A speech Pope Francis gave as a Cardinal at the 2001 International Book Fair in Buenos Aires
The Archbishop of Buenos Aires, recently named Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, presented El atractivo de Jesucristo, published by Encuentro, at the International Book Fair in Buenos Aires which was entitled, “The Book, from the Author to the Reader.” The book exhibition is the largest in Latin America. For twenty days, a million people visit the 25,000 square meters of stands set up by more than 1,300 exhibitors (publishing houses, bookstores, foundations, embassies, and regions). They seek to know an internationally famous writer, hear a lecture on a topical theme, or find an interesting offer.
Cardinal Bergoglio presented Giussani’s book in one of the fair’s largest rooms which, surprisingly, turned out to be too small. Rows of seats had to be taken out to leave at least standing room for everyone who attended.
This was the first time that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Primate of Argentina had participated in the Book Fair as a speaker, and the second time that he had taken it upon himself to present a book by Luigi Giussani. In 1999, he presented El Sentido Religioso [The Religious Sense]. Just as he had on the previous occasion, Bergoglio again helped those present to recognize in his own history the existential value of these texts. “I agreed to present this book by Fr. Giussani for two reasons,” he explained. “The first and more personal one is the good that this man has done me, in my life as a priest, through the reading of his books and articles. The second reason is that I am convinced that his thought is profoundly human and reaches man’s innermost longings.”
Faithful to his personal style, the Cardinal was very brief and clear in his presentation. The reasonableness of Mystery; sin and forgiveness as the privileged locus of encounter; unforeseeable mercy; a God who “anticipates our moves” and caresses our sin. In 35 minutes, he presented the most important sections of the dialogues in L’attrattiva Gesù and compared some of Fr. Giussani’s statements to others by St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Augustine.
The audience was comprised of a variety of listeners. There were many colleagues and acquaintances of the friends of Communion and Liberation, along with others who follow the Cardinal, as well as acclaimed theologians and philosophers. At the end, “like a father who helps us to be children of the Father, children of the Church, and to be also children of the witnesses whom the Lord puts on our path, like Fr. Giussani,” as Father Mario Peretti said in conclusion, Cardinal Bergoglio conversed attentively with each person who approached him.
There, at the Book Fair, in the same place where intellectuals tell young people that they don’t know which path to follow, more than 500 people listened to someone who stated with assurance that “the path that leads us toward what is most consonant with us, pushes us into Mystery, makes us enter Mystery.”
Fr. Giussani thanked Cardinal Bergoglio in a telegram–read by Martin Sisto at the beginning of the meeting–saying that his presence “makes us feel the closeness of the Pope and the whole Church, our Mother, because of which we were willed into existence and chosen to swell the flow of the Christian people thanks to the attraction that is Jesus, Man-God who has come to us and convinced us. So much so that we have followed Him, with all our limitations and all our impetuousness, offering everything to Him gladly and with simplicity of heart. Be our teacher and father, Your Eminence, as my friends in Buenos Aires, grateful to you and obedient to you as to Jesus, have told me. May I take the liberty of thanking all who are present, for me a great sign of esteem for Him who, through the frailty of our person, makes Himself visible, audible, and tangible in the world.”
I agreed to present this book by Father Giussani for two reasons. The first and more personal one is the good that this man has done me, in my life as a priest, through the reading of his books and articles. The second reason is that I am convinced that his thought is profoundly human and reaches man’s innermost longings. I dare say that this is the most profound, and at the same time understandable, phenomenology of nostalgia as a transcendental fact. There is a phenomenology of nostalgia, nóstos algos, feeling called home, the experience of feeling attracted to what is most proper for us, most consonant with our being. In the context of Fr. Giussani’s reflections, we encounter instances of a real phenomenology of nostalgia.
The book presented today, El atractivo de Jesucristo, is not a theological treatise, it is a dialogue of friendship; these are table conversations between Father Giussani and his disciples. It is not a book for intellectuals, but for people who are men and women. It is the description of that initial experience, which I shall refer to later on, of wonder which arises in dialogue about daily experience that is provoked and fascinated by the exceptionally human and divine presence and gaze of Jesus Christ. It is the story of a personal relationship–intense, mysterious, and concrete at the same time–of an impassioned and intelligent affection for the person of Jesus, and this enables Fr. Giussani to come to the threshold, as it were, of Mystery, to speak familiarly and intimately with Mystery.
