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from issue no. 01 - 2010

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Memory of encounters

Remembering Don Luigi Giussani

by Don Giacomo Tantardini

So many memories and thoughts come to mind and move my heart, also making silence and prayer more simple. But from the moment that the Director of 30Days asked me for these lines the memory of the trusting respect that Don Luigi Giussani had for Giulio Andreotti has dominated. In an interview given to La Stampa Giussani cited “De Gasperi, La Pira, Moro and Andreotti” as Catholics in politics “concerned for the common good and with real and appropriate capabilities”. That was on 4 January 1996, so many things had changed in Italian political affairs and also in the ecclesiastical affairs of Communion and Liberation (CL).

Don Luigi Giussani [© Anna Ascione]

Don Luigi Giussani [© Anna Ascione]

“My seminary”
So I set down some fond memories, beginning with his last fully conscious gesture when, accepting to die for Christ (“I want to die for Christ”), Giussani asked Julián Carrón, the priest he himself had called from Spain to direct CL, for absolution at his last confession.
What a great grace it was for me to have been confessed by Giussani and to have confessed Giussani! Confessing each other as Jesus wanted, as Holy Church has established, as we were taught in the seminary of Venegono [the seminary of the diocese of Milan]. He knew what pleasure he gave me when he said “my seminary”. He knew well that it was also my seminary. And that the teaching received, whereby the Tradition of the Catholic faith could participate with sympathy in the modern demands of the subject, that is, of freedom, was the positive stance for facing the world of today. The teaching of the seminary had simply confirmed the words of his mother, while she was taking little Luigi [Giussani] to parish mass on that March morning: “How beautiful the world is and how great is God!”.
Giussani told me that Monsignor Figini, his teacher of dogmatics, had summoned him the day before his priestly ordination to say: “I’d have you do just one thing. Read the newspapers every day”. Then, raising his smiling eyes to me: “No. He didn’t say: ‘read’. He said: ‘look at’”. And so I then told him that I, too, had met Monsignor Figini, when I accompanied my parish priest in summer to visit him in Culmine di San Pietro (a few houses, situated on a mountain pass a few kilometers from my hometown). At that time I was small and I was only struck by this elderly priest who passed the summer months in a presbytery in the mountains where electric light had not yet arrived. Later I was to learn that that priest, who on summer evenings read by the light of a paraffin lamp, was asked by Paul VI to correct the first formulations of the doctrine on collegiality to be presented to the Council fathers. Then I was to learn that Giussani had asked the same priest for an imprimatur for the first booklets of GS [Student Youth Groups]. And Figini gave his imprimatur without correcting a word. Adding only that the re-utilization of the word experience would bring Giussani suffering and misunderstanding. First because of the accusation of modernism. An accusation which could be easily rebutted: the imprimatur from Figini sufficed. Then, in recent decades, many would set, even unconsciously, experience against Tradition. As if the Christian experience is not “noticing the correspondence between the event (and hence the doctrine with the dogmas and the commandments) and the heart”. He smiled contentedly when I told him that his definition of experience judged and put an end to the great theological controversy between traditionalists and théologie nouvelle in the last century. At bottom that little book on experience, with its imprimatur from Figini, took up what the beloved apostle had written on the “Deceivers... refusing to acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in human nature”: “If anybody does not remain in the teaching of Christ but goes beyond it, he does not have God with him: only those who remain in what He taught can have the Father and the Son with them” (2 John 7. 9).
Also in this way one understands the unequalled devotion that Giussani had for Montini. The archbishop who with evangelical discernment first recognized “the good fruits” of his apostolate among students. The Pope of The Creed of the People of God, that is of the “authentic proclamation of dogma, sine glossa, with clarity”. “Our Paul VI” he said in front of everybody, during one of the last courses of spiritual exercises for the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

<I>The calling of Peter and Andrew</I>, Caravaggio, Royal Gallery Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

The calling of Peter and Andrew, Caravaggio, Royal Gallery Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

