HE SAID he never intended to found anything, and I believe him. But he had a gift for friendship. When his funeral mass was celebrated in Milan last month, thirty thousand of his companions were there. The principal celebrant, Cardinal Ratzinger, delivered a message from another friend, Karol Wojtyla.
It may be a truism to say that every saint is a saint for his times, but in the case of Father Luigi Giussani, the match between charism—the particular form of faith he felt called to live—and the spirit of the age was nothing short of extraordinary. In the years following World War II, he sensed a widening gap between traditional religious institutions and the daily emotional life of the people. He saw the turmoil and restlessness beneath the good times, the growing polarization of radicals and reactionaries, the steady drift toward the utopian politics of revolution or retrenchment.
Giussani perceived these forces working within the religious community as well, leading many to a faith that was increasingly abstract and moralistic. It might seem odd that a Catholic priest would criticize moralism, but he did, whether it was at work in the language of traditionalist piety or the slogans of political activism. Giussani said that the essence of faith is neither doctrine nor morality, but something else, something far more fundamental. Of his own tradition he wrote: “Christianity is an event. There is no other word to indicate its nature: neither the word law nor the word ideology, conception, or project. Christianity is not a religious doctrine, a series of moral laws, a complex of rites. Christianity is a fact, an event: everything else is a consequence.”
What sort of event was it? An encounter, Giussani said, something that might be described as a chance meeting. He knew that people might object to the word chance, associating it with randomness, but he pointed out that the ancient philosophers had thought of chance as “an effect greater than the sum of its known causes.” In short, chance favors the prepared mind.
Some of the most important moments of our lives take this form: an event appears random, but mysteriously unlocks something that has been dormant, unrealized, within us. In that sort of encounter we experience something utterly new and unique: what we meet corresponds to the deepest desires of our hearts.
What set Giussani apart from so many religious leaders is that he believed the encounter with God does not annul our humanity, lifting us into the ether, but restores us to ourselves. He was fond of quoting the ancient Roman rhetor, Marius Victorinus, who said: “When I encountered Christ, I discovered I was a man.”
I first encountered Giussani when I chanced upon a book of his entitled Morality: Memory and Desire. It was the subtitle that got me: not only the allusion to the phrase from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but a sudden intuition that these two words might make sense of a subject that has been reduced, time and time again, to banality. In the book Giussani writes that morality is less a set of abstract principles or laws than a way of honoring a relationship. The essence of the Way lies in the companionship of those who live in memory of the Event.
A few years later I attended a retreat held by the Catholic lay movement Giussani accidentally founded: Communion and Liberation. After a day of spiritual meditations, the evening was devoted to a party. Because the movement was only just beginning in the United States, there were a lot of Italians in the room that night. The air with thick with cigarette smoke and the wine was plentiful. A pianist and a saxophonist were jamming somewhere in the blue haze. I think the cluster of people I was with were discussing the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Then, late that evening, one of the elders of the group—he must have been all of thirty-five—stood up and announced that it was time to go to bed. Within seconds, the entire group was chanting the Salve Regina in hushed unison. The party was over…until the following evening.
For an American like me, used to thinking that religion involved segmenting my life into sacred and profane compartments, the experience was disconcerting and, well, liberating. I suspected that national character had something to do with it, but there was also something else at work, a spirit of freedom that I had not felt before.
Shortly before he died, Giussani was quoted as saying that he had never intended to found anything. It all began in 1954, when he was a young seminary professor. A few chance conversations about faith with young people had profoundly disturbed him. He sensed both anger and ignorance, a widespread feeling that religion had little to do with life, and a tendency to displace faith with dreams of political utopia. So he made a fateful decision: he left his comfortable seminary position to teach high school religion classes.
When he entered the classroom, instead of giving his students predigested bits of Thomas Aquinas, he read the poetry of the dark, despairing, Romantic Giacomo Leopardi with them. They spoke of the poet’s unfulfilled desires, his sadness and sense of mystery. And then he would ask them to consider Aquinas’s belief that this sadness might be “the desire for an absent good.” And so a companionship began.
In his funeral homily, Cardinal Ratzinger said of Giussani: “from the start [of his life] he was touched—or, better—wounded, by the desire for beauty.” His books are replete with quotes from Dante and Dostoyevsky. He wrote the liner notes to a series of CDs, from Gregorian chant to Beethoven. He believed that art provides the best analogy for the moment of recognition that is our experience of the Event. The spiritual life, he said, is “the development of a gaze.”
In a documentary made before his death, Giussani speaks hoarsely and looks down while speaking. But when he finishes his sentence and looks up, you see a gaze that might make you a friend for life.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.