Tag Archives: Catholic Education

The Priest Who Smiled: The Legacy of Don Luigi Giusanni

Don Giusanni was a man without fear. The thin priest, in a long black cassock, briskly strode into the classroom and had hardly begun to speak when a student from the back of the room interrupted him. “You say you want to teach faith and reason?” the student declared. “But between faith and reason there is no connection, and therefore there is nothing to talk about.” Without missing a beat the priest asked in his deep-graveled voice: “Can anyone here define faith?” No one raised a hand. “Can anyone define reason?” Again there was no reply. “Then how can you say there is no connection between things you know nothing about?”

Don Giusanni with his boys on a Mediterranean excursion off Portofino.
Don Giusanni with his boys on a Mediterranean excursion off Portofino.

So began the experiment in teaching that many years later would coalesce in an international best seller, The Religious Sense. When the Spanish language edition was introduced in Argentina in 1989, Cardinal Jose Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) acknowledged, “For many years the writings of Giusanni have inspired my reflections, and helped me to pray…they taught me to be a better Christian.” The reflections of Giusanni matured over the years but were forged many years earlier in the implausible setting of an Italian public high school.

In fall of 1954, the 32-year old priest came to Milan’s Liceo Brechet, an elite high school specializing in classical language, literature, philosophy, and history. Religion was considered a minor subject – no grades were given – and instruction was limited to two hours per week. The students that confronted him had driven away his predecessor with their disruptive behavior, frequent absences, and disdain for the course. Of the 1200 young men and women in the elite institute, Giusanni later recalled, at least 1000 of them had been baptized and came from nominally Catholic families living in the heart of Milan, the business capital of Italy. But though crucifixes hung on every wall, the interest in religion was “zero.” Most students, keen to express themselves, espoused a style of Marxist secularism and, in Giusanni’s words, were “allergic to religion.”

But Fr. Luigi Giusanni was familiar with the world of controversy. Although his mother had been a pious Catholic, his father, an anarchist with little interest in religion, taught him to question everything, and say nothing for which he was not willing to argue. Years of seminary training, and his teaching experience at the Archiepiscopal Seminary of Milan had sharpened his instincts for debate. Feeling that a generation f bright young people were being lost to the church, he requested permission to work at the elite Liceo Berchet in Central Milan. What transpired was a collision of wills.

Students at the Liceo Brechet in the 1950s. Giusanni’s greatest adversaries were also his best friends.
Students at the Liceo Brechet in the 1950s. Giusanni’s greatest adversaries were also his best friends.

“I have not come here to tell you what you need to believe,” Giusanni told his class. “I have come to teach you how to think, and to defend your conclusions when confronted by those who hold different opinions.” Students, accustomed to sitting passively at their benches, found themselves accosted by the young teacher, who insisted that they engage with him in the pursuit of truth. “What is Christianity?” he would ask: “a doctrine to repeat in school? A set of rituals? All this is secondary. It is an event, a person!” He brought with him a radical new way of teaching. Italian education at the time was highly formalized. Professors lectured, students took notes, the contents of which were to be recited back to the professor verbatim at the time of exams. Giusanni, by contrast, expected students to reason with him.

In this highly charged intellectual environment, “he came on like a whirl-wind,” a student recalled. “Don Gius” typically opened a class by posing a question: One day he asked: “Should Catholic parents have the right to have their children educated Catholics?” To which an anti-Catholic student replied, “Should communists have the right to have their children educated as communists?” Without missing a beat, Giusanni shot back, “Yes they should, and let me tell you why!”
From the beginning, Giusanni insisted that a faith not grounded in the everyday experience cannot defend itself. As a teacher, he boldly affirmed his belief in Christ and the Church, but was open to all opinions. Among his close friends were non-Catholics, agnostics, and atheists. A student later wrote: “He was a modern priest, so different from the traditional teachers of catechism. He supported the rebel, the unbeliever. He taught people how to live and how to think. He had an unusual capacity to respect the opinions of everyone.” His sense of humor was infectious. With a characteristic smile, he explained, “thanks to my big nose, I am surely the ugliest priest in Milan!”

