Christ, All We Have

Notes from a conversation between Luigi Giussani and a Communion and Liberation group. New York, March 8, 1986.

Luigi Giussani

We offer our readers this dialogue, for its force of judgment and thus of relevance to our present. Answering questions put to him by the first CL friends in New York, Fr Giussani clarifies the “genius” of the Movement, approved by the Church with the recognition of the Fraternity on February 11, 1982. In particular, synthesizing the history of the Movement, he explains the originality of the Western tradition, a very current topic in light of the often unsatisfying discussions and comments published in the media in recent months.

Question: You have told us the history of the Movement by dividing it into three parts: the beginning, the period of crisis, today. Could you help us, looking at things from this viewpoint, to understand our present here in America? What do we have to watch out for or what risks might we run since we are just starting out?

Fr Giussani:
The prevalent characteristics of the Movement are the following. First of all, going back to the heart of Christian faith, which is that Jesus Christ is the center of the cosmos and history and life. This implies a concept and feeling of Christian life as a constant verification of the connection between Christ and the problems that make up the fabric of our time. This living existential perception of Christ, which is the content of faith, cannot be an individual discovery or rediscovery, but both the discovery and the verification imply belonging to a companionship.

The second moment of our history, brought about by the great destruction of 1968, was the discovery that Christianity is not an ethical, moral impulse, except only as a phenomenon, as a secondary fact. Secondary to what? Secondary to the truth that Christianity is a new fact in history, a new event in history, irreducible, inevitable. Therefore, Christianity as a presence means an event that is present, an event that one can knock up against, that can be seen: you have to find it and run into it, enter inside it.

The third phase was determined by the realization that what we needed was not an alternative to do battle with other forces: not an antithesis to other forces, or an emulation, in short, but the pure multiplication and dilation of this event, therefore of Christian communion. To create communion, to create facts of a new humanity: this is all our task. The danger I see in this your beginning is that of being superficial in your grasp of the values that have been proposed and given to you, and on the other hand of identifying as the goal of your commitment a result, a success that it is easy to see and that gives you, obtains for you, the esteem of others. There is a serious “drawback” to our commitment, which is that our commitment has one sole purpose, which is recognizing with profound wonder what Christ is. In any case, as Eliot observes in his Choruses from “The Rock,” if we forget Christ, man is destroyed.

Question: What is your opinion of Western culture? This question is important for us because we live in a country that seeks to be the accomplished expression of the West.

Fr Giussani: It seems to me that this is an all-encompassing question. I believe that, first of all, Western culture possesses values such that it has imposed itself both as a culture and operationally, socially, on the whole world. There is a small consideration to add, which is that Western culture has inherited all these values from Christianity: the value of the person, absolutely inconceivable in all the literature of the world, because the person is conceivable as dignity solely if he is acknowledged as not deriving wholly from the biology of his father and mother, otherwise he is like a stone in the stream of reality, a drop of a wave that breaks against the rock; the value of work, which all of world culture, ancient culture but also Engels and Marx, conceives as enslavement, it is likened to slavery, while Christ calls work the activity of the Father, of God; the value of matter, that is to say, the abolition of the duality between a noble and an ignoble aspect of the life of nature that does not exist for Christianity–the most revolutionary statement in the history of culture is St Paul’s, “Everything God has created is good,”1 which is why Romano Guardini can say that Christianity is the most “materialist” religion in history;2 the value of progress, of time as charged with meaning, because the concept of history requires the idea of an intelligent plan.

