Fr. José Medina. Photo by Margherita Daho

The Land of the Free

“We call this ‘the land of the free.’ Why do you think freedom is so important to us?” Fr. José Medina and Fr. Julián Carrón discuss freedom in the United States at the 2016 New York Encounter.
Nathaniel Hurd

When I was an atheist into my 20s, the only understanding of freedom I accepted was my own, and the only reason I would have watched two Catholic priests discuss freedom would have been to snicker and snarkily object. Now about to exit my 30s, I am Catholic, part of the international movement in the Church, Communion and Liberation (CL), and joined more than 2,000 people for such a discussion between Father Julian Carrón, President of CL, and Father José Medina, leader of CL in the United States, listening, learning.

“We call this ‘the land of the free.’ Why do you think freedom is so important to us?” With this question, Father Medina began the conversation. “To answer this question, we need to go back to our history, because from the beginning of modernity, freedom has been considered the most precious thing,” replied Father Carrón. Over the next hour and a half, he roamed expansively, from poets to novelists, from theologians to friends, from the time before modernity to the present, accompanied by Father Medina and the audience.

Echoing the theme of the 2016 New York Encounter, “Longing for the Sea and Yet Not Afraid,” and pointing to an era of mariners before the world was known to them, an era before global mapping and Global Positioning Systems, Father Carrón continued, “Someone could take a ship, and take on the adventure of entering the sea, looking for something that is unknown but for which he is longing.”

Despite unknowns, mariners ancient and modern still must choose destinations, chart courses, and make decisions throughout the journey, to keep their ships on-course and intact, and crews safe from fatal albatrosses. Father Medina flagged the modern desire for choices without commitment. “There is an expression in American culture, in the young side of the American culture, that is called ‘FOMO,’ ‘Fear of Missing Out.’ It is a malady, an illness, that people have, that they want to remain open to all possible choices, and therefore they do not commit to any of them, out of fear of missing something beautiful […] As Americans, the thing we love the most is the possibility of having all choices in front of us. But this possibility fills us with fear. This sense of what we’ve been fighting for, freedom, so that no one can tell me, ‘Don’t do that.’ But that doesn’t give me freedom. How do we come to this point, in which fighting for freedom, we arrive at fear?”

“This is the question everyone has to face,” responded Father Carrón. “Otherwise, we keep speaking of freedom outside of experience, outside this particular point in which we are now […] We prefer to protect ourselves in a prison because of a fear of freedom […] In modern times […] freedom is an individualistic way of dealing with reality without any ties, without any kind of bonds […] If freedom comes to be convincing oneself of liberating oneself from any kind of tie or constraint, then to be free, a person would have to belong to no one, only to himself […] The sense of loneliness is so widespread, even when we are together in a room […] There are no longer personal relationships. Not only do we not have them, we don’t want them, because that would make me depend on him or on her! This is something considered to be a sickness, something to be treated by a psychologist.”

Father Medina then referenced a recent interview in the Huffington Post about a woman who had saved enough money to be on a perpetual vacation and go around the world. At the end of the interview, the journalist asked her whether she would settle, whether she would love. The traveller responded that she had deep relationships with the people she encountered while travelling. “Nevertheless, even the journalist recognized that this unbound freedom, this vagabond style was not enough,” said Father Medina. “This unbound sense of freedom has consequences. We are willing to follow it, no matter the consequences. We are longing for the sea but not going anywhere.”

Father Carrón responded: “This is a question we need to discover as a cultural debate and inside our own experience. Someone has all the space, all the freedom to whatever he thinks will make him happy. But in the end, even his hypothesis has to be verified. In the end, he needs to judge whether it is enough or not […] Freedom needs something other, something different than myself, to set in motion my freedom. I need something so important to me so as to move my freedom. My freedom alone, without anything that can attract me, without anything that can be so crucial, is something I don’t care for. I would care for nothing, my life would be flat […] This person didn’t encounter anything so beautiful, so crucial for his life, that he said ‘this is it. My freedom is to adhere to this.’ There is nothing so crucial for him and so he keep wandering as a vagabond.”

“This makes me think,” said Father Medina, “ how, especially when one is young, he or she perceives the other as the reason for not being free. I thinking of being a child, and my father says ‘You cannot do that,’ and I cannot wait to actually arrive and say, ‘I will be free when you are not here.’ But now we are in a situation in which you pretty much do whatever you want. The doors of the prison are open and yet you do not want to go […] I understand well in my personal experience that I am not free because I am unbound, because I don’t choose to do I want. This is a great challenge to our American culture. Freedom does not coincide with choice. I can choose whatever I want but I am not free. How do I discover what makes me free?”

