Franco Nembrini Hello to everyone and welcome to those from near and far, since some of you probably got up at three this morning to be here today.
As you probably know, today’s gathering is entitled, “Viterbo 1977–Milan 2007: Thirty Years of Presence in the Schools,” but let’s say right off the bat that it’s not intended as some kind of “Amarcord” or a gathering of veterans and survivors (in short, those who can say, “I was there”). This isn’t a nostalgic (in the worst sense of the word) gathering of Berchet graduates, focused on things of the past, no matter how great, but past. It’s bad enough that we’re living in a country that seems perennially hostage to the “great old guys” who never let go, and never let go because they can say “I was there” (I was there in the Resistance; I was there at the writing of the Constitution… all fathers of the nation). But us, no; we’re not those who say, “I was there.” We’re those who say, “I am here.”
A moment ago, while we were singing, I was looking at Stefano, who has been with us for many years, and then I looked at Pavel singing and Chiara playing guitar, and I realized that in 1977 they hadn’t even been born! Truly, it’s moving to think back over thirty years of an intense and fruitful history, in which Fr. Giussani’s charism has accompanied us and enables us to say today, “I’m here.”
I may be here with thirty or forty years of experience in the Movement, or I may have arrived yesterday, in my first year of teaching. But we all know well that among us, “I’m here” can be said by a twenty-five-year-old with a freshness, a depth, and a decisiveness that moves us, and that we want to learn and imitate. Among us, it’s God who does things, and God can take a young man and anoint him king, no matter what the Sanhedrin think, and enable him to progress with lightning speed. God is the one who does things, and our job is to watch and follow the majesty of this Presence, this Event.
This story has been accompanying us for thirty years. I believe few of us were present in Viterbo in 1977, certainly not the great number of people joining with us today from throughout the world by Internet–friends from Argentina, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, France, Germany, Great Britain, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Ireland, Lithuania, Mexico, Nigeria, Paraguay, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Uganda, Hungary, the USA, and Venezuela.
I think that this “I’m here” expresses the full drama of life, the full content of today’s gathering, of the help we’ve asked of Julián, whom we truly thank for the solicitude and paternal care with which he follows each and every one of us. I believe this is the problem of our day: you can’t take for granted the ability to say “I,” that is, to have the consciousness of oneself according to all the factors that constitute us, to have the consciousness of oneself as God has made us. Similarly, you can’t take for granted the fact of being here, that is, dealing with reality according to the totality of its dimensions, according to the totality of its factors.
As we know well, this issue of the relationship between the “I” and reality is the great call Julián has insisted we hear these last two years–in particular, I believe, starting with this year’s Fraternity Spiritual Exercises. Today we ask him to help us to be able to say, “I’m here” according to the full breadth of our freedom and according to the full breadth of the responsibility to which God calls us.
Of the numerous contributions that have arrived–over two hundred, and I truly wish to thank all of you for the care with which you have prepared for this gathering–I’ll just summarize what seem to be the recurring issues, the exposed nerves revealed in your testimonies and reflections.
The first is the need to understand. Julián, help us to understand our situation, what is happening around us and what is happening inside us, so as to clarify the reasons for a widespread weariness that makes some among us say, “I can’t take it anymore. Tell me why it’s worthwhile to keep going on in this profession after ten years, twenty years, or thirty years. Nothing changes. The kids always get worse, and I’m paid poorly; tell my why I should go on.”
The second is to help us understand again with clarity the point of consistence of our “I” and thus of our attempts at being a presence, so we can be free from bondage to the outcome or to the circumstances. Help us to be free, to understand the foundation of the consistence of the person, in order to avoid and flee this always present bondage that shifts the question from me to the others–for example, to the kids (What should I do? How can I do it? How can I convince them? How can I draw them together? How can I bring them along with me?), with the result that often the dominant note becomes a kind of lament because things never go the way they should or never happen the way we’d imagined they should.
And finally, help us to understand the dynamic of the relationship between authority and freedom. What does it mean that we have been entrusted with a personal responsibility before God and man, and, at the same time, that this personal impetus (maybe even rediscovered today) is meant to become a shared work of construction? What is the relationship between one’s own responsibility and an acknowledged authority, between the creative impetus of the “I” and the consciousness of belonging to a guided companionship?
Julián Carrón Thank you for this invitation to speak on a challenge that I have very much at heart, especially since I was a teacher for so many years.
I. The current challenge
If there is a watchword for all of us today, we can express it succinctly with the expression, “educational emergency.” From Pope Benedict XVI (during the conference of the Rome Diocese) to UNESCO–to mention only two leading realities–we are all in agreement that we truly find ourselves faced with an emergency, because we see the difficulty of our society (our society means us–us teachers, us parents) in transmitting the reason for living, that is, in truly introducing to reality all the new members of our people.
To put it very concisely, what are the unequivocal signs of this emergency?
In terms of the students, I would describe today’s situation with one word: disinterest. Teachers don’t find themselves in front of classrooms of young people who are all eager and willing to study, interested in what they have to learn. The first question for any teacher, therefore, is how to stimulate interest in the subject matter. Today, we can’t take for granted that the student wants to learn; there may be thousands of excellent teachers, willing to teach all their knowledge, but the problem is that there aren’t students who have the desire to learn.
