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from issue no. 10 - 2011

Don Giussani and the presence of the laity in the Church

Before speaking of Don Luigi, however, I would like to clarify a point: Don Giussani’s experience has been seen
by many, mistakenly, as competing with the Catholic Action of those years. I always thought it was a wrong reading
even then, because, from what I sensed from the outside, Giussani never started out from opposition to anything
but out of something positive

by Giulio Andreotti

Giulio Andreotti and Don Luigi Giussani

Giulio Andreotti and Don Luigi Giussani


My personal acquaintance with Don Luigi Giussani goes back to the late ’eighties/early ’nineties, but I had known who he was for some time especially because I was aware that someone had finally responded to a certain ideological climate in the universities, and especially in Milan, and my reaction to the knowledge was positive. We had the feeling at the time that Milan was much subject to student protest and the forms that politics took were of the lowest kind. There was much fear caused by the activities of the Red Brigades, the knee-capping and the murders, but there also were very disturbing right-wing ferments. There was the illusion in public institutions that the democratic method, to which we were attached and which we absolutely did not want to abandon, would in the long run be able to combat communism on its own but in that moment, perhaps, it was no longer enough, and when the violent people thought they would be able to come out on top, it was from Don Giussani and those who followed him that the shift came. In fact Giussani’s activity was a kind of turning point, a u-turn: no longer acquiescence with the dominant ideology but not the opposite reaction either, that is, visceral opposition to communism.
Before speaking of Don Luigi, however, I would like to clarify a point: Don Giussani’s experience has been seen by many, mistakenly, as competing with the Catholic Action of those years. I always thought it was a wrong reading even then because, from what I sensed from the outside, Giussani never started out from opposition to anything but out of something positive.
Catholic Action had always been an organization consisting of men, women, young people, aspirants, children, and two movements: graduates and university students (FUCI [Federation of Italian Catholic University Students, ed]). During the Fascist period this form of organization had done quite well because it allowed a tad of independence and pride in difference without creating difficulties. And it was important that it had been given that capillary, almost ‘regimented’, form. I remember that during one of the celebrations of Catholic Action youth (the ‘brown berets’) at the Foro Mussolini, the socialist Saragat said: “I want to come and see”, and he was very impressed. The insight of Pius XI had proved right in creating the movement and the branches, but in keeping the parish as the basic element. Then, as time passed one glimpsed a certain weariness. That did not mean that the workings of the parishes had no point, but the transmission of experience and training had broken off. A decade ago, at the centenary of the FUCI’s foundation, I was almost shocked because the basic formulation that emerged was: ‘Let’s be clear that we are not a movement for training but for research’. But that was not how it had been for us who grew up in the FUCI! For us, the main purpose had been precisely training: the liturgy, the study of the Old and New Testament, a courageous presence in the universities, close collaboration with other students and staff – by whom we had to make ourselves esteemed in terms of quality – and then international connection through the “Pax Romana” and a social awareness cultivated with the welfare missions in the Conference of St Vincent. In this regard, I often remember that I owe to the poor families of Pietralata – where we went with the St Vincent – some of the most important lessons for life I have learned.
In the most glorious years of Catholic Action, as Cardinal Angelini can testify, the mass demonstrations had also shown some strength and were useful, but they were bound up with a historical moment: the same mobilization of the Civic Committees in 1948 had a specific purpose, and brought together Franciscan tertiaries, university professors and housewives. But these events, while positive, if out of context, were a kind of antidote, and the risk was that the only criterion of import was the numbers, the mass, considered everything, while the individual, according to the dictates of the extra-Catholic ideology of the time, was not considered at all.
Don Giussani, I said, gave the feeling of non-compliance, of not being afraid. He gave the impression that one could react, even ideologically, by bringing ideas, training, updating. By looking at Catholicism in other countries and at what was happening in the world. Don Giussani brought innovation with an approach that I think he had clear from the beginning, but introduced gradually because, perhaps, an immediate, direct preaching of it, like the one I have heard, could certainly stir fascination, but also needed one to be prepared. And a certain evolution there was.

