The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford (Photo:Unsplash/Ben Seymour)

Oxford: A source of faith and unity for all

The presentation of The Religious Sense at the University of Oxford’s Catholic Chaplaincy. An opportunity for the local community to bear witness to what has taken hold of each person's life.
Francesco Banfi

"Why don't we organize a public presentation of The Religious Sense at the University?" The idea came from a phone conversation with my friend Beppe, a professor at Oxford University. I arrived in the English city in October to begin a doctorate in Philosophy, joining the small (but vibrant) community of the movement.

Our shared wish was to organize a public occasion to bear witness to our presence. So we thought about a possible venue and decided that the easiest and most natural place was the Catholic Chaplaincy in Oxford. In the first few months following my arrival, I had gotten to know the reality of the university Catholic community quite well. I was able to see how, from a certain point of view, Oxford can be considered a "blessed" reality compared to the average situation in a country like the United Kingdom: there is indeed a lively and positive context (I suspect that the influence of giants of the faith like Cardinal Newman and writers like Tolkien and Lewis played a role), where a significant number of student believers, both from England and from other countries, want to live the faith in a serious way and get involved in community initiatives and events.

Soon after my return from Easter break, I met with the University chaplains to propose the idea of a book event. I tried to come prepared for this conversation: we wanted to do an initiative that is "ours," but at the same time we did not want to "invade" the chaplaincy spaces or “proselytize” in any way.

In the end, the meeting took the form of a book presentation and, for various reasons, it was preferred that a student do it. The moral of the story: it was my turn, but I was a bit worried. What could I say that was meaningful, in a language that was not my own, about The Religious Sense?

This question became, however, over the course of days, a real opportunity to put myself seriously back in front of the book. A conversation on the phone with my friend Fr. Paolo helped me ask the right questions: what role did this text play in the discovery of my faith? But also: what is Giussani's original and specific contribution worth witnessing in the Oxford context?

As I wrote and prepared the talk, it turned out that, in the end, the answer to both questions was the same. What has persuaded me in life about Giussani's proposal and his original contribution in a context like this depend on the same thing: the relevance of faith to the demands of life, to all aspects of our humanity.

If I look at so many of my friends here, I notice how, from many points of view, they have received a formation and catechesis that is usually greater than what we receive in the movement. At the same time, the link between our humanity and faith, is something not always highlighted even in the most doctrinally formed person; this is where Giussani's proposal becomes - first and foremost for me - an exhilarating proposal. And one to be rediscovered again and again.

On the evening of the presentation, May 17, we are about 20 people (a few friends from the community and some intrigued students). Initially I was slightly disappointed; I was hoping for more significant numbers, partly because many friends are absent due to a concurrent event (typical at Oxford). My attention was immediately diverted from this, however, when I saw Michael enter the room. Michael is a very distinguished professor at the Faculty of Theology and also the most ontologically "English" person I have ever met. Above all, he is a man I have a great admiration for. "I am here because I am beginning to become friends with Francesco," he said.

I began to read the paper I had prepared, pointing out some of the themes that seemed most important to me from The Religious Sense (the three premises and chapters 5 and 10), also speaking of the history and context in which the book came into being (Montini's famous pastoral letter and Giussani's beginning at Berchet High School). In the end, I also tried to convey some of the reasons why I wanted to present the book. In the conclusion I also decided to take a risk (translation is not easy), reading a short passage from Recognizing Christ, the one about the encounter of John and Andrew, as an example of the relationship between religious sense and Revelation.

At the end of the presentation, the audience seemed interested; there were even four or five questions. Michael said that he was intrigued by the final passage in Recognizing Christ and asked for some more insights into the relationship between religious sense and Christ in Giussani's thought. Another student wanted to know about the charisma and "spirituality" of CL, while others are amazed by the presence of references to "secular" poetry and literature in the book. "I find Giussani's valorization of an atheist author like Leopardi very interesting," someone observed.

At the end of the evening, together some people from the community, joined by Michael and another friend, we went to the pub for a beer and a chat: it was a very nice moment. People who are so far apart, an English professor, a small group of CL friends and a theology student from New Mexico, yet united by faith. Our charism, I believe, is precisely in the service of this: not the separate and divisive possession of a conceited group, but a source of faith and unity for the good of all. That evening, before going to sleep, I was reminded of the prayer I have learned to recite in the past years, "O Merciful Father, we thank You for having given to Your Church and the world the Servant of God Fr. Luigi Giussani." That's exactly right.