To reflect on the theme of our meeting, I would like to start from two recent events that received attention in world news. I’m referring to the resignation of Chilean bishops presented to the Pope following the abuse of which many priests have been guilty, and to the vote in the Ireland referendum to legalize abortion.
These are two events for which the dominant interpretation offered by mass media touched on the subject of belonging to the Catholic Church. In short, the media said that the people of Ireland made a step forward on the path to freedom from the influence of the Church, and that this Chilean bishop caused people to finally open their eyes and see the necessity of this step.
Regarding Ireland, the interesting fact is that the majority vote, the party for pro-choice, comprises 85% of young people who voted. I was struck by an image published in an Italian journal: a girl appears above the crowd on the shoulders of her companion, with her fists raised, expressing her exultation in a smiling cry of victory. She portrays a libertarian enthusiasm, which has the Church and its influence as its object, directly or indirectly. This is the image of what is happening, in which many today—and especially young people—identify themselves almost naturally.
But above all I am interested in looking at Chile, for the fact that in that country we have a numerically consistent mission, characterized in these years by a dedicated attempt at a proposal addressed to young people on the outskirts of Santiago, where we live.
Lorenzo Locatelli, returning from an assembly of the Diocesan Synod, referring to some of the discussions he had witnessed, told me, “These are not the words one would expect from grieving children for the mistakes of the fathers, but a disillusioned cry that asks for justice and revenge.” I asked him therefore to write to me the observations that I report to you: “The abuses—sexual, of authority, and of conscience—are the consequence of an evangelization that has forgotten the person of Jesus; that has forgotten the true nature of the Church as a place of encounter with the Lord.” He then goes on to specify that “the spiritual center of priestly life has been lost, which is above all the personal relationship with Christ.” And finally: “Listening to the contributions of the priests and laypeople in the meetings we had at this time, we realized another great consequence of this crisis. Consequence or cause? I can’t say. In any case, the figure of the father, and thus of the authority, therefore of the priest, is judged starting from a distorted perception of what a priest or authority is in nature. From this comes the judgment that every paternity is in itself suspect, an evil to be prevented. This, unfortunately, is a sentiment shared by the same priests who in many cases have never had a significant authority figure to look at. In Chile, in fact, there were influential priests, great figures of reference, who betrayed this trust. As a result, many priests, even among our friends, are frightened by the simple fact that their place in God’s people implies a responsibility to guide.”
Young People Who Move Away from the Church
I will return later to these judgments that come to us from our Chilean brothers. I believe that they identify the heart of the question posed by the crisis that the Church is going through, or at least one of its main fires, but also the contribution we have been called to make. But first I want to point out the emergence of a concern that goes well beyond the scope of our missions.
By the early 1930s, François Mauriac was denouncing a phenomenon that only a few people noticed then. Speaking of the first communion that the children received in the French parishes of his time, the author of the famous Life of Jesus wrote:
We too can be moved by this feast on a Thursday in spring, from the crowded streets of little girls in white veils and little boys annoyed by their starched collars; but for many families, this ceremony does not start anything and ends everything. The boy has now freed himself from the Church and from the priest. Now let us take this seriously. The most beautiful day of life: convention that perpetuates betrayal among us […]. Many are the children who receive Christ: but it is a kind of sign, an official and recognized sign by all that they are about to abandon him.
The detachment of young people from the Church, nowadays close to totalizing, has meanwhile become a general concern. And this too will be discussed at the Synod on young people convened by Pope that will take place in a few months.
Speaking to the Italian bishops reunited for the general assembly of Italian Episcopal Conference on May 21st of last year, Francis explicitly underlined a theme that directly connects to the distancing of young people from the Church, that of vocation: “It is our fatherhood that is at stake here! […] How many seminaries, churches, monasteries and convents will close in the coming years due to lack of vocations? God knows. It is sad to see this land [Italy], which was, for centuries, fertile and generous in giving missionaries, sisters, priests full of apostolic zeal, together with Europe enter a vocational sterility without searching for effective remedies. I believe we are looking for them, but we can’t find them!”
We cannot find adequate remedies, says the Pope, which, outside of the specific problem of vocations, allow us to recreate the conditions for a positive encounter of young people with the Church that grows to become a stable sense of belonging. But this crisis does not only touch the Church in general, it touches us in a direct way. It is the reason Julián Carrón recently insisted on underlining that the nucleus of the problem is the lack or fragility of adults and educators. This crisis touches also the environment in which we, priests of the Fraternity, are directly responsible or involved. Participation in the initiatives that we propose does not automatically bring one to the experience of a personal encounter with Christ. And we have often to note that only in a few springs something profound.
