DOCUMENT Dialogue with Fr. Carrón
Julián Carrón: Let me thank you, first of all, for this chance to be together again and to spend some time speaking of what we care about most, of the things that most interest us. The first thing that comes to mind before Costantino’s question is the passage of the Gospel we read some days ago, that spoke of a blind man called Bartimaeus. Like many other blind people at the time, he was waiting on a street corner, hoping that someone would offer him some money. As soon as he heard that Jesus was passing, and the noise around him, he began to ask, “What’s going on?” They told him, “It’s Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth.” So Bartimaeus set off after Him, calling out, while the others were telling him to keep quiet. The Gospel says, “He cried out even louder,” until Jesus heard him and stopped. “What do you want from me?” “I want to see.” Then Jesus answered his request with a miracle. It’s all there! Life is not something abstract; as we see, life is a desire that you have in your heart, like the blind man’s desire to see. The first factor of this experience, as Costantino asked me, is this humanity of ours, that we find ourselves with, a deep need for fullness in our hearts, a desire for truth, for beauty, a desire to build something, a desire we cannot escape from. This desire is a desire for wholeness, as he said earlier. It’s true, because it’s a desire for the impossible, for something so great that you realize that it’s impossible for man to answer it, but the desire is there and we cannot be content; we often try to be content, but we can’t. It would be easy to reduce the breadth of desire, like we turn down the heater or the air-conditioner. We have often tried, but it’s not possible in the end, because it’s inscribed in our nature; it’s something greater, it’s there at the start, before any movement of our freedom, we find ourselves with it, and it gnaws away inside us in so many ways, in the needs we have, like something that springs up from the depths of our heart, from our guts, a longing that is stronger than ourselves–so much so that day after day we discover it again, whatever might have happened the day before. There are needs that have many forms: sadness, loneliness, desire for fullness, the need to be loved, or boredom. There are so many forms, but they are all forms of this desire that we have inside us, that keeps on gnawing at us and never stops. It’s not like when you look calmly at something, or when you read a piece of poetry that speaks of these things; no, no, no! It’s something we feel inside us, like a vibration; it’s what we have learned to identify with the word “heart,” a word that sums up this series of needs we feel inside us and which, if we take seriously, becomes truly the criterion of judgment with which we approach reality, time and again, every morning.
Esposito: What you just said strikes me a lot, the fact that even for Jesus the criterion for evaluation is the heart, because otherwise everything would be reduced to moralism, to an idea of ours. This leads me to think that this dynamic you are speaking of is really something new, the dynamic by which if a person meets Jesus through the encounter with Fr. Giussani’s charism, he begins a truly human journey. For we–I say “we,” not “the mentality that surrounds us,” because it is our own mentality, too–experience a strange situation: we note a fascination in hearing someone like Fr. Giussani, like you tell of the experience of human change; we feel this fascination, and yet we find it hard, because it goes against the tide of the prevailing mentality–which, I repeat, is our own, too–this mentality called nihilism. The fascinating aspect of what you said was taken up by Fr. Giussani in the article on the Eucharist published recently. Why is the Eucharist so surprising? Because it is the point in which “sensible reality, flesh and blood are not limits, are not opposed to the ultimate true reality, to the eternal, to the Spirit.” Sensible reality is no longer separated from the divine, from the ideal, from the spiritual, from the meaning of all things. It is rather as if the sign and the Mystery coincide, as you reminded us this morning. Normally, though, we think in another way, and consider the ideal as something abstract; we reduce it to a spiritualistic idea or express it in a voluntaristic effort (“What have we to do? What more can we do?”), whereas, on the other hand, sensible reality would seem to lead us only to skepticism. We wanted to ask you, because you are taken up in the mentality like we all are, how does what you told us judge and shed light on the drama of nihilism?
