The Statue of Liberty. CC0

The American Dream

The annual meeting of CL Responsibles for North America. A torrent of questions, focusing on a current theme: work. Where man’s freedom is at stake.
Marco Bardazzi

A biochemistry lab in Philadelphia. A law firm in Chicago. A hospital operating room in Montreal. A neurosurgery ward in Phoenix, Arizona. The Lord chooses different places to call forth in man the desire for a Presence. Work is one of the places where the banality and repetition of daily life, combined with the rhythm imposed by third-millennium production systems, seem to conspire to try to discourage any demand for true freedom. This situation exists everywhere, even in the country that has made a banner of freedom and that urges everyone to get ahead, promising success. “If you can dream it, you can do it,” has been the American slogan for more than two centuries.

But the human heart is a strange thing. The abstract idea of a “dream”–which moreover is out of reach for all but a few–is not enough. If one has been taught to recognize in something bigger than oneself the answer to desires, then questions arise like those that followed fast one after the other during four cold January days, in a large Colonial-style meeting hall on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. “I would like for my life and work to testify to an event. But I spend 12 to 14 hours a day closed in a laboratory doing research. How can I live the experience of the Movement in there?” “I spend my days analyzing the texts of laws on insurance coverage. What does Christ have to do with this?

Work stole the stage at the National Diakonia of the CL communities in North America. Attendees included Memores Domini, GS, CLU, priests, and lay people from diverse situations in life: 200 people coming from dozens of cities in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, bringing with them a year’s worth of experiences to share and a load of questions with which to bombard Giorgio Vittadini.

The key question took a while to emerge. Mark, from Philadelphia, is the one who brought it to the fore: “Father Giussani says that faith is recognizing an event that happens again every time you remember it. I would like to understand what it means to think about faith, because if this is recognizing an event that happens each time, I want to be aware of it all the time. I want my life to be an event, but I spend almost all day at work in a laboratory, and I would like to understand how it can happen again for me, with my co-workers, in my workplace.” Mark’s query spurred the torrent of questions about work.

The volcano
“In the end we discovered what was lying under the green plain: the volcano! This is the problem of work,” Giorgio exclaimed. “If Christianity here in America or anywhere else were only a matter of going to Mass every Sunday in your parish church, everything would be easy. But people usually work. And our Church experience cannot become a sort of Fort Apache, surrounded by enemies, a ghetto where we shut ourselves in and put up a resistance. The Movement can become a ghetto, maybe a more human one than many others, but it would still be a ghetto. And our life as Christians risks being confined to places that may be beautiful ones, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but it will always be a ghetto, because Christ remains absent for most of the time, during the hours that I spend at work.”

We must start from a Presence. We must have clear in our minds, first of all, what my “I” consists of and what it really wants. These few days in Washington, in the final analysis, centered around this crucial point. “There are questions,” Giorgio said, “that you have to ask yourselves, and whose answers only each one of you knows. Does your work provide the chance to go more deeply into recognizing the presence of the Mystery? Is it a chance to understand that Christ, and not your boss, is the master of your life? Only you know the answer to this, because God, too, respects that locus which is each person’s freedom. You are free to say your own ‘Yes’–it is an option of liberty.”

Our daily challenge, Giorgio warned, is against forgetfulness, against original sin, “which often comes even into my workplace, giving me the idea that I possess the meaning of things, that Christ is not necessary, that man is the one maneuvering the universe.”

This is a very strong temptation, which we could perceive while walking together on Saturday afternoon along the mall between the Capitol and the Supreme Court buildings in Washington, in the heart of the power of what is by now the only super-power in the world. We could understand it looking at the enormous platform where a week later George W. Bush would swear on the Bible, becoming the 43rd President of the United States. It was a stage set like an imperial forum of ancient Rome, where the coronation of a man can make one forget that there is a Power greater than that lying in the hands of the person occupying the White House. What could the police and Secret Service men have thought when they saw 200 people suddenly invade the Capitol steps to group together and sing at the top of their voices?

Fertile ground
America has shown itself to be a fertile ground for awakening the questions that are closest to man’s heart. Giorgio reminded us of this, speaking of what has always struck Father Giussani most about the United States: “The United States is a country unique in all the world, because it was founded on an ideal. The Unites States was born like the new Israel, with the will to give liberty to all, to give everyone a chance. This is the only place in the world where the concern for an ideal lies at the beginning of its history. No modern nation has been born on these premises.”

Perhaps “inspired” by Vittadini, Bush said the same things a week later, in front of the whole world, at the moment of accepting his charge: “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals.

But between the positive impetus that marked the birth of the United States and its fulfillment in reality, there is often an abyss. “The original ideal of the United States of America,” Giorgio recalled, “is that the ‘I’ is the protagonist of history, is capable of building something wherever it is, of being stronger than any adversity. This is the ‘American dream.’ We know that in reality it is a concern that is often, almost always, betrayed. History has taught us that the dream, conceived in this way, is unrealizable. But we too usually live like others, with the idea that it is enough to dream in order to make it, with the illusion that the problem is ‘to do,’ ‘to build.’ In short, we live in forgetfulness of the ‘I.’”

The greatest mistake we can make was indicated by Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, as he pulled together the threads of the work done in Washington: “It is the mistake of seeing Christ as the solver of problems or as the name that I choose in order to give an answer to my religious seeking. But Christ is Jesus, He is not a generic term, He is a concrete historical individual.” Reaching an awareness of Him is a constant, continuous job. When the separation between Christ and the rest of my life begins to knit back together is when–in Albacete’s words–“I suddenly begin to say that all my life is Christ and that for me, living is Christ, wherever I am, whatever I do.” Staying within the unity of the Movement is the way to make this happen also in the workplace. Only then can work become “the manner by which the human being participates in the creation of the world and builds in order to render praise to the glory of God.”

A real challenge
Many left Washington with a clearer awareness of the historic task that awaits them, and everything contributed to this: the songs (from GS of the Sixties to the latest productions of the Bay Ridge Band); the evening devoted to the splendid story of how the Benedictine monks, in the Middle Ages, gave rebirth to civilization in the midst of barbarity; the life witness of a poet of the Beat Generation, a friend of Kerouac, who went from experience “on the road” to conversion to Christianity.

“We are in a moment when history is changing,” Giorgio said. “The real challenge is to discover my vocation to Christ, to understand how this vocation is for all the Church, for all the United States, for all the world. Everyone around us is precious and valuable to me in my search for an answer to this question: what makes up my ‘I’? Witnessing to Christ, learning from Giussani how to recognize the ways in which He is present, enables us to understand that we were born for this.”