Sunday, March 01, 2015

Educating Youth By Personal Encounter - An Experience

These are two important pieces on formation of youth: by Luigi Giussani and Pope Francis on Luigi Giussani

The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny (Luigi Giussani, 2001)

BY: David John Seel, Jr.

For those who consciously connect apprenticeship to Jesus with its cultural impact, there is a new form of ecumenism emerging. Among some thinkers the Reformed emphasis on cultural transformation is being fused with a Catholic sacramental vision of reality. Others are incorporating similar views into an expanded understanding of kingdom living that is both deeply spiritual and profoundly earthy.

For twenty years, the theme of “holiness in the heart of the world” has been characteristic of the Catholic Fraternity of Communion and Liberation. Begun in 1954, this lay renewal movement seeks to bring Christ into the woof and warp of everyday living. Its founder is Father Luigi Giussani, for many years a high school teacher in Milan, Italy. He is the author of more than twenty books and in 1995 won Italy’s prestigious National Catholic Culture Prize. He regularly calls modern skeptics to affirm an openness to existence, “a capacity to comprehend and affirm reality in all of its dimensions.” Reminiscent of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, Giussani challenges modern unbelievers to allow the full weight of God’s inescapable reality to impinge on one’s beliefs and loves.

This Catholic thinker remains largely unknown within Protestant circles. But his latest book, The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny, warrants a wider readership. The book is a provocative study of Christian education and spiritual formation. For Monsignor Giussani there is no reality apart from Christ—a fact that must be understood existentially and verified personally. This, he argues, is the core mission of education.

In contrast, what is offered today as Christian education in many churches and schools is woefully ineffective. Both Christian and secular polls show there is no measurable statistical difference in behavior between teenagers who attend these programs and those who do not. Giussani suggests a possible remedy; thus it’s important for youth ministers and Christian educators to familiarize themselves with his work. He writes, “Only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it (and, therefore, relevant to life’s needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything points in the opposite direction.”

Giussani’s pedagogy involves the following five components.

Total Meaning of Reality
“To educate,” Giussani writes, “means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” Genuine education must face the deeper “why” questions. There can be no complete understanding of reality that doesn’t also address meaning. As one high school student observed, “They make us study a great number of things, but they don’t help us to understand their meaning, and so we don’t know why we have to study.” An education filled with “whats” without “whys” is an education in practical nihilism. The most common adolescent response to such an education in meaninglessness is fanatical single-issue activism or casual nothing-matters indifference.

Giussani believes that conscientious spiritual formation by Christian parents is routinely undermined by their choice of secular schools. “The status of the family as an educator is particularly reflected in the collaborators they choose for their children’s education. It is surprising to watch the common spectacle of families who, after teaching specific beliefs for years, don’t worry about the way in which their children will test them out during adolescence. In this way, they unwittingly but nonetheless disastrously allow the ‘neutral,’ secular school to continue unhampered its work of destruction and disorientation. I would like to stress that a secular school does not just threaten certain values; more radically, it threatens the integrity of the student’s soul, his vital energy, and any conception of life in which his family has educated him.”

Explanatory Hypothesis

All education begins with an explanatory hypothesis. Learned from parents and peers, every person begins with a set of assumptions about reality. At first these assumptions are held without question. But for convictions to become one’s own and to grow into adult maturity, it is necessary that these initial assumptions become a problem. This is the most strategic period for Christian education.

However, in our postmodern society many young people grow up without a given tradition or starting point. These adolescents start processing life in a void. Life for them is a series of negations: nothing is true, nothing is stable. Consequently, nothing matters. From such beginnings, a teenager’s psychological and spiritual development is intrinsically harmed. “Today, more than ever, society is the sovereign educator or perhaps more correctly, mis-educator. In this climate, the educational crisis appears first as a lack of awareness.”

True learning requires a point of departure, a hypothesis with which to compare new ideas. Such is the marked advantage of children raised in genuinely Christian homes. Here a given tradition is the starting point for the child’s intellectual and psychological development.

Present Personal Authority

However, a young adult is incapable of moving from tradition to conviction without the help of a teacher or guide. Father Giussani writes, “Psychologically, a genuine dependence on a total meaning of reality requires that the student not engage in the verification process alone, as an independent ‘abstract’ undertaking: he must do it in community.” This is precisely the kind of community that is impossible in secular schools where pluralism and the assumptions of neutrality undermine a unified worldview. Secular schools affirm fragmentation and subjectivism.

In contrast, Giussani argues that the present, personal authority of a teacher is indispensable in Christian education. It is the educator who embodies and makes the explanatory hypothesis real. “The educational role of a person with true authority is first of all one of coherence: a continual reminder of ultimate values and of our commitment to them, a steady standard for judging all of reality, and a stable safeguard of the constantly renewed link between the student’s shifting attitudes and the ultimate, total sense of reality.” All true education necessitates the embodied presence of a teacher who consistently lives the ideal. Education is incarnational at its core. Giussani explains, “To educate means to offer a proposal, this proposal will reach the student’s heart and move him only if it is carried by an energy originating from the presence of the educator.”

Personal Verification

The student must undertake a process of personal verification. “Even a clear presentation of the meaning of things and the real, intense authority of the educator is insufficient to meet the needs of the adolescent. He must instead be stimulated to personally confront his own origin. This means that the student must verify the traditional contents being offered to him, which can be done only if he himself takes the initiative: no one else can do it for him.” True Christian education must be more than indoctrination. To teach is to encounter the power of the imago dei—the other as a self-determining spiritual being. The student must be free to establish his or her convictions. Particularly in Christian schools, students must be allowed to challenge, raise questions, and express uncertainty. Teachers must work to respect the process and create a safe environment for critical inquiry. True convictions that will stand up under life’s pressures cannot be fostered in any other way.

Risk of Freedom

Giving the student freedom to question involves taking a risk. The spiritual moorings of a life are finally at stake. Students can be programmed to give the “spiritually correct” responses. They can tell parents, youth leaders, and Christian educators what they want to hear. But such students, if biblical truth is not also their own settled conviction, will fail life—the bigger test.

In the end, Christian education is not about information transfer as much as life transformation. “The purpose of education is to fashion a new human being: for this reason, the active factors of the education process must guide the pupil to act with increasing independence and to face the world around him on his own. To do this, we must increasingly expose him to all the elements of his environment, while gradually allowing him more responsibility for his choices.” In the end, reality is the best teacher. Reality reveals what the student actually believes. It also reveals whether what they believe is true. It is only as the teacher steps back that out of the shadows the Truth, by which the teacher is inspired, assumes his place.

Monsignor Luigi Giussani offers Christian educators a pedagogy that serves to confront the student’s heart with the total meaning of reality. “To educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” In the end we want real truth, real convictions, real living. It’s quite a challenge for a parent or an educator, but nothing less will do.

As I write these words, I have six weeks left to teach my high school seniors. Soon they will leave my apologetics classroom to face academic secularity and college social life. Have I done my job well? Are they ready? No one feels the risk of education more than Christian teachers who watch their students accept high school diplomas. It is then that we remember the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

* * * * * * * * * 

Pope Francis (as Cardinal Bergoglio) comments on Giussani’s “El Atractivo de Jesucristo:” [Book Fair, 2001, Buenos Aires]

“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.”

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