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.
DON GIUSSANI AND THE CATHOLIC YOUTH MOVEMENT
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
"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
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.
CL'S PHILOSOPHICAL THEOLOGICAL ORIENTATION
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,
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
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
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
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
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?"
CL'S RELATIONS WITH THE POPE
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,
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
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
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
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
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
The role of faith in history?
DON GIUSSANI: Christianity's announcement can respond more
profoundly to human needs than any other cultural
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, .
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
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
This article was taken from the February 1996 issue of
"Inside the Vatican."
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