Father Giussani with students

That First Hour of School

October 1957. Berchet High School, first year, front desk. Fr Luigi Negri recounts the first period of religion class with Fr Giussani. “For him, teaching was not a parenthesis in his life, it was the part that was most alive.”
Paola Bergamini

He walked up those famous three steps to Berchet High School for the first time in October 1957. It was the beginning of his first year of high school. He crossed the threshold full of expectations and the desire to know. Behind him was a deeply Catholic family that had transmitted to him faith as a hypothesis for reading reality and a criterion for judgment as well as for behavior. But that first day of school for Fr Luigi Negri was a real disappointment. “The first morning I had classes in Italian, history, philosophy, Greek, Latin, and math,” he recalls. “In synthesis: the Italian teacher was a Socialist ex-priest; the philosophy teacher was an orthodox Marxist; the classics teacher a Utopian non-believer; the math teacher a traditionalist Catholic for whom faith was reduced to mere morality. It didn’t take me long to understand that the school was a battleground between the various ideologies. I thought that, in terms of my life, the experience I was having in the parish was more useful. I realized that at school I might learn a lot of notions, but not a criterion, which I needed for the search for truth that I felt looming inside me…” He had not yet met his religion teacher, the teacher who would knock him off his feet, who, indeed, would fill his life full, leading him to taste the “hundredfold here below.” “From the very first religion class, I intuited that Giussani was the testimony of a culture authentically possessed as an organic view of life. As opposed to the other professors, for him teaching was not a parenthesis in his life, it was the part that was most alive. Once, outside of school, he said that if he had been born a hundred times, he would always have been a teacher. Only a certainty of life could have made him say something like that. And it was a certainty he communicated in an irresistible way. It is hard not to be fascinated by it–I dare say, impossible. Giussani’s influence, whether in a positive sense for those who followed his teachings, or in a critical sense for those who remained on the opposite side, was vast. For hundreds of students, he was a great master, one you don’t forget, one with whom you have to come to terms.”

Cultural openness
Everything was played out in one class period per week, the one that most people considered the least important. How did the lessons run? “The topic the first year was the religious sense. The lessons consisted of a tight dialectic determined by his statements and provocations. During the last fifteen minutes he would dictate the notes for that lesson. Everybody in my class, whether they were friends or foes, would take them down. Nobody was forced. There was just our life at stake.” As a first impression, what struck you about those first lessons on the religious sense? “His great cultural openness. Not in an intellectual sense, but an existential one. I remember Kierkegaard’s words, which I have repeated many times in the past 45 years; they struck me immediately: ‘We become sensitive to the Christian fact not by going more deeply into the great philosophical, cosmological, or social questions, but by going more deeply into the meaning of our own life.’ Well, what was involved was our own personal question, not as a psychological or affective premise, but as a cultural fact.” He stopped for a moment, perhaps noticing my questioning look. I didn’t even have time to ask the question. “Because–let’s understand each other–culture is the search for the meaning of life. No more, no less. He revealed ourselves to us, by making clear to us that every man, by his very nature, is made up of demands for meaning that can be found in the works of the great writers both of philosophy and of literature. These include Dante, Plato, Manzoni, and then too the contemporary writers, like Sartre, Camus, Pavese. It was a completely different world! Then, when you approached your other lessons, those criteria, those parameters of judgment would come out. I intuited that the official culture that was passed on to us was not right. We were being given interpretations of history, philosophy, and literature that altered the data. It was during these lessons that the idea of ‘revision’ from the Christian viewpoint came to fruition. Not in order to counterpoise the Catholic ideology to the Marxist or secular one or anything else, posited in order to bring back onto the horizon of the Catholic tradition whatever had really happened on the historical level and what the philosophers and writers had really said. The basic point is this: he taught us a method, a method for approaching the world, for being happy. I repeat: a method for tasting the hundredfold.”

The concept of reason
And what did it consist of? “Of comparing every proposal–whether coming from him or the other teachers–with our profound humanity. But in order to do this, a new concept of reason was needed, understood as an openness to all of reality, as a tension toward the ultimate meaning of reality, against every rationalistic reduction. I am always moved by the memory of the lesson in which he defined this concept of reason. I would discover later, in my studies, that all of the Western philosophical tradition was condensed in it. And it opened up the world to me.”

Did he ever get angry? He smiled. “You bet. He would get angry when people did not accept confrontation, putting themselves on the line–not when they did not agree; in those cases there would be discussions, even heated ones. He could not stand indifference and presumptuousness, not the ideological type, but the bourgeois kind. In short, he was angered by those who would not put their freedom on the line, which means putting their lives on the line, all the way. This is something else that has remained engraved on my heart: freedom. At a time when the concept of freedom was in crisis from a philosophical point of view–Marxism, problematicism, and, later still, skepticism were beginning to take over–Giussani brought it back into its natural channel: experience.

Finally, you’re here!
These were dense, argued lessons, with this priest behind the lectern who unfolded life to them, who would not leave anyone alone. What did the other teachers say? “Normally, the prevailing ideological construct tended to isolate the religion lesson as something marginal to the life of the school. Thus, there was a formal respect for the teachers. With Giussani, this was no longer possible. His lessons would go beyond the orbit of religion class. Perforce, we would not leave anyone in peace. Everything had to be compared. Whether they wanted to or not, they had to come to terms with him. Some, like Pietro Scazzoso, the classics teacher, succumbed to the contagion. But others… Here was freedom, the freedom even to measure oneself against the question we students would pose.”

During those years, GS was born, with rays, encounters… How did he invite you? “He didn’t invite me to anything! A classmate of mine did. It was the end of March, 1958. There were about fifty people at the ray. When I came in, Giussani smiled at me and said, ‘Finally, you’re here too!’ Finally, I was there, with those friends, in that company.”

Before we said goodbye, Fr Negri, looking at the notes he had made, suddenly said, “I have never prepared so much for anything, for any lesson or lecture. But for me, everything started there, from those blessed lessons in that first year of high school.”