Divo Barsotti And The Presence

Aurelio Porfiri

Tuscany is a region of Italy, famous in the Anglo-Saxon world for its beautiful landscapes and cities. We just have to think about Florence or Siena. But Tuscany is also a land of deep Catholic faith, a faith that has generated countless men and women that will be a model for future generations of Catholics. We think of Saint Andrea Corsini, Blessed Angelico, Saint Margherita, Blessed Celestina Donati, Saint Filippo Neri and I can go on and on for pages. In the 20th century too we have exceptional figures coming from Tuscan Catholicism as Giorgio La Pira, Lorenzo Milani, Domenico Bartolucci and many others. But one of the prominent Catholic personalities is for sure Divo Barsotti. Divo Barsotti was a great mystic, a man of huge culture, a prolific writer with dozens of books published and countless pages of meditations and spiritual exercises still to be printed. He was a poet too.

Divo Barsotti was born in 1914 in Palaia, a little village near Pisa.  He became a priest in 1937, after rediscovering Catholicism thanks to his meeting with Russian spirituality. He was a quite unorthodox priest, always trying to find his right place and to discover what was the plan of God for his life. So his first assignments in parishes and for some pastoral work did not suit his yearning for something else, that something else that he will probably start to see around 1947 when he starts to counsel spiritually a group of women, the first nucleus of his Community of God’s Sons and Daughters. In 1954 he resided in Settignano, considered the mother house of this new religious congregation. After failures, disappointments and false starts, the Community started to flourish and is now present in Italy and in few other countries around the world.

Father Barsotti was in contact with other personalities of the ecclesiastical world, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar (his spiritual director for some months), Giorgio La Pira, Giuseppe Dossetti, Giacomo Biffi and many others. In 1971 Paul VI asked him to preach the spiritual exercises for the Roman Curia. In his books he touched on several topics as spirituality, mysticism, Russian spirituality, Giacomo Leopardi, Fedor Dostoevskij and others. He passed away in 2006 in his Casa San Sergio in Settignano, near Florence. Several books were dedicated to his life and work (Tognetti, 2006; Fagioli, 2008; Albertazzi, 2009; Porfiri, 2010; Porfiri, 2012; Tognetti, 2012) and on September 2014, the process for his beatification was opened.

He was a man curious of life and of the richness of other cultures but always focused on the only Presence that matters, the one of the Lord. He was the one saying: “It is laughable to think that Christianity was exchanged for an Institute that protects the established order. The Christian goes to God looking at Him and not seeing other than Him” (La Fuga Immobile, p 62, my translation).

Speaking about liturgy: “The word has to create something because the word of God is a creating word: the word of man has to obtain something, because the word of man is a plea; and what the man obtains, and what God creates is the Sacrifice, act of supreme love, total answer to the love divine: Jesus’ sacrifice” (La Messa, p 65, my translation).

About faith: “That is man, who realizes himself only with a God who realizes him completely, because he can give himself only to Him completely and on the other hand this complete self-giving presumes the presence of God in man’s life. But we will have to see all of this, because if faith is so important for Christianity it is not because we want to give something which is not essential to man’s life; indeed we will have to admit that living, for a man, means to live this faith. Completely realizing himself means for man to live this faith until the end, a faith that is a total self-abandonment to a God who totally communicates Himself, who gives Himself” (www.ilnaufrago.com, translated by Marina Madeddu).

He was a man curious of life and of the richness of other cultures, as I have said.  One of his dreams was to be a missionary in Japan and Asia was very strongly present in his own worldview. He has left us with a very strong impression of his visit to Hong Kong, to preach spiritual exercises  to Canossian sisters in 1985.  His first impression may be surprising or disturbing for us, or maybe both: “Hong Kong appears to me as a city in which God is absent and in which men play with money and pleasure. Here men live already a sort of condemnation. It is difficult to think that in this city of idolatry there is a place for true men, for piety, for simplicity, for love. But also in hell God inhabits – precisely in the heart of this city, hidden, but real, He is present” (Barsotti, 1993, my translation).

