February 11th

A New Movement. Story of a Beginning

The birth of the Fraternity–an aware and committed, i.e, mature, expression of the history of CL–in the recollections of its dawning from two witnesses. Twenty years after pontifical recognition


The beginning was slow, like an old soccer game, filmed in black and white, with a dark leather ball that seems always to be in slow motion–like the ones that Paolo Sciumè used to play with on the bare, worn fields of the Giuriati, on the eastern outskirts of Milan, when he was a boy. At that time, the lawyer of today was a halfback on the farm team of the Milan soccer club, with a possible career on the main string in front of him. “I made it through two rounds of selection, with Nils Liedholm doing the examining, but I didn’t show up for the third round.” A great soccer future was at his back, “sacrificed” for a prestigious legal career. Who knows, perhaps his history, and even ours, would have been different, even if Destiny is always lurking, maybe around the next corner. Onorato Grassi does not have such a would-be great past as a soccer player, but he takes his sons to the stadium–especially now that his team, Inter, is doing so well–when he is not teaching medieval philosophy at the LUMSA university in Rome. I am starting from soccer, because that’s my field [sports-journalism], by profession, but also because I feel a little initial reservation in front of these two personages, and about the path to follow in presenting their story. Our meeting was in the lobby of the Italian Traces office (not bad; it would make a one-room apartment), to hear the testimony of two who were there, twenty years ago, before the Fraternity’s adventure began (or rather, continued). We were slow getting started, as there is always diffidence in the face of journalists who want to know everything; who ask you to give your name, address and profession, just like the police. Paolo Sciumè, age 59, born in Carpi in the province of Modena, married to Giovanna, three children (Pietro, Giorgio, Camilla), two grandchildren (Tommaso and Maddalena), a lawyer with a (famous) office in Milan. Nori Grassi, 51 (by the time you read this), married to Elisa, four sons (Luigi, Michele, Francesco, and Riccardo), professor of philosophy. How did these two men meet each other? “It could have been in the mid-1970s, when there were violent actions against CL at the Università Cattolica in Milan,” Sciumè offered. “I don’t think so; rather, it might have been at an assembly of CL ‘responsibles,’ like the ones held near Piacenza, in Castelnuovo Fogliani,” Grassi replied. “I was a dinosaur, someone from an earlier generation, but I followed Giussani. Wherever he went, I went” (Sciumè). Giussani was going toward the idea of the Fraternity. Grassi established a precise date, interwoven (but only by chance) with a tragic event of recent Italian history: March 16, 1978. This was the day Aldo Moro was kidnapped, leaving five dead on the pavement of Via Fani and the country in shock. “We went to dinner in a restaurant outside Milan with Fr Giussani, and after discussing the tragic events, we talked about how to continue, into adult life, the experience we had had at the University and how to augment it; that’s how the idea of the Fraternity came up.” “In the first meetings, it was called ‘Confraternity,’ and was tied to the idea of the professions, of how to continue in our trades and professions what we had encountered,” Sciumè adds, smiling at that name with its somewhat awkward overtones.

So, there was the CLU (CL university students’ group) and there were the adults. And there was Fr Giussani. Grassi says, “For us in 1975, something new had started in the university. The Fraternity was supposed to respond to the need for a life that was humanly true and to develop what we had encountered.” There was nothing more that needed to be created, the two assured me, but only something to be continued. Grassi spoke of the “Lifejacket,” a periodical gathering that, as the name itself indicates, helped them to carry into their lives what they had lived at the university. “It was an important experience, as a possibility for dialogue, mutual comparison, consciousness-raising. It was meant to impact our lives, but instead we couldn’t get beyond the meetings. So Fr Giussani wanted a change.” Sciumè produced for me a photocopy of the original document, the decree of the Pontificium Consilium Pro Laicis dated February 11, 1982. There it was, from twenty years ago, with official stamps and an introduction that explains everything: “The FRATERNITY OF COMMUNION AND LIBERATION originated in 1954, when the priest Fr Luigi Giussani, with the aim of promoting communion as a fundamental necessity of life through a proposal of faith, began his apostolate of working with students, workers, and in general in the spheres particularly connected with collective life.” At the bottom of this important document of pontifical recognition is the signature of Cardinal Opilio Rossi, but another name deserves mention, that of Msgr Lobina, the Cardinal’s Secretary. Sciumè recounts: “His role was extremely important. He took on the procedure out of passion, not bureaucratic reasons.” There were those who went along Via Veneto to have a good time, and there were those, like Sciumè, who went to an apartment on Via Gregorio VII for meetings with Msgr Lobina.