“He went by the name of Jesus”
They told me that after asking to receive the last absolution, looking at those around his bed, he asked them to sing We don’t know who he was. They told me that he several times asked the nurse who helped him in his last days of life to sing the song for him also. How it moved me to recognize that gratuitous proximity, that gratuitous predilection, even in that last request of his! It was certainly not the most metaphysically, culturally profound song. It was simply the song in which the dearest name (the dearest thing, to take up the words of the Russian starets John) is repeated several times: Jesus. “He went by the name of Jesus”.
And this brings me back to one of the first memories I have of Giussani. Late in the ’Sixties. A meeting at the Péguy Center in Milan. Giussani asked: “What sets us in relationship with Christ?”. The various responses all more or less went: “The community, the Church”. And at the end came the response of Giussani to the question he repeated again: “What sets us in relationship with Christ? The fact that he is risen”. A seminarian, a priest of the Church of Milan cannot forget the announcement “Christus Dominus resurrexit/ Christ the Lord is risen” that “the apostolic voice of the priest” (as the Ambrosian Exsultet puts it) three times repeats during the Easter vigil. If he were not risen, if he were not alive in His true body that gratuitously makes itself present to his followers, yielding them, by His grace, His visible body, our faith would be vain, as Paul writes (cf 1Cor 15, 14.16) and the Church would be a simple apparatus, as Giussani writes in Perché la Chiesa [Why the Church? Montreal, 2001].
“He went by the name of Jesus”. I remember when he spoke to me of the title he had suggested giving the book in which perhaps the finest things he said are collected. He told me: “You see, they had proposed ‘The affection for Christ’ to me. But I suggested ‘L’attrattiva Gesù’ [‘Jesus the attraction’]”. And that time also he looked at me and we looked at each other touched and thankful for the grace of ‘a society of the spirit’ (Phil 2, 1). “Society of the spirit” that he wished to express in front of everybody in the phrase: d Jesus”. And I, with a laugh: “If you’re near as well”. And then he added: “When you had put on the cover of 30Days that phrase of hers: ‘When I am charitable it is only Jesus who acts in me’, for me it was like the beginning of the end, that is the beginning of Heaven”. And so he wanted to quote the phrase of Little Teresa of Lisieux in front of everybody in Saint Peter’s Square during his last meeting with John Paul II: “To the desperate cry of Pastor Brand in the play of that name by Ibsen (‘Answer me, O God, in the hour in which death swallows me: is not all the will of a man sufficient to gain a sole part of salvation?’) responds the humble positiveness of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus who wrote: ‘When I am charitable it is only Jesus who acts in me’”.

The last encounter of Don Giussani with John Paul II, Saint Peter’s Square, 30 May 1998

The last encounter of Don Giussani with John Paul II, Saint Peter’s Square, 30 May 1998

“The witness of the Son of God”
His last public statement was read on the State television news of TG2 on the evening of Christmas Eve. A text in which prayer, poetry and judgments on the condition of the Church and the world were interwoven. I still remember three phrases like sparks, to use the image of the book of Wisdom (cf Wisdom 3, 7) so dear to Giussani: “… what must remain are the sparks: they must be caught like fireflies in the hands of a child”.
The first phrase: “A new Being, in that place, blossomed”. That bloomed immediately reminded me of the words written by Giussani to a common friend in long-ago 1991. A phrase from Heraclitus: “Harmony hidden is more potent than harmony proclaimed”. Christ is the blossom of Mary. How often a Milan priest, reciting Saint Ambrose’s Christmas hymn, has repeated: “Fructusque ventris floruit/ And the fruit of the womb blossomed”.
Second phrase: “Everything comes from Him, but here the newness of a life predominates”. In the mystery of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, for us His humanity prevails. The fact that He who is eternal, remaining eternal, has begun to exist in time predominates. I remember the good Augusto Del Noce saying (and writing) that in Giussani’s theology time prevails over eternity. If the Son of God had not assumed our humanity, if He had not performed in time the gestures of an instant that passes, the two blind men of Jericho would not have heard Him pass, and we also would not have cried out to him. “Transit Iesus ut clamemus/ Jesus passes so that we may ask”. So says Saint Augustine.
Third phrase: “In recollection and in memory of that Fact, the witness of the Son of God emerges more and more powerful… ”. His witness (cf 1Cor 1, 6). And immediately I remembered that 19 March 1979, in the great hall of the Lateran University in Rome, when Giussani went back over the whole history of GS and of CL to come to a point “of today and of tomorrow”, to a “last” point: “We make Christ present through the change that He works in us. It is the concept of witness”. These words, a few months from the beginning of the new pontificate, confirmed and anticipated the course of life of a poor Christian. Like the words of the beloved Psalm: “I keep silence, I speak no more, since You yourself have been at work” (Psalms 39, 9). Like Giussani’s words when he became eighty: “The things that happened, while they were happening, stirred amazement, in that it was God Who worked them. Making of them the plot of a story that happened to me and happens to me before my eyes”.
The last public words of Giussani on Christmas Eve. To tell the truth his last words to everybody were those of the intention of the holy mass on 11 February 2005, the anniversary of pontifical recognition for the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a few days before his illness suddenly worsened: “Let us remember Jesus Christ often, because Christianity is the announcement that God became man and only by living our relationship with Christ as much as possible do we ‘risk’ doing as He did”.
Giussani’s words comfort life. And when in these days the Lord grants us to pray for him and with him, it is not so much remembrance of the words as the renewal of that emotion that streaked our faces with tears because it was given us to recognize and love the same presence. The distance between his charity and my poverty had not evaporated but both were embraced by the same grace. How true in those moments were the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Gratia facit fidem/ grace makes faith”. Those tears were tears of joy (“Habet et laetitia lacrimas suas/ Even joy has its tears”, Saint Ambrose), tears of the same recognition (“Lacrimae confessionis / Tears of recognition”, Saint Augustine).
Giussani died on 22 February, the day on which the Roman liturgy remembers the Cathedra of Saint Peter. These words of Pope Leo the Great occur in the breviary: “The gates of hell cannot prevent this recognition of the faith that escapes even the bonds of death. Indeed this recognition raises to Heaven”. Me, through grace like a child, who looks questioningly. You, who now see face to face, in glory, He whom you helped me recognize and love. So face to face now you can get Our Lady, as you told me in one of our last meetings to strengthen my frail hope, to show herself not only as Queen of Heaven, but also of the earth.

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