Regardless of the conditions in which we work or the number of young people we come into contact with, we perceive that the difficulty is to find an adequate method of reaching and engaging them. It is significant that the questions that emerged during our last meetings are those similar to those already touched upon, posed by the Pope and by Carrón. “What type of adult to children encounter, when they begin catechesis?” asks Giovanni Musazzi. “Young people have before their eyes too many contradictory examples” adds Nicola Ruisi, “men and women who say they have faith but live according to the world; men and women who have a lukewarm faith or for whom faith is only a traditional aspect of life; men and women who are enemies of the faith; teachers, parents, classmates who exalt science and treat faith like it is one of the many inventions of the human imagination.”
As far as the Fraternity of St. Charles is concerned, I believe it is good to take note of this situation with honesty, looking with humility at our actions, without unloading the responsibility on the cultural context, on the historical moment or on the choices of others. For this reason, I want to indicate what seem to me two important conditions for a rebirth of the Church among young people, that directly involve us in the strength of our vocation and in the work that God has entrusted to us.
The first is a renewal of the priesthood. The second is a positive sense of tradition.
It is superfluous to point out that the following considerations do not claim to provide exhaustive answers to the gigantic question of which they speak. They are only a call to live our vocation to the full.
The Renewal of the Priesthood
I believe that a reform in the life of the Church that begins from its depths—and therefore also generates a new capacity to approach young people—finds in all seasons of history its foundation a true renewal of the priesthood. Speaking of reform, I’m not referring to a general plan. Instead, I want to humbly underline the specific contribution that we can make to the Church right away. Indeed, a renewal of the priesthood concretely means for us a renewal of ourselves. What becomes a reality in us can then influence the great body of the Church, according to the historical dimensions decided by God, but also from the strength and radicality of our response to the call of the circumstances in our present time. All that we can do is, at the core, transform ourselves and reform our lives. Right now, the Church has particular need of a fragment of this renewed priesthood.
I would like to recall three positive experiences that by grace are real among us and to which we seek to constantly educate ourselves: the communion among the priests, the experience of virginity lived in the priesthood and, finally, the tension towards conversion that each of us is called to live as a permanent personal position.
The Sign of Communion Among Priests
I want to offer you first of all a fundamental observation, that emerges from the experience of each one of us, but which in reality we can often forget: young people are attracted to the communion and friendship that the see among adults.
The heart of a young person desires the affective fulfillment of a true love in an authentic, sincere, and constructive friendship. When he sees it in action and accepts the invitation that it represents, his life changes, because the nostalgia and sense of solitude that a young man naturally lives encounters a path of response in this friendship.
Our houses, two or three priests who carry out their work referring to each other with the desire to share criteria and judgments, initiatives and proposals, encounters and relationships that grow are a great sign above all for young people. However difficult we may find it to live at times, our communion emanates a light that generates in itself a desire to belong in the hearts of those who find themselves on the threshold of the adventure of their own conscious life.
In this sense, a tendency that we must continually fight against is individualism, which we often live often without clearly realizing it. In our houses, at times the effort in working together and in sharing thoughts and experiences limits the possibilities of good offered to us by the reality in which we live. Living together, our missionary endeavor, in any case remains the ideal to strive for, without tiring and without fearing the fatigue or the falls.
A key area in which to live this tension is that of missionary work. Don Massimo often spoken to us about this “common generation,” and called us back to the fact that this experience belongs primarily to the sphere of conception of the self. Even before a conception of one’s own work, it is above all this “we” that one finds at the root of the feeling of one’s own “I”. It therefore touches the sphere of belonging, of feeling sent together, of feeling oneself part of a body, that is, of a reality greater than one’s “I”, greater even than the images that each of us has of our own individual fulfillment or of the good of the Church which it serves.
“Common generation” means to conceive of one’s work as organic with a single purpose. None of us is sent as an individual to carry out an initiative unrelated to a wider mission. The unity of the missionary endeavor—of the house, of the Fraternity, of the movement, of the whole Church—comes therefore before the particularity of its own contribution, and this must be conceived starting from that unity, that is, starting from the totality of the purpose. The unity of our missionary work does not grow as the sum of our singularities, as we often think. Rather the opposite happens: in the heartfelt participation in a great design, my unique gift is exalted and my unrepeatable vocation manifests itself, emerges in time in all its powerful originality.