So, how can we stimulate their interest? How can we generate the human subject? How should we put ourselves before the students and what we have to teach, in order to begin that process that enables our students or our children to introduce themselves to reality? The consequence of this disinterest, which can’t take them and set all their capacities into motion, is passivity. We see so many young people “parked” in the schools or other settings. As Pietro Citati said in an article in la Repubblica years ago, young people “prefer to remain passive …they live wrapped up in a mysterious torpor” (P. Citati, “Gli eterni adolescenti” [“The Eternal Adolescents”] in la Repubblica, August 2, 1999, p. 1). But often we adults are no different. As Franco said about teachers, many of us feel sad or alone in the face of all the challenges before us.
I remember a teacher of mine whom I met once at the entrance of the seminary where I lived. He was returning a bit upset and I asked him, “What happened?” He answered, “Look, I just told my students that I have less satisfaction than a mechanic, because if a mechanic tries hard, he can fix a car, but I’ve devoted endless effort, and half of them have to repeat the year.” So, to provoke him, I said, “Is this normal? How do your other colleagues fare?” He said, “They change their methods once, twice, three times…until they give up.”
This applies to us teachers no less than to the students–after you stop trying, seeking, what do you do? You behave like the students: you have to submit to many hours and hours of lessons, burdened with the heaviness of living. What interest can a teacher like this ever create in the students? This disinterest in reality, which leads inevitably to passivity, makes us understand the nature of the crisis in which we’re involved. It’s not just a problem of the schools; it’s a problem of the human, and it’s documented in the passivity of many young people, who are almost incapable of becoming interested in something for the long term, and it’s seen in the weariness, loneliness, and skepticism of so many adults, who fail to find an interest that makes it truly worthwhile to fully engage their own humanity. And thus they don’t even have the capacity for involving the young people, engaging their interest in what they have before them. As our Spanish friends wrote in a flyer for the beginning of the school year, quoting Péguy, “The crisis of education isn’t the crisis of teaching: it’s the crisis of life.”
The situation in which we find ourselves is a challenge above all for us. Many attempts at facing this challenge have already failed–for example, saying, “Since we can’t interest them, we can at least give them rules so that the river won’t overflow; let’s appeal to the people’s, the students’ moral strength.” We all know that this doesn’t help to arouse interest. The fact that we constantly have to appeal to this kind of extrinsic moralism means that we’ve already acknowledged defeat. But this is the case for other attempts as well, such as the one documented in Galimberti’s article in la Repubblica, “The Generation of Nothingness” (U. Galimberti, “La generazione del nulla” [“The Generation of Nothingness”], in la Repubblica, October 5, 2007, p. 47): having acknowledged that Illuministic reason fails to arouse this interest, he proposes returning to the Greeks, holding that desire is sometimes unlimited and that we need to stop at some point, settling for the Greek art of living. But precisely this measure has failed in reality, because it can’t arouse interest. For this reason, disinterest and passivity increase.
The first question is whether we’re willing to look this challenge full in the face, to take it on, to deal with reality exactly as it is, or whether we prefer to look for a way to manage without focusing on the true struggle before us. In the face of this challenge, I’m reminded of Saint Augustine’s question, quoted by Pope Benedict, which we all would say adequately describes the current reality: “What moves man in the depths of his being?” (cf. Saint Augustine, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, Homily 26.5). In this situation we’re living, what is able to move man to the center of his own “I”?
In order to respond, think of what happens to a toddler when you put a toy in front of him–it begins to arouse all his interest. I’ve often given this example: imagine you’re in a class and you’ve brought a device that’s new to the kids. You’ve forgotten the cord and say, “Wait a second. I’ll go look for the cord.” How much time do you think will pass before the kids get up and crowd around the table to see what it is?
Reality is what arouses our interest. For the child, it’s not enough to have the toy in front of him to continue to be interested. It’s not enough for us to explain the chemistry of the toy, the physics of the toy, the writing in Chinese, the size. If the child doesn’t understand the meaning of that toy, we’ll eventually see it forgotten in a corner of his room because, for the child, partial explanations, partial data aren’t enough. Before reality, reason is the exigency for totality, for total meaning. You can’t introduce the toy without this total introduction. This is why we have always repeated that education must introduce one to the whole of reality. What happens with the toy happens with everything: for someone who works hours and hours every day, or someone who sees his beloved, or a beautiful sunset, at a certain point, it’s impossible for him not to ask, “What is its meaning?”
If it is so easy for reality to arouse interest, then why is there this disinterest? Because–in the oft quoted words of María Zambrano, this is precisely what is in crisis–“What is in crisis …is that mysterious nexus that unites our being with reality, so profound and fundamental as to be our intimate sustenance” (cf. M. Zambrano, Verso un sapere dell’anima [Towards a Knowledge of the Soul], Cortina Editore, Milan 1996, p. 84). If reality is the sustenance of living, of the student’s interest, of our interest, for living a day or for staying before a situation–so much so that when one is not interested, life is entirely boring–if the nexus with reality (not an aspect of it) is in crisis, we can immediately grasp the dimensions of the problem: it concerns not just one particular or another, but our relationship with reality.
What does it mean that the nexus with reality is in crisis? It doesn’t mean that this nexus doesn’t exist. We can’t avoid the relationship with reality. We are always in relationship with it. There isn’t an adult or a young person on the world’s stage for whom reality doesn’t arouse questions.
