Close encounters

Thirty years ago, a Catholic organization with the unusual name of Communion and Liberation (CL) first caught my attention. It was born in an age when “liberation” was connected more with political movements of the non-Catholic, gun-toting variety: Ho Chi Minh’s “National Liberation Front” or the “Symbionese Liberation Army.” 

CL sees the world through an idiosyncratic yet thoroughly Catholic lens that shakes up usual categories and associations. “What is more truly liberating than the Christian message?” they might ask. “We are simply repossessing a word that really belongs to us.”

I liked CL’s approach. It seemed to wiggle away from the ponderous battles and perpetual standoffs between progressive and reactionary, pharisee and secularist, which have ensnared the Church for decades. CL could appreciate someone like William Congdon, an abstract painter of the Jackson Pollock era, or Pier Paolo Pasolini, a homosexual Marxist filmmaker, and artists often found much to appreciate in CL. 

The father of this movement was Father Luigi Giussani. Known as Don Giussani, his first appearance was that of a slightly rumpled Italian gnome. Given to pungent cigars and fairly impenetrable books, he was still able to inspire multiple generations to encounter Christ and his revelation as something wholly new and radical, more radical and more new than the earnest straitjackets of communism and fascism, more radical and more new than the modern amusement park of bourgeois consumerism. 

For Don Giussani, it was all about the encounter, the meeting. This encounter means seeing with fresh eyes the love of a God who knows your deepest self, and letting that encounter change your life. It means encountering others with that same openness. This desire for encounter impacts everything. It is no longer about the ideological litmus test to detect if someone is “one of us.” It’s about the person. As one member told me recently, they are not so much into apologetics as they are into meeting people where they are. And when you seek such an encounter, he said, you don’t go in acting as if you know all the answers. If you really believe that God is alive in our world, that God suffuses reality, then you do not go about narrowly defining what you will accept as reality.  

As Christians, we do not run from science. We do not run from politics. We do not run from the wild diversity of the human experience. And we do not run from beauty. Don Giussani had a great appreciation for art’s ability to reveal the soul’s quest for God through painting, film, literature and music.  

Once an Italian movement, CL now lives in 80 countries, including our own. It is developing “schools of community” and attracting young, bright, engaging people. It flourishes in universities, but it can be found in prisons and mission territories and ordinary parishes also. 

Last month I went to CL’s annual weekend called the New York Encounter. Located in downtown Manhattan, it featured a fascinating range of speakers on the subject of freedom — artists, authors, singers, a Pakistani minister whose brother was murdered by the Taliban, a former CEO of an energy company. Together, it was an eclectic, stimulating, rambling spiritual meditation on freedom and the human person, a rambunctious assertion that Christ is the ultimate source of all freedom.  

A joke making the rounds is that CL is Opus Dei for lazy people. That CL people tell this joke themselves is revealing: They don’t get too caught up in such things. It’s untrue, of course. What may be true is that CL is a movement for Catholics who don’t think they’d ever be interested in a movement.  

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher. 

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