To truly collaborate with my brothers, a profound spiritual revolution is therefore required of me: I must come to feel as “mine” what others are doing and, at the same time, feel as “ours”, that is, not mine, what I do. We would like to merit the praise that St. Paul addresses to Timothy: For I have no one comparable to him for genuine interest in whatever concerns you. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 2:20- 21).
To feel as mine that which is of the Fraternity, of the movement, to feel as “mine” that which belongs to the Church as such: the common generation is an attitude that leads us to a universal horizon. If I conceive of my work not as mine but as part of a whole, then it expands to reach the borders of the whole world.
At times it demands a sacrifice, but what depth of sharing and friendship can grow from working together with this awareness! And what a fascination the communion among adults creates, united by the same vocation, educated to the same vision of things, animated by the one passion to carry Christ to men on the whole earth! It is the fascination of Christ himself that overcomes history and becomes present through us. It is he who makes us one thing, perfect in unity (Jn. 17:23) to manifest himself to the world.
The Sign of the Priest’s Virginity
The second observation touches the theme of virginity in our missionary work.
I want first to recall an image that struck me. It’s a witness of one of the people closest to John Paul II, and it recounts his first conversation with him, in the confessional.
The encounter took place in a church in Krakow. Wanda Póltawska writes:
On the altar of the Madonna of Ostra Brama rests an exceptionally beautiful reproduction: in the darkness the image is visible by the glitter of the crown. And in the confessional, that priest, so attentive, so focused on listening to what I said and also how much I didn’t know how to express it; and his reaction. […]
I did not ask him to be my spiritual father, I said nothing of the kind, that came out by itself, when he said to me, as no priest had done before: “Come in the morning to Mass, come every day”. […] never before had any priest told me this, even though some had proposed that I meet them, they had invited me to go to them; that priest, on the other hand, had not told me: “Come to me”, but: “Come to Mass.” Much later, when I could observe closely how he celebrated Mass, I realized that for him that behavior was obvious, because he lived on God. He did not want to give himself to men, but lead them to Christ, so to speak, through himself, but not to himself. It was obvious to me that I would accept the invitation and go to mass in the morning, and every morning, because that was the sense of the invitation.
The experience of this woman sheds light on the splendor of gratuitousness that emanates from a priest who lives a true virginity. It also shows what the secret of lived virginity is: one’s personal relationship with Christ.
Because of his task in the Church, the priest has a great possibility of influencing the people who come into contact with him and in the environments in which he operates. If, therefore, the priest has not reached a sufficient emotional and spiritual maturity, a true inner freedom, consciously or unconsciously, personal profit will dominate his actions. Depending on the case, there will be a need—not recognized or not adequately challenged—of personal affirmation, of psychological confirmation, of an emotional return. These are the hidden impulses that often lead priests to incarnate worldly criteria in their service to the Church. Divisions in the Church, doctrinal and moral confusion, weakness of leadership, or a tendency to arbitrariness in the exercise of one’s function, which can lead to the abuses and scandals that are testing the faith of the faithful in many places in the world, arise from these unredeemed areas in priests.
In his house, in the Fraternity, each of us can find, if he wishes, a place that lovingly challenges him, unmasking these impulses that also live in us. Often an ironic joke or lightheartedness is a means of pointing out a fault or reprimand, other times it is instead a judgment of correction that can also be difficult to accept. In any case, the very fact that there is someone who is attentive to our life, who claims the right to take part in it, who lives the charity of a word that helps us to consider the truth of ourselves, is a grace.
Let us therefore help each other to accept this paternal initiative of charity that Christ tirelessly takes towards us so that grace may not be given to us in vain (see 2 Cor. 6:1).
The Love for One’s Journey of Conversion
Lastly, I want to emphasize that to be fathers does not mean to be perfect and completely converted people. But it is necessary to be on a path. It is not enough to say to ourselves that we’ve already journeyed enough; corruptio optimi pessima, my high school Latin teacher often repeated. It is necessary to desire to continue to be on a journey, clearly and openly on a journey. I want to explain the choice of the two verbs I’ve used. Clearly: it is necessary that I recognize with clarity the areas of my life and my person that are not yet truly given over to Christ, that I accept a path towards a change, to beg for the healing of certain wounds, the strength of grace necessary to correct me. Openly: it is equally necessary that I live my tension towards conversion, exposing myself to the eyes of the brothers of the house and of the superiors who guide me, desiring their judgment as an instrument of charity with which God helps me in my weakness.
