GIUSSANI IN AMERICA: Still Happens Here and Now
The New York Encounter featured a new look at the impact of Giussani's person and charism in America, from the first joyful "explosion" to the present day.
by Gabriel Alkon
The “Giussani in America” exhibit at the New York Encounter invited visitors into the history of an event that “still happens here and now.” The organizers of the exhibit, Jonathan said at its presentation, wanted to help visitors understand that the origin of Communion and Liberation in America is not located in the past, in specific meetings or discussions with Father Giussani: “The origin of the charism is the origin of your heart.” It is God who gives us the heart's needs and who satisfies them in the companionship, the fraternity, through which we meet Jesus in the flesh.
Jonathan described how the Movement in the US began to flourish in the mid 1980’s in New York City, where a small group of Catholics in their 20s and 30s, many of whom were struggling with life--"nothing was working"--discovered Father Giussani and the Movement in an “explosion of joy.” The New Yorkers began to write songs and go on vacations together, eventually attending the Rimini meeting in 1988, where they were seized by the awareness that the Word of God was becoming Incarnate in their experience.
The exhibit in New York emphasized how this understanding of the Incarnation is central to Father Giussani’s charism. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral homily for Giussani, the exhibit’s first panel recounted how the young Giussani was “wounded by the desire for beauty” before realizing at age fifteen that through the Incarnation of the Word, “all beauty, goodness, and truth had definitively entered the world.” After that, Father Giussani said, “no instant was without meaning.” The “explosion of joy” that the New Yorkers were experiencing was their verification of the Gospel announcement that had impressed itself upon Giussani years before: they knew, as Jonathan said, that “Christ is present in the circumstances of our lives--the Word became flesh.”
On the flight back from Rimini, Rich wrote the lyrics for the song “New Creation” and Jonathan composed the music a few weeks later: “God has shed His grace/ through a human face/ It happened long ago/ our friendship shows how/ an event so unforeseen/ still happens here and now.”
The songs they had heard and sung in Rimini, Jonathan said, inspired the Americans. In a perhaps typically American way, they wanted to compete with the Italian songwriters; to express the intensity of the always-surprising experience of the “unforeseen,” new songs were needed, songs which in their own way would keep this experience alive and initiate it in others.
Father Giussani grasped this special American sensitivity to the perpetual novelty of the event. "America,” he said in a 2002 conversation quoted in one of the exhibit’s posters, “is like a teenager, full of energy, desire, constantly in action, always following her dreams. . . . ” Giussani urged the American members of the Movement to affirm this dynamism but also to call attention to what was missing: "The recognition of His presence. This is the testimony you are called to bring there.”
After the 1988 trip, the Movement spread rapidly across the US. Another panel in the exhibit featured a photo of Riro, Doni, and their children showing Father Giussani a map marking all the places in the country where new communities had sprung up.
Doni, who was present as a volunteer at the exhibit, spoke of how this sudden flourishing of CL in the US was for Father Giussani a wonderful surprise. As he looked at the map, Doni said, he wept.
Perhaps the most visibly dramatic expansion of CL in the US occurred in the aftermath of the 1997 presentation of the English translation of The Religious Sense at the United Nations. The event generated a wave of new interest. In a 2006 column for the journal Tempi, quoted in the exhibit, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete said that “a plan of operation” was drawn up to ensure that the Movement could “follow up on the openings” that the book presentation had generated. “Instead, I am told, Father Giussani tore up the plan of action. We were simply to say yes to whatever opportunities presented themselves.”
Renzo, who helped to organize the exhibit and participated directly in many of the episodes it recounted, added that Father Giussani urged those responsible for the Movement in the US to visit inquirers personally--for only through “personal contact” would the event indicated and proposed by Father Giussani’s books take flesh in their own experience.
Central to the exhibit were testimonies from people across the US who had had an encounter with the Movement and, as Joe put it, could thereafter “never forget” the call of “the inexorable positivity of reality.”
One panel featured the testimony of Anujeet, who described how his friends from CL challenged him with the idea that our “desire needs to be educated.” This education did not involve following moralistic prescriptions but rather required that he ask, “Do I really desire enough from life?” Were “all these things I want--marriage and kids and work and all this stuff, that I connect to what I think I can actually get, what I can achieve"-- the answer to his heart’s most profound needs? He realized that he was thinking of his desires as the contents of a “box” representing “both what I want and what I think is possible.”
