New York City. CC0 Creative Commons

What are you Looking for?

The annual gathering of the responsibles of the Movement for the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico took place in Jersey City in the middle of January. The 400 participants found themselves to be eyewitnesses of an event that changes life
Santiago Ramos

One is tempted to say that the National Diaconia is nothing more, and nothing less, than a meeting between friends. A very big meeting. The idea is borne out by this year’s theme: “Friends, that is, Witnesses.” But the species of friendship is defined by the second word, “Witnesses”–witnesses to something, something that answers the ultimate question of what it means to be a human person. Getting the question right is a necessary condition for witnessing the answer, and that is why Father Julián Carrón began the Diaconia on the first night with a reiteration of the question: “What are you looking for?” This is the question, Fr. Carrón says, that Christ poses to every one of us. We need, he continues, to answer this question as quickly as possible. 

Hailing from 30 different states, communities from all major regions of the U.S. were represented: the East Coast, with contingents from Washington, DC, and New York, among others; the Midwest, with communities from Kansas, Minnesota, Indiana, and Illinois; the Pacific Northwest, with a community in Seattle; the West Coast, with many Californians crossing the country to get there. Members from the community in Puerto Rico also made the trip to New Jersey. And the proximity of New Jersey to Canada attracted many Canadian friends from Montreal as well as a few from New Brunswick and British Columbia.

In the city of half-truths 
New York, viewed and visited from the New Jersey hotel, added a dramatic stage for the meeting between friends. In his novel Fury, published at the turn of the century, Salman Rushdie calls New York “a city of half-truths and echoes that somehow dominates the earth.” One can hate this domination or one can celebrate it or one can be resigned to it, but it remains a fact: New York is the cultural nerve center of the American reality, with all of its eclecticism, vibrancy, decadence, brilliance, and power. There is no better place to ask, “What are you looking for?” The exact location of the Diaconia was Jersey City, just across the Hudson River on the northernmost edge of New Jersey. The hotel’s rear windows faced the gleaming city, and perhaps one could say that the friends and witnesses were with New York but not of it. 

Half-truths are not enough, of course, and perhaps Salman Rushdie would agree with a recent statement by Pope Benedict that the “danger for the Western world… is that today, precisely because of the greatness of his knowledge and power, man will fail to face up to the question of the truth.” This statement is a quote from the Pope’s thwarted address to the students of the University of La Sapienza in Rome, which was cancelled due to the protests of a few of its students and members of its faculty. Carrón quoted this line many times throughout the Diaconia. Friends, that is, witnesses; witnesses to something True.

Two pitfalls 
There are two main pitfalls that either keep us from asking, “What am I looking for?” or that keep us from getting anywhere near an answer to the question even after we have asked it. During a panel discussion launching the English translation of Luigi Giussani’s posthumously published book, Is It Possible To Live This Way?, Fr. Carrón began by making two diagnoses: first, that the modern world has reduced religion to feelings and ethics, and second, that the modern world has given up on the possibility of knowing something to be true. (This year, the Diaconia began the practice of making the cultural presentation and the main lesson the same event. This way, the main lesson becomes public, for the consumption of everyone, not just the participants of the Diaconia.) The result is that religion now has to do with a nebulous feeling in relation with the divine; to cement the latter point, Carrón again quoted the Pope’s address to La Sapienza. The answer, Carrón says, lies in treating the problem of faith as a problem of method. Faith is knowledge; it is not a separate entity beyond the grasp of reason. Faith broadens reason because it broadens the horizon of things that can be known. The heart already intuits that the horizon is wider than the modern world says it is; our ability to investigate things with our reason must be inspired by the heart’s presentiment that something greater exists.

Faith and Facts

Faith must be related to truth and reality if it will have anything to do with our lives. Otherwise, faith becomes an add-on, something that we can do without until an event in our lives forces us to ask a god for help, or something happy occurs, and we want to thank a higher power. Christianity, however, cannot be compartmentalized. Therefore, it is imperative that faith be connected to knowledge and to real life. Joey Orrino, a member of CLU from Benedictine College in Kansas, expresses the way in which faith-as-knowledge has become a part of his life since the Diaconia: “The education I have been receiving at a Catholic institution had already stressed that faith is a form of knowledge complimentary to reason.  That understanding of faith, however, did not often venture beyond my academic life and into my day-to-day experience or outlook on reality….  Already, I have encountered circumstances since the Diaconia where reality apart from faith would have been unbearable.  Instead, I have become more able to look at what is before me and say to myself, as Fr. Carrón said, ‘I cannot stop the sun from shining tomorrow.’  That Christ is a fact has been a cause for joy and a source of peace.” 

How do we know whether Christianity is true? Fr. Carrón speaks about a method: faith, an indirect form of knowledge. The knowledge of faith is based upon the authority of witnesses: witnesses to the life of Christ, witnesses to His truth and His power. But here we are talking about power and truth for the present day, for today, as Carrón writes: “The only method which allows us to know Christ is through a wisdom that makes Him present now… It is Christ’s contemporaneousness, His presence in us today, that allows us to verify the truth of the Christian claim. His presence today in the Church is what makes Christianity relevant for all aspects of life”.

The True Protagonist

It is this method which makes an event like the Diaconia so important. Our authority for knowing Christ is each other–the Church. The measure through which Christ changes those around us, and is a protagonist in each of our lives, constitute the evidence that the Christian message is true, true for every part of life. And every part of life was dealt with in the Diaconia–there was a presentation by Maria Elena Monzani, an astronomer currently working at Stanford, about the nature of the cosmos. There were meetings on how to organize cultural activities, as well as a meeting for all educators. There was a book panel discussion as well as a blues concert with the David Horowitz and Friends Band. The eclectic content of the Diaconia reflected the diverse places from whence everyone came. And, even with this diversity, everyone came with the same faith, and with the same hope. Perhaps the concreteness of this hope was best articulated by Wadi Adames from Puerto Rico, during the assembly: “The thing that struck me most…was that there was no despair. I’ve been sad many times after that, but not to the point of saying, ‘To hell with everything.’ I’ve been tempted to do it, but something happened that I cannot not see. It’s like I am forced to see a fact. Something happened. It’s there. Something has changed.”