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The 'right way' of Fr. Luigi Giussani.

Monsignor Luigi Giussani died on February 22, 2005. Born in 1922, he was the founder of the lay movement Comunione e Liberazione (CL). A prolific author, Giussani was also a consultant for the Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Giussani was born in Desio, a small town near Milan, Italy. Following his 1945 ordination, he first taught in a seminary. He specialized in the theology of the Eastern Churches, American Protestant theology, and the rational motives for adherence to the faith and the Church. Giussani subsequently taught religion at the high-school level. In his encounters with young people, he began a method of communicating the Christian faith, starting from the fundamental needs of human experience--suck as the need for truth, for beauty, and for justice. Explaining that those needs are the core of the human person, he went on to show that it is precisely those needs that Jesus Christ answers. Giussani ultimately returned to teaching university theology, focusing on man's religious sense, religious belief in the contemporary world, the problems of the Church today, and the foundations of Catholic theology.

The lay movement now known as Communion and Liberation was begun in 1954. The name expresses the conviction that a Christian life lived in communion is the foundation of authentic human liberation. The mission of CL is the education of its members toward Christian maturity and co-operation with the mission of the Catholic Church in society today. CL has spread around the world from its beginnings in Milan. In Canada, it is in eight cities; in the United States, in fixty-six.

The folowing is an interview in which the founder of Communion and Liberation recounted how popes Montini and Wojtyla saved the Church from disaster.

For the funeral of Fr. Luigi Giussani at the cathedral church of Milan, Pope John Paul II sent Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as his personal representative to celebrate the ceremony and deliver the homily.

With this gesture, the pope expressed his highest esteem for the founder of Communion and Liberation (CL), who died in Milan at the age of 82 during the night of Tuesday, February 22, 2005.

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 30 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 magazines, publishing houses....

But in 2004, in a letter he wrote to pope Karol Wojtyla 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 in its original elements, and nothing more."

Cardinal Giacomo Biffi [the influential archbishop emeritus of Bologna], who was his friend since Giussani 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 high school 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 did not invent any unprecedented forms of youth pastoral work, either. In the schools, this took the form of the apostolate that Catholic Action was already offering under the name of Gioventu Studentesca ['young students']: this was an idea Giancarlo Brasca came up with in 1945, which Giussani made his own and made into the trademark of his movement [which changed years later into Communion and Liberation]. One might say that he 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 epicentre of the earthquake that has rocked the Catholic Church during recent decades: admired by some, opposed by others.

An interview with him in 1988 describes in dramatic terms how he lived through the crucial phase of the clash within the Church. In Giussani's judgment, this phase coincided with the last ten years of the pontificate of Paul VI. But the questions that were in play back then are still relevant.

Here are the essential passages of that interview, which was conducted by Renato Farina and published in the weekly newspaper II Sabato on August 9, 1988:


Q: Paul VI died in August of 1978, and then came pope Albino Luciani. Then there was the arrival of the "pope who came from far away." Do you remember the hours during which the death of Paul VI was announced?

A: "I remember those moments. [...] The Church had been plunged into such a condition that the loss of that guide seemed extremely serious to me. It had been Paul VI who, in all good faith, had looked favourably upon a certain evolution of the Church. But his love for the Church was so genuine that, at a certain point, he had to realize the disaster posed by the dynamic of things--even though these things had been approved [by him]. It was then that he opened himself completely to the experience of Communion and Liberation. So the death of Pope Montini was like the disappearance of a possible guide. He had seen [it and confirmed it]; he knew the inner workings of that process of destruction. Now, he intended to go against the tide: and he was the best choice and the one most able to do it."


When did this new intention of Paul VI come about?

A: "It dates from his famous Credo, June 30, 1968, which began the shift. Humanae vitae and the outrageous attacks to which he was subjected confirmed him in his judgment. The culmination of his disillusionment came with the referendum on divorce in Italy in 1974, when the very leaders of Catholic Action and FUCI [Italian Federation of Catholic University Students] whom he had loved and protected turned their backs on him. It is probably in this climate that Paul VI realized the capacity for Christian renewal and human responsiveness implicit in Communion and Liberation. Beginning in 1975, the signs of his new and strong sympathies increased. For Palm Sunday of that year he called to Rome all the young people of all the Catholic groups. [...] He called everyone [but] found himself with only the 17,000 of CL."/Editor's note: As an emerging lay movement, CL was sometimes viewed with suspicion by bishops who were uncertain of its role and fidelity. This was a decisive moment.]

Q: And then how did it go?

A: "[...] After the Mass, it was about noon, and I heard a prelate call me: 'Fr. Giussani, the pope wants to see you.' I was in the portico of Saint Peter's Basilica, I had the ciborium with the consecrated hosts in my hands, and I heard that voice. In the emotion of the moment I tried to hand over the ciborium to a halberdier, who drew back. Finally I was able to hurry toward the pope. I appeared before him right at the door of the church. I knelt down, I was so confused.... I remember precisely only these words: 'Have courage, this is the right way: keep going forward'."

Q: Was this something unexpected?

A: "Totally unexpected. But these were not improvised words of encouragement. [Years later] I received sure proof of this from Cardinal Benelli, the closest hierarchical collaborator of Paul VI. He told me in person that each time he visited Pope Montini during the last years of his pontificate, the pope asked him about Communion and Liberation. And he told him: 'Your Eminence, that is the way [to go]'.

