A Human Gaze, A History

Msgr. Luigi Giussani leans over the rails of the Portofino lighthouse with some Berchet High School students.
Msgr. Luigi Giussani leans over the rails of the Portofino lighthouse with some Berchet High School students.

NEW YORK ENCOUNTER  2018 — “What is the interest for English speaking countries of an Italian priest from the last century?” This introductory question, asked by the Rev. Julián Carrón, served as the basis not only for a presentation surrounding the recent English publication of Alberto Savorana’s latest book, The Life of Luigi Giussani, but for the work of the 2018 New York Encounter at large. Carrón, leader of the ecclesiastical movement Communion and Liberation (CL) and successor to its founder, Msgr. Luigi Giussani, addressed hundreds of people attending the three-day cultural event, sponsored by CL, that has grown to draw thousands.

Savorana, currently the director of CL’s Public Relations and Press office, has served as a journalist for RAI-USA, editor of CL’s international monthly magazine and collaborator with Giussani and Carrón themselves on a number of texts. While he himself was grateful to Carrón for urging him to publish Giussani’s biography, it was Carrón who acclaimed the importance of Savorana’s work: “The method used by Alberto Savorana is very important to meet the figure of Giussani because Giussani, as an educator, has a spoken a lot of times of himself, of his own experience, of what he has learned from his own history. What Savorana has done is allow for Giussani to speak for himself.” Despite Carrón’s emphasis on Giussani’s self-representation within the biography, the presentation of the book served as an opportunity for a few panelists to commemorate their own experiences with Giussani throughout his life—from his days as a religion teacher in Milan’s Berchet High School to his consolatory presence to the witnesses of 9/11.

The panel’s first speaker, the Rev. Pigi Bernareggi—now a missionary priest working in the slums of Belo Horizonte, Brazil—reflected on his days as Giussani’s student at Berchet High School in 1964. Bernareggi recalled that although he only had one hour of religion class each week with Giussani, he was immediately drawn to Giussani’s method of discovering faith. Giussani told him, “I’m not here so you can take my ideas as your own, I’m here to teach a true method to judge the things I will tell you.”  Bernareggi continued, “Then he pointed to the goal—to show our faith can be relevant to life’s needs.” Shortly after meeting Giussani, Bernareggi traveled to Brazil with a few companions where he realized his vocation as a diocesan priest serving the poor. Almost forty years later, after becoming very sick, he received a letter from Giussani in which he prayed for Bernareggi. Giussani implored that Christ “may never be reduced in your memory; not a recalling, but a memory. … That he may cause you to understand that the cross is the condition of the resurrection, that you who have been faithful in little things with yourself—and therefore with all of being and all beings—that he may cause you to experience that greatness that man’s heart, yet in a valley of tears, is already called to experience … because heaven has a subtle beginning in this life. … I hope that you will get better soon and with experience will be able to carry out your task.” Reflecting on the letter, Bernareggi shared, “I carry always with me my living experience of Don Giussani, of a true fatherhood, which makes me always feel him to be present in everything I do and in everything that happens to me.”

Another who befriended Giussani during the beginning of the movement he started was Pier Alberto Bertazzi, former director of the Department of Clinical Sciences and Community Health at the State University of Milan. Bertazzi met Giussani during a holiday ski-trip in 1962, to which he was invited by some friends. After Giussani explained to him the reasonableness of attending mass and saying daily prayers, Bertazzi joined Gioventu` Studentesca (GS), the youth group which eventually grew into CL. When many members of GS left to join leftist student rebellions in the late sixties, Bertazzi and others resisted and decided to rally for their own political positions in a basketball gym. Instead of joining them, Giussani prayed in a monastery until lunchtime, fearful of violence from other groups. According to Bertazzi, he reminded the youth that, “The issue isn’t to organize something, but rather it is an event inside ourselves.”

Giussani’s influence began to spread internationally from then on, as shown through the witness of Shodo Habukawa, a Japanese professor and monk who remembered the exact day and time he met Giussani in 1987. Habukawa was impressed by Giussani’s sharp critique of modernity and how a friendship could spring between them despite their different religions and ethnic backgrounds. Rose Busingye, the founder of Meeting Point Kampala, an organization which helps those stricken by AIDS in Uganda, remembers feeling so loved by Giussani during meals with him that she would think, “if a human being can treat me like this, what about God?”

Eventually, CL reached the United States and the heart of Jonathan Fields, a music composer who witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers firsthand from a subway car. Fields felt as though “everything was reduced to nothingness” at that moment. Yet, in the aftermath, he realized, “I think my nothingness is my enemy … and yet … it’s only an enemy if I stop crying out. It’s not an enemy if there’s a certainty that there’s a Someone I cry out to. That’s really been a beautiful history of the embrace of our Father Giussani, not through his physical accompaniment, I guess … but through his spirit.”

The role that Giussani played in the lives of all the presenters was encapsulated fittingly by someone who had never met Father Giussani. Margaret Stokman, a college student from St. Paul, Minnesota, was on the way to charitable work—which Giussani proposed as crucial to the life of CL—when she encountered a man named Bruce who was washing windows. After telling Bruce she was off to sing at a nursing home with her friends, he was so astonished that he told her that her work made him less afraid to die. Through this experience, Stokman indirectly provided an answer to the question Carrón had asked in his introduction: “I didn’t meet Father Giussani, but I can say without a doubt that he is a father to me and loves my destiny.”

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