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The Certainty of a Presence

After spending a summer as an "animatore" in Italy, Sylvain discovers the meaning of what to him seemed to be the greatest paradox: Preference.

Had it not been for the unexpected birthday gift that I received from Milan, I would probably have left my story untold. However, from across the seas, my friends had reminded me of that beauty that struck me during the summer, the same beauty I had known as the Preference. The more I anchored my steps in the pilgrim way I had discovered with Communion and Liberation, the more I became fascinated by the concept of Preference of which everyone was talking about. I was highly intrigued, for how could I, just like millions of other people, with all the miserableness and limits of my human condition, be preferred my God? At the time, it seemed to my eyes to be the greatest paradox! A paradox that filled me with questions, filled me with wonders and to some extent, maybe also with fear. But above all, what emerged from deep within my heart was a desire which I couldn’t yet define, a desire with no face nor name, but which cried out eagerly for a meaning.

Then, as I was meditating on those questions which were almost submerging me, suddenly, I was on a plane en route for Italy. The proposition came from my godfather Pier Luigi who, noticing my easiness and affinity with children, had put me in contact with a group of young people of CL in Milan to work together as animatori (monitors) in a summer camp organized by the San Carlo a Ca’ Grande Parish. Just the year before, I had taught English in an English immersive summer camp in Tuscany to about thirty Italian children; I managed to pull out quite well. This time, however, the Milanese summer camp was to welcome over eighty kids of whom nobody spoke English. The first time I stood in front of the main gates of the parish, I couldn’t help but to shiver a little. What was this new experience going to be like?

However, God always chooses to strike you with the beauty of reality when you expect it the least, for that was what happened to me. One morning, as I entered the playground of the parish, a little girl wearing a pink cap looked up at me, and immediately a radiant smile illuminated her face. She quickly ran toward me and enlaced me tightly with her little arms. I then recognized the little girl I helped walking during the hike in the mountains the day before. During the hike, I held her by the hand to step over a few rocks; we barely talked to each other because my Italian was a total disaster, and since she was several feet shorter than me, we barely looked at each other in the eyes. Yet, it was this same child who now was looking at me with her bright eyes and smiling happily, asking me if I were going to accompany her and the rest of the children to the Aqua Park the next day. And when I answered positively, how surprised was I to see her leap of joy! It was a that moment that I started to perceive a glimpse of that Preference of which I had so often heard.

Two days later, I had dinner with the other animatori and the priests in charge of the camp. One of the priests, Don Jacques, asked me to tell everyone about my story: why did I decide to come to Milan? How did I encounter the movement? What pushed me to take the decision of becoming a Christian? Etc. etc. Therefore, in broken Italian and stuttering at every three words, I managed to give the same speech I was used to give, saying that I found it amazing that people of the movement weren’t afraid to look directly at the burning questions that everybody carries inside but that nobody usually bothers to think of; that when I was surrounded by people of the movement, I didn’t feel part of a religious community but rather part of a family that lives in love and intensity, and that it was precisely by journeying with those people that I felt the presence and the warmth of God; that having given my own “yes” to Christ, my desire for fullness grew greater from day to day so that I felt the necessity of leaving my angle of the world on a search for a meaning, a search which ultimately brought me to Milan.

After my speech, I felt that my face was burning hot and probably as red as a rotten tomato. But to my great astonishment, at the place where I expected to find the usual comments of “that was so cheesy,” “I don’t think I understood what you meant” or worse, a silence of awkwardness, I met the comprehensive gaze of the animatori and the gentle smiles on their faces. Suddenly, I was submerged by emotions, for it was as if at that moment the intensity I had perceived from my personal journey was no longer an illusion but had become true and palpable. During the three following weeks, I lived the experience of the summer camp with authenticity and courage; my Italian had greatly improved, I had formed tight bonds with many of the children and, supported by the presence of the other animatori, I was at once able to kneel in front of Christ and simply pray with all my heart and soul. After having felt the existence of Christ through the companionship of people from the movement in Canada which conduced me to my baptism, I felt His coming to me a second time through the love and the simple presence of the children, the priests, the nuns and the animatori. This companionship led me to a better understanding of what communion was. For once again, through the carnal companionship of my new friends in Milan, the Verb had become flesh for me.

Two nights before my flight back to Canada, Andrea, the youngest boy of my host family with whom I had become very close friends, sat beside me as I was packing my suitcase. “Sylvain,” he told me, “I have to thank you, because you have been a gift for all of us. I still remember the evening on the day you arrived, we sang together with my family. We haven’t sung like that in my family for so many years!” Then, I understood that not only had I been struck by the intensity I encountered in Milan, I myself had become an encounter for my Milanese friends! I understood that night that I had been preferred by them; and that by becoming the subject of an encounter which led to the birth of a multitude of life-changing friendships, I had also been preferred by God.

On the twentieth of November 2018, nearly five months after the end of the summer camp and amid my midterms, I opened my mailbox to find a video sent to me from Milan. I opened the link. It was a compilation of wishes from my Milanese friends in the occasion of my birthday. Their warmth, their smiles and the authenticity in their eyes were the very same I perceived on that evening when I gave my awkward speech, almost half a year ago. My dear friends, thank you so much, with all my heart. I am now back in my old little angle of the world, yet this time, everything is renewed, and everything is liberated. I am now certain that life is beautiful.

And I am now certain that this Preference truly exists.

Sylvain, Montreal, Canada