Only in this way can we truly propose the way of Christ to those we meet: if we ourselves experience the goodness, we can therefore speak not by idle talk, but by virtue of something we live. “One of the things I become increasingly aware of is that I can only communicate what I live,” Stefano Lavelli said in conversation.
Thinking in particular of young people, they must find in us people who are giving their lives to Christ now, people on a journey. We don’t need to be afraid of the sacrifice that this path entails and carries with it to the end. To truly speak to the hearts of young people and guide them towards Christ, we need men attracted by Him today, dominated by the desire to resemble Him. An authentic and profound renewal of the life of the Church will not arise from general pastoral plans or new codes of conduct or protocols of transparency, if these are not instruments in the hands of renewed men, that is, men who allow themselves to be renewed daily.
A Positive Sense of Tradition
I will open now another part of this discussion, in which I want to explain the second condition for a rebirth of the Church among young people that I mentioned above. To be instruments in recapturing a sense of belonging to the Church in the hearts of young people, we need to live a positive sense of tradition. Only in this way can we truly communicate it.
We know well that a new connotation has attached itself to certain words in the last decade, making it difficult to unearth their true meaning in the wave of emotions that accompanies their common use. One of these words is tradition, which, for the most part, evokes today a sense of oppression, of obscurity, of constrictive limits or the image of a set of unchanging rules and doctrines that, once again, are perceived as obstacles to free expression, to searching, and to the joy of living.
One who searches for a new path, even within the Church, can be strongly influenced by these perceptions. It is therefore necessary to reclaim a positive sense of tradition, to rediscover a fresh gaze that makes us perceive the true reality.
I will now give two aspects that constitute the heart of what I want to communicate: first of all, I propose a reflection on the fact that tradition is a living act handing over, of transmission; then I propose to consider tradition as a gesture of friendship; and finally, to consider it like a precious treasure whose key is entrusted to us.
Tradition is a Living Act of Handing Over
Tradition is not first a set of materials or ideas, as is often thought. For this reason, it is not first of all something that ought to be—or ought not to be, depending on the point of view—repeated. It is a living act through which a way of living and understanding life as part of the generation that preceded it is given to us. It is the act through which our fathers pour themselves out on their children, through which teachers pour themselves out on their disciples. Tradition, in this sense, is an expansive and profound act of transmitting oneself.
Tradition is therefore a phenomenon that expresses man as such, and expresses in particular his social nature. Indeed, we find again this living process of transmission in all human groups animated by attaining a goal or founded on an event: from companies that transmit their cultures, as we love to say today, to scientific communities that educate their young people in the mechanism of the psychological model it identifies with, to an army department that perpetuates its internal rules, to a tribe that identifies itself as a group of people related by blood, to a nation or people that founds its identity in specific myths or facts. The larger the group, the more complex and varied the process of transmission and its outcome. But, in the small as well as in the large, the same anthropological structure emerges in this phenomenon.
The Church, which recognizes itself as a new people in the event of the Incarnation, simultaneously is and is not an exception. She lives the normal human dynamics, informed by the grace upon which she is founded. The experience of a life that transmits contains, therefore, an intelligence of life as such, of oneself and of God, that has its origins in the event that God himself placed as the definitive act of his dialogue with man. The Church therefore began her tradition simply, moved by the wonder and sense of responsibility towards the most meaningful of events: the presence of God made man among humans.
It is always inspiring to look at this first, great act of tradition that is the New Testament. In it, the process of handing over that the first generation gave to the second is condensed and conserved. It handed over the miracle of its encounter with God made man, the intelligence of His work of redemption through the cross and resurrection, the certainty of the mercy of the Father that He revealed, and therefore the supplication addressed to all of humanity, because every man looks to Christ, Lord and powerful God, Savior of man. The passion, wonder, and propulsive strength of this announcement are evident characteristics of this primogenital tradition. In the Easter period we meditated on, as we do each year, the Acts of the Apostles, that geographically visualize the explosive momentum of the spread of this announcement. What are the characteristics of this communicative force, which today it seems we have lost and for which we are searching? I will try to give some answers, which relate to the words definitiveness and urgency.
