21/2/06 The Risk Of Education

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Presentation of the Book of Luigi Giussani

Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Westin Hotel, Dublin, 21st February 2006
        On many occasions I have spoken about what was perhaps the greatest surprise that I experienced on my return to Dublin as Archbishop.  It was the dramatic decrease in the numbers of young people actively attending Church.  I go to parishes on Sundays and often find not one single person between the age of 15 and 35. I ask myself: where is this missing generation?  The challenging message of Jesus Christ has touched the hearts of generations over twenty centuries, what are the factors which seem to alienate the current generation of 15 to 35 year olds from the Church of Jesus Christ?

Certainly, this alienation is due in part to a rejection of some cultural aspects of way in which the Church in Ireland has witnessed to the message of Christ.  The Church needs constantly to reform itself, disentangling itself from many aspects of its past which might today hinder it from witnessing freely and authentically to its true mission.

The work of Monsignor Luigi Giussani The Risk of Education draws our attention to one of the deeper dimensions of this alienation: the question of education, the style of education, the vision of education which is present in our societies and which finds too little time to address the deeper questions. 
There are clearly deficiencies in the methods of religious education that we have developed.  I meet young people who have spent up to ten years attending school-based catechetical programmes and yet enter into life with only a very superficial religious culture.  One could write a very colourful interpretation of the parable of the sower looking at the many threats which the young person has to encounter in keeping the seed of faith healthy in Ireland today. For the first time in the memory of the Diocese of Dublin there was no ordination to the priesthood last year.  Those who come forward to explore the possibility of a priestly vocation are more than often men who are already in their mid to late thirties.  Our system of religious education has not produced results proportionate to the investment that has been made.

I do not want to be misunderstood.  I am not criticising the efforts of the extraordinary teachers that we have in our schools who play such an important role in passing on the faith.  We should not underestimate the value and contribution of such religious educators and the effects that their own personal witness will have on the lives of people as they develop over the years.    Giussani notes that “what educates is the living faith of the educator”.  That faith may not bear fruit immediately but may well flourish as individuals progress on a path towards human maturity.
Nor would I want this to be seen as a generalised criticism or a rejection of the new generation of young people.  Whenever I can, I try to meet with young people, especially students. There is a great interest among them in questions of faith.  I can well remember for example the catechesis I held with over 700 young people, about half of them from Ireland, at World Youth Day in Cologne last year.  Their questions and the dialogue showed both a remarkable interest of young people in questions of faith and a remarkable integrity in the questions they presented to me, or better said the questions they were asking themselves.

I think of the meetings I have had over the past years with the over 200 young men and women who come with us on the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes each year to look after our invalids.  It is a remarkable experience to watch very talented and highly promising young people encounter the suffering and loneliness of people from a very different background.  So often these young people with a promising future say to me “Archbishop, these sick people are happier than we are”.
These encounters are interesting and enlightening moments in the life of these young people which certainly change them.  You can see that in the numbers who come back again the following year.  Yet they are also isolated experiences, they are a temporary stepping out of daily life, for a short time.  When these young people return to Ireland there is no place to which they can turn in which to deepen their experience and to transform what has been a humanly enriching experience into a “God experience”.  The Church tends to engage young people in all sorts of endeavours of service and goodwill, but does not seem to have the same ability to engage young people in the debate about faith.

Don Luigi Giussani’s work does not address religious education in isolation.  It addresses the essential dimensions of education itself.  Education for Giussani is “helping the human soul enter into the totality of the real”.  This is a complex phrase which however illustrates the fact the education is really about forming a truly mature and rounded human person, living in communion with others and how the education leads young persons to assume responsibility for shaping their destiny in freedom and personal integrity.  Giussani’s book asks fundamental questions which go way beyond the mere techniques of education to the real nature of that encounter between teacher and student. 