These are the basic values of Western civilization, it seems to me. I did not mention another one, because it is implicit in the concept of person: freedom. If man derives everything from his biological antecedents, as the prevailing culture claims, then man is the slave of the chanceness of encounters and thus is the slave of those in power, because the reigning power represents the temporary emergence of luck in history. But if man is something that derives directly from the origin of things, of the world, the soul, then man is really free. Man cannot conceive of himself as free in an absolute sense: since before he was not and now he is, he depends. Perforce. The alternative is very simple: either he depends on What makes reality, i.e., on God, or he depends on the chance movements of reality, i.e., on those in power. Dependence on God is the freedom of men from other men. The terrible lack, the terrible error of Western civilization is having forgotten and denied this. Thus, in the name of his own autonomy, Western man has become the slave of every power. And all the shrewd development of the instruments of civilization increases this enslavement. The solution is a battle to save–not the battle to stop the shrewdness of civilization, but the battle to rediscover, to testify, man’s dependence on God. What has been, throughout time, the true meaning of the human struggle, that is to say, the struggle between the affirmation of the human and the instrumentalization of the human by those in power, has now reached an extreme. As John Paul II has warned so many times, the greatest danger today is not the destruction of peoples, killing, murder, but the attempt by the reigning power to destroy the human. And the essence of the human is freedom, i.e., the relationship with the infinite. Therefore, it is mainly in the West that the great battle must be fought by the man who feels himself to be a man: the battle between authentic religiosity and power. The limit of power is true religiosity–the limit of any power: civil, political, and ecclesiastic.

Question: The most important task for a Christian is to communicate the encounter with Christ. From this point of view, in this past year I have encountered two types of problems. The first: so many people are Christians because Christianity is their cultural tradition (many, for example, are children of the Irish tradition), thus they think they know already what the Christian proposal is, what it is all about. The second: conversely, we can meet people who are not struck in any way, who show no openness to faith. How should we act in our dealings with these two types of people?

Fr Giussani: I believe that the way to deal with these two types of people, those who have already had Christianity and those who have not yet had it, is identical. In other words, it is the message which is borne by personal witness, because Christ is present in my witness. Or rather, at the most, there is one difference: with those who have already received Christianity, our witness has to be much stronger and more powerful, because, as Barbara Ward says, “men rarely learn what they think they already know.”3

What is the original characteristic of the Movement? What makes it different from other movements in the Church and in the world?

Fr Giussani:
It seems to me that the genius–using the word in the Latin sense–of the Movement is that it has felt the urgency of proclaiming the need to return to the elementary aspects of Christianity, that is to say to the passion of the Christian fact as such, in its original elements, full stop. This is why priests, friars, sisters, people from other movements feel at home in our accent. They feel, so to speak, like friends in our accent. We do not want anything other than what we ought to have in common with everybody, and our action, our task is that of recalling everyone to these original factors that are necessary for all, above all to what I have said: the category of the event, that Christianity is a present fact, of which you and I are a part. It is the fact of Christ who is present, but in order to be present He needs you and me, us. You ought to see Delanoy’s film God Needs Us if you can find it in some film library.

Question: What is the importance of prayer in the life of the Movement, and how can a community like ours use it to help our friendship grow?

Fr Giussani: Christ came after being desired by the prophets and the poor in spirit for centuries and centuries. The Hebrew people, through its most aware men, was the function of all mankind that was waiting for something. Thus God always responds to an entreaty, to a begging on man’s part; indeed, in all the literatures of the world there are traces of a wait or of a cry to something other which man does not know. For this reason, Christ reveals Himself to me, He reveals His presence to me and comes into my life the more I ask for Him, because He does not come in where He is not awaited. The essence of prayer is begging for Christ: “Come, Lord Jesus,” it is the last word in the Bible and the first word of the early Christians. We must live or relive in ourselves all mankind’s awaiting, because Christ is a response to freedom and freedom every minute is like new. The greatest thing in the life of our experience is the discovery of what prayer is. Prayer is the only phenomenon in which man engages his whole stature. Whoever follows the life of the Movement can testify that I personally do not talk about anything else, in comparison, more than this. Because man is aspiration, he is a search; he is neither aspiration nor search if he is not an entreaty. So, the companionship that calls us to Lauds, Midday Prayer, Vespers, Compline, the Angelus, Communion, through these things is not seeking anything other than to make habitual to us the asking for Christ, i.e., for being, i.e., for fulfillment, i.e., for truth, i.e., for life, i.e., for our own true “I.” Forgive me, I am speaking to you as a friend, but reaching the perception of what prayer is means crossing the threshold of the human. If he does not reach this threshold, a man cannot enjoy nature, he cannot understand music, he cannot understand his relationship with a woman, he cannot understand his relationship with himself, because if it is not an entreaty, all this is nothing.