But also Father Barsotti understands how difficult it is to make sense of the Chinese world for him: “One can only measure how vain is the pretense to know this world. The closer you come, the more it becomes far and elusive” (Barsotti, 1993, my translation). But then redemption can come only from sanctity, the gift that God allows to some of His sons or daughters: “Here has lived and here has died Father Gabriele Allegra, Franciscan; many have known him, and all of them speak of him as a saint. So this land is also blessed” (Barsotti, 1993, my translation). One last passage from the memories of this trip shows us the look of the mystic and the voice of the prophet that speaks with heartfelt words: “Hong Kong is the gate and is the bridge for this immense country – and nevertheless it seems to me that here it has lost its soul. China is eluding me. I cannot renounce to know it, to love it. Can I be ever its son? When, when will China be revealed to my spirit, welcome me and allow me that I can welcome it in me?” (Barsotti, 1993, my translation). In my personal and modest opinion, there is more understanding of China in these few lines that in many words of people that have lived there without ever touch the soul of the country.

To know more about Father Barsotti, the person to ask is his successor, biographer and disciple, Father Severino Tognetti. Father Tognetti is now a well known writer of spirituality and was close to the father until the death of the great Catholic thinker. I have asked him some questions to understand more deeply the message and spirituality of Father Barsotti.

Who was Divo Barsotti?

Don Divo Barsotti was a mystic, a man enraptured from the reality of God. He was not a priest done for parish ministry; in fact he always lived as monk and founded a small religious family of the monastic kind. He spent his entire life praying, reading, teaching, always having as only and last reference the Lord Jesus, totally involved in his relationship with Him.

What is his main message?

Faith. The act most difficult for humans is to just completely surrender to God by believing that everything he did, said, lived and proposed to us in the Gospel and in the Church, [what] exactly corresponds to the truth about man. Once you have given the assent of faith, everything else is of consequence. In Barsotti, faith precedes charity and is a way into it.

Who were the writers and authors that have inspired him?

After a classical education in the seminary, he was “struck” by the reading of Dostoevskij, who gave him a wide view of the Christian life. Then he read the mystics: St. John of the Cross, Ruusbroek and medieval mystics. Among the moderns, he was particularly attuned to Durwell for his objective mystique and its liturgical theology. Among the Fathers: Maximus the Confessor, Origen and the Cappadocian were his favorites.

What is the Community of God’s Sons and Daughters?

It’s the religious family he has founded. The spiritual foundation of this family, especially for the laity, is a Christian life that has as its major energy resource that of the great monastic tradition: the sacraments, the reading of Scripture and prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. Community members also learn the method of “divine presence,” that is to live all things of the day by invoking the presence of the risen Christ.

What is the place of liturgy in your charisma?

It has a leading position. The liturgy is the language chosen by God for humans so that this relationship is true. The liturgy had  always to be solemn for Father Divo Barsotti. If you live really the liturgical act, the whole day becomes continuation of the sacramental liturgy; in this way, there is no longer a profane world (except sin, of course) because the Christian with his prayer operates the deification of the cosmos, as was thought by the mystics and Russian saints.

Where are you established?

The Community is made up of monks living in small hermitages and lay people consecrated to God that are all living in their own home and their own reality. The houses of religious life in Tuscany are four, two in Piedmont, and one in Australia. The consecrated lay people are in different parts of Italy and abroad.

You are the biographer of Father Barsotti and his first successor as leader of the Community. What is the deepest memory you have?

When I met Father Divo Barsotti I was 21. He struck me deeply, not so much him, as his world, the atmosphere that he breathed, his constant reference to God and the things of God. That world mysteriously attracted me and I liked it. So I chose to follow him and try to “get” inside in this world. This was not a magical world, but simply Christian life in its entirety. This gave Father Barsotti a continous spiritual joy, definitely contagious.

What is the status of the beatification process?

The application was submitted and it was officially accepted. So the process has started. We are now reviewing his writings. It will take some time because the writings are many. If it will be given a positive opinion, Father Barsotti will be declared Servant of God and we will proceed with the second phase, namely the study of virtues. We are comforted by the unanimous opinion  of all the Bishops who accepted to open his cause.

He is certainly a figure that will be a considered a giant of Catholic thinking in years to come. At the moment he is probably not universally known as he would deserve but the time of God is not our time and so we have to wait for more appropriate times to see Divo Barsotti, this 20th century “Church Father,” considered for what he really deserves.

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