He addresses the cultural situation in which the young person lives and proposes “a common path of educator and student”.  Certainly he proposes a very demanding path, but perhaps the only one which will really work, in that it takes the human personality of the young person seriously.
He identifies the period between the age of fourteen to eighteen as crucial in the education of the young person.  The young person has to be challenged to draw the connections between what he or she has received (tradition) and his or her evolving life.  He sees that this is a task which requires being “unrelenting in a systematic work”, whereas all too often the efforts of parents and teachers today are feeble and disorganized.   It is very often precisely at this age that many parents lose their nerve in speaking about faith with the children.  Rather than engaging in the type of unrelenting dialogue that is proposed by Giussani they feel that it is best to leave it up the young person alone to find his or her way regarding faith.  Parents loose their nerve, perhaps also because the Church has let them down by providing very few services to help them in their task.

What Giussani proposes is demanding because it is a path of engagement and dialogue.  He clearly sets out three experiences, all hostile to Christianity, which inevitably accompany failure to realise the path.   I think that teachers, parents and pastors in Ireland can easily identify with the experiences which Giussani sets out.  The first is indifference, “where the young person feels abstracted from everything that does not directly touch him or her”.  The second, perhaps less obvious in Ireland but in a certain sense growing, is traditionalism, “where good natured or less lively young people hide behind rigid beliefs to avoid being threatened in the faith from the outside world”.  The third is worldwide, namely, hostility, “because an abstract God is certainly an enemy, someone who at the very least is a waste of time”.

Indifference, traditionalism and hostility all indicate a reaction among young people which is the opposite of what he calls conviction.  Giussani presents an extraordinarily demanding vision of religious formation which requires the young person to “verify” the tradition that he or she has inherited and to see how personal conviction can be arrived it, rather than superficiality, flight or hostility.  

Where must this verification take place?   Giussani’s analysis is quite limpid and clear and shows how much he is a realist.  It must first of all take place in the real world of the young person.   The great charism of Giussani, which I dare say matured as he got older, was his ability to enter into and respect the world of the young people he worked with.  There is nothing paternalistic about his writing.  Precisely because of this, paradoxically, he became a true father to so many young people, someone who used his own wisdom to lead others into objective wisdom that is discovered also as truly wisdom for their own generation. 

A second dimension of this verification is linked with community.   I think that Giussani here touches on one of the great challenges which faces those passing on the faith in Ireland today. In the past, the fundamental cultural community which provided the structural support for someone who believed was Irish society as such.  Even with all its lacks, with its anti-clericalism and its superstitions, Irish society was genuinely impregnated with religious values.  Today that is no longer so.  Young people today need the support of new smaller Christian communities – like the small Christian communities in Africa or Latin America – where they can experience the support of peers with similar interests and experiences.  Without such support the young person will be tossed about in the centrifugal spin of a pluralism without an anchor.

This is not to promote ghettoes or illusory safe havens.  The young person has to be led to face the real world and to survive and indeed flourish there.  Small Christian communities must therefore always be open to the wider community of real life and diversity.  Christianity can never be exclusivist or elitist.   

Giussani finally notes that this verification between tradition and future, between faith and life, should take place in the free time, the leisure time of the young person.  There is a natural temptation to leave that time to the young people themselves.  But, as Giussani points out, in a busy school schedule, leisure time is the only space where young people are free to manage their time for themselves and the choices they make in the use of this time are crucial.

Giussani’s vision of education involves a much more intense relationship between educator and student than might normally be imagined.  It might seem difficult to achieve within the busy curriculum of a modern-day Irish school.  But in many ways the key contributors to successful Irish education in the past, when physical structures were poorer and class numbers were larger, were those extraordinary teachers who transmitted a passion for learning and discerning.  That is what gave our country the edge in creativity and innovative capacity needed for a modern knowledge-based society and economy. 

Giussani approach is very demanding, but it is also an extraordinary expression of his respect for the young person and of his confidence in the fact that any young person, placed in front of the challenge, can rise to it if they encounter the right educator along the way.

It is only a person who has such extraordinary confidence and hope who can speak about and propose risk as a key factor in education.    In my school days conformism was the norm and the only risk was in affirming one’s autonomy.   In my years studying theology in the seminary and in preparing for ministry I would say that we heard the word “risk” very rarely and when we came across the word we were not encouraged to take that road.  Yet faith is about risk.  It is about taking a leap in the dark.  It is the ability to go beyond the purely empirical into the world of dreams, hopes, aspirations and mystery.

Giussani notes: “The situation of many educators, both in families and schools, is painfully clear: their ideal is to risk nothing”.  The only complaint I would have about that phrase is that he did not also include seminaries!

