Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Something Always Eludes UsSomething Always Eludes Us

Something Always Eludes Us

John Zucchi on Father Luigi Guissani's discernment of Christ and Utopia

John Zucchi
20 minute read

Recently a friend of mine told me that he had sat through a longish plan for a conference on life issues and felt as if he were at a pro-life convention in the 1990s. In other words, nothing seemed to have changed. I knew precisely what he was talking about. I have been involved in a number of issues dealing with life or rights over the last few years, and I often sense a fear regarding my motives. Why am I here? What is the fundamental reason for being present? What does "presence" even mean?

It is important that we ask ourselves these questions, otherwise our battles regarding euthanasia, religious rights, the definition of marriage and the energy we put into the culture wars might all be for naught. Without reflecting on why we are involved in these issues in the first place, without evaluating how we are living these battles, it is all too easy to fall prey to extraneous factors. We can think we are doing good but, surprisingly, can find ourselves following criteria not that far removed from those of our opponents.

One obvious symptom is the personal rage or hatred we can harbour towards a person who does not share our point of view. What is the point of defending life, religion or marriage if ultimately I cannot recognize that another human being—a human being(!), not an enemy, a straight, gay, black, white, male or female, upright citizen or criminal— desires happiness. Someone who – is searching for something "ultimate" just as I do? If I am left frustrated by the culture wars, if my outlook is cynical, if ultimately I can only affirm that society is going down the drain, might it not be that my involvement in "the good fight" is actually counter-productive? In other words, is it possible that my battle for something true might evolve into a mere ideological crusade? Who does that serve?

Recently I attended the Spiritual Exercises of Communion and Liberation (CL) in Montreal where we followed two lessons given by the leader of this Catholic movement, Father Julián Carrón, the successor of its founder, Father Luigi Giussani. At one point, Father Carrón cast a historical glance at the movement's battles of the 1960s to the 1980s in Italy, where it was the most vocal Catholic voice in a political, social and cultural context strongly dominated by Marxism. I am proposing the lengthy passage that follows from the lesson because it speaks in particular to Christians' engagement in the public square and provides us with a rich experience and the deep insights of Giussani and Carrón. These insights are not just ideas but reflections on an experience and, as such, can truly help us avoid dualism. It is far too easy to slide away unawares from what is most important—the Christian event— even as we think we are doing the important work of defending values.

In order to face today's challenges—cultural, social, political and juridical—we do not start out from zero. We have the richness of a journey, made in the company of Father Giussani. Therefore, to illuminate the current challenges, I thought it useful to look back at some moments of our history—1968 and the following years—in which the provocation and the pressure of circumstances were so strong as to cause many to stray. In those years, the presence of Father Giussani proved once again crucial. He helped us discover ourselves in action and realize what was truly the essential, notwithstanding our intentions, precisely because by becoming aware of all the factors, he did not reduce the dimensions of the problem – as instead we usually do. His judgments constitute charitable gestures towards us and, at the same time, reveal all his authoritativeness, which kept us from ending up lost.

Father Giussani said, "For me, history is everything; I learned from history," that is, from experience…. Not even he was spared challenging circumstances.

In 1993, he was provoked by the words of a university student who said that some intellectuals complained that CL "was much better before…1976, when it threw itself into the political fray, when it engaged in ideological arguments, when it carried out its project, proposed its project in society, instead now it is reduced to something pietistic." To respond to this provocation, Giussani used a passage from his 1982 book, Uomini senza patria [People Without a Homeland], in which he said, "All our activity, since Communion and Liberation was born, since 1970… all that we do [that we have done] is in order…to have a homeland in this world." Some will remember the passage: "I'm not saying it's not right. I am saying that we do it to have a homeland, and that we will not have this homeland."

Why did this happen? To face the question, Giussani returned again to the vicissitudes of those years. "In 1968 and 1969, we found ourselves as if we were playing an away game," thrown off balance by the Marxist ideology and by its desire for liberation. Analogously, today we can find ourselves thrown off balance by the turmoil and by the new anxiety for liberation that for example are expressed by the demand for new rights, all of which derive from the '60s ideologies. Each of them represents a modality, partial and often contradictory, through which one seeks satisfaction for needs that we have no trouble recognizing as profoundly human: the need for love, the desire for maternity and paternity, the fear of pain and death, the search for one's identity…. Each of these new rights has its roots in the fabric that constitutes each human existence. This is the source of their attractiveness. The multiplication of individual rights expresses the expectation that the legal system can resolve human dramas and assure satisfaction of the infinite needs that dwell in the human heart.

