MILAN – Probably better than most, Father Julián Carrón, the successor of the legendary Italian Father Luigi Giussani as leader of the influential Communion and Liberation movement, whose natural base is among more conservative Catholics, understands that Pope Francis can be a shock to the system.
Yet he’s still an unabashed Francis fan, who insists that if you don’t think this pope is the cure, then you don’t understand the disease we’re facing in the post-modern world.
“Sometimes certain gestures of the pope may not be understood because we don’t understand the full implications of what he calls an ‘epochal change’,” Carrón told Crux on Monday.
“It’s like thinking a tumor is a simple case of the flu, so taking chemotherapy would seem too drastic,” he said. “But once you understand the nature of the disease, you realize you’re not going to be able to beat it with aspirin.”
Carrón spoke to Crux at his residence in Milan, among other things about the English release of his book Disarming Beauty about the nature of the Christian “event.”
“The changes we’re living through are so radical, so unprecedented, that I get why many people just don’t understand what’s happening or the gestures of Pope Francis,” he said. “But if we don’t understand those gestures now, we will in a time when we see the consequences they’re leading to.”
Carrón argued that what’s happened in modernity is that people have lost sight of what it means to be a human being, so the crisis is much deeper than simply the rejection of this or that ethical precept, and that what’s needed now is not so much moral exhortation or theological argument, but the attractive power of a fully Christian life.
“I get that many people are upset and puzzled by the pope, as were people in Jesus’ time by him – especially, let’s remember, the more ‘religious’ people,” he said. “For example, the Pharisees, failing to see the full drama of the human situation facing them, wanted a preacher simply to tell people what to do, to put heavy burdens on them.
“That wasn’t enough to give humanity a new start, and then Jesus arrived and entered the house of Zacchaeus, without calling him a sinning thief, and that could have seemed too weak. Instead, no one ever challenged Zacchaeus the way Jesus did,” Carrón said.
“All those others who condemned his way of life didn’t move him an inch from his position. It was that absolutely gratuitous gesture of Jesus that succeeded where others failed,” he said.
Founded by Giussani in 1954, Communion and Liberation is a lay ecclesial movement within the Catholic Church that’s especially prominent in Italy, but that’s today present in roughly 80 countries around the world. It’s had prominent backers over the years, including emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who celebrated Giussani’s funeral Mass and whose private household is served by women from the movement’s “Memores Domini” group.
Born in Spain and a longtime aide to Giussani, Carrón took over the leadership of Communion and Liberation in 2005 after Giussani’s death.
Far from seeing a rupture between Francis and his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Carrón insists that Francis is actually the “radicalization” of Benedict.
“He says the same thing, but in a way that it gets across to everyone in a simple way through gestures, without in any sense reducing the density of what Benedict said,” he said.
In essence, Carrón’s book is a synthesis of the vision for Christian life that comes from Giussani, as amplified by each of the last three popes. The key idea is that Christianity is about “disarmed beauty,” meaning a way of life that imposes itself through no power other than its own inherent attractiveness.
“I wanted to get across that the power of the faith is in its beauty, its attractiveness,” Carrón said. “It doesn’t need any other power, any other tools or particular situations, to be resplendent, just like the mountains don’t need anything else to take our breath away.”
Part one of Crux’s conversation with Carrón appears below. Part two will be published tomorrow.
Crux: Is the title Disarming Beauty an explicit response to terrorism and religious violence?
It’s an explicit response to a modality of seeing the faith, trying to begin with what makes it unique. St. Paul once defined what God did in becoming human as “stripping himself” of his divinity, his divine power. Jesus appeared in history stripped of any sort of power, with only the splendor of his truth that emanated from his person, his way of doing things, his way of seeing, his way of relating to others, his mercy, his capacity for embracing others and sharing their lives, and his ability to share the wounds of other people. The entire power of his love for us was conveyed through his “disarmed humanity.”
One of the essays in the book was written immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, in which you say the challenge is to create a “space for real encounter among different proposals of meaning.” Can you explain what you had in mind?
So many people are looking for meaning in their lives, for a reason to go to work, to raise a family, to face reality, and often they don’t find it and try to escape in different ways. The fundamental question is, in a moment in which the basic value for we moderns is liberty, the only possibility of not falling back on force to constrain the freedom of others is to have a space where people can meet each other freely, to share what it is life means to be, what they think it means to live fully. If that doesn’t happen, then the vacuum that leaves behind will keep generating conflicts.
People can’t live without meaning, and if the vacuum persists, we’re going to keep generating people who, sooner or later, will feel the temptation of violence … at home, at work, and, in some cases, ending up in terrorism. The problem is how to respond to the vacuum of meaning we find many times today in society. It’s possible to overcome it only in a free society, in a free space, in which people can meet and make comparisons among the ways in which people choose to live and how they make choices differently.
