Father Luigi Giussani

A Life That Continues

The CL founder's biography has just been released in Italy. In this interview author Alberto Savorana, speaks about his work experience and rediscovering everything he lived at Giussani’s side. The result is a work that offers us Fr. Giussani- alive.
Davide Perillo

It took five and a half years of work, including more than 50,000 pages read and studied–archives, witnesses, books... But now that his Vita di Don Giussani [Life of Father Giussani] (Rizzoli, 1,354 pages, 25 euros; the English translation is already in progress) is arriving in bookstores, it’s striking to hear what Alberto Savorana, head of the CL Press Office, confesses at the end of the interview: “The desire that I have now is to disappear. I only wish that whoever has the patience to read even one chapter, will have the curiosity to read and know more. It’s only a beginning, a first attempt.”

It’s true, of course. But it’s an impressive beginning–for the substance and depth of the work, and because it comes from one of the people who knew Fr. Giussani best. They spent 20 years working side by side, with Savorana as “spokesperson” of the Movement, editor of this magazine (which he ran from 1994 to 2008), and collaborator in the publication of his works–Fr. Giussani passed away in 2005 at the age of 82, and the opening of his beatification cause has been requested. But, above all, those 20 years were marked by close friendship, true and alive, which has found in this latest editorial venture another, truly unforeseen, way forward.

In reading the book, one discovers many things about Fr. Giussani, which then awakens a desire to discover many more, to deepen one’s knowledge of his personal story and of the charism. But if there is an element that prevails immediately, from the first browse through the pages to the very last line, it is precisely this clear, sharp perception of a life that continues, of a present, and not a “devout remembrance,” to use an expression that was dear to Giussani himself. This volume offers him to us, alive. For this reason, it is a challenge, just as it was–it is–for the author.

How did this book come to be, Alberto?
One evening in February of 2008, I was at dinner with a small group of friends and Fr. Carrón. At the end of the night, he said that maybe, since a few years had passed since Fr. Giussani’s death, the moment had come to envision a first attempt at composing a documented account of his life. Then he asked me if I felt up to it. For me, it was a complete surprise, also because I had the specific intention of not getting involved in telling Giussani’s story–both for modesty’s sake and knowledge of my limits, and because I shared 20 years of my life, both personal and professional, with him.

What was your reaction?
It was twofold. On the one hand, I felt humbled, because an undertaking of this nature seemed absolutely disproportionate to my abilities. On the other hand, I felt a growing enthusiasm, because it meant obeying someone who asked it of me. This immediately put me in a condition of openness and freedom. The one who had suggested that task to me could revoke the mandate at any time. It was an objective fact–the sign that the Mystery was involved. The next day, I said yes. But in my heart, I had decided that very evening...

But what did you think when imagining the amount of work that awaited you? You must have been a little frightened by the thought of it...
The first question was: Where to begin? I remember that I even asked Carrón this. He responded by telling me about how he and his friends, seminarians and then young priests in Madrid, had started to study the historicity of the Gospels. The enthusiasm for the experience that they lived among themselves, and with their teachers, had increased their desire to investigate, to understand further how it had all begun. “Try to do the same,” he told me. “Throw yourself into the research, the reading, the investigation of the facts and the sources, starting from the present that you live. Let things strike you, and you will see that the path to follow will almost come by itself.” I was not dealing with a work of detached historical commemoration; I was directly concerned, both because I had lived it, at least in the last 25 years, and because one cannot have an inkling of the elements of a man’s life if there is not already something in you that you have lived as a question, expectation, difficulty.

In the introduction, you talk about “human sympathy,” in the full sense of the term, that is, sharing…
Yes. I was guided by a gaze full of friendly curiosity toward a man who had lived what I had lived. In many instances, in finding certain elements and facts of Giussani’s life, the comparison with myself was immediate.

