|01-04-2014 - Traces, n. 4
IT’S ALL ONE STORY
The Spiritual Exercises are taking place around the world. How does the life of the Fraternity help the life of each person, day by day? From Taiwan to the U.S., crossing the Ukraine, we present here the stories of some who have just arrived and some who, after years, rediscover in their Fraternity group the chance to live that which “truly sustains life.”
by L. Fiore, P. Perego, A. Stoppa
IN THREE GESTURES: “YOU-ME-EAT”
The picture on the right is from New Year’s Day 2013, at lunch, in a parish in the district of Tai Shan. It is the anniversary of the day when the CL Fraternity in Taipei was born. For some, the encounter with the Movement coincided with the first proclamation of the faith.
Fr. Donato Contuzzi, the most recent missionary of the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, arrived in Taiwan in 2012. It was immediately evident to him that, in the small community that had formed in recent years, there were people for whom the “encounter” they had had was the path for their entire lives. “They had decided.” He didn’t see this fact in their discourses–he didn’t even know their language–but he saw it in the affection that moved them. A month after his arrival, he was left alone for two weeks, because Fr. Paolo Costa and Fr. Emanuele Angiola had to return to Italy. The evening of their departure, after having dropped them off at the airport, he found himself alone in the car. He wondered, “Now what do I do? I don’t know how to speak, and I don’t understand.” He returned home worried. A short time later, there was a knock at the door. It was a friend from the community, named Kun Li, who is a truck driver. In silence, with three gestures, he told him: you-me-eat. “I always thought that being Christian meant being in the one percent. It’s like that here,” says Kun Li, who is now a member of the Fraternity. “But when I was at the Rimini Meeting, I discovered that I am in a big family, and the desire exploded in me to build the Church.” With the same dedication, A-Mei and Chun-Jia, two sisters, take care of the parish and the missionaries’ house. “We do it to thank God for bringing us home.”
They met the faith as children, thanks to their father, a poor soldier in the village of Xizhou, where people were Christians in order to have flour and medicine. Growing up, they were separated from the Church for years–more than 30 for A-Mei, who married a Taoist. When their aging parents had to move closer to their daughters, to a suburb of the capital, they suffered the detachment from their home and ensuing nostalgia greatly, but the Christians in the area kept them company. Then, when the sisters’ father died, A-Mei received all of the Christians coming to offer condolences: “Here, strangers don’t enter the house of a dead person. And I cried, not only because of the pain–I cried because of their presence.”
“That’s what it was!” Today, A-Mei and her sister are members of the CL Fraternity, along with 12 other friends. Among them is Julie, who lives far from Taipei, but if she cannot get there, then the others go to her. It seems like nothing, but here it’s everything. “People work all the time. They don’t have a free moment,” explains Fr. Paolo, who has been in Taipei for more than 10 years. “It’s not normal to get together for dinner, let alone take vacations together. Here, there are five days of national holidays at New Year’s. That’s it.” And this year, they all went on vacation in the mountains together.
When the missionaries decided to propose membership in the Fraternity to their closest friends, they were worried and wondered: Who knows if they will understand or how they will react... The missionaries didn’t want to impose anything. But the response from their friends surpassed their expectations and worries: “That’s what it was! That’s what we were waiting for,” they heard. “They felt the need for something more definitive,” says Fr. Donato, speaking of the community that sprang up around Fr. Paolo and the other missionary priests who took turns serving there.
The first spark of the Movement had appeared in Taipei in 1995, with a married couple who came to teach at the Fu Jen Catholic University. After that, there were nearly 20 years filled with arrivals and departures, new encounters, then the presence of the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo–to whom two parishes had been entrusted–and finally, the Taiwanese community’s first trip to Italy, in 2010, which left a lasting mark on their friendship. The first miracle, in a place like this, is the familiarity that they live.
“We are like brothers and sisters,” says shy Mu Dan, Kun Li’s wife. It is a tie stronger than blood. This is what struck Emilia, who is 25 years old. (She isn’t in the photograph, because she is the one who took it.) “If I were to meet Fr. Giussani today, I would kiss his hands to thank him. If not for him, there would be no CL. Without CL, I wouldn’t have been baptized. And without Baptism, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now.” She lights up, speaking excitedly. One day, she saw the photos of some of her university classmates on Facebook–they had been to Italy, to Rimini... She wanted to understand, and so she sought them out. She found herself at School of Community. “These friends were different–they had a deeper life. They took me seriously, and they thought about things, everything, even affection, in a way more beautiful than the one I was used to. I said, ‘This is another world.’”