Carrón: To try to answer these questions that we all have, now that nihilism surrounds us all, is really to probe deeply into what life is, what reality is. Often, the ideal seems something abstract to us–we think we can reach the ideal through an abstraction; but the way in which the Mystery enables us to know reality is not through an abstraction, but through what is concrete. An example: you don’t need to follow a university course in order to know what love is; otherwise, what about all those poor people who have never had the chance to go to the university? That’s not the way. Like everyone else, we got to know what love is not through a discourse, but by being loved by someone, or by falling in love with someone. We understood what love is through an experience. It’s not that no one ever taught us about love, but we were able to judge whether what we were taught was true on the basis of the experience we already had. The criterion is our experience. This method through which we are introduced to the truth of things, to the really crucial things in life, is the same method the Mystery uses to try to save us from nihilism; otherwise, sooner or later, everything loses interest for our life. What method can save us from this? It is the method that Fr. Giussani always taught us, and it is a revolutionary method, so much so that we try to defend ourselves from it. The method is called “preference.” The concept of preference is one of the finest things I have ever heard. How does the Lord attract our heart, which is always rather tempted to be autonomous, always wants to assert itself to its own ruin? How does He try to save us? Not just through commandments, or exterior laws, but by offering us a preference, and a preference cannot be abstract; it must be something tangible, something concrete, something to which you feel truly attached. You are attached before you realize it, and then you realize you are attached, and thus the Lord grasps hold of us within a human experience. So a concrete, physical reality is necessary; Fr. Giussani uses the words “audible” and “photographable.” If it weren’t for this, we, who are made of flesh and blood, body and soul, would never be taken hold of, or grasped from within us, in our whole self. If it is something abstract, then we are the ones who decide what to follow and what not to follow, but if there is a preference, then my whole self is drawn along, taken up in that desire to belong. So, through this preference, the Lord attaches us, He glues us. When you are stuck to something else, you cannot be nihilistic, because the real victory over nihilism is right here: that you are attracted to something that is really interesting for your life, something that goes on reawakening interest for your life and by this very fact proves that it is true, that it is different from everything else, which sooner or later fails. The difference is this; the only thing that matters is to find out if there is something that is really interesting and that goes on being interesting as time passes, and for eternity. There are many things that interest us for a while, too many, but the things that go on being interesting no matter how much time passes are very few; or rather, there is only one thing. And everyone can experience it, because, my friends, if there is nothing that goes on being of interest with the passing of time, for the whole of life and for eternity, then we had better all give up and go home; we are just wasting our time. For all the goodwill in the world, all our ethical commitment, all our moralism, is impotent, because there is nothing that can interest us for ever, so, sooner or later, moralism will prevail. So the problem today is not to become more moralistic, but to ask, “What is the true nature of Christianity? What did Jesus do? What new factor did Jesus bring into life?” Because it was not enough for Jesus to bring along a new list of commandments, of moral values, just as today a new list of moral values is not enough, reducing Christianity to an ethical system, because this is not able to interest the whole of man’s life; and it’s true that Christianity reduced to ethics is no longer of any interest to us. This is why nihilism is prevailing, not in non-Christian societies, but in Christian societies, by reducing Christianity to ethics. From the beginning, those who met Jesus, John and Andrew, and those who are still attached to this method, are the only ones who overcome nihilism. It’s the only way to defeat nihilism. When Christianity is reduced to ethics, it inevitably ends up interesting nobody. Today, we see how even the desire to live certain values fails to block nihilism. It’s astounding, but true. And this is not a problem only for Christians, but for all those who truly care about their humanity; so it is an anthropological problem, not an ethical one; the problem is finding what answers this desire for fullness, for beauty, for justice that we have inside us. What can go on being interesting for the whole of our life? Otherwise, sooner or later, nihilism will win. Just recently, a group of university students in Milan told me they had met a Protestant girl who believed she was more attached to the Mystery than they were, but then she told them, “Staying with you, I realize more now that, as I stay with you, the Mystery becomes truly familiar.” She was talking about a group of Catholics belonging to the Movement. This girl had heard of the Mystery, perhaps she gave time to it and devoted some aspect of her life to the sacred, but she couldn’t become familiar with the Mystery. It is by being in a tangible reality that constantly opens one to the Infinite, continually, that the Mystery becomes familiar. Because today, my friends, when we find Christians with that unique diversity that we met in Fr. Giussani, or in John Paul II, what we experience is called Jesus. As I said on other occasions, we know that Jesus goes on being present, not only because His cause goes on, not only because His word goes on, not only because His ethics goes on; we know that Jesus goes on because we have been looked at in a way that entered history and is possible only because of Jesus. We know He goes on being present among us, not because of an effort of our imagination, not because we want to convince ourselves of it; we don’t need to make any effort. We are the first to be amazed at how we have been looked at, because it is a form, it is a look that gives form to the look, it is the look of Jesus that gave and gives form to the look with which we have been looked at. We are not just a bunch of unfortunate people, as Christians often think, because we have not had the fortune to meet Jesus like John and Andrew did; no, we are not unlucky, we have met Jesus, like John and Andrew, in a different way, through a different flesh, but the experience we have had through this different flesh is the same experience that John and Andrew had. Otherwise, look at each one of you: none of us would be here this evening. It was He Himself who fascinated us and goes on fascinating us through this unique preference with which He embraces us.