For example?
When he recounted that, at age 13, he had a moment of flight, that he spent part of the summer reading all of Leopardi because he was having a crisis and nothing could calm his questions if not those readings, etc. I always thought, “Age 13, right... It must have really been when he was in high school.” Well, I found in the seminary records that, precisely in that year, a moment of crisis in his life was noted, and this was confirmation that when he said “age 13,” it really was age 13. In that instant, I thought of how I looked at my first two children when they were 13–that is, as children who were just on the threshold of the possibility of reason. And given that this discovery coincided with my daughter being 13, I instantly realized that I had in front of me not a little girl who was still “incapable of understanding and wanting,” but a reasonable being who, in her own way, was living the same questions, worries, and desires that I have. And many episodes caused me to make this comparison. For this reason, I was very struck when Carrón said, at the Fraternity Exercises, “The story of Fr. Giussani is so significant, because he lived our same circumstances, and had to face the same challenges and the same risks.”

But isn’t this the same thing that happened in the relationship with him when he was alive?
Yes, but the work on the book objectified it, because it forced me to focus more on the facts and not stop at appearances. Fr. Giussani had such a strong personality that sometimes it happened that you stopped there, without taking the step that allowed you to realize that, in reality, that personality was the sign and voice of something else. Immersing myself in the work on the documents forced me to go beneath the surface of the facts, to read them as signs that pointed to something else. From this point of view, the most resounding sign in his whole life was the imposing nature of the figure of Christ, who emerges as an absolutely dominant element. Giussani was very young when he wrote this phrase: “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.” This is the opposite of despising things; it’s putting them in their proper perspective. For Giussani, in all of his life, this is an impressive fact: Christ is the consistence of things, He is the reality of reality.

You write that, in him, “the sense of the Incarnation dominates, the recognition of the presence of Christ here and now, of His contemporaneousness…”
Absolutely. And it dominated from the day in which his professor, Gaetano Corti, read and explained the prologue of the Gospel of John. It was so dominant that he later said, “From then on, the instant was no longer banal for me.” There lies the keystone of the story of a young man who discovered the secret of life, the secret that he hadn’t been able to make out before, to the point that he had engaged in that dialectic with Leopardi. The “beautiful day,” as he called it, was the one in which Giussani understood that the beauty that Leopardi was pursuing had become flesh. It was Christ.

You were a direct witness of many of the facts that you relate. What helped you to not let the dimension of personal memory prevail?
First of all, it was a specific choice. I didn’t put “my memories of Fr. Giussani” in the book; I always tried to rely on sources, documents, and witnesses that I considered reliable, and on Giussani himself. And even when I recount episodes of which I myself was a witness, I do it almost as an onlooker at the window, who sees something happen. But what helped me the most in making this work as objective as possible was listening to Carrón talk over these years. For me, it is decisive to see how he relives Giussani’s words, how they pass through his humanity–the questions, the difficulties, the needs of the life of the Movement and of life in general... It helped immediately to point out the right path, and above all to correct.

Every time that I heard him, it put me in a less inadequate perspective with respect to the amount of materials that I could approach, particularly the unpublished ones. Fr. Giussani talked a lot. But above all, for his whole life, he talked, substantially, about his own life. As he grew he continually reread the moments that he had lived. Not as intimate and individual episodes, but as the documentation of a method: the method of experience, which he applied to himself from the start. Carrón helped me to follow this method and take it up again.

What does it mean that Fr. Giussani learned everything from experience, from the facts that happened to him?
For him, all of reality was a sign. It was not exhausted in what can be seen and touched, but it pointed beyond. It’s Montale’s famous “all images have written in them ‘further.’” He looked at every episode of his life with this perspective, and thus it made him an example for everyone. Be it a personal matter, his health, an encounter with a pope, or with the latest kid he had met in a courtyard of the Catholic University of Milan, everything was the emergence before his eyes of a depth that went beyond the fleeting fact. So much so that there are moments in which he takes a phrase used by a student, or something that seems insignificant, and uses it as the content of a lesson, a book, or a proposal.