How did the Movement…experience the blow [of this desire for liberation in the upheaval of 1968]? There was bewilderment, a lost feeling characteristic of those who, carrying on their road and living their fundamental experience, are surprised by events that demand an inflection, a translation, an interpretation and a decision on a level their own experience hasn't yet reached.

In the face of this situation we asked each other, "What must we do?" A little group of three or four university students rose up one day with a flyer, the first "counter-revolutionary" flyer that came out. The flyer was entitled "Communion and Liberation." What did that title mean?

First of all, it meant that liberation was a need of our heart, too. We, too, desired liberation. "There was a thread that bound us to the heart of everyone, because in crying out ‘liberation, liberation,' Marxists, too, expressed a need of the heart, no matter how confused, obscured, dilapidated by an ideological discourse. But it was a desire of the heart."

In the second place, that title meant that liberation belonged to the Christian announcement: Christ is the liberator. In fact, "Christ was made known to us as the liberator of the human person. It is the concept of the Redeemer: Christ the Redeemer means Christ the liberator." Liberation cannot come "from human toil…you cannot change with your own strength; in the world, liberation can only come from something that is already free. What is there in this world that is already free? Something that is not only of this world, that is in this world, but is not only of this world, that comes from outside, from beyond: Christ is the liberator. But where is Christ now? Christ becomes present through the companionship of those who recognize Him."

But living the newness brought about by Christ in belonging to the Church, to the Movement, as a sign of change, did not seem enough. Building the Christian community seemed insufficient for the scope of the challenge; it was necessary to "do something." And the image of the "doing" was dictated by the approach of the others: It amounted to an action equal and opposite to that of the others – opposite in the sense of inspired by Christian principles.

What was the way of responding to that bewilderment? "The bewilderment is overcome suddenly through an energy and a will to intervene, to operate, to act."

We sought to overcome the bewilderment with a will to act, to operate, to do things, by "jumping headlong into following the world," striving and claiming to change things with our own strength, exactly like the others.

And what happened? A shift with unpredictable consequences. Without our realizing it, says Giussani, there was "the passage from one matrix to another…by minimizing and making as abstract as possible the discourse and the type of experience in which you participated before." In this way, "the historic import of the Christian Fact was reduced or trivialized…by minimizing its historic import, ‘making it disappear;' as much as possible making its historic impact something fleeting." These are all [Giussani's] words. So then, all that was involved in being in the Movement at the time (the education we received, charitable work, the daily presence in schools and universities, the answer to different needs) was as if is it were emptied, was deemed insufficient. It was necessary to do something else to demonstrate that we, too, were interested in the fate of the world, that we knew how to give a more relevant contribution, precisely because we were Christians, that we had a better project and praxis. This position defined most of those who remained, not only those who decided to leave.

This reduction of the historic import of the Christian Fact was not without consequences. Father Giussani defined them:

"First…: ‘An efficientistic conception of Christian commitment, with accentuations of moralism.' Not accentuations – with wholesale reduction to moralism! Why should anyone remain Christian? Because Christianity pushes you to action, presses you to commitment, no other reason!…Christians still have the right to remain in the world only to the degree in which they throw themselves into worldly action: it's ethical Christianity…. Before the neediness of the world, there is an analysis of it, the theory to use in responding to it, and the response according to this theory. Everything is played out according to man's measure, and Christ has nothing to do with it; He has something to do with it only on a level beyond space and time, as a moral inspiration that is beyond space and time —‘transcendental.'

"Second consequence (and this is the gravest thing): the incapacity to ‘culturalize' the discourse, to bring one's Christian experience to the level in which it becomes systematic and critical judgment, and thus a prompt for a modality of action. It's the Christian experience blocked in its potential for impact on the world, because an experience impacts the world only to the degree to which it reaches a cultural expression.

"Third consequence: the theoretical and practical underestimation of authoritative experience, of authority…. The Christian Fact—let's repeat it—has in the authoritative function created by Christ, the geometric locus where the Mystery saves."