Yet there are many families who have challenged their children with risk.  This is not the same as abandonment, as saying that anything goes and that whatever the young person says will do.  It is rather recognition of the fact that faith and truth cannot be imposed, but must be attained within the sphere of human liberty.  Many parents today have lost their nerve, their have become fearful when it comes to transmitting the faith to their children.  They give up when the going gets difficult.   They themselves are fearful of risk and they do not take the risk of engaging with their children on a path which might make them feel insecure.

Let me come back to the thought of Giussani.  One central word in his book is risk.  Another is mystery.  His definition of mystery reminds us that we are not talking about impenetrable magic, but something which goes beyond mere human ability to fully perceive, but which, at the same time, by virtue if being created in God’s image, is accessible to human beings and finds an echo in the human heart.  For Giussani: “The word ‘mystery’ means something incommensurable with human beings, though not different, since having been made in God’s image, we carry inside an echo and a reflection of the mystery”.

Education then is recognition of the Mystery, understanding that mystery.  This leads to a strange paradox. Our identity is profoundly linked to the nature of the mystery.  Giussani notes:   “we find it hard “naturally to understand that we are defined by another being”; “the person comes to reach individual maturity through opening to the Other”  That other is God, whom we encounter as mystery and in terms of what is revealed through that mystery, gratuitous love.   We encounter the truth about ourselves when we encounter the self-giving love of the Other.   Again Giussani notes the paradox: “Even less do we conceive that we can come closer to the truth through the mercy and the compassion of another”

The thought of Giussani is remarkably like the thought that we find in Deus Caritas Est, the Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI. One of the most important insights which Pope Benedict XVI wished to recall in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est is the fact that the truth we encounter in the Word of God is truth about love.  The Word of God that took flesh, the expression of the very being of God, can only be a Word which expresses love.  The Word which took flesh, took flesh as the concrete revelation of the love of God, of a God who is love. In listening to the Word, in responding in obedience to the Word we enter dynamically into the very process of loving which is characteristic of God, we are taken up within that Mystery of God.
The Church must be a place where the love of God becomes the norm of life, not the focal-point of an impersonal rule book or of a checklist of ethical principles against which we externally fill out a report card on our lives.   Giussani notes that “moralism is idolatry”. It is seeking certainty in idols.  Definitiveness can only be found by entry into the mystery.

The Church must be the space in which the love and the mercy of God become visible and through the lives and witness of believers become also the norm for society, for social interaction, recognising that through the incarnation the law of love has become the fundamental law which governs human relations and the entire universe.

Pope Benedict goes on then to stress another important element of this dynamism of God’s love into which we are captured when we receive his word authentically.  The Pope notes that: “Union with Christ is union with all those to whom he gives himself.  I cannot possess Christ just for myself.  I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become and will become his own.” Communion draws me out of myself towards Jesus and towards unity with all Christians.  Through the Eucharist, all spirituality is therefore ecclesial in the sense that when we share in the life of Christ, we become one body, as is stressed in various ways in each of the Eucharistic prayers.

A key element in the thought of Giussani as well as in that of Pope Benedict is the stress on the link between truth and love.  Jesus himself has shown us what that link involves.  He presented himself as truth in himself.  “I am the way, the truth and the life”.  But he proposed that truth through a life of service.  In the letter to the Philippians we read that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, humbling himself even unto death on a cross”.  The truth must always be presented in love, in sacrificial self-giving.  Indeed Jesus achieves Lordship, “the name which is above all other names” because he lived his self-giving service until the end, thus revealing to us what the new commandment of love is.

Being a member of the Church, as People of God, means therefore being a member of a community which realises that it is involved in a new type of relationship.  We are called to share in that very same relationship of love which exists between the Father and the Son.   It is in opening ourselves to that gift of love that we are empowered to love.   We can love because we have first been taken up into the logic of divine love.  The gratuitousness of God’s love invites us and takes hold of us in our isolation and permits us to enter into communion with God and with others.   This is the risk that challenges all of us as we journey through life in search of our ultimate destiny.


Speaking Notes ofArchbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland———–Westin Hotel, Dublin, 21 February 2006