Close to my family. Last year, at the Easter Vigil, she received Baptism. And now she invites everyone she meets to School of Community. “I want to share my joy with everyone.” That includes her family, where problems are not lacking. “Everything changed, because these friends said to me, ‘We pray for you and your family.’ So I thought, if they pray for me, then why can’t I be more open, constructive? Today, I am close to my family. I never was before.” She greatly desired the step of Fraternity membership. “I feel the responsibility: my whole life can contribute to what I met. I always thought that it was impossible to be a saint. Instead, it’s our goal.”
NEW YORK “WHAT
DO YOU DESIRE?”
Five friends, smoking a cigarette together: that’s how their small Fraternity group was born, remembers Federica Maniscalco–age 31, a doctor in New York. She explains, “We were at the Fraternity Exercises in New York last May, after an assembly with Fr. José Medina on what it means ‘to live the Fraternity.’” With her were her husband Jonathan, her sister Stella, Stella’s husband Rich, and Vitaliy, a recent college graduate who was at his first Fraternity Exercises.
“Jonathan, Stella, Rich, and I became members of the Fraternity right after CLU,” recounts Federica. They were all about the same age, today around 30. “We joined out of inertia, to continue that life, in a large group, without a very clear idea of what we were doing. But we never managed to really talk about life...” In short, it was a far cry from what Medina would say at that assembly: “That is, that the issue was to have someone with whom to share life; that the Fraternity was helping each other to know Jesus more and more.” And that having friends like this is a grace. “It was desirable, but we were disillusioned,” continues Federica. Vitaliy was the one to throw out the idea: “Let’s start again from here. This is what we want.” Their first meeting quickly followed. “It was the five of us, plus, via Skype, an older friend from Italy, with whom we all had relationships because of different stories.” Stella and Federica are sisters who came to New York from Pesaro 17 years ago with their family. Stella’s husband, Rich Vega, works in IT, and Federica’s husband, Jonathan Fromm, is a biomedical engineer who has been working at the CL headquarters in Manhattan for the past five years. Vitaliy Kuzmin teaches history at a high school, and recently entered into a long-distance relationship with an Italian girl. And then there are the children, two for Federica and three for her sister. At their very first meeting, the possibility emerged that the Fromms might move to Minnesota, Jonathan’s home state.
Federica was uncertain. The job offer that she received was excellent, and Minnesota would be less stressful than New York; also, she would have the option to work part-time, which would be helpful, especially if other children come along. Jonathan could start to work in his field. “But we would be an hour from Minneapolis, in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Our friends are here…” Their friend on Skype pushes them: “Jonathan, why do you want to go?” “For my wife, for my family, because it’s difficult for her here...” “Those are your wife’s issues! You have to say for yourself what you really want.”
The argument explodes, and Jonathan distances himself–but then he returns, asking for help in understanding. No one offers a solution to the problem. But for Federica, “it was clear that being able to talk about life like this was different from merely keeping each other company. And precisely when all of this was beginning, we were talking about leaving...”
Toward Minnesota. Starting in mid-2013, they began to meet regularly. Federica relates, “It became more and more urgent that that small amount of free time, amid a thousand obligations, be entirely dedicated to what could truly sustain life. We couldn’t do without it. Just take the relationship with your husband. You get married, and everything is great. But then come the children, the difficulties...” The two couples are growing together, says Federica, as is Vitaliy, who talks to the others about his girlfriend and about his decision to propose to her. “He asked for advice, even about how to do it. And it obliged us to look at our own marriages again.”
The change in Vitaliy strikes Doug Plantada–a 27-year-old New Yorker of Cuban origins–as well. He had met the Movement in high school, a decade earlier. He had converted, after having gone to live with his grandmother at age 15. “He always had a tough time in college,” explains Federica, his godmother at Baptism. “When we all finished our studies, he hadn’t, and so he stopped taking part in the life of the Movement.” Only his relationship with Vitaliy remained. When Vitaliy told him about their Fraternity group, Doug lit up. “This is what I want for myself.” And the five of them welcomed him.
