Communion and Liberation: Crusaders for Catholic Integrity

Author: Antonio Gaspari

Communion and Liberation Crusaders for Catholic Integrity by Antonio Gaspari

This month, towards the end of our series "Onward: The Divisions of the Pope" on religious movements in the Church today, is covering one of the most controversial of contemporary Catholic organizations.

Communion and Liberation has been the object of grave accusations--but also of enthusiastic approval in high-up places. Every initiative of this group has been examined, dissected and often condemned--at both ecclesial and political levels. Members have been dubbed "the Pope's Rambos," and have been accused of using the Gospels as a "bludgeon." Fundamentalist, sectarian, pre-Conciliar --are some descriptions used for Communion and Liberation. (Their acronym is CL, and members are called "Cielini.") On the other hand, Pope John Paul II has praised the intense manner in which Cielini live their faith, and thousands of young people all over the world follow their precepts.

The founder of Communion and Liberation, Monsignor Luigi Giussani, is for many a religious genius to follow blindly, but for others an adversary to oppose. In any case, this Milanese priest has definitely been a protagonist in Catholic Church history for the last forty years.


The seed of Communion and Liberation first sprouted in 1954, when Don Giussani asked permission to leave his chair as Professor of Catholic Dogma and Oriental Theology at Milan's Major Ambrosian Seminary to take up a post as teacher of religion at a local high school (). Don Luigi recalled the episode which led to this professional change in his book (by Luigi Giussani and Robi Ronza, published by Jaca Books in 1976). "During a vacation train trip to the Adriatic Sea, I started a conversation with some high school students--and found them shockingly ignorant of the Church and Church teachings. I had to assume that their ignorance was caused by complete indifference toward, and in some cases even disgust with, the Church. At that point, I decided to devote my life to restoring a Christian presence at the high school level."

Another incident had a profound effect on Don Giussani's mission. "Not long after becoming a religion teacher at Berchet (a high school in Milan), I noticed a group of youngsters, always the same, who met on the stairs during class intervals and spoke with great intensity and animation. Once I asked them what they were talking about, and they responded: 'Communism.' I wondered why Christianity was not capable of inspiring such fervor and unity among youth, something which Christ himself had desired...

"One day, returning from work and ruminating on that incapacity of Christianity to inspire youth, I encountered four boys discussing animatedly together. I asked if they were Christians, and they answered 'yes,' but a bit uneasily. Then I continued. 'You say you are Christians, but in the school assemblies, only the Communists and Fascist-Monarchists debate together. Where are the Christians?' The next week these four initiated a debate in the school assembly, introducing themselves as 'we, Catholics.' From that moment and for the next ten years, Christianity and the Church were the most heatedly debated topics in school meetings."

Thus it was that the movement (Student Youth) was born under Don Giussani's leadership and with the objective of making Christian youth protagonists alongside young Communists and other secular

groups. The characteristics of that organization were almost identical to those of Communion and Liberation today: a militant battle against the indifference and marginalization of Christians and Christianity in modern society; total involvement of members, regardless of class or profession, in the Christian cause; community lifestyle.

GS was involved in four main areas of activity: culture, politics, charity, and overseas missions.

On the cultural level, GS members concentrated on studying the works of writers like the French journalist Charles Peguy (a Socialist who converted to Catholicism), the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, the Italian-German philosopher and theologian Romano Guardini, the Jesuit Catholic theologian Henri De Lubac, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. GS scholars reevaluated the Middle Ages. They wrote their own songs and published a newspaper, .

Then came the 1968 student revolts, and GS suffered a profound crisis. Several leaders and many militants passed over into the Marxist or anarchist camps. Don Giussani, at that time a lecturer in the faculty of economy and commerce at Milan's Catholic University, tried his best to keep his Christian-inspired group together.

BIRTH OF COMMUNION AND LIBERATION In 1969, Communion and Liberation (CL) was born, and in the fall of 1971, the convening of a national general assembly was already a sign of strength. Thanks to GS's surviving networks, CL was able to expand throughout Italy.

CL began by organizing study groups, various entertainments, prayer meetings, Masses and cultural presentations. The group consolidated itself and divided responsibilities by sectors, each with its special emblem: universities, workers, families, educators.

