By Aime MITENGEZO, sx
“I am afraid of People who do not smile”. This is how one of our professors introduced himself to us, some two years ago. It is not a matter of confession, let me say, I am also afraid of people who do not smile, and I might suppose that we are not the only two in this world, counting of course my professor. Two years ago again, a Japanese friend of mine revealed to me that he was moving around with his camera trying to collect real smiles from different people. I don’t know what he did with our smiles nor did I try to ask him how his project ended, as I found it then less fascinating.
As the fever of the canonization of Guido Maria Conforti goes up day after day, with all the activities, prayers, conferences and the like, it has become more than a duty for us to make known our founder. Then I started to wander what will be the reaction of my professor if I would hand him a picture of a serious bishop Conforti: would he be again afraid of a picture where Conforti is not smiling? I thought about my Japanese friend collecting smiles: what if he will ask to include in his collection a smile of Conforti? My curious mind could not leave me at peace, especially as I noticed that in most of the official pictures, a rather serious face of Bishop Conforti is pictured. Then my mind kept asking me: is there anywhere to find the smile of Conforti? Was he a cheerful person at all? This became a hunting project for my curiosity.
In the eightieth century, the Pope Benedict XIV set the criteria for canonization, and strongly underlined that the sense of Joy was one of the main evidence for the potential saint to be. Was the person cheerful or not? If such cheerfulness was missing, said the Pope, then there is no need to present someone for canonization, “the person is simply not a canonizable saint” (cfr Healing the Ache of Alienation. Praying through and Beyond bitterness, New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.151). Consequently, as Guido Maria Conforti was accepted for the canonization, it follows then that he met the criteria, and on my part I do believe he was a cheerful person. Thanks to the collections of his writings one finds a transpiring cheerfulness expressed in many of his homilies, speeches and writings, beyond his own personality that appears to be timid. Indeed, in the quite long catalogue of his sayings we find some sentences like: “We must serve God in love, and love always brings joy and bliss”; ” Joy is the heritage of the zealous, whilst laziness is the mother of sadness”. (November 6,1924, parma, Istituto Missioni, notes for a retreat “Abbandono in Dio”, FCT 20,255).
He is the one who wrote with his own hand, quoting one of his idols, Philipe Neri: “Cheerfulness strengthens the spirit in the face of life’s trials and difficulties. Anyone who acts with a cheerful heart does everything with energy and enthusiasm; he does twice the work and with a greater degree of perfection”. He added: “Cheerfulness is like the lubricating oil that makes the wheels of a car run more smoothly”.
To his children he says: “let the missionaries never surrender to melancholy which, like rust, corrodes the spirit; let them be always devoutly cheerful, as befits those who serve the Lord and have the moral certainty of possessing His grace.” (1918-1921, parma- La Verna, Constitutions of the St. Francis Xavier Foreign Mission society, article 200). Guido Maria Conforti lamented those who, dominated by selfishness and ambitions “are incapable of affection and have never savored the pure joys of friendship.” (1919, May, Parma, in his own land “La parola del padre”, Pagine Confortiane, 312).
Hence, after everything has been said about cheerfulness, a theme dear to our founder, going back to my initial concern, I believe that there is a direct connection between a smile and being cheerful. I exclude of course what is known as a “plastic smile” and all kinds of smiles that sometimes people wear for circumstances. We are talking about a genuine smile, that smile found in mother Teresa, the smile of the blessed John-Paul II, the smile of Romero, the smile of a child, and of course the smile of Conforti which unfortunately is masked and eaten by the deteriorated old pictures. A smile stands as a sign of cheerfulness and joy.
Like the people during the time of Jesus who asked for signs, my mind too wanted a sign, a sign that Guido Maria Conforti was also a cheerful person, a cheerful father, a cheerful pastor. My mind could not be contented with a picture of a serious image of Conforti. I wanted to believe that he was not a “sad saint”, as one French saying ironically states: “un saint triste est un triste saint”, an expression that ironically speaks of a saint whose general mood is sadness, and eventually a saint who can’t inspire at all. That is why I became a smile–hunter. I searched and I found. However, still I have an unfinished business of hunting genuine smile in myself and grow as a cheerful person.