Basilica of Saint Bartholomew on the Island in the Tiber 1st July 2009
Resisting evil and violence
A presentation of the new edition of Andrea Riccardi’s book
“The century of Martyrdom”
Transcript of Roberto Saviano’s presentation
It is very important and remarkable at the same time for me to be participating in this debate, because I have read Riccardi’s book as a history book, a book about the history of existence. It seems to be written by a historian in a narrative style.
It is loaded with stories. In some pages there are three, four, five stories, some are touched on lightly, others developed more fully. They are all stories of life, of choices and responsibility.
At times they seem incredible stories, in the sense that often it is very easy to identify yourself in them and think: And me? How would I have acted? How could I have acted? Often you feel like saying: No, it is not possible that it really happened like this!
You leave this book, as I have read it at least, certain that in some way those who have made this choice have done so in the name of a solidarity that they have felt from deep within themselves. This is not only a christian journey though. Let me explain myself more clearly. The majority of these stories, those which are fully developed, leave you with a clear message: It is not a message which is saved in that moment, or a conscience, a faith, or a belief. What is saved, and I speak not in a rhetorical sense, is the whole of humanity.
Andrea Riccardi used a phrase in the preface which has really struck me: “Where there is no man, compel yourself to be a man”.
This thesis which I have read as a long tale, is a continuous sifting of incredible situations, at times apocalyptic, where man has searched to save himself by being man. And saving himself or rather the humanity that he preserves within himself, he saves the whole of humanity.
There is a story from 1984 which struck me in particular. Mozambique. Two factions, Frelimo and Renamo. Two guerrilla groups massacring each other. It happened that in a small village a Mozambican converted to christianity and was baptised with the name Cyprian, who happens to be a saint of my local area. Living in a warfare situation had become an everyday matter. Guerrillas came to the village and asked for the secretary of the opposition party to be handed over. A village elder knew that this secretary was his own grandson and therefore wanted his life to be saved. So he gave the name of Cyprian. “The secretary of the Frelimo-he said-is Cyprian”, so they went and took him. Cyprian denied it because he did not want to die and because he had nothing to do with these events.
Here is something significant: it seems like a vocation to die, but in reality the majority of these stories are about a vocation to life. It is not that he who dies, who becomes identified with the expression of a martyr can’t wait for the moment of sacrifice. That would be an aberration even for one who believed, who had believed throughout their life. The question is that it is a moment in which a choice had to be made. In fact, Cyprian understood that to deny in that moment meant humiliating himself and all he had lived for, and for this he died. He was shot by guerrillas from the Renamo and his shooting saved the life of the grandson of the village elder.
Hundreds of similar stories are recounted in this book. This particular story confirms something of my hypothesis: Cyprian in that moment did not just die for the christian community of his village, he saved a Muslim. He saved dignity, searching in some way not to humiliate himself, not to fall on his knees in tears trying to save his life. He understood that destiny was moving in some sense. His truth is that in sacrificing himself was saving a life.
As far as my reading of this book goes, the knowledge of many people’s actions reveals a profound vocation for life in those who had no intention to die.
There is a chapter dedicated to the many christians who were arrested or were involved in the deportations nazi concentration camps. I remember the large sweeping up of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Third Reich, because they refused to carry arms. Not carrying arms capable of causing injury prevented adolescent Jehovah’s Witnesses from enrolling and death was the punishment for desertion in Hitler’s Third Reich.
Many christians died in the concentration camps. The reflection is always the same. The reflection is that in the camps they tried to preserve life in whatever way possible, trying to keep life afloat, trying to defend life.
There is a passage on page 125 which really struck me. It is about a deported rabbi, who as so often happened in the camps tried hard to remember pages from sacred texts, in this case the Talmud. At a certain point he said: “It is finished! God is no longer with us!” He said: “I know I have no right to say such things. I well know that man is too small, too miserable, too feeble to try and comprehend the mysterious ways of God. But what can I do? Me, what can I do? I am not a wise man, I am not righteous, I am not a saint. I am a simple creature made of flesh and blood and I am suffering hell in my soul and in my body. I too have eyes and I see what is happening here. Where is divine mercy? Where is God? How can I believe, how can one believe in a God of mercy?”
