THE CHURCHMAN OF THE YEAR: An Encounter on the Road
Monsignor LUIGI GIUSSANI
Founder, Communione e Liberazione
The scene inside the cavernous Duomo of Milan on 24 February 2005 had the air of a papal liturgy. The only thing missing was the Pope.
Italy's power elite of church and state had converged on the country's northern capital to pay tribute to Msgr. Luigi Giussani, whose Communione e Liberazione grew from a high school teacher's idea into one of the core "new movements" which have had a significant impact on the global church in the decades following the Second Vatican Council.
To pay homage to their spiritual father, the ciellini, as the Communione faithful are known, came en masse. The Cathedral was filled beyond its capacity of 10,000, and an additional 30,000 braved the winter weather to gather and pray in the expansive piazza outside. So respected was Giussani, and so powerful a force is CL in Italian life, that Italian television carried the entire Mass live as if it were a state funeral.
Indeed, the only thing missing was the Pope. But the absence of John Paul II, who had been returned to the Policlinico Gemelli as his own time neared, was compensated by his sending of the Vatican's biggest Communione booster, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as the papal envoy (allegedly at Ratzinger's request).
Given Ratzinger's presence, an arrangement was worked out in which he would co-preside over the Ambrosian Rite liturgy alongside Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan. The Cardinal-Dean would also give the homily, seemingly at the instigation of the movement Giussani left behind.
In his 22 years as the Vatican's doctrinal guardian, Joseph Ratzinger's speaking appearances were limited to small theological conferences and liturgies in various churches and cathedrals in his travels. He had never been papal legate to any major event, let alone tapped to give a homily which would be heard by more than a few hundred insiders. And such was the Panzerkardinal's severe public profile that nothing much was expected from him as he mounted the steps to the Duomo's super-lofty pulpit.
What followed astonished those who saw it. It was the beginning of an unexpected, dramatic sea change, the full effect of which would be consummated in two months' time.
For the first time, a mass audience got to see the softer side of Cardinal Ratzinger that day as never before. Six weeks before he caused the same effect on the global stage with his homily at the funeral of John Paul II, he offered a moving meditation on the life and work of Luigi Giussani through the prism of the premium Communione e Liberazione places on the cielini's daily encounter with the living Christ as the root of their activity in the world.
This love affair with Christ, this love story which is the whole of his life, was however far from every superficial enthusiasm, from every vague romanticism. Really seeing Christ, he knew that to encounter Christ means to follow Christ. This encounter is a road, a journey, a journey that passes also–as we heard in the psalm–through the “valley of darkness.” In the Gospel, we heard of the last darkness of Christ’s suffering, of the apparent absence of God, when the world’s Sun was eclipsed. He knew that to follow is to pass through a “valley of darkness,” to take the way of the cross, and to live all the same in true joy.The homily's effect was punctuated at its end with a spontaneous, extended, enthusiastic round of applause from the masses. By contrast, when Cardinal Tettamanzi -- who had routinely, if not universally, been touted among the "Top 5" papabili to succeed John Paul -- offered a reflection after communion, his remarks were met with dead silence.
Why is it so? The Lord himself translated this mystery of the cross, which is really the mystery of love, with a formula in which the whole reality of our life is explained. The Lord says, “Whoever seeks his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life, will find it.”
Fr Giussani really wanted not to have his life for himself, but he gave life, and exactly in this way found life not only for himself but for many others. He practiced what we heard in the Gospel: he did not want to be served but to serve, he was a faithful servant of the Gospel, he gave out all the wealth of his heart, he gave out all the divine wealth of the Gospel with which he was penetrated and, serving in this way, giving his life, this life of his gave rich fruit–as we see in this moment–he has become really father of many and, having led people not to himself but to Christ, he really won hearts; he has helped to make the world better and to open the world’s doors for heaven.
