Fr. Mauro Giuseppe Lepori. Wikimedia Commons

He Re-Centered Us on the Charism

Fr. Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, the Abbot General of the Cistercians,reflects on the Pope’s words. “When I become fossilized, I lose my peace.”
Luca Fiore

At 19 Rue de Gambach, a short walk from the University of Friburg, the students sharing a beautiful house in Jugendstil with Fr. Eugenio Corecco had a special name for Corecco’s friend, Mauro Giuseppe Lepori: “Palestina.” Lepori himself says the nickname was “because of my avarice, which is the tip of the iceberg of my fear of giving my life, which undermined my joy in living.” He met CL in 1976. The following year he discerned his vocation to the consecrated life. Forty years later, Swiss-born Fr. Lepori, from the Canton of Ticino, is now the Abbot General of the Cistercians and occupies the seat once held, in a certain sense, by Robert, Alberic, and Stephen–the Three Rebellious Monks [as the founder and first leaders of the Cistercians were called in Marcel Raymond’s history of the order’s early years]. A couple of years ago at the Meeting of Rimini, Lepori spoke of himself as a “little monster,” one he can now look upon with mercy, “not so much because he is entirely dead in me, but rather, because it is precisely he who enables me to measure and understand the charity I ran up against when I met Fr. Corecco,” and with him, the Movement of CL.

You, too, were in Saint Peter’s Square on March 7th .What are your thoughts after that day?
The Pope asked us questions, provoked us. Speaking of mercy, he said that Christ loves me, esteems me, embraces me, calls me a new, hopes in me, awaits my response. These statements must help us to understand the Pope’s attitude toward us, toward the Movement. Through his words Francis, too, esteems us, embraces us, and calls us anew.

Did his words raise any questions for you?
The most surprising thing was his asking us to de-center the charism, and so it raises the most questions. It called to mind the various passages of the journey of the Movement when I was in the CLU: “Hold nothing dearer than Christ,” “Give your life for the work of an Other,” “Be without a homeland.” It was always an invitation to place Christ at the center. So I said to myself that deep down, in calling us to de-center from the charism in order to center on Christ, he is actually re-centering us on the charism. I don’t know if this was his intention, but it had this effect on me.

The Cistercians have a glorious past. What is the meaning for you of Mahler’s line,“Faithfulness to tradition means keeping the flame alive, not worshipping the ashes”?
If in Saint Benedict’s charism the reference to the centrality of Christ is lost, then yes, it is true, we become museum guides, in the sense that the formal inheritance is no longer supported by a vitality. Monasteries, doctrine, liturgy: all that this great tradition transmits to us falls into decline if there lacks within the fire of a vitality produced by the personal relationship with Christ. Fr. Giussani and Saint Benedict both were aware that life must always be in conversion, that you can never feel that everything is in place. I liked it that the title of the encounter with the Pope was: “On the journey.”

When it happens, if it happens, how do you realize that the charism is becoming “fossilized”?
I realize because I am not happy. I lose my peace. Fossilizing means saying that who I am or what I do, or who the communities are and what they do, becomes more important than the One who calls us. You turn in on yourself, maybe proud of what you do or what you are, and you no longer follow Christ, and you no longer make this journey that is always new. Following Christ means following One who is the Mystery. If you lose this, you become fossilized. Even the mere awareness of this is a call to adhere to Christ. It is the call of mercy, like the Pope’s, because you are regenerated by that love. Saint Benedict spoke of the humility of acknowledging we are sinners, and of resuming anew a journey in the footsteps of Christ’s mercy.

What helps you to find this humility?
Life itself: not closing in on my own thoughts and feelings, but remaining open to encounters, to what reality asks of me. Never settling for self love. A Father of the Church said that we must immerse any search for self love in the love of God. That is decentering from yourself: you can find yourself in full only if you immerse yourself in the love of God.

“Keep alive the flame of the memory of that first encounter, and be free!” The Pope pronounced with particular force that “be free!”
In the monastic world, all the abuses of freedom come from asking members to follow some forms instead of educating them to prefer Christ. I often provoke the communities I visit by asking: Are we in the monastery for Christ or for another reason? Because in the final analysis, only Christ saves our freedom. Following Him and obeying Him is the greatest road of freedom. Christ must be proposed not as a form, a message, a morality, but as a person, as the Mystery of a presence that nobody possesses, One who gave Himself first, who loved us first, as the Pope said.

Francis asks us to be an outward bound Church. Can a monk feel challenged by this, too?
The Pope himself told us superior generals of religious orders that the peripheries are defined by each person’s vocation. If we think of Therese of Lisieux, the peripheries for her were the universe of the human heart. The peripheries are the person sought by Christ, the human heart begged by the love of Christ who wants to reach every person. If you do not have the consciousness of how much Christ wants to save even the last person of history, you cannot truly be a father or a mother. Fruitfulness comes through participating in the charity of God that has reached us. If you go deeply into the charity by which and for which you are called, you surely go to the peripheries: you are missionary.If you lack the awareness that without Christ you can do nothing, you are sterile even if you do everything and go everywhere. But if you have this consciousness, you are surely fruitful, even if to outward appearances you can do nothing.

Recently, presenting the new edition of Simon, Called Peter (Cantagalli), you said that for you, following the Pope means following your personal relationship with Christ.
It did me a lot of good to reflect in preparation for that conference. For the first time, I realized how the end of John’s Gospel describes precisely John’s following of Peter, who follows Jesus. I had never realized that John, who understood everything better than Peter, who was united with Christ perhaps more than was Peter, understood that he had to follow both of them immediately after they publicly exchanged that “Do you love Me?” “Yes, I love You,” “Feed My sheep.” Clarifying this aspect for myself gave me the right prayerful attitude of asking that I needed as I came to the audience.I’m not just referring to the Pope’s talk, but to the entire moment: the beauty of this great people that was present there, the familiarity that you could feel. So now, I’m mulling over that day in the context of a clarity that I had already received. Focusing on the objective relationship between Jesus and the Pope produces a light that disperses the fog of various interpretations. I don’t want to lose this clarity, because I care about myself and my friends. John who follows Peter who follows the Risen One, in order not to lose the traces of the Risen One... It is the last scene of the Gospel, an experience that began then and will never end.