Bernhard Scholz

Bernhard Scholz: Wonder and Recovery

A very different edition, aimed at sharing ideas about all the questions
of our time. And at learning what can “sustain us in rebuilding.” In Traces, Bernhard Scholz describes what it means to accept the challenge posed by the Meeting's title.
Luca Fiore

The Rimini Meeting is starting again, with the goal of helping everyone start again. The announcement that the 41st edition would still happen came during full lockdown, amidst all the skepticism and confusion. Now that the most difficult moments of the pandemic are behind us, it seems clear that the annual cultural event is needed more than ever. Yes, it will be a special edition, held almost entirely online with a streamlined schedule of talks, exhibits, and performances broadcast from the smaller Palacongressi Convention Center in Rimini, rather than in the Fiera. The title is the same as previously announced: “Devoid of wonder, we remain deaf to the sublime,” as are the dates: August 18th–23rd.
It will also be the first edition with the new president of the Rimini Meeting Foundation, Bernhard Scholz, who, of course, could not have imagined the challenges he would face at the beginning of his term. He describes in the following interview how the experience of organizing Meeting 2020 has been emblematic of the time in which we are all living: even when everything seems to be saying that it’s better to give up, we find reasons and new energy to begin again. Perhaps not as we did before, but according to what is suggested by the present reality.

What made you decide to go ahead with the 2020 edition, while many events have announced that they are canceling?
While half of the world’s population was shut in at home, we realized that all the pain and suffering were opening up many questions about the meaning of life, our future, our work, and the education of our children, the same existential questions we always face, but emerging in a new way. Many things we had taken for granted were no longer present. We began to realize that the Meeting, which is by nature a place of dialogue, could and had a duty to offer an opportunity to share these questions and introduce people whose experience can push others to rediscover what can really sustain us as we begin to rebuild.

These are questions both about our personal lives and about society.

Yes, at some point people began repeating the slogan, “It’s all going to be okay,” to try to give people hope. But what is hope? Is it simply optimism? Or is it something that can offer a rm grounding for life even in the most difficult circumstances? It is the latter, and this is true not only for each person’s life, but also for schools and the economy. Do we want everything to go back to how it was before, or to go in a new direction? Is it possible organize school in a different way? Is it possible to create an ecologically and socially more sustainable economy? What changes are being asked of health systems? And what about Europe? What do we want to achieve when we talk about solidarity between countries? This set of circumstances has also raised questions about the fate of democracy. What does it mean today for a people comprised of free and responsible men and women to participate in building the destiny of a nation?

But there must have been a point when you decided to make the leap, despite the obstacles...
We were in the second half of March, in the middle of the lockdown, but we agreed that we would do the Meeting, no matter how restrictive the constraints. The stakes were too great. The more problems that arose, the clearer it seemed to us that the cultural heritage of the Meeting, with its 40-year history, was a fundamental resource, and that it was worth doing even at the cost of changing everything. And, in fact, we did change almost everything. But the heart of the Meeting remains the same.

Emmanuele Forlani, director of the Meeting

With an edition that is almost entirely online, what about the element of personal encounter that happens at the Meeting?
There are objective limitations we cannot overcome, but the nature of the event will not be diluted. Many people who have never been able to come for logistical reasons can now connect online. And I am sure that this year we will see people participating with greater intentionality, more rooted in the questions that move each of us.

What do you mean?
Everyone, from their homes or wherever they go on vacation, will have to decide whether to connect or not. Participating will be a less obvious choice. Paradoxically, this format can bring us closer together. It may, perhaps, be easier to rediscover our belonging to a companionship of people passionate about life, about work, and about the destiny of Italy and of the whole world.

As you said, you had to change almost everything. Where do you get the energy to rethink everything and set to work again?
We have felt all over again the original passion that gave birth to the Meeting. It is a passion to discover the meaning of what is happening in a dialogue with others, which is a fundamental form of mutual enrichment. Faced with these dramatic circumstances, we recognized the value of what the Meeting has given us over the years.

What is this value?
It is living the vocation of sustaining humanity in the face of the challenges of life and of history, keeping human questions alive and helping people to see things more clearly. At the beginning of the ‘80s, for example, the challenge was an encounter with attempts to find freedom being made behind the Iron Curtain. There are many examples like that. Now, it is more evident that the drama is happening right here at home.

Where does this passion come from?
From an attraction to a human beauty and fullness that is expressed even in situations involving many contradictions. We see it in the many moving witnesses we have heard over the years and also over the last few months. They are personal stories, but ones that have an impact on society, politics, and the economy.

So, it does not all begin with a sheer act of will?
That’s right. And that doesn’t just apply to our gathering. Mere willpower is not enough to begin again; it’s a waste of time. We saw this once the initial feeling of solidarity wore off during the weeks of the lockdown.