You say we’re experiencing a ‘profound human crisis.’ Do you think Pope Francis sees that too, and how do you think he’s trying to respond to it?
He’s very conscious that the first question is the nature of the crisis, because it’s often reduced merely to an economic crisis, or a problem of values, but it’s much deeper. It regards what makes us human, the passivity we see in so many young people who don’t seem motivated even to leave the house …
That’s what Giussani called the ‘Chernobyl effect,’ right? It’s as if a kind of radiation has emptied people of meaning.
Right, this emptying out of humanity, which leaves people incapable of really being interested in anything. It’s a problem that has its roots in indifference, in apathy. Too often, we try to respond to it with rules, with procedures, to at least try to limit the violence that’s often born from such indifference. But that only responds to the consequences, it doesn’t get to the roots of the problem. Unless we respond to the real needs of the human person, reawakening people’s capacity to find meaning that makes life livable, it’s inevitable that we won’t be responding to the real nature of the crisis. Its roots are in this reduction of what it means to be human.
That’s the reason why I’m optimistic, because I’m convinced that Christianity can offer its greatest contribution precisely in this situation. Christ began it all by meeting people who looked at him and said, ‘We’ve never seen anyone like that,’ and turned around. There was no alternative to his presence, and that encounter launched the greatest revolution in history. The only question is whether we’ll realize what incredible grace we have as Christians.
How do you see Pope Francis carrying forward this idea of the faith as an experience, rooted in an encounter?
He’s able to get it across in a very simple way, through the gesture he performs, through his attention for the person, through the way in which he speaks to everybody. He gets people to understand in a very simple way, through gestures, in the same way Jesus made himself understood through gestures.
It’s hard to get people to truly grasp all the dimensions of something like immigration, for instance, but when he goes to Lampedusa, he gets everything across in a glance, and it’s impossible not to understand what he’s saying. You feel a desire to understand where that comes from. It’s the same when he comes across someone who’s having problems with work, or who’s in need of mercy. It’s like Jesus, who found himself in front of all the wounds of his time and responded to those wounds.
Yet it would seem that some people don’t understand the pope, or maybe just don’t agree with him. You mentioned Lampedusa … the mayor there, who was famous around the world for her policy of helping refugees, just got trounced in her reelection bid, coming in third.
The changes we’re living through are so radical, so unprecedented, that I get why many people just don’t understand what’s happening or the gestures of Pope Francis. But if we don’t understand those gestures now, we will in a time when we see the consequences they’re leading to.
If we really start to take seriously the problem of immigration, the problem of poverty, the difficulties of so many people who are wounded, who are alone, so many people who need mercy, that will generate a social climate and eventually we’ll see the consequences, in a way we could never have imagined. For example, when he uses that word ‘walls,’ he’s talking about situations that just 10 or 15 years ago would have been unimaginable. I mean, a wall in the heart of Europe just 20 years or so after the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Our capacity to understand [the pope] depends on our capacity to understand the nature of the challenge that’s before us. Sometimes certain gestures of the pope may not be understood because we don’t understand the full implications of what he calls an ‘epochal change.’ It’s like thinking a tumor is a simple case of the flu, so taking chemotherapy would seem too drastic. But once you understand the nature of the disease, you realize you’re not going to be able to beat it with aspirin.
In the book, you glide effortlessly from quoting John Paul II and Benedict to quoting Francis. Often those three popes are set in opposition to one another, but you seem to see a great continuity among them.
I see a great symphony, although each one had to confront different times. That’s what Christianity has always done. Each faced a certain set of historical conditions in which the life of the faith has to develop, and every epoch brings a different set of challenges to which Christianity has to respond in a concrete way. John Paul II dazzled everyone with his capacity to communicate. It seemed like it would be difficult to find anyone like him, and then Benedict arrived and he struck everyone with his intelligence, his capacity for good judgment and to illuminate certain themes in a way nobody else could do.
After Benedict, it once again seemed there would never be anyone else like him. Instead, a pope arrived who, for me, is a radicalization of Benedict. He says the same thing, but in a way that it gets across to everyone in a simple way through gestures, without in any sense reducing the density of what Benedict said. It seems to me that all three went to the bottom of things, they didn’t just stay on the surface but went to the heart of what was really going on in their times.
In that sense, there’s a symphony that impresses even a lot of secular people, which is the capacity the Church seems to have to bring forth something new to confront the new challenges it’s facing. We have a truly clear example in these three popes, each of whom in his historic moment knew how to respond to the challenges of that moment.
