ON THE OCCASION OF THE 9th CENTENARY
OF THE CATHEDRAL OF CASALE MONFERRATO
HOMILY OF H. Em. CARD. TARCISIO BERTONE
Thursday, 4 January 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
"Let us come into his [God's] presence with thanksgiving" (Ps 95: 2). These words, the Response to the Responsorial Psalm that we have just repeated, sum up clearly the meaning and importance of today's celebration. We have gathered to praise and thank God in his house, in the temple that was built for him and, precisely because it is consecrated to him, is also the dwelling place of us who form his family, his people, redeemed by Christ's Blood. We all feel at home here, united by a bond of love that knows no bounds of space or time.
In accepting the Psalmist's invitation, we have come to sing and praise the Lord, "the rock of our salvation", a "great God, and a great King above all gods". In his hand "are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it; for his hands formed the dry land"; it is he who is "our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand" (cf. Ps 95).
Thus, our meeting is first and foremost an act of faith in the one God who revealed his loving Face to us in Jesus Christ.
We praise and thank God with this Eucharist on a day of special importance to your diocesan community: on this very day it is celebrating the ninth centenary of the Cathedral. Indeed, this beautiful church, built in the Lombard Romanesque style, was in fact dedicated on 4 January 1107 by Pope Paschal II, when the Medieval town belonged to the Diocese of Vercelli.
Nine centuries have passed since then, full of religious and civil events that have marked your city's progress. In 1474, it was established as a Diocese at the wish of Pope Sixtus IV.
At this moment, our thoughts go back far beyond that date to the origins of your Christian community, which venerates as its founder the holy Martyr Evasius. His relics, together with those of Queen Theodelinda of the Bavarians, were placed in the first church dedicated to him which had been built by the Lombard King Liutprand in the eighth century.
We do not know much about St Evasius; we are certain, however, that he died a martyr for defending faith in Christ, following in the footsteps of St Eusebius of Vercelli; he also fought against the Arian heresy, fairly widespread at that time, which denied that Jesus was true God and true man.
Tradition tells us that Duke Attabulus cut off his head with a single stroke of the sword, and thus Evasius mingled his blood with that of Christ.
Your city has rightly venerated him as its heavenly patron ever since. And I should find out why my father gave me Evasius as my second name: I am called Tarcisio Evasio Pietro!
So it is that this church has its origins in the martyrdom of St Evasius. In the Christmas atmosphere of these days, the liturgy has had us meditate on martyrdom several times, starting with that of Stephen, the Protomartyr.
And we sometimes ask ourselves, as the Holy Father did in his Angelus Reflection last 26 December, about the striking contrast between the luminous joy of the Nativity of Christ and the excruciating suffering of the violent killing of his disciples. "In reality, the apparent contradiction" Benedict XVI said, "is overcome if we consider more in depth the mystery of Christmas". That Child lying helpless in the manger "will save humanity by dying on the Cross".
"For believers", the Pope continued, the day of death, and even more the day of martyrdom, is not the end of all; rather, it is the "passage' towards immortal life. It is the day of definitive birth, in Latin, dies natalis" (L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 3 January 2007, p. 12): thus, the Birth of Christ, the birth of the martyrs; the joy of Christmas, the joy of martyrdom.
Who are the martyrs if not those who, as we heard in the Second Reading, gathered close to the Lord, "that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious", in order to be used "as living stones... built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (I Pt 2: 4).
They encourage us, too, to follow this path. If the gift of shedding our blood in martyrdom is not granted to all, we are all called to testify to what we could call a martyrdom of love, which consists in offering one's own life to the Lord daily, in trusting obedience to his will, especially when it is hard to accept, a witness-martyrdom that is an incentive to make our life a gift to God and to our brothers and sisters.
Only in this way is it possible to build that living Church, of which the material temple is a symbol. Using the words of St Peter that we heard in the Second Reading, this is in fact "God's own people, [chosen so] that [they might] declare the wonderful deeds of him who called [us] out of darkness into his own marvellous light" (ibid., 2: 4-9).
What use would it be, in fact, to build churches of cement and stone if they were not first of all the living Church made of the "living stones", formed by the community of saints, martyrs and believers, all called to holiness?