Concretely, how did you work? How did you proceed with respect to all of the material?
I was very mechanical. First of all, I identified the primary sources on which I would work. They included the archive materials that the Fraternity and CL allowed me to consult for this occasion, other accessible archives, some private sources–for example, the correspondence with his sisters–and the unpublished sources, which I knew well because I’ve collaborated on them in these years. Then, given that I had to compile a documented life, I established a chronology: certain moments that, for the knowledge that I had, could constitute pillars of his story. I was helped in this by the work that Fr. Massimo Camisasca had done for the three volumes on the history of CL. In fact, the first part is, in synthesis, the path of Fr. Giussani’s life before the experience of the Movement began... Then, I started to read all of the materials in order, and I verified the soundness of a hypothesis that I had made with respect to the sources. In some cases, the facts forced me to review the general structure. For example, this happened with an episode to which I attribute a decisive value for Fr. Giussani’s life, because it marks the turning point in his future vocation.

Which episode?
The encounter that he had at the beginning of the summer of 1951 with a young man named Luigi, whom he met by chance in the confessional in the parish on Viale Lazio in Milan. Fr. Giussani served the parish there on Saturdays and Sundays while he was already teaching at the seminary in Venegono, where a brilliant theological career had begun. This episode took place at that parish, and he later recounted it on various occasions, but above all in The Religious Sense. That young man, in confession, told him that his human ideal was Dante’s Capaneus–he is enchained by the gods, but the gods cannot prevent him from hating them. It is a decisive episode, because we see Fr. Giussani in action. He could have sent that young man away or given him a lesson, but instead he asked him a question: “But, isn’t it even greater to love God than to hate Him?” A month and a half went by, and the young man returned and said, “I’ve started going to Mass again; your question gnawed at me all summer.” Fr. Giussani became a good friend of this boy, and through him he met a series of his classmates and kids from the parish who attended the local high schools. In hearing their confessions, he realized that these kids–all of whom were decisively Catholic, active in the life of the Church and the parishes–lived a great embarrassment, especially at school. The teachers propagandized against priests, faith, and religion, and the students didn’t know how to respond. There, Fr. Giussani realized that these kids were not receiving a method from the adults to verify if what they had learned in their families and in the parishes was true–if faith was able to stand up to the impact with circumstances. And a question started to crop up within Giussani: “Maybe the Lord is asking something else of me?”

So, in some way, the origin of the Movement lies there…
It is one of the few points in which I took the responsibility of indicating a turning point that hadn’t been identified so early, because three more years went by before Fr. Giussani went to teach at Berchet. But this explains why, a year or a year and a half later, he started to attend the Student Youth Council in Milan: he had been provoked by those encounters.

What were the other episodes that most surprised you, or that you hadn’t looked at in the same way before?
One surprising element, that accompanied all of Fr. Giussani’s life from the end of the 1950s, was the perception that he had of the nature of the experience of the Movement, and of the possible reductions that were always lurking. His first references to the risk of a reduction to an association or organization, at the expense of a life, are not made at the end of the ’70s or later, but between the end of the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, at the same time that GS was exploding in terms of numbers, and everything seemed to be going well–a lot of young people were getting involved in charitable work, the first cultural initiatives were taking place, the newsletter, the raggi (GS meetings), a widespread presence... And yet, Fr. Giussani glimpsed the possible risk of a confusion about the nature of the original experience. He said it five or six years after the beginning of everything. This is a recurring theme that accompanied him throughout the ’60s; the continuity in bringing it up is impressive. He also spoke of his perception of our stubbornness: we were resistant to understanding, shown by the fact that, while he said this, the life of the Movement at times seemed to take other paths.

How much did he suffer because of this?
A great deal, surely–because of the perception that we were losing time, wasting a gift that we had received because we were caught up in other preoccupations. For example, when he glimpsed the first signs of crisis in the mid-’60s, there are texts in which he says that the preoccupation of “doing,” of succeeding, of the success of one’s own things, could squander everything, “if we don’t seek Him day and night.” There are moments in which he makes explicit this anguish that people are not loyal to the nature of the experience as they encountered it. But he was also on the lookout for points, moments, people in which he saw the beginning happen again, be they young people who finished high school and started to question themselves about their vocation, or university students who remained together in the midst of the crisis because they didn’t want to lose what they had lived–and ensured that, mysteriously, at a certain point everything started again under the name of Communion and Liberation... In this, it is amazing how Fr. Giussani started to follow. He would learn from a young boy who perhaps spoke up at a raggio. And he said so: “In that moment, he was the authority, and I followed him.”

