When Fr Giussani met the Far East
In a new biography just published in Italy, Spanish journalist Fernando de Haro looks at the trip the founder of the Communion and Liberation movement made to Japan in 1987. Back then, during a visit to a Buddhist monastery near Osaka, a deep friendship and spiritual closeness developed with the local novice master Habukawa.
"Because I am a man. Scenes from the life of Fr Giussani" is a new book in which the Spanish journalist Fernando de Haro helps the reader meet with the Italian priest founder of the Communion and Liberation (CL) movement, who died in 2005. From the volume (Editrice Ancora, 320 pages), we publish extensive excerpts of the story of a trip that Fr Luigi Giussani made to Japan in 1987, when he was also a guest at a Buddhist monastery.
In late June 1987, Fr Giussani headed to Rome airport to embark on a strange and long journey. The destination was Tokyo. From there his trip included travel to Nagoya, one of Japan's most populous cities. Angela Volpe, a young Italian member of the CL movement, was studying in that country and sent him an invitation to a meeting on culture and education in Italy.
The priest accepted that four-day trip to Japan to talk about his experience as an educator. His ecumenical inclination filled him with curiosity about the distant Asian culture.
Before boarding the plane, he checked his passport several times. A strike had prevented him from arriving early and he was nervous. The flight was long, with a stopover in New Delhi. To facilitate the meeting with his generous guests, he was in civilian clothes, wearing a suit and tie.
When he arrived in Nagoya, several local television stations were waiting for him. They introduced him as a great Italian educator. In the morning he had a first meeting with a small group of students. His lecture was scheduled for the afternoon. In the hall where he was going to speak, 500 people were waiting for him. A Salesian priest oversaw the translation, but by the end he was exhausted.
Fr Giussani said that he felt honoured to be among them, who represent one of the largest, most active, and kindest peoples in the world, apologising for not yet speaking the language and began a speech in which he quoted several Japanese poets.
He said that, no matter how different their geographical and historical origins were, no distance could create a total estrangement between them; they are all human. He praised the sensitivity of Japanese culture in recognising total harmony, the unity between all things.
He praised Eastern religiosity and indicated that this harmony has a voice, and this voice, the voice of the universe that seeks the true, the beautiful and the good, is the heart of man. The decisive question is whether that voice makes sense or not.
He did not want to conclude without making a discreet reference to the incarnation. "Forgive me, but, in my tradition, that is, from my past, news has reached me that this voice of the universe has become a man," he said. After his address, an impromptu talk with the participants began.
The priest had one day off before going back to lecture. At the time, at the insistence of one of Ms Volpe’s friends, a visit to Mount Koya, south of Osaka, was organised. Mount Koya is a centre of Shingon Mikkyo Buddhism, born in India, founded by Kukai Kōbō-Daishi in the 7th century.
Still, Giussani, exhausted by the long journey, by the time lag, with almost no sleep, accepted the invitation.
After arriving in Osaka, the group boarded a cable car to the monastery. Inside they took off their shoes. And when the door opened, they found themselves in another world, that of the Orient in the 17th century.
The building was made entirely of wood, with rooms divided by a paper partition. From a well-kept garden, the view opened onto a forest. Habukawa, the master of novices, welcomed Giussani, and the two plunged into an intense embrace.
The Buddhist monk will never forget that moment. Immediately, a great harmony developed between the two. Habukawa explained the contents of the treasure hall and the significance of the Bodhisattva Kannon. The two chatted like long-time friends. The encounter with this unexpected guest became a mystical experience for Habukawa, who felt that Giussani helped him insert himself into the Absolute.
When it was time for dinner, people had to sit on the floor. This is uncomfortable for those who are not used to it. Giussani made great efforts to respect the customs of the monastery. They served him a vegetarian meal, the seasoning of which he did not like. But he finished and praised all the courses.
Tiredness got the better of him and he dozed off. They offered him a ritual bath, in a group, but he discreetly declined. He lied down in a room separated by a paper wall from that of his companions.
At 6 am, after using the communal bathrooms, Giussani and his companions took part in the fire ceremony. At the end, they offered him a blessed bread. Fontolan was not convinced that they could participate in a Buddhist ritual and looked to Giussani, who emphatically motioned for him to eat it.
Back in Italy, he wanted to stay in touch with Habukawa at all costs. He suggested to his friends at the Rimini Meeting that they invite him to come. The Buddhist monk came to Milan on several occasions, and on one of these, upon greeting him, Giussani made a confession with tears in his eyes. "If this man had lived 2,000 years ago, if he had met Christ, he would be one of the apostles," he said.
When, years later, the priest fell ill, Habukawa was unable to travel to Italy to visit him, so he sent him, following his tradition, a sum of money.
Giussani, surprisingly, developed an intense relationship, heart to heart, with a man from a very distant world. Once again, one of the aspects of his vocation, in this case the ecumenical dimension, was fulfilled in an unexpected and disruptive way.
* Author of the book “Perché sono un uomo. Scene dalls vita di don Giussani" (Because I am a man Scenes from the life of Fr Giussani), Editrice Ancora
Photo: Fr. Giussani with the monk Habukawa in Japan (image taken from clonline.org)