Climbing Those Steps of the Berchet High School

We present a passage from Robi Ronza’s interview with Fr Giussani, published as a book by Jaca Book in 1976 and in a larger edition in 1986 (here we quote from this larger edition). When invited by the interviewer, Fr Giussani recalls and tells…

Around the middle of the fifties, Italian society seemed in complete equilibrium and continuity with all that had gone before, historically and culturally. There was still a widespread way of thinking that I felt was in no way disconnected or opposed to that environment and family context in which I had grown up thirty years before. It was, though, a false equilibrium sustained only by formal respect for laws and customs that people no longer believed in, and that would very quickly be abandoned. There was only a formal equilibrium, therefore, and this was unambiguously evident from its outcome at an educative level. For a society really and fruitfully in equilibrium finds the main measure and the main confirmation of its vital force in the generous sense of commitment present in its young people. Sadly, in Italy in the fifties, the vast majority of them were closed up in the modest perimeter of small hopes and small plans, individual as regards ambit and bourgeois as regards formulation.
Many of the most vital people, those more interested in the world they were living in, busied themselves with art, music, and particularly with jazz. This was an attempt, albeit unconscious, to escape from the society in which they were living, to run away from it, or rather to seek outside it the key for interpreting it. It was in the same direction and with the same hopes that they would later turn to phenomena like the “beat generation” and then the “hippies.” What at the time seemed more serious was (in some few people) an ideological-political commitment that was, however, totally subjugated to party conformism, and therefore extremely formal regarding themes and guiding ideas. The Resistance was very much talked about, but no longer with the least idea of the capacity for sacrifice that the Resistance had implied. The memory of the Resistance became simply the flag to wave in order to cover up and justify with words one’s individual party’s political affirmations–political in the narrowest sense of the word.
Apart from interest in less conformist aspects of the American culture, and in the call for the anti-Fascist struggle, a third element–that, too, very formal–of aggregation and relative mobilization was the principle of freedom of conscience. A corollary was derived from this, of great incidence for the scholastic world, according to which young people could not be invited first to verify a cultural content of tradition (of tradition in general, not only its Christian component), but should be put in direct contact with expressions and thought of all kinds so as to be able to reach the truth in a documented and impartial way. At least, this is what the supporters of this typically illuministic-liberal educational theory hoped, or in any case said they hoped.
At that time, I was lecturing in the Venegono Seminary. I was teaching Dogmatic Theology in the seminary courses and Eastern Theology in the Faculty. I had no idea of turning over a new page in the near future, as things were to turn out. Everything started from a small episode, destined however to change my life. I was on my way to the Adriatic Coast for a holiday by the sea. During the train journey, I chanced to speak with some students, and found them fearfully ignorant of the Church. And since I was forced–out of honesty, out of simplicity of heart–to attribute their disgust and indifference to the Church herself, I thought then of dedicating myself to the reconstruction of a Christian presence in the student environment.
So I asked, and got from my superiors permission to leave Venegono and come to Milan. Here, I was sent to teach religion in a classical High School called “G. Berchet.” From the first days of my work in the Berchet, my first intuition, provoked by that meeting on the train, proved, sadly, to be quite true. I would stop those few students with the Catholic Action badge or the Scout badge, whom I met along the corridors or on the stairs during the breaks, and ask them explicitly, “Do you really believe in Christ?” They would look at me aghast, and I don’t remember one who answered “yes” with the spontaneity characteristic of someone with a true root of faith in him. Another question I would ask all of them, during the first days, was, “As you see it, are Christianity and the Church present in the school? Do they have any incidence in the school?” The answer was almost always amazement or a smile.
This was in the mid-fifties, when according to general opinion the Church was still a powerful presence in Italian society; and in fact it was, but only as the outcome of a past not yet overthrown by an attack that was quite evidently in active preparation by those hotbeds of new men, of the new society which are the school and the university. It was clear to me then that a tradition, or more generally a human experience, cannot challenge history, cannot survive in the long run, if not in the measure in which they manage to express and communicate themselves through ways that have a cultural dignity.