During university elections, CL's student party ("The People's Catholics") attempted to absorb even non-CL Catholic groups. The party founded own publishing house, Jaca Books, and Italy's universities became a productive field for CL recruitment. "Cielini" began running university cafeterias, student apartments and various other public services throughout Italy.

CL's militant anti-Communism made it appealing to Italy's major political party, the (Catholic-based) Christian Democrats (, or DC) and, by 1972, CL was already suggesting planks for the DC's political platform. Thwarted in its struggle to defeat Italy's divorce and abortion referendums, CL nevertheless was becoming known as a formidable political force.

In 1975, CL's political arm, ("The People's Movement," or MP) was founded. Vehemently attacked by the Italian left for both its program and methods, MP became the leader in the struggle for the political unity of Italian Catholics.

Although CL does not register members, it does have an organizational structure, with deacons at local, regional,

and international levels, and a National Council of representatives from the different regions and branches of activity, presided over by Don Giussani. CL membership is estimated at about 19,000 persons in Italy, while about 500,000 attend its annual Summer Meeting in Rimini, and around 80,000 receive its publications. The group has 2,400 business enterprises, managed by ("Association of Works"), with combined total revenues in excess of $1 billion. The university cooperative, ("Study and Work") counts 200,000 members. Today CL also has branches in Africa, Latin America, the US and other European countries.


It is quite difficult to give a clear idea of CL's theological orientation, since the movement responds to contemporary reality, according to the guidance of its charismatic leader, Don Giussani. In fact, it is for its nature as a charismatically-guided movement that CL has been most vehemently criticized.

Certainly, CL's most characteristic trait is its insistence on the centrality of Jesus Christ, the pivot upon which all must turn--history, society and culture. The message of Christ's centrality is hammered home by CL on every possible occasion and according to all different formulas. For CL, Christ is never a merely verbal announcement or moral example, but a , who must be the unifying "cement" for Catholicism--imparting immediate relevance and meaning to all life.

CL members embrace the words "concrete," "fact" and "presence" -- always understood in the sense of a real and living witness in the world--and dislike words like "abstract" and "theory," seeing them as "dis-incarnating" true Christian , which must be in schools, in the workplace, in politics, and in the general culture.

CL's fierce commitment to being a Catholic "presence" in post-modern society (a society which seems to ask of Christians only that they not be too Christian), lived out during four decades of spiritual and political crises, has been sharply criticized by many as the sign of an "integrist" or "fundamentalist" Catholic mentality.

In the Cielini vocabulary, "fact" and "event" are words used to describe Christ --He is the "fact" who has changed and still changes human history, for the individual, and for society as a whole; his life was--and is--the "event" which transcends all merely human theories and philosophies and pours living water on those thirsty for it.

In an interview with the Paulist monthly , Don Giussani responded to the question of what CL's guiding principle is this way: "It is... the experience of unity, above all, that unity which should exist 1n a believer, between his faith and his life. We must be convinced of our incarnation in our own daily life, in our surroundings. Our faith should become our culture."

It is CL's , however, along with the movement's , which have exposed CL to charges it is "fundamentalist."

CL tends to idealize the Middle Ages as a time of unity between faith and life, and to reject entirely the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and modern culture, as having interrupted that unity. While many Catholics see a consistent testimony of faith in the work of such unpredictable religious geniuses as St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa of Calcutta--who found their societies afforded ample opportunity for self-denial and Christian witness --the Cielini seem to insist that the faith-life unity become dogma, obedience, order --one might even say, conformity.

A characteristic element of Giussani's group is its political commitment. In contrast to many other Catholic movements, which focus solely on spiritual renewal, CL confronts the world as an "alternative" culture, and consolidates its positions in political activity. Cielini defend themselves against the charge of "integrism" by stressing their aim as political crusaders is not to impose a Christian culture and Christian values on recalcitrant, deChristianized modern men and women, but to out their own profound Christian vision.

Commenting on the conclusion of his period, Giussani stated: "I did not renounce our social and political involvement, but rather affirmed that social and political activity would be authentic and opportune only if supported by a mature development of our own Christian identity."


