Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons

Three Hundred Times the Beginning

The Diakonia of North America brought together 300 people from all parts of the continent, to meet in the Windy City. A mid-January weekend made up of meetings, testimonies, and blues music, all under the most astounding breaking news in history.
Marco Bardazzi

A chain of beginnings, each one more unforeseeable than the other. So many “Yeses,” in response to a Mystery that in America can throw people off-balance, because of the tenderness and also the irony with which it chooses where to start over again, making even the mere idea of planning something at the drawing board a waste of time. The CL Diakonia of North America, once again, was a collection of beginnings, of new lives, like that of Joshua, an inmate in a North Carolina prison. After encountering, for the first time, two friendly faces who came to speak to him of Fr Giussani, he took paper and pen in hand in his cell to tell about the side effects: “The smile has yet to leave my face. Everyone is asking me if I’m on drugs.” It is the same smile that appeared on Lucia’s lips as she testified to the 300 friends in Chicago about the strangeness of having understood the value of her Catholic tradition only after leaving Mexico to move to St Joseph, Missouri, where she encountered the Movement, thanks to a U.S. Army captain, David Jones (who in less than a year has spread the news of what happened to him throughout the Midwest with the speed and efficacy of a Delta Force blitz…).

The staff of the enormous suburban Sheraton hosting the meeting of the Diakonia of North America must have wondered what these people-coming even from California, Puerto Rico, and Florida to hole up for four days in a hotel in the freezing Illinois weather–had to smile about. To understand, they would have had to listen to the dozens of stories recounted during the weekend, the little and great events that have characterized a year in the life of the communities of the Movement in some eighty places in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. They would have had to see the look in the eyes of those who arrived in Chicago, swept along by curiosity about something encountered just yesterday–in 2003, there are at least 25 small CL communities in American cities that at the beginning of 2002 knew nothing about the Movement–and to which they are immediately ready to entrust their today and their tomorrow.

Personal Conversions
“You have come here this time to talk not about problems or organization, but about yourselves, your personal conversions,” Giorgio Vittadini noted at the close of the Diakonia. “We have all rediscovered the originality of the encounter with a charism that judges everything.” In a troubled America that is still seeking a road out of the nightmare into which it was plunged by the attack on the Twin Towers, it is as though the road has emerged clearly among the communities of the Movement. “The sense of oppression is dispelled,” Giorgio said, “and the experience of salvation and newness becomes clear.”

And so it is impossible not to hope. Even in the face of the problems that remain, of the sometimes painful testimonies that accumulate, the personal toil that certainly does not disappear as if by magic, the dramatic situation of the American Church upset by scandals, the fear of attacks and imminent war, in Chicago the simplicity of recognizing a Presence that is there and the awareness that a new identity is making its way forward were manifested very evidently. “It is not a question of doing something for Jesus or not,” Maria Teresa of Washington, DC, recalled, “but of acknowledging that the relationship with Him makes me up, and that without it, I would not be myself.” The encounter, Msgr Lorenzo Albacete added, “requires you to abandon your measure to become a new you; it is discovering what it means to be yourself. Only if you live for Him, do you discover the true you that you were created to be.”

The Grapevine
As Fr Fabio Baroncini noted, “It is easy to be Christian; it is not a finish line at the end of a climb up to God, for which we have to be always asking ourselves where the ladder is. It is He who is present.” Everything seems even easier when the chance is given to see examples like those that arrived this year from all over North America. “If I had to recount these days,” said Vittadini when it came time to pack his bags, “I would have to make merely a list of a lot of names, like in the Acts of the Apostles.” The comparison immediately rang true to those who were there in Chicago. For some years now, the American Diakonia has been a grapevine of testimonies, of excited news spread by word of mouth, like must have happened in the narrow streets of imperial Rome as the announcement of Christ, the most astonishing breaking news in history, bounced from Palestine as far as the capital of the world, slowly winning it over.

One would need a map of the United States constantly at hand in order to follow the bizarre itinerary of encounters with the charism all over America. It is like reliving the expedition of Lewis and Clark, the explorers who in 1804 set out to discover the still-unknown areas of the country (the bicentennial of their expedition is coming up soon).

New Blooms
In Minnesota, from Rochester all the way to Duluth, near the Canadian border, new communities are blooming everywhere. In South Dakota, the Movement has appeared on the ski slopes, where Fr Jim discovered Fr Giussani thanks to a vacation with Fr Jerry. Farther south, new friends have arrived in various cities in Kansas, in the wake of presentations of Movement texts by Albacete, organized by Captain Jones. The same thing has happened in Missouri, where there are stories like that of Lucia who moved there from Mexico; for her, Christ and the Catholic faith were empty shells until she met some friendly faces thousands of miles from home. An entire Benedictine abbey threw open its doors for David Jones and his friends to organize discussions of CL books, which were being studied in that area even before anyone knew about the Movement’s existence. “What has arisen this year is incredible,” David said. “I am a captain in the Army, I have been trained to plan ahead, but I would never have imagined something like this; it would have been impossible.”