"So then," Father Giussani summarized, "in the general bewilderment…[what dominated was] jumping headlong into following the world. One's own history, its contents of value, were minimized, interpreted as much as possible according to an abstract version of life, as excluded, ostracized from the possibility of impact on the historic contingent and therefore of a true incarnation."

In throwing themselves into doing things in the name of being Christians, to show that, being Christians, they had better answers to problems than those of the others, it could seem that Christ was the essential. But Father Giussani's judgment blows us away, as usual. "Our ideal is not at all what…the press imagines. Our ideal is not at all that of having the right to stay on the earth and in society because we can answer the claims or needs or necessities of others, that men and women have. It is a good thing to respond to the needs and necessities of people, but we are not here for this. In 1976…when I got up to speak to two thousand university student leaders and didn't know what to say, and felt very ill at ease inside, I said, ‘We are not here for this; our goal as Christians is not this. We can very well join all the co-operatives in the world, we can join all the associations in the world and give our contribution to the common good through them, but Christianity is not an association of this kind. Christianity is not an organization to meet the needs of women and men.' This is the illusion that in every epoch has afflicted the human person and in it the human person has always collapsed. It is an illusion; it is called utopia.… [Why?] Because the human person cannot be capable of identifying, assimilating, putting together and being aware of the totality of the factors in play; something always eludes the human person."

Without realizing it, we had shifted from Christ to utopia. Utopia had become the essential for us as well. We could continue saying that the essential was Christ, but in catching us in action, Father Giussani forced us to realize that we had already shifted (this was seen in the fact that we were unable to "identify and be aware of the totality of factors"). In fact, "it was as if the movement of Communion and Liberation, from 1970 onward, had worked, built and fought for the values that Christ brought, while the fact of Christ, for us, for our persons and for all those who belonged to CL with us ‘remained parallel.'"

What led to this? A lack of awareness of the problem. In this lies our being "modern," children of the mentality that surrounds us. It is a problem of conception, of the consciousness we have of ourselves, of self-awareness, not of ethical coherence. Our being "modern" (but deep down "modernity" is a temptation of the soul of each person in every time) is documented in this shift of the centre of gravity towards our religious, cultural and operative performance: the Presence, the Fact of Christ, becomes a theoretic a priori, an a priori that does not determine who we are, our gaze, the sense of our being in the world.

The difficulty in uprooting this mentality from ourselves is documented in the consequent history of the Movement. "We went on for 10 years, working on Christian values and forgetting Christ, not knowing Christ."

Giussani denounced the shift of the centre of gravity, the substitution of the essential with what we do – like all modern men—without realizing its absolute inadequacy with regard to the factors of the problem: "If we are so shamefully divided, so fragmented that even unity between man and woman is impossible and we can trust no one, if we are so cynical towards everyone and everything and so out of love with ourselves, how can we extract something from this mire in order to reconstruct the battered walls of our person – the cement for building new walls?…Given this, our wounded situation, we cannot then say: ‘Let's set ourselves to work to reconstruct humanity.' If we are so defeated, how can we possibly win?…Someone needs to come from outside—can only come from outside – who sees our battered dwelling place and rebuilds the walls…. This is the major difficulty as far as Catholicism, authentic Christianity, is concerned: it is through something other—that comes from outside – that man becomes himself. [But this] is immediately ‘uninviting' because it opens the door, it welcomes something that does not correspond to our imagination or to our image of experience, and it appears abstract in its claim."

This "something else" Christ, seems abstract to us. And since He seems too abstract to respond to the urgent need to change, to build, "we come to a halt…in an impotent aspiring to find a remedy or, in a fraudulent, lie-filled claim. In other words, we identify the remedy in our own head and according to our own desire to make good." Terrible! Giussani continues, "Thus is born the ‘discoursing' on moral values, because discoursing on moral values suggests that the remedy to the dissolution lies in man's power of imagination and will: ‘Let's work together. Together we can fix it.'" Modern to the marrow! He said it to us, not to others.

But why do we shift from Christ to this activism, this focus on "things to do"? Here the judgment of Father Giussani was even more surprising: we shift because our doing things seems less abstract than Christ as the basis for responding to our fears. In fact, he said, "it is an existential insecurity, a deeprooted fear, that makes us view the things we do culturally and organizationally as our foundation, as the reason…of our [own] substance."

