The Watershed

In Palazzo Taverna, in front of an audience of 700 people, His Excellency Rino Fisichella, Auxiliary Bishop of Rome, discussed the new edition of At the Origin of the Christian Claim. “There comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt”


Imagine an evening at Palazzo Taverna, in the heart of Renaissance Rome, where Cardinal Luciano Bonaparte liked to receive the artists and court jesters of the time, foremost among whom was Gioacchino Belli, even with his anticlerical poems. Imagine an evening at Palazzo Taverna, in the middle of the Christmas season, among irritated drivers trapped in traffic and pedestrians besieged by the Arctic cold and the sirens of the uniformed guards. Close by are the centers of power, too wrapped up in themselves to become aware of a “civilian society” that is less and less willing to delegate. But also, a few steps away is the Chiesa Nuova, the “New Church” from which the pilgrimages of young people led by St Philip Neri set out: the miracle of a presence.

Here, then, between Roman cynicism and the glimmers of an undying beauty, is the place chosen for the presentation to the city of the new edition of Fr Giussani’s book, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, the tool for the current year’s School of Community. “Not an abstract essay,” Giorgio Vittadini, President of the Companionship of Works, specified immediately, “but a book born out of the lessons he taught at the Università Cattolica in Milan.”

The task of breaking the ice fell to Most Rev Rino Fisichella, who told how it all began for him as an encounter. “Fr Giussani would come to preach the Retreats to the seminarians at the Capranica. And I, a young priest, was full of questions: Should I stay here in the capital or go back north? Giussani’s answer was crystal clear: ‘Stay in Rome; the Mother Church is here.’ And now here I am, first as a priest and then as an auxiliary bishop.”

Listening to Most Rev Fisichella was a mixed audience of 700 people: young university students, families with their children, long-term prelates, kids from the slums, university professors, journalists–a testimony that the pages of this book are for everyone. At the origin of the Christian claim–what can this “claim” possibly be, in these “politically correct” and “bipartisan” times?

The dialogue between the representative of the Vicariate of Rome and the variegated world of Communion and Liberation was not long in starting, and it initiated precisely on the terrain common to all the dutifully acknowledged different human experiences: the terrain of reason.

“It would not be possible to realize fully what Jesus Christ means,” Giussani writes in the book, “if first we do not realize the nature of the dynamic that makes man man. For Christ offers Himself as an answer to what I am, and only an attentive, tender, and impassioned cognition of myself can open me up to recognizing, admiring, thanking, living Christ.”

Led by the hand
Bishop Fisichella took his cue right from this point: “I, who have taught apologetics for years,” he began, “which is the presentation of the Christian message, more than its defense, have found in these pages all the meaning of a modern apologetics. Giussani leads us by the hand to discover that the religious sense is the center of every man’s heart.” Fisichella went on, “As the liturgy says in the beautiful Good Friday prayer, ‘O God who put into the heart of every man a nostalgia for you,’ so does Giussani not give up, but rather compels us to consider all the possible answers to this question, all the way to ultimate certainty.”

Most Rev Fisichella’s openings have a counterpart in number 27 of John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et ratio, which he quoted: “Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt.”

Thus we come to what the Auxiliary Bishop of Rome called the “watershed” between religions: the historical fact of God who makes Himself Man. “I always exhort my priests,” he said, “to a particular attention to the homily for Christmas Day. It is there,” he added, “that we grasp a preacher’s ability, right there that we find the watershed with other faiths.”

He quoted a number of writers and historical references: Von Balthasar, Péguy, Newman, Claudel, and even some aspects of Merton. It was like listening to the titles of the works that Giussani himself proposes today in the “Books of the Christian Spirit” series: “This is the particularity of Christianity,” Fisichella concludes, “and here lies the courage of every man to analyze it.”

The heart of the matter
Stimulated by the questions of Roberto Fontolan, moderator of the event, Fisichella moved onto the terrain of current events: “It is not true,” he said, “that all religions are equal, just as it is not true that all religions lead equally to salvation.” These words fell like stones after weeks of polemic from the secular world, after floods of ink that, in the attempt to separate faith from reason, resulted in the statement on the front page of Corriere della Sera, saying, “When the infinite descends into the finite, it is the beginning of irrationality.” Or, as Filippo Gentiloni wrote in il manifesto, “Atheists had been saying it for some time; recent events have simply confirmed that they were right. Whatever you call him, God is inexistent, useless, and harmful, if it is true, as it is true, that people kill in his name in view of some kind of Paradise.”

“Today,” Vittadini accused, “what is denied is not one faith rather than another, but the very possibility for man to know God, the very notion of reason.” This is the heart of the matter, because if reason can affirm at its summit the perception of the Mystery, herein lies the foundation of the possibility for dialogue among all men. The foundation of peace is here, as John Paul II never tires of reminding us, especially since September 11th.

The evening drew to a close; the audience filed silently out among the traces of Baroque Rome, looking at the glory displayed in architecture and painting of a Church that in Rome made beauty an instrument of truth, a Church that five hundred years ago was not afraid to set up a dialogue starting from a “claim” of truth. And today?