Fr. Pigi Banna

A gaze in the light of destiny

Fr. Pigi Banna, who follows the young people of Student Youth, talks about what it means to be a father, and at the same time, a son. A relationship that always needs to be nourished by a present so that it can “continue to generate.”
Pigi Banna

No matter how full the shelves of our mind may be with advice, books, and courses on paternity that follow different ideals and schools of thought, nothing can reproduce in the laboratory the thrill of the call of another human being who turns to you with a look, a word, or even a first feeble cry, asking you to be a father. It may be a teenager who takes the initiative to ask your help with a concern he has confided to no one else, like a friend who seeks you out to receive some clarity. That person is turning to you! It is an unforgettable experience of vocation, something gratuitous and unexpected, even if long awaited.

When we speak about paternity, we must always return to this first appeal, which sooner or later emerges from the life of every mature person; this experience should be our point of reference before we seek comfort in the knowledge imparted in courses and user’s manuals that insist we fulfil a role for which we will always be inadequate (and we are not ashamed to admit it). Instead, the appeal of a son is directed to you, leading to an experience of total gratuitousness, filling with promise your life and the life of a person who, after scrutinizing you, recognizes something in you and seeks from you this promise.

An opportunity for memory.
Looking at the experience inherent in this appeal to paternity, the person who receives this appeal discovers that he is pervaded by a desire for goodness and by the fear of squelching that fragile entreaty for life, still uncertain and limping, that is opening up in front of him. Who would not desire to love in every way possible those who, helpless, call you a “father” and entrust themselves to you? “ What father among you, if his son asks him for some bread, would give him a stone?” Jesus asked in the Gospel of Luke. This impetus of goodness is an opportunity for a renewed and grateful memory for paternity received. The gospel passage continues, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father.” In front of that goodness kindled in us, all our meanness falls into the background and we are drawn to return in our memory to the figure of the person who was a father for us.

Often in that moment of attention to our children we recognize and appreciate the gratuitous and silent paternity of those who generated us and whom we never had time to thank, because we did not even realize what they had done. Thus, at the moment of this appeal, this vocation, paternity, is not so much a call to play a role, but is primarily an opportunity to gratefully remember those who generated us, who looked at us with the same tenderness with which we now unexpectedly look at those in need of a father.

The vocation to paternity at the moment of this appeal, which is so gratuitous, moving, and steeped in memory, is always the fruit of something that comes before, of an experience that has in some way made a strong emotional impact on our personality. This holds not only for biological paternity; it is even more evident in those who live other calls to paternity, whether through their work or in other situations. For example, mere chance did not lead a teacher to be sitting at a desk in front of a student; instead, some kind of passion brought the teacher to the place of that encounter.

In order to be fathers, we must continually return to the source of this before. We have to go back to it using our memory in order to gain the strength to continue generating.
This generation in the present is best exemplified for me the first time I was asked to preach the Easter Triduum for Student Youth in front of 5,000 teens. I was only 32 years old and had been a priest less than two years. I could not think of beginning that day without asking Julián Carrón, the leader of CL, to remember us. I’ll never forget his answer: “Just let yourself be embraced by Christ; this will draw everyone to Him with you.” After that message, I no longer felt worried about being “someone” in front of them, but only desired to respond to the presence in front of whom Carrón had placed me. In this way, my words to the students were part of a broader dialogue in which I was being generated, in which I was being placed in front of a Father.

The opening of freedom.
The more you find yourself wanting to respond to the questions of your children, the more your grateful memory is moved to identify in the present the father of whom you want to be the child, the gaze you desire to turn to without fear of being forced to continually begin again. We verify how much the paternity to which we refer in the present generates us, and to that extent, we find that we are more free. The more you discover that you are the child of a father in the present, the less you fear risking your own gesture of paternity– you do not fear falling into authoritarian clericalism or into the opposite problem, which is absolute freedom of thought unconstrained by principles, dogmas, or norms, unmoored by commitment.

One can object to this proposal with the question, “Is there a time in life when you stop being someone’s son and you are only a father?” This is the flip side of the troubled question Nicodemus, one of the leaders of Israel, who asked Jesus: “How can a person once grown old be born again?”