There is also a passage on an Italian prisoner at Mauthausen, who remembering a priest said: “You came out of the shower with only a cloth shirt made covering the body, having to wait for a forced march in the snow, before the arrival of the rest of the group. It was an icy night in the middle of December 1944, I was alongside don Andrea Gaggero. He was numb with cold, his eyes almost out of their sockets staring at me, petrifying. It was a signal that we were no longer men, because our death would cause no disturbance to the order of things. When Andrea managed to articulate a few words he brought out all the anguish which was tormenting his soul. Where is God? Tell me, where is God!”
This too is interesting. Often, when the superficial stories of people who have died for their principles are recounted, it seems on the surface at least that these people were always sure of their path, going to their deaths courageously and proudly. Fortunately, it is not really like this. They are people who daily have faced doubts, they are tormented, repeatedly questioning themselves: But is it possible? Should this cross my mind? Continually asking themselves: Is what we are doing right? And when their faith was put to the test, their reflection was: Is it possible that God wants this?
The reply that I have searched for in response to these pages, towards the reflection within the truth of these people, speaking specifically of the concentration camps is that when they have held onto faith, it has been held onto in the midst of doubt. They have held onto faith continually questioning, nourishing their doubt ridden reflections.
There is a beautiful passage from the book by Elie Wiesel called “The night”. Elie Wiesel was deported to the concentration camps as a teenager. In his book he says how he was completely full of faith in God. At a certain point a spoon had been stolen in his hut and the Germans decided to punish the person responsible. They took the smallest person from the hut and beat him. The trouble was that his body was so light and so weak from hunger that he did not die immediately, the weight of his body could no longer hold him up so he lay there in agony. Wiesel could do nothing, but shouted out: “Where is God?”, He cannot remember the face, but from behind Wiesel’s shoulders someone said: “Look-pointing at the boy lying on the ground-there is God”.
And Wiesel said: “That was a comment which should have made me even more angry, but it actually gave me hope”.
That God is the small boy agonising in death is no mere rhetoric. It could seem the most rhetorical of statements, but it is not at all because it is a sign. What is this sign? The only hope which remains in the midst of aberration and hell, where every logic has disappeared, is to think that we are saving dignity and conscience in this place, and we are saving humanity. So there is nothing which is closer to God that a gesture of this type for one who believes.
Much can be said about particular stories of this nature in South America, The Soviet Union, Germany, Asia, Africa. The main theme which I’ve been emphasising since the start of my talk, is that one continually speaks of those confronted with the choice of life and death, and they choose life. They are not necessarily someone who believes to be making a sacrifice in accordance with a particular moral code or with the God in which they believe. This is no mere rhetoric. The words, “you would choose life” is one of the classic teachings that come from the rabbis, given almost as soon as young boys begin to study sacred texts. The christian tradition has seized this initiative from its Jewish relatives.
Reading this book as a journey made by those who have chosen life is stimulating, but one must be wary not to fall into the trap of reading too hastily. It is possible to believe that all in all these people have paid homage to death; have always arrived at death with the extreme desire to preserve dignity; to save of a human whatever is possible.
Anna Politkovskaja was killed in Russia after-and I use these words because we are speaking in this context-giving witness to the atrocities of the Chechen war. She was killed, not because she reported on the Chechen war, but because she succeeded in showing the Chechen problem to be a world problem. So it had become a problem to Rome, to London, to Washington, to Mexico City, no longer a problem among the everyday news stories. This made her a witness, more than simply a brave journalist.