“The people I met in Communion and Liberation. . . didn’t need a box because they had met a Presence--God, ‘the Mystery,’ Jesus Christ--an answer as infinite as their desire. Breathtaking!”
The encounter with the Presence allowed members of CL to approach all of reality in the trust that it would fulfill their deepest desires in unexpected ways. This opening to reality, Anujeet said, was an “experience of living desire itself,” and it brought a new fascination to his work for an investment company, which he now explores in relation to variations of tradition, politics, and culture around the world.
In another testimony, Molly said that her friends in CL helped her to live “with a freedom and joy that I could not have imagined before.” This experience of an “answer” to her deepest desires allowed Molly to better understand herself and her father, “a brilliant, broadly cultured, deeply religious man who had suffered a lot and was terribly unhappy.”
“I started to feel more tenderness toward him because I understood that his restlessness, his insatiable desire for beauty and truth, had been passed down to me. And while he had felt his desires were unfulfilled, I had experienced the answer to those desires with the help of my friends,” she testified.
In 2005 Molly wrote her father a letter “filled with gratitude”-- thanking him for being “the one who had started her on the journey” to Christ, for giving his desire to her--“and this was perhaps the truest moment in my relationship with him.”
The exhibit’s panel on the 9/11 attacks asked viewers to consider all the implications of Father Giussani’s call, both challenge and promise, to entrust our desires to Christ’s Presence in the world He is creating now. Is it possible, in all the ways the event of 9/11 was and is experienced, to keep living desire and believing in its incarnate fulfillment?
The panel featured two images--one of the Twin Towers as the second plane struck and exploded in bright flames, and one of a woman and other mourners at the Memorial site, silhouetted in the sun’s radiance.
Between the two images is the commanding assurance Christ offers--“Woman, Don’t Weep” – accompanied by some of what Father Giussani said to the US community that day via telephone: “We must remain steadfast in our judgment to compare everything with what has happened to us in this tremendous and grave moment. . . . It is entirely within God’s mystery. . . . The ultimate definition of reality is that it is positive, and God’s mercy is the greatest word.”
Deciding whether to present the image of the Twin Towers had involved the exhibit organizers, Renzo said, in a “vivacious discussion” with significant disagreements. In making the final judgment, the organizers remembered that Father Giussani “had always taught us that we should look at reality in its entirety.” The exhibit invited visitors to heed Giussani’s words and “compare” their own memories of 9/11 to all that “has happened” to them – to the love they know and desire, to the love that gives us life and holds us to it.
Among the visitors was a group of children, aged 7 to 9, and it seemed that they were able to make this comparison. Susan led the kids through the exhibit, and at the 9/11 panel, one of them asked why people crashed planes into the buildings. Susan noted that this was a very good question, which many adults also asked, which many people had tried to answer. Why do people do such things? Is there really an explanation?
The children were asked to think about violence, maybe more seriously than they had before, in the context of Susan’s story of an Italian priest who was “born a long time ago” and died before these kids were born. He had a “big desire” to tell young people “about his way of believing in Jesus.” He had brought to America a story, or an event, that was still unfolding, that was happening all around us and in everything we experience, even the painful things. The event happens because Jesus happens: He died and rose from the dead, He came back to his disciples, and He comes to us, too, every day.
The concluding panels evoked the Presence of this Happening among all of us who came to the exhibit and experienced the Encounter. One panel, entitled “Sons and Daughters,” featured many photographs of participants in the life of CL in the US.
Ken, one of the volunteers at the exhibit, noticed one photo of his Fraternity group with his twelve-year-old adopted daughter pictured prominently in front. God had willed a history, Ken remarked, that now “reached down and embraced my daughter. . . . God prepared all this for her; He reached down and touched her.”
On the other concluding panel was a reproduction of a painting by William Congdon (“Ego Sum 4”) of the Risen Christ standing on the horizon of the world, the One Destiny towards which earthly life, encompassed in a single road or river, proceeds. Beneath the image we read the message of Pope Saint John Paul II to Father Giussani of February 11, 2002: “The road, as you have affirmed so many times, is Christ. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who reaches the person in his day-to-day existence.”
The “Giussani in America” exhibit invited visitors to continue traveling on this road, to advance step by step within a Providential history that has in fact already “reached down and touched” us. ❖