01-07-2007 - Traces, n. 7
Italy Saint Francis House in Varigotti

A Place of Our History
and of a Welcoming Beauty
For twenty years, in the early days of the life of the Movement, the town of Varigotti accommodated many GS gatherings–the Tower and the little Church of St. Laurence hosted the Students’ Week and the Easter Triduum. Saint Francis House, where Father Giussani had spent a period of convalescence in 1946-47, preserves the memory of a history. This continues on as hospitality, beauty, and simple charity, according to the wishes of Father Giussani, who later assigned this task to the group of Memores Domini called to run the house: “This place can help to re-establish a relationship with Jesus, especially for those who–because of their age or their health–are having difficulties in loving Him. …This place is connected with our whole history, and you have to perpetuate its sanctity”

by Paola Bergamini

September 24, 1946. Fr. Giussani comes to Varigotti for a short period of convalescence. From the terrace of Saint Francis hospitality house in Varigotti, located slightly above the little Ligurian village, his gaze wanders over the immensity of the sea beyond the small gulf, over the hill that sinks into the water and the small colorful houses of the old hamlet, stretching out on the sand. It is a beauty that wounds–for those who have eyes that know how to observe–“in which my heart is hardly a beat from fear” (G. Leopardi, “Infinito” [“Infinite,” translation by Eamon Grennan]). Giussani writes to his friend Angelo Majo: “You are just like this sea: immense and arcane. I can always hear it speak mysterious and deep thoughts, and I can understand it, but I can never repeat to myself what it says with comprehensible and specific words. This sea that is now calm–I can barely hear it caress the shore like a breath, as if it was dreaming?in a few hours will be troubled, panting, and passionate, and I don’t know why... but whether calm or restless, silent or angry, every day and every instant the sea has a common denominator, one inexorable basic meaning, which constitutes its greatness: the overwhelming sense of a tremendous yearning for the infinite, for the infinite mystery. It is the same for your life, with all the distressing or peaceful events that occur, without an apparent reason: there is a voice, a passion, an agony that are at the base of everything. They are the voice, the passion, the anxiety of Him, He who is Happiness, Beauty, Supreme Goodness” (Letters of Faith and Friendship, Ed. San Paolo, pp.37-38). Twelve years later, he will go back to that same spot, with the first small GS group of Berchet High School, and for a few years the Students’ Week and the Easter Triduum will take place at the Tower and at the Church of St. Laurence. Emilia Smurro, President of the Rimini Meeting, was 18 years old the first time she went to Varigotti as a GS student. This is how she remembers that year’s Easter Triduum: “The first thing that struck me was the experience of a palpable beauty, one that would move you and wound you. That remained imprinted in my heart so much so that I decided to go back to Varigotti for my honeymoon. Everything was charged with such an intensity, which allowed you to cast a new, totalizing gaze on all of reality. Yes, it was experiencing the totality that opened us up to the world. For me, all this continued through the years in the experience of the Meeting.”

The experience
of the Church as a people

June 14, 1999. Ernesto crosses the threshold of Saint Francis House. The Franciscan nuns, who had managed the place for the longest time, are not there anymore. For years, they had welcomed children and adults, but lately it had become difficult for them to run the place, and they decided to consult Father Giussani–with whom they had never lost touch–so that their institution could go on existing. Following Father Giussani’s wish, the House is acquired by the Movement, and the hospitality is taken care of by some people in Memores Domini. Ernesto recounts, “I remember that, while I was walking down the stairs of the entrance hall, I had in my mind only what Father Giussani said when he had called me to propose the management of St. Francis House. He had said, ‘We acquired this house, where I would like the welcoming to go on. I thought about it mostly for the Memores Domini members. This place can help to re-establish a relationship with Jesus, especially for those who–because of their age or their health–are having difficulties in loving Him. And you have to be in charge of simple acts of charity. Many are the ones who talk about charity, but we need someone to really take care of it.’ At the beginning, I didn’t clearly grasp what that would entail. It was through later encounters that I understood what he had in mind for Varigotti.” The house is then tidied up and prepared to immediately start welcoming people. At first, it is open just to Memores Domini members, then to their parents, then to everybody because, as Father Giussani said, “there are some friends, people, that sometimes are even more than your own parents. We have to offer them the possibility to be welcomed too.” In the meantime, the refurbishing starts. Father Giussani follows the whole process–he wants to be kept informed of everything that happens at Saint Francis House. Ernesto continues, “It was during one of our conversations that I realized what the value of that place was for him. It had been there that, in 1946-47, he had started to perceive the experience of the Church as a people. At that moment, I began to understand our task, and it became even clearer when, one day, almost unexpectedly, he came to visit us. As soon as he entered, he told us, ‘The Christian Event has spread throughout Europe starting from places like this, and now they don’t exist anymore. Your responsibility is to give a new beginning to this kind of experience. This place is connected with our whole history, and you have to perpetuate its sanctity. It is a vocation within your vocation.’” Paolo, a bank director who joined the house a few months after Ernesto, explains, “None of us had any experience managing a hotel. But what would direct our actions was that idea of hospitality, of beauty, of charity that Father Giussani had pointed out.”

