“Drawn to disunity like a magnet”

An interview with Fr. Patrick Gilger, SJ 

Fr Patrick Gilger giving the keynote speech at the event A Hearth for the Human Family 2023

14 min read

Fr. Patrick Gilger, SJ is assistant professor of sociology at Loyola Chicago. Before arriving there, he wrote his dissertation about three ecclesial movements originating in Italy—Communion and Liberation, Sant’Egidio and Focolare. He is currently at work transforming that work into a book tentatively titled The Subject of Public Religion. He shares his insights into the gifts that the charism of unity has to offer to today’s world.

We live in an age of secularization. That might sound scary, but it also gives us new possibilities. What are possible losses, and what are opportunities for the Church?

Charles Taylor, who is kind of my North Star as a sociologist and thinker, differentiates three understandings of what secularity is. Let me try to lay them out. The first one is a political arrangement: secularity as separation of church and state. As a Church, since Vatican II we have fully affirmed this meaning of secularity.

The second one is secularization, which is a historical process that is partly connected to the separation of Church and State. Secularization tracks this decline of religious belief and of practice that we see all around us today—people everywhere are taking up all kinds of new spiritual and religious practices and putting down old ones.

It’s the third sense, though, that is the most interesting, because it’s here that the Church really should start to engage, imagine, and be creative: in this third type the secular describes a way of experiencing the world as a place full of plurality, fragility, and options. Looking at secularity in this way means, for example, that secularity is not an inherent opponent of any particular religion. Instead, describing ours as a “secular world” means that it’s not only a space of rivalry and competition and negotiation between world views and life experiences and traditions, but a world of dialogue and conversation between people with different belief systems. And I think the deeper that we Catholics accept secularity in this third sense the more we can see that a secular world is not our enemy, that the people who compose it are not our enemies but potential collaborators, people who may never fully agree with us, but with whom we can converse, collaborate, and celebrate. 

I think this is the reason Pope Francis insists that Catholics accompany our atheist brothers and sisters, for example, walking with them as far as humanly possible along the road of collaboration. Yes,  at some point we may have to part ways, but until that parting of ways we can enjoy each other’s company. We can go a long way together and accomplish many things side by side.

That kind of dialogue might be scary to some people. Is it still a struggle for many Catholics to accept that the Church has lost its prominent position in society?

I think there can be a real sense of sadness, of loss, in this recognition, especially for people who remember what it was like to have the Church be particularly influential or who remember what it was to live in a place where everybody went to church on Sunday—to have that sense of coherence and community is fantastic, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with mourning its loss. It hurts.

But that does not mean that there is nothing in front of us now. The more we are occupied with what is no longer, the less we can pay attention to what is. As Tennyson wrote: 

Though much is taken, much abides; 

and though We are not now that strength 
which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…

I think Tennyson’s words describe much of what it is to be a Christian after Christendom. The key to taking up such a task is to remember that Jesus is still at work in the world, as the Gospel of John reminds us. And if Jesus is still present here in this world, we fail in our responsibilities if we fail to seek and to find and to join him wherever he labors now. All to say: Christians have no reason for nostalgia; the world is not our enemy. It remains what it has always been: the place where we find the Lord. 

Many ecclesial movements have received charisms that are exactly made for living out the faith in today’s world. In a nutshell, how would you describe the role of the Focolare Movement—is there something that Focolare can offer that other communities cannot?

What Focolare members seek most fundamentally is unity: Jesus in the midst. And the way you pursue unity is by embracing Jesus Forsaken [see Mt. 27:46 when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”], by loving suffering; being unafraid of it. I think that is what it means to be a member of Focolare. It means to seek unity in all things, particularly when we encounter suffering. In my time with you all it struck me very strongly that, when you encounter a moment that could become an occasion for disunity or division, often instead it became an occasion to move closer, to see if a space for conversation, love, encounter, dialogue could be made.

That can be very difficult because, despite our best efforts as human beings, unity does not always come when we call. One of the things I admire about Focolare, is that you offer yourselves as gifts anyway—you keep trying despite there being no guarantee of success. This is a great gift, a gift that our world, and the Church needs. Yours is not a unity that looks like conformity or uniformity, but a unity that looks like friendship, mutual listening, celebration, and lamenting with one another. It is much more companionship than intellectual adherence.

