'School of Athens' by Artist Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

In Class With a Fever for Life

A year and a half ago, Fr. Carrón issued a challenge about education, and this year, on March 15th, over 4,000 teachers met to continue the journey undertaken, testifying in a series of contributions about “what sustains our hope.”
Paolo Bergamini

Everything began on October 14, 2007, with Fr. Julián Carrón’s first meeting with teachers, a gesture that the Movement hadn’t organized since the one with Fr. Giussani in Viterbo in 1977. At the 2007 gathering, “The Point of Departure for Work,” there emerged a heaviness, a burden, even unease about finding the reasons for one’s work, and Fr. Julián issued the challenge that cut straight through all the thoughts and theories, pointing once again directly at the person: “Is there someone willing to verify his faith, to verify his relationship with Christ?” During this year and a half, many have taken this invitation seriously, and the atmosphere this past March in the meeting hall of the Palasesto was quite different. Franco Nembrini, responsible for the CLE (Communion and Liberation Educators), noted this in his opening words on the stage together with Fr. Carrón, to the 4,000 teachers present (as well as to those following a live broadcast in Italy and abroad, and those who would watch the recording later): “I’m impressed by the richness of the contributions we’ve received, because it is evident that there is a road”–an impetus of life, a certain faith, that makes you face the confusion and weariness with hope. Franco continued, “But within the circumstances, even the painful ones, what sustains our hope? I still have in my mind’s eye the tragedy in Winnendan [a town in Germany where a student killed 16 people, mostly his peers at school, in a video-game style shooting a few days before the teachers’ meeting] and what our friend Thomas wrote us a few hours later: ‘Any answer given formally would be ideological, inadequate. I’m asking you for help.’” This entreaty launched the morning’s work, with a testimony by someone who has seen where our hope is founded.

A Flyer in the Classroom
Anna recounted the change wrought in her by the death of Patrizio, her 19-year-old student, and the pain that overwhelmed his parents to the point of saying that if God existed, He was bad and unjust. “I went to their house. Nothing anyone could say would console them, so I just stayed with them, nothing more. I was aware that the Mystery had come to visit me, and this gave me an unexpected certainty and a strength that wasn’t mine but was grounded in an Other.” She contacted her colleagues and the boy’s classmates and together they wrote a flyer, saying that Patrick’s destiny wasn’t nothingness, and that it was fulfilled in the arms of the Mystery. Her friendship with his parents continued, so much so that his mother, during the Mass marking a week from his death, told her, “I want you close by me,” and then, a few days later, “I’ve never met anyone like you.”

“Our trip here would have been worthwhile if only for these words. We could go home right now, because this is touching with our hands what has happened to us, what we truly need,” Carrón interjected. What enables us not to escape when faced with pain, not to feel defeated? Our life, too, is touched by evil. What enables you to remain is only a presence that tells you, “I want you close by me,” a face in which the Mystery becomes flesh: this is the contemporaneousness of Christ, a Presence that stays alongside you, that invests reality. But this change of method, of approach to reality, goes well beyond appearances. “Only in this way can we educate, because when we teach math, history, or literature, if we don’t have this horizon, what are we teaching?”

Everything is played out in the circumstances that life sets before us, even when it involves failures or negative situations.

Tenderness or Strategies
Barbara spoke of a student of hers who tried to run away from home, leaving a note stating, “I hate school with all my heart,” and then decided, a few weeks later, to transfer to a different school. Barbara asked herself a thousand questions and gave herself a thousand justifications: “What did I do wrong? But no, deep down, I did everything possible…” “The more I analyzed the situation and played along with the ups and downs of my feelings, the more the figure of this girl disappeared. I was more interested in me than in her.” Then she saw the flyer on Eluana [the comatose girl whose feeding tube was removed], with the words, “How needed is a caress from the Nazarene!” “Running up against a changed humanity freed me from my interminable defensiveness, to the point that I found myself asking that my relationship with this student not end.” Simply learn from what happens, once again, looking at reality.

For Paola, life was going wonderfully, with a beautiful family and many activities, such as GS, the choir, and Families for Hospitality. Then, five years ago, everything seemed to collapse when her marriage foundered. “Suddenly, I realized that all my busy-ness had no meaning; that Christ wasn’t there. After 30 years in the Movement, I was left with despair, anguish.” Paola wrote to Fr. Giussani, telling him about the pain that was destroying her, and began to pray, entrusting every minute of her day to the Lord. He sent her this message: “Your task is to be a wife and mother. The Lord is asking you to love Him in your vocation, not to do other things.” She dumped all her commitments. “I continued praying, leaving space for the things that happened without harnessing them to any project of mine.” Everything changed: her relationship with her husband and children and, above all, with herself. Her way of teaching changed, too. “Now I’m no longer concerned about how to involve my students in GS, the strategies to use (I never succeeded anyway!). Now I look at them with the same tenderness with which I have been looked at, entrusting them to Jesus.” One day, a student, meeting her in the hallway, said, “You’re happy, like the other CL people I’ve met. I want to be happy this way, too.” All this, teaching Physical Education!
But if there’s an experience of good that imposes itself on life, in facts and in things, as these testimonies have recounted, why are we afraid of losing this beauty? How can it be “forever”?

