A Presence at Work

The workplace infected by the presence of people who are animated by the Christian ideal. The School of Community in banks, a hospital, and a large multinational, presenting the opportunity for unhoped-for unity

by Anna Leonardi

An ill wind is blowing through the bank. Restructuring, mergers, and layoffs. For many, the future is uncertain. Buried under the numerous battle cries issued by the union, a flyer on the bulletin board extended in more subdued tones an invitation to a round table on the subject of work. It was signed: “Centro banche” (“Central Banks”).
Many are familiar with what lies behind this name, as it’s not the first time they have seen it. It indicates the group of those who every Tuesday at 1 p.m. leave their desks and–without submitting to the pressure of their workload which would force them to stay behind to work, or to the pangs of hunger that would send them looking for some lunch–go to what they call “School of Community.” There are about thirty of them, and they arrive a few at a time from the most prominent banks in Milan. “We started with small groups in each bank,” says Tiziana, who works in the administration of the technological division of an investment bank belonging to a large Italian banking group. “Then the need arose for a central point of unity, so two years ago we started meeting in the parish hall of a downtown church.” They are not a medieval guild, nor are they running a company recreational center where employees can get a breath of air between stresses at work. The “sector-specific” School of Community was born of the desire to bring the ideal they had encountered into their professional life. “Besides indicating to us the most concrete gestures like the Food Bank or Beginning Day,” explains Guido, who works in the resources division of Unicredito, “coming together to read Father Giussani’s texts is the wellspring of a process of recalling and interpreting what happens to us in the office.”

The will to begin again

For Giorgio, the hours spent at his desk pass slowly; he has been working at Cariplo for ten of the 50 years of his life. He has very little work because the downsizing that the bank has undergone has created 8,000 layoffs. “I am surrounded by virtual retirees,” he says, “because anyone who is older than age 45 is professionally out of it. And the destruction of his work means also the destruction of the person, because it deprives him of his usefulness. I look at those who don’t do anything all day long, and I see them destroying themselves and growing more and more bitter, while I, in some way, try to stay busy. The obedience that I have learned in so many years in the CL Movement has become, in this work situation, experience. I say ‘yes’ and this makes me begin again, it even makes me want to become requalified professionally.” This “yes” takes shape in numerous different facts and gestures, dictated by circumstances. “I found myself a part of the AGOAL, which is the Cariplo employees’ recreational organization that supports and develops all the cultural and recreational initiatives coming up from the bottom. Getting some other colleagues involved as well, we have organized, in collaboration with the CL Cultural Center, a film forum and two concerts to promote some AVSI projects.” In a situation dominated by the fear of losing one’s job, this reality of people who feel committed despite everything stands out. “This fact represents a certainty, a hope for today,” continues Claudio, an employee at the Istituto San Paolo. “I set out to approach my colleagues first with petitions on the question of schools and subsidiarity. I would search them out during coffee breaks, and over time we developed a certain way of talking to each other, of comparing our ideas on important issues. There was no awkwardness when four of us met together in a little room in the bank to read The Religious Sense. A 40-year-old woman, after reading the first chapter, burst out, “I don’t have any basic needs! Neither in my professional life nor in my private life.” But a week later she came back to tell, sheepishly, how she had overheard two people in the metro talking about their amorous adventures. “In a word,” she admitted placidly, “Father Giussani looks at the relationship between man and woman differently, because he ties it to our need for happiness. I understand that this is true and is valid for everything.” One begins to discover that man is desire, and one begins to understand it in daily work. “The Movement is not a club for leisure time,” Tiziana concluded, “but its point of departure is work, is my needs. And this is what builds–not my own ability.”

