Aaron Richies, born in 1974, teaches at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

United States: Discovering life

A theologian who met Fr. Giussani’s thought and then met a young boy, both of them shaking his faith and life. Leading to a proposal of a university course on Giussani. From the October issue of Traces.
Aaron Richies

When Fr. Carrón announced the centenary of the birth of Fr. Giussani, he proposed that we take a personal interest in the gesture for a single and essential reason: “To witness what Fr. Giussani has generated in us.” I was provoked to consider what difference the charism had generated in me. What in my “I” exists now wholly on account of the gift of the presence of Jesus Christ that has passed to me through the life of this Milanese priest?–a man I never knew, who died the year I was received into the Catholic Church? How did it pass from him to me?

I first heard of the Movement in the autumn of 2005. I was living in England, where I had just begun studying for my doctorate in theology at the University of Nottingham. My thesis director, Professor John Milbank, had just met the archbishop of Granada, Msgr. Javier Martínez, and was becoming friends with people from Communion and Liberation at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.

Out of curiosity, I had bought and skimmed Fr. Giussani’s The Risk of Education. I certainly did not understand what Communion and Liberation was, but I was becoming interested, especially in how in it there seemed to be some way of living the faith that was connected to theologians I was studying, like De Lubac, Ratzinger, and Balthasar.

The real meeting happened in 2009 when Alessandra Gerolin, who was teaching philosophy at the Cattolica, sent one of her students to Nottingham to study with John Milbank for a semester. She asked me to help find this student a place to stay. I was not prepared for the way this young Italian would conquer me and my family.

Michelangelo Mandorlo was in his early 20s when he arrived in Nottingham. When he came I was an adjunct teacher of theology at the university. I had published some articles in theology journals and was preparing to defend my PhD thesis. My wife, Melissa, and I had one child, Basil, and Melissa was pregnant with our second, Edith. Melissa and I were both converts to the Catholic Church, me from atheism via Anglicanism (I was baptized two years before I became Catholic in an Anglican Church) and she from the Protestantism in which she was raised. By 2009, Melissa and I found ourselves in England having already made an unexpected and singular journey of faith. Our histories, my studies in theology, the fact that we were now parents and more than a decade older than Michelangelo should have given us an authority in matters of faith and life. But our encounter with him clarified the opposite! Michelangelo initiated us on a path of relearning the faith from zero. Through the encounter with him we discovered “familiarity with the mystery,” the inner experience of the efficacy God willed by taking human flesh.

Michelangelo was a different kind of Catholic. He was not pious, yet he prayed with more devotion than anyone I had met up until that point. He got real joy out of smoking his toscanos, drinking beer and singing, goofing around with our young son, but also out of cooking and doing the dishes. He did all these things with an immediacy and intensity that signified that for him they all had great value for his person and for his friends. And all of this (smoking, cooking, friends–everything) seemed for him somehow intimately connected with going to Mass. This remarkable young man overcame us. He really appreciated who we were and wanted to know about our history. Michelangelo was whole and gladly alive.

He brought us to his family home in Rimini, and we met the same in his parents. Through him my history, which had seemed to me at the time fragmented and compartmentalized, began to take on the clarity of a new unity. Without a single discourse, Michelangelo showed me (almost unawares) the profound and exceptional reason that knit together the seemly disjunctive moments of life into a single pattern of dramatic importance. He did this not least by teaching me to sing and play guitar again (something I had abandoned after my conversion to Christianity). And one of the songs he taught me to sing was Claudio Chieffo’s La Strada: “Porto con me le mie canzoni / Ed una storia cominciata / È veramente grande Dio / È grande questa nostra vita.” (I carry with me my songs / and a story that has begun / God is truly great / and great is this life of ours). This line unlocked something inside me. It clarified that everything I carried within was rooted in a single story, a history that belongs to God and is my life.

When he arrived in Nottingham, Michelangelo began to do School of Community every week with some friends: it would meet in our living room, and because we were his friends we were invited. He discovered there was a Polish woman named Ania who lived in Nottingham who was from the Fraternity. There was also an Italian, Dario, who worked during the week at Rolls-Royce in Derby. At the first Nottingham School of Community we were six: Michelangelo, Ania and her husband Marek, Dario, and Melissa and me.

