The Life of Fr. Giussani

Alberto Savorana on his book, The Life of Luigi Giussani.
Alberto Savorana

Eight years after the death of the founder of Communion and Liberation comes a biography rich with previously unknown facts and exclusive photographs, written by a man who shared 20 years of his life with Fr. Giussani. Alberto Savorana’s book will be presented in Milan, at the Catholic University, on September 13th at 6:30pm. Following the opening remarks by the rector, Franco Anelli; Episcopal Vicar Luca Bressan, on behalf of Cardinal Angelo Scola; and Julián Carrón, President of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, the speakers will be Eugenio Mazzarella, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the Frederick II University of Naples; Paolo Mieli, President of RCS Libri; and Giorgio Vittadini, President of the Foundation for Subsidiarity. Monica Maggioni, Director of RaiNews24, will moderate.
At the presentation in Rome – Teatro Eliseo, September 23rd, 7:00pm – after the opening remarks by Julián Carrón, the speakers will be Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Ezio Mauro, Editor of the newspaper La Repubblica; and Salvatore Abbruzzese, Professor of Sociology at the University of Trento. Roberto Fontolan, Director of the Communion and Liberation International Center, will moderate.

Vita di don Giussani is a first attempt at recounting who Luigi Giussani (1922-2005), a priest of the Ambrosian diocese, was and how he lived.

Beyond reconstructing a chronicle of the life of the founder of Communion and Liberation, this biography also offers the mark of his heredity to readers. In this book – constructed on the basis of the sources currently available, the testimonies of people who knew him, and what he himself said and did over the course of his long life – what emerges is how Fr. Giussani continually reread the facts that happened to him, judging them and offering them as guidance for the road that every person must travel.

The pages of unpublished sources consulted by the author number in the thousands: transcriptions of speeches and dialogues, notebooks, and correspondence with family members (the first document is a postcard written to his father in 1935, when “Gigetto” was barely 12 years old), friends, bishops, and popes. The pages of Fr. Giussani’s books, rich with events from his life, also merge into this biography. Finally, many eyewitnesses help to reconstruct important moments, some of which were heretofore unknown or only vaguely outlined.

Vita di don Giussani is an attempt to guide readers by the hand on a sort of journey through time. It is as if they become spectators of what happened within the walls of the Giussani house in Desio, the large spaces of the Venegono Seminary, the Milan of the early 1950s, the classrooms of the Berchet high school, the crisis of the student protest movement of 1968 – which was then followed by the birth of Communion and Liberation – passing through ecclesial, social, and political events, until the last years of his life, progressively marked by illness. It is an invitation to immerse oneself in the story of a man who experienced almost all of the 20th century, as well as the beginning of the new millennium.

The story of Fr. Giussani is so significant – said Fr. Julián Carrón, his successor as head of CL since 2005 – because he lived our same circumstances, and had to face the same challenges and the same risks; he himself had to make the same journey he describes in so many passages of his works.

The circumstances that he went through and the people that he met were decisive in shaping Fr. Giussani’s vocation: his parents, his teachers and classmates at the Seminary, readings, the priesthood, the first young people that he met in the confessional or on the train, teaching, misunderstandings and recognitions, his illness. Fr. Giussani always considered Christianity to be a fact, a real event in human life, having the form of an encounter, and he invited everyone to verify its pertinence to life’s needs. Thus it was for the many young people and adults all over the world who recognized in this priest, with his hoarse yet charming voice, not only a teacher from whom to learn, but above all a man with whom to compare themselves, a trustworthy traveling companion in responding to the question: how can one live?

In skimming through the pages of this volume, the unmistakable characteristics of Fr. Giussani’s personality emerge ever more clearly: first of all, his enthusiasm for the figure of Christ, which led him to write, as a new priest at age 24, “The greatest joy of a person’s life is feeling Jesus Christ alive and vibrant in the flesh of one’s own thought and one’s own heart. The rest is fleeting illusion or manure.” In the second place, life offered as “an act of love, for the many souls of my fellow men, for whose happiness the Lord Jesus died, for whose eternal happiness the Lord Jesus called me to give my life with Him… […] For some years now, I do not cry but for two motives: the thought of the eternal unhappiness of my fellow men – the thought of the earthly unhappiness of men, a symbol of the eternal one. Jesus chose us to shout His love and the happiness of men to the world: the great and unspeakable happiness that awaits us.” Finally, educative passion, animated by awareness of the historical context in which he found himself living: “In a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction […], showing the relevance of faith to life’s needs, and therefore – and this ‘therefore’ is important – showing that faith is rational, […] that faith corresponds to some fundamental, original need that all men and women feel in their hearts.”
The root of Fr. Giussani’s contribution to the life of the Church can be found at the level of these salient traits. Faced with a popular faith that often survived as pure tradition, progressively less deeply rooted in the real existence of people, and exposed to the winds of a secular mentality that was hostile to, or at least distant from, Christian life, he realized as early as the 1950s that the weakness of the Christian experience stemmed from the fact that faith becomes incomprehensible, if man’s needs are not taken seriously.
For this reason, Fr. Giussani found a correspondence – while still a young seminarian – in the encounter with Giacomo Leopardi, in whose infinite expectations he traced the expression of a profound religiosity: “At age 13, I memorized all of Leopardi’s poetic work, because the problems that he raised seemed to me to obscure all others. For an entire month, I studied nothing but Leopardi, […] the most striking companion on my religious journey.”