Hospitality and charity
Ernesto intervenes, “Hospitality is something you have to build, something that makes you move, that questions you. It is a vocation within the vocation. This means that you are wounded by the need of the people you welcome; your heart is moved and set in motion.” How does this happen? “An example: Lately, we have been hosting a person who is in a lot of physical pain. The common reaction would be to think, ‘Poor guy!’ The difference lies in thinking that the way I live has something do to with the possibility to really help this person. Asking, ‘What do you want from me?’ implies the availability of my heart in embracing that need. This way, even the heaviest situation becomes a possibility to enrich my vocation, within my relationship with Christ. All barriers are thus destroyed, even prejudice.” Paolo continues, “Like that nun from Sudan. One day, we found a lady in our chapel. She was wearing regular clothes, and started to sings songs (not our songs), without asking. Our first reaction was: “What does this woman want?” But the moment we set our prejudice aside, our real question was, “Who is this woman?” We got to know her, and we discovered that she was indeed a nun, who had lived in Sudan for many years. We met her later on, at the Memores Domini retreat.” This is the openness of heart St. Paul talks about: “Do not ignore hospitality; some who practiced it welcomed angels without knowing it.” Anna, who runs Saint Francis House along with Ernesto, explains, “We never had a meeting to come up with a strategy regarding hospitality. Our position is only to stay in front of reality according to all of its facets, waiting for something that will surprise us. And something that throws you off balance always happens. Like the letters and e-mail messages that we get, in which people thank us, not because of our perfect organization, but because of the way we treat our guests.”

Feeling at home
Catia, who has worked as a cook at Saint Francis House for the past two years, knows something about it. “I’m from Ancona [Italy]. My parents owned a kiosk on the beach, where they prepared food. I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant where people could feel at home. About two years ago, I came to Varigotti with some of the people in my house. We talked of many things, and at a certain point someone said, half-kidding, “Catia, this is the place for you.” Ernesto asked for an explanation, and I told him about my desire. He said, “We want the same thing. Come join us.” I understood that this was the place for me, conceived of for me. On my trip back home, I tried to find a thousand reasons to say no, but none of them held up. Reality was more beautiful, more fascinating than all my thoughts. The proof of it was that I did not feel any jolt. There are days when cooking is a struggle. When that happens, I think about how much Father Giussani cared for the fact that people could feel good, feel at home. This is what welcoming means.”
As we talk on the terrace, the spectacle of the sea filling the horizon calls to mind the famous phrase that Father Giussani’s mother told little Luigi, pointing out that last star of the morning: “How beautiful is the world! How great is God!” This was not exactly what Ernesto thought when he first arrived here. “No. For me the sea was...bothersome, because it was always the same. Then I read letter # 14 to Msgr. Majo. I thought that, if I wanted my heart to be even just a little bit like Father Giussani’s, I needed to start looking at reality as he did. So I read that letter over and over, and I realized that the sea is never the same. In order to look at beauty, I need to be educated. This is the only way that I can perceive the repercussions that reality provokes. Beauty has something to do with me, with my heart.”