One of the organizations which aided La Cattolica to enter the activists’ hall of fame was Gioventfi Studentesca (GS), an organization whose origins lay within the network of secondary schools in Milan. Quickly making its presence felt at La Cattolica as well, GS achieved a degree of notoriety second to none, and the classic English-language account of Italy’s red decade (1968-78) notes that, at the University of the Sacred Heart, GS ‘became a cauldron of open debate and discussion’, where ‘[h]umanist and populist ideas linked up with Marxist theories, and evangelism took on the form of overtly political activism’.[1] Given the conjunctural importance of GS, whose radiance far exceeded the city limits of the Lombard capital, and the ongoing fame of its successor organization of sorts, Comunione e Liberazione (CL), it is instructive to take a closer look at GS whose history remains largely unknown. In fact, given the central role within GS and CL by Don Luigi Giussani, a short glance at his intellectual biography will point out the solid roots of Giussani within the discourse of the Italian—and indeed European—Catholic Left.

At the Catholic elite school where Luigi Giussani received his secondary and seminary education from 1937 onwards, the Seminario di Venegono, Giussani crucially came under the influence of prominent representatives of Italian progressive Catholicism. An authority on GS and Luigi Giussani, Massimo Camisasca, repeatedly highlights the particularly formative influence of Gaetano Corti amongst the faculty at Venegono.[2] Symptomatically, it was precisely Gaetano Corti who incorporated the teachings of three of the most important schools of innovative Catholic theology in the 1930s: progressive Dominican strands at Le Saulchoir, progressive Jesuits at La Fourviere, and the Innsbruck school of kerygmatic theology.[3] Luigi Giussani’s ideas did not exactly fall from the sky.[4]

Taking over a small Milan grouping in existence since 1945, Gioventh Studentesca, from 1954 onwards Giussani devoted much of his intellectual and organizational energies and skills to turn the hitherto unremarkable circle into the most dynamic organization within the plethora of Italian Catholic organizations in the run-up to 1968. Considering Catholic Action, as it then existed in Italy, as animated by ‘a well-groomed, hortatory enthusiasm, challenged into action [solely] by ceremonial aspects’,[5] Luigi Giussani struck out in—for Italy—entirely new directions. Realizing that, even in Italy, Catholicism was losing its hold over ever-larger segments of the population, Giussani developed in the course of the 1950s a novel approach to regain and retain influence over young Italians in the largest population centre of northern Italy, Milan, which Archbishop Montini in 1957 had declared terre de mission.

GS was initially exclusively implanted in several Milanese high schools, and it was in this seemingly inhospitable environment in the classic period of the post-1945 economic miracle where Giussani netted his first successes. Unlike traditional Italian Catholic Action, which focused above all on the religious dimension, sometimes—as was also the case with the FUCI—likewise on the elite and electoral dimension of Italian Catholic politics, Giussani encouraged GS to concentrate on the social and cultural dimension of missionary activism. In fact, Giussani inspired his followers to devise a ‘holistic’ technique of creating an environment and atmosphere which shaped GS into a lively organization serving simultaneously as vehicle for expansion and as a social centre where free expression of ideas would encourage personal growth of GS members. From the beginning, weekly assemblies at its headquarters in Via Statuto were occasions when members could freely air issues, ideas, and problems which preoccupied their minds, having arisen in the context of their daily lives. For young Catholic high school students on the receiving end of paternalism in their families, at their schools, and in the church, GS thus quickly became a cherished home away from home. For an idealistic generation of young people, GS thus literally and figuratively appeared to prefigure the most desirable features of utopian Christian communities based on honesty and authenticity.[6]

In effect, the weekly assemblies served a function very similar to consciousness-raising techniques applied by early second wave feminist circles a few years later, helping to forge close, intimate, affective bonds between GS members. What further strengthened the community spirit of GS were a series of charitable projects constituting a central aspect of GS activities. Students from the mostly middle-class secondary schools, where GS had grown strong roots, went on regular visits to the proletarian and sub-proletarian districts on the outskirts of industrial northern Italy’s largest town in order to assist the socially disadvantaged in various ways, not dissimilar to what the Comunita di Sant’Egidio would be doing in the wake of 1968 in Rome. From 1963 onwards, GS also organized summer camps in rural Calabria in Italy’s underdeveloped South for similar charitable purposes. Already in 1960, a missionary programme in Brazil had been launched under the auspices of GS.[7]