Fr. Julián Carrón. Photo by Margherita Daho

“We arrive at this point of a paradox,” proposed Father Carrón. “We can only discover this through freedom. In the past, it was ‘I will tell you what will make you free.’ But that doesn’t work today, this kind of argument. Why? Because along the way we discovered that the way that we can identify that the ingredient to move our freedom is not by any kind of imposition or somebody else, the Church, parents, school. What is able to move the center of myself? Only through freedom.”

He then quoted Father Luigi Giussani, the founder of CL, who said, “The human person, as a free being, cannot be fulfilled, cannot reach his destiny except through freedom … if reaching destiny, reaching fulfillment is to be free, freedom must ‘play a role’ even in its discovery, for if the discovery of this destiny, this ultimate meaning were automatic, then this destiny would no longer be mine. The human person is responsible before his destiny, the fruit of his freedom.”

After highlighting the Second Vatican Council’s words on religious freedom, Father Carrón added, “It is crucial for us to understand the relevance of the Church nowadays for our relationship with freedom and truth, because it is only through freedom that we discover the real nature of the truth.”

Father Medina also placed freedom in the same context. “When we think about religious freedom, we think the state allows us to do what we want. This is a part. You are introducing a vision or image of the Church as the great custodian of my freedom and furthermore that I cannot know or reach the truth if not through freedom. How can we discover the truth through freedom?”

“How do we come to know what freedom is? Words are signs with which a person identifies a specific experience: the word ‘love’ singles out a certain experience, as does the word freedom,” again quoting Father Giussani. “When do we feel free?” Father Carron asked, insisting “this is the starting point. We need to go back to our history, to our experience, to look for some moments in our lives in which I can identify what happened, in that moment, in which I was firmly free […] When my desire is filled, I feel myself free […] In the social context we were talking about, everybody does whatever they feel like, and they are not free. This is the question: What is the nature of the desire that is not completely satisfied? Without answering this question, without focusing on the nature of the desire, it is impossible to recognize what would satisfy this desire […] I am a human person who is constituted by this immense desire […] Our desire cannot be content with anything except that which corresponds to all the thirst of longing for fulfillment.”

“I see this as part of the human journey, that even my vagabond friend – at this point we are friends – still longs for something, for love,” noted Father Medina. “Even in the unbound life, there is a recognition that I need to be in relationship with someone. We are made for someone great, for whom we love.”

“Without identifying the infinite, it is impossible that I can overcome my vagabondage,” replied Carrón. “What is the moment in which we can be attracted to this person whose face I long for? I am so attracted that my wandering is finished, because I met her or met him. The Mystery become flesh, become a face, because all our lives we had been wandering. It is impossible to become attracted to something that does not correspond to this Mystery, because that something is not enough. We, after a while, become bored of this thing and look elsewhere for something new and attractive. I keep wandering unless God visits me. I keep wandering, looking for something else, that can fulfill my desire.”

“The Incarnation is the infinite becoming flesh. In one moment, they were so attracted to Him that they remained His friends forever. Even making the same stupid mistakes, it did not matter. They were so attached to Him that they remained faithful, they remained friends, because where could they go? No one has attracted me like you. No one has moved the inner part of my ‘I’ other than you, Christ. We can discover this in the middle of reality and through the freedom of the encounter […] John and Andrew remembered the time, the hour, the precise moment […] If someone does not have this kind of experience, it is impossible to convince them that this is true, because this happened through freedom, in a personal encounter, in the truth that is a person. The truth became flesh!”

Concluding and summarizing the conversation, Father Medina said, “This woman chooses to go for years looking for someone, looking for something. You are saying that the only way of truly experiencing freedom is not being able to choose everything that you want to do. It is that you have an experience of satisfaction and that experience of satisfaction is only possible if the Mystery, this infinite that we desire, that is expressed in who we are, makes Himself present to me […] The only salvation for my friends, for myself, for all of us, is whether that experience happens now. We say that the Church is the place that the Christian event continues to happen. But how? How can we tell?”

With his final words, Father Carrón emphasized that every person “has a thirst for fulfillment and no one can be himself without this fulfillment. I need a person in whom I can see fulfilled what I am longing for. This is a witness. This not the cultural or virtual repetition of the announcement of the truth or a set of rules or a set of values. People today are longing for the experience of an encounter […] Even people who are especially far from Christ, their life is changed. A human event can impact people today, an event that echoes the Mystery evident, in which we can find the Mystery evident now, in the present. Otherwise, the Christian event is dead, something that remains in the past, that only remains in traditions, without any possibility of awakening desire now … and fulfilling it.”