All of the history recounted in this book finds its source in what Fr. Giussani called the “beautiful day,” which he lived when his high school teacher, Fr. Gaetano Corti, read and explained the Prologue of the Gospel of John: “And the Word became flesh…” “From then on – said Fr. Giussani – the instant was no longer banal for me.” And the instant includes every twist and turn in life. Because of this, he could write, in 1965, “I measure thoughts and actions, moods and reactions, days and nights. But the profound companionship and the complete Witness is Another Presence. This is the long journey that we must complete together, this is the real adventure: the discovery of that Presence in our flesh and in our bones, the immersion of our being in that Presence – that is, Sanctity.”

The continual experience of this discovery allowed him to enter into a relationship with everything and everyone, in a tension full of curiosity and appreciative openness toward the vast range of human, religious, artistic, and cultural expressivity. It was a positive starting point, with no trace of reactivity. “We are not born to respond to emergencies: we are born to say that Christ came. I used to think about this while going to Berchet early in the morning,” in long-ago 1954.

This is precisely what allowed him to give life to the reality of Communion and Liberation, not as a project conceived of in his mind, but as a progressive expansion of his life and communication of his experience to whomever he met. “I started to feel the Movement when I started to talk; it wasn’t something difficult, it was something imposing.” And later, “So it was that I saw a people taking shape, in the name of Christ. Everything in me became truly more religious, with my awareness striving to discover that ‘God is all in all.’ […] What could have seemed at most to be an individual experience was becoming a protagonist in history, and so an instrument of the mission of the one People of God.” In a letter to John Paul II in 2004, he wrote, almost as a summation of his entire existence, “Not only did I have no intention of ‘founding’ anything, but I believe that the genius of the Movement that I saw coming to birth lies in having felt the urgency to proclaim the need to return to the elementary aspects of Christianity, that is to say, the passion of the Christian fact as such in its original elements, and nothing more.”

Whoever will have the patience to peruse the pages of this book will not find it strange to read, in one of his last interviews – on the occasion of his 80th birthday – this affirmation by Fr. Giussani: “Everything developed for me in the most absolute normality, and I was amazed only as things took place, because it was God who was doing them, making them the thread of a story that was happening – and is happening – before our eyes.” It wasn’t just a nice phrase – in fact, he was so thoroughly convinced that his life was in the hands of an Other that he could affirm in all tranquility: “My last thought was that, the following week, [the Movement] could still be alive, that we would still be there. We were born with this, I won’t say humility, but realistic sense of our smallness.”

Fr. Giussani spent himself unreservedly to witness that Christ is the Lord of life and of history, that it is His initiative to generate that new reality in the world that is called Church. “When we forget that Christ is the key to everything,” he said just before the revolution of 1968, “Christianity becomes nothing.”

Therefore, he always fought against the intellectual, associational, and moralistic reduction of the Christian experience – starting with that of the Movement, first GS and then CL – to a crystallized and static form, a set of abstract definitions, or a product of human effort. For this reason, he affirmed, “From all of my experience, I believe that I could testify in front of the Lord: the only pure thing was the beginning, and the continuous beginning, every day, of that which the Lord prompted me to do. What the Lord prompted me to do is a tentative and humble interpretation, content only to be able to give glory to the Lord, for all that was done and that happened.”

It is not the author’s intention to “enclose” Fr. Giussani’s life in the pages of this volume, but rather to arouse in those who will read it or leaf through it the desire to know him even better, through what he himself left to everyone as his heredity: “The texts left behind and the uninterrupted continuation – God willing – of people indicated as a point of reference, as a true interpretation of what happened in me.”

ALBERTO SAVORANA, a professional journalist since 1987, worked for RAI USA in New York. From 1994 to 2008, he was the editor of Traces, the international magazine of Communion and Liberation. He is currently the head of the CL press and public relations office, and of the Movement’s editorial activities.

For more information in Italian, including the possibility to buy the book, click here.