In fact, in today’s world, unity seems almost unreachable, like a naïve dream. But in reality, unity is a gift of God, we cannot make it happen. How do you experience unity, and what can one do to prepare the ground for it?

You asked the question very well because, as Christians, our theology teaches us that we are always already given the gift—that unity is both already present and that it nevertheless requires our collaboration—this is more or less what we learn from St. Augustine. The question then is something like this: how do we prepare the ground—how do we become tillers of the soil in such a way that the Lord can make the seed of unity grow?

We can become the kind of people who continue to remain open

This is a very difficult to do. Nevertheless, let me start with a description of what unity is like. For me, unity is found in all kinds of everyday experiences—but my favorite ones are with children. For me they are easy to love. 

I had a moment like this not too long ago with one of my nephews. He was eighteen months old at the time, and I was holding him. Now, I like to tease my niece and nephews, telling them that I’m the one who loves them the most in the whole world. I tell them this all the time and I try to say it to them both with gravity and a glint in eye because, while I do love them very very much, how can I love them as much as their parents? So, I’m holding him close, and I look at him seriously and I ask him, “Who loves you the most?” And even though he’s still small, he knows that he’s supposed to say “You, Uncle Patrick.” But he can’t do it. He knows it’s not true. So, we wait. He then squirms in my arms a bit and says, “Mama, mama, mama. Mama does.” And then he snuggled himself into my chest and I laughed and held him and told him that he was right, that she does. That is a perfect moment of unity: he refused to agree intellectually to something that he knew was not true, but he also knew that I loved him enough that he could bury himself in me and that I would hold him. A perfect moment. 

We are united with others when we can do something analogous with them, when they can hold us or we can hold them. It is fantastic, but what it requires of us is very difficult. Because it requires us to not withdraw from moments of suffering, to refuse the simple route of saying, “Well, that’s just their problem,” or “I’m not going to deal with that anymore,” or “I’m getting out of here—you’re not going to hurt me anymore.” Instead of taking that route, we can instead become the kind of people who continue to remain open, to remain present precisely in those moments of pain, so that it’s precisely when we see that someone is suffering that we want to draw closer to them. It’s difficult to become someone like that—but our world is in deep need of just such persons.

How should we deal with conflicts? How can we build bridges?

The first thing I want to say is that conflict is not a problem. Conflict is the means for actual unity—a unity that is not just uniformity—because it’s only by being willing to let someone else be different than me that I can form a human, a non-totalitarian bond with them. 

Theologically, this is what the Trinity is: the Father and the Son are different, and yet they are bonded together. They are one; we believe that there is one God in three persons. That is the model of unity that we really ought to try to inhabit in our world today. One of the keys to this is allowing the people we encounter to be different than us and learning to celebrate that difference. It’s in the midst of the celebration of difference that we will discover what it is that bonds us, that we can find the moment of love that allows us to be bonded into a unity that not only preserves but depends upon difference. 

This is, I think, how we can understand Pope Francis when he speaks about his preference for many-sided polyhedrons rather than smooth spheres. It is because a polyhedron preserves both difference and unity. “The polyhedron is a unity,” the Pope has said, “but with all different parts; each one has its peculiarity, its charism. This is unity in diversity.”

You once described Focolare as people who are drawn like a magnet to disunity. What motivated you to give that description? 

The most illuminating moments of my research on Focolare were moments when I was confused, when I did not understand what was going on and I had to become open in order to understand and see what was happening around me. These were moments when, for example, everybody would laugh and I didn’t understand what was funny, or when everybody would nod and I did not get what it was about. 

Those were the most illuminating because they provoked thinking in me. Those are the moments that make it possible to really understand—and it was this exact experience that you’ve talked about. I read at a certain point a description of what it means to be focolarino—one of the vowed members of the movement. This passage described them as people who are “drawn to disunity like a magnet.” How could you be drawn to disunity? I wondered, it’s this to which you are attracted? It was only over time that I began to understand something of what we discussed before, that disunity, pain, or suffering can be attractive because it is there that unity can be realized. 

Did you try to experience that personally, too? Did it influence how you approach moments of disunity?

