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Hungry for beauty

This is the incredible adventure of a humble Italian priest who became the founder of one of the largest Catholic movements of renewal in the world: Communion and Liberation. Born in a working class family, Fr. Luigi Giussani (1922-2005), armed with only the experience of the enclosed seminary formation, but with superior intelligence, was God’s instrument to gather the youth in the years of the students’ revolution. Notwithstanding his naïf approach and clownish face, he made them fall in love with the person of Christ, discovered in the warmth of the community. While spending his life mainly in the academy, he witnessed the mushrooming of his movement in the world He also was an intimate friend of popes. At his death, his funeral was a plebiscite.

On February 24, 2005, Pope John Paul II sent Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as his personal representative to preside and deliver the homily at the funeral of Fr. Luigi Giussani at the cathedral church of Milan. With this gesture, the Pope expressed his highest esteem for the founder of Communion and Liberation (CL) who died at the age of 82 during the night of Tuesday, February 22.

The funeral was a triumph. Ten of thousands of people crowded the historical cathedral and the square. Representatives of both the highest authorities of the government and of the Church were present at the burial. More remarkably, countless university students, who had found fresh vitality in their Christian faith under the spiritual paternity and guidance of Fr. Luigi, were there.

In his homily, Cardinal Ratzinger said: “Fr. Luigi Giussani grew up in a home – as he himself confessed – which was poor of bread but rich in music. So, since the beginning, he was touched, better wounded by the longing for beauty. And he was not satisfied with a common-place beauty, a banal beauty because he was looking for Beauty itself, the infinite Beauty. In this way, he found Jesus Christ, and in Him he found the true Beauty, the road to life, to true joy.”

“Since he was an adolescent, Luigi had created, together with other fellow seminarians, a community by the title Studium Christi. Their program was to speak about nothing else but Christ because all the rest appeared to them like a waste of time. With time, he overcame the initial unilateral position but the substance has remained the same. Only Christ gives sense to everything in our life. Fr. Luigi Giussani has always kept the gaze of his life and heart fixed on Christ.”

“Thus, he understood that Christianity is not an intellectual system, a package of dogmas or only a moralism but an encounter, a love story, a happening.” This is what the many youth, who approached Fr. Giussani, found: a person in love with Christ. They, in turn, fell in love with their faith that previously appeared to them as stale and lifeless. It was a slow avalanche, an incredible faith ground swell that originated from the simple, naïf young priest. Something that has continued up to now and looks as if it wants to survive and still grow in the future.

Today, CL is present in more than 70 countries. Adherents to the fraternity number about 100,000. Then, there are the members of Memores Domini, who take a vow of celibacy, present in thirty countries; the priests of the Fraternity of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo; the Sisters of Charity of the Assumption; the Society of Works, which joins together roughly 30,000 industrial companies; and magazine, publishing houses and other numberless initiatives.

And yet, in 2004, in a letter he wrote to Pope John Paul II on the occasion of CL's fiftieth anniversary, Fr. Giussani wrote: "I have never 'founded' anything. I maintain that the genius of the movement whose birth I witnessed is that it felt the urgency of proclaiming the need to return to the elemental aspects of Christianity. By this, I mean a passion for Christian reality as such in its original elements, and nothing more."

Virginity of the heart

Luigi Giussani was born at Desio, near Milan, Italy, in October 1922. His father, Beniamino, was an artist and anarchist who instilled in him a love of beauty, particularly in poetry, painting and music, and a desire for justice. From his mother, Angelina Gelosa, he received his religiosity. Giussani entered the Milan diocesan seminary at a young age, where he discovered a way to understand "secular" works of art (such as the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi and the music of Ludwig van Beethoven) as expressive of the religious sense and as unconscious prophecies of Christ's incarnation.

