The first vacations (from "The Life of Luigi Giussani")

From the very beginnings of his involvement with young people in Catholic
Action, Giussani paid particular attention to the matter of vacation. Here is how he wrote about it in a short article entitled “Student!!” It was published in Le nostre battaglie (Our battles) in August 1954: “Clearly, there is no vacation from ideal relationships. GS continues. In those things done by human beings, what makes you carry on is a virtue—as beautiful as it is difficult—called faithfulness. […] Vacation is not when a person shakes off the guidelines of living well, which during the year provided the reason to fight and make great efforts. The second way to continue gs is to not slow the pace on the path of virtue. […] The third way is to welcome opportunities to talk about it with new friends, to collect addresses, to spread ideas, and to participate energetically in conversations about how to deal with problems or in discussions according to the light of those directives we received. Be faithful: gs continues.”

The last suggestion Giussani gave in his article explains how the movement went beyond Milan. Initially it spread along the beaches of the Adriatic Riviera, where some gs kids spent their summers with their families. They began to speak with other kids about what they had begun to live in their schools in Milan.

In 1959 Francesco Ventorino (otherwise known as Fr. Ciccio) was a young Sicilian priest who had just finished his studies in Rome, having completed his doctorate in philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Aware that his education had made him highly cultured, his superiors entrusted to him the task of being the assistant of the Italian Catholic University Federation (fuci) and asked him to teach religion in a classical lyceum in Catania. In his work of evangelization with high school and college students, he noted a difficulty: “If on the one hand I was convinced of the truth of Christianity, on the other I could not make it pertinent to the lives of my students and friends.” In the best case, the Christian announcement remained an object of intellectual curiosity or arguments. “I had no clue as to whom to ask these questions in an ecclesial context that was moreover totally satisfied with the strong Christian presence in the life of the country.” One day three of his students asked to use the hall of the fuci for a meeting with a girl who came from Milan and who, according to them, “‘did religion’ better than me. I happily gave them the keys, so they could use it whenever they wanted to. But one time I got curious and I went to see. I found that the hall was full of kids who were doing what I then learned was the ‘Radius’ with this girl [Adriana Olessina] who led it. She asked people to speak in an orderly fashion and at the end gave a final summary. She was a little, thin, blonde girl who was only fifteen.”

Listening to her, Fr. Ventorino realized he had found what he had looked for in vain: a method for Christian life. “After meeting her, I asked her where she had learned the things she said. She started talking to me about a certain Fr. Giussani, whom she had in Religion class for only one year in Milan. […] After that she had to come to Catania because of her father’s job.” At that point, he asked to meet Giussani. He did so in the summer of 1960 in the Dolomites on a vacation of gs. “I remember I was there only for one day […] but that was enough to see that my intuition was correct: that man had the secret that I was looking for. […] Everyone was invited to have the same experience as the first disciples. It was well described in the little book he gave me when he said goodbye to me.” That book was a draft of Tracce d’esperienza Cristiana (Traces of the Christian Experience), which would be published a short time later. Fr. Ventorino was captivated by the sentence, “Christ alone had words that made them feel that all of their experience as a human person was understood and that all of their needs were taken seriously. Where they were unconscious and confused, they were illumined. Their experiences, their needs, their exigencies are their very selves, are those people there, are their very humanity.”

In the early sixties Gelsomina Angrisano and Silvana Levi were classmates in Berchet (and would eventually become nuns). Both were Giussani’s students. Their fascination with him during his lessons brought them to become involved with the kids who followed him. In the summer of 1961 they decided to spend a week in the mountains at their invitation. “We went to Passo di Costalunga in Trentino,” Sr. Gelsomina explains.

“I was part of a group that had lodgings at a bit of a distance (at Vallonga) because not everybody could fit in the hotel. What characterized meeting Gius was, whether at home or on vacation, you were asked to give everything.” And how could fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds give everything? “There was never a minute that did not have meaning,” attests Sr. Gelsomina. “We got up early and said morning prayer and then had mass. Every other day, we had a hike. The first days of the vacation we had easier hikes and then harder ones later. When hiking, we always went single file at the same pace and in silence, living fully the connection between ourselves and what was around us. Fr. Giussani would say, ‘The beauty of the mountains is a sign; all of reality is a sign. For this reason, we hike in silence.’”

