Luigi Giussani at the Portofino lighthouse with students. © Archivio CL / Lapresse

“The Seed is Here. It Was Buried in the Sand”

First, that summer afternoon... then, the “revolution” in Brazil... then, the breaking point. One of the first CL high school students takes us back through the encounter...
Michele Benetti

“The Movement is made up of those persons who come together in order to verify the promise of Christ: ‘When two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in your midst.’” Luciano Di Pietro, one of the very first members of CL (at the time, it was called GS) to leave for Brazil as missionaries, is today a journalist, and has never stopped thinking this way about the companionship born around Fr. Giussani. “I don’t want to sound like one of the apostles, but I remember the time and the place of the ‘call.’ It was at 3:30 in the afternoon at the end of summer, 1960, after the second year of high school, when a friend invited me to go to Varigotti. I was struck by a priest whom I saw for the first time, and by his words, and by the silences, the songs, the marches to the sea tower, and by the “attention to the other,” as they were saying… I was not able to realize that all this was the encounter with Christ. Let us say that it was the encounter with an affectionate and luminous sweetness. Since that moment, a half century has passed–with ups and downs, the good Christ is always in the lead, and has never left me in peace. Actually, He has never left us in peace, neither me nor Luisella, my wife, whom I met one year later. If I have nostalgia, it is that history and perhaps temperament have led us to live a somewhat solitary existence, creating a desire out of the experience evoked by the words of the psalm: ‘How sweet it is when brothers dwell together in unity.’”

At times, when someone speaks of these very young people who in 1964 left Italy for South America, we risk freezing them in that instant, and perhaps we lose the best part, which is what came later. And yet, thinking about it today, it makes quite an impression: 18-year-olds who had just met Fr. Giussani decide to leave everything and go. “Not even three years after that meeting in Varigotti, in the summer of 1963, with a face worthy of a breath of the Holy Spirit (and with the silent generosity of my father who financed the “transfer”), I signed up for a trip to Brazil with an incredible group: Fr. Giussani himself, the painter William Congdon, Maretta Campi, and Marcello Candia, today on the verge of being beatified. I was an 18-year-old boy and I kept my mouth shut in order to listen.”

The Bishop of Belo Horizonte had accepted, appreciated, and requested the presence of the Movement. “And so we left, in January of 1964, three of us: Pigi Bernareggi, Paolo Padovani, and yours truly. Destination: the seminary, where Alberto Antoniazzi had already preceded us. And the “lay wing” wasn’t lacking, with the girls, Nicoletta, Lidia, Mariarita... And the adventure began. Should we say that it was a rash decision? Maybe. The enthusiasm of the nascent State had within it a generosity that was perhaps not too willing to listen to prudence, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, sparingly bestowed. We arrived in Brazil in the first few days of 1964; in April, we woke up one morning to find ourselves under a military coup.”

Monk’s Habit
The promise of the beginning was immediately put to the test in a difficult environment. “A seminary in Brazil in the 1960s was a cross between tradition and revolution; between colonial baroque from the esthetic standpoint and the lack of even a minimum of specificity regarding the [Christian] proposal. Those of us in the Movement tried to keep it alive amongst ourselves. We carried on the experience that had pushed us, but at least as a group, a community, we weren’t up to it. We would have needed a monk’s habit. In fact, the only one from that early experience who stayed is Pigi Bernareggi, who always was built like a Cistercian. In those days, you would hear slogans like ‘First, let’s give them bread; then, we’ll give them Christ!’ We countered with our intuition. Instinctively, in fact, our teaching was the opposite: ‘Christ will in some way come up with the bread.’” Indeed, only Christ was capable of bearing that unity of message wherein bread and God are the same thing. The Eucharist means precisely that. But ours was a tiny seed and it was tossed about by the arid soil of those contradictions. One fact, which seems trivial, struck me in a particular way. All three of us contracted parasites and fell ill and, thanks to the Movement, were sent to a hospital for rich people. The Brazilians, on the other hand, who had contracted the same illness, suffered through it for what seemed like forever, and some of them did not make it. In those circumstances, it seemed to me in a definitive way, that there was a social and anthropological difference that was impossible to overcome. The impossibility of sharing to the last. Pride, at the end of the day. Sanctity as pretension.”

That grain, that seed which was so prophetic, seemed to completely disappear. In Brazil, the young people of the Movement were living with extreme drama what that rest of the Movement would live some years later in 1968. Back in Italy, then, with great personal difficulties and in search of a new path, or rather, “another vocation,” Luciano feels his relationships with many in the Movement begin to deteriorate. He speaks of big blow-ups. Yet the relationship with Giussani holds firm. “It is difficult to not judge and to not be judged. Giussani managed to do it, and he looked at that seed, which seemed dead, like the mustard seed in the Gospel; it was generating new life in a way that was hidden. In him, there was an openness to the other that I can only define as childlike: ‘If you do not become like little children…’ Because for him, every man was an infinite possibility. He never met a person without taking something away. He was capable of inserting himself into who that person was. He didn’t judge the other for what he should have been, in order to smooth the path for his own holy affirmation. And every time that we met, his embrace was the same as always.”

And so, during an interview on Swiss television, the interviewer is none other than Luciano Di Pietro. At a certain point, he tries to provoke Giussani: “Would you be in agreement with the famous sentence,‘I do not agree with any of the things you say, but I am ready to die to defend your right to say them’?” Giussani does not hesitate: “Totally. I absolutely agree. The Lord even died for our freedom, the freedom also to make mistakes, to sin.”

Mercy as Measure
I had never before understood why Fr. Giussani had tears in his eyes in that video. He was speaking with someone from Brazil who seemed to have distanced himself from the Movement. That is the measure of the love Giussani had for his children: mercy. “I have to admit,” says Di Pietro, “that I have had a kind of nostalgia for this companionship, which seems to have never gone away, even though I recovered it, at least as an inner dimension, only in the last few years.”

Yes, because the best came later, and it has yet to be told. Something even more mysterious happened. Luciano and Luisella’s only child, Lorenzo, met the Movement, most certainly, in part, thanks to fascination with his parents’ stories. He began to frequent CL gatherings and, ultimately, discovered his vocation. His wish: to become a missionary priest, in the Fraternity of St. Charles. God is more stubborn than anyone else.

He can be wrestled with
“I said it at the beginning: ‘Jesus really knows how to be a pain in the neck!’ God knows how to chase people; He has a sense of humor, but He never jokes around. As Love, He is joyful, but is always serious. And He reminds you, once more, by calling your son. I am a married man and I cannot reason on my own. And my wife is a woman of the Old Testament, carnal, impetuous: God’s blessing means to see your children’s children. She didn’t take it well. God is, for her, so present that He can be wrestled with, as long as you know ahead of time that He will win. Lorenzo’s vocation was really a struggle with God. In those moments, we were truly torn. That gesture of God, so concrete, clear, and radical, was a sort of surprise for me who had the pretense of understanding; and it was a laceration for my wife who felt touched in her carnality by a higher will. I pray that what an old, wise priest said to her may become ever more true: “It is true that when God takes away a son, He takes his place.’” Faced with Christ’s mercy in the flesh, you cannot avoid being astonished. There is a connecting thread that binds this young man, by now ordained a deacon, and the life of his father. “It is impressive to see how even in the very form of mission that we lived in Brazil, there was already the nucleus of what Lorenzo is living today, in Cologne, Germany: life in common, a certain way of understating mission, the bishops who feel more and more the need for a living presence of the Movement... The grain of that time died to bear fruit today. Now, I understand that it was only an apparent contradiction: it buried itself in the sand, only to re-emerge like a an underground stream.”