Don Giussani has been asked what he considers the ideal human being. He replies without hesitation: the medieval man. "For the Middle Ages, faith was not a cage to keep out the new and unexpected, and freedom was not the most essential element in every undertaking, but rather participation in God's divine plan for history." Medieval culture was not concerned with , affirms Don Giussani, but with . Exactly the opposite is true of contemporary man, victim and prisoner of modern ideology, he says. "Do not think we are nostalgic for the past," Don Giussani explains. "We are and intend to remain in the forefront, even the avant-guard. , our common inheritance, and the origins of our movement. For that reason we study the history of Christianity and sainthood, and try to rediscover our roots."

Regarding modern life, Giussani minces no words. Catholics are called upon to take a stand, to fight for the very future of Christianity, against enemies within as well as outside of the Church. "These days we have returned to a situation similar to that experienced by St. Ambrose, when the entire Church seemed to turn to Arianism (a heresy which held that Christ was not of the same divine nature as the Father)," Giussani has said.

CL sometimes describes its adversaries as "neo-Pelagians" (Pelagianism was a heresy which denied Original Sin, thus downplaying the importance of Baptism, grace, penance and prayer). For CL, "neo-Pelagians" are all those who think man can achieve salvation without God.

Giussani says: "In the Church today there circulates a hodgepodge of old heresies, presented as new ideas. There is a constant emphasis on 'reason,' according to the principles of the Enlightenment, that is, the validity of my 'opinion,' or what seems to me at that moment to be true. This is a process which is insidiously eating away at Catholicism, a type of subtle 'Protestantism,' infiltrating here and there."

Giussani adamantly criticizes those Christians who rely solely on spreading the "word": "A Christianity reduced to words alone, a Christianity which is not reflected and lived as an ontological reality, touching our profound nature, is only a superficial Christianity."


The aggressive and direct manner in which CL confronts those it considers enemies of Christianity, whether within or outside the Catholic community, has generated a barrage of fierce attacks. Many critics of Communion and Liberation say the movement's lack of emphasis on the "word" reflects indifference towards the Gospels. It does seem that, for the Cielini, the Resurrection is the ultimate Christian experience. Christianity is, for Cielini, an encounter with the Risen Christ--not a moral code, not a set of Church laws, but a life-transfiguring "encounter." Many of the Ceilini are thus, like many charismatics and Protestant evangelicals, "twice-born"-- they have experienced a profound conversion during their teenage or early adult years. The boldness with which the Cielini then call on other Catholics to leave behind a sterile faith for a living one can seem to be the boldness of an initiated "elite," and this explains why some leaders of the Italian Church, including Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, have been critical of CL's "sectarian" tendencies -- in spite of Pope John Paul II's expressed admiration.

It is true: CL, secure in its own Christian "integrity," seems to relate to the political world with a certain arrogance, sparking resentment and antagonism. Many CL- based political figures have been investigated in Italy's "Clean Hands" anti-corruption program. The weekly , which for many years mirrored CL thought and policy (it is now out of business), was often criticized by bishops and Catholic intellectuals for assuming an attitude of "supreme judge."

Once, during a private audience, John Paul II is reported to have reproved Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero of Turin for his lack of enthusiasm for CL. "When you have come to know them better," the Cardinal replied, "you won't like them that much either."

During an October 1987 Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Martini advised a group of Cielini to "practice the Gospel values of poverty and justice" and to "resist the temptations of power." Later that year, Martini's spokesman, Don Roberto Busti, wrote to in response to accusations against another Catholic newspaper ( of Lecco): "What is the source of this fiery defense of orthodoxy? This conviction of being in exclusive possession of the truth? This fierce crusade against brothers in the faith?"