For the prelates in attendance, those watching on television and those around the world who quickly heard about it afterward, what transpired was enough for the message to go out that, while one papabile had faded, a new, unexpected contender had risen in his place.
The rest, as they say, is history.
John Paul had an abiding respect, even affection, for Luigi Giussani -- Communione's statutes were approved by the Holy See in 1982 -- but among the movements his heart belonged particularly to Opus Dei and to the Legionaries of Christ, both of which experienced expansive growth during his pontificate due in large part to his staunch support.
That said, even though he is technically not a member, Benedict XVI is the cielini Pope; John Allen reported that, at the time of Giussani's funeral, Cardinal Ratzinger had told one of its priests that the movement "changed [his] life."
Having lost its founder but gained (and helped to place) a very zealous admirer on the fifth floor of the Apostolic Palace, Giussani's legacy stands only to grow and its influence to increase. Don Luigi's hand-picked successor, Fr Julian Carron, has already been received by Pope Benedict on several occasions -- the only other religious superior to have had a private audience in this pontificate to date is the Jesuit Superior-General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. As reported in mid-December in The Tablet, two of the three cardinals who form the "kitchen cabinet" of this pontificate are themselves cielini: Angelo Scola of Venice and Marc Ouellet of Quebec. (Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a Dominican, rounds out the group.) And Benedict's household staff, who have come with him from his pre-papal days, are culled from the Memores Domini, the CL group of secular laity who profess celibacy.
Beyond the temporal matters of numbers and clout, a clear line can be drawn from Giussani's philosophy to that expressed by Benedict XVI in his addresses and writings, both in his pre- and post-election incarnations. "Christianity is an event," the Communione founder once wrote, in a meditation which sounds conspicuously like something which would emanate from Joseph Ratzinger. "There is no other word to indicate its nature: neither the word law nor the word ideology, conception, or project. Christianity is not a religious doctrine, a series of moral laws, a complex of rites. Christianity is a fact, an event: everything else is a consequence."
Another common link is an appreciation of culture and love for its richness in explaining and propagating the effect of the Christian event. In his funeral homily, the man who would be Pope alluded to this similiarity of outlook in saying that, "Fr Giussani grew up in a home–as he himself said–poor as far as bread was concerned but rich with music, and thus from the start he was touched, or better, wounded, by the desire for beauty. He was not satisfied with any beauty whatever, a banal beauty; he was looking rather for Beauty itself, infinite Beauty, and thus he found Christ, in Christ true beauty, the path of life, the true joy."
This is drawn from a shared belief in the importance, not of forced consumption of faith or the use of adversarial means in announcing it, but of allowing its seeds to be sown gently, with charity, with patience, with respect, and having the trust in its beauty -- and its logic, its sensibility -- that its germination will flow from there. Giussani once spoke about his experience as a high school teacher in these terms, saying, "I tried to show the students what moved me: not the wish to convince them that I was right, but the desire to show them the reasonableness of faith; that is, that their free adhesion to the Christian proclamation was demanded by their discovery of the correspondence of what I was saying with the needs of their hearts, as implied by the definition of reasonableness. Only this dynamic of recognition makes whoever adheres to our movement creative and a protagonist, and not simply one who repeats formulas and things they have heard. For this reason, it seems to me, a charism generates a social phenomenon not as something planned, but as a movement of persons who have been changed by an encounter, who tentatively make the world, the environment, and the circumstances that they encounter more human. The memory of Christ when it is lived tends inevitably to generate a presence in society, above and beyond any planned result."
As always happens for those who experience the Christian event to its fullest, Luigi Giussani's death brought new life, both to the church he loved and the movement he nurtured. In that his passing played a catalytic role for the chain of events which made one of his most prominent devotees the successor of Peter, ensuring a new and lasting resonance for the Communione school in the life and mission of global Catholicism, his intrepid work in life -- and his rich legacy, which has already impacted the course of the church's future -- makes him, from beyond the grave, the pre-eminent world Churchman of this historic year.