Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Convincing Power of Certainty

There is a stretch in the film biography of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, “Extraordinary Lives,” when all hell breaks loose. Arising in the relative calm of the 1950s, when the Catholic Church still had a hold on Italy, the student youth movement Giussani started in Milan runs smack into 1968.

Anyone who lived through that year of rebellion knows the shorthand. “1968” means students on the barricades, outrage over Vietnam and the military industrial complex, and rampant naive Communism. When I was in Paris three years later, the barricades were still in place on the Boulevard St. Michel and les flics (heavy-duty cops) were still patrolling in armored vehicles and riot helmets. It was that big a deal.

With friends from Communion and Liberation, members of our home School of Community and others from Boston, I viewed the film for the second time in two weeks last night, and I came away more moved than the first time. The first time was at a Crossroads event in New York City, and I wrote about that here.

This time I was particularly struck by the history of Giussani’s “Student Youth” (GS) movement renamed “Communion and Liberation” in the wake of 1968 and by the extraordinary certainty with which Giussani began again when it looked like everything was in ruins.

Just a few years before 1968, two young men from GS had left Italy for Brazil to begin a wave of GS missionaries working with the poor of that developing nation. By 1968, the movie suggests, many young Italian Catholics had given themselves over to self-sacrificing mission work while following the Catholic Church and the charism of Don Giussani. When the earthquake of revolt hit the streets of Europe—Milan as well as Paris—a corresponding tsunami of Liberation Theology swept South America. Most of the GS students were swept away, seduced by revolutionary promises: The way to change the world—the way Jesus Christ would change the world if he were alive and long-haired today—was to engage in radical political action. The missionary impulse vanished like a breeze of butterflies in a brash hurricane.

Meanwhile, in Milan, for the next ten years the renamed Communion and Liberation (CL) was reviled by revolutionaries and viewed with disdain by many in the curia. CL headquarters and personnel were threatened and attacked by Communist sympathizers. Higher-ups within the Church, often suspicious of new “unnecessary” ecclesial movements, did not exactly have Giussani’s back. An exception was Pope Paul VI, who quietly encouraged the founder of CL, saying, “I may not understand but go ahead.” (I am paraphrasing.)

The film’s producers made a smart choice when creating the English-language version of “Extraordinary Lives.” While voice-overs are used for other Italian-speaking interviewees, Don Giussani is allowed to speak out in Italian with subtitles. As a result, we see and hear and sense and smile at the thoughtful conviction with which he spoke, and all the striking gestures, facial expressions, and eye twinkles. To judge by the many interviews with him included in the 70-minute film, Luigi Giussani was never less than fully engaged when he spoke, even in his last months, when impaired by Parkinson’s disease.

The moment comes when he is asked how his faith survived 1968, how—betrayed and abandoned by so many, with only a handful of faithful still gathered—he picked up the pieces and started again, soldiering bravely through the 1970s until the fateful election of Pope John Paul II. The Polish Pope was a staunch, outspoken supporter of Giussani (and other movements) and the image at the top of this post captures the moment in 1998—thirty years after the barricades—when the founder of CL knelt at the feet of the greatest 20th-century Pope.

I wish I could write now exactly what Giussani said when asked this question: How did you have the strength to continue after 1968 and its aftermath? But even without the words, which I did not write down, I can say what he said because the words convinced me again. Giussani said, If something is true and you are convinced that it is true, then you begin again, you always begin again, even if you are alone. This was the faith of the martyrs, a faith that cannot be shaken, a faith that convinces even from the illusory two dimensions of a movie screen. It is the faith, too, of our current Pope, Benedict, who both warns us and encourages us when he says that the Church may have to get smaller before it gets big again. Luigi Giussani learned that lesson, and proved its power, 40 years ago.

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