Fifty years of Communion and Liberation / Experience

Going to School
with the Priest from Desio

Well-known psychoanalyst, university professor, journalist, and writer, Risé tells about Fr Giussani at the Berchet High School fifty years ago, his eruption into class, the lessons, and those hammering questions: “Christianity is all in a fact, an encounter. The encounter with Jesus Christ…. What do you think? Have you met Him? Do you want to meet Him or not? Was He really God? Was He an imposter, a madman? Your entire life depends on your answers to these questions…”

by Claudio Risé

When I was 16 years old, I wanted to go to “laicist school.” I wanted to see the world of students and teachers that the somewhat protective schools I’d attended until then had hidden from me. Experiences didn’t lack. But one, about the gift, about happiness, was central.
I remember that, when he first entered our classroom, the man walked rapidly, as if he hadn’t a minute to lose. Very different from our other teachers, even though they were good, who came into the classroom after having strolled the corridor back and forth an infinite number of times, in conversations with each other that they interrupted only grudgingly, prolonging the break between lessons infinitely, while we were supposed to wait for them in class, chatting amongst ourselves too, but without making a din, so everything would sound normal to the Principal’s office.
The man in the cassock was our new religion teacher, just arrived at the Berchet High School, the fortress of laicist bourgeoisie. He looked at us, smiling; you understood that he cared about us, but that he didn’t have complexes. My schoolmates, the young men and women from the hotbed of Milanese intelligentsia, initially looked at him with haughty condescension. You understood that the formal elegance, the good manners of the cultivated bourgeoisie didn’t interest him at all, that he saw them as a form of defense against something else more substantial.

The man from Desio

For me, instead, this was precisely what captivated me from the start. The man from Desio, whose name was Luigi Giussani, had a kind of spontaneous wildness–even in his physical contact, rich with slaps on the shoulder, handshakes, and shoves–that was exceptionally vital and archaic in a setting in which the neuroses of hypercivilization were so thick in the air that you could cut it with a knife. They permeated the classrooms, the lessons, the breaks, the friendships, even the loves. I remember that his arrival was like a cyclone, after which nothing in school was ever the same, neither for the others nor for me. He spent himself without stinting, in order to make our hearts beat, slightly petrified though they already were. But his interest was in no way maternal; he wasn’t concerned with reassuring us, with gaining our approval. Rather, he was a demanding young father, who urged us with anguish to draw forth what we had inside, to be courageous, to spend ourselves, as he did. He asked us not to be stingy, because this would lead to an affective, spiritual, and intellectual poverty. “Draw forth what you have inside,” he imprecated. And he pressed, recalling quotes from the Gospels, which at the time were already unpopular: “For anyone who has, will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt 13:12; 25, 29).

His vital wildness

I really liked his insistence on the riches to draw forth, and spend, together with his vital wildness. Finally, a priest who presented Christianity as a religion of riches and of extravagant expenditure, while everyone around us showed it like a kind of gigantic, millennial Charity, obsessed with poverty and dominated by the imperative to satisfy need. This Christianity, the official one (very different from that of Fr Giussani who, in fact, would in a short time be shipped off to America), was thus light years away from the passion of desire, which was what mattered to me (and it seems to me it was this way for Jesus, too, who said, “Man does not live by bread alone...”).
The priest from Desio, instead, wasn’t interested at all in our expositions on generic moral positions. Christianity, he insisted, was not a morality, a discourse, a philosophy, a system of thought. He was interested in something much more demanding, more personal, much more disturbing, at least for me. Christianity, he pressed, is all in a fact, an encounter. An encounter with Jesus Christ, a man who said He was God. And, at this point, he became pushy; he was no longer disposed to lighten up: “What do you think? Have you met Him? Do you want to meet Him or not? Was He really God? Was He an imposter, a madman? Your entire life depends on your answers to these questions, also because you can meet Jesus every day, if you only wanted to.” These hammering questions (at least, they seemed so to me) divided the school. Many, generally those with a solid Catholic education, adhered enthusiastically to this annunciation of a man-God, alive, of flesh, who gave them the possibility, re-announcing Him, to make every human encounter a sacred encounter, with the same energy and meaning. Those who came from a laicist education sometimes were struck, and tried to “see,” as if they were playing poker. More often, however, they used the instruments most readily at hand: positivism, idealism, Marxism, to liquidate the question like a fable, or a pathological vision, that the Church repeated to preserve herself.
For me, I felt vaguely that the questions of the religion teacher, “the Gius”(as he was called by the many who had come to love him), had to do with the use of received light, and with finally finding the way to spend it, to put it back into circulation, at the disposal of others.

The insistent question

I had no doubts about Jesus, whose Flesh and Blood I sought whenever I could, since my First Communion. But that insistent question–you, what do you make of this encounter? You, how do you announce Him to others, how do you put Him in the center of your life?–put me in a really difficult position. It also irritated me; it had become a disturbing presence, like a girl with whom you’ve fallen in love, but whom you don’t dare talk to, for fear that it may become a life-long story. And, stingily, you hold back. At the end, in a tug of war of interest and repulsion, it didn’t take me long to understand simply that I did not announce that encounter with Jesus. Certainly, I wasn’t bad; I didn’t consciously do the wrong thing (or, at least, I tried not to); I loved life, the others; I was often even generous–but not in that, in announcing my encounter with the man-God. That, I kept to myself. I had not yet stopped cultivating my yet-unrecognized stinginess. It was my personal, even egotistical, pleasure, which I did not want to give up, even though I didn’t want to give up the Body of Jesus Christ either. I wanted the gift, and exercised it where it came naturally to me, but I wasn’t willing to give myself to those people in that way, which would have made the gift much more costly.
The light had arrived, but I was still a young man of the upper middle class who wanted most of all to have fun. Bourgeois conventionality was still a road that I had to follow, all the way to the end, even though, over time, precisely those miserly good manners bothered me more and more. In the end, they finally horrified me, to the point of my dedicating all my work, both in psychology and in social sciences, to unmasking their pathologies and destructiveness.
Yet, as Carl Gustav Jung said, nobody can put down his own glass without having first drunk from it. I certainly was not capable of doing so. The problem, when the liquid contains a good dose of poison, is to manage to empty the glass, and to survive.