And Then What?
I don’t know how many people reading this reflection – perhaps intrigued by the question posed in the title and unsure what sort of answer it anticipates – have seen the film St Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven (2010) in which the Saint is played by the peerless Italian actor Gigi Proietti. Myself, I have watched it in various languages at least thirty times, and I’m not ashamed to say that every time I was deeply touched and so moved that I would recommend it to everyone to watch, and especially to those who have received the gift of a call from God to the consecrated life or to holy orders. This might be a bit over the top, but I am convinced it contains enough points for reflection and meditation for a whole course of Spiritual Exercises. The figure of this Saint has always been present in some way in my life and my Dominican vocation. As a young man, he used to go to the Priory of San Marco in Florence, where only a few decades earlier Fra Girolamo Savonarola had lived and worked; I did my novitiate in the same Priory, during which I read several lives of St Philip, who always seemed close to me, not least through a common sense of humour. The film puts on Philip’s lips the words of a very beautiful and very moving prayer which sums up his hopes and desires, his difficulties and struggles: “O Lord, how can I make them understand that you are the only source of joy and beauty? Without you, I am nothing: why have you chosen me to do all these things? I am not worthy. Even though I do love the people, the greatest joy is to be with you, but I end up having time for everyone except you!”.
In any case, I will venture here to present a few scenes from the film. The first is the scene which opens the second part of the film. Father Philip had rescued children from the street and brought them together in the Oratory to feed them materially and spiritually. These children, now grown up, have come together to celebrate their “Father’s” birthday; jokingly, he reminds them that he’s only one year older than the year before and that’s all! As they sit round the table, each of them shares their memories and also their plans for the future. Alessandro has reformed his life and is about to leave for the Indies with the Jesuits (a dream of St Philip himself, which in his case remained only a dream); Camillo will take his place caring for the sick, because he has realised that is how he is to serve the Lord; Pierotto is about to graduate. Last of all, Aurelio tells everyone that, though he knows it will be difficult, he has decided to pursue a career in the Church: “I want to become a bishop!”.
Philip recognises the tone of pride in his voice, and the questionable motivation behind this plan. Sounding serious and attentive, he asks him, “And then what?”
Aurelio answers, slightly embarrassed, that after that first step, he might be able to get an appointment to some Nunciature or other. In a fatherly way, Philip continues to press him: “Of course! And then what?”.
The young man, thinking he has his support, answers, “… and then I might become a Cardinal …”.
“A Cardinal! And then what? And then Pope?” Philip asks him bluntly.
Sheepishly, Aurelio answers, “… yes, maybe …”.
Philip looks at him with pity and repeats his initial question, “And then what? And then what?”.
“Then that’ll be it, Philip! My life will come to an end …”, Aurelio answers, his eyes downcast.
Then Philip, like a gentle father, encourages him to turn his mind to the point of life as he poses the question, “… so what will you have gained?”.
Sadly, Aurelio didn’t take up St Philip’s invitation to think again about the point of life and so avoid wasting it on ephemeral, transient things (cf Mt 6:19-23; 2 Cor 4:18); on the contrary, he betrayed Philip’s trust by spying on him and his pastoral methods (which were rather daring for the times) and reporting them to the ecclesiastical authorities; as a “reward” they give him what he had always wanted: a bishopric, in France! Towards the end of the film Aurelio reappears, dressed in splendid episcopal attire in the grand park of his palace, surrounded by Monsignori and officials who inform him of the ever-growing wealth of his diocese. Thoughtful and sad, he writes a letter to Philip in which he admits that although he has attained everything he had always desired, he feels like he has nothing. Looking back over his life, he recognises in the end that Philip was right: the best things he has ever had have been a hug from a gypsy (whom Philip had asked him to wash from head to foot: especially the feet!) and the smile of Philip himself, who despite knowing his intentions and his betrayal had always loved him like all his other children.