When they looked at the pagan worldview, the first Christians found in themselves a living awareness of the definitiveness of the proclamation that they received—a proclamation that in their eyes forever overcame any philosophical or general human wisdom. When they then looked at the Jewish people, they found again in themselves the certainty of having received a new revelation. The truth of this new revelation was final, and in front of it each preceding sign became like a vestige and a manifestation of what had been accomplished. Even the word of the prophets, who foretold the advent of Christ, appears to the apostle Peter as a lamp that shines in a dark place until the day dawns (2 Pt. 1:19) and Paul confirms his feeling: but now [ …] the night is far gone, the day is near (Rm. 13:11-12).
To this we must add the sense of urgency that characterized that first generation: time is growing short (1 Cor. 7:29), writes Paul to the Corinthians. An urgency motivated by the perception of a revealed plan that was hidden in God from the beginning—the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones (Col. 1:26)—is marked by the wonder of being chosen to be witnesses of his coming, because this eternal purpose [was] accomplished in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:11). The first Christians were therefore men aware of having been called to live in the most decisive present in history, perceived both in its objective reality—as the fullness of time (Eph. 1:10; Heb. 9:26)—and as kairos in which resounds a call that decides the fate of every man and of all peoples: Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2) is the cry of Paul to the Corinthians.
In short, the extraordinary driving force of that moment, as seen in every page of the New Testament, was the conscience shared by the members of the nascent Church of having received an ultimate announcement, final in its proper sense. It was the experience, had by many, of having been personally asked to give an exceptional response to what appeared to be nothing less than the end of time: From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing […]. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29-31). The radical nature of this appeal became one with its rationality. This unity aroused in the early Christians a very lively sense of gratitude and an atmosphere of joy that made them free from everything: rejoice in the Lord, always; I will say it again, rejoice […]. The Lord is near! (Phil. 4:4); But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed (1 Pt. 4:13).
Let us now reflect on this question: why does reading the New Testament awaken in us today a sense of gratitude and participation in the facts that are narrated? This happens because we too have lived this vital contact with the generation of believers that preceded us. By virtue of the grace that has touched our lives, we can truly understand what the generation of the apostles lived.
We know well the beautiful pages in which Fr Giussani has forever fixed in us a positive image of tradition:
John and Andrew are the fragile masks—the sign—of someone powerful […] who is documented in them. He translates identically, documents himself identically in their testimony. And we must be evil, in the literal sense of the word, in order not to start with a positive hypothesis in front of this event, for which millions and millions and millions of people are drawn into a greater nobility of life and into a more complete humanity! He passes through me, through you, passes through all those who give you this testimony, as he passed from Andrew, from John, from Simon, to his wife and mother, to his children, to his brothers, to his fishing companions, and then to the others, then to others, and then to others. The end of the first century has passed. He entered the second century. It was communicated to others in the second century and then to others in the third century, and then gradually into history up to my mother, and my mother told it to me. This is the terrible, divine concreteness: outside of this there is no Christianity. It is an event that is communicated through other events that it generates: it is called “witness”, which consists of a different way of life—as words, as a morality, as an attitude, as generosity, as a conception of everything.
“And my mother told me!” This is a brief summary of what tradition is in our lives: witness and encounter. And what did Fr. Giussani do if he did not pour into us his personal discovery of Christ, of “another world in this world”, with all the enthusiasm that emerged in him starting when he was a very young seminarian in Venegono?
Tradition is a Gesture of Friendship
I was struck by the connection between this description of tradition as a living act of communication and the definition of friendship that don Giussani offered us, and on which we meditated during the Corvara vacation in 2015: “Friendship is a spilling of one’s existence into the life of the other.”
Meaning that we must look at the act of handing over, which we are called to relive, as an event of friendship. And in reality, it is! It is the greatest act of friendship that we can live towards man: telling him that Christ came for him, to save him, to render him happy! To show them our lives changed and on a journey, full of hope and of a joy that no one knows. Full of an intelligence of reality and of a love otherwise impossible, full of patience, of harmony, of sharing, of softness, but also force in adversity, of constructive perseverance, of openness without naivety, of industriousness, of loyalty, of clarity in distinguishing the truth from falseness, of courage in affirming good and in fighting bad…all the aspects of a Christian life that a world without Christ does not know, because it did not know him (1 Jn. 3:1).