The experience of wholeness the School of Community generated led me to recognize it as my own, as something more intimate to me that I was to myself. The gesture and company it entailed gave flesh to the most fascinating ideas of Giussani and made them facts in my life.

Michelangelo, after he became the godfather to my daughter, Edith, entered the Cascinazza monastery outside of Milan, where today he is a Benedictine monk. In the same period we moved to Spain, where Msgr. Martínez invited me to teach at his seminary and join his recently established Instituto de Filosofía “Edith Stein.” In his paternal gaze the experience of the Movement that began for us in Nottingham continued in exactly the same way.

The passing of the charism cannot for me be distinguished from my vocation as an educator. In a certain sense I learned how to teach by immersing myself in what I have learned from Giussani, however imperfectly I communicate it. I often say to people that whatever good I do in the classroom is entirely due to the debt I owe to the School of Community. I have discovered that, in order to communicate anything true and worthwhile, in order to be at all compelling to my students, I have to adhere to the insistence on experience Fr. Giussani proposed.

In 2015, as soon as the Spanish translation of Alberto Savorana’s biography was published, I read the introduction at once, until I gave up and started simply reading around in the biography in fits and starts. That changed with Carrón’s proposal of the centenary, which touched me at a particular moment. We had moved to the U.S. and I had been asked by Fr. José Medina to lead the Atchison School of Community, which had already set me in front of the question of my responsibility for the charism. How was I, inadequate as I know I am, able to take responsibility in this way for the Movement in this place? I knew that the first step would be to encounter Savorana’s big book. And that is when it crossed my mind: Why not do a class based on Fr. Giussani’s biography? I proposed it to my chair at Benedictine College, Dr. Jamie Blosser. Jamie welcomed the idea of the class but asked that I do it as a Senior Theology Seminar. This would mean that most of the CLU students I expected to fill the class and help me read the book would not be able to take it (not being both theology maors and seniors). With them, we decided to meet once a week in order to read the biography together. And so, a secondary and spontaneous “coffee shop class” happened and as the semester went on it attracted students who were not of the CLU.

The official class met twice a week. On Tuesday, before we discussed the section of the biography we had read for that day, each student would have the opportunity to give a presentation on one of the chapters of Christ, God’s Companionship with Man. On Thursdays, we would begin class by reading aloud Giussani’s liner notes for a piece of music from Spirto Gentil, and then listen to that piece before turning again to the section of the biography we had prepared. The exception to this rhythm occurred at two points in the semester when we read Tidings Brought to Mary and Miguel Mañara.

Maybe the best way of beginning to see what happened in the official class is to read an email I received just after the final exam from one the students: “There is no class that I have taken in college that has more impacted my day-to-day spiritual life and overall outlook on the Faith than this encounter with Christ through Giussani. This class ripped open my heart to Him in a way that I’ve never experienced. Thank you for giving me this opportunity, and know that in my teaching, I will live in the spirit of Christ through Giussani and share this encounter with my students for years to come. R.”

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I think that summarizes what many of students discovered. It is surprising to learn a new way of looking at Christ, to learn to see Him again for the first time. This is the great utility the students discovered in Giussani: he freed them to look at the difficulties, disaffections, boredoms, monotonies, sins, and sufferings of life–a range of human experience that too often is compartmentalized, as if it falls outside the embrace of Jesus. There they found the newness of the event of the encounter. The question that most struck the students was the way Giussani really bets boldly on the goodness of all of reality and insists that it is always and only there that He can be encountered. Every cry for Christ is already a sign of His presence and a tension that sets the human “I” on the road toward the destiny that is Him.

This was highlighted by a student who focused on the surprising way Giussani faced his final suffering with Parkinson’s. She said in our last class: “He has this certainty that what’s being given to him is gift. He saw this gift in the nurses around him and in his friends and in people he barely knew. So, the thing that I want, that I take from this class is that I [too] want to see everything as gift.”