Over the past days many people asked me to share a recollection of Don Tonino. Only now do I realize that while I experienced many important aspects of his life as pastor and man of faith, I failed to give his inner life the emphasis it deserves. I hope I will be able to remedy this serious omission with this brief contribution. Also because – in the light of the same experience of Jesus reported in the Gospel –
I believe that all his courageous decisions were rooted in his special relationship with God in prayer. The beguilement of power spares no one. It can be vanquished only if we allow God to enter our lives. Also Jesus, immediately after the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, when the crowd intended to make him king, withdrew to the mountain in prayer (Cf. John 6: 15). Don Tonino’s powerful, determined, critical distance from all forms of power, can only originate from his constant, sincere dialogue with God in prayer! As does his courageous commitment for peace, for immigrants, his limitless Christian love for the last: where else could he have drawn it from?! I have no doubts: from that very fountainhead of love and life of prayer. Thus when I remember don Tonino gathered in prayer I picture him in the chapel of the Bishop’s residence that resembled a small cenacle, where he spent the most important moments of his day as a Bishop in the company of the Lord.
He was there in the early morning hours, before entering the vortex of his many pastoral duties; in the afternoon, before leaving for his service in numerous communities and diocese groups; in the evening, after dinner, before withdrawing to his small room.
The tabernacle at the centre, nestled in the magnificent eighteenth-century altar adorned with precious marquetry placed on the opposite wall, facing a kneeler, on the lateral walls the mosaic of a modest silver-painted Via Crucis and on the right corner a small desk with the Bible, the breviary, a pen, and a few white sheets of paper, a sober bookcase placed beside it.
He would often gather in prayer in the middle of the night. In the climate of night adoration, seated at that desk, he would write letters, homilies and speeches, Christmas and Easter messages, annual pastoral programs;
Those were the beautiful texts we later had the joy of reading in our diocesan weekly. I can picture him still there: at least twice, woken up by some noise – the squeaking door of his room left ajar or his own steps – and attracted by the only feeble light in the large apartment of the bishops’ residence still plunged in night darkness, unbeknown to him, I stealthily drew near to “spy” on his profile, his posture captivated by that atmosphere of intimacy and meditation.
I can almost see him writing, pausing to reflect and repeating to himself the notes put down on paper, addressing his gaze to the tabernacle, as if wanting to exact a sign of consensus from his Divine interlocutor: “What do you think? Should I leave it like this or does it need some corrections? Does it somewhat reflect Your thought?” It appeared that the text was the fruit of a precious cooperation, or that he was composing those reflections to cherish in those lines not only his brilliant intuitions but also Christ’s beating heart, “his indestructible love”, as he defined it in one of his beautiful reflections. Not to mention that when he was asked to speak of his prayers he replied that he regretted not being able to devote more time to God, and when he managed to, he realised that his pastoral difficulties “melted like ice under the sun.”
He passed on to us his original understanding of prayer, encompassed in the word “contemplactivity.”
The true Christian – he used to repeat – is a contemplactive person. Indeed, he said, our relationship with the Lord must not be lived out as a flight from the world and from our daily hurdles. And most of all, prayer must not be experienced as a peripheral reality, a secondary occurrence, “resembling the lace sewn onto the fabric of our day, which thus risks being torn apart from the habit of our existence at the first difficulty or the first suffering”, as he used to say.
Don Tonino has effectively managed to pass on to us all of his inner life when he celebrated the Eucharist, or when, he humbly joined the prayer of his people. I recall the extraordinary experience of the Lenten and Advent meetings with youths. The faithful crowded the Cathedral to listen to his passionate words. On those occasions we all came into contact with his contemplative heart and with the fountainhead of his prophetic zeal, his passion for justice, his commitment for peace. Authentic prayer humanizes us more, it draws us closer not only to God , but also to humankind and to its tragedies.
(*) Secretary of don Tonino Bello