“But how can then know him?” Paul asks when writing to the Romans, how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Rm. 10:14-15). This is the meaning of our life and of our vocation: we are sent to show the life that Christ gives to man, to invite all men to live it with us, to welcome into it he who remains struck. We know that this, which we call encounter, is a grace that we cannot produce, but we also know that we can incessantly ask the Father to grant it to the people we come in contact with and in particular to the young, as Marco Aleo said: “The entreaty that the miracle [… of the personal encounter with Christ] happens should give shape to everything we propose, starting from the children, whether we play, whether we eat, whether we sing, or whether teach classes.”
Mission is itself an act of friendship, free and an end in itself. This is why the Letter to Diognetus speaks of Christians as the soul that inhabits the great body of humanity. It is a misunderstood and even hated soul at times, but it is an essential spring of life. They will hinder you—Jesus predicted—because they have known neither the Father nor me (Jn. 16: 2-3). The Church, a rejected lover, the bearer of true awareness and not understood, misunderstood, treated as a foreigner, persecuted, desires only the good of man, and works so that man may recognize Christ and the Father, source of all good.
Tradition is a gesture of friendship. As such, it is something supremely positive, beautiful, and an act of goodness towards the lonely and desperate man next to us. It is an expression of the desire that he meet the One who has crossed our path and called us to share His life.
Tradition is a Precious Treasure
But we cannot consider tradition only in its personal aspect: as an act and relationship between living people who give and receive. The act of giving and that of receiving presuppose an object handed over and welcomed. There is therefore also a significant object of the term tradition that we must relearn and understand in its positive sense: tradition as traditum. Indeed, it is not a mistake to say that tradition is also a set of elements.
He who is convinced that he has been given something precious, so precious that he wants to pass it on to those who come after him, first of all makes sure to keep that treasure. We think of the relationship of a disciple with his teacher: the desire to preserve the content of what he received arises in the disciple as a natural movement, as a sense of responsibility that the discovery of truth generates in the one who makes its discovery. It is our fundamental anthropological structure that makes us creators of tradition. While declaring himself averse to writing, Plato decided to preserve his dialogues with Socrates and the reflections that had originated in him throughout his life. He did so by looking at his disciples, at the generation to come, which he felt a responsibility for in front of the very truth that he had contemplated. This partly-overcome resistance of the Greek philosopher to deliver the life of his thought to writing shows us an ambivalent experience. It represents an unchanging factor of the human spirit: in whatever form a profound man fixes what he has discovered, understood, and experienced, he is aware of the inability to completely capture these discoveries, and this tempts him to give up. Nevertheless, he feels driven to fix, with the greatest possible accuracy, the content of that event of discovery, because he feels that act in service to the event itself, which demands to be handed down for it to be relived and deepened.
As we noted before, in the Church we find the same human dynamics, taken on and transformed in the gift of grace. This is why the Gospels were immediately conceived and drawn up: because of the responsibility that the apostles felt before the event of their encounter with Christ. For the same responsibility, Paul decided to write letters to the communities that he started or wanted to visit, and to share other letters among the apostles: to condense what Jesus lived among them and taught them. At the same time, they conveyed to us the sense of transcendence of the event they were trying to fix in memory with respect to the words in which they tried to enclose it: There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written (John 21:25), notes John the Evangelist. And in his second letter he adds, significantly, Although I have much to write to you, I do not intend to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and to speak face to face so that our joy may be complete (2 Jn. 1:12).
The New Testament, established as the set of canonical books, is the concrete result of this tension not to lose, to preserve, so that the essential is not lost or misrepresented in transition. This is why Paul admonishes his disciple (the second generation) with this recommendation: Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you (1 Tim. 6:20). For this reason, Revelation, the last book of the canon, concludes with a series of threats addressed to those who add something to it or remove something from it (see Rev. 22: 18-20).
The New Testament thus expresses the awareness of being an archetypal text, a testament to that archetypal act which was the first Christian mission, apostolic preaching. To the object of this preaching, to what we call the traditum, the Church has recognized from the beginning the value of foundation on which to build and, at the same time, a permanent stone of comparison for every preaching, every act of tradition, criterion of truth, a measure of fidelity, a source of certainty in every subsequent phase of the rediscovery-transmission of the contents of faith: […] each one is attentive to how he builds, warns Paul. In fact, no one can lay a foundation other than the one already found there, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3, 10-11). He is the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2: 7).