I’ll never forget the story of a French scholar, Olivier Clément. His father was an unbeliever who introduced his son to reality according to this position, but this did not keep the boy from being struck by reality. He recounted in his autobiography that when he was eight years old, his friend Antoine died, and, standing by the child’s body, he looked at his father and asked, “Papà, where is Antoine?” His father, coherent with his atheism, answered, “Antoine’s nowhere. He’s dead.” You would think that this would have cut short Olivier’s inquiry, but when he was twelve, walking with his father one night under a starry sky, he asked again, “Papà, what is beyond the stars?” “Beyond the stars there’s nothing.”
Nobody, no power in this world can stop this dynamic, this impact of the “I” with reality that continually arouses questions, inquiry. Nothing. No power can prevent a starry sky from re-awakening the quest for meaning. And what happens with the stars also happens with work, affection, time, everything that happens to us; reality continues to arouse questions, even in this situation of ours. Is it reasonable to keep working [teaching], after ten or twenty years, with all the chaos now in the schools? It’s as if the Mystery doesn’t allow us to stop, and continues knocking on our door, re-awakening the exigency for meaning. No power can stop Him, no situation can stop Him! For this reason, saying that the nexus with reality is in crisis doesn’t mean that this doesn’t continue to happen; it’s impossible for it not to happen. The desire to find an answer that makes the instant we’re living reasonable is continually re-awakened in us in any circumstance–not only the beautiful ones, but also the ugly ones; in fact, more so: what meaning is there in working as a teacher in this situation? Therefore–the Spaniards say this very well in their flyer–this desire is the principal resource for any educative effort, because it stimulates curiosity and questions about all the concerns of life. For this reason, in response to the question of whether it is possible to educate in this situation, we have to say yes right away, because this desire is continually re-awakened.
So, wherein lies the problem of our nexus with reality? Fr. Giussani identified it in this way: in the face of this desire, in these questions awakened in us by reality, we succumb to “an option permanently open to the human soul. It occurs when there is a sad lack of committed interest and an absence of curiosity towards all reality” (L. Giussani, Why the Church?, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal 2001, p. 34).
Questions are inevitable; the desire to find an answer cannot be pushed aside, but we can choose not to consider them, not let ourselves be drawn by the questions, and block this curiosity. Freedom enters into play, not pursuing the interest aroused by reality, not pursuing that curiosity that reality awakens in us. And when we succumb to the human soul’s option to fail to engage with reality, what happens? We don’t discover the meaning, and without recognizing the meaning of reality, it no longer interests us. If the child doesn’t know how to use the toy, pretty soon he’ll abandon it in a corner of his room because he doesn’t know what to do with it.
Therefore, the incapacity for introduction to the totality of the real is not indifferent–as we thought–to our relationship with the real; without perceiving the meaning, sooner or later reality won’t interest us and, in our schools, we, too, like the kids, can become passive. This is the origin of the disinterest that ends up in boredom, because nothing arouses our interest any more. We thought that reality would continue to be attractive without meaning. We thought that the meaning was an extra that we could do without; we can explain physics or chemistry to the kids, but needn’t give the meaning. We thought we could reduce education to the transmission of knowledge, data, but this hasn’t proven sufficient to continue to interest the kids in what they have before them. Without arousing interest, the desire that had been re-awakened falters, and is supplanted by the nihilism Augusto Del Noce spoke of long ago: “Today’s nihilism is gay nihilism, which is lacking in inquietude” (perhaps–he said–one could even define it in terms of the suppression of the Augustinian inquietum cor meum) (A. Del Noce, Lettera a Rodolfo Quadrelli [Letter to Rodolfo Quadrelli], unpublished, 1984), in terms of the suppression of desire, but not because reality doesn’t constantly re-awaken it, but because if desire doesn’t find an answer to this exigency for totality, this need for meaning, then it peters out, like the child’s interest in the toy. This depends on a decision that we have made, a lack of engagement, an ultimate immorality against this exigency for meaning that constitutes us.
Mark my words, we find ourselves before a question that cannot be given just any answer. This is the deceit of relativism. We know that it is a lie, because not all answers correspond to the exigency of our question. Not just any answer will give meaning to our daily work, our pain, our need to know how to live our circumstances so that they won’t become our tomb. The problem of education is whether we have an answer to this urge inherent in living, such that we can communicate it, in our living. Therefore, it’s not the kids’ problem; it’s the adults’ problem, our problem. Only if we adults have this engagement with the real in its totality can we communicate a meaning. I’m enthusiastic about this, because there is no hide-away, no circumstance that spares us this engagement. We think we can manage all right with a user’s manual! This is the grace of working with kids: that we can’t manage, and that not just any old answer will do. We see it in the signs of passivity and weariness.
This is why we have to begin looking this situation full in the face. Do we want to deal with this, or do we want to do something alongside life, alongside problems? In this context, is there any hope, is there something that can move man in his most intimate depths? This is the same question posed by Franco at the beginning: how can we be here? How can I say, “I’m here” with all of myself in reality, with the kids, today’s school, my children, or my own self?