In those years, the Church was evidently still a solid and deeply rooted presence, thanks to its past, but its weight and its solidity were based more than anything on two sets of reasons: on one hand, mass participation in Catholic worship, often due to inertia; and on the other hand, paradoxically, a strictly political power, apart from anything, rather badly used from an ecclesial point of view–so much so that both the Church, and those party organisms that were its political aspect, showed that they had no idea of the importance of cultural creativity and therefore of the question of education. Everything was to be solved by the drive to increase the membership of the official Catholic associations. The content of the life of these associations was limited to mere moralism (with the exception of some moments of enthusiasm). The whole living complexity of the Christian experience was reduced in those organizations to the strict observance of a few commandments (in practice, not even all the ten were stressed with the same determination).
The only cultural fact emerging was an enthusiasm cultivated, encouraged, and provoked for the ceremonial aspects and for moments of mass participation in ecclesiastical life. These demonstrations ran the risk of becoming superficial gestures, with no educative value. They were not the outcome of an education, and therefore of a critical development; so the personality of those who took part in them, with their roots, remained outside, more and more lost. Everything was taken for granted. All the same, it’s true, and I insist on this, that they were cultural gestures, because the “sacramentality” of her nature belongs to the essence of the Church; the “sign” is one of the fundamental factors of sacramentality, and those mass gestures were certainly a sign. All the same–as I already said–the motivations for these gestures were not consciously lived. The awareness of those to whom the gestures were proposed as a basic educational instrument was rather nebulous, and they were actually getting more and more lost.
In the field of laicist culture, in those years a process of radicalization was going on, which found in the University of Pisa, just to cite one example, one of its main powerhouses. This ended up in an intolerance, in an ever-more indiscriminate aggressiveness towards any Christian presence and any Christian idea–above all, though, towards any Christian presence. It was already clear then, in my view, that the laicist intelligentsia was aiming at the more significant professorships (history, Italian and philosophy) to make them a pulpit against the pulpits. In every school could be counted many teachers who used their teaching as an anti-Christian pulpit, aimed actively at destroying the faith of students who had it. There were almost always people who approached the religious experience with an attitude of preconception and intolerance, in complete contradiction with that openness to ideas they often proclaimed, but then applied only to those who thought practically as they did. According to these teachers, all that came from the Church was a priori inhuman, and it was not worth while discussing anything with Christians; so I say that prejudice and intolerance constituted the characteristic elements of their activity in school. Already in 1954, it became clear that the concentration of these teachers in the key schools in the most important towns (in the region of Lombardy, most of them were collected in the high schools and teachers’ colleges of Milan) was not sporadic but a deliberate choice. The anti-democratic nature of the operation was favored by the ambiguity on which the state monopoly in the public school is founded. In theory, it should not respect anyone’s cultural identity, but neither should it impose one. In practice, however, the state monopoly, precisely because it is proposed to the students as an impartial limbo, “super partes,” paradoxically ends up putting the students’ critical awareness in a state of narcosis that makes it docile to cultural manipulation by any organized group or any individual teacher.
In their anti-Catholic crusade, the laicist teachers of the fifties didn’t hesitate to involve the Italian literary tradition, guilty of being too rich in Christian personalities.
It was above all against this laicism that we found it necessary to draw Gioventù Studentesca (GS–Student Youth) into the controversy. One could ask the reason for this choice, when it was already clear (and subsequent events would confirm it) that this was already in decline, and that Marxism was soon to take its place as the dominant culture of the intelligentsia, quickly becoming the scholasticism of the modern “clerics.” This fact may seem even stranger if we bear in mind that those were the years of the “Cold War” and the anti-Communist crusade. What instead seemed clear to me was that to fight against the Marxist culture as the only enemy meant first of all not to understand its root. The Marxist culture, in its anti-religious aspect, and in particular in its opposition to the Church, was nothing but a theoretical and operative derivation of illuminism.
The centrist governments, founded on the call and gathered under the banner of a generic anti-Communism, were moving according to conservative logic. In particular, the banal praxis (perhaps made to pass for concreteness), typical of most government activity, worked in favor of conservatism. What characterized the ruling class in those years was an absolute insensitivity to the cultural dimension. The nucleus of the leadership of the time can be more rightly accused of cultural insensitivity than of crypto-Fascism. And it is precisely the absence of cultural dignity that caused the degradation of public behavior at all levels, making it decline towards many and the most varied forms of Fascism.
