Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, Prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education (Catholic Press Photo)

At the root of true friendship

Towards the Rimini Meeting, marked this year by a key word that opens a thousand questions, on which Portuguese Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, author of a book dedicated to this theme, will also speak.
Alessandro Banfi

Pavel Aleksandrovič Florensky, the Russian philosopher and mathematician, would say that we have to go down within ourselves, calmly, step by step, to understand the phrase that has been chosen this year as the title of the Rimini Meeting: "Human existence is an inexhaustible friendship." It is an exercise that, I confess, I tried to do myself because this theme demands a radical revision. Or rather an understanding of what is at the bottom of our human story. Especially since many realities today seem exhausted, having reached the end of their run. Including friendship, anything but inexhaustible: trivialized as it is, reduced to "like," to vague acquaintance, to contact, to sharing on social networks. Whether it is an inexhaustible source, a "living fountain" as Dante would say, today it dramatically has the characters of the improbable if not the impossible. But is the person really enough, is our human existence enough to recognize its freshness? Perhaps not, perhaps the drama of contemporary person demands that something happen to trigger this recognition.

Speaking about friendship and getting to the root of my story, I found a father. And not only in the figurative sense. I wondered why I have always valued friendship as an indispensable energy, great good fortune, and I was reminded of the story I am about to tell you. The story is this: my second baptismal name, Lelius, derives from my father Vittorio's reading in that 1959 of a book by Marcus Tullius Cicero, dedicated to friendship, entitled: Laelius de amicitia. It is a philosophical essay dedicated to a topic that at that time in Cicero's life was fundamental: who can be considered a friend? Where does the usefulness of friendship lie? Those questions crept in, almost sneaked into my destiny. Questions that were profoundly Roman, Latin, because they were poetic and concrete at the same time. Now that my father is gone, I would like to discuss them with him the reason for the seed he planted in my name.

But then another passage appeared, found in a precious book just published by Piemme and written by Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, Prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education. The book has a simple, one-word title: Friendship. A fortunate coincidence, which again illuminates the title of the Rimini meeting, where the cardinal will be present together with writer Daniele Mencarelli. In the first chapters, Tolentino writes something that sounds immediately familiar: friendship is often implied and indeed nourished by silence and presence. That is what happens, a friend does not need you to tell them everything. You are there for each other, perhaps by being silent. One of the most beautiful Italian films seen this year was The Eight Mountains, based on the novel by Paolo Cognetti. Two extraordinary actors, Alessandro Borghi and Luca Marinelli, play two friends. Their silence, their just being there comes across as hard and beautiful as the stone of the mountains of the Aosta Valley. Undoubtedly, for them living is an "inexhaustible friendship..."

Cardinal Tolentino, of Portuguese origin, is a poet, as well as a priest and theologian, and therefore handles verses from the great Western tradition, revealing interesting connections. He writes, "I am reminded of the lines from Giacomo Leopardi's Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell'Asia: 'What are you there, moon, in the sky? Tell me what you do, silent moon [...] Tell me, Oh moon, what life is worth to a shepherd, or your life to you? Tell me: where does my brief wandering lead, or your immortal course?’ In the poem, the wandering shepherd contemplates the moon. With what need? In search of what? In search of a depth we may never fully reach but in which we need to feel immersed. There is a broader horizon beyond the individual solution of my existence: I will remain incomplete, some essential part of me will remain undeveloped, if I have never come to seriously compare the ‘brief wandering’ with the ‘immortal course.’ In Latin, the word ‘contemplation’ comes from the combination of two terms, cum and templum, by which the open space in domes was referred to in ancient times in order to interpret the signs of the future. To contemplate is not only to introduce a beneficial slowness into our gaze. It is also to perceive the time of life as a relational fabric, a dialogical intersection that infinitely expands the meaning that the word 'friendship' can contain."

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At the root of true friendship is the wandering shepherd's question, which is in each of us, to the moon. A question of salvation. Here we return to the ‘usefulness’ of friendship according to the great Cicero, who in a pre-Christian age used the terms virtue and piety. With true friends one experiences non-possession, gratuitousness, but also with them one lives before the mystery of the infinite. For Christians it is the friendship of God, through Jesus Christ, that fulfils to the full the potential of this relationship. Tolentino writes again, "Friendship is accepting that God visits us through those who are our neighbors." The other. The other who can be the visitor, the pilgrim, the beggar.