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Translation of an Official Letter sent by H. E. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to Abbot Tarcisio Benvenuti (March 2004)

Sent with the best wishes of Joseph card. Ratzinger,
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Vatican City

Dear Esteemed Father Abbot,

It is almost two years since I had the privilege of visiting your community at Vallechiara (Lanuvio). I write, as I promised at the time, to assure you of my blessing and encouragement. I was particularly touched by two aspects of my visit.

Firstly the experience of prayer and song in your church – the opus Dei that had brought us together. One could sense the joy of the Lord which emanated from the splendid liturgy and festive songs.

“I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells”. The words of this Psalm (25,8) express this experience. The explanation you gave, while showing me the large tent where the Sunday liturgy is celebrated, confirmed my impression: even in such a precarious space one can discover, in the liturgy, the beauty of God certain that the liturgy reflects in our world the beauty of the divine. It is here that the splendid face of God appears to the celebrant and those in prayer – that face which the pilgrims of the old covenant were searching for in the sanctuary, which is the same splendour which you desire to rediscover in creation each day of your life.

Creation is illuminated during the liturgy which, if it were not for the enlightening presence of the beauty and goodness of our Creator, would be nothing but a “vale of tears”.

I now come to the second experience which particularly marked my visit to Vallechiara.

You have that same intuition which provided the basis for the life of St. Benedict – those two central elements for the monastic life: opus Dei (communion with the living God through choral prayer and the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, which provide the rhythm for the day) and work within and for Creation (not just as a consequence of sin, but as a duty which man has been given ever since Adam was entrusted the Garden of Paradise).

It is in fact written in Scripture that when he was placed in the garden, God ordered Adam to cultivate and protect that place (Gen 2:16).

The name Vallechiara brings to mind Bernard of Clairvaux, who provided a great renewal of the Benedictine spirit. In the labor improbus he illustrated how monks, assuming the same suffering of Adam, could work to build a paradise on earth. Through the penitence of manual work, the monks were transforming the “valley of tears and bitterness” into an “illuminated and clear valley” (clara vallis).

The work of transforming creation into a garden of God can be seen as externally representing the interior journey which is at the heart of the monastic life, conversio morum: the purification of the soul, as an enlightened space open to the God who comes to walk among us.

Love of liturgy and love of creation are very closely intertwined: the beauty of God is reflected in the liturgy which is communicated to us through creation, a gift of our Creator – bread and wine – which are transformed into the body and blood of our Redeemer providing us with a most profound unity of creation and redemption.

In the age in which we live I believe it is especially important to weld together, as you propose, the unity of opus Dei e opus hominum. This link is fundamental for monasticism (though, over time, this link has been weakened so much so that it is hardly present any longer). Augustine was similarly concerned in De opere monachorum and used this as a basis for his own way of life.

As I was saying, it is truly here that one can see the reflection of God – as Creator and Redeemer, within creation and history, within reason and faith – which illustrate to us the unity and uniqueness of God. This is the same condition which provides the unity of man with himself and of human beings with one another.

The love that you have for creation, which I saw at first hand in your gestures, is not a Rousseau-style romanticism, nor a hearkening back to an ideology hostile to advances in technology and the problems of humanity, but it is firmly rooted in the liturgy – in the encounter with our Redeemer. It is truly in the liturgy that the Redeemer shows himself to us as Creator, calling and inviting us to free our souls and the land in which we live from the consequences of sin, and prepares them for those last days when the Lord will return.

I have not yet mentioned the name of He around whom this whole discussion revolves: Jesus Christ.

When you greeted me on my arrival, my dear father abbot and friend, you explained to me how, together with some friends, you began a journey of faith in the midst of the confusion after the Second Vatican Council. At that time an opinion was being diffused that the world and the Church needed to be rebuilt from their foundations and that Tradition was by now obsolete and therefore of no use for those working for the future.

You expressed to me how, amidst of the confusion, you indicated the way to follow: with eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, convinced that “the greatest joy in life is to be a disciple of Jesus” and that “our heart provides the space which God desires to fill with His love alone”.

You sensed that you were making a journey towards a new world, while remaining in communion with your roots. You did not choose to follow a romanticised Jesus or an invented Jesus, modelled on our ideals and aspirations, but a real Jesus – the Jesus who reveals himself as Lord of the world with extreme humility and obedience, even unto death on the cross. Accompanied by Peter, you have discovered the Son of the living God and, in this way, also the Father and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

By the love of Jesus Christ, the Christ who the Apostles witness to in Holy Scripture, you have rediscovered the Church which lives above all in the liturgy and is continuously learning to love God and his Incarnate Son.

But how can one love Christ – the God who kneels down in front of the difficulties of bandits, taking them by the hand and healing them, suffering and giving his own life as a ransom for all – how can one understand and love without firstly learning to love one’s neighbour and all those for whom he gave his life?

It is here that you have discovered how opus Dei and opus caritatis are founded on one another, as ora et labora.

It is above all in the liturgy that you have rediscovered the same itinerary that the Church has followed throughout the centuries – these riches which have been gathered over time, providing a patrimony rooted in faith.

You are living a joyful catholicity where the story of faith is not just a part of history, but a living tree which is renewing its roots every day. Already, in this world, this foreshadows the house with many rooms which God will assign, each his own place, giving all the possibility to live together in the love of the Triune God.

Best wishes: may your community continue to grow and to be renewed in a living relationship of friendship with Christ.

+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger

Vatican City, 8th March 2004

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