Esposito: It seems to me that the more this astonished look you spoke of just now is a judgment on everything, and helps us to understand what has happened, then the more interesting it is. The famous phrase of Eliot, so often quoted by Fr. Giussani, comes to mind: “Has the Church failed mankind, or has mankind failed the Church?” (Choruses from “The Rock”) I feel these questions are still pressing, not for the sake of an analysis, but because when something fascinates you, you want to have it before you always, and you keep on asking yourself how things are, precisely because of the passion of adhering to the truth of life. How do you think this could have happened?
Carrón: In his last interview, Fr. Giussani answered this question by saying, “Both of them.” Mankind has failed the Church by vainly trying to find by itself what only the Church has brought into the world, and we can see what this has led to. At the same time, the Church failed mankind, and this is what interests us most because we are the Church and we have been chosen, we have been given this grace for everybody, because this is the method God used and goes on using; He calls some in order to reach others through them. So this question really interests me, and it is very much connected with what we have just said. Why has the Church failed mankind? How do we so often fail mankind, those who work alongside us? How do we fail them as fellow travelers in life? What Fr. Giussani said struck me–“The Church was ashamed of Christ”–and I tried to understand what he meant. We ourselves and the Church are ashamed of Christ precisely because we don’t experience what was said at the beginning, what we have been saying up to now. If Christ is not a real, concrete experience before the urgent questions of life, the problems of life, you cannot even pronounce the word “Christ.” How many times, for the very fact that you live with others, or because you’re a priest or because they see you different from other people at work, have people come to you with their problems, their worries! Just think of the tsunami. We all lived through that catastrophic moment with other people, but how many of us, faced with such a problem, manage to speak the word “Christ”? It seems abstract, and inadequate for the drama those people are in; it seems something so small compared with that great drama and so we don’t speak of Christ. It’s not that we are ashamed to use the word itself. We even say, “Yes, I am a Christian.” But the problem is that before certain circumstances of life, unless you have experienced that Christ wins in reality, that Christ is able to change the circumstances, you don’t have the courage to speak the word “Christ;” you are ashamed. And so, if Christ is of no use, if they don’t experience Him in the problems of life, little by little, people (and we ourselves included) begin to detach themselves from Him. If He is of no help for our life, then we begin to do without Him. We, the Church, begin to fail mankind, and, in the end, mankind fails the Church because, if the Church is of no use, if it doesn’t accompany me, if it does not truly help me live the drama of life, if it is not something that brings something new, then man says, “Why should I believe? Why should I go on being attached? I don’t even think of it.” Sooner or later he lets go, and detachment from Jesus begins to prevail. Not that he wants to let go, it simply happens; detachment from Jesus begins to prevail, that process that ends up in nihilism. Once you are detached, you are no longer able to see the victory of Christ in time and space. But His victory is precisely in what aroused your passion, in the moment we are living; this is why I rebel more and more every time someone wants to take away the drama from life, because the drama of living is what makes me, like the blind man Bartimaeus, cry out more loudly to Christ, and go to Him for help; it enables me, like the blind man, to see His victory in time. If you don’t have this experience over and over again, if you don’t challenge Christ every time this happens so as to see His victory in time, then you begin to lose the fight, you begin to abandon Christ because He does not answer you. I was recently at Varigotti, where Fr. Giussani spent part of his life in the late 1940s, and I read a letter he wrote to a friend from there. He wrote that the things the Lord sends us, the painful things, and he repeated, the most painful things, the most intensely painful, are those that give us the chance to go to Jesus and to see His victory. The Gospel is full of examples of people who went to Jesus with their own dramas. These episodes revealed continually who Jesus was. If we want not to abandon Jesus, if we want the detachment not to win, not to become nihilism, then either everything that happens is the opportunity for a truer relationship with Jesus, to see His victory, or, sooner or later, we abandon Him; the Church begins to abandon Jesus, to be ashamed of Him. The Church fails mankind and then mankind fails the Church, because a Church that does not answer man’s drama is useless.
Esposito: One last question. We would like very much to know what it means for you, in your personal experience, to belong to this new people that is miraculously formed, to this unity of ours. This is a question for each one of us, for us who are here and for all our other friends who are following in the other rooms by means of television (there are more than 1,500 of us). For all of us, for the last one who joined us, as for Dr. Michele Emiliano, the Mayor of Bari, who is here with us, and to whom we offer our thanks, or for Professor Giovanni Girone, Rector of the University, or for Professor Renato Cervini, President of the Faculty of Engineering at the Polytechnic. To what responsibility–not abstractly, but following these accents of truth that you have witnessed to us–to what responsibility does this encounter with Christianity call us (I think particularly of the challenge offered continually by the presence of Fr. Giussani, of John Paul II, and of Benedict XVI)? What is our personal responsibility in belonging to this people?
