Hope Is Alive

The Positive Revolution
With the Christian Event, that which Is Human Blossoms

by Maurizio Crippa

Busy is not quite the right word to describe Fr Piero Gheddo. In his office, full of books and papers at the PIME headquarters in Milan, with the Pope’s blessing for his 50th anniversary of priesthood hung next to his desk, Fr Gheddo, rather, is one who doesn’t want to lose even a minute of life without giving an account of what he has seen over many years, without communicating the experience full of human gain born of the Church. We are here for this, to understand better what it means to say that Christianity is a factor that makes life more human–today, when the Church is often attacked as an institution that limits freedom, that hides behind rules, and that often seems “revitalized” only by the need to combat her enemies.

So, the first thing that strikes the journalist who thinks he knows everything there is to know–like all those who watch TV–about clashes of civilizations and various and assorted nihilisms, is amazement. Amazement at hearing Fr Gheddo talk about the Church that is being born, “because it is there, where the Church is being born, that you can see best.” I try to tell him how beautiful this expression is, “the Church that is being born;” it’s surprising, also in terms of the way we habitually look at our own experience. “We reflect too little on the birth of the Church. When we speak about the Church being born, we always refer to the times of Jesus, to the Acts of the Apostles. No, they’re always the same four examples… But I’ve traveled a great deal among the young peoples. A few months ago, I was in the interior of Borneo, to see the Church that is being born there [I can just see him, with the same passion of an explorer or a scientist in the jungle]. Well, I went among these people who were headhunters, and now they’re converting. They are also converting for historical and sociological reasons, certainly; there, too, the Western model is advancing, and these peoples realize that the modern world is better than theirs, but they also realize that their religion is inadequate, and they have to choose between Christianity and Islam, and they normally choose Christianity, because they find it more suitable to their own culture. When a village or a tribe converts to Christ, life changes, because when they meet Christ, they experience it as a positive revolution for their life. For example, they discover the equality of all men, or that men and women are equal before God. There, where the Church is being born, it is so evident how the human condition changes! The advantage of contact with Christianity is always this: making understood who man is. Man does not understand himself without Christ.”

Difficult times

Precisely from this point of view, we’re living difficult times here. On decisive problems, from bioethics to gay marriage to Rocco Buttiglione’s recent tragi-comic European misadventures [he is a Catholic politician from Italy, rejected by a European Parliament committee for the position of Commissioner for Justice and Immigration because of his Catholic identity], it’s as if there were the emergence of resentment against the Church. “The attack at times is precisely against Christianity,” says Fr Gheddo. “They’d like to do without it. The most evident example is the very refusal of the roots of Christian civilization that has shaped the West and brought it to be what it is. So then, if the question is, ‘In what way does Christianity instead contribute to making man more human,’ it is a problem of faith.” Could you explain more? “We believe that man was created by God, in the image of God. God created a being and put it in the condition of using creation to improve itself and its conditions of life. But to what end? Here’s the point: to improve, to return to God. Paul VI says it in Populorum progressio, and it’s a point that is nicely skipped over by all the commentators: man was created by God, and must return to God. Thus, human development–economic, political, democratic, in human rights–has meaning in history if it leads to God, if it permits man to take this journey.”
And it isn’t a question of far-away countries. Today there seems to be a widespread prejudice that the Church blocks development, that she even “harms the psychology of the people.” Basically, one says, “Why do I have to respect this or that? Why can’t I choose my way?” Fr Gheddo pulls out a photocopy and reads: “Modern psychology depends on an atheistic vision of man, which does not take into consideration that he was created by God, and thus is constitutionally formed in such a way that he is fully realized when he returns to God.” These are the words of his friend, Fr Gino Rulla, a Jesuit, physician, psychologist, and theologian, who died two years ago, the founder of a school of Christian psychology at the Gregorian University and author of three volumes on Anthropology of the Christian Vocation. Fr Rulla, he explains, taught that “if man loses his psychological and operative orientation to return to God, his life cannot be serene, balanced, full of joy, and he inevitably becomes less a man.”