“If we ask ourselves this question, it means we haven’t understood this beauty we have before us. Our fear begins the moment we block the journey of knowledge that this beauty initiates. If it’s there, it can’t disappear!” explained Carrón. “We always remain at the level of appearances. Who becomes afraid? Those who don’t have faith, those who don’t realize that what we’re talking about is the sign of His presence. It is Christ, Risen.” The risk is to separate the sign from its origin, stopping at appearances. Once again, the “I” is what has to get into gear, to make the journey of knowledge, embark on the adventure of knowledge. In this way, boredom is banned, because the horizon is the world. This means, simply, taking everything seriously. It’s a challenge for those who enter the classroom every day and have to teach history, chemistry, literature, or religion, as Fr. Giussani did the first day he walked into a school. What did he communicate? A doctrine? Or a fever for life? This is what makes us say, “This is the most beautiful job in the world,” Nembrini exclaimed at the previous meeting. Carrón added, “Do you have any idea of what it means to teach? In the precise sense of a one-hour lesson?”

This question bore fruit for those who took it seriously. “There was an incredible blossoming of efforts, successful or not, from the littlest to those of national significance,” Nembrini explained. Paolo was the protagonist of one such effort. “I participated in a meeting of teachers from different schools on the relationship between teachers and parents. The first contributions were a series of complaints, mainly that parents were either too intrusive or were totally absent, and that the only way out was to keep relationships strictly formal.” But Paolo didn’t agree at all and, starting from a few facts, affirmed that, first of all, the relationship between teachers and parents is the encounter of two needs, that of the families to be accompanied in the educative adventure of their children and that of the teachers to live within the community of educators. How is it possible, then, to stop at the role, at the formality? “I am myself, with all my human needs, within the relationship with the kids. The only indispensable element is that my heart be alert; the truest needs of my nature have to be awake.” Her words turned the meeting upside down. The coordinator explained that the second part of the meeting would be based on Paolo’s reflections. One teacher commented, “I think that nothing our colleague said can stand up without a reference to an absolute upon which your whole life and your whole ‘I’ are grounded, which doesn’t make you captive to the outcome. The problem is that the world has set aside God.” At that point, the topic became God. “At that moment, I understood that the testimony simply passes through what has been asked of us,” Paolo concluded.

Broadening Reason
Francesco teaches science in Turin. In a conversation, Carrón once asked him, “What do you want to teach your students through organic chemistry? Understanding organic chemistry means perceiving the nexus with the totality,” and his challenge completely determined Francesco’s way of working. This year, at school with his colleagues of the scientific disciplines, he organized “three days of science.” “First of all, we tried to ask ourselves together what it means to teach science to kids. What is our goal in proposing a day on evolution or global warming? What do these issues have to do with our life? Before a particular situation, my reason was provoked to the maximum. I could speak of reality without leaving out the Mystery.” Francesco’s “different” position was also noted by his colleagues. At the end of the three days, a teacher told him, “I’ve never worked this way. Above all, for the first time, I came to school without having to leave behind anything of myself, like my fear of making mistakes or my problems at home, and with a great desire to have an impact on the reality of the day.”

“The ‘encounter’ is the beginning that enables us to make the journey of knowledge,” explained Carrón. “This means that it’s not possible to teach like everyone else and then somehow ‘add on’ Christ! We aren’t spared the work. In fact, we have to document whether our way of looking at reality keeps in mind all the factors.” This means “Educating: An Adventure for Oneself,” the title of the meeting. Surely, it banishes the boredom of walking into class repeating a series of formulas and notions and then, in the end, throwing in a few of Fr. Giussani’s pretty expressions. The challenge is something else entirely, and doesn’t leave us tranquil, because it is the challenge of faith there in the place where we are, with our colleagues, the kids, the subject matter to teach. Julián continued, “The Pope told us to ‘broaden reason.’ He said this to you, understand? It’s your task!” These words can charge us with a crushing responsibility, or they can broaden reason and open the horizon of our own work 360 degrees–that is, they can be a liberation for those who accept the challenge.

But on this journey, you can feel alone, even if there are other friends of the Movement at the school where you teach. “How can we support each other in this work without sliding into organization?” asked Nembrini. “We struggle to understand God’s method, as Fr. Giussani explained it to us, that God calls one in order to reach all; He gives the grace, the drive to one in order to move the others. The Mystery does what He wants, and doesn’t ask us for permission. We can’t reduce communion to being in agreement! When Giussani started at the Berchet High School, he was all alone. If you feel the urgency, you have to respond in the first person, even if the others of the community don’t understand. You have to be willing to acknowledge any starting point of newness and truth we find in those who are alongside us. From this, true communion is generated,” Carrón concluded. I left the Palasesto with the others, and returned to the metro station, where a teacher friend, invited to the meeting by a colleague, said, “I’m bringing home this question: ‘What do I teach when I teach?’” The challenge is open.