May 29 marks the 20th year when Chiara Lubich, the late founder and president of the Focolare Movement, established the Economy of Communion (EoC) in Brazil. After the fall of Communism, Chiara Lubich felt that humanity needs to be unshackled from the culture of having excessive consumerism.
EoC expert Professor Luigino Bruni provides us with these insights on the very soul of EoC, as published in the April-May issue of New City Philippines.
Bruni said: “Nothing is worth more than act of ‘gratuitousness.’ Thus, economics should not ignore it as it usually does. We can appreciate its importance simply by considering the fact that the element which makes friendship, love, prayer and beauty the most precious goods in our lives, lies fundamentally in their being gratuitous. In fact if we reflect for a moment, we’ll realize that it is precisely gratuitousness – the free, disinterested gift of self – that distinguishes a true friend from an opportunist, a family from a structure exchanging goods and services, a work of art from a commodity, and a heartfelt prayer from magic or superstition.
“We all know how important gratuitousness is from our everyday experience. We all seek it, and we suffer, above all, when we realize that it is lacking in us, in others, or when it is betrayed. However the minute we attempt to reflect on it in order to give it a definition, its significance seems to evade us and it either becomes too complicated or even trivial. Perhaps it’s better to leave it undefined or, if we must, define it by indicating that which it is not.
“Gratuitousness is also a word, a concept of the Economy of Communion (EoC). I would go a bit further to add that the EoC can be fully considered an experience of gratuitousness. Why? As Chiara Lubich often reminds us, it was launched as an “an act of love,” as inner obedience to the voice of the Spirit, as an answer to a prayer for justice and freedom raised to heaven for decades by the members of the Focolare in Brazil, uniting itself to the prayers of the many ‘poor of the world.’ It echoed the numerous prayers lifted up, danced or sung for centuries in that country, as well as in many other parts of the world.
“Thus the EoC was not launched to achieve an economic plan, or to combat something or someone; neither was it to fulfill the dream of a reformer. Precisely since it was launched out of a vocation (vocatio, Latin for ‘calling’) it possesses that specific character of gratuitousness; because perhaps it is only that which is born from an inner calling to which one assents, that can be gratuitous since it is truly free. In fact, a gratuitous act exists only where there is freedom, and only such actions are truly free.
“Gratuitousness is therefore a concept that could express by itself the entire reality of the Economy of Communion. Communion in fact can be called ‘a gratuitous encounter.’ Herein lies its prophetic nature, and its divine origin, but also its fragility: for there can be no communion without an encounter, and without gratuitousness, there’s no encounter but a contract.
“In this sense, gratuitousness is central to the EoC. Perhaps we have employed concepts which are coessential, throughout these years to speak about EoC. For example, are not sharing and reciprocity also concepts of the EoC and don’t they mean things other than gratuitousness?
“Therefore, can gratuitousness embrace all these others concepts? The answer is both yes and no. Gratuitousness is in fact one of those ‘profound’ words, like beauty, love, truth, freedom, that are both particular and universal at the same time. Their common feature is precisely that each of them also includes the others in itself: a good life is not just beauty, or truth, or freedom alone. But it is also true that freedom, truth, and beauty by themselves portray the essence of a good life. Thus, the word gratuitousness in the EoC signifies a particular aspect, but if well understood, it could also signify the nature of this experience and most certainly of other experiences too. We can say that no one can possess gratuitousness; otherwise it would cease to be just like truth which is always elusive.
“As things stand, these past 20 years of the Economy of Communion can be considered a history of gratuitousness. In reply to the often asked question, ‘What do you offer to someone who participates in the EoC?’ we answer, ‘The joy of communion and the celebration in giving.’
“The logic of dividing the profits into three parts - a practice of the EoC business - is also based on gratuitousness: the enterprise must develop because that is love for the one who works in it and for the one who makes a livelihood on its yields, as well as to be able to continue to give. The culture which forms us is the ‘culture of giving’, for the profits donated to those in need are always the principal sacrament of the gratuitousness of an EoC firm. This is the good thing about the EoC: even amid invoices, ledgers, calculations, contracts, accruals and interests, the fragrance of gratuitousness emanates more powerfully from the life of these enterprises, as in a game of children, or in a wedding banquet.
“Modern culture has tried to relegate gratuitousness to the private sphere, while decidedly banishing it from the public sphere. In particular it has expelled it from the economic sphere: the economy can content itself with contracts, incentives, good rules and interests.
“Gratuitousness is not an economic term, so much so that economics has confused it with other beautiful words, like altruism or philanthropy. These words are however different from gratuitousness, which has nothing to do with the ‘doing’ but with the ‘being’ of persons. Gratuitous giving draws no stimulus from one’s own generosity, or for that matter from the self-satisfaction obtained in giving. Economics has also tried to replace it with merchandise: do we not perhaps fill up our lives with things, with goods, especially when we perceive the lack of gratuitousness (i.e., of genuine interpersonal relationships) in our lives?
“If, instead, the economy too is considered and lived by making room for gratuitousness, then when we produce, work, toil and suffer in our EoC firms, we are not only producing, toiling and suffering but we are also giving life to a new humanism.
“This is an operation that has an immense cultural and practical value because if the economic activity loses complete contact with the aspect of gratuitousness, it places the conditions for its own implosion — and our observation of the present economic realities confirms this ever more strongly and clearly.
“Perhaps the greatest gift that the EoC can make to today’s society is to restore gratuitousness back to the economy. In fact gratuitousness is increasingly asked for in the day-to-day transactions of the market. But its demand does not obtain the supply simply because a ‘gratuitous market’ does not and will never exist.
“Instead the EoC, precisely because it was launched as a vocation, can offer it gratuitously, thereby contributing to the humanization of the economy and of society.”
Jesus Christ said that it’s easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Paradise – a warning on how greed can destroy us. Those who are engaged in EoC enterprises are ensuring their passage to Paradise while making money as well.
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