North America - On tour
The New Frontier
A trip across the United States and Canada.
The adventure of the new communities and the experience
of those already existing. Everywhere and
in every way the humble and certain awareness
of being bearers of the worlds meaning
By GIORGIO VITTADINI
Montreal, Canada. This is the first stop on a trip that led me to meet the many friends who have given life to the communities now present in some North American cities. Montreal is a city with two souls. Here live side-by-side the capacity for welcome typical of Latin cities, studded with places where people can meet, and the grandeur of the cities of the northern United States, filled with skyscrapers but without a real center, where the agglomeration of streets becomes a labyrinth for human beings, who are considered guests, not protagonists.
Gravitating around the family of John and Cecilia Zucchi is the Montreal CL community, a small group that has become the force behind one of the greatest new events in the Movement: the publication of Father Giussanis books in North America and the organization of two presentations at the United Nations. As was the case with the experience of that other small, apparently insignificant group that gathered around Jesus in Palestine, these friends of ours are filled with the awareness that they are the bearers of the worlds meaning, that they are the sign of something much bigger than they are. This is not a marginal spiritual organization, but something that continues and completes the experience of the Church also in Canada, a country where, at least in terms of tradition, the evidence of the Catholic presence makes Canadians distinctly different from their neighbors, the States, whose tradition is Protestant. Montreal itself bears the signs of Catholic evangelization, which, as opposed to the Protestant experience, was able to preserve the multi-ethnic nature of Canada. Here, in fact, Indians are still present, and in their various tribes. At the gates of the city, on an Indian reservation, is the church where the Indian Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is buried. Born in 1656, converted and baptized in 1676, persecuted by her family because of her faith, she escaped to a Christian village near Montreal and took a vow of chastity. Around her relics are many votive offerings, the sign of a history of conversion that spread through the Indian people, a history that also numbers its martyrs, including the Jesuit Jacques de Lamberville, martyred by the Iroquois after horrendous torture consisting of splinters stuck under his fingernails, cooking over a slow fire for an entire day, scalping, and having his intestines drawn out.
Our story has reached all the way to the west coast of Canada, to Vancouver, where a community has grown up around Steven, and also touches Halifax, where the Bishop, a great friend of the Movement, invited Father Michael preach the Spiritual Exercises for the priests of the diocese.
So far, so near
Flying over the border between Canada and the United States, I reached Minneapolis, Minnesota. Nature shows herself here in all her great majesty. The lakes seem like seas, and the rivers, from the Mississippi to the St. Lawrence, make such a vast waterway that it can be navigated uninterruptedly from New Orleans to the mouth of the St. Lawrence. A lifetime on a boat. The state of Minnesota, half the size of Italy, has only 4 million inhabitants (2 million in Minneapolis, 800,000 in Rochester, the other 1,200,000 spread over a vast expanse of marshes, ponds, woods, rivers, and endless fields of wheat, corn, and soybeans).
Traveling at dusk from Minneapolis to Rochester with Father Jerry, the priest who came to the Movement three years ago, you can feel the great distance, and at the same time the great closeness, between these places and the steps of Berchet High School in Milan, where fifty years ago the Movement was born. Minnesota is a predominantly agricultural state; people here drive trucks, the newspapers carry front-page stories about the latest city council meeting, and only on the back page do they print news of the rest of the United States and of international events. The old continent of Europe is far away, as is the well-known school where the Milanese middle class studied. But how close is Father Jerrys experience! He tells us how after three years he is beginning to see the Movement as a revolution for himself, his friends, and all of Rochester (see page 36 in this issue). A revolution that is fulfilling the American dream of a new frontier. A new frontier, where the spirit and matter find their unity in the experience of the Incarnation, because it is perceived in all its ontological and existential value. Father Jerry shows us his parish, in the center of the city, next to the Mayo Clinic, a hospital with 23,000 employees. Here a chapel will be built dedicated to St. Riccardo Pampuri, Father Jerry explains, because I was miraculously saved by him, and I want him to protect this enormous hospital, so he can answer those who, like I did, call on him in the certainty that he will respond.