What specifically do you mean?
I’m thinking of the divisions that immediately came to light over many issues in society and the economy. Of course, dialogue is challenging; it is not an easy road. But it is the only way forward if our goal is the good of all, and not self-affirmation.

Isn’t there a risk that the title of this edition, decided before the outbreak of the pandemic, does not fit the times?
We had that doubt at first, but it was immediately overcome by the paradox that this title highlights. Even at such a dark time, we have seen that wonder in front of reality, even in the most difficult circumstances, generates an almost indomitable sense of purpose. Our wonder at the “mere” fact that I and other people exist helps us to draw from that deep font of humanity that, in regular times, we do not even realize we have. Without this wonder, the recovery is impossible because restarting becomes just a calculation that involves bringing what we have always done back to life, trying to protect our interests. It is important to not flatten out that wonder, reducing it to a sentimental phenomenon.

Please say more about wonder.
Wonder is an awareness that what you have before your eyes is given to you freely. It is for you. As part of this awareness, emotion and reason run together, and it is in this running together that we open ourselves to life’s most important questions and enter into dialogue with everything and everyone.

What about the sublime?
That, too, is often thought of as something ephemeral, when instead it is the meaning through which everything receives its substance. Why, for example, during the quarantine, have so many people rediscovered the value of art and literature? Because they are back to seeking the meaning of life, of dying in solitude, of the absence of certainties; they are intuitively paying attention to the attractiveness of beauty. The title, which is a quote from the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, states a theme that might seem adapted to happier times. But no: it is almost prophetic because it allows us to face the current problems from the right perspective.

What makes it the right perspective?
In order to face both the eternal questions that have resurfaced as well as new ones, we have to focus on the person. The questions prompted by reality open us up to the sublime, and so to the search for what is good, beautiful, and true: those things that, when viewed in an attitude of wonder, reveal a promise. This dynamic is what defines human nature, the person as a creative subject. We may have a lot of nice plans, but Who is the subject that can carry them out? Who is the subject of an education that truly generates? Who is the subject of a more just society and a more sustainable economy? Who is the subject that can create a better health system? Who is the subject that can give life to a more robust democracy? Each person must rediscover his or her own human vocation: the call to be, to create, to invest one’s energies, and thereby find his or her own maturity and fulfillment.

How has this been translated into the program you have planned?
The talk on the title will be given by Joseph Weiler, an American expert on constitutional law who has enriched many editions of the Meeting with his reflections on justice and freedom and his fascinating talks on the Bible. The topic of hope will be entrusted to Fr. Julián Carrón, who has helped many people to live this dramatic time as an opportunity to, as the title of his recent book suggests, “Reawakening Our Humanity.” The presentation of the book The Embrace by Spanish anthropologist Mikel Azurmendi will also be significant because it will show that a deep and lasting change does not begin with abstract projects, but rather with a new subject being generated right now. Another guest will be the Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who will help us understand how the changes awaiting us are connected to the economy and to the life of society. We will also have witnesses from people from all over the world who knew how to face difficult circumstances in various realms of life by marshaling their creativity and involving others. I believe that all of our speakers will show us a hint of how they are living the “epochal change” referred to by Pope Francis. Many of the talks will refer back to his encyclical Laudato si’, as we mark five years since its publication.

Let’s talk about the exhibits and performances. Will there be any?
They will be in digital format for viewing on our website. Two exhibits will also be available for in-person visits at the Palacongressi: “Living the Real”, a reference to the tenth chapter of Fr. Giussani’s book The Religious Sense, and “Bethlehem Reborn”, which presents the history of the Basilica of the Nativity. There will be another exhibit on scaling the mountain K2, a symbol of the power the beauty of nature holds over us. Another topic that will covered, in part through a virtual exhibit, is “Being Alive,” an exploration of what it means for something to be alive. There will be performances paying tribute to Beethoven, Dostoevsky, and Fellini, and finally, a concert featuring young musicians from all over Europe.

And what about the 3,000 volunteers we saw in previous years?
Some will be in Rimini, including about 150 residents of the area and people with technical expertise, something we especially need this year. Others will work with us remotely. In any case, all of those who are not able to come to Rimini will have a chance to participate in various ways, and to collaborate by acting as “ambassadors” who will spread the word about the Meeting, both in Italy and abroad, by sharing its content online and, wherever and however possible, organizing physical locations where–taking appropriate precautions–small groups may gather to promote and watch the talks being broadcast from Rimini.

This is your first year as president. No one expected the beginning of your term would be such an uphill climb. What is it you desire, today, for yourself and for the Meeting?
I would like for this Meeting to be a time to rediscover what really counts in life, and for that rediscovery to open the way for us to commit ourselves freely, passionately, and intelligently to transforming this historic moment into an opportunity for our humanity to change and mature. This rediscovery will touch personal lives but reach into public life. Deep down, the heart of the Meeting is man’s desire that all people have a full life.