Where did this openness come from, and how did it grow?
First of all, it is part of a natural gift, which is a simplicity of heart. For this reason, he loved to repeat the verse from the Ambrosian Liturgy, “In the simplicity of my heart, I have gladly given You everything.” It is an original, almost virginal openness to things, in which his parents surely had a hand: his mother for her deep faith; his father for his humanity. They obliged him from his childhood to look things in the face. Then, the seminary–he says that those 12 years were the most beautiful of his life, because they made conscious what had been, in his family, an experience that was all-encompassing but not yet reflected upon. This happened thanks to the teachers that he had. But there was a third factor that made this openness habitual in him: the birth of the Movement, which, as he says, “I saw happen before me,” because “I never intended to found anything.” His was a surprise at something that had happened to him, that he had seen happen as an unexpected, unplanned fruit of that simplicity of heart.

In a certain sense, he followed the Movement...
He followed people, facts. Because of this, he later said, “For me, history is everything. I learned everything from what happens, from the impact with circumstances.” Starting when he was 12 years old and, in order to help his Socialist father–who wondered about his son’s entering the seminary–to understand that “the road is beautiful,” he didn’t give an explanation, but spoke of an experience that he had had that morning: the beauty of having participated in a priest’s first Mass. And continuing right up to the last years of progressive privation of “public” moments, on account of his illness: conversations at home with nurses, his secretary, and the people who took care of him became the point in relation to which he made discoveries that he then communicated to everyone. Because of this, he said to his sister, a few days before his death, “Remember that I obeyed, I always obeyed.”

Father Luigi Giussani

One of the most impressive aspects, when reading the book, is that you continually see how the “event” is not a category, but something that shapes every instant.
In fact, it is impressive how Fr. Giussani was never afraid to call himself into question, or to change. He didn’t have to defend a plan, but affirm an experience, and an experience can only be present–that is, made of changing circumstances. For example, one of the most fascinating things to reconstruct is the student protest movement of 1968. There, Fr. Giussani carried out a true conversion. He realized that, in order to respond to the crisis in such a way that his beginning at Berchet could happen again, he could not rely on the form of that beginning. Basically, he said, “We can’t do what we did when we started. Back then we said, ‘You were born in a tradition; verify if this tradition is adequate for living life.’ Now I can’t say to a young protestor at the Catholic University, ‘Verify tradition,’ because that is precisely what he is rebelling against.” So another starting point was needed, from which to reconstruct the possibility of an experience. But if it isn’t the past, tradition, then what is this starting point? Just one: the present. And the present is a person: Christ. We start again from Christ and we recover all of the richness of tradition.

Are there aspects of the “historical interpretation” of Fr. Giussani and the Movement that in some way need to be reread in a new light?
A certain journalistic publication, throughout the years, painted him as obsessed with the world, with modernity. And it presented him as an inflexible man who wanted to re-Christianize society and make CL dominant and monopolistic. Anything but! Fr. Giussani was never afraid of the world, because that attitude of openness and curiosity was not selective in him. It was a motion with which he looked at everything and everyone, and without fear because he was grasped by the certainty of Christ. He was worried, certainly. He saw the reductions of rationalism. He didn’t hesitate to give judgments, even harsh ones. But they were not dictated by fear or resentment–rather, by a profound compassion for the human experience that he had gone through. It would be sufficient to reflect for a moment: the most significant literary figure with whom he dialogued throughout his life was Leopardi. In the collective imagination, what is more “modern”–in the negative sense of the term–than the atheist and cosmic pessimist Leopardi? Yet Fr. Giussani found him to be an adequate companion on his journey, because he saw in him–despite his fragility and surrendering to the world–all of the depth of the human soul. Thus, “all is small and insignificant” became one of his slogans.