Antagonism toward CL intensified all during the 1980's as the movement grew and prospered. launched ever more intense criticisms of Italian and Western society, suggesting a huge conspiracy, involving Communists, Protestants, secular humanists, progressive political parties, liberal Jesuits, and Catholics committed to ecumenical dialogue, was "selling out" true Christianity. One of the targets of these accusations was Gianfranco Svidercoschi, former Vice-Director of the Vatican's semi- official daily , accused of involvement in a secularist-Masonic plot to remove Catholic presence from society. The accusations and counter- accusations became so heated that three journalists were called in to the Milan Archbishopric on March 4, 1988 to respond to infringement of Article 220 of the Code of Canon Law, against unjustified libel. , however, continued its virulent attacks against "unorthodox" groups and individuals, until Don Giussani himself withdrew his support from the journal. The weekly finally closed in November 1993.

Criticism of CL's political activity has been even more fierce. In the January 1, 1988 edition of the Italian daily weekly, , the sociologist Giovanni Tassani ignited an uproar by blasting on the "noisy and spectacular" way in which CL's political arm, People's Movement, engaged in politics. The article criticized the "privileged" relationship between politicians and CL's business enterprises.

To these criticisms, Don Giussani responded: "We are attacked for our 'culture,' which is identical to that of the Pope. Many Italian Catholics are Church-oriented in appearance, but secular in their thought and culture. We are the opposite--secular in our style, and religious in our content. We are accused of being dogmatic, intolerant, and even Fascist, because we believe in the truth as expressed by Christ, and because we oppose all who try to impose untruth."

Another element which has caused disarray in the Italian Church, is the manner in which CL pits the Pope's teachings against statements by certain bishops. The Italian Catholic writer Vittorio Messori once asked Giussani (Interview in , June 1985) if he ever thought other opinions could possibly be right, and his wrong. CL's founder replied: "I have never experienced that type of doubt. Why should I tire myself in such a manner, when it is so much easier to obey the Holy Father?"


In CL's collective imagination, Poland has played a role in our century similar to that of Ireland in the Middle Ages: an outpost of religious purity and fervor, an example for the rest of the Christian world. As far back as the early 1970's, CL had warm relations with the Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla. More than a few Cielini even made the annual pilgrimage to Poland's holiest shrine, Czestochowa.

The extremely close relations between the present Pope and CL, particularly at the beginning of Wojtyla's papacy, were confirmed by John Paul II himself. During a May 13, 1984 meeting with CL members, the Holy Father said: "We, as the Church, as Christians, as Cielini, must be visible in society. Thus we must search for our rightful space (in society), in order to realize this visibility." Wojtyla's phrase "we Cielini," was even cited by the Vatican's semiofficial daily . A short time before, the Pope had told another group of Cielini: "Your manner of approaching humanity is similar to mine. I can even say, it is the same."

The Holy Father's sympathy is reciprocated by Giussani. The CL leader once said of John Paul: "We serve this man; with our very existence, we serve Christ in this great man. This Pope is the event which God has brought about; his human figure is the concrete phenomenon which we must observe, hear, follow, and whose mentality we must make our own."

CL's relations with Popes John XXIII and Paul VI were not that warm. It was with the advent of John Paul II that Don Giussani's movement really took off. On February 11, 1982, with the papal decree, , John Paul II established the as a "secular institute" under papal jurisdiction. Thereby the group could operate in any diocese in the world without specific episcopal authority. On December 8, 1988, the Council for the Laity recognized the CL group (those who remember the Lord) as a private ecclesial association.

The and the are the two official structures within which CL functions as a recognized Church organization. The is a public association of laymen, and can include married persons. on the other hand, is a private organization which requires its members to profess the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In fact, the community life of members is comparable to that of a religious congregation, in some cases even more rigid.

In the wake of Italy's 1993-94 corruption scandals, in which several members of CL's political arm, MP () were implicated, CL underwent a complete reorganization. At the present time, CL's Milanese group is attempting to distance itself from political activity, renewing itself as an authentic spiritual movement. CL's Rome branch is still heavily involved in politics. This past year, for example, the group committed its efforts to the defense of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, currently on trial on charges he assisted the Mafia. He, and his Cielini supporters, maintain he is innocent. ********************************

Politics? A Risk True Christians Must Take . . . Says CL's Founder and Leader

Monsignor Luigi Giussani is capable of keeping thousands of young people breathless and glued to their seats when he speaks at Communion and Liberation youth gatherings But put CL's founder and leader in front of a tape recorder or flash camera, and he becomes as confused and embarrassed as a child. Don Giussani's reluctance to give interviews is well known. Thus we quote here a few remarks he made to an Italian reporter upon accepting Italy's 1995 National Prize for Catholic Culture in Bassano del Grappa recently.

