Bishop Steven Raica. Photo by Tim Lilley.

Bishop Steven Raica on The Life of Luigi Giussani

We publish the text of Bishop Steven J. Raica's remarks on March 17, 2019, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour.

We publish the text of Bishop Steven J. Raica's remarks on March 17, 2019, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour. Raica is the fifth Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan.

Good evening everyone!

Thank you, Emily! It is a real pleasure to be here in Evansville with Stephanie and Alberto and with all of you on this St Patrick’s Day to share some reflections about Fr. Luigi Giussani and Alberto’s superb work The Life of Luigi Giussani. We are invited to reflect personally and together upon the impact of the life and work of this extraordinarily gifted Milanese priest. Now in my 20th year of coming to know about the life of this amazing priest and human being, I can say that my heart overflows with desire and yearning, wishing I had the opportunity to meet him face to face. Yet, paradoxically, I think I have met him because I have met those who know him and they haven’t disappointed me. The life he lived was lived not so much for himself, but for what he was experiencing, what he was seeing with everything that he lived and experienced. As he would say, “I see what you see, but I see more!” With everything – the way he lived – the way he constructed the experiences of life, he pointed out the very Mystery present among us!

Last Sunday I had the privilege and joy of sharing in two specific events in the Diocese of Gaylord where I serve as Bishop – one was the closing activities for TEC – Teens Encounter Christ – a retreat for young people as the name suggests – whereby the communitarian lived experience and the sharing with leaders enables young people to have an extremely powerful experience of Jesus in their lives. Many lives have changed because of TEC. And the other was the Rite of Election which occurs on the first Sunday of Lent in almost every Cathedral across our nation. It gathers those who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil or, if already baptized, seeking to join our faith community. I am told by faith leaders that sometimes the catechumens and candidates grumble – as to why they need to go to the Cathedral. Then, amazingly when they arrive and see others from around the diocese on the same journey they are on – sometimes they even know some of the others who’ve shown up and are surprised!, they see the value of an event like this – all gathered around the bishop! In light of all that is going on in the church these days, it is, on the one hand surprising to me that one would make that commitment to join us. On the other hand, and I’m quite sure this would align with Giussani’s thought, it should not be surprising at all, that in spite of the dramatic issues the church faces today – and perhaps even more dramatic in the first centuries when becoming Christian brought almost certain martyrdom, people – young and not so young – continue to encounter Christ in the least expected ways and are drawn to Him. Oftentimes it happens through the very witness of people – of brothers and sisters, friends who are true witnesses of His presence –who affirm: He is alive! Christ still calls people to “come and see”. And there are many John the Baptists who are telling curious people, “Look!” – “Look, there’s the Lamb of God”. There’s the one your heart has been waiting for. They are seeing beyond the perception and surface of our sins and shortcomings of clergy and hierarchy and discovering the beauty and majesty of that which draws us to be with and to live for the Mystery.

I find that both encouraging and hopeful … that people are finding, discovering, encountering Christ as a response to their deepest longings and needs of their hearts. They are discovering and belonging to a community that reflects this joy. The fire of desire is being stoked. They are seeing beyond human limitation and sin into a world of fulfillment and freedom and belonging – seeking to become a people in communion with others.

As I reflect on my own life, I am aware of the twists and turns that it has taken. My mother Mary was an elementary school teacher in the public school system. She taught fourth grade. My father, Steve, was a laborer at Kimberly Clark paper products. Both of their parents, and my grandparents from Polish and Italian backgrounds, were hard workers. They survived the depression. That was the defining life event that shaped the worldview of my grandparents, my parents and many of us baby boomers. A work ethic was instilled in us from early on in life. What they conveyed to my brother, Joe and me, was “get an education in order to get a good job” “get a job”, “save your money”, “don’t take risks” … and if you are going on in education – make sure it is geared and focused toward getting a better job for yourself.

As I mentioned, mom was a teacher and I loved the idea of being part of that great and noble profession. I had high school teachers that were models to me of what a good teacher could be or would be – so that was the profession I had chosen to pursue at University – Mathematics Education at a state university, just north of Indiana. I also had an interest in music. That heightened my awareness of the arts. After graduation from university, however, I entered seminary because the call was still there nudging my heart to “come follow me”. I wanted something more!

It was about 20 years as a priest before I discovered the writings of Luigi Giussani in the late 90s. It came as I served as the Superior - in Rome at Casa Santa Maria, on (via dell’Umiltà) Humility Street, the priest graduate residence of the North American College. There, I would receive an unsolicited monthly copy of Traces whose witness stories provoked me to think differently about faith. I’ve kept every issue. Eventually, I obtained a copy of the classic trilogy The Religious Sense, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, and Why the Church? I devoured those texts – though, honestly, I didn’t quite understand them all! - and began to see life lived in a new way that I wish I had known in high school and college. But, I really didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know who to turn to. After my term was completed, I returned to the US. I was working in the Bishop’s office and would “pinch” his copy of Traces for a few days to read it before I gave it to him. So, I signed up for Traces because I didn’t want to miss an issue. (That’s when Riro Maniscalco contacted me to find out how I learned about the movement. I told him my story and that I was preparing to have an event for a charismatic community in the diocese about The Risk of Education at their request.)

I think we (we meaning some of my classmates from high school, college, seminary and I) were always searching for a mentor and guide to help us. We didn’t even know the questions to ask. At university, our struggle to learn about the faith deferred to the Catholic Student Center and other religious groups on campus. None of them compared to the depth that one reads about in the works and life which Alberto has magnificently illustrated in the The Life of Luigi Giussani. Reading this text, it is as if I had a favorite uncle who was telling me – much like John and Andrew in the first chapter of John’s Gospel – “Look!” It was the announcement of a charged presence that I had to pursue and find … but, you know what, it had already found me. I see it in others as well – even with the young people at TEC and those whose hearts and minds are open at the Rite of Election. They are waiting for that announcement.

