Photo by Jonathan Ghaly.

The Life of Luigi Giussani: Christ as the Answer to Human Needs

On March 15 in Denver, Colorado, Alberto Savorana took part in the sixth Life of Luigi Giussani panel alongside John Allen Jr. and J.D. Flynn. Read the full story.
Jonathan Ghaly

“I have three words for you to live to the fullest: Buy. This. Book. It is terrific. It’s extraordinarily thorough but very accessible, and an authentically human treatment of the life of Luigi Giussani. I speak as a guy whose full-time professional work for more than twenty years has been covering the Vatican and the global Church.” These were the first words of prominent journalist John Allen Jr., editor for Crux, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and CNN, and author of eleven books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs, at the University of Denver, Colorado, on March 15. “If you were to come up with a list of the ten most important Catholic personalities of the 20th century, somewhere on that list you would find the name Luigi Giussani.”

Allen confessed that while working in Rome, he attempted to understand the Ciellini who were always in the news by reading Msgr. Luigi Giussani’s books. “In each book I got about five pages in and realized I had no idea what this guy was talking about.” But something happened to Allen a year later: He had dinner with Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, who asked him about his impressions of Communion and Liberation. Bashfully admitting he could not understand Giussani’s books, Allen was startled by Albacete’s response: “Neither can I! Listen, Giussani is someone who can’t be understood properly apart from the community he founded. If you want to make sense of Giussani, don’t start with … the books, start [by] getting to know us.” So, Allen attended the Meeting of Rimini and became acquainted with several Ciellini. “I found myself captivated because this is a group of intellectually and spiritually serious people who were not grim and driven by fire and brimstone Christianity but were actually joyful about it. CL people are happy people, but not nuts! There’s just something so attractive about them.”

Another person who further peaked Allen’s interest in Giussani was none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who not only cited Giussani frequently, but requested to live with consecrated lay Communion and Liberation members when he became Pope Benedict XVI. “If someone as smart and cultured as Ratzinger sees something of value here, I should probably see what that is,” said Allen. “The towering testament of Ratzinger to Giussani was the homily he gave at Giussani’s funeral, which he volunteered to do,” he continued, pointing out Giussani’s “ferocious Christ-centricity … [by which] Christianity is not an intellectual system or set of propositions, but an encounter with a person, which is in danger to be lost in the Christianity of our time,” and emphasizing Giussani’s refusal to “reduce Christianity to a program of social action.”

Allen also described Giussani’s encounter with the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. When Giussani expressed his utmost admiration for his work, Balthasar responded, “Yes, but you created a people.” Allen claimed, “I think what Giussani bequeathed the Church everywhere is a community profoundly rooted in Christ, and a way of life that sustains life through the challenges of human experience with Christ as its sustaining principle. For that reason alone, the life and legacy of Giussani not only deserve to be understood, but to be meditated on, studied, prayed over, and cherished, and, thanks be to God, we now have a vehicle to help us do that.”

J.D. Flynn, editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency, followed Allen’s remarks by humorously agreeing with him, confessing he also tried reading Giussani’s The Religious Sense years ago without making it past the fifth page. What moved Flynn, too, was a person. He recounted a story about a “holier-than-thou” classmate he knew in college at Franciscan University of Steubenville. “This classmate was extremely pious and austere, always praying the rosary, going to adoration, probably kneeling on a bed of nails,” and regularly admonishing Flynn and his “not-so-pious” friends with hagiographical quotes by saints. A few years after college they both moved to Denver and happened to meet. “Something looked different about him because he looked happy, and I’d never seen him happy before. I even cussed, and he didn’t flinch. He told me joyfully that he [had] met Christ in a new way which transformed his life again, making him look at who he was, his desires, how Christ was corresponding to them, and telling me if Christ isn’t an experience that brings you joy, something is missing. And all of this came through his meeting [with] CL.”

What is so fascinating about Giussani’s proposal, Flynn explained, is not the content he taught, but the transformation that occurs through relationships with those who follow him. That existentially changes the way one sees oneself, reality, and the fact of the Incarnation, which can all be verified within experience, not outside it. Flynn asserted that Communion and Liberation is needed in the Church today because it “offers ordinary Christian living and family life” to a Church and world which have lost that fundamental experience. “Giussani is the providential way of understanding Christianity for [the] post-modern man who doesn’t understand himself or reality, with an apologetics of love.” He additionally pondered the lack of a burgeoning arts culture within the American Church which is, instead, busy “writing books we don’t want to read and making movies we don’t want to watch,” and stated that part of the attractiveness of Communion and Liberation is that it is one of the rare places in the Church for the struggling Catholic, “Where one can be in relationship and journey with others while having doubt and curiosity more than confidence and zeal.”

Alberto Savorana, journalist and author of Giussani’s biography The Life of Luigi Giussani, was struck by the speakers’ stories. “It struck me that before meeting Giussani you met some fruits of his charism. This is the way to understand his legacy. What struck you was a different humanity, an attractive way of living ordinary life, not in a strange world but in this world.” This was precisely the attempt of Giussani--not a sociological experiment, Savorana explained, but a person with an announcement—who perceived even in the predominantly Catholic 1950s Milan that “for young people faith had nothing to do with ordinary life, the classroom, [falling] in love, [suffering].” Everything changed for Giussani in the seminary when he discovered that “Christ was not a theory or idea of the past but the answer to the awareness of his need for beauty, truth, goodness, and happiness. … Christianity was offered to him inside a friendship. From that point on his only desire was to share what he [had] discovered: Christ as the answer to human needs.” Savorana then quoted Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, pointing out that from the opening of his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, it is clear that he recognized the category of “event” as the most powerful way to explain the nature of Christianity. “[It is] something that happens, that does not depend on us, except [in that we] recogniz[e] it. Giussani stressed many times that Christianity cannot be imposed, but only encountered,” emphasized Savorana, concluding with the words Giussani spoke in an interview at the end of his life: “The protagonist in my life was always Christ.