Every church, especially the cathedral, is par excellence the house of God's encounter with the "worshipping" people. And as Jesus says, "true worshippers" are those who worship the Father "in spirit and truth".
We have just been reminded of this by St John in the wonderful passage from his Gospel which tells of Jesus' meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar.
Today, only a few verses from the entire passage, which constitutes a rich baptismal catechesis, have been presented to us. They help us to reflect on our "vocation" as Church and in the Church. They remind us that each one of us must worship God in spirit and truth with the witness of his or her life, having become, with Baptism, a living temple of God.
Every Christian family is a "little domestic church" centred on Christ, and the community all together is the people whom Christ redeemed at the price of his Blood. In a little while we shall evoke this important theological and spiritual reality with these words from the Preface: May you sanctify this Church, mystically foreshadowed in the sign of the temple, as Bride of Christ, the joyful mother of a great multitude of children, and set her beside you, clothed in glory (cf. Preface II for the Dedication of a Church).
We are led to this point, dear brothers and sisters, by reflection on the event that we are commemorating today. We are gathered in your Cathedral, where there are evident signs of the faith of many generations of Christians who went before you. We are in this wonderful Cathedral, which has undergone a vast restoration, a campaign organized by your Pastor, Bishop Germano Zaccheo, whom I greet with affection and thank for inviting me to preside at today's celebration.
If, today, as I was saying, we are celebrating nine centuries of wonders of faith and love, it is because St Evasius faithfully followed Christ without fearing death and gave his life for him. Many other men and women imitated St Evasius and from heaven are now mystically united with the Eucharistic sacrifice we are celebrating.
It is now up to us, all of us, to continue on this path; it is our duty to be a living Church formed of living stones, firmly united to Christ who is the Living Stone, indeed the "Cornerstone" of our spiritual building. This is the church which knows no bounds of time or space; a well-structured body, a mystical family formed by innumerable blesseds, saints and martyrs but also by sinners in need of the constant support of divine mercy. In it no one is a stranger but all are full children of God and "fellow-citizens of the saints".
The cathedral symbolizes all this. It is a sign down the ages of a Church which does not die because she is founded on the Risen Christ. This temple, made of stones, decorated with art and talent, laden with history and many signs of faith, reminds us of all this.
It is still being restored but is already offering us a renewed face. In this regard, I gladly take the opportunity to compliment those who have carried out this work with such care, as well as those who have promoted and funded it.
I came here about three years ago, in November 2003, to inaugurate the apse, ambulatory and mosaics; I also know that further restoration work has recently been completed in the sacristy. All this is beautiful and only right, but it would be in vain were it not at the same time accompanied by an inner restoration of our souls through a sincere and lasting conversion.
Every material church, St Caesarius of Arles noted, is a permanent symbol of the Church, a spiritual building. It is necessary to build and restore this spiritual building continually, with the help of all Christians who walk before the Lord with full sincerity and ask him to keep his eyes open night and day on this house, of which he said: "My name shall be there" (cf. I Kgs 8: 27-30).
The Byzantine Liturgy says: "Man, return to yourself; become the new man, putting off the old, and celebrate the dedication of your soul".
And St Athanasius in one of his Easter letters, speaking precisely of the function of churches as places where Christians could meet for prayer, said: "The liturgical celebration sustains us in the afflictions we encounter in this world. Through it, God grants to us that joy of salvation which increases brotherhood. Through the sacramental action of the feast, in fact, he fuses us into one assembly, he unites us all spiritually and makes us rediscover the near and the far.
"The celebration of the Church offers us a way to pray together and to raise our thanksgiving to God as a community. Indeed, this is a requirement proper to every liturgical feast. It is a miracle of God's goodness to feel in solidarity during celebration and to combine in the unity of faith those far and near, the present and the absent" (Letter 5, 1-2; PG 26, 1379-1380).
May St Evasius and the other saints whom you venerate as protectors help us to stay faithful to our vocation, which is the universal call to holiness. Above all, may Mary, Queen of Saints and the Virgin Mother of Christ and of the Church, help us and accompany us.