I recently discovered this letter written by Pope Paul VI in 1957 back when he was cardinal of Milan, just six years before his election as pope. He writes this letter as an introduction to a diocesan mission. The text hadn’t been translated into English, so here is my translation. (I include the original Italian text in a PDF at the bottom) Though written almost fifty years ago, I think it is still a beautiful message right in line with Pope Francis’ invitation to go out to the peripheries. Enjoy!
Our mission has one principal aim: to make heard an authentic religious word to our separated brothers and sisters. The separated are legion: those who do not come to Church; those who don’t pray anymore and don’t believe anymore; those whose conscience is sorrowful because of sin or feels nothing anymore because of too many worldly affairs; those who despise the Church and curse God; those who think themselves good and safe because they don’t think about religion anymore, about heaven or hell.
They are so many! So many empty places in our community! So much loneliness, at times, in God’s house. How much suffering, how much longing by the One who loves the separated as sons and daughters.
If only one word could reach them, the first would be that of asking them for forgiveness—yes, us asking them before them asking God.
When someone who is separated draws near, we cannot but feel a certain remorse. Why is that brother separated? Because he has not been loved enough. He has not been properly cared for, taught, lead into the joy of the faith. Because he has judged the faith through our own persons, those who preach and represent it; and from our faults they have learned, perhaps, to be bored with, to despise and hate religion. Because he has heard more reprimands than invitations. Because maybe he has seen baser interests in our ministry and has suffered scandal.
The separated are often people who have been given a bad example by us ministers of religion; and they reject religion because religion for them coincides with our person. They are often more demanding than ill-disposed. Their anti-clericalism may very well hide an indignant respect for the sacred, which they see defiled in us.
Well, if this is the case, separated brothers and sisters, forgive us.
If we haven’t understood you, if we have allowed ourselves to be pushed away too easily, if we haven’t cared for you, if we haven’t been capable teachers of the spirit and doctors of souls, if we haven’t been able to speak to you about God as we should speak about him, if we have treated you with sarcasm, with mockery, with confrontation, today we ask you for forgiveness.
But listen to us.
Before everything else: you do not know us. You don’t know, at least, our ministry. We aren’t working for ourselves, but for you.
We have been sent for your good, for your salvation.
Get to know us—try it out.
Consider that we too, at least on a human level, have a “professional obligation”. This binds us to wish you well. If sometimes we can be inopportune, it’s because we carry you deeply in our hearts; we should search for you, we should care for you, we should make every effort so you aren’t left without the gift of truth and salvation we hold for you in our hands. We should love you.
We treat you as enemies? No, never as our enemies. Maybe as enemies of God, of Christ, of his Church, in other words, as adversaries of our mission: yes, at times. And it is because you force us into that unhappy situation. You oblige us to defend our mission, the truth of the Gospel and the sanctity of the Church.
But understand us this once: we are not biased against you, we do not despise you, we don’t want to humiliate you or profit from your conversion. We want that, at least this once, you know that we don’t reject you, but that we call you.
We call to you, who, like us, need to be forgiven and saved by God, so you can never complain: Why didn’t you invite us? Why did you close the doors? Why haven’t you helped us to understand something of our true destiny and of your calling?
So at least this once, faithfully, as friends, we invite you: come to our Mission and hear us.
What will we say to you?
The usual things? Yes, but do you understand them? Allow us to doubt it, because if you understood them you would be enthusiastic about them.
Are they old things? Say rather that they are eternal things—always true, always alive, always relevant. And progress itself has shown the constant vitality of the Gospel to the one who knows how to discern it.
Are they difficult things? Yes, but they are beautiful and indispensable. All knowledge is difficult, and if knowledge of God is as well, it’s nothing to be surprised about. But Christ has clothed his message in the royal robes of simplicity: everyone can hear it, and at some level understand it.
Are they useless things? No—they are as useful as the air or as bread. Air and bread give life to the body, but the soul needs to breath in the Truth, to nourish itself with Christ—he is the way, the truth and the life.
Are these things too serious or challenging? It could be, because they are not trivial or foreign to our conscience, but they enter you as light, as strength. Yes, they have the power to restore our lives, to make us good and honest, to give us courage and patience, to inspire us with hunger for justice and for love.
Why not hear us out? Why not become interiorly free? But please! chained by a denied laziness, or forced to bow low by coarse passion, or paralyzed by stubbornness of pride, or intimidated by whomever might be watching or might gossip or laugh at you? If you are free, if you are sincere, you should also be strong and independent enough to come and to listen. Just listen—as mature and educated people, nothing else.
Would you like a taste? Here’s what is written in our scriptures: “‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ … ‘your orders have been carried out and still there is room.’ … ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled.” (Luke 14:21-23) Christ says this through a parable, for love for those who are separated.
— Cardinal Montini, 7 November 1957, Milan