'The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb' by Eugene Burnand via Wikimedia Commons

Freedom and Belonging

The two words that grandiosely constitute the mystery of the inexorable relationship between God and man: Creator and co-creator. Twenty-two thousand present at the Spiritual Exercises (Fraternity Retreat) in Rimini and more through satellite link.
Luca Doninelli

The first Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity-or what came to be known as Fraternity-were preached by Fr. Giussani in 1981 at the Punta Nord Hotel in Torre Pedrera. There were two or three hundred of us. The following year, there were already so many of us that the hall of the hotel was not big enough. We had to rent the Palasport, the Sports Center in Rimini. I was very moved because numbers like this do move you.

Today perhaps not even a tenth of the participants would fit into the Palasport, not counting all those who follow the meditations via satellite in various parts of the world and those who will follow them by watching the video tape. I read the names of all the countries where the Fraternity Retreat is followed and feel strangely, greatly moved at the thought that in each of those countries and in each person in each of those countries the same unimaginable thing happened as happened to me. None of these forty thousand persons would have been able to imagine what had happened to us, and goes on happening to us: an experience of the mysterious preference that God has shown to us so that all men may be happy.

"What a huge crowd forms the glory of God!" says Fr. Giussani on Saturday morning. It's the moving effect of the numbers, of the mystery that lies behind the numbers. "But," he adds, "it is the relationship with God that makes man great." It's the Mystery, not the number in itself.

My hotel is less than a mile and a half from the Fiera (where the Retreat is held), so I can go there on foot. I see many faces and I ask myself who they are. Over the course of many years the eye has learned to recognize the faces. So if I say, "This is a new face," it means that it really is a new face. There are many disabled persons. One of them has a ponytail and darts quite carelessly in his wheelchair through the crowd hovering around the entrance to Pavilion E.

On the journey
I look at all these people on the journey, and I am one of them.

There are those who I meet frequently and those I meet only at the Retreat. There are those from Desenzano, with whom I began this history, and they always occupy a special, prophetic place in my life. There is Andrea, a classmate of mine in philosophy. We always meet here. He was the brightest of our university class. He is not a teacher, but he does business all over the world. He feels nostalgic for philosophy but he consoles himself by earning ten times more than he would have as a teacher. That's how the world goes. On the other hand I know writers who would have had to work as waiters in a pizzeria.

How is it possible that God continues to communicate Himself through all the chaos of this tragic moment? Yet this is what happens. A few miles from here there's the war, extermination, reprisals. The lesson given on Saturday did not evade the question. When freedom is conceived outside the context of the relationship with God-and even the theologians talk only of legality-a partiality that leads to a "violence and servitude and the foreshadowing of enormous wars" is inevitable. Cardinal Stafford in his homily speaks of this war as a defeat for the whole of Christianity.

We, who are here, are part of this defeat, and of many others. Which of us does not have his list of defeats? There are many of my former students from Sacro Cuore College here, and I see in them the sad list. It is written on their faces. Polla, Simone, Pietro, Igor, Giovanni, Ciccio 1, Ciccio 2, Marietto, Vladek... Their faces too are marked. And think that in 1981 they were young kids.

And yet God communicates Himself to us, precisely here and now, in this space and above all in this time. The same words that identify the relationship between us and God have passed and pass through a thousand ambiguities. What counts is that they reach us in our experience. "Men are not born in order to die, but in order to begin something new."

Being and Nothing
This absolute unconditioned vertiginous availability of God toward His creatures, this disconcerting availability that is the cry of God to our nothingness is called Jesus of Nazareth. He is a man. And if the word that defines the relationship between man and God is the word "belonging," then we belong to Jesus Christ and to the history that is born from Him. From now on, from this chaos, from this sin, from this (often unconscious) sorrow, we are His.

On Saturday evening the assemblies were held in the hotels. Each assembly was to formulate a question to be sent to the central group of leaders. On Sunday morning Fr. Giussani was to answer the questions selected as most meaningful. In my assembly someone said that the drama of the Christian experience lies in accepting that the "I" is in dialogue with the "You." He said, "I would like to affirm myself autonomously, but there is a You that I have to take into consideration."

I replied that I did not agree. The drama of Christianity is not an ethical drama. Belonging is not something we "must" bring about. Ethical drama leads to a devaluing of oneself, a debasement. But the "You" comes before the "I;" it is at the origin of the "I" and cannot debase it. The drama lies in living this "You" by following it within the circumstances, up to death on the cross, up to the blood shed on the temple steps, as Eliot says. Up to glory. It's called martyrdom, or witness.

How many stories flow together in these Spiritual Exercises! Even painful stories-I mean painful and not radiant. Not only the death of a friend who was here last year praying and singing with us-no. I am speaking of duller pains: lack of understanding, divisions, lives torn apart; between members of the same community, within the Movement, between parents and children, between wife and husband.

But here we are, walking to the Fiera along viale Tripoli, and I see a people. This reality that walks seems more true to me than all the rest. Judgments are always provisional: definitive within that piece of road you are traveling, but subject to perfection in the course of the journey. The one who has gone wrong today may tomorrow be the example for all. The one who falls may become the best of masters. While I walk I realize this: the history that God has built up among us is the place in which, as a letter to the Fraternity said some years ago, "the recovery is present and permanent." The definitive judgment on my life is this. Nothing is superior to this, neither a divided community, nor a ruined marriage.