It is always possible to be born again of a father in the present. Having this experience depends on whether you conceive of your own life in authentically religious terms or according to a reductionist scheme, whether that scheme is sociological, psychological, intellectual, or materialistic. Every person, whether young or old, must resign himself to the idea that he is moving toward the end of his days, like a branch that has borne abundant fruit but is now dry and only good for firewood if he believes he can make himself by himself, if he conceives of himself at best as the product of one or more of the schemes just mentioned. If, instead, he recognizes that every instant of his life has been given to him, he can discover that up to the last moment he is generated not by himself, but by an Other, a “You” who consists of a mysterious and inexhaustible paternity, who is recalled ever more intensely in the face of the many fathers who have generated him during his life: “Tam pater nemo,” no one is so much a father, Tertullian wrote.

Those who live in this religious position will never stop being sons and daughters, even to the end of their days. They will introduce their children to a paternity that is greater than their own–a paternity that gives freedom and is expressed concretely in prayer when we turn to the Father who “knows what we need better than we do.” Freedom is the distinctive sign of those who are perennially generated and ultimately rooted in a religious conception of life. This freedom can be recognized in two very tangible signs. First, such people do not fear launching their own young people into a relationship with this great and ultimate Father while allowing them their freedom, understanding that they are entrusted to the care of someone greater who generates us as well. This lack of fear can be seen in the fact that jealousy does not prevent them from sending the young people entrusted to them to figures who are more authoritative than them. In addition, at an even more personal level, as the years go by and we lose great authority figures, we can live the experience of being generated in a miraculous way by allowing ourselves to be generated by those younger than ourselves, maybe by someone who has been a son to us. In this way, we allow ourselves to be generated by what the eternal Father continues to accomplish in that son.

I was struck when I read that Fr. Giussani, at the end of his last Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of CL (in 2004, a year before he died), told “his” people: “This lesson by Carrón is the best thing the Lord has given me to understand about all the meetings of our Spiritual Exercises. [...] It is the most beautiful thing I have heard in my life.”

An experience of virginity.
Let’s return to the experience with which we began, to the gratuitous and irreplaceable moment of the call to paternity. A father who has the opportunity to travel the journey we have described; that is, in tenderness to the son he remembers that he is generated and feels the need to return to and draw from the wellspring of his generation, and sees that the more he draws from it, the more he discovers in his innermost depths the eternal mystery that is the Father, a mystery like no other–how will he respond to the son’s appeal? His gaze will see beyond his son’s, recognizing in that young beggar the fruit of a story of which the son is not yet aware. The father will broaden his son’s horizons, continually pointing him to the good destiny that holds the boy’s ephemeral instant in His hands.

An example can help us understand this experience. Only a true father, in front of a fundamental passage in his son’s life like a graduation, marriage, or becoming a father, seeing the growth in that man, also has in mind the little boy 20 or 30 years before, something his son cannot remember. He is moved, but this father, who with his limited human energy manages to have a gaze upon what that child who is now a man once was, will never know what is to become of that man when he himself is no longer there.

This intense experience moves him deeply, and he entrusts the son he was given to the Father, who looks at us instant by instant the way Jesus looked at Peter, Andrew, John, the Samaritan, and many others, and who recognizes in that ephemeral present of a man the child that he once was–even more than the father who saw him being born–and the man he will be. This biological father becomes a participant in the gaze of God on his son. He loves the other in light of his destiny, as Fr. Giussani often described it.

A father’s gaze upon his son will be full of virginity to the extent he discovers that his son is not his property, but rather is someone to whom only the heavenly Father is called to respond. The more we let ourselves be generated, the more we will experience in our flesh the virginity by which Being generates all things.

Pigi Banna (Catania, 1984) has been an Ambrosian priest since 2014. He holds a degree in classics from the State University of Milan, is finishing his doctorate in systematic theology and the history of early Christianity, and teaches patristics at the seminary of Venegono. In recent years he has been asked to accompany the teachers and students of Student Youth.