MAKING A BETTER WORLD

An anxious Pope,
a prophetic priest
and their unlikely partnership for the renewal of the Church and the world.
 

In 1952, Pope Pius XII issued his Proclamation for a Better World, in the face of a deteriorating political situation and a growing neglect of God and the affairs of the Spirit.  In this, his chief ally and source of inspiration was a charismatic Jesuit priest and preacher, whose enthusiasm was regarded as ill-judged and even extreme by some of his colleagues and by highly-placed ecclesiastics.  This is the story of their collaboration and its results.    

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This year 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of a pastoral exhortation addressed to the people of Rome by Pope Pius XII.  It came to be called a “Proclamation for a Better World”, and was delivered on 10 February 1952.

The Mission of Father Lombardi

A major figure behind this proclamation was a charismatic Italian Jesuit priest, Fr. Riccardo Lombardi.  Already he had become widely known as a preacher throughout Italy.  By 1945, he had gathered around him a little group of co-workers, the nucleus of what was to become the Promoting  Group of Movement for a Better World, who set out together to preach a “Crusade of Goodness”.

Lombardi was an extraordinarily popular and successful preacher.  He drew huge crowds, first in churches, then in theatres and in the public squares of cities and towns throughout Italy.  In 1949 he took his crusade abroad for the first time and preached in Vienna, in Paris and throughout Germany.  1950 saw him extend his activities to several cities in the U.S.A., and in 1951 he visited and preached in twelve countries of South America.

The basic message of Lombardi’s crusade was nothing less than the need for the renewal of the Church and through it, the making of a new and better world.

Since 1946, Fr. Lombardi had been in increasingly close contact with Pius XII, who supported and encouraged him.  It was Pius XII who in 1951 suggested the name, “For a Better World”.  Then came the papal proclamation of 10 February 1952, which Lombardi always saw as marking the real birth of the Movement for a Better World.  Under his guidance, it was to spread to every continent and give rise to a large number of national Promoting Groups.

The “Proclamation” of a worried Pope

Pius XII’s pastoral letter shows a pastor in great anguish of spirit, wanting to share with his people his “disquiet” over the way the world was heading.  The language of his exhortation is not only emotional but even apocalyptic in tone, as the Pope expressed his worry over “the prolonged dangerous conditions of the world,” and his fear that the world was “travelling without knowing it along the road that leads…. to the abyss”.

He saw the human race threatened by a ‘tremendous misfortune and facing a situation that “may explode at any moment”.  He lamented that so many good persons remained “motionless” and “listless spectators of a catastrophic future”.

Troubled Times

Lest we might think that the Pope was being overly alarmist in his view and in the language which he used, we must remember that he was writing less than seven years after the end of a terrible international conflict (World War II) that had brought the nations and peoples of Europe to their knees.  His language was not too strong to describe the horror and destruction which that awful conflict had brought on a large part of humanity.

Seven years on, it was sadly clear that there was little prospect of a lasting peace.  Instead, the so-called “Cold War” had descended upon the world, with two great power blocs threatening to visit an even greater level of destruction on humankind.  The arms race was proceeding rapidly, with both sides in possession of weapons far more powerful and lethal than were available a decade earlier.

In fact, the Pope’s fear and alarm was shared by the world’s political leaders and prominent thinkers of the time.  Where he differed from most other world leaders in his hope for a solution, was in his view that the crisis had a deeply spiritual basis, and that a return “to Jesus Christ, to the Church and to Christian life” was “the only remedy and solution for the crisis which troubles the world”.

Herald for a Better World

In inspiring and poetic language, the Pope declared that “a whole world must be remade from its foundations, (and) transformed from savage to human, from human to divine, that is, according to the heart of God.”  He pronounced himself ready to “submit to the arduous task of being…the herald of a better world, which God wants.”  He called for a powerful awakening of ideas and works on the part of everyone, without distinction of status, which would lead to “a complete renewal of Christian life…. The defence of moral values….. the attainment of social justice and the re-construction of Christian order”.  It was not the time for discussion, he wrote, but for action.

Lombardi’s response to the Pope’s call

Following the papal “proclamation”, Fr. Lombardi was even more energised to promote his Movement for a Better World, which grew rapidly and spread to many countries.  He suffered something of a setback with the death of his great friend and patron, Pius XII, in 1958.  Lombardi encountered opposition from influential people in the Vatican who regarded him as a zealot, and no doubt were jealous of his close association with the late Pope.  In particular, they were unsympathetic to his constant call for the need for renewal in the Church and the reform of its structures.

Lombardi however gained great satisfaction from the Second Vatican Council and its outcomes (1962-1965).  He had long been an advocate of the need for a general Council.  He rejoiced in the Council’s document on the Church which highlighted the nature of the Church as a mystery of communion, and as a sacrament of the reign of God in the world.  The document on the Church in the Modern World also contained the expression of his hopes and dreams.

After Lombardi

Fr. Lombardi died in 1979.  He had been responsible for widespread spiritual renewal in the Church. As a result of his vision the religious outlook of thousands of people and indeed thousands of lives had been changed.

The movement which he started continues.  Its members still work for the renewal of the Church and of its structures, advocating greater dialogue and participation with people of other faiths and all people of goodwill.  It promotes a communitarian spirituality, or spirituality of relationships – as more recently urged by Pope John Paul II in his 2000 encyclical ushering in the new millennium.  The purpose of such renewal is to make the Church a more effective sacrament of unity/communion, and a more effective instrument in God’s hands for promoting God’s reign of justice, love and peace in the world, in short, for creating a better world.

In Australia, a small group of laymen and women, religious and clergy, try to keep alive Lombardi’s legacy under the banner of Community for a Better World.