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from issue no. 03 - 2005

Christianity is an event

When Cardinal Hamer died in Decemebr 1996, don Giussani wrote in L’Osservatore Romano that he was «mindful of the great teaching received on the communional nature of the Church and deeply grateful for the ensuing personal meeting full of true ecclesial affection». For this reason also we republish the text written for Il Sabato in 1993

by Cardinal Jean-Jérôme Hamer

Cardinal Jean-Jérôme Hamer

Cardinal Jean-Jérôme Hamer

I find the central theme of Msgr. Giussani’s book, Un avvenimento di vita, cioè una storia, striking: Christianity is an event, an event which translates into an encounter, which presupposes a presence, that becomes fulfilled in “contemporaneity”. This is an idea which has significant implications on both the pedagogical and theological planes, as I wrote in a personal letter to the book’s author.
The notion of event in relation to Christianity is not a common one in Catholic thinking today. In the period between the two wars, the great German theologian Karl Barth espoused it in his polemics against liberal theology. But for the Protestant, Barth, the event is something totally different. It is a flash, an enlightenment that touches life one minute and fades the next: it enters human existence like the needle of a sewing machine perforates a fabric. The flash could be repeated again and again but existentially the result is the same. After the splendor comes the usual darkness. It is a transcendent which does not become incarnate and so it is difficult to build something stable on it.
The event of which Msgr. Giussani speaks is not a flash: it establishes a story which endures. It is the Church. «The Christian event - like every event – is the beginning of something there never was before: an eruption of the new which sets a new process in motion» (cf. Un avvenimeto di vita, cioè una storia, page 489). I found it striking that on the cover, the book’s title is designed to underscore this effect: the word “Story” is highlighted in red and in larger print.
Affirming the event means recognizing the radically new and sovereign nature of Christianity. The dictionaries tell us that an event is an important fact marking a certain moment in history. Giussani does not stop at this definition but develops the idea that event is a fundamentally new fact, in the Charles Pèguy vein: «unpredictable, unforeseen, the non-consequence of antecedent factors» (page 478). So it is something which surprises, which “erupts” in history, and in the history of the individual too.
Msgr. Giussani’s approach is such as to be an illustration of the exact meaning of the Church’s thinking on the relationship between “expectation” and “fulfillment”, between “prophecy” and “realization”, between “old law” and “new law”. In each of these binomials there is real continuity and a radical discontinuity.
Christ is the right answer to all man’s deepest desires. But the fulfillment is not the natural and progressive development of man’s expectation. The fulfillment does not correspond to the desire as the plant does to the seed. It is not an evolution, a natural, linear process. For, the expectation receives an answer that far outweighs the question. It is a realization that might appear paradoxical. Consider the Messianism of the people who lived close to Jesus, including the disciples of the Lord themselves. Theirs is an expectation which receives a totally unforeseen answer. No one foresaw a Messiah who would rise from the dead and thus enter into glory. Jesus had prepared them. He told them that he would have to suffer greatly but right up to the last, it seems that this idea did not enter the disciples’ heads. «Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free», the disciples say on the road to Emmaus but «two whole days have now gone by since it all happened…» (Luke 24:21).
The natural religious sense is also expectation in function of a fulfillment. Recounting his friendship with a group of Buddhist monks, Giussani says that the apex of the natural religious sense is «a painful awaiting» (page 40). And this is so to the extent that some forms of natural religious sense must be radically abandoned if they are to be realized in the mystery of Christ. So once again we have continuity and discontinuity.
The primacy of the event over and above even the religious sense is to my mind one of the most important innovations in Msgr. Giussani’s thinking in this book. This emerges clearly from the interview he gave to the theologian Angelo Scola in 1987 (on the occasion of the world Synod of the laity) and which is published at the beginning of the book. Asked if the movement’s pedagogical proposal levered the religious sense, Giussani answers without hesitation: «The core of our proposal is more the annunciation of an event that happened, that surprises men in the same way that, 2000 years ago, the annunciation of the angels in Bethlehem surprised the poor shepherds. First and foremost, it is an event that happens to the religious and non-religious man…» (page 38). This is a decisive point.
This is the hideous and hidden poison of your error: that you pretend to make the grace of Christ consist in His example and not in the gift of His person» (cf. Contra Julianum. Opus imperfectum)
Giussani’s intuition also abounds in further in-depth analyses of the binomial old law-new law. It is the fulfillment of the old law, but in a certain way it is also its abrogation. The realization simultaneously fulfills and transforms the expectation itself. This is an idea which Msgr. Giussani develops when in his most recent conversation featured in the book he cites a comment (which he describes as «admirable») of John Paul I: «The real drama of the Church that likes to call itself modern is the attempt to modify the wonder of the event of Christ with rules» (page 481).
This leads to Giussani’s anti-Pelagian polemics, polemics which are part of Church tradition from Augustine to Thomas. On this point it would be interesting to go back over and comment on the articles of St. Thomas about “why man needs grace”. Salvation is not to be found in moral effort but in forgiveness. Otherwise, Catholic theology’s insistence on the gratuitousness of grace would be inexplicable, on the need for the sacraments, on the awareness of sin (at the start of the Mass the Church invites us to recognize our sins, to recognize that we are sinners and not just in an abstract way as in some debatable language translations).
A final observation is that some might note that the word “dialogue” which is so central to the post-Conciliar notion of Church up-dating, rarely appears in the book. In contrast, the idea of “presence” abounds. Is this a devaluation of the idea of dialogue? I would not say so. Dialogue is important on all levels, not least the political one in that it brings hostility to an end and creates a climate of trust. «We must always negotiate», Cardinal Richelieu said. And politically, dialogue is a just, legitimate position. But dialogue presupposes presence – a «new subject» - or it becomes sterile, an end in itself. In its truest form dialogue, too, is the communication of the event, the means of an encounter.

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