Thanks also to David’s devotion to Mary, the Movement has been enriched by a deeper awareness of the reasons underlying Fr Giussani’s insistence on the figure of Our Lady. “I understood fully only here with you that without Mary, Jesus becomes an abstract Jesus,” Vittadini said. “We cannot recognize Christ except as Mary’s gift; not only did she give Him to us in the beginning, but she continues to do so now. If I do not pray to Mary, I cannot recognize Jesus. If I erase Mary, He too becomes an abstraction, an operation done on the computer.” This is an excellent example of what Fr Giussani meant when he entrusted to Giorgio a message for the communities of North America: “It is not we who have to teach the Movement to you; we have to learn the Movement from you.”

In Indiana, what is happening in Evansville never ceases to amaze. Among the new friends met by the irrepressible Mike Eppler–who arrived in Chicago this time with a group of fans in tow, all wearing green T-shirts made for the occasion–was young Rob, who left an impression (cf Traces, January 2003). He has decided to stay with the CL people even though he is Protestant and goes around wearing a T-shirt with a skull on it. Why does he stay? “Because when I met them I didn’t have to wait; the Movement spoke to me immediately.”

East Coast
On the East Coast, where the community’s history is less recent, the freshness of a beginning still remains, which Jonathan has called “the explosion of desire” that accompanies everyday life. It is what struck Anujeet Sareen in Boston. To pursue the encounter all the way, he did not hesitate to leave his Sikh religion, defying his parents’ hatred, in order to become a Catholic right in the city where Catholicism is, more than anywhere else, the target of accusations because of the scandals in the Church. It is what has led in Brooklyn to the birth of the first CLU apartment in the entire United States, and what pushes Chris to embrace GS, which is spreading from here to various other parts of the country (the groups that have grown up around Therese in Chicago and Rebecca in Oregon are among the most beautiful examples). “For American high school kids, it is like a morning that is dawning, under the banner of our charism,” Chris said.

Even in the middle of neurotic Manhattan, a new School of Community sprang up unexpectedly among a group of mothers, simply from the questions about their lives that arose as they prepared their children for First Communion. Letizia, who is living this new experience with another six or seven friends who had not known about the Movement until now, told how for them, “friendship with me has become friendship with Fr Giussani and an interest in his gaze on things.”

School of Community remains at the center of the experience. In Texas, for Eduardo from Austin, School of Community “is like the note in the famous Chopin sonata Fr Giussani loves: so many things happen, there are many difficulties, but the note is always there.” In Wisconsin, work on the Movement texts has become the lifeblood of the group in Milwaukee, where after the arrival of Rick’s family from Virginia, in a short time three Movement families have arrived, for various reasons, from different parts of the United States.

No Longer Alone
From Canada came the outstanding testimony by Paolo, who had left the Movement in Italy in the 1970s and encountered it again in Toronto, “after going through about fifteen years in which I tried a bit of everything.” After experiences of every kind, including going on to become a successful businessman, suddenly Paolo felt unbearably lonely and decided that the only person with whom he could initiate a serious examination of his life was a former teacher of his in Italy whom he hadn’t seen in twenty years. He flew across the ocean to visit her, and, through her, reconnected with the Movement, reinforcing his tie last summer by meeting hundreds of the GS and CLU students who went to Toronto for World Youth Day with the Pope. In recent months, so many events have come into Paolo’s life, from a devastating illness to a pilgrimage to Trivolzio, to the altar of St Riccardo Pampuri. In Chicago, Joshua’s and Lucia’s same smile was also on Paolo’s face, along with these words of new life, “The miracle has happened to me of not being alone any more.”

But the wealth of testimony will not be the only reason the 2003 meeting in North America will be remembered. Two years ago, the community of Washington, DC, carried off the coup of bringing to the Diakonia one of the last living poets of the Beat Generation, and the Chicago community matched this by giving the 300 “prisoners” of the Sheraton a legendary blues musician, Willie King, with his band (see separate article).

Chicago 2003 could have also been documented in these pages by the splendid photos taken from a boat rented for an evening excursion on Lake Michigan. It must be admitted to Angelo, the temerarious promoter of this adventure, that not even Lewis and Clark would have had the courage to attempt something like this in January, with the thermometer stalled at 0° F. Unfortunately, however, fortune does not always favor the brave. The ice sloes on the lake did not melt even in the face of 300 ardent souls, and the excursion had to be cancelled. As a consolation prize, we had the words of the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, who paid a visit to the Diakonia. “Choosing Chicago in January for your national assembly,” the Archbishop said, “tells me a lot about your good will.”