II. How can this happen?
In order to answer this question, we don’t have to engage in all sorts of mental machinations; once again, we have to look. Let’s look at our experience: has something happened that has re-awakened our interest, that has set us back into motion? What has helped overcome the lack of engagement? What has set us back into motion? Can we identify something real? Yes. It’s called “encounter.” We encountered a winning attraction that carried within a hypothesis of meaning that drew us after it; it was something so real that it helped us to set our whole “I” into motion. We can give it all sorts of names: a preference, something that we’ve had to acknowledge, that has established itself within us and has re-awakened all our exigencies.
“Our encounter with a vital Christian community or a Christian who is striking because he or she says something to us that we feel to be true, has an incomparable newness, freshness, and value. However, we can encounter a tradition, which has its roots in the centuries, within our present reality through a phrase, a word, or a gesture. This is to say that the encounter with that community or that friend brings us tidings that spring from a life lived through the centuries, through tradition.” (L. Giussani, The Journey to Truth Is an Experience, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal 2006, p. 95). Why does it set us in motion? Because it corresponds so much that it incites all our needs, sets in motion all our exigencies, re-awakens the desire to plunge into the fray, and makes us free to do so.
We read in School of Community: “Just as we have not arranged the encounter, neither are our actions conditioned by our success” (ibid., p. 95). Therefore, in this whole situation of tiredness and confusion, why can I start anew? Because something happened that makes my action free, because it doesn’t depend on the confusion, the difficulty in the school, the environment, my colleagues, the kids; it doesn’t depend on this. “The motive that moves us and justifies our diffusion is not within ourselves but is at our depths, where we find an Other [Other with a capital O], Him whom we adore. We do not wish to form a party or faction or our own program. We wish to realize something that is other, pure, pristine, that does not depend on us but on the One who made us. For this reason, if the encounter is accepted simply, it gives us a great freedom of spirit that never hinders us but allows us to act independently of our cultural attainment or shrewdness and even beyond our heart. We have this faith and confidence because an Other acts within us. Our freedom is that simplicity and naïveté that allows us to never tire of turning to whomever, of extending once again to whomever the invitation to that definitive encounter in the life of a human being.” (Ivi, pp. 95-96). Nobody can block this, because it’s an event that constantly re-awakens the “I.” And only if this continues to happen, if this remains, if this endures as the wellspring constituting my “I,” am I free to enter into any circumstance, and thus to enter into the whole of reality, to respond to this exigency for meaning, to this weariness of mine, or this solitude of mine. Then you understand why everything begins to become interesting. “In the experience of a great love… everything that happens becomes an event in its sphere” (R. Guardini, L’essenza del cristianesimo [The Essence of Christianity], Morcelliana, Brescia 1980), p. 12.
What happened after the encounter? We’re all here because of an encounter. But what happened after? Pay attention to what Fr. Giussani was saying already thirty years ago: “For many of us, the announcement that salvation is Jesus Christ [in this encounter] and that the liberation of life and the human person, here and in the other world, are continually bound to the encounter with Him, has become a merely ‘spiritual’ call. Many of us think of concrete things as something different. Commitment to the labor union, activism to have certain rights recognized, organization, work groups, or meetings aren’t seen as expressions of a need of life, but as a mortification of life, a burden, dues to pay for a belonging that inexplicably finds us still in the ranks” (L. Giussani, “Viterbo 1977,” in Il rischio educativo [The Risk of Education], SEI, Turin 1995, p. 61). That is, at a certain moment, Christ was no longer indispensable for us in living our situation; we could do without Him, because concrete life was another thing. Christ didn’t seem indispensable for living the concrete–not that we denied Him, but He simply became a premise, a spiritual reminder that we no longer needed for plunging into the fray. Do you realize what this means? We were conceited and we dug our own graves.
But with time we see the consequences in ourselves. With all our self-important attempts, we can’t cut it; many of us are in the tomb with a stupendous educative proposal! As with us, the same thing happens with the kids, and in the community. Look at what Fr. Giussani said: “We often note that the young communities are missionary, express a communicative vibration, and embody a great capacity for calling others. This means that the content of our proposal is exhilarating and expresses a call, but then it seems that it can’t maintain the same highs; bit by bit as the communities age, they become elderly, they dry up. There is the grave danger that our Movement can testify to the goodness of its experience in the initial proposal, but then that its members will fail to use the method that makes it continuous. The proposal of the Movement is a truth and therefore is striking. But without a corresponding method …there’s no journey, there’s no continuity” (ibid., p. 60). We can’t avoid feeling the repercussion of the beauty of the proposal in us or in others, but there’s no continuity. Why? Because we’ve changed the method. Our initiatives weren’t what re-awakened people–it was Jesus who made Himself present through these initiatives.
“The Movement was born of a Presence that imposed itself and brought to life the provocation of a promise we could follow. But then we entrusted the continuity of this beginning to discourses [terrible!] and initiatives, to meetings and the things to do. We didn’t entrust it to our life, and so the beginning very soon ceased to be truth offered to our person, and became the starting point for an association, for a reality upon which we could dump the responsibility for our own work and through which we could expect things to be resolved. What should have been the embrace of a provocation and thus a living sequela has become obedience to the organization.” (Ibid., p. 63). That is, instead of communicating the newness in the way we live the reality before us, in our engagement with reality, we believed we could spare ourselves this commitment through the theorization of a method. Fr. Giussani said, “We have to help each other defeat a danger, already very much alive [he said this thirty years ago–just think how it is today!]: reducing our commitment to a theorization of a socio-pedagogical method, to consequent activism and its political defense, instead of reaffirming and proposing to our fellow human beings a fact of life” (ibid., p. 61).