What is Communion and Liberation?

DON GIUSSANI: ...The renewal of Catholic culture called for by the Second Vatican Council; an attempt to reconcile the provocation of modernity with responsible faithfulness to tradition.

Some say CL was founded to combat tradition.

DON GIUSSANI: Cl was an adversary to a certain form of tradition, an exterior form which no longer corresponded to life. CL was born to save Catholic tradition in our country, not to destroy it.

What can you say about the state of Catholic tradition in Italy today?

DON GIUSSANI: Hmm. I can't reply so easily. Certainly, we still have the liturgy, the sacraments. Otherwise, I don't see much... Unfortunately, I fear there is not much else left.

Please comment on Catholic education.

DON GIUSSANI: Our era does not lack religious passion. Religious passion is much in evidence today. It is religious passion that is missing. The Catholic educator risks becoming merely a conductor for common values.

The role of faith in history?

DON GIUSSANI: Christianity's announcement can respond more profoundly to human needs than any other cultural formulation.

Please explain.

DON GIUSSANI: (): Listen, I know that America exists, although I have never seen it myself and will certainly never see it. Do you find my comment rational? When the philosophy professor answered, "not really," the students began to understand that truth cannot contradict good sense, either for faith or reason. Faith saves reason, .

And politics?

DON GIUSSANI: Politics is an integral part of the risk Christians must take. It is not possible to avoid... At times justice may become desperate and tyrannical. (: This phrase was taken by some to be an indirect censure of Italian magistrates who have ruthlessly pursued politicians allegedly involved in corruption.) We must accomplish a miracle, that is, endure a trial, which God can use to make us care for Him.

A final comment?

DON GIUSSANI: Remember that you need Jesus--not only because of eternity, but because of that hundred-fold of eternity you can receive here below.

(by Luigi Geninazzi supplement in , October 8, 1995) ********************************


LUIGI GIUSSANI was born in Desio, near Milan, in 1922. At a very young age, he entered the Milan Diocesan Seminary to become a priest. He finished his theological studies at Venegono Seminary and taught there for several years, specializing in Oriental (particularly Slavic) and American Protestant Theology, and investigating the theme "rationality in the choice of the Christian faith." In the 1950's he left the seminary faculty to teach religion in Milanese high schools (see main article). From 1964-1990 he taught Introduction to Theology at Milan's Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.

In the mid-1950's, Don Giussani founded the Catholic student group (Student Youth), and in the late 1960's, (Communion and Liberation), which soon spread throughout Italy and to 60 other countries. Monsignor Giussani has been appointed Consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy and to the Pontifical Council for the Laity. In 1995 he received Italy's National Prize for Catholic Culture. ************************** Membership and Structure

In Italy, Communion and Liberation has approximately 100,000 members, from just about every class, profession and geographical area. CL does not register its members; individuals participate freely in CL activities, whenever and however they wish.

CL has members in about 60 other countries--in Europe (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Ireland, ex-USSR Poland, ex-Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania), in the Americas (United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru, Colombia), Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria), the Middle East (Lebanon, Israel), and Asia (Japan, Taiwan).

The movement is guided by a General Council presided over by the founder and charismatic leader Don (Monsignor) Giussani. The General Council is composed of representatives from the various countries where CL is present, from different Italian regions, and from specific fields of activity (schools, universities, labor, etc.)

Each field has its separate structure. "Deacons" at the local, regional and national levels administer and guide the CL communities. Each community has a "community school," which provides for weekly catechesis, personal meditation sessions, and group activities.

In order to expose its members to charity work, CL encourages individuals to periodically engage themselves in its volunteer projects for the poor and disadvantaged (). Many CL members have established other organizations and enterprises--cultural, educational, charity, and business. CL also publishes a monthly journal of information, . Financially CL is completely supported by voluntary individual or group contributions.

This article was taken from the February 1996 issue of "Inside the Vatican."

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