Carate, Italy

You Will Know Them by Their Fruits

In-Presa, Fraternity, Mater Vitae, family. The life of Emilia, “catalyst” of new opportunities, new horizons, new spaces. An unlimited prizing of everyone and everything


All towns are a little like Nazareth, or Bethlehem, or Capernaum, if they are visited by God. Even Carate, an insignificant town in the area called Brianza, in Italy.
There, at In-Presa, a social-work cooperative set up by Emilia Cesana to help young people at risk, seven or eight kids are gathered together, with a few others helping to lead their meeting, called a “ray.” Some ten days have passed since the death of Emilia, Giancarlo’s wife (consorte
in Italian, from the Latin meaning “sharing fate,” as Father Giussani pointed out). Something strange and mysterious is happening here, although one of the kids keeps saying he has to leave in five minutes, another is looking at his new leather belt, and a third is staying on because he has to.
They all have come there through Emilia. In the beginning, some of them were taken into her home, then came her request to a friend to become involved, and then why not try some schooling, and then why not find a job, and then why not try to form a company capable of educating them, and then, in a word, everything. Teachers, families, businessmen, and other young people have all become involved. The result was In-Presa, whose name plays on the Italian word for enterprise, impresa, but also suggests a strong hold (presa
) on the kids and on reality.
Mirko is telling about how two of his classmates have stopped coming to school. The truth comes out slowly: the fact is that they were thrown out. And you didn’t say anything to them, Mirko? Eh, but they don’t care about anything. They smoke reefers all day long. But, Mirko, do you really think that somebody who smokes reefers all day long is happy? Don’t you think he may have some need, like you, like me? Couldn’t you tell him to try to come here, that there are friends here, and it’s better to be among friends than to smoke reefers? Oh, but they say to you, “This is what my life is like,” full stop. Yes, Mirko, but are you more of a man if you pretend nothing is going on with your classmates, or if you call them and say to them: come with me, there’s a chance for you too?
What can six or seven kids be or propose to the billions of people scattered all over the world in that immense maelstrom of violence and pain,–as they float about on the edges of society (to use the barbarous jargon of social workers)?
Try to list all the reasons, one-by-one, in order to see if there is even one exhaustive, deductive reason why adults would call a kid by name and unite their lives with his. You won’t find one. And yet, at In-presa this strange miracle has happened and is happening. Just as Emilia wished.

Evening comes, morning comes

Anyone coming into Emilia and Giancarlo’s house in Carate can see, somewhat in the shadows, a large wall clock. Its hands are almost covered by an inscription “Evening comes, morning comes.” Two of Emilia’s friends, Claudio and Alberto, found it in a shop and gave it to Emilia to tease her, along with all the others in the Fraternity group of which she was for years the prioress. This is a Fraternity in which everyone laughs a lot and jokes with each other, and in which what anyone does becomes immediately the occasion to act out a skit in front of all the others. “Evening comes, morning comes” was what she used to say, shaking her head, when someone came to a Fraternity meeting and maybe had not studied the text that was proposed for that session.
So they gave Emilia this clock. But they knew very well what she meant, they knew well how Emilia approached the question of time and change and how it was possible (scandal, or surprise, or pained wonder?) for it to pass in vain with freedom not at work. Maurizio, another of her friends in the Fraternity, answered by e-mail a trans-Atlantic telephone call from Paola, a friend on mission in Brazil. “In our Fraternity we teased her because as prioress she would often use the phrase, ‘Evening comes, morning comes.’ Her reminder was a simple one but it led to ascesis.” And to reinforce the concept Maurizio wrote ascesis
in all capital letters.
His message to Paola went on, “She was a simple but decisive presence. She had her aim clearly in mind and would not yield on this. She would ask for help from anyone who was able to open even a crack for In-Presa. In-Presa is an association helping minors at risk, and I am (by her fault?) on the board of directors. The thing that most came to my mind in the past few days was the fact that, in the end thanks to her, I for once had the experience of obedience. There is a boy named Herbert, whom she had in her own home as a foster child for two years, who has been working for me for four years now. Oh, the times that I argued with her because I wanted to fire him, the times she made me take the broader view, and I would not understand, and she would say, ‘Giancarlo, you tell him too that it is worth it.’ In a word, a great companion on the journey” (more capital letters).


