of Cardinal Comastri during the homily at the funeral – that when Our Lady encounters him in Paradise, She can well tell him: bene scripsisti de me (you have written well of Me).

Translated from Italian into English for Catholic Family News by Brendan Young.

Originally appeared on the blog Disputationes Theologicae, October 31, 2017. 

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