A factor in history

Without being presumptuous, for Fr Gheddo, this simple truth of Christianity introduced progress into history, improving material conditions and conferring dignity on man in the creation. If a factor entered history and set man in motion, this factor is “this light that God kindled, sending His Son.” Fr Gheddo sees the difference in Islam, though it does have a sense of historic progress (“inasmuch as, compared to Mohammed, the Muslims have greatly altered their road”), but he sees the greatest difference in Hinduism and Buddhism. “In their countries, they have brought no progress, though they are great civilizations in their mystic, philosophical, or artistic aspects. But the human condition has remained unchanged for millennia. In his autobiography, Nehru Gandhi wrote that India remained blocked because of three principles of its religion: karma, the idea that each person is predetermined by his previous lives; metempsychosis, the doctrine that every being is reborn in the condition it deserves, according to its past lives; and the caste system, with its inequalities. Nehru asked himself why India was only able to change after encountering the Christian West, and answered, “Because the West has always been crossed by ‘revolutionary ideas’ that renewed society. Progress began in the West. For better or worse, obviously.”

Where is the “I” going?

For better or worse… Today there is a lot of discussion about man’s dominion over the cosmos, from genetic medicine to genetically modified organisms. This lordship over nature does not exist in other cultures or religions, which consider man on the same level as nature, while for Christians, man is not just a creature among creatures, but the self-awareness of creation… “He’s the king of the universe!” insists Gheddo. “We call ‘soul’ the fact that man also lives in a supernatural world. The Buddhist monks, instead, are careful as they walk, not to step on insects and worms, because every creature counts as much as man.” And yet, in the technological West, it seems that only manipulation of matter, and even of man, dominates, let alone the soul. “Because there’s no idea of where you’re going. But the Bible has given us this meaning. Paradise is also a Muslim concept, but it’s something totally extraterrestrial. Instead, when the Bible and the Gospels speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, from Isaiah onwards, they speak of something that is fulfilled in Paradise, but that begins here! This is why Jesus was born: He came to give us a concrete model of man who lives in history. I have another beautiful example, from Indonesia.”

On the table, there’s a newspaper with a story on the Taba massacre at the Red Sea. The example teaches something about the clash of civilizations (“which truly exists, because it is fomented by the fundamentalist countries, all the missionaries tell me”). “In Sumatra, there are almost continuous little territorial wars, feuds, etc., among the tribal ethnicities, almost all of them Islamized. Well, in order to try to calm the continuous climate of contestation and violence, the government sends in ‘pacification committees,’ five or six men who meet with the village elders, the tribal chiefs, and try to reach an accord. Well, then, in these committees the government always includes one or two Christians–strangely, because Christians are a minority there, or there aren’t any at all. But in Jakarta, a high official of the government, a Muslim, explained to me, ‘It’s because you Christians have the principle of forgiveness. This is something essential: you don’t just preach it–your Christian communities live this way. You have two other things that are useful for us. The principle of gratuitousness: your schools and hospitals are things done for everyone, not for proselytism, but gratuitously. And then you have the principal of the universal: those who convert to Christianity overcome the limits of tribalism.’ This is the dialogue between Christianity and Islam. It is the dialogue of life: living together with different peoples, learning from them, and teaching them.”

Born to make gains

This is a truly marvelous thought–and Jesus was the only one to introduce it to history–that being man is a positive thing, a gain and not a loss, while not only the other civilizations, but also our own West seem to have lost the enjoyment of this positivity with, on the one hand, fatalism, in which the person does not count, and, on the other, the loss of the sense of self. “For example, there’s the concept of work that isn’t slavery. In Africa, the person who doesn’t work is considered fortunate, while in Christianity, every man is called to the positivity of doing. I’ve always been struck that in Africa, as in India, given equal conditions, the villages that convert to Christ improve their conditions of life much more quickly, because there’s engagement in their work, because there’s a new respect for women, because they have their children study. Instead, the negative aspect, even for the so-called Christian West, is our betrayal of Christianity. We have drawn our values from Christianity: humanity’s lordship over nature, woman’s dignity. But we have set aside God, and expect to live a more human life without God. But if God has created us to return to Him… If man isn’t at the center of the universe, it’s because he doesn’t know who God is.”