To give an idea of what she was like, His Excellency Bishop Angelo Scola, the Saturday afternoon we said goodbye to her, borrowed some words whispered to him the evening before by Father Giussani: “She was like a catalyst, that is, a factor that apparently did not take part in the fusion between the elements, circumstances, situations which surrounded her, but that in reality truly enabled their new synthesis, and thus she opened up, time after time–with truth and authentic questions that were always pertinent–new opportunities, new horizons, new spaces.” “A factor that apparently did not take part….” Those who listened to Bishop Scola that day, her friends, were reminded of some of Emilia’s traits. Emilia would always have someone else lead her little group of School of Community; in the hotel during the Retreat she would always choose someone to head the session and would sit quietly next to him; she had asked Enrico to take over the leadership of the Fraternity group; at In-Presa she called first Silvio and then Stefano to be the manager. Was this withdrawal? Was it pointing beyond herself? What was it, in the last analysis? We turned to the dictionary to find out. Catalyst: “a person or thing acting as the stimulus in bringing about or hastening a result.”
But a dictionary is not sufficient for understanding. Thanks be to God, we found our living dictionary at Cascina Levada, at Casatenuovo in Brianza, where Mater Vitae is located, a home for unwed mothers. “It’s a beautiful place, miraculously rented to us by the city council,” Nicoletta told us. Mater Vitae was founded some years ago first of all to encourage unwed mothers to have their children, and then to offer them support after the birth. With all the various birth control methods before, during, and after, and ideological bombardment all the time, unwed mothers are becoming fewer and fewer. Today Mater Vitae offers hospitality to mothers and children who are victims of violence in the family. The house takes them in and accompanies them in an educational friendship. Emilia was involved in Mater Vitae from the beginning, at first as a social worker, then, after finding another person to take her place, as a friend interested in the fate of those living there. What happened at Mater Vitae with Emilia there? What happened was that she broke all the molds. The people running it prepared management plans, assigned responsibilities, projected the future, and she upset them all.
Above all she always involved others, always new people, new mothers, new figures (the women in the parish of Casatenuovo who do volunteer work in the home were all there at her funeral). The unexpected need she came up against was for her an occasion to call others, as though she were happy for the chance to surround Mater Vitae with an ever newer group of people. But especially when Nicoletta, Rosanna, Rosetta, the “living memory” of the home, tried to tighten up the management in facing a new need, she upset their plans, saying, “No, no, let those who offered to be responsible stick their necks out. What comes of it will have the freedom, face, and characteristics of those who give their time and intelligence; it will have their style and their temperament. It will be something new.”
But perhaps not even Emilia would have suspected that Mater Vitae would become something so new as to be transformed into a dictionary at the service of Father Giussani’s word.

On a trip to Venice

She once spent a week in Venice, at the home of a friend, cultivated, noble and wealthy as only Venetian families know how to be. Emilia went through the unending list of titles in the extensive library, pulling out only stories of saints. At home, the lives of St. Therese of Lisieux and Saint Rita are worn out from her reading and rereading.
No more than two months ago, Elena, the friend who used to come to her house as evening fell, after hesitating in front of the doorbell, rang it and was let in. A bit in crisis, that time as on other occasions. Father Fabio had said to her at a dinner, with the somewhat brutal frankness that makes him so likable, “The problem is not organizing the Movement, but keeping the question alive, the question of what you want out of life.” Elena still has that evening at the Cesana house engraved on her memory. She told Emilia about the dinner with Father Fabio. She told her how she felt thrown off-balance and was having trouble finding an answer. “Emilia was preparing dinner, she was cutting up carrots, and she turned toward me and said, ‘What do I want out of life? I would say, to become a saint.’”
Emilia’s friends in her hometown had always been aware of her natural religiosity. Often they went with her to morning Mass, and they saw out of the corner of their eyes how she would suddenly pull out her book to pray. They saw her happiness, which had to come from something outside of us to be so real. But perhaps they had not actually grasped the concept of her persistence in pursuing saintliness. Instead, Piera, the maid of honor at her wedding, knew from the very beginning–not because Emilia confided in her, but by observation. Emilia had said from the outset that her vocation in marriage was to enable Giancarlo to fulfill his task in the Movement. This was marriage (sharing fate) for Emilia: she had to become an instrument for Giancarlo to carry out his mission. She was not to create obstacles, she had to keep quiet about her own needs, free herself of the thousands of daily claims or attempts at getting even. That is to say, shed what is practically second nature to a wife. “Could this come about,” Piera wonders, “without the constant training of a natural religiosity and a purification that called for holiness?”

Let’s hope

“Let’s hope that they do not take apart what Father Giussani builds.” How many times, watching Giancarlo, Fabio, Giorgio, Alberto, Simone, and others–listening to them get excited discussing, and maybe mixing together the Movement, politics, and national and international strategies and scenarios–had Emilia accompanied their meeting together with this comment! It was a sign of affection, but it was also a judgment. Emilia had her task clearly in mind: to enable Giancarlo’s presence. But this was only one side of the coin. She fulfilled her task. Now let them do theirs. Because if she made sacrifices, it was only for “what Father Giussani builds.”
This comment, this “Let’s hope…” was accompanied by a sigh. Then with time she said it less and less, as though she saw that the company was growing and doing less damage than good, and that she could trust them because they were participating in the joint effort of construction. But in the past year, her husband says, she had begun to comment, “It looks to me like you all are playing sometimes.”
Giovanni, the firstborn, the rock of the family, went through a difficult period for a time, to the point of not even wanting to get out of bed to go to class at the university. But by that miracle which takes place in the shadow land of freedom, he would get up, go to class, and there, in front of his friends, things were immediately different. He would pick his life up again, with freedom of action, interests, and initiatives. “You see, Giovanni,” Emilia would surprise him in the evening, attentive to what was happening with her son, “reality will sustain you.” And Giovanni, when his moods took hold of him, would get up and decide to study, respond to those urging him because he knew, reasonably, that reality would sustain him then, during those days, as well as in the days to come, just as Emilia had promised.
The meeting at In-Presa is over. The boy who had to leave has left, those who hung around during the “ray” are still hanging around. Mirko approaches Stefano. The tone of his question is disarming, ingenuous, and thus real: “But Stefano, how can I tell those two to come here, if I will never see them again?” And Stefano answers, “No, Mirko, don’t worry, I was just giving an example, to make you understand. Don’t worry.” But Mirko didn’t ask just to be asking. He asked in order to act. This is one of those cases when the disciple surpasses the master. This is the eternal movement of the educational fact. Just as Emilia wanted.