The Giussani Experiment

The life of the CL founder transformed his way of teaching and of looking at the crisis of the Church. An interview with theologian Timothy O’Malley who spoke at the presentation on Giussani’s biography in Chicago.

“A risk.” This is how he describes the way of Fr. Giussani, a path that continuously educates a person through experience instead of theory. This is because “Christianity, truly, is a life lived.” Timothy O’Malley, a husband and father of two children, is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the renowned Catholic university in Indiana, where he studied theology and philosophy before at- tending Boston College to further his studies on Saint Augustine. As a philosopher, theologian, and educator, he has faced, from the start of his career, the same themes–and problems–that marked the life of the founder of CL and that impact the Church today. His encounter with the Italian priest through texts and witnesses, through books and people, has significantly affected his way of looking at these topics. He spoke publicly about this in one of the most well-attended presentations on the biography of Giussani, in Chicago on March 18. Now, in the following interview, he goes into greater detail.

Tell me about how you came to discover Luigi Giussani?
A few years back, I was teaching a course on the philosophy of education in which we read the works of several prominent thinkers. One of my students asked if we could read Giussani’s The Risk of Education. When I read it, I found it to be one of the most engaging texts about Christian education in our present day.

What struck you?
Giussani’s attention to the role of human experience and his serious- ness about proposing tradition in such a way that it can transform human experience. Giussani helps us reclaim a sense of history, a sense of religious tradition that is dynamic and engaging, which involves but is not reduced to the affective dimension. I quickly realized the wealth of opportunities for the renewal of theological education, for catechesis, that were all possible from Giussani, and I began to read his other works. Now, I use The Risk of Education in the courses I teach on Christian education at my university.

How do your students respond to Giussani’s thought?
Very positively! It has transformed the way my students teach their own courses. They suddenly recognize how they could teach in a way that accounts for the full affective dimension, the full desire of the person, while at the same time offering a profound proposal. Some of my students began to do additional work on Giussani. They began to read his work and conduct research based on it. Some of my students who are involved in dialogue with atheists employ Giussani’s method. I use it to teach second graders the Eucharist. It is proving to be far more effective for this purpose than what they find in textbooks.

What are the current approaches in religious education and how do you see that Giussani can help with its renewal?
There are two approaches taken by religious education textbooks and formation programs. They most often stress the need to repeat a text or doctrinal formulation or avoid the text altogether and deal only with the individual’s experience. I think both these approaches are problematic. The first involves only a repetition of the creed, almost quite literally. Learn the creed. Learn the doctrine and that is it. This approach is fearful of human experience because of its unpredictability. The second method focusing only on individual experience replaces what has been offered in the tradition, reconstructing it according to our own wisdom. As a result, the individual is disconnected from the community. What I found remarkable in Giussani and The Risk of Education is that it actually shows how the deepest dimension of tradition is an experience, and that experience is lived in a deep and transformative way through the tradition. We must propose to the young person, or to the old person for that matter, that this hypothesis of tradition, the path we offer, is already an experience. Giussani provides an understanding of education that involves the affections, that involves desire, that involves the fullness of who we are. This doesn’t bracket out our coming to know precisely what the tradition itself describes. This tradition is not just a set of facts, but it is connected to the primary event, the event of Jesus Christ. It’s the echo of this event through history. I find Giussani’s thought to be medicine for what I find needs healing in today’s catechetical and theological education.

“Desire” is a word that many prefer to avoid.
We are creatures who desire. The engine that drives us is what we love, what we move toward, where we are directed. This is who we are as human beings. The question is not whether we desire but what we desire. The church needs to talk about de- sire: what we love, what we move ourselves toward, because we are creatures who desire. Desire is essential to who we are as human beings.

What did you take away from reading the biography? What was striking?
A good deal of what Giussani did was an experiment. It did not initially emerge out of a theory. It concretely emerged out of gathering people together to discover who Christ was, to take up this task, to make a culture, to move Christianity away from a series of abstract propositions that are part of a merely traditional Christianity and to actually breathe life into it through a community of friendship, of faith, and of love, but also to create spaces where this could be carried out in politics, in art, in every dimension of life. The experiment was effective because Giussani was reflective and attentive and was able to identify its specific shape and form as he went along. To watch that unfold over the course of the biography is extraordinary.

You travel around the country visiting parishes. In your opinion what is the biggest need you see?
First, Catholicism has to move away from mere maintenance to a rediscovery of what the institution of the church is in the first place. The church is actually an encounter with the event of Jesus Christ. I find that many people have forgotten this. They are very interested in changing structures or changing the church but forget the event of who Jesus Christ is. Second, we must understand the close link between that event and the building of new structures and new cultures that allow people to encounter it: community that echoes and leaves traces of the event of salvation in the world.

What do you mean that Christianity is an event?
What I mean is that the Word became flesh. The reason, the order, the very meaning of the universe became flesh and stays flesh. That when Jesus was risen from the dead, His body was transformed but remains a body. In that sense, Christianity is an event that happens in time and in space and that forever transforms the nature of time and space. We hear in the scriptures the proclamation that the Lord is risen, that Jesus Christ is ascended to the right hand of the Father, that the church is Christ’s body. These are not mere propositions. We are saying that we have access to the depths of love, divine love, that has forever changed what it means to be human. So, when we think about the structures of the church, these are not just structures built for their own sake. All of them exist to connect us to this primary event, to the enfleshment of the word as the source of the greatest love, the greatest hope for all that it means to be human, which is now revealed in God dwelling among us.

America is living a particular situation of crisis, what is the way forward?
What we can do is to live out this event more clearly in the world. A lot of people want to focus on reforming the institutions of the church but reform and renewal take place in local communities. The crisis we experience is a crisis of institution and the way to respond starts from local communities living this event in a variety of ways.