Saint Patrick. Wikimedia Commons

A New Working Hypothesis

A leading journalist in the Irish media, John Waters discovered CL and rediscovered the reasons for Christianity. This ex-agnostic explains why, today, he attends debates with "The Religious Sense" under his arm, involving himself personally.
Mauro Biondi

John Waters is now well known to us, at least to those of us who read Traces or who have met him at the Rimini Meeting in Italy. An Irishman, a gifted writer, and an acclaimed journalist in his country’s media, since he met CL he has changed his perspective not only on Christianity and the situation in his country, but also–and above all–on his personal life. We asked him to tell us about this change.

You have just published a new book, Lapsed Agnostic, in which you mentioned your “encounter” with Fr. Giussani several times. In the book, you detail the circumstances of your own human experience in the context of the profound changes that have occurred in Ireland over the past 30 years, but you continue to refer to Fr. Giussani...
Yes, I believe that Fr. Giussani arrived at a way of presenting the Christian message that offers great hope to the world for a reinvigoration of religion, of Christianity. I think there is a great hunger in people’s hearts, and nothing else I have encountered seems to have the capacity to recognize, define, and satisfy this hunger. In its constant reiteration of rules and moralisms, the Catholic Church has often seemed to forget that there is a need to tell people why, rather than out of blind obedience, they would do well to listen to its message. Very often, they forget to emphasize the most important part, which is that what they are saying is that, 2,000 years ago, God came to earth as a man and showed us that death did not exist. The Church in general has ceased to be able to make this message live for the majority of people. Its preachers seem to think that the meaning of Christianity is obvious. It’s not obvious. They seem to believe that it is obvious why it is in my or anyone else’s interests to believe and to practice. It’s not obvious. God or why He is essential for humanity is not, in our culture, obvious. I think, therefore, that Fr. Giussani has uniquely managed to say why religion is relevant to me and to my life, and this is something I want to share, though it is difficult to do so in the fog of prejudice that we call culture.

You are someone in the public eye, a well-known personality whose opinions are frequently heard on matters ranging from the mechanics of power to subjects such as tradition, education, and the reduction of the use of reason, and these opinions often run counter to public opinion, frequently provoking heated reactions or the instant label of “conservative.” In what way has Fr. Giussani helped you in your work as a journalist and in the development of a different way of looking at reality? I once saw you participate in a public debate with a copy of The Religious Sense in your hand.
Fr. Giussani has enabled me by giving me a coherent language for things that previously only occurred to me as feelings. I could not articulate what I felt, because I thought it was so eccentric and idiosyncratic that it would lack authority. Also, for myself, I wasn’t sure that I cared enough about the state of religion in Ireland. In some respects, it didn’t seem all that problematic if the Church disappeared. But, by bringing it back to me and to my essential structure, Fr. Giussani enabled me to string together many diverse thoughts and responses, for which I had previously been unaware of any structure. Amidst the terrible modern psychobabble, he enabled me to “own” my religiosity, by teaching me that the force that is religion begins within me and, by harmonizing with external reality, allows me to be fully alive, fully human, and intensely involved in my own existence.

At the Meeting of Rimini, you defined yourself as a refugee in search of freedom. In what way does the Christian experience represent a “land of freedom” for you?
What I said was that I was a refugee from a misconception of freedom. By this I meant that, in pursuing freedom of the kind I had first encountered as a teenager–in the counterculture that followed from the sixties, I had gradually discovered this definition of freedom to be bogus. It did not satisfy my appetite for whatever it was I desired.

In the course of my own journey, I had hit upon the limits of freedom of this kind, and I write about that in Lapsed Agnostic, detailing my experience with alcohol as an emblem of the overall experience. In the course of this experience, I began to perceive that freedom, as an actual experience, is quite different from simply the pursuit of desire. Often, freedom can reside in doing things I find monotonous or restricting or onerous. But I also discovered that, in approaching such matters with a sense of acceptance, or duty, or humility, that I was taken to a new place of peace in myself. And when I began to investigate and read about this, I began to see something in this paradoxical word, “freedom,” that I had previously been unaware of. In Giussani’s work, these ideas are elaborated, and I am still struggling to understand what they mean for me. Because I am still human, and am still driven by desire, I am trying to learn the nature of the process of freedom, as it operates within my life, so that I stop doing all the wrong things. Nevertheless, I don’t simply want, or am unable to, stop doing these things, or indeed start doing the right things, simply because there is a rule about them. I am still learning about freedom and suspect that I will not live long enough to finish this syllabus!

Very often, the Catholic Church’s presence in the world is perceived as one power confronting other powers head to head. Instead, on your return from the Meeting of Rimini, you wrote in The Irish Times, “If Christianity has a future, this is it. If Ireland has a future, this, too, may well be it.” What is the advantage of being Christian in today’s world? What is the attraction of Christianity?
These are profound questions. I believe that Christianity has the same relevance for the world today that it’s had for 2,000 years, but that it is clouded in this fog of prejudice, which somehow those seeking to defend Christianity also contribute to. If I were to write a book about Fr. Giussani and what he stands for, I think I would call it The New Good News. That does not mean that he has changed the message, but that he has found a way of articulating it that is matched with the culture in which we now live. One of the reasons for the rise of secularism is that we became cleverer, which caused us to think we knew more than tradition, more than the wisdom of the ages, more than God, who we next of all decided didn’t exist. Giussani provides an extraordinary antidote to this syndrome, by being cleverer than anyone else! The attraction of being Christian is that Jesus is the fountainhead of hope in the world. Without Him, I believe, and without the residual benefit of Christian culture–so much derided by our intelligentsia–the world would sink into despair. In a world both terrified and fascinated by death, Christ tells us that death shall have no dominion.