She recounted incredible things. You will remember the hundreds of children held in a school. She collected the evidence of many mothers who survived Beslan, the imprisonment carried out by the Chechens in a Russian school. Terrifying stories. I’ll mention one of them. At a certain point the Chechens rounded up teachers, lecturers, mothers, students, and put them in part of the school gym. They restricted the movement of the groups with taut wires tied to grenades. They were notifying people not to move. If a child tried to make a run for it or made a violent move, he would break the wire and set off a grenade. So everyone had to keep still and was forced to neither eat nor drink. This took place in the summer, and it was very hot. At one point a small child began to cry because he was very hungry. One mother, a teacher who had given birth a short time ago and was still lactating, told the boy to attach himself to her breast. But the boy felt ashamed, and would not do it. So she took one of the boy’s small shoes and tried to pour some milk into it, but the sole absorbed the milk and it would not work. By sheer chance, she managed to find a spoon in the drawer of a cupboard which stood in the section where they had been gathered. She filled this spoon with milk and started to give it to the boy and then to other children who were losing their inhibitions because of hunger and were prepared to drink this milk. She noticed a guerrilla. The guerrilla made the grenade explode. The majority of the children died. Darkness fell in the enormous room and one of the children felt what he thought was some food on his skin. It was actually the blood of a child he had had next to him, whose head had been blown up. The teacher said: “Don’t worry, they set off a bomb, the cupboard is broken and some jam has fallen on you”. The boy said: “I hate jam”.
Such a terribly atrocious story shows the humanity of this situation. There is always a better way of being humans. There is always a path to take in order to save that which Nabokov spoke of: the best form of being human, which is the child.
And Anna Politkovskaja when she made her reports, spoke of this. She told of the possibility of being men, and recounted how man in this situation had arrived in the abyss.
Before being killed she had been slandered. Her great fear was of being slandered, of the destruction of her good image. Her ex-husband was interviewed after she had been killed. He said: “All the better”, a hard, weary response. He added “Yes, because before they had tried to kidnap her, to drug her and take pornographic shots, shots with men to slander her, photographing her while she was drugged to destroy her good image. Who in the world would have believed that those shots had been fabricated?” He continued: “Killing her, at least her words will be saved, because her good image has been preserved”.
For Anna Politkovskaja and for all those who recount events like her, their primary fear is the destruction of their positive image because it is that which cuts off their words, rendering them useless, whispering defamation and diffidence to those who listen to them.
Though different, these are all stories in some way similar to that of Anna. They are the stories of human beings who have had to defend their integrity and their dignity.
Here is told the story of Romero, and other South American priests who live with the threat of defamatory attacks. Don Peppino Diana, who was killed at Casal di Principe for his anti-camorra zeal, was continually accused from the day after his death even by his own people and those who had heard him say mass; he was accused by people with whom he had communicated or had married. They had started to slander him saying: “no, it’s not true, he was killed because he was no good, he was involved with women”. The usual stories! Slander is one of the arms used to eliminate those trying to bear witness.
Finally, the reflection that I make is in harmony with the Sant Egidio Community, which is the reason for me to be here with Cardinal Sepe who in the past few years has had a kind of, and I use a strong word, obsession. What we as christians are making is a journey, which puts man as an end and never as a means. So this permits us to practice and act in such a way that the benefits will also be felt by those who do not believe in our values. This has always seemed to me the characteristic of the Sant Egidio Community. It is that which Cardinal Sepe has been working on in these most difficult years for Naples and Southern Italy, difficult for all of Italy but for the south in particular. I believe that this book helps us to understand how strong is the potential that we have, and how readers can feel empathy with the stories as they read them.
As I was speaking of the Russian tragedy, a verse from the Polish Nobel prize winning poet Szymborska came to mind. She is marvellous. She has perhaps written among the highest calibre verses ever written in Europe. There is a verse that can certainly be understood as romantic, it is perhaps too rhetorical even. But as a way of clearly showing the power which remains in men, the power to identify yourself with others and feel in your bones the pain and happiness of another person, I believe that this verse is without equals. It is very simple. Perhaps dedicating the verse to a loved one, she says, “Listen to how strongly your heart beats inside me”. So simple and so powerful at the same time.
Somehow in reading these stories, you often feel pulsing the dignity and resistance of those who died for their ideas. Thank you.