Why the Church?

by Msgr. Luigi Giussani

McGill-Queen's University Press, March 2001 256 pages, $19.95.

In an age that idolizes individualism, who among us hasn't wondered “Why the Church?” and desired a compelling way to explain it?

Msgr. Luigi Giussani has provided a profound answer. The depth of his reply remains rooted in his astute understanding of modern man as one who “is obsessed by the need to depersonalize (or impersonalize) all that he most admires.” The founder of the Communion and Liberation movement aptly observes that “man divides himself: he crumbles into his own interests, falling back within his own ambit and, in the process, becomes prey to his own measure.…This is why secularism is, at least implicitly, atheism; it is life without God.”

To this rebellious self-sufficiency, “the Church presents itself in history as a relationship with the living Christ,” for “what the Church is for all men is Jesus Christ's self-communication to the world.”

Msgr. Giussani explains that “the Church is Christ's continuance in history, time and space, the means by which Christ continues to be present in history in a particular way.” Moreover, the Church “is also the method by which the Spirit of Christ mobilizes the world towards truth, justice, and happiness. … It presents itself both as a human and a divine reality.”

As such, “the Church's function…has the same function as Jesus in history, which is to educate…all mankind to the religious sense, precisely in order to be able to ‘save’ him.” The “religious sense” recognizes God “as the totalizing horizon of every human action.”

It blesses every human being with “a conception of God as pertinent to all aspects of life, underlying every human experience excluding none.” For, as Msgr. Giussani asserts, “only a God perceived for what he is…is a credible God, because conviction comes when every aspect of existence is bonded with a universally determining value.”

Put more simply, “the Church's function in history…is that of the mother calling back her children to the reality of things. …The Church…urges us to adopt the ‘right attitude’ towards ourselves and life. It calls us back…to realism and to a type of behavior in which we are reminded how things really are.”

Msgr. Giussani has a genius for explaining the reasonableness of the faith. Why the Church? is an invaluable resource, suitable for both catechesis and spiritual reading. Particularly strong is the way the book treats the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the sacraments, catholicity, and criticisms leveled against the Church.

The author insists on an understanding of realism in which Jesus Christ alone is the center of reality. To this end, the Church proposes a concept for human life in which “everything has value for eternity, nothing falls into oblivion.” Without the Church, man would not be able “to attain objective clarity and security in his perception of all the ultimate meanings of his existence.” For the Church's chief concern “is to bring man's supreme yearning to fulfillment without asking him to forget any of his own very real desires or his own elementary needs.”

Consequently, “anyone who lives the mystery of the ecclesial community receives a change in his nature.…We will become different in a verifiable way.” This requires “obedience to the total Church, depending on it, organizing one's life according to its rhythms.” It is worth the effort, for “in the life of the Church…Christ communicates to man the gift of a more profound participation in the origin of everything. In this way, man remains man but becomes something more. Man within the Church is offered a ‘supernatural’ participation in Being.”

Msgr. Giussani's prose can be challenging at times, but this exquisite book is a work of love that deserves careful — and repeated — reading.

Dominican Father Peter John Cameron is editor of the liturgical-prayer monthly Magnificat.