Traces N.1, January 2003

Among All the Peoples of the World, a People

Recently, the daily newspaper Le Monde, which has always been an authoritative secular voice in France, acknowledged, after a poll, that the Christmas and New Year’s holidays are those most widely shared by the French people and that, above and beyond their specific meaning, they are an apparent factor of unity for a people that is already of widely diverse origins, in terms of both race and of culture, and pervaded by various tensions.

For some time in Italy, taking advantage of every opportunity (including the World Soccer Cup), a sort of campaign has been waged to promote the Italian flag and national anthem, aimed at fostering them as a sign of popular identity and unity, evidently more than they are really felt to be. At the same time, there is political debate about devolution and giving more power to the regional governments.

Broadening our gaze, many of the terrible events that have made and are making the world tremble have the trait of being wars between peoples or of abuse of power of one over the other (in the ethnic and religious sense), and war is seen as a way of affirming the identity of one’s own people.

And too, for the past few years, discussion has been ongoing about the European Charter, which should, in some way, express the characteristics of a people that has one currency but speaks some forty different languages.

Finally, right during the periods of financial hard times, not a few politicians appeal to a common sense of popular unity so as to face cuts and sacrifices in a spirit of solidarity.

And so, now as never before, despite more than five hundred years of cultural, religious, and political insistence on the presumed autonomy of the individual, the problem of what it means to be a people is central. But for the majority, the word “people” sounds as empty as a rhetorical figure or resembles merely the word “fans,” or “faction.”

History has seen the rise and fall of great peoples, very different from each other. For some of them, magnificent traces remain, and for others, only faint memories. What united them, whether it was the political genius of a great military commander or the particular conditions of the place they lived or the worship of the same gods, it did not, nonetheless, save them from the eclipse of their identity and, in the end, their very history. They disappeared. From a certain point on, they no longer gave life to anything original. And it will be like this throughout human history.

Among all the peoples of the earth, there is one that is particular, the Christian people. It is a people “sui generis,” as Pope Paul VI said, i.e., unique. For its origin is not an event in the past, but a fact that accompanies it always. “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” is the promise Jesus made to his disciples, to the scant, somewhat daunted group that, eating with Him and living with Him, represents the dawning of the Christian people and that at the beginning of the Christian era could fit completely on Solomon’s porch, so small was it as a socially noticeable phenomenon.

Nothing but the loving acknowledgment of Christ present will preserve the Christian people. Here is where the difference lies with regard to the Jewish people, out of whom the Christian people emerged with original strength. The Covenant with God, the greatest adventure that can befall a man and the people of whom he is born, took the physical appearance of a young girl holding her baby. That covenant was fulfilled in an unexpected way, in an event that fills the heart of whoever encounters it without imposing anything beforehand, like a law or a custom. “I have called you friends,” God said at a point in history, fixing friendship stretching toward destiny as the new type of bond within His people. It was a new kind of tie: not fixed in terms of blood or political consensus or shared laws. Only in friendship is the Christian people recognized. No flag, no anthem, no strategy of agreement can keep alive the people that has originated and continues to originate history. It is born and reborn from the reoccurrence in the life of a man and woman of Mary’s same wonder, of what she felt in front of the Event that touched her flesh. Then, every act of housework or witness, every social enterprise and every work that remains unknown, when lived with that consciousness, become a wellspring of hope for all. And every word of pain or love, of fear or praise, can be recognized as part of and dissolve into a common song, a simple and beautiful sign of the life of a people, the only weapon in the weaponless battle against those who make attempts on the life of a people.