For this reason, I keep asking: will we sometimes take the risk of verifying Christ’s proposal instead of abandoning it the next instant, changing the method? It’s not that the proposal fails to arouse interest in us or in the community of the kids, but who can maintain this? Do we think we can manage with ourselves and with the others by changing the only method that can re-awaken that interest, the method of making this attraction present first of all for us, and therefore for the others?
III. A new beginning
For this reason, a new beginning is needed, one–as Fr. Giussani already said–that doesn’t start from “What should I do?” but from “Who am I? What am I?” It’s not a rhetorical question, but, as he said in Viterbo, “it’s the point of departure that no evil can take away from us. If evil takes away this point of departure, it’s because it isn’t clear. The situation isn’t what defeats our person; it clarifies it, and makes our own fragility surface. It’s not the environment that creates the fragility; it isn’t the situation in which we find ourselves that creates the fragility; instead, it brings to the surface our inconsistency, our fragility, our lack of freedom.” This “‘What am I?’ …is the continuous principle of resurrection, like the reef that the storm covers but can never wash away, and that rises out of the water again with the return of good weather.”
Therefore, there has to be a renewal in us of “a different self-awareness [born of the encounter] and thus a different sense of the human, because the sense of the human we draw from ourselves. This is the new creature spoken of in the Gospels, the new seed that is in the world, a new man because he has a new sense of himself and thus of the other… This new consciousness of oneself is called faith and is characterized by the fact that it’s as if I were no longer, but something other that is in me” (ibid., p. 73).
I hope we don’t perceive this as a “spiritual” reminder that has nothing to do with the situation, and thus repeat the history of years ago, because, as some of you told me, Fr. Giussani asserted that “the thing least understood was Viterbo.” This faith that is a new, different self-awareness isn’t something alongside human reality; it isn’t a garment. It’s the reality of the person; it is your meaning and consistence. This consciousness generates presence in the very moment you cross the threshold of school, when you’re in front of the nursery school children or among the high school students; otherwise, what in the world are we doing in the school?
Only if we are defined by this do we acquire a certainty that helps us enter into everything; this certainty is what enables us to enter into reality. How the heck can you go to school without being constantly filled with this certainty and this consciousness?! I understand that you might want to flee from this situation, but how can you? Don’t you realize that this can’t be just a “spiritual” reminder, that it’s the only modality for living ourselves with all our awareness, so as to say, “I am in reality with all of myself”? Because “truth must be realized in life” (N. Berdjaev, Pensieri controcorrente [Countercurrent Thoughts], La casa di Matriona, Milan 2007, p. 59) as Berdjaev said. This certainty enables us to enter into reality, to go to school filled with this Presence. “The cultural phenomenon,” Fr. Giussani said in Viterbo, “catches fire and spreads only if it is generated by a foundational certainty … This certainty is the event of Christ in the adult, who in turn proposes it to the student, who sees it present in the older person before him or her” (L. Giussani, “Viterbo 1997,” op. cit., p. 89)–the student sees this certainty in the fact that the adult is passionate about things, and this feeds his interest in everything.
The symptom of this certainty, Fr. Giussani says in Certain of a Few Great Things, is “the fondness for everything one encounters. …The more powerful a person, in terms of certainty of consciousness, the more his gaze, even in his habitual way of strolling along the street, embraces everything, valorizes everything, and misses nothing. He even sees the yellow leaf in the midst of a tree’s green foliage. It’s only our certainty of the ultimate meaning that enables us to perceive, as if we were detectors, the slimmest filings of truth in another’s pocket. To be a friend to someone, it’s not necessary that he discover that what you say is true, or that he come with you. It’s not necessary. I go with him because of that little filing of truth that he has. The lack of this openness has caused the Movement to cease to be movement for too long, because we have closed ourselves in on the discourse or praxis of our own community: either you do like us or you’re not one of us [Fr. Giussani says this; don’t blame me!]. Only the certainty of truth makes us feel immediately fraternal, maternal, and fond of every fragment of truth that exists in each person; therefore, truth is the friend of everyone” (L. Giussani, Certi di alcune grandi cose 1979-1981 [Certain of a Few Great Things 1979-1981], BUR, Milan 2007, pp. 155-156).
This is why I said at the Beginning Day that Fr. Giussani truly left us the test: if we have this certainty, we can freely enter into everything and be free from bondage to the outcome. But for us these are “spiritual” things. No, no, no, no! This is the test of the way I live reality–either I depend only on God and am free from the entire universe, from every blackmail, or I am free from God and slave to every circumstance, to every blackmail, every outcome (cf. L. Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal 1998, p. 86).
The way we engage in school, in reality, the way we face any circumstance is the test of our dependence on the Mystery, the test of our freedom, not the things we do alongside, Sunday mornings. The test is whether we–precisely because of this dependence–live a freedom of the other world in this world. This is because “Christianity is a new way to live in this world. It is a new life. Above all, it does not represent a few particular experiences, ways of doing things, additional gestures, or expressions or words to add to our usual vocabulary. …The Christian looks at all of reality in the same way as a non-Christian, but that which reality tells him or her is different and he or she reacts in a different way” (L. Giussani, The Journey…, op. cit., p. 94). For this reason, he can enter into reality, into all of reality. And reality, entering into it, is the verification of the faith, of this certainty of mine. Otherwise, we do something parallel, alongside.
