Father Pigi on Father Giussani
"He opened our eyes to the presence of God in everything."
Editor's note: On the occasion of the death of our dear friend, Father Pigi Bernareggi, we present Father Pigi's witness at the 2018 New York Encounter event, "A Human Gaze, A History: the Life of Luigi Giussani." A video of the event is included below.
I’m thankful for this invitation that was completely unexpected for me, because for me to come here to speak about the years that I lived with Don Giussani is an immense joy. Therefore, I don’t even feel worthy of this meeting.
The backdrop of the presentation I’m going to give is the Italian city of Milan between 1954 and 1964 of the last century. So, it was only a decade. I met Father Luigi Giussani in October of 1954. I was a student in the public high school Giovanni Berchet, which was the most prestigious classical high school in the city. I was fifteen years old, and it was the first year that Father Giussani, then thirty years old, taught religion in the public high school. At that time, Italian public schools were the subject of the most ferocious invasion of what was called laicism or secularism, which consisted of showing that only a culture that was absolute, absolutely atheist, scientific, and capitalist, was worthy of the economic boom that had taken place in Europe in the postwar years.
So we had twenty-four hours per week of classes, and only one of those was religion. The rest was a secularism that was pure and battle-hardened. But, that one weekly hour of class with Don Giussani was worth more in terms of human and spiritual formation than all the others put together. So, in my class, called “First E,” immediately, two opposite tribes or bands were created. Two parties were created: those who were either for or against Father Giussani, or Father “Gius,” as we all started to call him at that time. My deskmate was Dino Quartana, who had a strong Christian formation because his brother Pino was one of the leaders of the Focolare movement founded by Chiara Lubich. He was one of those who immediately declared himself for Don Giussani, together with another student named Achille Lega, who was a Europeanist following the example of the great leaders of the united Europe, like Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi, great Christian statesmen. But I decided to follow Don Giussani because he was the only one who gave value to my most profound certainties, that God existed and that He was a father to me.
So, during my three years in classical high school, a friendship with Don Giussani grew among us. He used to invite us over to his house in Viale Lazio, and, later on, in Via Valmaggia, for conversations about everything that could be interesting and helpful to us. He played classical music for us as a way of showing human genius as expressed through art. I was particularly struck by the choral songs of the Red Army choir, the Russian army choir, because they expressed a very clear sentiment of communion and fraternity amongst the people, the opposite of what was in Italy at the time.
He opened our eyes. Father Giussani opened our eyes to the presence of God in everything: life, the world, peoples, civilizations. Thus God became ever more the center, the meaning, and the attractiveness of everything--the very heart of our lives. And the Church became the common home for all of us. Our parents wanted to meet with Father Giussani. They invited him to our house, and he became a family friend of all of us. And, with him, even our families began to flourish again, fascinated by his humanity and by his brotherly embrace.
Fr. Giussani’s creativity was limitless. And he involved us in it, provoking us to accompany him along this path of boundless creativity. For instance, the meetings that we had in the office in Via Statuto, which right away began to be called “Radius”; the meetings at the sea in Varigotti; summer and winter vacations in the mountains; city-wide conferences about the most important issues of our time. These were all the main initiatives that defined our lived-together Christian life, culture, charity, and mission. There were the retreats that we had at the Hermitage of San Salvatore and at Villa of Gazzada; the beginning of Christian communities even in universities and in the working world; the meetings we had in Subiaco at the Hermitage of Saint Benedict. And then there were the countless important people that Fr. Giussani invited to dialogue with us: Father Aime’ Duval; or Raul Follereau, the apostle of the lepers; or Father Cocagnac, the Dominican, who carried away my best friend Dino Quartana to the Dominican Order; or Father Romano Scalfi, who founded the Christian Russia movement with his extremely dangerous trips behind the Iron Curtain (he used to bring suitcases full of Bibles behind the Iron Curtain at that time, which was very dangerous); or the great American action painter William Congdon, who decided to live definitively with us; or Father Werenfried van Straaten, who was called the “Bacon Priest,” because he collected food for the starving peoples in the times after World War II, and so many others.
In our first group of boys and girls we were all about eighteen years old. And yet Father Giussani would send us to create and to follow Christian communities in schools all over Italy, throughout Italy, depositing in us his most sincere trust and causing us to grow in the exalting experience of generating Christian communities wherever we might be sent.
For me, a fundamental thing was what we called the “Monday Group,” which later came to be called Grupo Adulto, and, today, Memores Domini. It was created to help people verify their vocation to virginity for Christ in all its possible forms. And it is thanks to the Monday Group that, in 1964, I and some companions, classmates, crossed the Atlantic and came to the Americas, to Brazil. I became a diocesan priest, as I still am, with great joy in the service of the church, and, following the words of Pope Pius XII that were the theme of one of our first student gatherings in Milan, I began “living the dimensions of the world.”
I carry with me always my living experience of Father Giussani, of a true fatherhood that makes me always feel him to be present in everything I do and in everything that happens to me--as you can see from this little card, this note that he sent me when I became very sick in Brazil in 1999:
I believed that God had struck only me, so that I might offer my life for all those whom he chose with me and caused to walk with me. Instead, I have come to understand that he has also struck you. I beg the Lord who loves you, as Christ loves now and loved then his apostles, first of all, that He may never fade away in your memory--not a recalling, but memory. Secondly, that He may cause you to understand that the cross is the condition for the resurrection. And third, that to you, who have been faithful in little things with yourself and therefore with all of being and with all beings, He may cause to experience that greatness that man’s heart, although still in the valley of tears, is already called to experience,because heaven has a subtle beginning in this life. I am extremely grateful to you. You are for me at the highest horizon of my existence. Thank you, above all, for what you have given to all mankind in the name of and for the love of Christ. I hope that you will get well soon, right away, and that you are able to carry out your task with patience. I embrace you.
March 9, 1999
Thank you very much.