The most amazing thing is the conclusion Giussani draws from this. On our own, we would automatically identify these "activities"—through which we try to overcome our insecurity—as "presence." But nothing is further from reality than this. He said: "In this way, all the cultural activity and all the organizational activity do not become expression of a new physiognomy, of a new person [they are an expression of our fear, of our insecurity]. If they were the expression of a new person, they could also not exist, when circumstances did not permit them, but that person would still stand. Instead, for many of our people present here today," he said, "if there were not these things, they would not stand, they would not know what they are here for, they would not know what to belong to: they do not stand, they do not have substance, because the substance of my person is the presence of an Other."

Without recognizing and experiencing what responds to our existential insecurity, our basic fear, our presence is nothing other than the sign of the modern attempt to find substance in what we do.

What is the ultimate "why" of this shift? "The ‘why,' in the final analysis, is the difficulty of Christian discourse, Christian experience, in becoming mature…. Impatience isn't the last trap but the first…. Christian experience will change the world; however, in order to change the world, the entire trajectory of history is required. Christian experience will change my life, but the trajectory of existence is required [of history; instead, we always look for a shortcut to get there first, thinking we are more intelligent]…. At this point, you understand; you realize what faith means: believing, believing in Him; giving credence to the Christian Fact [that is, entrusting ourselves to a design, in the way of changing reality, that is His; but it seems too slow to us, not effective enough]. In certain moments, it's truly like dying to yourself. It's truly dying to yourself."

Perhaps now one understands better why Father Giussani asked himself in 1993, "So then, what are we here for?" If our purpose as Christians is not to take initiatives and build works to respond to needs, to resolve people's problems, what is it then? He shifts us back again, calling us to the essential, reaffirming the centrality of giving credence to the Christian Fact. This is his response to the provocation: without the return to the origin, there is nothing to be done.

"So then, what are we here for?" In 1993, Father Giussani answered, "The reason is dual, and the second is the consequence of the first; one could say, immediate or contingent consequence of the first." It is striking because, to clarify it, without mediation, he said, we "are here to say…we were walking along a road, we heard someone talking, an ideologist who was speaking, but who was more than an ideologist, because he was a serious fellow, called John the Baptist. We stayed there to listen to him. At a certain point, one who was there with us began to leave, and we saw John the Baptist stop to look at that fellow there who was leaving, and at a certain point he started to cry out, ‘There is the Lamb of God.' Well, a prophet speaks strangely. But the two of us, who were there for the first time, we came from the countryside, from far away, we left the group and set out on the heels of that man, just like that, out of a curiosity that was not curiosity, out of a strange interest – who knows who put it inside us. He turned around at a certain point and said, ‘What do you want?' and we replied, ‘Where are you staying?' And He answered, ‘Come and see.' We went and we stayed there all that day to watch Him speak, because the words He said we didn't understand, but He spoke in a certain way, He said those words in such a way, He had such a face that we stayed there to watch Him talk. When we left, because it was evening, we went home with another face, we saw our wives and our children in a different way; it was as if there were a veil between us and them, the veil of that face, and our minds could find no rest. That night neither of us slept well, and the next day we went again to seek Him. He had said a sentence that we repeated to our friends, ‘Come and see one who is the Messiah who was to come; He is the Messiah, He said so Himself: I am the Messiah.' And our friends came and they, too, were magnetized by that man. It was as if we said to each other, in the evening, when we gathered around the fire with the four fish we had caught the night before: ‘If one does not believe in a man like this, if I do not believe in a man like this, I shouldn't believe my eyes anymore.'"

Father Giussani continued, "We are in the world to cry out to all mankind, ‘Look, a strange presence is among us; among us, here, now, there is a strange presence. The Mystery who makes the stars, who makes the sea, who makes all things…has become a man, was born of the womb of a woman….' We are in the world, because to us and not to others it has been made known that God has become a man. There is a man among us, one who came among us 2,000 years ago and who has remained with us (‘I will be with you all days, to the end of the world'), there is a man [among us] who is God. The happiness of humanity, the joy of humanity, the fulfillment of all the desires of humanity is He who brings this fulfillment to its conclusion; for those who follow Him, He brings it to its conclusion." We today could add that the yearning for liberation that is confusedly and contradictorily expressed in the demands for new rights can only find fulfillment in Christ.