"Benelli made this comment to me: 'If Paul VI had lived another year, I assure you that all your ecclesiastical problems would already have been resolved'. Paul VI would have had the courage to say so, and to do it. [...] One noteworthy confirmation of the change in Paul VI was evident in his dismissal from the supervision of Catholic Action of his close friend Bishop Franco Costa, who had determined the course of Catholic associations over the previous decades."

Q: Did Paul VI's old collaborator also mean by those words to express a specific judgment about the Church?

A: "[His words] signified affirmation of the soundness of CL's inspiration, of its validity for the Church. And this was in view of the profile of all Catholic associations during those years, when their leadership voted and directed voting [in the referendum on divorce] not in accordance with the pope's wishes. The approach of 'religious choice' had led Catholic associations to take refuge in all sorts of leftist politics: and there they pushed for divorce, among other things, without any qualms."

[Editor's note: In Canada, with a 46% Catholic population, the Catholic hierarchy had approved the government's widening of the grounds for divorce as early as 1968, just as it had accepted the legal distribution of contraceptives a year before that, in 1967, thereby undermining resistance to these changes in other strongly Catholic countries.]

Q: On September 8, 1977, Paul VI spoke to his friend Jean Guitton about 'a non-Catholic type of thought' and the resistance of a 'small flock.' For years you have wanted to have these words repeated so that they could be known to everyone. Why?

A: "Because that is what is happening. Please read me those words again."

Q: Here they are:

"There is a great disturbance at this moment in the world and in the Church, and what is in question is the faith. It happens now that I find myself repeating the obscure saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Saint Luke: 'When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?" It happens that books are published in which important points of the faith are undermined, that the bishops are silent, that these books are not found to be strange. [...] What strikes me, when I consider the Catholic world, is that a non-Catholic type of thought seems to predominate sometimes within Catholicism, and this non-Catholic thought might become the stronger one within Catholicism in the future. But it will never represent the thought of the Church. A small flock must remain, however small it may be."

A: "These words are the synthesis of the pope's reflection on the situation and destiny of the Church. This is where his openness to CL comes in." [...]

Q: Is there some strong doctrinal point that you feel to be central to the magisterium of Paul VI?

A: "The affirmation, completely against the tide, of the Church as an 'ethnic identity, sui generis.' On July 23, 1975, it was the heart of his preaching on the identity of the Church at the Wednesday general audiences. We were almost the only ones to take up this idea.

"Paul VI sensed the destruction of the Catholic presence in society. This presence was hiding itself. Or rather, instead of a Catholic presence, there was an increasingly tired and abstract closing in upon oneself in the offices of the associations, while the concrete lives of the young people themselves lined up to follow the current ideas.

"Moreover, instead of the Catholic presence, there were intellectual interpretations in the manner of the Democratic League, of the university students of the FUCI, of the Catholic Alumni. Their leaders theorized a conception of the faith that was absolutely elitist, and suicidal for the mission [of the Church].

"In the third place, the position of the Church came to be identified with political and diplomatic cunning. In any case, I believe that the news about the situation of the Catholic universities, institutes, and schools of theology was decisive in showing clearly to Paul VI the abyss toward which the Church's leadership was dragging everybody else."

Q: Some observers judge the pontificate of Paul VI as a failure.

A: "The papacy of Paul VI was one of the greatest papacies! During the first part of his life he had demonstrated an extreme sensitivity for ... the anguished condition of modern man and society. And he found a response! He gave this response during his last ten years. The papacy of Paul VI is a failure only to someone who has not thoroughly examined it."

Q: He is the pope who concluded Vatican Council II.

A: "Of course. A history should be compiled of all the courageous, and unpopular, contributions he made to stop false democracy, the dogmatic [ambiguity] that many Council fathers tried to pass off under the pretext of democracy." [...]

Q: What was the method of Paul VI in the face of the [disappearance] of the Catholic ... multitudes?

A: "It was that of the Credo. [In other words,] the authentic proclamation of dogma, sine glossa, with clarity, and of the presence of the Church in the world, as in his speech on the Christian people on Wednesday, July 23, 1975." [...]

Q: Paul VI was targeted for his rediscovery of the devil as an actor in human affairs. Even the bishops [failed to support him].

A: "Pope Montini began to realize the disaster into which the Church was sliding when he noticed the [legal formality] with which the supernatural was [treated] and represented. For this reason, his speech on the presence of the devil in the world was a challenge--and such a courageous one that it could not have been foreseen in light of his temperament--to the world and to all theology, including Catholic theology that was [conforming itself to] the world."

Q: During that month of August, 1978, with one pope dead and another dying, what were you hoping for the Church?

A: "A man who would continue an intuitive understanding of the tragedy in which the Church was [involved]; and of the only remedy, which [was] that of returning to [supernatural faith] as the determining factor in the Church's life, [of returning] to the authenticity of tradition. In short, I was hoping for a pope who would continue on the way that Paul VI had vigorously pointed out in his last years. [... As it was,] John Paul II emerged a pope who [was] the incarnation of what the last ten years of Paul VI had intuited and expressed."

The words of Paul VI to Jean Guitton cited in the interview appeared in a book by Guitton himself: The Pope speaks: Dialogues of Paul VI with Jean Guitton. The words of Cardinal Giacomo Biffi cited at the beginning of the article were taken from an interview with him in Avvenire on February 23, 2005. This article was posted at on February 24, 2005. It is reprinted by permission of the author and the translator, and has been edited for clarity.
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Article Details
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Author:Magister, Sandro
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXVA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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