“Last weekend, while chatting, we asked Doug how his exams were going,” says Federica. “He had lost his scholarship, and what he earned as a bike messenger was not enough to pay for his courses.” He hadn’t mentioned it before because he was embarrassed. But Federica says, “What are we here to tell each other? Nice little stories? If we don’t get to the point of talking about what is most pressing...” Their friendship is a life that educates them to go to the heart of things. “So much so that, in the end, Jonathan and I were able to decide that we will leave for Minnesota in July. But without this Fraternity, this grace, maybe we wouldn’t have done it.”
KHARKOV THE REAL REVOLUTION
“The Russian news had just announced that, in an hour, Maidan Square would be emptied. I was watching TV and checking the Internet. Then the e-mail came.” It was February 18th, and Aleksandr Filonenko, a Russian by birth, was in his house in Kharkov, Ukraine, on the Russian border. Aleksandr, a philosophy professor, who is Russian Orthodox, of the Moscow Patriarchate, was watching the developments of the revolt in Kiev apprehensively. Flames surrounded the encampment in the center of the capital, and the Berkut (special police force) seemed to have the advantage. The e-mail message said, “Dear friend, this is to inform you that your request for enrollment in the Fraternity has been accepted.” A few days later, the phone at Aleksandr’s house rang–it was Elena, from the Memores Domini house in Moscow. It was the day of Yulia Tymoshenko’s liberation, and Elena was asking for information about the situation. Aleksandr responded, and then added, “Elena, I forgot to tell you something very important–I’m officially in the Fraternity.” She exclaimed, “This is the real revolution!” And he replied, “Yes, it really is.”
Orthodox in CL. Aleksandr describes the beginning: his first encounter with Christianity. In the years of perestroika, the discovery of Pavel Florensky’s writings caused him to desire to meet “a flesh and blood Christian.” He met the Metropolitan of London, Antony Blum, who became his spiritual father. And then came CL: “After I spoke at a conference, someone told me that he could tell that I had read and understood Fr. Giussani’s works. But I had no idea who Giussani was.” So he read the works of the priest from Brianza, and met the experience of faith born from his charism. “For CL, friendship is the place of Christ’s presence; it is in friendship that man is educated to the relationship with the Mystery.” Why did he ask to join the Fraternity? “Last year, I came to Italy for a series of conferences, and I met many people from the Movement. I realized that, in order to explain the situation in my country, I was forced to recount what I had learned from my Italian CL friends–I’m thinking of Franco Nembrini’s school in Calcinate, Silvio Cattarina’s rehabilitation community in Pesaro, and Mariella Carlotti’s art lessons. And I realized that, through my own story, people in CL discovered realities that they didn’t know about. It’s incredible: we see what we have in our own backyard through what our friends tell us. And the reverse has happened, too–Giovanna Parravicini, of the organization Russia Cristiana, told me the story of the pianist Maria Yudina, which made me discover a piece of my own history. Thanks to CL, I have started to better understand what it means to be Orthodox.”
In the beginning, his adherence as an Orthodox was anything but obvious: it touched a raw nerve. Then: “One day, I heard the passage from the Letter to the Corinthians in which St. Paul speaks of divisions in the community–‘I am Paul’s; I am Apollo’s...’ And then he asks: Was Christ divided? There I understood that Catholic or Orthodox, we are all Christ’s. If the greatest desire of those who adhere to CL is to see Christ within a friendship... then this makes CL more than a denominational movement.”
Franco, Elena, Rosalba, Giovanna, and many more–Filonenko says that the response to his questions did not come via words, but in people. Today, his “Fraternity group” is divided among Kharkov, Moscow, Kiev, and Calcinate. At Easter, which coincides for Catholics and Orthodox this year, friends from Russia, Belorussia, and Italy will come to Kharkov. Filonenko will introduce the Orthodox Liturgy of the Triduum to them, and they will celebrate together. There is also a soccer game planned for the day after Easter: Catholics versus Orthodox. Today, Aleksandr thinks back to that evening, when the Ukraine’s history intersected that of his life in the Movement. “That e-mail was the demonstration of the fact that, in any circumstance, I can go back to seeing the most important thing in my life. Any personal or political matter, good or bad, is joined to the one story that is friendship in Christ.”