You don’t like political labels, but you know that Communion and Liberation has great ‘street cred’ in the Church, especially among more ‘conservative’ Catholics. Some of those folks right now are worried about Pope Francis, thinking that he is precisely ‘reducing’ things, setting aside or playing down traditional doctrines. What can you say to reassure them?
The first thing I’d say is that we have to start by recognizing the real nature of the challenge we’re facing. One can’t understand the full dimensions of what Francis is doing if you don’t grasp the nature of what’s happening, the ‘epochal change.’ If your diagnosis doesn’t take that into account, certain gestures of this pope may not go down well. If you begin to understand the depths of the crisis, however, you’ll broaden your horizons and begin to see certain gestures as a prophetic response to this new situation.
I get that many people are upset and puzzled by the pope, as were people in Jesus’ time by him – especially, let’s remember, the more ‘religious’ people. For example, the Pharisees, failing to see the full drama of the human situation facing them, wanted a preacher simply to tell people what to do, to put heavy burdens on them. That wasn’t enough to give humanity a new start, and then Jesus arrived and entered the house of Zacchaeus, without calling him a sinning thief, and that could have seemed too weak. Instead, no one ever challenged Zacchaeus the way Jesus did just by entering his house. All those others who condemned his way of life didn’t move him an inch from his position. It was that absolutely gratuitous gesture of Jesus that succeeded where others failed.
What’s going to work to change a society like the one we’re living in? It’s got to be the method Jesus used with Zacchaeus. [With Pope Francis], we have to recall the way that many well-off people, sincere religious believers, reacted to Jesus. For them, the way Jesus operated was considered a source of scandal, in the strongest sense of the word, as an obstacle to belief.
Are you saying that those faithful Catholics who criticize Pope Francis, for instance over Amoris Laetitia, haven’t understood what’s at risk in this culture?
I think so. I think what’s missing sometimes is a deep understanding of the human challenge we’re facing. Sometimes [critics] just want [the pope] to repeat certain phrases, certain concepts, but they’re empty for most people and have been for a long time. Or, they want a list of rules to follow, as if that’s going to heal the human person or lead anyone to ‘verify’ the faith in their experience. The problem, and we suffer from it too, is that often we’re not able to transmit faith in the future to our colleagues at work, to our friends. Only if we’re audacious about recognizing the situation, without always feeling the need to defend ourselves, maybe we’ll learn something.
Of course, what worries some people is that when Jesus met Zacchaeus, the point was to get him to change his heart. Today, some worry that the pope, along with some priests and bishops, are engaging in ‘encounter’ without the same expectation of conversion from the errors they’re committing.
Conversion doesn’t depend on the act, it depends on us. When we go to meet a thief, we bring ourselves to that encounter. Jesus had no problem going to the house of Zacchaeus, without explaining all his theology or moral rules. He went because the truth was incarnate in his person. The problem is, what people are meeting when they meet us? If what they meet in you is simply a manual of things to do, they already know that and they’re still not able to do it. But if they find themselves in front of a person who offers love, they’ll start wanting to follow that person and be like them, which is what happened to Jesus.
I suspect many would grant that we can’t start with the rules, but what worries people is whether we’re ever going to get to them at all.
If a person falls in love, at a certain point that happens naturally. When you get married and are really in love, it’s just natural to want to clean the house, to put together a nice lunch, and so on. The problem now is that people aren’t meeting someone for whom it seems to make sense to invest themselves like that. An ethical code isn’t that kind of encounter.
To get concrete, lots of people inspired by Pope Francis today say the Church needs to accompany the LGBT community, for instance, or divorced and civilly remarried believers, and we do it regularly. But what critics would say is, doesn’t that have to involve at some point telling them that their behavior has to change?
I’ll respond with an example. Too often, we think the choices come down to either saying nothing or being ambiguous. I knew a group of couples, families, that involves about 18 to 20 families, and no one is married, all for different reasons, sometimes with understandable reasons. Some of our families involved in Communion and Liberation spent time with them, without saying anything about their ‘irregular’ situation. Over time, they all got married! They found themselves in front of people who were living family life in a way that just couldn’t leave them indifferent. In the end, they all got married not because someone explained the rules or Christian doctrine on marriage, but because they didn’t want to lose what they saw alive in these other families.
In Christianity, the truth has been made flesh. You only understand the full dimensions of this truth made flesh by meeting and watching a witness. The whole Christmas liturgy is about the fullness of God becoming visible. If it hadn’t become visible, we would never have understood it … that’s the great challenge.
It’s useless to ask others if they’re everything they’re supposed to be. The real question is, are we convincing witnesses to the faith? Do we still believe in the disarmed beauty of the faith? A person who’s in love will know what to do, and you fall in love through meeting someone. That’s what made the experience of Jesus a ‘Copernican revolution’ for humanity.