This February 22, 2014 we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, not as a piece of furniture but as an authority that Christ willed to be exercised in His Church for the good of us all, “to strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). This year, Pope Francis will also confer the “red hat” on the new cardinals in the consistory celebrated on the Feast of the Chair.
But there is another event that draws my attention this February 22, not in opposition to the above-mentioned events, but as another reason to be grateful: the ninth anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Luigi Giussani. On this day in 2013, Cardinal Angela Scola of Milan announced the opening of the cause of canonization for this great priest and educator.
A few weeks ago, I ran into an article online, from Crisis magazine, about Luigi Giussani entitled “Recalling Luigi Giussani’s Passion for Christ”. Here is a link to that great piece by Regis Martin: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/in-search-of-the-beautiful-day-luigi-giussanis-achievement
In the article, Martin makes reference to the “beautiful day” which is a word Giussani used to describe his first encounter with Christ as a present event and reality. This encounter with Christ present would spark a passion for Christ that was contagious, that changed his life and
Also the lives of countless young people for whom he would harness all that he had to offer in order to bring Christ to their world. To enable them to experience the beautiful day that had first enraptured him. Passion for Christ having become the transformative experience of his life, he was determined to infuse the lives of others, especially the young, with that same passion.
As I read Martin’s article, I so wanted him to describe the content of that “beautiful day”. What happened? What led up to it? What was different about that day? I so wanted Martin to let those who may not know Father Giussani’s story the shape of that encounter, because it truly is beautiful and paradigmatic of what we mean when we say that Christianity is an event.
Okay, I’ll tell you…
First, we have to meet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) the great Italian poet. On a trip to Recanati, Leopardi’s hometown, I had the chance to learn about his life and especially his influence on Luigi Giussani. Leopardi is known as a pessimistic poet, as one who awakens our desire only to tell us that it is unrealizable. This pessimism was true for Leopardi’s life, but not for all those who read and love him.
Leopardi produces the contrary effect to that which he proposes. He doesn’t believe in progress, and he makes you desire it; he doesn’t believe in freedom, and he makes you love it. He calls love, glory, and virtue an illusion, but awakens in you an inexhaustible desire for those things. He was a skeptic, and he makes you a believer. –Francesco de Sanctis
So, what led him to this pessimism? The modern concept of reason and science taught him and teaches us that man is just a part of nature, that his coming and going in this world are only the result of natural processes. This mechanical view of the universe “should” teach us that the fly who dies after a few days and the human being who passes away are part of the same natural processes. Yet, man is the only creature who is aware of this “system” and its limits. He is cursed because two worlds fight within him: the desire for the infinite and the reality of death and the conquest of natural forces.
His reason reaches out for the infinite, and yet cannot attain it. Leopardi expresses this beautifully in his poem “Infinity”:
This solitary hill has always been dear to me
And this hedge, which prevents me from seeing most of
The endless horizon.
But when I sit and gaze, I imagine, in my thoughts
Endless spaces beyond the hedge,
An all encompassing silence and a deeply profound quiet,
To the point that my heart is almost overwhelmed.
Leopardi’s heart would also be overwhelmed by the death of his childhood love. The scientific education that would have him see in this death only another natural process, no more and no less, could not calm the desire of his heart, and the grief at the loss of a love that was the most real thing he had known.
The poetry of Leopardi would feed the soul of a young seminarian over 100 years later, when Luigi Giussani first found this lifetime friend. Between the ages of 12 and 13, Giussani memorized all the poetry of this skeptical, Enlightenment thinker. The poems awakened in him that same desire for the Infinite, which had haunted Leopardi but would be the bassi for Giussani’s “beautiful day”.
When he was 15 year old (1937), Giussani was listening to his seminary teacher Father Gaetano Corti explain the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel. He had heard these words thousands of time, seeing that in those days, the first chapter of John was read at the end of every Mass. Corti began to comment on the passage: “The Word was made flesh.” “Beauty became flesh, Goodness became flesh, Justice became flesh, Love, Life, Truth became flesh, Being became flesh…one among us.”
Giussani thought immediately of his friend Leopardi, that the answer to Leopardi’s angst had already happened 1800 years before Leopardi was born. All the things that Leopardi had striven after became flesh and dwelt among us. What then was the difference between Leopardi and Giussani? Quite simply, Giussani had a witness in his life who was able to point out the Presence of the answer to the question that had grown so great in his heart. Giussani encountered the answer to his humanity, a humanity that was awakened by his friend Leopardi.
The fact that the Word became flesh is not just something from the past, though; it teaches us the “method” of God from the moment of the Incarnation. As Giussani would say, “L’istante, da allora, non fu più banalità per me.” The easiest way to translate the phrase would be to say that from the time of his “beautiful day”, the moments of everyday life would always carry something more, would always be the “vehicle” of the Presence of Christ.
The beautiful day, then, led to so many more beautiful days in the life of Father Giussani. He gave his life to the Church, whose greatest task, like that of John the Baptist, is to point out the Presence of the Word-made-flesh in our midst. Giussani understood that this could not happen, that Christ could not be experience as the answer, unless the question of our humanity arises, even in its painful longing for what seems “beyond” us. Leopardi’s problem was not that he desired to much, but that he did not have the encounter with the answer to what was stirred up in his heart.
Which leads to one last point: Leopardi lived right across the street from a church. The building that is just barely in the picture on the left was the house where Leopardi grew up. If only…if only he had encountered someone in that church who could have pointed out to him the only one, Jesus Christ, who could answer all of those beautiful questions and desires that arose in his heart. If only he had experienced the “beautiful day” that Father Giussani experienced as a teenager.
Let us feel that “if only” directed also to us: that we too can know and love and witness to the Infinite that became flesh and dwells among us.