So, here we see how the second reason takes shape: "The contingent consequence of looking at Him, of watching Him speak, of listening to Him, of following Him, of saying to everyone, ‘He is here, He is here among us, the God made man…' the contingent consequence for those who say this is that they live the problems of their humanity better – better; they do not resolve them, but they live them better. They love their spouse more, know how to love their children more, and to love themselves more; they love their friends more than the others, look at strangers with a generosity and tenderness of heart as if they were friends, and come to the aid of others as they can, as if their needs were their own needs. They look at time with hope and therefore walk with energy, use everything to be able to walk and enable others to walk too. In pain, they encourage, in joy, they are cautious, intensely cautious; they are intense in joy, but with the awareness that everything has a limit, a limit that is provisional. From limit to limit, women and men walk together towards their destiny, towards that day in which He will reappear not as He appeared to John and Andrew…."

So then, we are here for this presence.

"A great purification, a great illumination must dwell in and dominate our soul, a great grace must happen to us… Must happen to us? It happened to us! Because what we have always said to each other in the Movement from the very beginning, albeit with other words, what others heard, and caused them to say, ‘Well, I would like to stay with them,' what we all have sensed is this (we have to admit that it subverts everything): The centre of life does not lie in succeeding but in recognizing One. Not ‘succeeding' but ‘recognizing One.'" This was the surge of the heart. Right after, Father Giussani offered this alternative: "Is the value of a person a matter of being acknowledged—how good she is, how capable, how shrewd—or of being loved? It is so true that the one dignity of the person lies in being loved, that the substance and the nature of an ‘I,' of your ‘I,' is that of having been chosen by the Mystery:…being loved is the substance, the nature of your ‘I.'"

When this is lacking, all of us are lost. The centre of life is "not a success but the acknowledgment of a presence" (and perhaps some of us, like many of our contemporaries, seek fulfillment elsewhere because they did not feel loved, do not feel loved). "This is the Christian problem," he continued, "compared to the problem of any philosophy…: Utopia is not our salvation…but a Presence to acknowledge: not a ‘to do' but a love." We only need to realize what we are in order to understand whether with our ‘doing' we can succeed in responding to our human drama. Life is this love, is the acknowledgment of being loved…. And Father Giussani added, "When I say this word [love], when I say what I just now said—the problem of existence is not ‘doing' but love—I see on 99 per cent of the faces a confused extraneousness."

What is this extraneousness? It is the sign that we do not understand, that we have already shifted. This extraneousness says, more than anything else, whence and from what we expect the answer. Rather, precisely because of this extraneousness, we shift from the essential to seek our substance in what we do. This extraneousness is the most powerful judgment we make about Christ and ourselves. Not understanding what our problem is, we do not truly realize who Christ is. Deep down the important thing, the essential, is elsewhere. It is the confused extraneousness that we feel before the mysterious design of God, the same extraneousness of Peter before the design of the Father, which Jesus obeyed and which, on the contrary, Peter did not understand. It is this extraneousness that moves us to shift from the essential, to seek our substance in something that, "in the secret thoughts of our hearts," we deem less "insubstantial" than Christ.

We will not be able to make our original contribution to the life of the world if we do not find our substance in this love that enables us to be different in the social and cultural panorama. Father Giussani never stopped showing us where we can find our true substance: "The substance of my person is the presence of an Other. Certainty is something that happened in us, happened to us, entered in us…. Someone happened to us, gave Himself to us, gave so much as to enter into our flesh and blood and soul: ‘I live, not I, but [Christ]…lives in me.'"

"A moment has come," said Father Giussani in 1991, "when the affection among us has a specific weight immediately greater than even dogmatic lucidity, the intensity of a theological thought, or the energy of leadership. The affection that we must have among ourselves has only one paragon [only one urgent need]: prayer, the affection for Christ. In fact, the moment has come in which the Movement walks exclusively in virtue of the affection for Christ that each of us has, that each of us invokes the Spirit to have."

Only a person who is certain will be able to respond to the challenges of the present….

Why does Giussani always return to John and Andrew, that is, to the first Christian announcement, the first encounter? Because he is out of touch? Because he is deluded? No, because he is convinced that "the solution of the problems life sets before us every day ‘does not happen by directly facing the problems, but examining more deeply the nature of the subject who faces them.' In other words, ‘the particular is resolved by examining more deeply the essential.'"

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