To build on this foundation means to relive the act of discovery and of handing over which the first people and those who followed them lived in the chain of transmission. Thus, all generations have felt the need, in dialogue with the texts left by the first generation, to leave something written in their turn. And not only in writing, but also works of art, norms of life, principles for organizing communities, liturgical forms, customs, objects and buildings of worship that arose as soon as there was the freedom to build them. All this heritage is the work of the Christians who have preceded us, moved by the desire to fix in memory, in an adequate form, the essential of that event that was ultimately ineffable in life, and that had taken their life, to celebrate it and relive it in the first person. And then, so that the path they travelled would not remain in vain, and the next generation could resume it and take it from where the previous had left off.
Tradition is therefore the material fruit of this immense and complex act of responsibility and friendship. Through this gesture, our fathers placed what they received, rediscovered, and relived in the hands of their sons, with clarity and beauty. In this way their children could rediscover it, and give it again, reliving it with their children and their children’s children.
This is tradition in its objective sense.
A Final Look at Young People
What happens when communication of the awareness of the holiness of this depositum is interrupted? It becomes obstructed or useless, heavy, negative conditioning, and caged, because the generation that should welcome the treasure that one would like to hand over is not affected by the wonder that comes from a lived faith like an event of encounter.
If I had not encountered Christ present, what could I offer from the witnesses of those who preceded me? Their life and their work is like a groove parallel to my existence, a groove in which I don’t walk and that I see stretching apart from mine always more prominently. If I did not have the grace of this encounter, if I was not touched by the healing water of this living tradition, the heart of the human adventure of Christians of the past would be extraneous to me, their language and their interests would be obscure to me. This makes them distant and incomprehensible to me, even they were my grandparents. It even makes them enemies to me, exponents of a reality that suddenly appears oppressive, obscurantist, retrograde, and an enemy of my freedom and joy. This feeling is predominant in a generation that does not recognize and does not feel itself a daughter of the Church, that does not identify in the belonging with her and therefore does not recognize the value of Christian inheritance that still remains tangibly at her disposition.
But if the mystery of freedom itself contains the possibility of refusal, it can also reopen a moment of a new welcoming. This is the awareness that needs to animate us in our work with young people. We need to look at them as sons of the Church, as at least a potential part of that great river that runs through human history. Perhaps they are still unaware they are a part of it, but it is exactly their ignorance, far from being a reason for recrimination, that signals the breadth of our missionary call.
All this began in this way for Father Giussani, as he calls to mind:
After a decade of various events, I became a teacher in the same theological seminary [in which I studied]. I encountered a group of students on the train and I began to discuss Christianity with them. I found them so foreign to the most basic things that the desire as an irrepressible force emerged in me to let them know what I knew.
This enthusiasm was so true and profound that it also reached us. Now it’s up to us to hand over to the young people the key to the same richness. The effort that this requires is a sweet effort.
As evidence of this, I want to conclude with a last piece of the letter by Lorenzo Locatelli that I have already mentioned, which describes the dawning of this new, always new, possibility: “The position of two university students that were at the Synod with me moved and comforted me” says Lorenzo. “Faced with the anarchist-revolutionary proposals we were watching, they were very saddened. One of them was crying. I saw in these two girls a very beautiful fruit of our mission: love for the Church. Perhaps at this moment it is what we need most, people who love the Church. With her wounds. One of them said that after participating in the Synod, love for the Church and affection for the bishop grew in her. Where did this feeling come from? I asked them during the last assembly of the university group of Santiago. They replied that they had met the universal face of the Church for the first time. They said that this face is wounded, but that many ask for a Church like the one they have met in the movement.” Lorenzo reports their conclusion: “Everyone asks to be accompanied to look at what has happened to us [the reference is to scandals], but we are accompanied to look at our whole life in the light of Christ, from our studies to our relationship with our boyfriend/girlfriend. Everyone asks that the Christian proposal enter more into the life of today’s society, but we are helped to compare everything with Christ. At the Synod we met people who had our same questions, but no one with whom we could actually speak about these questions. We realized what we received [in the movement]. To summarize, the Church that everyone wants without knowing it is the Church as we met it.”
A meeting with the priests of the Fraternity of Saint Charles. Rome, June 4th 2018. (In the photo, “The Call of the First Disciples” by Cláudio Pastro, Shrine of Aparecida, São Paulo, Brazil.)