NEW YORK — The diversity of Catholicism is reflected in her lay movements. From the infectious enthusiasm displayed by the Charismatic Renewal to the dedicated work of the Community of Sant’Egidio, many believers grow closer to God within transnational groups crosscutting parish structure. And last month in New York, one of the most dynamic of the recently founded movements, Communion and Liberation (CL), communicated its Christian message through the group’s annual "New York Encounter."
The 20th century saw a surge in Catholics organizing themselves to accomplish the Church’s mission.
Two early examples are the Militia of the Immaculata, founded in 1917 in Poland by St. Maximilian Kolbe, and the Legion of Mary, started in 1921 by the Irish layman Frank Duff. The Second Vatican Council propelled the growth of lay movements by putting new emphasis on the Church as a communion. Blessed John Paul II spoke on behalf of the lay apostolate at the council, and during his pontificate, documents such as the 1988 apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici eloquently asserted an essential role to lay organizations for goals such as combatting secularism.
On the plane back to Rome from World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis affirmed the legacy of his recent papal predecessors by declaring: “The movements are necessary; the movements are a grace of the Spirit.”
Communion and Liberation is one of several movements currently growing — in terms of participation and geographic diffusion — in the United States.
Although well known in Italy, where its annual August meeting in the Adriatic coastal town of Rimini attracted some 800,000 people last year, Communion and Liberation has a quieter, yet profound, presence in the United States.
Its charism was on display Jan. 17-19 at the "New York Encounter," a sort of “mini Rimini” for stateside adherents. To CL members, Christ is understood as a present fact, radical and wonderful, lived within the Church and through the beauty of art, charity, friendship, nature and lively encounters in his name.
An army of young volunteers was omnipresent at the event, whether guiding visitors or serving pasta. An exhibit of images dedicated to Christ’s face was paired with an exhibit dedicated to novelist Walker Percy. Evening music concerts balanced daily intellectual fare ranging from an Arab Jesuit scholar, Father Samir Khalil Samir, explaining Middle East turmoil to Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s comedic exploration of friendship with Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, 73, a physicist born in Puerto Rico who is a former CL “responsible” (local leader).
Msgr. Albacete, who is the author of God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity, was an early advocate for CL in the United States, having learned about it from his friend Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola.
Cardinal O’Malley told the Register, “CL is making an enormous contribution to the Church, and its history in the U.S. is just beginning.”
Origins With Italian Teens
Father Luigi Giussani (1922-2005) founded the group in Milan in 1954, after meeting teenagers on a train to Rimini. While on vacation from his position as a theology professor at Venegono Seminary, he talked to a group of teenagers and realized they didn’t know fundamentals about Christ or Christianity, although they were Catholic.
Later, the priest recalled his horror at this discovery: “God became man and came unto his own; that his own people should not know him is the worst sin, is the greatest injustice, beyond compare.”
As a result, he requested a transfer to Milan’s high schools — an eccentric career move for a promising theologian.
Father Giussani taught high-school groups — Gioventù Studentesca (GS, or "Student Youth") — that Jesus Christ is a fact whose presence animates the beauty of life. In the late 1960s, under the name Communion and Liberation, GS spread to universities, just as Marxist ideology seized the imagination of youth worldwide.
“I met the movement after being a fierce enemy,” remembers Maurizio Maniscalco, 58, an Italian-American businessman and organizer of "New York Encounter." “Those were years of big turmoil in Europe. We didn’t even know what it meant, but we were all communists. The Church belonged to the past, with all its rules.”
Studying at Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, where Father Giussani taught at the time, Maniscalco began attending CL meetings for help with the responsibility of leading a Boy Scout troop. He found what he needed: renewed faith and methods to activate younger souls.
When he moved to New York in 1994 for a job, Maniscalco brought CL with him. “The movement is a friendship in Christ. It goes with you wherever you go. That is how CL has grown. Friends started telling friends and bringing friends,” he explained.
Both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI admired Father Giussani and encouraged CL’s growth within Church structure.
In 1982, the movement was recognized as a lay fraternity; six years later, Memores Domini, a lay association of consecrated members, was approved. Two religious orders have since emerged: the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo and the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Assumption.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger celebrated Father Giussani’s funeral Mass in 2005 — broadcast live on Italian TV — eloquently recalling: “Father Giussani kept the gaze of his life, of his heart, always fixed on Christ. It was in this way that he understood that Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas or moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”
After his election as Pope Benedict XVI, he invited women members of Memores Domini to care for his household, even participating in their weekly "School in Community" reflections, the regular CL discussion group.
In just the last 20 years, 10 Memores Domini houses for men and women have been founded in the U.S., including Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New York and Washington. Members follow a vocation of total dedication to God while living in the world.
“I cannot define myself without CL,” says a scientist who met the movement as a teenager in Italy and then moved to the United States. “It is the greatest grace in my entire life. It allowed me to know Christ.”
Asked not to be named due to the nature of her work, she observed, “People who are attracted to CL see many things: charity, cultural events, our interest in books and films. But through it all, CL is an education to faith.”
Growth Among Youth
Both GS and Communion and Liberation university students are active on scores of campuses in the United States, continuing some long-standing activities, such as group vacations.
John Fromm, 29, one of CL’s few full-time staffers, met the movement through a Gioventù Studentesca group in Minnesota. He participated in a summer vacation, where he really came to understand the fullness of his faith — and met his future wife.
Fromm said CL communities are now active in more than 130 American cities with special growth around universities.
Spanish Father Julián Carrón, CL’s international leader since the founder’s death in 2005, told the Register he’s pleased to witness CL’s expansion, now active in 70 countries, but cautioned, “Father Giussani did not have any kind of strategy, even though the movement is growing more than he could have planned.”
He said growth is the result of chance, friendship and the relevance of the charism — a relevance Pope Francis confirms.
“When I met Pope Francis in an audience last October, he said he had read a lot of books by Father Giussani for personal enrichment. He told me this way of speaking about Christianity as an encounter, an event, underlining mercy, is part of the future,” said Father Carrón.
Beauty and Truth
Another attractive aspect of Communion and Liberation is the primacy given to culture, beauty and dialogue around interesting people or ideas.
Natalie Polzer flew in from Austin, Texas, to attend the CL weekend. She became intrigued by the movement three years ago when she met a member at a Flannery O’Connor conference. She said CL “has reawakened in me the awareness of God’s living presence in the world today. Not only in the sacraments and holy Scripture, but his presence among us and in us. The way someone sings, looks at art, conducts music is different because it speaks of him.”
Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, a playwriting friar and editor in chief of Magnificat magazine, told the Register he has been close to Communion and Liberation — “following the charism” — since 1997. He says “the gift of the movement to the Church is that it helps those who are seeking.”
Father Cameron explained that art can reconnect people to faith because “beauty is arresting; beauty is wounding. You must give people the experience of beauty before you can tell them it is Christ.”
He continued, “It’s like going to the Grand Canyon. People see it, and they know someone is responsible for all this beauty. Evangelizing is giving people back their hearts. It is the main enterprise of the Catholic Church: educating people to the religious sense.”
Indeed, that’s the name of a book by Father Luigi Giussani: The Religious Sense. When the Holy See launched the English version of the book at the United Nations in 1997, although the priest could not attend, he considered the event a second birth of Communion and Liberation because, in his view, it launched CL in the United States.
That 60 years after its creation in turbulent postwar Italy CL has taken root in fertile soil in postindustrial America, as witnessed so vibrantly at last month’s "New York Encounter", is an inspiring example of the Church’s universality — and of the Holy Spirit’s power.
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.
He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.