His Insistence on Reason is Also Very Modern
Fr. Giussani never appealed to faith as the authoritative principle to make someone accept what he was saying. It’s his first phrase at school: “I’m not here so that you can take my ideas as your own; I’m here to teach you a true method that you can use to judge the things I will tell you. And what I have to tell you is the result of a long experience, of a past that is 2,000 years old.” Later, he would add, “I went there in order to show the pertinence of faith to the needs of life.” Not to impose faith to the detriment of life, but to show that faith is the most adequate response to living. An age that founded itself on the goddess Reason should toast a figure like Fr. Giussani, who didn’t deify reason, but exalted it by giving it the right measure of openness to everything.

How did your relationship with him change while working on the biography?
I thought I knew him very well...

When did you first meet him?
In the mid-’70s, at the beginning of high school. Fr. Francesco Ricci invited him to hold some Advent encounters in Forlì, my city. It’s the very first memory that I have of him. Then came GS, college, CLU... and a personal relationship began to be established, because it happened that I spoke at assemblies, we had coffee together, we saw each other. It went on until the episode that then changed my life.

What episode?
Christmas Eve of 1983, when Enzo Piccinini, one of the “historical” responsibles of the Movement, brought us to Milan, to a lunch with Fr. Giussani. There were five or six of us. There, at a certain point, Giussani spoke about the extraordinary Holy Year of 1984. He said that the Vatican had asked the various movements of young people to lend a hand for the secretariat, the press office, and so forth. He asked, “Could one of you do it?” I was the only one, having recently graduated. Therefore, by pure chance, the lot fell to me, and in January I left and went to Rome for six months to work in the press office for the Holy Year. Fr. Giussani is also at the origin of my professional perspective–but not because he had ideas or projects regarding me. This is another aspect of his life. He threw something out there, and then it was up to you. It wasn’t a command: “Do this.” It was, “Is there someone who can...?” Later, in February of 1985, I came to Milan and the relationship became close.

That’s why you said, “I thought I knew him very well...”
Yes, because a very personal and familiar connection was established, besides the professional one. It was a sharing of life. But the work on the biography, which almost forced me to keep my distance with respect to the power of his physical presence, made me discover that, in all of these years, I had grasped an infinitely smaller quantity of factors while I was seeing him in action. To the extent that I said to myself more than once, “But, where was I? When he said these things to us, at a Beginning Day, an assembly, a national council, while he urged this preoccupation for our life, my life...?” This is another impressive element of Fr. Giussani: this constant, inexorable, extremely strong attention to the person, that the “I” really live an experience; not that the community grow larger or endure, but that the person have the same experience that he had of the relationship with Christ–“Where was I?” In certain moments, I was shocked by this. Once, I told Carrón about it. I was saddened, as if to admit, “Look how many things I missed.”

What did Fr. Carrón say?
He said to me, “Why are you shocked? At the time, you understood with the awareness and the maturity that you had in that moment. But without the experience that you must have had from then to today, now you would not be capable of being surprised by things that you had read and heard, but that you hadn’t grasped. Look, it was like that for me, too. I didn’t have your good fortune to see Giussani every day. I never saw him. What did I have of him? Books. And so I read them, read them, read them... And now that I reread them, I discover things that I never imagined, because the experience now is not that of the 1980s. So there is nothing to be shocked about. On the contrary, you should be grateful, because it means that it is a journey.” That is why I said that it’s striking to see how he rereads Fr. Giussani, how he makes him speak now.

Can you say that now you have a more acute perception of what the charism is? Not so much as a historical overview, but as a life–is it more yours?
Absolutely. I had a unique privilege: to be able to immerse myself for almost five and a half years in this quantity of facts that gave back to me, directly and without mediation, the evolution of his life. It is the evolution of a charism that is not a codified hypothesis, but is precisely this more persuasive, convincing, appropriate modality of saying the same thing as always, the same truth. Yes, I feel it to be more mine now. But it’s a journey.

