01-06-2009 - Traces, n. 6

cl life

From Russia
with Friendship

It is a community in a capital city of 17 million people, with a history that sprang up from clandestine friendships between young Italians and “our Eastern brothers.” Vacations, the choir, the School of Community, the Russian edition of Traces... What makes such unity possible in such a fractured society?

by Fabrizio Rossi

“How can I hand on this experience to my children?” There are three women around the table at a Moscow School of Community, the meeting “for mothers.”  It is held every Thursday at 10:30 am, in an apartment twelve minutes’ walk from the Kremlin. There is Inga, a speech therapist, with two children of 9 and 3; Marina, who came from Siberia in 2002 and is a fulltime mother of Varja, 9; then Natasha, who works with handicapped children in a State-run kindergarten. Natasha has no children of her own–she belongs to the Memores Domini, a group of lay people who choose to give their lives to Christ so as to live a greater fecundity. The only one missing is another Natasha (one of her four children is in bed with a fever). The group was founded by the two Natashas, colleagues in the kindergarten who, during their breaks, would secretly study the texts of Fr. Giussani together in the gymnasium. The others joined them a few months ago. Marina tells us, “I couldn’t take part in the meetings in the evening. I used to ask my husband to tell me what had been said, until Natasha had this idea.” It was a proposal made-to-measure, at the only time when a mother is free, while the others are at work. “I, too, was unable to attend the School of Community, but I wanted to, so much,” Inga said. “I needed it like the air I breathe.”
Here is just a glimpse to help us understand how a community in a capital of 17 million inhabitants lives, where people have to face hours of traffic in order to meet. It is a small community–only 45 people took part in the last vacation, including a trip to a frozen lake–but very lively for all that. There is the choir of twenty voices, whose repertoire runs from Mozart to the Orthodox Liturgy; the sale of Sled, the Russian edition of Traces, after Mass (the local editorial board meets once a week); the recital of the Angelus in the university with Catholic and Orthodox students; four groups of School of Community; and a general assembly every month.

Makeshift tents. Jana, recently employed at the Pilgrims Hostel annexed to the Diocesan Curia, was one of the first to meet the Movement, in 1990. She worked as a housekeeper in the home of Fr. Stefano Caprio, who had recently arrived as chaplain to the Italian Embassy. She told us, “The young people who began to gather around him aroused my curiosity.” One year later, Pope John Paul II tried to give a structure to the Catholic Church in Russia by creating four Apostolic Administrations, later to become dioceses. The bishops asked the Movement for help with this new situation. Nothing could have been more inviting for Fr. Giussani, who had been fascinated by the Russian tradition ever since his seminary days; and so it was that in May 1992 the first house of the Memores Domini was opened. One of the Memores was Roberto, an engineer who today leads the community: “That same year, we organized the first vacation,” he recalls, “to the source of the River Moscow. There were about fifteen of us, camping in makeshift tents.”
The beginning was helped by the friendships patiently cultivated over the years by Fr. Romano Scalfi and his collaborators of Russia Cristiana. In the 1960s, they had begun to go across the Iron Curtain to meet the “Eastern brothers,” on the pretext of work or study. No one then could have imagined the birth of a place like the Spirit Library–a cultural center in the heart of the metropolis, conceived by Fr. Scalfi and Fr. Giussani as a point of unity and dialogue with anyone and everyone. Nor could anyone have imagined that Fr. Paolo Pezzi, a missionary of the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, who arrived in Moscow in the year 2000, would be appointed by Benedict XVI to lead the archdiocese.
So, thousands of miles away, here, too, in Moscow, the experience of the Movement is a resource for facing life in all its aspects, including work. As Natasha, who recently attended a psychology course  for her work at the kindergarten, told the others at the “mothers’ School of Community,” “The first day [of the course], we watched a video showing the difficulties of a mother of a child with Down Syndrome. They were all agreed that if she is unable to accept it, we should not force her to. I said, ‘If no one looks at that woman’s need, how can she love her child?’” All hell broke loose. Someone accused Natasha of poking her nose into things that are no concern of hers. Others said she was exaggerating. “I asked myself, ‘What makes me so sure of what I said?’ Seeing people who live like this.” The following day, she took up the challenge again. She spoke about Rose, of the AIDS patients breaking rocks for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and of Vicky, who was changed when she was told that she was worth more than her sickness. “This is accepting someone and loving them.” There was silence in the room. “At the end, some of my colleagues came to thank me. Although I hadn’t mentioned faith, one of them said, ‘Who’d have thought that God and Freud could agree?’”