With many GS high school students soon graduating and many of them becoming university students, GS soon branched out into the world of postsecondary higher education, quickly making inroads in these milieux as well. Geographically, GS soon spread outside Milan proper, with new branches being founded throughout Lombardy but also elsewhere throughout Italy. Two mechanisms played a particularly favourable role in this growth of the organization into a nationally organized group. The preferred summer holiday destinations of Milanese middle-class families were then the coastal towns of Liguria and the Romagna. Young giessini—as GS members were referred to by the initials of their organization—finding themselves in significant numbers in such resort communities, quickly began to reconstitute GS circles on location, often inspiring young students permanently living at the Ligurian and Adriatic coasts, who had come into contact with visiting Milanese giessini, to found local chapters. When GS had begun to infiltrate the university milieu, another diffusion mechanism began to click in. After finishing university studies, many graduates returned to their respective home towns, bringing the gospel of GS organizational techniques to previously untouched locations.[8]

Yet perhaps the most revolutionary feature of GS was Giussani’s insistence on co-education within GS, at a time when for several decades to come Italian Catholic Action groupings were always and everywhere expending much energy on the continued existence of separate organizations for the two sexes. For Giussani, the overarching principle of GS was its mirroring of real life situations and contemporary sociabilities. Day trips and vacation colonies—not just activities at their home base—thus saw members of both sexes spending quality time together away from home and school, clearly one additional source of the growing popularity of GS amongst the high school crowd. Small wonder that the Catholic hierarchy soon began to air some concerns about the existence and the comportment of GS, which stood apart from all similar organizations within the galaxy of Italian Catholic Action. In addition, the charitable work in the Bassa Milanese and later on Calabria slowly undermined another principle of Italian Catholic Action, its firm support to traditional parishes as the fundamental building block of associ- ational life, as giessini from a large mix of Milanese parishes joined forces in these encounters with the darker side of the Italian economic miracle in the 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1960s, Don Giussani even began to go beyond diocesan—and not just parish—boundaries when helping to set up cultural centres for his movement, which served as powerful magnets attracting new crowds.[9]

  • [1] Lumley, States of Emergency, p. 79.
  • [2] Massimo Camisasca, Comunione e Liberazione. Le origini (1965-1968) (Cinisello Balsamo:San Paolo, 2001), pp. 76 and 81.
  • [3] Salvator Abbruzzese, Comunione e Liberazione (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2001), pp. 31-2.
  • [4] The influence of one of the key activists in the first wave of nonconformist Italian LeftCatholics, Don Primo Mazzolari, on Luigi Giussani is noted in Maria Bocci, ‘“La Chiesa inquanto tale”. Il Concilio indiviso, da Gioventu Studentesca a Comunione e Liberazione’, Bollet-tino dell’Archivio per la storia del movimento sociale cattolico in Italia 45/2-3 (May-December2010), p. 204.
  • [5] Luigi Giussani’s words, cited in Abbruzzese, Comunione e Liberazione, p. 17.
  • [6] A marvellous and evocative description of these mechanisms, which contributed significantly to forge a powerful communitarian spirit within GS, is Luca Perrone, ‘Rinnovamentoreligioso e civile nell’esperienza di “Gioventu Studentesca”’, Il mulino 16/7 (no. 177), July 1967,pp. 493-522. Perrone was then the editor of the GS newspaper, Milano studenti, and it was underhis editorial guidance that GS evolved into a component part of the Italian New Left. At the timePerrone wrote this piece, however, much of this evolution was yet to materialize, and the article istherefore a rare snapshot of a social movement in rapid motion.
  • [7] Detailed narrative descriptions of these charitable works in the Bassa Milanese, Calabria,and Brazil can be found in Camisasca, Comunione e Liberazione, pp. 179-204.
  • [8] Perrone, ‘Rinnovamento’, pp. 510-12, devotes some stimulating passages to the spread ofGS throughout Italy. Further narrative detail on this expansion is in Camisasca, Comunione eLiberazione, pp. 212-34. One local high school student in Rimini on the Adriatic, who first gotinto contact with GS in such a coastal resort, was Andrea Riccardi, the spiritus rector of theComunita di Sant’Egidio some years later. Conversation with Roberto Morozzo, 16 April 2012.
  • [9] The significance of the establishment of such centri culturali as implicit challenges todiocesan control is underlined by Abbruzzese, Comunione e Liberazione, pp. 24-5.
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