On the front line

We find the same story at San Giuseppe Hospital in Milan, although the setting and actors are different. Ward heads, midwives, workers, drivers, doorkeepers, administrators, and nurses all have been meeting for years to do School of Community. “We gather every week in a room in the hospital,” explains Alberto, head of the ear, nose, and throat division, who came to San Giuseppe a year ago. “It is not for psychological relaxation, but a constant measuring of our work against the text by Fr. Giussani, and the text against our work, which has often led us to take positions that buck the trend.” Rosaria, with twenty years experience as a midwife, was asked to come to the hospital to help implement a project in defense of the physiology of labor and birth. “As soon as I arrived,” she said, “my colleagues looked at me with an air of challenge, because they saw me as a colonizer. And with my combative nature, I picked up the gauntlet. With what result? The work became inhuman and relationships impossible. I could not set out using a project in order to change things, but I had to read reality as the sign of something else. It is this that puts us in the condition of working well, while anger, demands, and storming about do not. I don’t say this in a moralistic sense, that “it’s not a good thing to be nasty,” but simply that being harsh and unyielding with my colleagues does not enable me to know the reality of the situation and thus does not allow me to work. The situation changes if you change. Doing the School of Community this year and this change were simultaneous.”
Maurizia–who has given life to the San Giuseppe School of Community from its earliest days–explains what it has meant for her to encounter and serve the charism of the Fatebenefratelli, the order of priests who run the clinic. “I understood at the outset that if I did not know the order’s history, I could not embrace it, I could not work there. So I set out to read everything I could about St. John of God and the constitutions of the order. And from this emerged my willingness to accept the invitations the friars extended to me: seminars, the pastoral council, the choir. They intuited the freedom with which I did things that were often distant from my sensibility. But this was possible only because of the education I have received from Father Giussani.”
Maurizia changed jobs three months ago: “When I handed in my resignation,” she continues, “the spiritual father’s concern was that the School of Community continue. ‘But you go ahead,’ he kept saying to me.” Their mutual esteem and spirit of collaboration was made manifest also by the friars’ willingness to solve problems not strictly part of the hospital administration. “Once,” Rosaria recounts, “we admitted a newborn from Chiasso. The baby had to be nursed, and in these cases we also hospitalize the mother. But we really didn’t think it was necessary here, as she was a healthy person and we didn’t want to force her to stay in the hospital as a patient. We turned to Brother Valentino, who got the Father Superior and his fellow brothers involved, and they gave us a room inside the hospital where the mother could stay while her baby was in the hospital.” This is the famous “attention to the patient” that is always on the lips of politicians and health care professionals. “It is a very simple matter,” says Alberto. “To understand what the best thing is for the person you are treating, you first have to look him in the face, and only then do you apply the protocol. This has led my colleagues and me to pay closer attention to people’s needs. And in fact, during our morning rounds we stop at each patient, even those who are not seriously ill, even just to ask how they are. Health care is not limited just to medical activity, but is also a form of hospitality.”

Creating a team

In the open-space offices of a multinational company (which shall remain un-named) in the telecommunications sector, too, this unusual presence is noticeable. “It is a pleasant necessity,” Daniele, a manager, comments, speaking about his company’s School of Community. “But because of pressing demands during our work day, we meet in the evening after dinner in a parish hall in Milan. Joining us are some employees from Nicotra, a middle-sized high-tech company in the telecommunications sector.” This is a professional environment that can be a difficult one, but one that is also the setting for the beginning of a new life. “My task is that of creating a development team for high-tech products,” Daniele explains. “I must thus put together an organic group of motivated persons. It has been very clear that trying to build something without basing it on Christ is sheer madness. I, with my own strength, have never been able to set up anything that had anything like the beauty and completeness of what Christ does with me. This is why I often wonder about what it means to create a group and about what motivates people. The solutions my company suggests are: 1) Create a pool of interests by assigning different tasks and taking advantage of different inclinations in order to reach your goal; 2) Seek to bring out in the individual (by doling out information, power, and money) an interest that is as close as possible to the company’s interest in terms of that individual. For me, it is clear that you cannot limit the expediency of working together to these two points. Moreover, experience teaches us that an increase in salary is efficacious only when it is interpreted as a mark of esteem. And too, what one works for is much more effectively defined as the desire to be useful, appreciated, and accepted. The method suggested by the company is in reality a reduction dictated by its inability to control the factors that truly motivate a person.”
If there existed, somewhere, a group that managed to work together, tolerate its own mistakes, make its efforts ultimately useful, and accept those who are a part of it, wouldn’t this be the natural point of reference for defining how one should work?
“This is exactly what happened to us,” Daniele answers. “Life, one’s life work, is first and foremost understanding and accepting the fact that has happened to us, obeying its logic, and asking that it happen again. The School of Community is the point that generates the judgment on what we should attempt when we draw up a hiring plan, prepare a budget, or decide what technical trials to carry out. This is because it is the authentic gaze on what is already being built that enables us to insert new people and to truly know them, and that enables us to look favorably at new ideas on how to solve technical problems.”