01-05-2007 - Traces, n. 5
After the March 24th Audience

Editor, Libero Mercato

Me, My Mother,
and Fr. Giussani

Last March 24th, in St. Peter’s Square, I was there too with the whole Movement, in the rain, which came pelting down at times, and with my stick to support me. To tell the truth, I was only bothered by the rain toward the end; it didn’t trouble me much. I only really noticed it when the meeting with the Pope was over. One reason I wasn’t bothered was that there was someone at my side, Roberto Mazzotta, President of the BPM, who was so kind as to shelter me under a spare umbrella he had.
Throughout the ceremony, even before it began and then while Fr. Carrón was reminding us all of the significance of this meeting on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the pontifical recognition of the Movement, the invitation to all to “become beggars” in the world was fused with the absolutely indelible memory of my first meeting with the person we knew as “Don Gius.” The meeting came late in life, actually. I’d begun reading everything about Fr. Giussani I could lay hands on–books and transcripts of introductions to historical seminars of GS and the Movement, not many years ago. All this would take time to explain, and I’m not sure it would be of interest.
Let’s put it like this. I grew up in a fiercely secular culture. But that means little. It wouldn’t even be right to say “laicist,” the term being used today, ever since politics has again divided Italy on questions like de facto marriage and homosexual unions. Not even “laicist” would adequately express the hardness of my convictions, from pre-adolescence until I was well over 20 years old. When I was not quite 14, I joined a political party, partly because I was fascinated by the rigor and moral intransigence of its leader, Ugo La Malfa (in 1974, people my age tended to choose very different parties). Above all, though, it was because I saw it as the best party and, more than any other, the heir to the anticlericalism.
You have to understand that my anticlerical extremism was actually not a tough illiberal conviction, which would already make me despise it today. It was something very different, anchored in my upbringing and the development of my character.
That anti-ecclesiastical extremism had a private side to it, not public or political. It was a reaction to my childhood and the strong faith that always nurtured my mother, sustaining her day by day, ever since I can remember. Hers was a belief anchored in the Church as a shared community of salvation and redemption, with utter respect for the doctrines and teaching of the hierarchy. In my eyes, as a precocious reader, it came to seem naively folksy, with all those rosaries and prayers to the Madonna, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the whole calendar of saints. It struck me as too fatalistic and submissive, this popular faith of my mother, too little convinced of what will power and individual tenacity can do to change this world and above all the lives of each of us. So, as a reaction, I grew up like ivy climbing up the wall of denial of the Church and its ministers. And it did not help that in every generation my mother’s family had given at least one son through vocation to Holy Mother Church. As a boy, traveling the world and seeing the really terrible inequalities in income and education in certain regions of the planet, I found it hard to reconcile them with the life of a papal nuncio like my mother’s brother, now in the Vatican State Secretariat. But I’ll cut this short. In the early nineties, my life changed sharply. Let’s just say a lot of things went wrong and made me reflect very, very deeply on the alleged coherence which I believed had inspired my private and public life (for years I had been one of the leaders of a political party and its national spokesman).
My reflections lasted some years, and they took the only form I’m capable of: I read like one possessed. I also returned to the Book, now in a very different spirit than my youthful times, when I only cared for Formgeschichte and the textual exegesis of the Bultmann and Cullman School, thanks to an inspiriting encounter with a teacher in high school. Now I found a very different reality in Joshua ben Joseph made man and suffering flesh. But here I am not concerned with my journey to the mystery of Christ, but with Don Gius. And you would never have understood anything of the meeting, if I had not troubled you with the preliminaries.
In those years, I was mulling things over day after day, so that much of what I had thought and done now appeared in a totally different light. At a certain point, I talked to some of the friends that I still used to see in Rome from our days at high school in Turin. At the very time when I was plunging into all his books that I could lay hands on, they told me it was not so impossible to meet Fr. Giussani after all. The meeting did take place, practically more by chance than good management, since I hadn’t scheduled an appointment and I had an urgent engagement for the same hour, which only fell through at the last moment.
We spoke for only a few minutes, but it was one of those experiences that delve deep inside you. In some way, my friends–those I’d stood against at the high school elections, naturally, and with whom I had continued to argue in the years when they were working for Il Sabato–by the irony of fate and our ability to rethink ourselves over a period of time, had clearly talked to Fr. Giussani about me. I was the assistant editor of a monthly that was about to become a weekly, and I was already writing about the Church and Catholics in a very different way from in the past.
But Fr. Giussani said nothing of all this. To my amazement, he spoke to me of my mother. He left me without words, utterly overwhelmed. He told me that his mother’s name was the same as mine, and that we have to lend ear, heart, and an open mind to mothers, to the lessons of life expressed day by day in their actions, thoughts, and even their omissions. He spoke so gently, but at the same time paternally, without insistence yet piercing straight to the heart, with a smile on his lips and in that tone both soft and determined that you all know so much better than I.
There and then it struck me as a singular coincidence. But I never freed myself from the nagging sense of guilt until, many months later, I unburdened myself in a long talk with my mother. We spoke of her faith, of my past choices, and of the depth of a commitment certainly directed toward eternal life, as Fr. Giussani said, but already repaid a hundredfold here below, among men and women, for them and with them, without forgetting for a single instant the value of taking this choice into every nook and cranny of our lives, working and loving day by day.
I have been long-winded. I apologize. These were my thoughts as the rain fell in St. Peter’s Square. And I will thank Don Gius from my heart until the last moment of my labors here on earth.