This is what excited me when I met the Movement; for a long time, I had thought that my superiors were wasting my time assigning me to teach, when I wanted to dedicate myself to my research. But when I realized the encounter I’d had, I said to myself, “You’re really an idiot, because the Lord has made you verify your faith at school.” I’m grateful for my ten years of teaching for this precise reason, because otherwise I’d have been able to find the “theological” reason to justify my escape from school, as some of my colleagues did. I could’ve just found a sudden “vocation” for parish life. This would have been enough to go away defeated, with my theological justification alongside me in the casket. But thanks to God, what I encountered, the encounter I had with the Movement and Fr. Giussani’s proposal, permitted me to verify my faith deep down. I came away from school freer, gladder, happier, more certain, than when I began.
This is the challenge for each of us. It would’ve been very easy to do something alongside or to go into parish life (where I didn’t have to stay before reality, but only with those who came there because they didn’t have anything better to do). But being forced to stay before kids I hadn’t chosen, or with colleagues I hadn’t chosen–do you understand?–meant there was no escape. That’s why I told Fr. Giussani, “I’ll always be grateful to you because, since I’ve met you, I’ve been able travel on a human journey,” that is, to verify the importance of my faith (which wasn’t just a spiritual call) in my life, in the way I lived at school. And when I had to leave teaching, I was happier than before, when I began. Otherwise, I would have left defeated.
This is why I’m very grateful that I wasn’t spared anything and that, because I was a priest or because I was in a certain school, I wasn’t spared the journey of entering, I myself, into reality, before the kids, before the subject matter I had to teach. Given what I had encountered, which enabled me to take my desire seriously, if I didn’t enter into reality, I would’ve been the first to be defeated, because I wouldn’t have been able to substitute it with some beautiful educational theories.
In fact, education isn’t explaining reality; it’s helping students to enter into reality. We know full well the difference between doing a beautiful lesson on Chapter Ten of The Religious Sense and experiencing what the chapter says. With the same words of Fr. Giussani, we can cook two very different soups: one makes us learn the discourse very well, but the other makes us experience what the discourse says. What’s the difference? The way I am in reality, the way I enjoy reality. The moment I realized this, going to school became a party for me. If we want to introduce the others to reality, we can’t do it–to use a bull-fighting comparison–“looking at the bull from the stands.” We can help others enter into reality only if we ourselves enter into reality first in order to discover its meaning; therefore, only if the kids see the victory in our face, in our visage, in the way we act, in the way we react, in the way we live everything, then they will be interested in what they see in us; they’ll get the desire to live this way, because, as Fr. Giussani said in Viterbo, “education is a communication of yourself, that is, of your own way of relating with reality.” Pay attention! We have to impress these words on our minds! Communication of yourself doesn’t mean communicating your ideas, your theories; it’s communicating your own way of relating with reality, because “man is …a living modality of the relationship with reality. …Therefore, communication of yourself means communicating a living way of relating with reality” (L. Giussani, “Viterbo 1977,” op. cit., p. 84).
I’m grateful that the circumstances of my life forced me into this because, after ten years of teaching high school, I became a professor at the university, and because I was a member of CL, I couldn’t speak even an instant outside the hour of lesson; I wasn’t permitted to do anything alongside. Do you understand? And I’m very grateful for this, because it obliged me to do it in class, in the way I taught; nobody could stop me from teaching in a certain way and transmitting the contents in a certain way. I didn’t need anything else outside the hour of lesson, and nobody could stop what I said during class from becoming the topic of dialogue in the university dining room.
We don’t need anything else, anything parallel or alongside, if we accept the challenge of reality, because the way a person lives reality is what provokes us. That’s why Fr. Giussani said, “The beginning is a Presence that imposes itself. The beginning is a provocation, but not to the ‘brain,’ …[but] to our life; whatever isn’t a provocation to our life wastes our time and energy, and blocks us from true joy,” (ibid., p. 62) and therefore, in time, no longer interests us. “The educative presence is the presence of the adult as a united person,” (ibid., p. 86) and this concerns everything, from teaching methodology to the environment, because if we don’t reach the point at which this newness of gaze, sparked by the encounter, opens us to discover more the itinerary needed for communicating it, if we don’t reach that point, the point of teaching methodology, we succumb to dualism.
One of us wrote, “I came back to high school teaching after a five-year absence, and found again a situation that I had already experienced for some time. I can say that I work hard at preparing lessons, enriched year after year with the experience of so many gatherings, readings, exchanges of thought, and judgments made together with other teacher friends. So, I don’t think that the content of my communication is neutral; if nothing else, the students (I’ve always believed) have valid material with which to compare their own thought. And yet I continue to note (yesterday as well as today) that when I examine my students (especially the better and more conscientious ones), their answers contain elements that don’t come from what I told them, but from what’s written in their textbooks. So when they return home after an interesting lesson of mine, they learn from their books notions that are the exact opposite of what I’ve proposed–the “after” cancels out the “before.” This makes me understand how important it is to embrace reality in all its aspects, including teaching methodology, especially the set of materials that are part of the learning process. I realized that if our educative concerns don’t reach that point, it’s as if we surrender from the outset to a cultural challenge that should be our responsibility, only ours and not delegated to others.” Do you understand the challenge? I don’t care about the number: if there are ten people who accept this challenge, count me in. If someone wants to do something alongside, I’m not interested.
