Several things have surfaced for me recently that has me wondering about what we are doing as a Christian people living our faith in a parochial setting today. Two things to read are the notes from a recent Communion and Liberation retreat and the Pope’s recent remarks in Croatia. Both go hand-in-hand: God is not a sentimental object and He remains an authority. But in order for me to say this with conviction I’ve got to accept that if I am in Christ I am a new creation (really!) and therefore a living presence. How many times during the Easter season did I understand that Christ was (is) the newness of life? The honest answer is: it is hard to tell.
Father Julián Carrón had the following to say in his introductory remarks for Communion & Liberation’s Fraternity Spiritual Exercises given this spring that bear significant attention for whatever ministry we find ourselves in (or not):
“It seems I am hearing today the same identical question Fr. Giussani was asked by a student. He himself recounts it: “Now people no longer perceive the correspondence between the Christian proposal in its originality, the Christian event, and everyday life. When you try hard to make it understood, they say, ‘But you’re so complicated, you’re so complicated!’ In high school, when I dictated what you study in School of Community, I had in class the son of Manzù, who had a priest he always went to. This priest stirred him up against what he read in the notes from my lessons, and told him, ‘See, this complicates, while, instead, religion is simple.’ In other words, ‘the reasons complicate’-and how many would say the same!–‘the search for the reasons complicates.’ Instead, it illuminates! This mindset is the reason Christ is no longer an authority, but a sentimental object, and God is a boogeyman and not a friend.”
Fr. Giussani knew very well where that apparently less complicated modality of living the faith could lead: “At first sight, Italy in the 1950s seemed to enjoy an ideal situation for the spreading of Catholic thought and ethics: the parishes were efficiently run and offered catechism courses ‘for all seasons;’ religion courses were required in all grades; tradition was kept alive-at least formally-in the values transmitted by the family; there was still a reluctance about accepting an indiscriminate criticism of religion or irreligious information; there was still a fair attendance at Sunday Mass [now, 60 years later, everything has changed greatly] and so on. And yet, an observer would have been struck by at least three factors in his first contact with Italian high school students. First, there was no profound motivation for belief. […] Second, faith was irrelevant to social behavior in general and to behavior in the school in particular, and its irrelevance was taken for granted. Third, there was a general climate that favored skepticism…” For this reason, the Jewish thinker Heschel is right: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society, but it would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was confuted, but because it became irrelevant, monotonous, oppressive, and insipid.” This irrelevance, this insipidness of faith can also be found in a situation like that described before by Fr. Giussani, in which religiosity was omnipresent, or in that imagined by Nietzsche, where religion was widespread, but was incapable of awakening the “I.” “Nietzsche has warned us a long time ago that God’s death is perfectly compatible with ‘bourgeois religiosity‘ […]. He did not think for a moment that religion was finished. What he questioned was whether religion can move a person and open up one’s mind […]. Religion has become a consumer’s good, a form of entertainment among others, a source of comfort for the weak […] or an emotional service station, meant to satisfy certain irrational needs that it can address better than anything else. One-sided as it may sound, Nietzsche’s opinion is right on.”
A Christianity incapable of moving the person, of kindling the human, has caused disinterest in Christianity itself, making it become irrelevant. In many cases, it was not a rebellion against the Christian proposal; in most cases, Christianity simply lost its interest, became irrelevant. This shows that the awakening of the “I” that is the religious sense is not just a useful step leading to faith: it is decisive in every moment. It is the true verification of faith. Do we think that we will act differently from the others without this verification? Or will we end up like everyone else? Won’t we, too, end up disinterested in the Christian proposal if we do not travel the road Fr. Giussani proposes to us?
In a concise line, Giussani summarizes the challenge we have before us: “I came to believe deeply that only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it (and, therefore, relevant to life’s needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction….” Here is the decisive point: the need to focus on an experience that can hold up. For this reason, in the passage I have just quoted, Fr. Giussani offers us a triple key for understanding whether we are on the right road:
- that faith is a present experience (not the story of facts you subsequently stick something on to), a judged expe
rience, not a repetition of formulas or sentences or comments;
- that faith find confirmation of its usefulness for life in present experience, in experience itself (otherwise we will always need a supplement of certainty “from outside”);
- and that faith is able to hold up in a world where everything says the opposite.