Apart from a few noble exceptions, Christian teachers–as well as the whole Catholic intelligentsia of the time–doggedly applied the principle of the substantial separation between the religious and the temporal and, following–with a fidelity worthy of a better cause–an abstract idea of the neutral state, made it a point of honor to teach without proposing any vision of the world, without communicating anything of what they were (and therefore of what they were not). So they didn’t create or arouse any cultural position that was either Christian or respectful of Christianity. This, in theory, was the general tone. It should be of no surprise that this happened precisely in Milan, where there is the main campus of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, the major cultural institution of the Catholics in Italy.
In those years, the Catholic University (in complete contrast with its original inspiration) turned out to be precisely the place where the broadest cultural articulation was afforded to the support and diffusion of that principle of separation between the temporal and the religious that subsequently was to cause the eclipse of the Catholic presence in Italian society.
The contemporary flourishing of the Catholic associations therefore left me rather perplexed. I asked myself, “How is it that with all their apparent strength and capacity for mobilization, these organisms have no incidence on these ambits in which the great majority of people spend the decisive hours of their day in the factories, in offices, in schools?” Moreover, even the faith of a young student born in a Catholic family, raised in contact with the parish and its initiatives, ends up weakening, and becoming formal if he has no way at school to learn how Christian faith and life are able to answer the theoretical and existential problems which, precisely at school age, pass through their most flourishing period.
What is important is first of all that faith become a mentality. It is mentality that creates, giving new form to things. In people who were formed in the Catholic associations, the faith often did not become Christian mentality.
I quote a case that seems to me to be significant. I remember that, in the first years of my teaching at the Berchet High School, in a class there was a boy who was very good and intelligent, a Catholic and a Delegate Aspirant in his parish. [In the traditional structure of Catholic Action, the “Aspirants” were those enrolled in the association between 10 and 13 years of age. The “Delegate” was the one in charge of them in the parish.] Amongst his companions were some who were later to become leaders in the extra-parliamentary groups. Everyone spoke very highly of him, both the students and the teachers; they told him he was a good man, certainly with Catholic ideas different from theirs, but as a person they respected him a lot. When I realized how things were, I said to this student, “You see, your uprightness and your gentlemanly behavior do not call attention to anything if not to yourself. You don’t make the Christian fact present in your class. You simply study, get full marks, you get along smoothly and in friendship with your companions; and there it stops.” In other words, that boy did not have the dimension of ecclesiality; his was an individualistic and liberal morality.
Our attempt was born therefore of an answer to this situation of crisis and absence of Christians in the more lively and concrete environments in which the great majority of people–Christians included–spent their existence; as an overturning (as far as our resources permitted) of a situation in which the Christians were politely withdrawing from public life, from culture, from popular realities, amidst the encouraging applause and the cordial consensus of the political and cultural forces which aimed at replacing them on the scene of our country.
Not long after I had become a religion teacher at the Berchet, I had noted that during the break, a group of students was meeting on one landing of the stairs, and they would have heated discussions among themselves–the same people every day. I had been positively impressed by their constant friendship. I asked who they were, and I was told they were “Communists.” This thing struck me. I asked myself, “How come the Christians are not at least as capable of that unity that Christ indicates as the most immediate and visible of the characteristics of those who believe in Him?” So one day, after the lessons, I was going home chewing over this fact, all angry at this incapacity of being faithful to ourselves, to one’s own faith, that the Christians present in the high school demonstrated so clearly. On the street, I can even remember the name of the street, I caught up with four boys who were talking to each other. I asked them, “Are you Christians?” “Yes.” But they answered rather bewilderedly to that unexpected question. “Ah, you are Christians,” I replied. “And in school who notices that you are? In the assemblies of the student association only the Communists and the Monarco-fascists are present and take a stand; and what about the Christians?” The following week, these four presented themselves in an assembly and made a speech beginning with these words, “We Catholics…” From that instant, for ten years in that school, at least as long as I was there (from the year 1954-1965), there were no arguments more fiery than those about the Church and Christianity.