Sr. Silvana adds that there was “an attention to detail and a companionship that reached the specifics, like that time during a trip in the winter when someone broke the ski he had rented and he didn’t have the money to pay for it. Fr. Giussani paid for it with his money, not the money of the common fund!”

The vacations featured hikes and big games, and in the evenings after dinner, skits or the presentation of a book. Sr. Silvana continues: “The year before, in Alba di Canazei, Fr. Giussani read all of The Tidings Brought to Mary [by Paul Claudel] to us every evening, a little bit at a time. Through those pages he explained our lives to us.”

The skits provide a clear example of the way Giussani related to young people. One of the high school student writers of the skits from that time was Marco Martini. He said, “I was always fascinated by the fact that anything that could interest a human being could be seen in the light of the encounter with Christ. For example, I loved acting and so did a number of others. That’s how the group who did skits was born. I belonged to it, as did Zola, Clericetti, Peregrini, Mascagni, Monti, and Fantini. […] We were a kind of quick response team. We took advantage of everything to act out our sketches that at times were pretty long.”

The cartoonist and television writer Guido Clericetti adds, “We were pretty extroverted, so we began to act out little scenes, and then the skits were born.” Giussani valued them so much that they became a fixture on the vacations. “Normally, in the evenings, even when we would have the Radius or listen to classical music, the moment would always be introduced with fifteen minutes of skits. Other evenings, instead, they were the entire show. These skits always played off things that had happened during the day,” poking quite a bit of fun at them.

After the evening had finished, at a certain time, there was silence. And silence was sacred: “Fr. Giussani would not allow us to ruin an experience of beauty,” Sr. Gelsomina explains.

This is how vacation was lived in community, but when those days were over, the experience was not. “There was a list of books recommended for us to read during vacation,” Sr. Gelsomina remembers, “and every year from that list one was chosen, and we were encouraged to outline it and send our outline to the offices. I remember Greek Wisdom and Christian Paradox by Moeller and The Christian Reading of the Bible by Celestino Charlier.” Sr. Silvana adds that Giussani suggested writing to friends and acquaintances “to keep up the relationships and in order not to lose the experience you lived during the year. I found that to be really difficult but I did it. I even committed myself to writing one letter a day!”

Giussani recounted an episode from what he considered the most beautiful vacation he ever did. It was the first one at Alba di Canazei and 120 students participated. He said, “With us there was a seminarian who had become a lawyer just a few years before entering the seminary. After the vacation, he told me that he had been sent on purpose with us by Msgr. Giovanni Colombo.” In December 1960 Colombo had been made auxiliary bishop of Milan, and he was concerned about bringing boys and girls on the vacation together. The seminarian came back from the vacation and reported, “It’s worse than going on spiritual exercises! Can you believe that they said Morning Prayer punctually, every day? Your Excellency, if the seminary were run like that, it would be better!” Giussani added that he came to know about it “from the seminarian himself, “Msgr. Nicora.”

Organizing the gs vacation and, more generally, the educational value of free time played an important role. From the very first days of Student Youth, we had one clear and simple idea: free time is any time when you do not have to do something, when you have nothing you have to do. Free time means time when you are free. Since we often argued with parents and teachers about the fact that gs took up too much of kids’ free time—because the kids should study more or do chores in the kitchen or at home—I would say, “But at some point, these kids will have some free time!” “But a young person or even an adult,” they would object to me, “is judged on his work, on how seriously he works, on his diligence and faithfulness to his work.” “No,” I would answer, “What are you saying?! You judge a kid on how he uses his free time.” Oh, everyone was scandalized. And instead […] what a person really wants—young or old—you understand not from his work or studies (that is to say, what he is obliged to do by conventions or by social necessity), but by how he uses his free time. If a kid or a mature person wastes free time, he doesn’t love life; he is a fool. […] Vacation is the most noble time of the year because it is the moment when you involve yourself as you like with what you value the most in life or you don’t involve yourself with anything, at which point, you’re a fool. […] If vacation does not help you remember what you would want to remember the most, if it does not make you better in the relationship with others, but makes you more impulsive, if it does not help you learn to look at nature with a deep intentionality, if it does not help you make sacrifices with joy, recreation time misses its mark.

(Alberto Savorana, "The Life of Luigi Giussani", McGill-Queen's University Press -pp. 230-234)