Appeared in 1997-1998, Vol. XXIII, Nos. 3 & 4

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Msgr. Luigi Giussani is one of the most important churchmen, and perhaps one of the most important theologians, of our time. Recently, groups of scholars in the United States and Canada have begun to discuss the Christian anthropological and pedagogical theories of this tireless and passionate servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church, thanks to the publication in English of a new edition of his seminal work The Religious Sense by McGill-Queens University Press in Montreal. We are, therefore, provided with an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with the rich and fecund mind of a great Catholic thinker whose labors will undoubtedly be the source of much fruit in the third millennium.

Who is Luigi Giussani?

Most English language readers know little about the person and work of Luigi Giussani. His vast publications have been virtually unknown in the philosophical or theological academy here in North America. The general public who are well read on religious topics have perhaps heard his name and associate it with a large Italian Catholic lay movement known as “CL.”It would be useful, therefore, to .begin with a general introduction to Luigi Giussani: the man, the priest, the professor, and the vibrant leader of a great apostolic movement in the Catholic Church today.

Luigi Giussani has devoted his life and priestly ministry to the evangelization and catechesis of young people for nearly 50 years. In the early days of his priesthood, while serving as seminary professor in the diocese of Milan in 1952, Giussani encountered some Italian High School students while on a train trip. At this time, many in the Church took it for granted that the Catholic faith was still firmly rooted in the mentality of the Italian people, and that its transmission to the next generation was no great cause for concern. Based on his brief conversation with a group of teenagers, however, Giussani intuited a profound problem which would soon manifest itself to the world in the intellectual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s. What he saw was this: not only did these young people have a poor grasp of the basic truths of the Catholic faith; they were unable to conceive the relationship between this Faith-which they still openly professed at that time-and their way of looking at the world, their way of making judgments about circumstances and events, their way of evaluating (i.e., assessing the real value) of the situations they had to deal with in life. The student might profess to be Catholic, recite the creed, and perhaps even know parts of his Catechism (or even more, if he was bright). But when it came to making judgments and decisions about things that he viewed as truly important to his life, his ideals and hopes for happiness were shaped by a secularized mentality; a mentality in which Christ and His Church were largely absent, or at best relegated to a dusty corner. Giussani saw that many of the young people in Italy in the early 1950s who would have described themselves as “Catholic” did not in fact seek to judge the realities of the world and the significance of their own lives according to a Christian mentality; that is, the “transformed and renewed mind” that St. Paul says is the basis for viewing the world in union with Christ and according to the wisdom of God’s plan (see Rom. 12:2).2Rather, the mentality of these “young Catholics” was being shaped by all the contradictory emphases of the so-called “modern” era: the absolute sufficiency of “scientific” human reason on the one hand, and the exaltation of subjectivism on the other; the emphasis on a deontological ethics of duty divorced from the good of the person on the one hand, and the enthrallment with the spontaneity of mere instinct and emotional individualism on the other.

Giussani perceived the need for young people to receive an integral catechesis that would help them to realize-both existentially and intellectually-that Christ is the center of all of life, and that because of this their experience of life in union with Christ in His Church should shape their entire outlook and invest all of their daily activity with an evangelical energy. Giussani therefore requested and received from his bishop permission to leave seminary teaching and inaugurate an educational apostolate for youth: first at the Berchet High School in Milan, and then for many years as Professor of religion at the Catholic University of Milan.