A second Christmas. There are other things that are difficult to imagine, but that happen all the same, like the fact that, in a totally different context, Fr. Giussani’s charism is inspiring many people to discover more and more their own tradition. Olya, 32, a web-designer, told us, “Thanks to the Movement, I have learned to love Dostoevsky and Rachmaninov, and Russian folk songs.” And there is more: “It may seem paradoxical, but it was Giussani who had me rediscover the Orthodox Church.” In fact, the unity lived in this companionship (there are a dozen Orthodox in the CL community) overcomes the wounds and divisions that still exist. Olya and her husband experience this in their own lives. Her husband, Alessandro, came from Puglia (Italy) five years ago for work. She is Orthodox and he is Catholic, and they have a seven-month-old child, Lorenzo, who was christened in the Orthodox Church in January. “Ours is a family where unity between Christians is already a reality,” Olya explains. But it’s not all that easy. “On Sundays, we have to go to two different Masses,” Alessandro told us when we met him in his office, where he works selling equipment for producing mineral fiber. “I begin Lent before Olya, and we celebrate Christmas twice.” Even getting married was complicated. They had to get a dispensation from the Bishop of Trani, and then permission from the Metropolitan of Olya’s region. “He didn’t want to give us permission, as if marriage between Catholics and Orthodox would be a failure from the start.” The friends of the community got things moving. The request for help reached the desk of the Papal Nuncio, from where it was sent to the Foreign Relations Department of the Patriarchate (directed by Metropolitan Kirill who two years later was elected Patriarch). All went well in the end and the wedding was celebrated. “In our day-to-day life, my husband and I have no divisions,” Olya told us. “If we follow Christ, we follow one way towards the same goal.”
It is the lesson taught by Fr. Alexandr Men’, the Orthodox priest murdered by unknown culprits in 1990, who always offered his life “so that they all may be one.” He was one of the fathers of the religious rebirth in the Soviet Union who, by means of the young people of Russia Cristiana and the first clandestine publications of Fr. Giussani’s writings in Russian, had come to know the charism of Communion and Liberation. Shortly before his death, he wrote a postscript to the Russian edition of The Religious Sense.

Icons and saboteurs. Lena Avaliani, 65, came to the faith thanks to Fr. Men’. Today, she lives in the northern outskirts of Moscow with her daughter, a nephew, and a cat that chews up everything it finds (that saboteur!). She met the Movement in 1992 and lives it there, in her sickbed, since she had a stroke nine years ago. “Some friends come to see me every week,” she told us when we went to visit her in her room, decorated with an icon and with a photo of Fr. Giussani. “We read School of Community together or an article in Traces. If it had not been for the Movement, in this situation…” She still remembers the meeting of the charitable organization Caritas (“I was running a kind of pharmaceutical bank”) during which she met Jean, who had just arrived from Belgium to set up the Spirit Bookshop. He told her about Communion and Liberation. “After the death of Fr. Men’, I prayed every day for a close companionship. I understood that Christ was coming towards me right there, where I was. I was and am Orthodox, but I cannot leave this place.” These days, a lot of people look for her to ask for her prayers or simply to tell her of their difficulties. “It’s strange to me to be useful to people, being what I am. I cannot help telling everyone who comes to see me how full my life is!”