Recalling Luigi Giussani’s Passion for Christ

 Se ieri non sapevo, oggi ho incontrato Te…
(I did not know my longing, till I encountered You…)

 Il Disegno (The Design)

It all began on a train with a group of students, a young priest, in a shared compartment.  What took place was a conversation about faith, a subject upon which the students, for all that they had been baptized and catechized, were completely clueless.

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It wasn’t that they didn’t have any faith; or that they had formally rejected the Church that first introduced them to it.  They were not apostates.  It was simply that none of it seemed to matter very much.  It had no real or immediate relevance to their lives; it awakened no sense of urgency in their hearts.  No fire in the belly.

The year was 1954, and the young priest, a wonderfully exuberant Italian by the name of Luigi Giussani, never got over the experience.  “I found them so unaware of the most elementary things,” he was to write years later, “and so indifferent to them, that I felt an uncontrollable desire to share my experience with them.  I wanted them to have, as I had had, the experience of the ‘beautiful day.’”

That journey on the train changed his life.  Also the lives of countless young people for whom he would harness all that he had to offer in order to bring Christ to their world.  To enable them to experience the beautiful day that had first enraptured him.  Passion for Christ having become the transformative experience of his life, he was determined to infuse the lives of others, especially the young, with that same passion.  “I would like to share with you,” he told them, “the stunning wonder (the Italian word is stupore) which, vibrating at the heart of my existence, has made it possible for me to grasp the profound rationality which moved me as a man to take up the study and pursuit of God.”  And so, soon after the incident on the train, Fr. Giussani left his post at the seminary, where conditions could hardly have been more congenial, and plunging into the maelstrom of secondary school education, began teaching teenagers all about God.

“Do you really believe in Christ?” he would ask the students, and even the most outwardly Catholic, those who wore the badge of Catholic Action and whose lives appeared decent and upright, would invariably respond as though addressing an alien.  “They would look at me dumbfounded and I don’t remember if even one of them answered ‘Yes’ with the spontaneity of someone who has a true root of faith inside him.”

Luigi Giussani 2An extraordinary movement thereupon began from within the heart of the Church.  The young priest, galvanized into action by the ignorance and indifference of so many to the exigencies of their faith, resolved on a bold strategy of evangelization, in which the encounter with the event of Jesus Christ became the key experience of their lives.   What was the heart of the proposal he felt compelled to make?  It was, very simply, “the announcement of an event that happened, that surprises people in the same way the angel’s announcement two thousand years ago in Bethlehem surprised the poor shepherds….”

In other words, what formed the centerpiece of the entire enterprise was a recognition regarding the basic reasonableness of faith.  That belief in God, belief in Christ and the gift of the Spirit sent to renew the face of the earth, far from imposing arbitrary or impossible demands, succeeded in speaking directly to the mind and heart of men everywhere.  Is it not the same heartbeat, Fr. Giussani would repeatedly ask, that animates man wherever he may be found?   “Christ’s message is so much in keeping with what man longs for,” he would argue, “that the individual who hears it cannot help being struck by it.”

Here was evidence of Giussani’s distinctive genius, i.e., his untiring, unremitting insistence upon the universality of “the religious sense”—that is, the elemental human longing to know the meaning of everything, and so to dwell amid the precincts of an indestructible joy and freedom, truth and beauty.  Here was nature’s secret warhead for the explosions of grace to follow.  That the proposal of Jesus Christ uniquely and comprehensively corresponds to the deepest desires of the human heart.   Awareness of that fact would furnish the impetus giving birth to the ecclesial movement called Communion and Liberation.

Following its initial stirrings among the youth of Milan, the movement soon spread throughout Italy and Europe, and is today represented in over seventy countries, including the United States and Canada.  “I still remember perfectly the day,” he would recall years later, “so important for my life, when I walked up the four steps to the school’s entrance for the first time.  I was saying to myself:  ‘I am coming here to give these people what was given to me.’  I say that because that was the only reason we have done what we have done and why we will continue to do it as long as God allows us to: that they should know Him, that people should know Christ.”

It is this that fires the enthusiasm of the young for CL—response to the reality of Jesus Christ.  It is an event so totalizing as to leave no aspect of one’s life untouched by the movement of grace, radiating out from a God whose center, as Dante tells us, is everywhere, whose circumference nowhere.  “We place in the center of our life this Presence that explains everything, that is at the origin of all we are and do…. And this Presence is precisely the man Jesus, born of a woman.”  The encounter with whom, for men and women separated by two millennia or more of time and history, can only take place, can only take hold, within the life of the Church (i.e., Communion).  Satisfaction of the deepest and most urgent needs of the human heart (i.e., Liberation), therefore, necessarily requires a Church.  And all this, says Giussani, is the sign of the movement’s greatness:  “that everything happens within the horizon of the presence of Christ, that is, of our companionship … that the experience of the love of Christ is all-encompassing.”

Giussani, in making his point, is recalling a line from Romano Guardini, one of the titanic figures of twentieth century Catholic theology, in whose bright shadow so many lesser lights are grateful to live and move:  “In the experience of a great love, everything that happens becomes an event related to that love.”  In other words, nothing escapes the ambit of the love of Christ, whose sympathy for man reaches into every corner of the human heart, exposing an emptiness that only he can fill.

“That is the religious experience,” exclaimed Jorge Bergoglio, years before circumstance led him to the conclave at which he would emerge as Pope Francis: “the astonishment of meeting Someone who has been waiting for you all along.”  Indeed, the future Pope’s encounter with the writings of Luigi Giussani would change the course of his own life.  “For many years now, “ he writes confidingly of the man who helped shape his spiritual life, “his writings have inspired me to reflect and have helped me to pray.  They have taught me to be a better Christian….”

What it all finally came down to for the young priest from Milan sixty years ago, was the truly breathtaking fact that God had become man.  The sheer unforeseen enfleshment of the Word, the very ground of the godhead entering into the grit and the grime of this fallen world.  “Not only had Being (Beauty, Truth) not disdained to clothe its perfection in flesh,” he once wrote, “and to bear the toils of this human life, but it had come to die for man.”  That, he insists, was the whole story of his life.  “My life as a very young man was literally invaded by this fact … a stimulus to make me reevaluate the banality of everyday life.  The present moment, from then on, was no longer banal for me.  Everything that existed—and therefore everything that was beautiful, true, attractive, fascinating, even as a possibility—found in that message its reason for being….”

The notion that even banality may be lifted onto the plane of blessedness, of a beauty past change, is the stuff of fairy tales.  Yet as J.R.R. Tolkein would often insist: “Never was a tale told that men would rather find to be true.”  In the after glow of which, all life, even the least and most unprepossessing, becomes an endless and incomprehensible miracle.

In honoring the memory of this most remarkable Servant of God, who died nine years ago this month (February 22, 2005), we ask that we too might be moved by the same passion for God that possessed his life.  In short, that a life of reason made perfect by the grace of faith, by the Event of Jesus Christ, become the defining experience of our own lives as well.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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