Has your relationship with Fr. Carrón changed in these five years?
My relationship with him changed on March 19, 2005, the day of his election as President of the Fraternity. I’m not ashamed to say that, in that moment, he gave back to me the possibility of a relationship with Giussani that otherwise, because of the intensity of what I had lived with him and the fact that he was no longer there physically, could have slipped into a pain full of regret and nostalgia.

Why that day?
Because as soon as he was elected, in his first speech as President–and therefore in a completely different modality from how he had spoken until the day before–he did something that really struck me. Of all of Fr. Giussani’s available texts, he chose one that is among those of which I am most fond: “The Greatest Sacrifice is to Give Your Life for an Other’s Work.” It’s from the early 1990s, after the appearance of the signs of the illness that prevented him from guiding the Movement for a few months. He was talking about the charism, which is the ephemeral through which one comes to Christ. There is no Christ without the ephemeral, but without Christ there is no meaning. He emphasized the historicity of the charism, which is in a present moment. When Carrón took this up again, saying, “It’s what is happening now,” I instantly burned any temptation toward nostalgic memories of Fr. Giussani and I started to feel him to be “more a father than ever,” more present than before–because his “ephemerality” did not decrease the value of what that ephemeral brought me. And what it brought me made me feel that flesh, without which who knows where I would have ended up, to be even more present, palpitating.

After having written this book, do you want to know him even better?
Look, I’m not a historian, and I’ve never been familiar with the work of research. I am aware of all of the limits of this book, which is a little different from traditional biographies. I’ll tell you the truth: the desire that I have now is to disappear. I only wish that whoever has the patience to read even one chapter, will have the curiosity to read and know more. I know that I’ve only dug a few inches below the surface of Fr. Giussani’s life. I’m sure that many more documents could come out, or witnesses that I wasn’t able to hear, or that I don’t even know exist, because Fr. Giussani had such myriad relationships that only some of them came to the surface. Therefore, I wish that, just as the desire to continue and go deeper came to me, others can do even more than I did.

Is there something that moved you in a particular way, where your reaction was stronger?
The letter to the parents of Luigi, that boy from Viale Lazio, after his death. Fr. Giussani wrote it together with his sister. It begins, “Dearest parents...” Not knowing how to fill the immense void of a mother for the loss of her son, he put himself in the son’s place. He wrote to the mother as if he were her son. It’s a heart-rending letter, which speaks of the boundless humanity of Fr. Giussani. And it reinforces the judgment that I made, that that incident had been decisive for his life. Another likewise surprising thing was reading an old article in the school paper Christus, which he edited with some classmates in the seminary. Written in the summer of 1941 and entitled, “Christ Jesus is Our Youth at School,” it is two columns in which he talks about the experience of studying. For me, it was like a lightning bolt. In two columns, he synthesizes what will be The Religious Sense, his most famous book. He talks about how, in the relationship with the subjects of study, the decisive experience of the relationship of man with reality, and therefore with the Mystery, takes place, and about the necessity that something happen that gives a response to the enigma of life. And at the end, he introduces Christ, who suddenly comes onto the scene of the world. It’s not the famous Fr. Giussani who founded the Movement, friend of popes, who traveled the world... He was a kid, not even 19 years old. But there I saw all of the truth of Carrón’s phrase about how decisive his story was because he lived all of the circumstances that we did. His life did nothing more than deepen and broaden, as a mature awareness, the intuition that was already manifested in that article, and so those two columns became hundreds of pages and facts, in the continuity of a development that was a deepening.

That phrase that you cited before, “the greatest joy of a person’s life is feeling Jesus Christ alive and vibrant”–can you say that, in some way, it is more yours now?
It’s full of flesh. At the very least, it’s a more conscious desire in me. I won’t say that it describes my days or my awareness more... But, having seen what this affirmation, this surrendering to the attraction of Christ, produces, I feel in myself a more simple desire that it become mine, that it begin to describe me. And–I can say this–in certain moments, I am surprised that it is like this.