NEW YORK — Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, died Feb. 22 in Milan, Italy.

His movement, affectionately called CL by its members, is present in 70 countries and has more than 200,000 members — and has influenced an uncounted number of hearts and minds toward a deeper personal relationship with Jesus.

The charism of CL, as described by Pope John Paul II in a 2004 letter to Msgr. Giussani, proposed “in a fascinating way … the Christian event.”

One of the central ideas put forth by the movement is that Christ encounters each man and woman through a personal and human relationship.

“In that relationship, everything becomes more beautiful,” said Chris Vath, one of the leaders of the New York Communion and Liberation community. “Everything becomes more reasonable. This is because it is Jesus who is the reason and the beauty behind the encounter.

“People ask ‘Why is that person different? Why is that person enjoying life more? Why are they seeing things I don’t see?’ What is behind that person is God himself.”

The movement emphasizes the idea that Christ is at the center of all cosmos and history, and only Christ has the answers to the desires of the human heart. Its name synthesizes the conviction that the Christian event, lived in communion with others, is the foundation of man’s genuine liberation.

As Father Rich Veras, a member of Communion and Liberation and a teacher at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, N.Y., put it, “After I met the community, Christ went from being someone whom I had only read about to someone whom I met.”

Faith and Reason

Luigi Giussani was born Oct. 15, 1922, in a small town near Milan. His mother Angela was the first to transmit the faith to him by means of daily instruction.

His father, a carver and restorer of wood, urged his son to always seek the reason for things. Both strove to maintain a family atmosphere of respect for others and the development of what Msgr. Giussani later called the “true dimension of the heart and reason.”

He entered the seminary at the age of 15 and was ordained in 1945. After teaching at the seminary in Venegono for several years, Father Giussani began to teach religion at the Berchet Classical High School in Milan from 1954 to 1964. The movement he would found began simply enough in that high school classroom.

It was during this time that Father Giussani noticed that when he used words like “grace” or “faith,” the students seemed unmoved. He realized that they did not understand the meaning and power of these words. In order for the faith to make sense to them, they had to see that it was, first of all, reasonable.

More importantly, he wanted to impart to them that faith could only result from a personal encounter with the person of Christ. He wanted his students to see Christianity as an event that began with the birth of Christ, but which continues very much into the present.

His discussions and questions with the young teen-agers evolved into the association called Gioventu Studentesca (Student Youth). Today, it’s still an important part of the larger Communion and Liberation movement.

After teaching at Berchet Classical, Father Giussani became a professor of theology at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan. From 1964 to 1990, he held the chair of introductory theology. As it turns out, his being a professor at this time in Italy’s history was providential.

“When I was in high school, Italy was going through what would later be called the ‘years of lead,’” said Riro Maniscalco, a leader in New York’s Communion and Liberation community. “There was tremendous political and social upheaval in Italy. Marxism had taken over the youth.”

According to Maniscalco, everyone called himself a Marxist in the ’60s, because it was “trendy.” He knew CL members in high school.

“I hated them,” he recalled. “But then, through personal experiences, especially in college, I felt that I needed to deepen my understanding of what this man Giussani was putting together. The whole thing held a mysterious attraction for me.”

Maniscalco’s desire to understand Father Giussani was so great that he eventually transferred from the college he had been attending in eastern Italy to the University of Milan. It was there that Maniscalco enrolled in Father Giussani’s class.

“I fell for this man,” said Maniscalco. “I later realized that all of my life as an adult came from this encounter with him. My decision to marry my wife, my desire for marriage, the way our family lives — all of it has comes about because of having discovered the presence of Christ in our lives.”

Turbulent Times

The movement became known as Communion and Liberation in 1969, during a time when communist thought flourished among Italian youths.

“The only non-communist groups at the universities in Italy were CL,” said John Hinrichsen, another member of the movement in New York City. “Many CL student offices were bombed.

“Because ‘liberation’ is one of the key words for communists, using this name was seen as a direct ideological challenge to communism. But Christ said that ‘I am the way,’ not Marx.”
 In 1982, the Pontifical Council for the Laity recognized Communion and Liberation as an association of pontifical right. By that time, the movement had already spread throughout the world. Father Giussani was named monsignor by Pope John Paul II in 1983, with the title of Honorary Prelate to His Holiness.

In every country where it is present, uses a weekly catechesis called “School of Community” as an instrument of formation.

Members held a cultural meeting 26 years ago in Rimini, a small seaside town in Italy. It is now held every year, with more than half a million participants. Why is the meeting about culture?

“One of the three pillars of CL is culture,” explained Hinrichsen, “because the faith has to do with the world. Christ has to do with life. We must be involved in every aspect of life.”

CL began in the United States in 1984 with a small group of people meeting in New York City. Today, there are 1,000 members in the United States. Hallmark events have included the presentation of Father Giussani’s books at the United Nations in 1997 and 1998, and a yearly Good Friday procession across the Brooklyn Bridge.

This procession has often been covered by the secular media. The year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks there were more than 5,000 participants.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Jersey City, New Jersey.