Question: I would like you to help us understand what connection there is between prayer, as you have just described it, and charity.

Fr Giussani: If one really feels his poverty, if one truly asks. But we never ask. We wait, but we do not ask–even a dog waits, but he does not ask! The first real liberation–rather, the essential fulfillment of man–is to ask. On the question of asking, I always remember this comparison I once made at school. To make the students understand that they never searched for anything, because everyone looks for what they already have in mind, I wrote the word “omre” on the blackboard. Then one of them said, “This priest (he meant me) is always weird!” So I said to him, “You’re the weird one, because you should have asked me, ‘What does that mean?’ You should have asked! And I would have answered you, ‘It is not pronounced omre, but is pronounced otce. It is the vocative of the word ‘father’ in Old Slavonic.’” That boy looked at the word according to what he already had in his mind, thus he could not learn anything more. Instead, if someone asks, he learns, he discovers something new. Everyone acts like that student of mine. What keeps us from doing this and opens us up to learning is prayer as asking. Every true asking is a prayer, because asking, truly asking, spurred by curiosity, is nothing other than a bowing to the need for truth, in other words for the divine. Asking for affection, asking for the fulfillment of one’s own “I” is thus asking for God.

Thank you for asking about prayer. One who understands asking, what asking is, hears immediately what the other is asking for, he can’t stay still if someone else is in need, and he helps him gratuitously: this is called charity. But someone who does not feel this need in himself, who does not experience the pain of need, cannot understand that someone else is in need, because in that case, even if he gives a lot to charity, the other is a tool of a plan of his–for example, the plan of maintaining his peace of mind. Whereas the true plan for man is not to maintain his peace of mind, but to be happy. Since, thanks be to God, God gives me the gladness of being able to talk about these things every day from sunup to sundown, you understand that the purpose of life is to recognize this and bring it to others. Suppose that you have here a nice new car and you engage a physicist like Matthew to analyze the whole car and identify all the pieces, etc. When you have described all the pieces you cannot say you know the car, because to know the car you have to know how to use it, you have to know the meaning of all the relationships between those pieces. This is why man is all confused, lost, nervous, restless, and violent: because he does an analysis of all of “man” in every sense, but he does not have the meaning of the whole. God became one of us, and He has called us to help Him in this: to make men know the meaning of their machine. If one does not do this he does not love woman, he does not love his children, he does not love his brothers and sisters, he does not love man, he does not love anything, he does not love himself. What makes life worth living is this. Therefore, there is no way of explaining to ourselves a friendship like ours, when it exists: our friendship starts to be real when there is no reason for it, apparently no reason; that is to say, when the reason for it is our common destiny. This is what brings together a daughter and her mother, and a man with another man as much a stranger to him as possible. I did not know Barbara before I came here. It didn’t take days and months: one minute, the fact of being here together for something. This is why I was saying to you this morning that, just as the stable in Bethlehem was a hole that nobody knew, so too we do not care about a quantitatively sensational result. What matters is the fact that we be. When I began with four young boys, the last thing I could imagine was that our relationship could spread throughout the world. But this depends on God. The joy and fullness of living corresponds to what we are living for. And then you cannot look at the people passing in the street in any other way.

Question: Could you describe how we can gain from our experience in the relationships among ourselves and with those we meet?