For the past few years, Father Jerry has lived in the Memores Domini house on the prairie surrounding Rochester. I soon met the two families who have encountered the Movement in this house. In the beginning we didnt understand anything Father Jerry was saying to us, explains Lorenzo, a Latin teacher. Then we began repeating what we heard about the religious sense to my students and I saw they were struck by it. So then I too wanted to understand. It seems to me that the heart of the matter lies completely in the Incarnation [and with his hands he traced the graph in the third chapter of At the Origin of the Christian Claim]. The arrows dont point up any more: Someone came down. And now He has returned through the experience of Father Giussani and has made us brothers.
The day continued on a boat where we joined a family, friends of Father Jerry. We crossed a section of the Mississippi to reach the house of the President of St. Marys College in Winona, Brother Louis Dethomasis, where we had been invited to lunch. Brother Louis asked us to tell him about the experience of the Movement and Memores Domini. After 15 minutes of explanation, he interrupted us and said, Its true! Ive always thought so, our land is waiting for someone to announce the Incarnation. Even writings on economics foretell this: they are looking for a new man, one who will be a protagonist. They dont know that this is born only with someone who becomes flesh and dwells among us. Then he invited us to present the Giussani book trilogy, called the PerCorso, at his college. In that instant the central intuition of the whole trip became clear. The world is waiting for something like our charism and is waiting for people to come and announce it through their daily lives.
Recalling the Dolomites
From Rochester we went to New York, where the GS students had just come home from vacation. There were 70 of them, from various cities in America, plus some teachers. For these young people, the encounter with GS is the encounter with the hope for a Christian existence; that is, one that is truly human. This is especially important for those from disastrous family situations, where there is little or no real experience of fatherhood. The experience that they have in their encounter with the Movement makes them perceive life as the answer to an actual call: Jesus who takes shape in the face of their teachers and in the company that gathers around them. This certainty of affection pushes them toward the conquest of reality in all its aspects. Just as 40 years ago in the Dolomites when Giussani vacationed with his students, during the vacation in Plattsburgh they talked of study as a way of deepening a human and Christian calling in the face of a lack of interest in their studies. Often studying is boring, when it is reduced to learning notions and taking multicultural tests (for which the Middle Ages have the same weight as the history of the Congo), with teachers who can offer little, because they themselves dont believe in very much. In addition to discussing their studies, they experienced the discovery of nature on long field trips, folk songs of the American and Italian traditions, and the great names of literature, reread in the light of our charism.
The ripe tree
When you talk about American society being well off, it is evident that you are talking about 10% of the population: the richest and most intelligent, those who emerge with masters and Ph.D. degrees, who occupy the top jobs in politics, business, and not-for-profit organizations. Social selection eliminates the rest, whose standard of living is lower in everything, from education to their home furnishings, to the clothes they wear and the food they eatthey become insecure and isolated, with house and car payments to make and long commutes on the subway. From GS onwards, the Movement pays attention to all dimensions of the human being. In New York this is most visible in the ripe tree: the group of the Family Fraternity, made up of about sixty people who meet every two weeks to spend a day together: the children play during the adult meeting, after which they all eat and then have Mass. There, the Fraternity shows itself to be a social structure sui generis, which not only creates bonds within the family, but also between families, a bonds that are strengthened in their shared reflection on their experience, in their shared charity, in their common education of their children. Right here, where bonds are very often considered a weakness!
The Novice Retreat of the Memores Domini was held in the mens house. The companionship of this adult group is an evident force, and it is like a substitute for Christ; the house would not make sense if it were not pervaded by the urge to announce that Jesus is the Lord. It is impressive that the Memores girls from California want to go to the Washington house as if they are coming home.
At the United States General Diaconia it was seen how many new communities have grown up in the past year, including in Phoenix and in Miami, which in order to be helped to grow need not a virtual, but a real network of people who meet together (even if only to ask how things are going). From this companionship emerge gestures greatly out of proportion to the size of the groups, like the presentation of Giussanis books at Marquette University in Milwaukee or at Notre Dame in Indiana. The American community thus becomes a sign for the whole Movement, and is about to undertake the diffusion of Giussanis next three texts with Crossroads, a large Catholic publishing house. This, together with Traces, provides the first approach for our charism in unknown places. Then, as Father Giussani said to the Maniscalco family who met him some months ago: There is a need for someone who, like Jesus did with the widow of Nain, says to all the people he meets, Woman, do not weep. They have to feel loved, completely, and unconditionally. Someone is needed to embrace these new friends to show them that what is written is the sign of a human presence, strong and affectionate like our Movement.