With his fellow seminarians, Giussani founded a study group and newsletter under the name Studium Christi. There is a spontaneity and freshness, like a kind of virginity, in this young man who entered the seminary early, on the threshold of adolescence, and was caught up in the love for the blessed humanity of Christ. It is this freshness and spontaneity that will constitute the extraordinary power of attraction of Fr. Guissani.

Fr. Luigi Giussani was ordained to the priesthood in 1945 at the young age of 23. His ordination had been accelerated by the authorities in the Milan archdiocese because they feared that the serious respiratory health problems he was experiencing at that time (and which would plague him in his entire life) would lead to his death before becoming a priest. Following his ordination, Fr. Luigi began teaching at Venegono Seminary.

His academic interests were Eastern Christian Theology and American Protestantism. In the early 1950s, he requested his superiors to allow him to leave seminary teaching to work in high schools. It was at this point of his life that the trivial incident happened that would change his outlook and point to his future special vocation in the Church.

That trip by train

This is his account of the episode: “The first time the idea came to me to do something special was in the train, when I was going from Milan to Rimini. It was there that I came across some young people. There in the train, I started conversing and discussing with them and I discovered that they were almost totally ignorant about religion and Christianity: their skepticism, their derisory attitude, their ostentatious incredulity did not cause anger in me but rather pain because they were obviously affected by an abysmal ignorance…It was this contact that made ardent zeal rise up in me, almost a “rage,” so that they may know what I had encountered myself; so that they may be many who know it.”

He goes on describing his feeling as he was, for the first time, entering the college where he would teach: “I remember as if it were now the instant in which I entered the Berchet Lyceum at Milan. There were four steps to climb, from the sidewalk to the entrance, and this is what I was thinking, while climbing them: What am I doing here? Why do I come here? To tell these young men what I have felt and understood myself. Because if they do not understand nor feel that, I cannot comprehend how can they live.”

Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, who was Fr. Luigi Giussani’s friend since he was a young priest and theologian, confirms this: "That's just how it was. When, in 1954, Giussani quit teaching theology in order to dedicate himself full-time to the boys of Berchet College in Milan, he had no conviction that he was starting something unprecedented. He simply wanted to make perennial Christianity known in a more effective, coherent, and persuasive manner to the adolescents who came to him. He didn't invent any unprecedented forms of youth pastoral work, either. In the schools, this took the form of the apostolate that the Catholic Action was already offering under the name of Gioventù Studentesca (Studying Youth).

One might say that Fr. Giussani poured new wine into old wineskins. He didn't even think about establishing a program for the movement. He had only one great concern: to transmit the experience of Christianity to everyone." And it is precisely because of this concentration on "Christianity and nothing more" that Fr. Giussani found himself at the epicenter of the earthquake that has rocked the Catholic Church during recent decades: admired by some, opposed by others.

The vibrant scholar

Fr. Luigi taught at the Berchet Lyceum in Milan from 1954 to 1964. During this time, his primary intellectual interest was the problem of education. In 1964, Fr. Giussani began teaching Introductory Theology at the Sacred Heart Catholic University in Milan, a position he occupied for almost three decades. In the late 1960s, he devoted himself to theological studies and was sent by his religious superiors on several periods of study in the United States. As a result, he wrote one of his major works, An Outline of American Protestant Theology: A Historic Profile from the Origins to the 50s.

In 1969, he returned to pick up the fragments of Gioventù Studentesca which had disintegrated in the wake of the tumultuous student rebellions that swept Europe following the events of May 1968. Under the new name Communion and Liberation, the movement attracted university students and adults, in addition to high school students. The development that followed had the characteristic of a charismatic phenomenon.

Tens of thousands of young people all over the world felt the attraction of CL’s proposal. Members of the movement, which Fr. Giussani led from 1969 until his death in 2005, became influential not only in the Church but also in politics and business. Fr. Giussani's several writings have been translated into many different languages, attracting a worldwide following.

