DENVER – In January 1971, during a set of spiritual exercises in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, the great Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar met Italian Father Luigi Giussani, who founded the Comunione e Liberazione movement in 1954 and oversaw its rapid development into a global Catholic “brand.”
Von Balthasar had been invited by then-Father Angelo Scola, a young adept of Giusssani’s movement, who eventually would go on to be the Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan and such a strong candidate to be pope that the Italian bishops’ conference accidentally released an email blast congratulating him when the white smoke first went up in March 2013.
That, of course, turned out to be premature, since the 2013 conclave elected Pope Francis instead.
As the story is told of that 1971 encounter, Giussani voiced admiration for his older contemporary’s intellectual accomplishments, to which von Balthasar supposedly responded: “Yes, yes, but you have created a people.”
For the longest time, I thought the anecdote was probably apocryphal. It sounded like one of those too-cute-by-half things, a classic case of the Italian line se non è vero, è ben trovato, meaning, loosely, “If it’s not true, it still sounds good.”
Friday night in Denver, however, Alberto Savorana, author of the definitive biography of Giussani, said it’s actually true – von Balthasar really did say that, and it formed part of a friendship and mutual admiration society between the two men, both of whom would figure on any list of influential Catholic personalities of the 20th century.
The occasion for the confirmation of von Balthasar’s riposte was a panel at the University of Denver Friday night featuring Savorana; Father Jose Media, U.S. coordinator of Communion and Liberation; J.D. Flynn, editor of the Catholic News Agency; and myself, on hand to present the English edition of Savorana’s massive The Life of Luigi Giussani (originally published in Italian in 2013).
During the panel, I told the story of once confessing to Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a larger-than-life Puerto Rican priest who for years was the American face of Communion and Liberation, that I found Giussani virtually impenetrable. After admitting that he did too at the beginning, Albacete’s advice was simple: “Get to know us for a while, and then Giussani will start making sense.”
Therein, I think, lies a deep wisdom, and Albacete was absolutely right – it was only after I got to know CL and its cast of characters a bit better did Giussani’s writings start to become more digestible.
(As a footnote, I’ll add Albacete’s answer when I asked the basic thing I should know about CL. Without missing a beat, he beamed and said: “It’s Opus Dei for lazy Catholics.”)
To be clear, to get to know CL, like getting to know pretty much anyone or anything, isn’t all sweetness and light.
During the Pope John Paul II era Comunione e Liberazione had the reputation of forming a sort of right-wing parallel church in Milan, at odds with Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who for a long time was the “Great White Hope” of the Church’s liberal wing to become the next pope. Regardless of what side of the conservative/liberal divide one fell on, the perception was that the ciellini could be obstreperous and divisive.
Early on, there was also a sense that the ciellini weren’t Pope Francis’s biggest fans – in part because another bishop from the movement, Italian Archbishop Luigi Negri, was quoted by an Italian newspaper in 2015 as wanting Francis dead.
Supposedly, Negri said during a train ride that he hoped the Madonna would work a miracle and cause Francis to die, referring to the example of Pope John Paul I, who died after just 33 days. Allegedly, Negri also had some harsh things to say about bishops’ appointments by Francis in the Italian dioceses of Bologna and Palermo. (Negri initially denied the comments, then insisted he had been taken out of context.)
Over the years the ciellini also have been seen as having close ties to wealth and power in Italian politics, in part because one of the group’s most prominent members, Roberto Formigoni, was the controversial conservative governor of the Italian region of Lombardy from 1995 to 2013.
In February, Formigoni began serving a five-year prison term following a conviction for corruption. That episode prompted Carrón to pen a letter that amounted to a public mea culpa.
“If the Communion and Liberation movement is continually identified with the lure of power, or money, of styles of life that have nothing to do with [Giussani’s legacy], we must have given some reason,” Carrón wrote.
Such scandals and controversies aside, what I’ve discovered upon getting to know CL through the years is that the people in it, at least the ones I’ve met, tend to come off as basically happy.
Most seem to be reasonably serious about their faith, trying to live an integrated Christian life in a culture that doesn’t exactly encourage it, but they don’t seem grim, narrow or judgmental. Whatever their politics, they basically seem to be trying to do something positive with their lives, rooted in Giussani’s insistence that Christianity isn’t a philosophical system but an encounter with a person.
That’s no small accomplishment, and at a time when positive energy in the Church often seems in short supply, any community that can still foster a sense of possibility for the faith arguably deserves the benefit of the doubt, whether it leans left, right, or somewhere in the middle. (It’s also a reminder that judging any group by the words and deeds of its most notorious members probably isn’t the best yardstick.)
Of course, the ciellini are hardly the only group or current in the Church generating positive energy. To date, the “new movements” haven’t really taken off in the United States, as opposed to other parts of the world, largely due to the general vitality of American parishes. Going forward, however, as the American church digs out from under the disaster of the abuse scandals, there may be a greater hunger for the sense of community and purpose the movements at their best can provide.
Especially now, therefore, pondering the “people” he created can’t help but prompt a sense of curiosity about Giussani himself and what made him tick – and, thankfully, we now have Savorana’s book as an authoritative guide.