However, there is a step that came before this one: let’s go back two years earlier, to the Abbey of Montecassino, where the Abbot Ordinary, Msgr Martino Matronola, had offered recognition to the Fraternity. Why there? “Because they followed the indication of someone who had intuited the value of Communion and Liberation for the whole Church, also from the juridical point of view,” Sciumè answers. The Fraternity thus rests on the historic Abbey and the “auspices of the Patriarch St Benedict.” It rests also on a big table where the “founding fathers” of the Fraternity of CL sat during their first meetings. It would be nice to think that the old monks had also sat there over a thousand years ago but, as by now only a few know (because this history is not taught any more), in 1943-44 the original abbey was reduced to ashes under the American bombs.

I asked about names and roles, but the two were reluctant to give them, a bit because of the barriers erected by memory, a bit because this business of “founding fathers” disturbs them not a little. In any case, they went to Cassino to meet “in a big room with a large table in the middle of it” (Grassi). They were there, and others were too (Debellini, Feliciani, Cesana, etc.). It was September 1980, and these were the first meetings of the Fraternity, which the Abbot had baptized officially on July 11, 1980.

A clever technique
The Benedictine recognition was only canonical. The pontifical recognition was juridical (then, in 1984, came governmental recognition). Its importance? “The Church acknowledged the value of the experience initiated by Fr Giussani and proposed it to everyone” (Grassi). “That’s true; Fr Giussani’s charism was recognized” (Sciumè). This “official” aspect of the story is significant, “because there is a recognition of the history of the Movement also in a formal sense.” Then too, there is the “rule,” derived from its Benedictine birth. “Many chose the tough rule, in the beginning. Giussani as well asked us to follow it, then he realized that it wasn’t easy. On this, however, Giussani used a ‘clever technique’” (Sciumè). What was that? “He never put form before people’s hearts. There is a Fraternity in the Brianza area that chose to adopt a stricter rule. That’s fine. It is as though Giussani obeyed the creativity generated by an adult in the face of what he had heard from him.”

In any case, two aspects of the Fraternity were clear from the beginning: “First, that everything is for the person and second, that Christian life is communion,” Grassi says, adding, “A rule is a good thing if it is the rule of a charismatic presence. And the elements of the rule that are always cited are the Retreat of the Fraternity and the gatherings, prayer, the Common Fund.” There is this matter of money which immediately became a distinguishing factor. “The Fraternity was educative especially in the management of money,” and Sciumè reviewed the history of the Sacro Cuore school and complex in Milan, a more than $6 million project, a “very laborious contract” because there was only $1 million in the treasury. Do you remember the “bricks campaign”? “It forced us to find a discipline in keeping with the nature of the Movement.” Sciumè maintains that the structure of the Fraternity budget can be exported also outside the organization, and then he said something that to me seemed very significant, because I feel it is true for me: “From a legal point of view, I owe a debt to CL.” I could say the same about my own profession. I would not do it in this (good?) way if I had not traveled this path. Speaking of paths, a lot of road has been covered since that time. On December 31, 1982, there were 4,404 enrolled members. Today, the members fill a town when the Retreat is held.

“Doing with”
I launched a provocative question: “How do you feel when you look at the more than 20,000 people crowding together for the Retreat?” It was an easy lob. “We are two among them; you aren’t talking to some Lares.” Lares were Roman deities who protected the home. “Giussani has always said to us, ‘Stay in your place. I would like to be where you are’” (Sciumè). And Grassi added, “Giussani does not speak to the 20,000; he speaks to each one in particular, to me and to you.” Sciumè: “I realize that there are people who are better than I am.” Grassi: “So many times, Giussani has done the Retreat on letters from members.”

What remains, then, of those times–what of the origin has most struck these two special witnesses? “The Fraternity is responsible, among other things, for the spread of Giussani’s books” (Sciumè). “Maturity is full awareness of a method, the one that Fr Giussani has made us encounter. Education goes on” (Grassi). It is a doing together. “Giussani always wants to do things with others–with others who are not faceless” (Sciumè). “‘Doing with’ is a rule; you see someone get involved with you in a total way.” Maybe even Fr Giussani has played halfback. Someone who has served thousands of good balls since 1954, the year of the origin of the Fraternity that now, by pontifical recognition, is twenty years old, cannot help playing this role. However, he began much earlier. Just like all of us. Happy birthday, and may things continue like this.