(L-R) Sapenoff, O'Malley, and Zucchi. Photo by Danny Shum.

A Friend on the Road to the Mystery

In light of the publication of the new edition of "The Risk of Education," this year's annual Giussani Series on Faith and Modernity focused on Giussani's vision of Christian education. The panel featured John Zucchi and Timothy O'Malley.
Annemarie Bacich

“To suggest that nothing less than love is at the heart of our contemporary challenges will no doubt be interpreted by many as an indication that Giussani has lost touch with reality. But that is the case only if you think the God Christians worship is not the God of Jesus Christ,” writes Stanley Hauerwas in the foreword to the newly published edition of The Risk of Education by Luigi Giussani. The speakers at the 2019 Giussani Series on Faith and Modernity echoed Hauerwas’s sentiment that love is both origin and goal of Giussani’s vision of Christian education.

Timothy O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church and Life and academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, and John Zucchi, professor and former chair in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University, shared their reflections on Giussani’s proposal for Christian education at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture on June 22. This year’s series title, “A Friend on the Road to the Mystery,” encapsulates the contributions of the speakers, who rather than dissect the pedagogy of Giussani’s educational method, witnessed to the revelatory impact the relationship with him has had on their own lives as teachers, fathers, and Christian men in the world.

“The word ‘reality’ is to the word ‘education’ as ‘destination’ is to the word ‘journey’ [Luigi Giussani],” quoted Amy Sapenoff, History teacher and coordinator of the high school experience of Communion and Liberation (GS) in Washington D.C., who moderated the event. “As a teacher there is a promise in these words. Helping my students to pay attention to a particular piece of reality, in my case American History, is the first step in accompanying them as they discern the depth of their own existence.” Sapenoff, like the evening’s two speakers, affirmed that it was in the relationship with Giussani, through his texts and the experience of life in Communion and Liberation, that she understands her life as a teacher springs from her own experience of being educated to “total reality.” Her work with young people testifies to the fact that Giussani’s method offers hope for educators today precisely because of the hope it elicits in students who encounter it.

After her introduction--which included a video about Giussani’s life and quotations from American high school students whose horizons have expanded through the impact with Giussani and his charism--Sapenoff invited the speakers to share their reflections on Giussani’s educational method. O’Malley began his comments by bringing to the fore Giussani’s juxtaposition of ideology with authentic education. “Ideology, as Fr. Giussani notes in The Religious Sense, is a preconception that takes up just one dimension of reality, one aspect of truth, and deforms it as an absolute.” Warning of the presence of ideology in the current milieu of Christian formation, O’Malley explained that tradition has been pitted against an ideology of personal experience. “There are massive problems with this account of experience. It passes over the meaning of what experience is. Experience is not a category that is distinct from tradition, from that which is proposed to us. To be human ... is to see taste, touch, feel, conceive, grasp, remember, and will. There is never an encounter with tradition which is not already an experience for the person who engages with this encounter.” O’Malley highlighted the relational aspect fundamental in Giussani’s understanding of education; that true education takes place within a loving relationship. Illustrative of this point is the image of a child who learns to speak: “The young child doesn’t just learn to speak without thinking, without learning to give his or her body over to the act of speaking. The young child learns to speak because he gazes upon the mouth of the beloved mother or father.” According to O’Malley, Giussani’s educational proposal offers a way out of this “bifurcation between experience and tradition, not by pursuing a middle way, emphasizing that we need both love and text, experience and tradition. Instead he actually understands what education is: An encounter with the mystery of reality.”

Zucchi’s comments focused on his personal relationship with Giussani, a paternal one fundamental to his own development. Through meeting people who were educated by Giussani, and eventually through a direct relationship with him, Zucchi understood that the circumstances of life were not to be feared or escaped, but rather to be faced seriously so as to delve into the promise that reality holds. Zucchi also understood that the path Giussani had traced through the charism of Communion and Liberation was the path meant for his life. “It was not only that the questions I had about this life, about the purpose of this life, its meaning, my desires, all of a sudden saw the possibility of a response; it was also that the questions and desires seemed to grow ever greater.” Giussani’s loving paternity led Zucchi to take his own heart more seriously. “That loving relationship allowed me to have a glimpse of something else, Someone else, as I never had before. ... He also made me understand how in all of this, there was nothing more important than my life, than my 'I', because I was in relationship with that Mystery. It was as if he were gradually bringing me to another world, another horizon. He did not teach this to me in a kind of a lesson. He simply communicated it to me through his life in a relationship.”

The question and answer portion of the discussion emphasized this same relational aspect of education. O’Malley pointed out that one of the most important tasks of an educator is to set a student’s freedom in motion. The most threatening ideology he sees his students face is the idea that they are not free. They are bound to an idea that the goal of education is worldly success and that their lives must conform to this image. In order to engage his students’ freedom, O’Malley challenges them to examine the cultural concepts they have taken for granted, “The act of education is something that is freeing because it forces students to examine their ideologies and to recognize that the world they assume is true is not actually the world as it is.” Zucchi also underscored the importance of the relationship between teacher and student in his own approach to his students, “I ask them at the beginning of the term to come and see me because I want to meet each one of them. I want each one of them to know they are not merely students in my class, but they are first of all human beings, and that therefore they are in a relationship. ... Any discovery I have made, whether in life, teaching, research, [or] whatever it may be, has always emerged as the fruit of a relationship with someone else.”

The evening’s discussion was not a theoretical analysis of pedagogy. Rather it was testimony to the fact that for many, Giussani continues to be an authority as “the concrete expression of a working hypothesis,” a teacher who, even after his death, remains a friend on the road to Mystery.