From teaching methodology to the environment… The second factor of the presence is being inside. “Christianity,” said Fr. Giussani, “is the announcement of God incarnate, and this means not only that God took on flesh, but also that He has remained immanent in, organic to time, space, and history. Thus we need to be inside the normal fabric of life and the modality with which society, with a power that enters everywhere […], involves individuals and conditions them, manipulating them for its purposes; we need to be inside, in the environment; we have to be an organic part of the world in its detailed concreteness. How many times have we believed that living our Movement was doing something alongside practical and concrete life [this can never be the Movement, as it can never be Christianity, because it is the opposite of what God did: He became flesh], or that being inside the problem of the environments of family, neighborhood, or school was something ‘other’ than the communion among us. This is the mentality of everyone … [Instead,] presence means being with all your humanity inside the environment” (ibid., pp. 75-76). This is the verification of the faith: that faith, the certainty of my faith, enables me to stay in any situation. Otherwise, why should I be interested? Why does Christ interest me, if not because He enables me to stay in reality in any situation, before any circumstance?
This is why Giussani says, “Either within the environment, or it’s not true.” It demonstrates itself to be untrue; it shows that what happened to me isn’t so true that it can make me live any circumstance; it doesn’t introduce me to the totality of the real; it doesn’t serve. And sooner or later it will happen to me as it has to so many Christians for whom faith wasn’t pertinent–it didn’t have anything to do with life. It’s not that they denied it, but they just stopped being interested in the life of faith. We are trying to verify our faith. “The environment is whatever aspect of the normal fabric of life and the practical modality with which the world involves and conditions us; therefore, it is the family, the apartment house, friends, the labor union, the work environment, politics, everything” (ibid., p. 76).
If we don’t enter into reality, friends, (we read it in School of Community–it would be enough just to read School of Community in a certain way), instead of expressing a call, we become mere transmitters of propaganda: “Propaganda is to spread something simply because it is one’s own idea or because it is of personal interest. The calling, instead …is to awaken something that is already in the other” (L. Giussani, The Journey to Truth…, op. cit., p. 149). But how do I awaken it? Only if I become a presence through the way I live reality do I awaken the interest of others. I can’t manage just by communicating a discourse since in this way, I’m just a propagandist, and I don’t awaken anything in the other. “I appeal to my companions to help them find their truth, their true names (in the biblical sense), to find themselves. My Christian appeal is thus the strongest contribution to one’s freedom, because freedom means to be oneself. For that reason, our calling is the supreme gesture of friendship.” Awakening others, not making them become “ours” means that whatever road they must take to reach their destiny is up to the Mystery, not to me. What interests us is testifying to Christ, testifying to the power of Christ who awakens the “I” of the other. Then whatever they do is their own business; the goal isn’t to bring them to “our” group. “[For this reason] above all, we are never called to determined forms, criteria, or schemes, or to particular organizations, but rather to that promise that constitutes the human heart. We repeat what God placed in others’ hearts as He created them, placing them in a given setting, shaping them. For this very reason, we do not know where God will lead them” (ivi). But we often think we already know what the Mystery has decided for them, and this is a joke. I’m so often amazed by our lack of the sense of the Mystery, because we already think we know the modality. Are we really so sure?
Fr. Giussani continues, “[T]he plan is His. We cannot know what their vocation will be [this sentence alone is enough to make us reconsider everything we do]. Ours, therefore, is above all a calling to that which constitutes the value of a human life, to a destiny, a vocation, its fulfillment, and nothing else [these are his precise words]. In proposing to the other, we relive the motives for which we appeal to him or her. It is exactly that splendor, the expression of this ‘reliving’ of ours, that constitutes the calling to the other. [The splendor of this ‘reliving’ of ours is called testimony. This is hardly mere discourse!] Thus, the call is not something extrinsic to us, almost like a task outside ourselves. Once our adherence is no longer vital, our appeal becomes automatic, as if we were expounding a formula or ideology. Such an appeal is usually propaganda, which only generates arguments, making us feel estranged from others. We must do things in such a way that everything–the initiatives that we undertake, the invitations we extend–is pervaded and animated by a genuine concern for the ideal. We have the same concerns as others, because they are human preoccupations. But we have something else: our every gesture is underpinned by the profound desire to love the person, that is, to help him or her to be truly free, to walk toward his or her destiny [according to a plan that is not ours]. This is the law of charity: the desire that the others be themselves […]. We want to go to school or work, we worry about achieving a good grade or a fair wage, we have a curiosity [desire] about things and events and a desire to have relationships that fill time and avoid boredom. But, above all, we want to be people who, beyond attending school, going to work, or being friends, always strive for the ideal, the supreme ideal, Christ and the Church” (ibid., pp. 100-101).
For all this, I say that this is the verification of our faith. And because of this, if our proposal is conveyed by living before others, then the recipients are everyone–everyone–because we live before everyone and we can’t know in advance who the Lord wants to move in their innermost depths through our testimony; we can’t know. For this reason, “it was terribly mistaken to think our educative efforts in school should become set in alternative works,” (L. Giussani, “Viterbo 1977,” op. cit., p. 88) thinking that what the Lord desired would ensue from these works. We can do two different GS groups: one with kids who are challenged by our being there, and one filled with those with nothing better to do. We can do two GS groups, and fill them, but at this point, if it’s the second, I’d start getting worried. I wouldn’t be happy just because there are a lot of kids; the question is whether they come because they’ve been challenged in their interests.
