“That Christianity gives joy and breadth is also a thread that runs through my whole life. Ultimately someone who is always only in opposition could probably not endure life at all” (Light of the World, part 1 ). These words of Benedict XVI challenge us to ask ourselves what it means to be Christians today. Continuing to believe simply out of devotion, habit, or tradition, withdrawing into one’s shell, does not meet the challenge. Similarly, reacting strongly and going on the offensive in order to recover lost territory is insufficient; the Pope even says that it would be unendurable. Neither path—withdrawing from the world or opposing it—are capable of arousing interest in Christianity, because neither respects what will always be the canon of the Christian announcement: the Gospel. Jesus entered the world with a capacity to attract that fascinated the people of His time. As Péguy said, “He did not waste His years groaning and demanding explanations of the wickedness of the times. He cut through … making Christianity.” Christ introduced into history a human presence so fascinating that anyone who ran into it had to take it into consideration, had to reject it or accept it. No one was left indifferent.
Today we find ourselves before a “crisis of the human” that reveals itself as weariness of and lack of interest in reality and that involves all the spheres that touch the life of the people. It is a calamity for everyone that people do not risk engaging in life with their reason and freedom. And precisely in this moment the Church has before her a fascinating adventure, the same as the one at her origin: to witness that there is something able to reawaken and arouse true interest. “My heart also waits in hope/turned toward light and life/for another miracle of spring.” All of us, like the poet Antonio Machado, await the miracle of spring in which we see the fulfillment of our life. And if someone will say, with the poet, that it is a dream, why do we wait for it? Because this expectant awaiting constitutes our deepest being, as Benedict XVI writes: “Man strives for eternal joy; he would like pleasure in the extreme, would like what is eternal” (Light of the World, part 6). But man can fall away, the world can try to undermine this desire for the infinite, minimizing it; it can even ridicule it, offering something that attracts for a short time but does not last, and in the end leaves people only more dissatisfied and skeptical. Now, the proof of the truth of what fascinates and reawakens an interest is that it has to last. But even the most beautiful things—we see it when one loves a person or when one undertakes a new work—pass away. The problem of life, then, is whether there is something that lasts. Christianity makes the claim—because its origin is not human, even if it can be seen in the faces of people who have encountered it—of bearing the one answer able to last in time and in eternity. But a reduced Christianity cannot do this. We know from experience that there is an abstract way of speaking of the faith that does not arouse the least interest. If Christianity is not respected in its nature, as it appeared in history, it cannot sink roots in the heart. Christianity is always put to the test before the desire of the heart, and cannot be free of it: Christ Himself chose to undergo this test. The fascinating aspect is that God, stripping Himself of His power, became man out of respect for the dignity and freedom of each person. Becoming flesh, it is as if He said to us, “Look and see whether living in contact with me, you find something interesting that makes your life fuller, greater, happier. What you are incapable of obtaining with your efforts, you can obtain if you follow Me.” It has been this way since the very beginning. When the first two disciples asked, “Where do you live?” He answered, “Come and see.” His simplicity is disarming. God entrusts Himself to the judgment of the first two who meet Him. Man cannot avoid continually examining what happens in terms of his fundamental needs.
Some might object that in Jesus’ time people saw the miracles, but that today is no longer the time for marvels. This is not so, because this experience continues to take place as on the first day: when you encounter people who reawaken in you such an interest and attraction that you are forced to deal with what has happened to you. As the Pope says, “God does not force Himself on us. […] His existence is an encounter that reaches down into man’s inmost depths…” (Light of the World, part 17). A few years ago a friend of mine went to study Arab in Cairo. He met a Muslim professor. The encounter could have gone according to each man’s stereotypes, but something unexpected happened: they became friends. The Muslim asked my friend why he was Christian, and the latter invited him to the Meeting of Rimini in Italy. Attracted by the encounter with a different human reality, the professor wanted to organize a Meeting in Cairo, involving many young Egyptians, Muslims and Christians.
Recently, in Moscow, I met people who until a short time before had had nothing to do with the faith. They discovered it encountering some Christians who had sparked their curiosity. Some were baptized in the Orthodox Church and became interested in Christianity—something they had never done before—through friends who lived it with intensity and fullness.
These are not stories from the past, but something that happens now, in the present.
In his recent visit to Spain, Benedict XVI proposed a dialogue between secularism and faith. How did he do so? Indicating a presence, a witness, Gaudì, who with the Sagrada Familia, “was capable of creating in this city a space of beauty, faith and hope, that leads men and women to the encounter with Him who is Truth and Beauty itself.” The Pope challenged all, making the gaze of Christ contemporary and indicating the new experience He introduces to life: anyone can become interested in it or reject it. When Benedict XVI calls us to conversion he is saying that to witness to Christ, to “become a transparent sign of Christ to the world.” (Papal Address at the Welcome Ceremony, Airport of Santiago de Compostela, November 6, 2010), we must enter upon a human journey to discover the pertinence of the faith to the needs of our life. Can any Catholics deem themselves exempt from the Pope’s call? I cannot.