Carlo Carretto: Action & simplicity

by Jerry Ryan

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Selected with an introduction by Robert Ellsberg
Orbis, 206 pages, $16

Carlo Carretto: Essential Writings will disappoint those who are seeking esoteric or even original insights. They are the writings of a man who was basically simple and poor, gifted and flawed and surely firmer in his faith than are most of us.

Carlo Carretto was a charismatic figure in post-World War II Italy, the leader of the Italian youth movement known as Catholic Action. Italy, at that time, was flirting with communism and the church was desperately seeking to counteract the “Red Menace.” For this it was necessary to enter into the political arena, but this could only be done directly by the laity. It was in this context that Carlo emerged, orientating, inspiring and mobilizing the younger generations. The fact that he headed Catholic Action for 20 years is a testimony to his success.

It could be said that during his watch, the Vatican’s conception of the role of the laity evolved from a “pray, obey and pay” mentality to a realization that the temporal affairs of the church were no longer the exclusive domain of the clergy and that if it was to survive in the modern world, it would have to rely on the laity.

In 1954, Carlo resigned from his position and left to join the recently founded Little Brothers of Jesus at their novitiate in the Saharan desert. Although he was always grateful for the graces received in the Catholic Action movement, he felt overwhelmed by an activity that risked becoming an end in itself. Any activity, even the purest, even on behalf of the church, is empty if it is not sustained by a life of prayer and suspended from the cross. Success, on any level, becomes hollow once achieved; the exhilaration is in the pursuit. Another factor that probably influenced this decision was Roman clericalism and the Vatican’s desire to control Catholic Action. Carlo’s faith in the church’s essential mystery was unwavering, yet he disagreed vehemently with certain attitudes and mentalities of an ecclesiastical clique cut off from the concrete lives and preoccupations of the little people.

The Little Brothers of Jesus, at the time when Carlo entered, represented a revolutionary force in the church, a hope of renewal and reevaluation. The congregation was enjoying the special graces of a new foundation, attracting vocations from all over the world and expanding spectacularly. Its members were relatively young, full of enthusiasm and generosity. Inspired by the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld, they started out in 1933 as a cloistered, contemplative monastic community in the Sahara following one of the rules drawn up by Foucauld (he wrote several). Silence, cloister and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament defined the early years of the group. During World War II, most of the brothers were mobilized and obliged to lead their “religious life” in the army. On regrouping after the war, there was a collective realization that a contemplative life among the poor was not only possible but even necessary in the church and that, in fact, Charles de Foucauld himself did not follow the strict monastic rule he had composed but allowed himself to be at the mercy of a group of desert nomads whom he loved with all his heart.

This fresh intuition led to the dispersal of the desert community and the foundation of small “fraternities” of two to four brothers, preferably in milieus where the church was absent. These fraternities were to live the essential values of the contemplative life while sharing the same material conditions of their neighbors, working manually for a living and not defending their privacy; their doors were to be open to all. Moreover, there was to be no distinction between the brothers who were priests and those who were not, except for the eucharistic celebration. This, too, was original at that time.

The novitiate, however, remained at the original fraternity of El Abiodh, and it was there that Carlo began his life as a Little Brother of Jesus. The first chapters of this collection of his writings describe his discovery of his vocation and his novitiate impressions. They are marked by a certain naive enthusiasm and reflect the ebullience of the community at that time. Carlo was genuinely happy to be out of the spotlight and out of the rat race, but soon after his arrival a badly administered injection in his left leg crippled him for life and severely limited his options within the Little Brothers. During his novitiate, Carlo fell in love with the desert as a place of prayer and a place of truth. He remained in the Sahara for the next 10 years, working as a meteorologist, visiting stations in the desert that recorded data on temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind direction and velocity -- a job he could handle in spite of his physical limitations. Some of the best pages in the book come from his observations and experiences in the desert and the lessons he drew from them.

In 1964, Letters From the Desert, his first book, was published in Italy and became an immediate success. And this same year, Carlo returned to Europe, enriched and deepened by this long period of simplicity, prayer and solitude. The success of the book and the fact that Carlo was still an iconic figure in Italy through his previous role in Catholic Action put him out of step with aspects of the charism of the Little Brothers of Jesus, who sought anonymity, who tried to silently “disappear” among the poor. Given the circumstances, it was quite natural for Carlo to transfer to the Little Brothers of the Gospel, another branch of the “Foucauld family” with a greater openness to apostolic work.

In 1965, he settled in Spello, not far from Assisi, where the Brothers of the Gospel had an “adoration fraternity” with a number of hermitages where laypeople could share the fraternity’s life of prayer on a temporary basis. Carlo remained at Spello until his death in 1988, giving retreats and continuing to write.

Essential Writings follows Carlo’s evolution from the very personal vignettes of the desert years to the more general themes he treated in later books. There are few surprises or fulminating intuitions. Carlo was of peasant stock, attentive to nature, sensitive to the sufferings of others. Those who knew him remember him as unpretentious and fraternal, solicitous of those around him. His literary style is unremarkable, but beneath it all one senses a solid faith, a desire to love and a desire to share this love.

Now that, thanks to his writings, Carlo was once again a public figure, his openly expressed disagreements with certain aspects of the institutional church made him a controversial figure. Carlo had chosen (or had been chosen for, as he put it) celibacy even in his Catholic Action days, yet he never saw himself as a member of the ordained priesthood and remained a lay brother. He strongly believed in the priesthood of the faithful and could not see how obligatory celibacy could be a condition for ordained ministry. He also publicly opposed the church’s anti-divorce campaign in Italy on the grounds of tolerance -- that the church had no right to impose its teachings on a civil society made up mainly of unbelievers. He had harsh words for many of the externals of the church but was fiercely in love with its inner mystery.

There are times when Carlo tries to be forceful in his writings and winds up sounding as if he were patronizing, talking down to his readership. But he is invariably honest and basically optimistic. These are qualities not given to everyone.

Jerry Ryan is a frequent NCR contributor.

National Catholic Reporter November 28, 2008

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