Yes, very much. The experience I had of studying the three ecclesial movements that originated in Italy has shaped me deeply. It has informed my preaching and my work as a pastor. It has even affected the way I pray! Sometimes when I am praying in the morning, for example, or preparing for a homily, I’ll have an insight—Oh, that’s what you’re doing here, Jesus, I’ll think, or maybe this is what the disciples were experiencing when you said that. And then afterwards I’ll realize that it was an insight inspired by my time with Sant’Egidio or Communion and Liberation or with Focolare—sometimes I even still have an Ignatius-inspired insight into Jesus!

But I find myself quite grateful for the immersion into the movements that my research required. In my work as a priest I am quite happy to quote Luigi Giussani, or Andrea Riccardi, or Chiara. It helps me have other ways to describe what it might be to live in our times as the disciples did in theirs. 

Yes. Each movement highlights specific aspects of the Gospel, and we can learn so much from one another. You also described the fragilities of the movement. Where do you think Focolare could do better?

It’s difficult to say, because I think that you have to answer this question yourselves. As a priest and as a scholar, I can only tell you with honesty and rigor what I see. That means I have the task of naming both grace and failure to respond to grace. I would like to add, though, that we ought not be afraid or ashamed of such failures—failures are constitutive of our experience as fragile human beings. The only people who do not fail are those who do not risk.  So, maybe that is the question for the Focolare Movement to ask itself: are you still willing to risk something great for the Lord? Maybe the risks that produced interesting institutions in the past are no longer the risks that are being asked for now.

That’s exactly what we are experiencing right now, asking ourselves, what are things we need to let go of? Where do we have to try something new? We do not all agree on what to let go of. Do we need to provide an oasis to withdraw from the world, to get recharged, or do we need to be out in the world, with the danger that some parts of the charism might get watered down? 

I wish I could give you a formula for resolving these problems because you are not the only community struggling with them. But there is no formula. Instead of a program or a recipe, what I would like to do is encourage you—as strongly as I can—to remain faithful to the gift you have been given, to continue to allow it to unfold in your personal and corporate lives.

Maybe one other thing is important to add there. It is this: Temptations to move away from the grace you have been given, to doubt that yours is a real and authentic spirituality of the Church, do not come from the Lord. This is not to say that there have not been any mistakes in uncovering and honing your charism, it is to insist that you ought not allow those mistakes to deceive you into thinking that the Lord does not continue to be present in your way of moving in the world. He continues to give now, perhaps in a new way, the same gift that He has given you from the beginning. The Spirit is still here. And whether you give that gift internally, to the Church, or externally, to the world, is less important than remaining persistent in following the vision of your charism.

There is a cultural war going on in the Church—people are either for or against Pope Francis, for or against welcoming LGBTQ+ people, and for or against allowing the Latin Mass. These quarrels are weakening the Church, giving scandal to those who seek meaning in life. How can we overcome this polarization?

You ask a very difficult question. There are all kinds of small answers that we could give that might be helpful to begin: making contact with people with whom we disagree, for example, or placing ourselves in physical spaces that are unfamiliar to us—especially those close to the poor. These can be beginnings to overcoming polarization in our country. 

On a larger scale, it can be helpful to remember that what differentiates the Catholic Church from many other institutions is that we are an internally plural organization. There are many different ways of being Catholic. Of course, there are things that we must accept that unite us—fidelity to the Pope, commitment to the magisterium, making the effort to revere the Lord at liturgy, for example. If we are not doing these things we are placing ourselves outside the community. But that does not mean there isn’t difference within it, either. We can’t be satisfied with simply being polite to one another, we have love one another. Even “dialogue”—that magic word—may be insufficient if we don’t sufficiently love the person we’re dialoguing with. 

I think the real answer is not civility but communion, the recognition that we are members of the Body of Christ together, each bringing a different gift. As St. Paul says, the gift of the eye is not the gift of the ear (see 1 Cor. 12). It is because we have this common identity that we can overcome the almost-ontological, fear-driven polarization dominating much of our world today. So, our task, as individuals and also as communities, is to do what Christians have always done: become the kinds of persons capable of being a sacrifice to the Lord for the world. Our challenges are unique, but the call is the same. We must love so fully that giving ourselves is no longer an oppressive burden but privilege—so fully that we are drawn to the unique disunity of our times like filaments to magnet.  

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.

Fr. Patrick Gilger, S.J. is a priest of the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus. A graduate of Creighton University, he has been a Jesuit since 2002. He is contributing editor for culture at America Media.