Fr Giussani: If you write me a letter, I read the letter, and if it is a vast, profound letter, I interpret the letter according to what I think about it. But if you are seated there in front of me and you give me the letter, I say to you, “Barbara, what do you mean here? But Barbara, I don’t really agree with you about this.” And you say to me, “But no, I meant thus and so.” If you give me the letter and you’re in front of me, the letter becomes a dialogue. The book for School of Community has to become a dialogue like this with Christ. It is not necessary to say, “Lord.” That’s wonderful too, but it is inside your heart that you have to ask, “Lord, what do you mean by this? What are you teaching me here? What does this page say?” In this way it is like a prayer that helps you learn, otherwise it becomes like a dialectic exchange, it becomes a dialectic among you, and nothing more, it becomes reasoning. If, on the contrary, you read it with this religiosity–and religiosity is where one asks to learn–if your other friends, too, are in this position, it becomes something really wonderful. It is an asking that depends on friendship, because we are all poor people on a path. Then we are not scandalized if we don’t understand, we go slowly, we repeat things, because normally what we do not know beforehand we do not yet understand. Pardon me, try to think about how, in 99% of cases, all the people you meet, even your friends, you meet as strangers, as juxtaposed. Conversely, when you meet them and you are good in your heart, even without saying a word to them, you stretch out to them, you are not a stranger to anybody. It is truly a new humanity between you, or rather among you and them, it is like a constant asking: this is the resonance of prayer in the relationship among us, which is charity. What has started among you is a new humanity, which still leaves you all the voids, all the faults of man, but gives you a perspective that others do not perceive. It is like the difference between a picture made by an adult that has perspective and a drawing by children who do not know perspective. And the perspective is that there is Another, that between me and Renzo there is another, because if this were not the case he would not have treated me with the forbearance and goodness he has shown me in these days. But if a web of new human relationships does not get started among you, then it won’t happen anywhere else. However, I do advise one thing: do this without making any demands.

Question: If you had to say why you are a Christian, what would you answer? And how do we communicate this?

Fr Giussani: Thank you very much for asking this question. You who are listening to me know that there is a prayer I always say and urge others to say: “Veni Sancte Spiritus. Veni per Mariam.” Because Christianity is the announcement that God entered the world in a human way. Therefore the concrete way in which He entered the world never passes away; it is important for everyone and for all time. This is why that fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girl is the Mother of the living. And man’s happiness will pass, it passes for all men and will pass through her flesh and ever more through her heart, her Yes, her fiat, “Let it be.” What I say to all the friends, the tens of thousands I have met, I can say because of the temperament of my father and mother, forever. This is why, if the accent of faith has struck us through a certain friendship, we can never lose it again! Imagine if a child, in the first days after conception, or a month after conception, in his mother’s womb, were conscious: think what a feeling of dependence and gratitude he would have toward that flesh that was making him. I understand that you are too young to say certain things, but we have to start saying them. Because we are inside a root much more than even a fetus inside its mother. But you should have understood this from the theme of School of Community this year: belonging. Man gets off balance psychologically to the extent that he does not feel he belongs, that is, he is wanted, loved, fed, defended, and brought to fulfillment. In any case, the main thing to keep in mind is this: that we are Christians because without Christ man begins to become less himself, to disappear. Maybe I have already told you about what the last great Roman writer said–I thought of it in these days, his name was Marius Vittorinus (he was the “theoretician” of Julian the Apostate)–when he suddenly announced, from the tribunes where the lawyers spoke, his conversion to Christianity. He started his speech with these words: “When I encountered Christ I discovered myself as a man.”4 If we cannot say this in some way, we have not yet known what faith is. But if we have even just barely known this, we understand that we cannot live except by faith. Not as propaganda, but as a loving passion, because in my heart I always think that otherwise a man cannot love his woman and a woman cannot love her child, except with a desperate emptiness. And loving with desperation means condemning the beloved to death.

Be faithful to your companionship, even when your companionship seems not to satisfy you. Just one more thing, forgive me: it is out of love of reason and love of mankind that we believe in Christ. Then we have to understand it!