Giussani’s educational method is one that captured my imagination and my heart. It opened me up to the prospect of something deeper and something that I could not “un-see” at a later moment. Now, I know that he is inviting his students to risk – and test all things – to see if what provokes you corresponds to the deepest nature of the elementary experiences of the heart – the truth, the justice, the happiness, the beauty, etc. It was more than memorizing the questions and answers from the Baltimore Catechism of my youth, or articulating a dogmatic teaching accurately on a seminary course exam. The desire is there much like what St Augustine would speak about – a restlessness in the heart … until it rests in the thee. Or Cesare Pavese, the Italian poet, who wrote – “Has anybody promised us anything? Then why do we expect something?”

This whole notion was already captured in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council in 1965:

“The world of today reveals itself as at once powerful and weak, capable of achieving the best or the worst. There lies open before it the way to freedom or slavery, progress or regression, brotherhood or hatred. In addition, man is becoming aware that it is for himself to give the right direction to the forces that he has himself awakened, forces that can be his master or his servant. He therefore puts questions to himself.

“The tensions disturbing the world of today are in fact related to a more fundamental tension rooted in the human heart. In man himself many elements are in conflict with each other. On one side, he has experience of his many limitations as a creature. On the other, he knows that there is no limit to his aspirations, and that he is called to a higher kind of life.” (We might say there’s the infinite that, Fr Giussani frequently talks about!)

“Many think that they can find peace in the different philosophies that are proposed.

“Some look for complete and genuine liberation for man from man’s efforts alone. They are convinced that the coming kingdom of man on earth will satisfy all the desires of his heart.”

“… there is an ever increasing number of people who are asking the most fundamental questions or are seeing them with a keener awareness: What is man? What is the meaning of pain, of evil, of death, which still persist in spite of such great progress? … What will come after this life on earth?

“… Christ died and rose for all, and can give man light and strength through his Spirit to fulfill his highest calling; his is the only name under heaven in which men can be saved.

So too the Church believes that the center and goal of all human history is found in her Lord and Master.

This last sentence, interestingly, became the opening sentence of Pope St John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis in 1979. “THE REDEEMER OF MAN, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.”

This, it seems to me, was the heart and focus of Fr. Giussani. Not only was Christ the center, but also the goal of everything. It was the announcement of this fact! That is to say, the incarnation of Christ, the becoming flesh, the bumping into to our humanity and awakening it to something more. Christ became the ultimate question each person would have to answer in facing the very question of life itself: Christ – yes? – or no? Or is something else the center and goal of everything for you?

What continues to amaze me in this life, being at events like the New York Encounter, the Priests’ Retreat, or the Fraternity Exercises or even being here for this presentation, for example, is the continuing announcement that awakens my heart to something more that the Mystery shares with us. It was best captured by Pope Benedict in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, (issued on December 25, 2005!). It is an encyclical about “love” yet he speaks specifically about the precise nature of Christianity as an encounter with an event: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John's Gospel describes that event in these words: 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, (=the Incarnation) that whoever believes in him should ... have eternal life' (3:16). [Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est, n. 1]”. It seems that Benedict drew that right from Giussani in which Christianity itself is defined as an event par excellence – the event of an encounter that changes everything – as it did with so many figures in the New Testament. It seems that Fr. Giussani and Pope Benedict described exactly what was occurring in my life – and as if they knew my heart and my life. It has definitely changed my life immensely in every respect. It gives me reason for hope. As a result, I think differently, I preach differently, I live differently all because of what this experience has meant to me. I bristle at attempts to reduce it.

Lately with the abuse crisis we have been facing, there are attempts to reduce our faith to the failures within. But I see something more: people of faith transforming themselves into vibrant irreducible witnesses of Christ’s hope today.

What don Giussani has taught me is that my life is lived in relationship to whatever is the center and goal of my life - to Another. And my heart is always yearning - yearning for a wholeness and fulfillment for that for which it has been made. Still, there are distractions and noise pulling me away from its original purpose … at times to pleasure, power, or pride – like we heard about last Sunday at Mass as the temptations of Jesus in the desert. This Sunday, however, we climbed Mt Tabor to witness the Transfiguration – and we want to stay there – unconcerned about coming down from the mountain and re-entering life. It was a glimpse into something that we cannot un-see – but, like Peter, James and John, we can become anesthetized – as it did for Peter, for instance.

So, our experiences in education – from the hypothesis given by authority to the handing on of a solid tradition. From the “problem” [pro-ballo – “before the eyes”] and judgement that comes as we take those things we have merely accepted from authority figures in our life (parents, teachers, priests, etc.) and which we have safely tucked away in our knapsacks, to the moment when we begin to examine and judge them to see if they truly correspond to our heart’s desire, is a way in which can know more about what our hearts have truly been made for. Fr Giussani has guided me to know about this method. It has been for me an awakening of my person that I would never have imagined.

In the end, this life has been a true gift. In fact, when we (Fr. George, Fr. Phil and I) were ordained priests back in 1978, we used the motto, “The gift you have received, give as a gift” (Mt 10:8). We believe that God had gifted each of us uniquely. He called us to share His presence in our lives – a presence – a unique presence with others. It all comes down to the ultimate gift of God who sent His Son through the Incarnation – “Something out of this world” … but “in this world!” For this reason, we can meet Him and know Him today. And in so doing, we can have life, truly abundant life, through Him.