Carrón: When he was still known as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI found a brilliant way to answer this question when he presided at the funeral of John Paul II. I was struck by how he found such a simple way to summarize the life of the great personality of John Paul II in one phrase: “Follow me.” By continually answering this invitation of Jesus in every moment of his life, John Paul II was what we have seen for us. What was his responsibility? Not to do great things, because our responsibility lies in this mysterious dialogue between each one of us and Christ. Cardinal Ratzinger’s whole homily was a description of the life of John Paul II, a giant in the faith in our time, as the answer to the initiative of Jesus who was calling John Paul II in every moment of his life: “Follow me, follow me.” Right from the start, almost without anyone realizing, everything began in a hidden way; and the whole of his life was this mysterious dialogue between Christ and John Paul II. Our responsibility, my friends, is very simple: to answer; to answer Jesus. When people ask me about my present responsibility, the responsibility Fr. Giussani entrusted to me, I answer, “Nothing has changed. I have to answer Jesus now as I answered Him before, as I tried to answer Him before. In every moment, the way He calls you asks for your freedom. Now that there are more than a thousand of us here, it’s no different from when I was in Madrid, almost hidden away; it’s the same, my friends! And today I can say no, just as I could say no in Madrid, and I can say yes today as I was able to say yes in Madrid. Our responsibility is very simple. It is to say yes to the way in which Christ calls me today. This seems almost nothing, but it’s everything, because in this yes is everything, because we have seen what happened in Fr. Giussani and in John Paul II. Someone who says yes becomes a witness, before everyone, of the beauty that Christ is. He is able to arouse our humanity, to make us live life with an intensity, a human vibration that we could not even have imagined before. So our responsibility in this belonging is simple. We have seen before our eyes this preference that has been aroused before us, we feel it, and our freedom is called to answer. Our whole responsibility lies in the answer we give to the way in which He has aroused this preference before our eyes. So it is easy, just like a preference is something easy, so easy that at times you don’t realize it. You seem to be doing nothing, but you are doing something, because many can be struck and say no; but to accept this preference is the simplest thing and at the same time the most fruitful thing for us and for everyone.
Giovanni Girone: This applause is the proof of the affection that binds us to Fr. Julián. It carries the conference forward in a fuller way. The vast majority of our universities are linked to this Movement, and I think I am interpreting the thought of this majority when I thank Fr. Julián for this fine conference he has given us, and for the leadership he will go on offering us, for the presence of Christ in our universities. I think the Mayor would like to add something, because this is a presence not only in the university, but in our city, too. As a small sign of recognition, I would like to give Fr. Julián the seal of the University of Bari.
Esposito: This was something really unexpected. Many thanks to the Rector, Professor Giovanni Girone. I also thank Professor Cervini, President of the Faculty of Engineering who is our host this evening. Thanks for your hospitality. Now if the city of Bari wishes to add something…
Michele Emiliano: I put into practice immediately Fr. Julián’s authoritative invitation. I answer yes at once, in the sense that I am really glad to be here. I am here as Michele Emiliano, I must be honest, and I wanted very much to be present as a person; at times I forget that I am Mayor of a city that is living a moment of beauty. Fr. Julián will allow me to be brief, only to say that this evening it is even more beautiful after hearing you, because I think that that “follow me,” that saying “yes” is a useful recipe for everyone, particularly those who have great problems to face, and therefore in saying “yes” they ask for help in answering the many things that we, in some way, have to set in motion. And I think the first song we heard today (“La Strada” [“The Road”]) had something to do with this idea of traveling, of going ahead. I think that the idea of this journey corresponds with admitting to ourselves–and it’s not easy–that we have to say that yes, because otherwise nothing will move.
Esposito: As always, when things are not planned, you understand better the truth of them, as in this case. Allow me to conclude this evening’s meeting by thanking Julián, though your applause was more explicit and eloquent. Thank you very much, all the same; thank you for this companionship your offer us on our journey, not just for the meeting this evening, because to have a point of reference in life, whether it’s far away or less far, is important for everyone; it gives us the chance to breathe. I remind everyone that this evening’s solicitation is a method, not just a periodic reminder. This method of our experience is called School of Community. So the invitation is addressed to those who have been following this method for forty years, as well as to those who perhaps were here by chance, for the first time, an invitation to discover the usefulness of this method of comparing our life with what is proposed.