THE inspiration behind this thought-provoking set of essays is the towering figure of Fr Luigi Giussani, an academically gifted Roman Catholic priest who, in the 1950s, left his post in seminary education to immerse himself in secondary-school teaching in Milan.
At a time of increasing hostility to the Christian faith, culminating in the traumas of the late 1960s and beyond, Giussani had the aim not of reforming the schools with new programmes or strategies, but “of bringing what saves man . . . into the schools”: an encounter with the reality that is known in and through Jesus Christ. Accordingly, Giussani founded the student youth movement that came to be known as Communion and Liberation, of which the author, Fr Julian Carrón, a professor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, in Milan, is the current president.
In the earlier chapters, Carron offers a largely philosophical and cultural analysis of some of the problems facing Western society. These include the “Enlightenment” tendency to understand human reason as a pared-down, abstract, anti-historical discipline rather than as a love for knowing and seeking the fullness of the truth. Similarly, the modern understanding of freedom often sees this as simply the ability to do what we want when we want, rather than the God-given human capacity to know reality and to live in accordance with it.
A further issue is our understanding of the human person, which has been reduced by Freud, Marx, and Darwin respectively to the product of psychological, economic, and evolutionary factors. These, Carron argues, sweep away the human subject as a personal, autonomous reality, with a capacity for freedom, and able to act as a subject in history. The result is a widespread lethargy and existential boredom, particularly evident in young people.
The particular contribution of Communion and Liberation, however, is to insist that these philosophical problems will not primarily be solved by argument, academic analysis, or religious instruction, however acute or powerful these may be. The solution to the current predicament will come, rather, only through the power of a personal and Christian encounter with people who are capable of disclosing to others a new and wider reality.
Initially, this will be a human encounter, such as with a nurse or a teacher such as Fr Giussani, or with a group of Christians. Ultimately, such human encounters themselves mediate what is necessary above all: an encounter with Jesus himself. Carron quotes Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Giussani and Carron indicate some important lessons for the English and Anglican context, in which those who specialise in philosophical analysis, and those who emphasise the importance of introducing people to Jesus tend to operate in very different worlds. The result is that philosophical study tends to become more and more abstract, while Christian witness can become pietistic and self-referential. When the risen Christ encounters us, he enables us to know ourselves as Mary Magdalene does when he calls her by name in the garden. In the power of this encounter, we gain a window into a transformed and widened understanding of what it means to be a human person.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.
Disarming Beauty: Essays on faith, truth and freedom
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