Listen to what one of you wrote to me: “A few months ago, I was looking for venues for expanding our school, and I visited some classrooms in a nearby parish. The priest accompanying me recounted with evident satisfaction that their youth club had been practically deserted for many years, but today, with the arrival of immigrants (above all from Morocco), it has blossomed once again, with a continual series of activities and meetings; in short, ‘the numbers’ were up once again. A bit perplexed, I continued the tour of the parish premises. At a certain point, we ended up in the multi-media room where some kids were comfortably seated, intently watching TV. While the priest waxed eloquent about how these kids needed the opportunity to maintain contact with the traditions of their home countries, I noticed that at three in the afternoon they had programmed the satellite decoder for an Arab station. This episode made me understand that the problem isn’t ‘numbers’ (and thus the outcome of what we do), but the problem is that I stay before reality in the expectant awaiting of His manifestation.”
As the wrecking and destruction of the human person intensifies, we can find more numbers, but it would be cold comfort if we were able to attract only a few: do they come because they are attracted, or because they don’t have anything better to do? With our proposal, are we able to challenge and move those who have something serious in mind, and who are drawn by a winning attraction they have before them, or not? Because, once again, we can cook two different soups, and we can do two different GS groups.
This brings us to understand the relationship between the way in which the Mystery acts and how we should respond. It’s not up to us to decide who moves someone’s innermost depths; it is the Mystery who works through Johnny Come Lately or whomever He decides. Our job is to obey the modality with which He does things. Therefore, the first move of any responsible authority, any person with responsibility among us, will be to obey that modality with which the Mystery makes things emerge. And if He makes things emerge through one of us, we should all strive to see how we can help, not try right away to absorb that person into the structure. Are you sure that when you do this (absorb the person into the structure), the kids will follow you? Are we nuts? The Lord isn’t incompetent, and He moves things and people according to His method. He, who knows everyone, knows how to act. Either we respect this and obey this–and thus the first authority is the one who obeys the most, not who manages the most–or we absorb people. Those whom the Lord has given the grace to find this, to bring forth, to generate, before this fact that is happening to them, will right away seek to put those they’ve encountered into a relationship with the only place where the attraction can endure. They can’t think of managing it by cult-of-personality, because after a while anyone doing so would go to pieces. This is the dynamic between belonging and the person, between authority and freedom, which need each other.
This is the reason we accompany each other and the others, to put it succinctly, according to the heading I chose for the La Thuile booklet: Friends, that is, Witnesses. We are friends for each other, among ourselves and the kids, if we testify to each other this modality of staying in reality, a modality awakened by the faith, by His presence. This enables us to embrace everything and everyone, even in the particulars of the way we stay before all the vicissitudes of school.
I’ll close with a few observations about more concrete, operative things.
Those who desire that their teaching be invested with what has happened to them can’t help but be interested in what DIESSE is doing [a center for formation and for updating teaching methodology and scholastic innovation], not only because they should use it, but because they should contribute to it; each of us should give a contribution to make DIESSE useful for everyone. It is very interesting, and we can help each other much more, if all the things circulate among us as the outcome of our communion and if we give ourselves the instruments that we wouldn’t have been able to create on our own. There is such a wealth among us that we can truly accompany each other even in the details of teaching methodology.
The same is true with the FOE (Federation of Educational Works) and the schools promoted by people in the Movement. It’s fundamental to help each other out, to give each other a hand in this way.
I’ll take advantage of this occasion to clarify my position about teaching in public schools or not: now there’s enormous opportunity for many of you to enter [the Italian] public schools. But it’s not my desire that everyone do so. I’ll only say that this is a missionary occasion for all of us. Many schools that are part of the FOE have twenty or more teachers, and I wonder whether all twenty are decisively needed to keep the school going, or whether ten could more usefully bring their testimony into the public schools. I’m not saying that a private school isn’t useful, but that we are for everyone. In any case, we should see whether there are people who are absolutely indispensable; I wonder whether all twenty are indispensable.
I just want to share a concern with you. Now we have an enormous possibility (and perhaps there won’t be another chance like this for years to come). How does this challenge us? What does this possibility call us to? We have no other criterion than mission. This doesn’t mean abandoning private schools in a senseless way but, instead, looking at how all of us approach this situation.
Here’s an example. When a young woman of the Memores Domini who teaches in a private school run by our friends expressed her willingness to go on mission, the first thing I did was to call the director of her school and ask, “Is this young woman indispensable for your school? Can I take this possibility seriously, her willingness to go on mission, or would it do enormous harm to the school?” When he reassured me, I accepted her offer. This is my criterion for the issue of schools. This example is worth a thousand words. All of us must place ourselves before this possibility with that desire to respond to our vocation: how can we communicate to everyone what’s happened to us, in this particularly dramatic time for education?
This is my attempt to help you at this moment. It’s a proposal we can verify throughout this year in many occasions together or among yourselves. I propose that at the end of the academic year we have an assembly on this, to accompany us on this road that we are traveling together.
Franco Nembrini Hello to everyone and welcome to those from near and far, since some of you probably got up at three this morning to be here today.