Fr. Luigi Giussani died in his dwelling in Milan. He was buried in the section of Milan’s “Monumental” Cemetery reserved for illustrious citizens of the city, in a newly-built chapel. From that time on, the tomb has been visited by thousands of pilgrims from Italy and the world. In 2012, Fr. Julián Carrón, president of the Fraternity of CL, announced that he had presented the request for opening the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Fr. Giussani. The request was accepted by the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola.

Communion and Liberation

CL is an ecclesial movement. Its origin can be traced to an impulse of the Holy Spirit, and, as Pope Benedict XVI observed, "is thus inserted into that vast flowering of associations, movements and new ecclesial realities providentially raised up by the Holy Spirit in the Church after the Second Vatican Council."

In 1975, during a youth pilgrimage to Rome for Palm Sunday, Pope Paul VI encouraged Fr. Giussani, in a private conversation, with these words: "This is the path, go on like this." In 1982, as it continued to expand, the "Fraternity of Comunion and Liberation" was declared an "Association of Pontifical Right."

And in 1984, Pope John Paul II received 10,000 CL members in an audience, giving them this challenging mandate: "Go into all the world to bring the truth, beauty, and peace you have encountered in Christ the Redeemer. This is the task that I leave with you today." A new impulse was thus given to the missionary spread of the movement, which is today present in some 70 countries.

Fr. Giussani’s charismatic certainty that, through the life of the Church, we can arrive at sufficient certainty about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, adhere to His teachings, and discern adequate reasons to believe in Him, revives Christian apologetics. Jesus is certainly a fact of history. And yet, at the same time, He reacted to the reduction of Christianity to something in the past. Jesus of Nazareth is not only Someone who lived and died. He is alive. "The Christian proclamation is that God has become a human presence, carnal, within history. God is not something far away that man tries to reach by his own effort, but Someone who came to join in man's journey, and became his companion."

The "Christian claim"

The person of Jesus was the intellectual and emotional center of Fr. Luigi Giussani's life. This centrality was the anchor of his existence. In Jesus Christ, Fr. Giussani found the only Being who, precisely because of His twofold nature, was fully human, capable of understanding, from within each person's expectations and, at the same time, capable of responding to these like no one else, because He was God.

Throughout its history, humanity had many opportunities to experience the manifestation of the sacred. But with the birth of Israel, something absolutely new came about. With the call of Abraham, God chose time, history, as the privileged venue within which to reveal Himself. The process was reversed. It was no longer man in search of God, but God in search of man.

The fact that Christianity is not a collection of doctrines, a catalog of behavioral norms, but something that happened in history, an event, a "coming," is a recurring theme of Fr. Giussani; it is the heart of his faith and experience. Christianity, therefore, was a completely new path. He writes: "If there is one crime that a religion can commit, it is that of saying: I am the only way. This is exactly what Christianity claims. It is not unjust to feel repugnance in the face of such a statement. What would be unjust would be failing to ask the reason for this claim."

Where can we find the testimony of this claim by Jesus, by the Mystery that entered into history? In the Gospels, Fr. Giussani replies. An event can be experienced. How can it be experienced today? By beginning to experience the memory and the proclamation of Him presented by those who have been drawn to Him: the Church as the continuity of Christ, as His body, His presence. Encountering Jesus means encountering those who believe in Him, the unity of believers, the body that the Spirit creates by assimilating to Jesus every person who entrusts himself to Him.

Fr. Giussani must have meditated for a long time on the teaching method of Jesus. In fact, he tried to duplicate it in his relationship with young people. He talks about three factors in the teaching method of Jesus. First, Jesus is a master to be followed. Then there is the need for renunciation. There is no Christianity if there is no sacrifice, acceptance of trial, detachment. Finally, the third principle, it is necessary to proclaim one's allegiance to Jesus in front of everyone so that people may know that He is the center of our affectivity and our freedom. Only love can explain and enable this process, can usher us properly into this inconceivable claim by Jesus.


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