This intimate scene in which we see Aurelio recognising that he has thrown his life away is particularly interesting in the light of Father Philip’s meeting with Clement VIII, which the film presents a little earlier. The Pope asks him to present the rules and mission of his young community. Nervously, but with a quiet firmness, Philip points out that, to be obeyed, it’s better to have fewer rules (if only governments kept this truth in mind a bit more … !) and he’s chosen just one: charity! Deeply struck by Father Philip’s integrity and holiness, the Pope wants to make him a Cardinal (“No one deserves it more than you”, the Pope tells him with some feeling). The “second apostle of Rome”, though, as he will come to be called, takes the Cardinal’s galero from the hands of the Holy Father as he is about to place it on his head, and with a holy levity asks, “Me, a Cardinal, your Holiness? I prefer heaven!” and throws the galero up in the air.
All right. “And then what?”.
In our day too, this very realistic, simple question addresses itself to each one of us without exception. What is the point of our life, the only one we have, which was given to us by God for us to live as stewards not as masters of it (cf 1 Cor 4:7). Today as in the past, blind ambition, selfishness, and self-centredness take many different forms in different situations, but they need to be recognised for what they are if we are to avoid wasting the life that has been given to us. We should never forget that we only have one, and in the game of life there’s no extra time!
People obsessed with power and building a career at all costs, even if they’re not capable of it; people who refuse to recognise reality and effect a pathological separation from it; people who aspire to positions of authority so they can then exercise that authority with arrogant impunity: all these are familiar figures from the everyday experience of each one of us, from getting on a bus to seeking medical treatment. There are times when we request a service we’re entitled to, or simply ask a question, of some public authority, and are met without even the simple courtesy of a response (I don’t know what excuse people imagine there might be for dispensing with such a basic requirement of courtesy; I fear there can be no explanation but rudeness). When we come across half measures, dishonesty, corruption, rudeness, lack of the respect due to every person, systematic lying if not outright slander, impossible promises and assurance of favours in the run-up to elections or shameless cheating during them in order to get elected, all these seem “normal” behaviour that can be “taken for granted” in all the various spheres of people’s social interaction, without exception (and this is the worst, most serious thing today). As Pope Francis observed astutely in his address after the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum this year, people have lost any ‘… shame at having no shame’ (30-III-2018). I will leave it to the memory and intelligence of the reader to put faces and contexts to this admittedly sad, but honest truth.
All right. “And then what?”.
However, it would be a mistake to think, like King David, that this only concerns other people: “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7). How many people have we met, who like Aurelio would do anything to advance their career? People become blinded by power and success, and sometimes fall prey to a real obsession with unlimited power, forgetting that they are finite creatures and that life is not fulfilled by being served by others or taking advantage of institutions, but by discovering the true joy of putting oneself at the service of others and of the good of institutions, and thus of the human person. They forget that one day we will be judged on the love with which we lived or didn’t live: in the end this, and nothing else, will matter (cf Mt 5:1-12; Lk 6:20-23; Mt 25:31-46).
All right. “And then what?”.
My hope and prayer is that this question present itself sooner rather than later to the conscience of each and every person, so that like St Philip we may respond with generosity, discovering that everything is a gift which God asks us to give in turn (cf Mt 10:8), rather than discovering too late, like Aurelio, that we have got hold of everything we wanted but thrown away the most important thing – the call to be a child of God and brother or sister to our fellow human beings. However, even though it came too late, the fact that Aurelio recognised he had concentrated too much on visible, earthly things and so run the risk of failing to obtain that which is eternal (cf 2 Cor 4:18) means there is hope for everyone. This recognition is nothing other than conversion! Thus in the end, as long as life remains, it is never too late! The beautiful episode recounted by St Luke of Christ’s dialogue with the “Good Thief” reminds us of this in words full of loving mercy: “ … ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Lk 23:42-43).
Quite a few people reading these lines will, I’m sure, be thinking that these are nice ideas, the sort of thing a priest “ought to say”, but that the reality, even in the Church, is very different. I quite agree, but that’s precisely why it’s essential to take note of the danger, and above all to be aware that this way of spending our life (the only we have, as I said) isn’t worth it. In the end comes failure, but worse than that, in the name of power and success and wanting to be “omnipotent” people in fact condemn themselves to slavery: “for people are slaves to whatever masters them” (2 Pt 2:19).
So, especially if we have choices to make, let’s ask ourselves honestly at this present moment which is the only one that, unlike the past and the future, fully belongs to us: “And then what?”.
Fr Bruno, O. P. (many thanks to Fr. Gregory Pearson, O. P. for the English translation).