Jesus' Gratuitous Love on the Cross

Interview With Author of Good Friday's Via Crucis

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ROME, APRIL 20, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The vocation to contemplative life speaks to the modern world about the gratuitous love of God, shown particularly through Jesus' death on the cross, says Mother Maria Rita Piccione.

Sister Piccione, a contemplative who is president of the Federation of Augustinian Nuns, was chosen to write the meditations for the Way of the Cross that Benedict XVI will lead on Good Friday in the Colosseum. This is the third time that a woman was asked to fulfill this task.

In this interview with L'Osservatore Romano, Sister Piccione spoke about her specific contribution as a female contemplative nun, the themes that mark this year's Way of the Cross, and the message she would like the world to hear.

Q: Benedictine Sister Anna Maria Canopi, in 1993, and Sister Minke de Vries, of the Protestant community of Grandchamp, Switzerland, in 1995 and now you: What do you think made the Pope entrust this year's meditations to a cloistered nun?

Sister Piccione: I haven't asked myself that too much.

As for the rest, in this last period the Pope has dedicated many of his catecheses to great feminine figures of the history of the Church.

More than "why" I wonder "for whom." And I accepted because I understood that I would be doing it for Benedict XVI and for the whole Church, therefore, for the Lord, for love of the Lord.

Q: How did you receive Benedict XVI's decision and how have you worked to prepare the texts?

Sister Piccione: I was told by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state. It's useless to speak of the great surprise, my incredulity and in addition the fear that overcame me.

I couldn't convince myself that this was happening specifically to me, a simple person, without a special title, apart from my great twofold love: God and his Church. I admit I was unable to say yes immediately, I was so confused.

It was the cardinal's exhortation to abandon myself with confidence to the divine plan and to grace that overcame my resistance.

I entrusted myself totally to the Spirit. And it was precisely this abandonment in the Spirit that decided "how" I should work to prepare the texts: by praying.

I simply put myself on the way of the Via Crucis praying and listening to the Word and letting the Spirit lead my heart and mind on his paths. I worked under the gaze of the crucified Christ, of Mary Most Holy and under the profound and transparent look of the Pope, whose photograph I have at the center of my desk. Several times, while looking at that photograph, I repeated: "for you."

I was also accompanied, so to speak, by the look of a great wooden owl that I was given this summer by the sisters of the Philippine monastery founded by the federation in 1992. This nocturnal bird, of large and luminous eyes to scrutinize the night, invited me continually to seek the face of God itself, because only with God's eyes can the night become light. And is not, perhaps, the Via Crucis a stretch of night?

Q: What are the main themes of the meditations?

Sister Piccione: I don't feel comfortable describing or analyzing a prayer: Prayer is prayed.

It is lived in the context of place and time proper to it; to describe it seems to me to do it violence. But I can say this: The background theme is one's gaze fixed on Jesus, on his humanity, on the footprints he has left us when doing the Via Crucis so that they will give us an indication when in our life we are also called to this appointment.

Q: In general the texts of the Via Crucis recall the dramas and tragedies that humanity of our time lives in the light of the mystery of the death, passion and resurrection of Christ. Will the fact that you are a contemplative change the key of the reading of the meditations this year?

Sister Piccione: I'm not the appropriate person to indicate what is specific about this prayer composed by a nun.

Perhaps it will be said by those who hear the meditations. In this respect, I only wish to recall an intervention of Dom Giuseppe Dossetti on the occasion of the granting of the Archiginnasio D'oro [Award] by the city of Bologna. I was young when I read the intervention of the monk of Monteveglio; I had great interior uneasiness and I still did not think in a clear and determined way about consecration.

Dom Giuseppe compared the monastery with a "microcosm, with a laboratory where transferable experiments can be carried out on a reduced scale to ever greater scales. It is in this laboratory where the solidarity of the monks is demonstrated with the more universal and overwhelming problems of every age."

The truth of this affirmation marked me profoundly. Absolutely no flight from the world or from the Church.

Instead, I believe that ultimately the scale of the world can be reduced and taken to the level of the heart. Then the key to the reading is found there, in the heart of man.

Q: In what way will the figure of St. Augustine, so loved by Benedict XVI, be present in the texts you've prepared?

Sister Piccione: More than in the texts, the presence of Augustine dwelt in the interior attitude that guided me in this experience from my "yes" of acceptance. I am referring to the letter that Augustine wrote to Eudosius, abbot of the monastery of Cabrera, which I reread precisely to live this service as an Augustinian.

I received Augustine's exhortation as if directed expressly to me: "If the Church asks your favors, do not assume them for the desire to go up high, and do not reject them impelled by soft living, but obey God with docility of heart, subjecting yourself with meekness to the One who directs you, who guides the meek in justice and instructs the docile in his ways."

Moreover, the presence of Augustine -- this "good travel companion," as the Pope described him in the audience of August 25 of last year -- is breathed in the look directed to the humanity of our Lord, to his humility; it is breathed in the more or less constant call of truth and in some brief expressions of the bishop of Hippo that appear here and there in the text.

Likewise the theme of truth is a point of meeting, of syntony, between the Pope and Augustine: The sincere search for truth led Augustine to God; service to the truth has always been the soul of Joseph Ratzinger's ministry.

Q: How has your vision of woman at the service of the Church influenced the meditations?

Sister Piccione: More than having a vision of woman, I am a woman; I am a woman happy to be a woman; and I think this is what permeates the style of the meditations.

The being that is expressed in the doing. The being that infects the feeling and the seeing; the identity that is reflected in sensibility.

It is very beautiful and significant that -- beyond my person -- not only a woman was chosen, but a nun, for the ecclesial prayer of the Via Crucis.

It is beautiful and significant that the Church has asked this service of one who embodies in herself the contemplative dimension. It is the Church which addresses her heart, hidden but always present and beating.

Q: What is the message that contemplative life can launch today to a secularized world?

Sister Piccione: The contribution of contemplative life to the world of today and of always is gratuitousness, the sense of gratuitousness. The beauty and joy of gratuitousness.

Gratuitousness is not purchased: Perhaps the secularized world has lost this good, losing in consequence the source of genuine joy. The gratuitousness of love is the very message of Jesus on the cross: "The proof that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners."

Love is not merited; it is a gift. And when we allow ourselves to be reached, to be touched by this love, we can do no more than love.

God, by loving us, makes us lovers.

But there is also another message that contemplative life offers the world by its mere existence. The life of monks and nuns, so simple, seemingly insignificant, is a living reminder of what is essential for man: the love of the Father who gives himself to us in Jesus through the Spirit.

One can live without other things, but not without this love which is, precisely, the necessary and sufficient condition to live and enjoy life. One is never alone.

The great difficulty is just letting oneself be loved by the Father.

There is a great prayer that moves my heart in regard to the forthcoming Via Crucis and every future Via Crucis of Good Friday: that it be an appointment for every man, whether or not a believer. An appointment of prayer before God and of reflection before our humanity that shines in Jesus; an appointment first of all before the Crucified, whose image cannot but give to the heart of every man, regardless of his faith, the word that every human heart needs: that of gratuitous love.

When we allow this word to reach us, we can understand what Augustine understood by experience: "You made us, Lord, for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

[Translation by ZENIT]