Everything in our life, today just as in Jesus’ time, begins with an encounter. An encounter with this Man, the carpenter of Nazareth, a man like all men and yet different. The first ones, John, Andrew, and Simon, felt themselves to be looked at into their very depths, read in their innermost being, and in them sprang forth a surprise, a wonder that instantly made them feel bound to Him, made them feel different.
When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love Me?”, “his ‘Yes’ was not the result of an effort of will, it was not the fruit of a ‘decision’ made by the young man Simon: it was the emergence, the coming to the surface of an entire vein of tenderness and adherence that made sense because of the esteem he had for Him–therefore an act of reason;” it was a reasonable act, “which is why he couldn’t not say ‘Yes.’”
We cannot understand this dynamic of encounter which brings forth wonder and adherence if it has not been triggered–forgive me the use of this word–by mercy. Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord. I beg the theologians who are present not to turn me in to the Sant’Uffizio or to the Inquisition; however, forcing things a bit, I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.
In front of this merciful embrace–and I continue along the lines of Giussani’s thought–we feel a real desire to respond, to change, to correspond; a new morality arises. We posit the ethical problem, an ethics which is born of the encounter, of this encounter which we have described up to now. Christian morality is not a titanic effort of the will, the effort of someone who decides to be consistent and succeeds, a solitary challenge in the face of the world. No. Christian morality is simply a response. It is the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, “unjust” mercy (I shall return to this adjective). The surprising, unforeseeable, “unjust” mercy, using purely human criteria, of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me. This is why the Christian conception of morality is a revolution; it is not a never falling down but an always getting up again.
As we shall see, this authentic, in a Christian sense, conception of morality which Giussani presents has nothing to do with the spiritualistic-type quietisms of which the shelves of the religious supermarkets of today are full. Trickery. Nor with the Pelagianism so fashionable today in its different, sophisticated manifestations. Pelagianism, underneath it all, is a remake of the Tower of Babel. The spiritualistic quietisms are efforts at prayer and immanent spirituality which never go beyond themselves.
Jesus is encountered, just as 2,000 years ago, in a human presence, the Church, the company of those whom He assimilates to Himself, His Body, the sign and sacrament of His Presence. Reading this book, one is amazed and filled with admiration at the sight of such a personal and profound relationship with Jesus, and thinks it is unlikely to happen to him. When people say to Fr. Giussani, “How brave one has to be to say ‘Yes’ to Christ!” or, “This objection comes to my mind: it is evident that Fr. Giussani loves Jesus and I don’t love Him in the same way,” Giussani answers, “Why do you oppose what you think you don’t have to what you think I have? I have this yes, only this, and it would not cost you one iota more than it costs me.… Say “Yes” to Jesus. If I foresaw that tomorrow I would offend Him a thousand times, I would still say it.” Thérèse of Lisieux says almost exactly the same thing: “I say it, because if I did not say ‘Yes’ to Jesus I could not say ‘Yes’ to the stars in the sky or to your hair, the hairs on your head…” Nothing could be simpler: “I don’t know how it is, I don’t know how it might be: I know that I have to say ‘Yes.’ I can’t not say it,” and reasonably; that is to say, at every moment in his reflections in this book, Giussani has recourse to the reasonableness of experience.
It is a question of starting to say “You” to Christ, and saying it often. It is impossible to desire it without asking for it. And if someone starts to ask for it, then he begins to change. Besides, if someone asks for it, it is because in the depths of his being he feels attracted, called, looked at, awaited. This is the experience of Augustine: there from the depths of my being, something attracts me toward Someone who looked for me first, is waiting for me first, is the almond flower of the prophets, the first to bloom in spring. It is the quality which God possesses and which I take the liberty of defining by using a Buenos Aires word: God, in this case Jesus Christ, always primerea, goes ahead of us. When we arrive, He is already there waiting.
He who encounters Jesus Christ feels the impulse to witness Him or to give witness of what he has encountered, and this is the Christian calling. To go and give witness. You can’t convince anybody. The encounter occurs. You can prove that God exists, but you will never be able, using the force of persuasion, to make anyone encounter God. This is pure grace. Pure grace. In history, from its very beginning until today, grace always primerea, grace always comes first, then comes all the rest.