Don Giusanni’s famous lecture on the place of the Christ event in world history.
Don Giusanni’s famous lecture on the place of the Christ event in world history.

There was another side to Giusanni, however, far removed from intellectual combat. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who knew him well, later noted that as a young man Giusanni was “touched, even wounded, by the quest for beauty, not beauty in a banal sense but the infinite beauty found in Christ.” His biographer praised his ability to engage the young by channeling the meaning of Christ into “a grand narrative, rich in songs, music, paintings, poetry, literary texts, and prayers in a manner attuned to modern times.” His lectures were filled with quotations from novelists, and thinkers, of different faiths, times and religious persuasions. More than a few of his teaching colleagues were dismayed when Giusanni showed up at school carrying a record player to share with his students the melodies of Chopin, Mozart, and Donizetti.

The Liceo Berchet had a long history of free expression, and each Friday, the upper classes gathered to debate current affairs. Invariably the student body divided between Marxist-Socialists and the Fascists Monarchist. One day on a stairway, Giusanni encountered four students engaged in animated conversation and asked them point blank: “Where were the Catholics?” At the next school meeting, a short student stepped forward announcing a third position as that of “we Catholics.” There were, as Giusanni later admitted, only four members of the new faction, but from that time on the Catholic position on social and religious matters was part of the weekly battle of ideas.

In his later year’s Don Giusanni never lost his infectious smile.
In his later year’s Don Giusanni never lost his infectious smile.

After 11 years of high school teaching Giusanni returned to the seminary and also taught for many year at the Catholic University of Milan. In 1969 he founded the movement “Communion and Liberation,” a largely lay organization devoted to study, service, and asserting the Catholic perspective in public life. The movement encouraged its members to meet weekly in small prayer and discussion groups and was formally endorsed by Pope Paul VI in 1975. In subsequent years, Communion and Liberation continued to grow. In 2014 it was estimated that in Italy, 100,000 members participated in these weekly gatherings.

Beginning in the 1970’s Communion and Liberation has held annual summer workshops at the Italian seaside town of Rimini, whose study sessions in which issues of faith are debated, are attended by as many as 700,000 people, including major Catholic figures such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. The gatherings continue, and today Communion and Liberation is found in 80 different countries.

Throughout his life, Giusanni insisted on a robust, and intellectually honest approach to belief. It was an approach quite different from the pietism and moralism that pervaded Italian catechism teaching of this era. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, noted that the religiosity of Giusanni was wholly centered in Christ and far removed from “artificial enthusiasm and vague romanticism.”

Over the years, successive popes blessed his insights and the organizations he founded. John Paul II made him a Monsignor in 1984. Giusanni continued to write and his many works, inspired by his lectures developed at the Liceo Berchet, were widely read, and John Paul II drew heavily from Giusanni’s writings in his 1998 Papal Encyclical, The Relationship Between Faith and Reason. The following year when Giusanni’s classic, The Religious Sense, was published in Spanish, then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jose Bergoglio (later to become Pope Francis) introduced it to the public at a national book fair. “Monsignor Giusanni was one of those unexpected gifts that God provided the Church after Vatican Council II,” Bergoglio declared.

Following the death of Don Giusanni in 2005, his long time friend Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (soon to become Pope Benedict XVI), asked if he could deliver the eulogy at his funeral Mass and did so. The event was held in the great cathedral in Milan and a crowd of 40,000 spectators was in attendance, many of whom stood outside in the rain throughout the service. The cause for the beatification and canonization of the joyous and influential Christian teacher was introduced in February 2012.

Monsignor Giusanni being greeted by his friend Pope John Paul II at St. Peters.
Monsignor Giusanni being greeted by his friend Pope John Paul II at St. Peters.