Don Giussani and Rose Busingye

Don Giussani and Rose Busingye

Another point: Giussani, the works of Communion and Liberation, the presence of lay Catholics in society. Allow me to make a comparison, think of Martha and Mary in the Gospel. Mary listened to Jesus and, if Martha had not been busy in the kitchen – even though no one would starve to death that night, however, since Jesus was with them – some problem there would have been, because someone had to make dinner. One of the first times I witnessed a meeting between the upper ranks of CL and Giussani, I was reminded of that episode in the Gospel, because even though I was impressed by the atmosphere of the meeting and what was said, I seemed to glimpse a distinction, a difference between Don Giussani and the works, the Company of the Works [CL’s business association ed.]. Those were a wonderful and positive thing, but it seemed to me that he recognized himself more in the figure of Mary. So it was a wise and positive thing that someone handle the organizational aspects, what interested him, however, was something else. I once heard a lecture of his on the concept of works that, if it not be deep-rooted and supported by great ideas, it withers, dries up and dies. I was struck by the central point of his observation which was in no way a criticism of works. However he said: ‘Take care, we must not be taken over only by material things’. This theme is just as pertinent today that we see a certain ‘depression’ in universities – but also in other areas of daily life – and a certain liveliness has again faded.
A third element: Giussani had a particular gift for communication, but at first I could not grasp the spirit. I got there in time, because at first it was as if he were speaking a language different from mine: he said splendid things, that remained in the heart, but I didn’t have the key to an understanding of those things. He had a charismatic expression, that certainly, you saw that he was different, that there was something different in him. Were I to compare him to someone, I would say Mazzolari but also Don Gnocchi. There was something different about them, they always acted in a wider perspective. Whereas I am a bureaucrat by nature, I’m drawn to value everyday administration. I’ve always thought that the most deserving ministers are those who instead of struggling with an umpteenth reform try with humility to get the existing mechanism to work.
And two things helped me to a fuller understanding of Giussani. The first was hearing the funeral eulogy made by Ratzinger at his funeral. I was very impressed because the then Cardinal Ratzinger gave an exact portrait of Don Giusssani. It wasn’t just a funeral speech, one could see that he very much felt what he was saying and, in my opinion, some policies of the pontificate are recognizable in the model of apostolate that Don Giussani indicated. From the way he spoke at the funeral and also later, one glimpsed that it was not only admiration, or friendship that bound him to Giussani, but also agreement of the model of Christian life to preach.
Just a note on this point: to me Ratzinger is a truly modern pope and the criticism that he rightly aims at the false idea of modernity which today prevails is, I think, the very one that Giussani taught. Our generation was not taught to deal with the idea that modernity consists only in not having rules. While on the economic and social fronts we were sufficiently prompt – I’m thinking of the Code of Camaldoli, I’m thinking of the modernity of the land reform – on other fronts we went for certain things because they seemed a sign of modernity, without foreseeing the long-term consequences. I’m thinking, for example, of the change in the code of the articles on marriage, where the concept of head of the household, the authority, disappears. We have suffered them out of not wanting to seem dated.
Don Giacomo Tantardini and Don Giussani in St Peter’s Square, Palm Sunday, Holy Year, 23 March 1975

Don Giacomo Tantardini and Don Giussani in St Peter’s Square, Palm Sunday, Holy Year, 23 March 1975

It lies there: Giussani and Ratzinger are people who can point out a road. And not all of the great figures of Catholicism, leaving aside their personal faith, have this gift. For example Lazzati, who will undoubtedly be in heaven because I saw him sometimes at early morning Mass, in the Chiesa del Gesù, and he seemed truly in ecstasy, however – I say this with the consciousness of faith I have as a true-bred Roman – I wouldn’t say that he managed to give direction to the Catholic University.
But, coming back to Don Giussani, the other thing that enabled me to understand him better has been attending many times in recent years Mass in the Basilica of St Lawrence Outside the Walls, celebrated by Don Giacomo Tantardini, a priest who has always shown admiration and devotion towards Don Giussani, presenting him always as the reference point towards which to look. Many times since I became Director of 30Days I have happened to attend those Saturday evening Masses, at baptisms, confirmations, and each time I saw something unique: students and workers, young married couples holding children by the hand going up together to receive Communion, something truly paradisaical. I’ve asked myself, thanks not least to a striking cover of 30Days dedicated to Lourdes in 2008, if this is not the future of Christianity, the model of the laity for the coming years. Certainly it has enabled me to understand and become more in tune with the words heard in the past from Don Giussani.

(Speech for the XV International Congress ‘On the Holy Countenance’, held at the Pontifical Urban University on 22 and 23 October 2011)

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