There’s a story about a young Italian priest who was travelling by train and found himself sharing a compartment with a group of high school students. Since it was 1952 and there were no smart phones to distract them, the priest and the young people engaged in conversation. What the priest discovered through the conversation was that these young people knew almost nothing about their Catholic faith. Even though they had been baptized and raised in Catholic households; even though catechesis was part of their school curriculum; even though their Italian culture was steeped in the legacy of Catholicism – none of it actually mattered to them. It didn’t seem relevant. The Faith had not penetrated their understanding of themselves and the world around them; it had no real influence over the way they organized their lives. When he returned to the seminary at which he was a professor of theology, the priest, Fr. Luigi Giussani (1922-2005), decided to ask for permission to resign his professorate in order to become a high school teacher. It was a bad career move for an academic, but he felt compelled to do it in order to help young people discover the transformative power of Christ. It was the beginning of what became known as the “Communion and Liberation” movement.
Giussani approached his apostolate by helping his students to discern and articulate the deepest desires of their hearts. Through this exercise, they quickly discovered their desperate thirst for meaning in their lives, as well as the total inability of secularism to satisfy this existential longing. They wanted God – not just proofs for His existence, but a relationship with the One who gives meaning to everything. Giussani helped them to see that the key that unlocks the full possibility of relationship between us and God is the Incarnation, the event of God’s becoming man 2000 years ago in the person of Christ. By means of the Incarnation, God offers His friendship to humanity in the way most satisfying to the human heart. In Christ, God shows us what it means to be human. Through Christ we receive the grace we need to become like Him. In the Church we grow together in likeness to God.
The Catholic proposal is that the world is not disconnected from God. God is not far away. The Creator of the world has dwelled as a creature in the world and has thus transformed the experience of human existence. And so, we do not have to decide for ourselves what everything means. We need not resign ourselves to impose meaning on an otherwise meaningless existence. God desires to satisfy with Himself the inexhaustible desire for meaning with which he made us. Fr. Giussani spent the rest of his life helping young people to discover this. He helped them to understand that our religion is not a fusty list of moral precepts and irrelevant dogmas, but the way for us to know God and marvel at the life and the world He has given us. Faith is a response to the realization that God wants us to live supremely meaningful lives, and it shows us how to do that through friendship with Him and with each other.
It’s been 70 years since that conversation on the train, and the contemporary crisis of faith has arguably worsened. Our busy schedules keep us from considering life’s meaning. We try to avoid the question by deadening our desire with substances, entertainment, and buying stuff. But the fact remains that we are hard-wired for significance, and it is the person of Christ who reveals to us what our lives are all about.