Naples, Italy. Flickr

Sunshine in the Backstreets

A bar that has become a “mission outpost,” women who discover “a more real world,” and men who wanted to run away but now party in the quarter. These are scenes of Naples where the “crisis” is permanent, but where something is happening to overcome it...
Davide Perillo

From the outside, it seems unremarkable, but the heart of Naples is beating there at number 4 Vico Castrucci, a five-story building rising out of a district square adorned with palm and lemon trees. It used to be the House of Studies where the Vincentian Fathers were prepared for missions. Now, there are only a few seminarians left, but the rooms and corridors are full of life: a university hostel, rooms for tourists, classrooms for study sessions, new spaces fresh with paint, all recently inaugurated. There are always people coming and going from that huge apartment with a kitchen, a terrace, and a couple of rooms with computers. This is the headquarters of the Solidarity Center bearing the name of the district, “Rione Sanità” (population 100,000), two parishes and a whole network of streets and histories.

We came here with a hypothesis. You can soon see that it was not something up in the clouds. In these streets, something is at stake that concerns all of us. Everywhere, people are speaking of a crisis, of lack of money, and of doubts that bring into question the very way we conceive ourselves. And here, the crisis is permanent. It’s the only thing that is stable, in this environment where the most common words, like a refrain, are “unemployment” and “temporary work,” and even “loneliness”–something that seems blasphemous in such a crowded place, but is a reality, like the broken families and severed relationships. Add the usual problems, those that the newspapers attach to the city like an inevitable stamp on a faded postcard (mafia, drugs, criminal investigations…), and the result is a situation in which everything could leave you breathless, with the ground sinking under your feet; a real situation of crisis.

Hell and Heaven?
Not at all. Not only are there people here who are truly living, but it’s a more and more lively place. In the face of the dismal times, “everything is flourishing,” according to Tonino Romano, the responsible for CL in Campania. He goes on to give us names, “facts that you will see for yourself as you go around.” That’s the challenge–to come and see a humanity that, crisis or no crisis, can take root everywhere, and to see what makes it possible, what changed Tonino’s life and that of Felice, Mario, and the others who decided, twenty years ago, to involve themselves here, instead of following careers, and what persuaded many others, born and bred here, not to leave, because here in the backstreets something happened that is changing everything. Sunshine came in that “ca a pittato tutt’e mure,” that painted all the walls, as Alfredo Minucci, the voice of this district, sings, in a song that speaks of his home and tells of the lives of many people here.

Take Nando, for example, the owner of the café/bar on Via dei Vergini. Mario says that his bar is a mission outpost, there to tell everyone what he has encountered. It is an outpost announced by the tables out on the pavement, beside the market stalls, and by a window with a piece of history printed on it (“Via Vergini Ice Cream Parlor, since 1928”) yet marked by more recent events that left a bullet hole in the shutters–recalling that Nando is right when he calls this district “a meeting place between heaven and hell.” It seems strange, but the taste of heaven is there, in the happy faces you see at the bar where Pasquale is serving coffee and smiles. His story would be enough to understand that something curious is happening here. Some years ago, he worked laying tiles, a job that didn’t last, leaving a hole in the family budget followed by a series of problems that brought him to his knees. Then the encounter came, with Tonino’s words that touched his heart: “Don’t worry Pasquale, something will turn up.” “I asked myself for days on end, ‘What’s going to happen?’” He didn’t realize it had already happened. It was the beginning of a friendship, a very concrete friendship, that brought with it a job, too, in Nando’s own bar. Another thing had begun there in the meantime that the owner tells us of in the backroom (which, by the way, is a shrine to the Naples soccer team): “I already knew them by sight, “Good morning;” “Good evening;” and little more. Then, one day, Nando’s wife came in and gave me a leaflet inviting me to a meeting of the Overseas Exhibition. I said to my wife, ‘I think they are good folks; let’s go and see; let’s go have a coffee.’” They went, and what they saw and heard, on the stage beside Tonino, was Fr. Julián Carrón, the leader of CL, and the Christian proposal. That evening, two years ago, was a moment of truth, according to everyone in the district . And Nando was among those most touched. He talks about it to people. It was he who got in touch with Alfredo, a life-long friend and a singer-songwriter with a hunger for beauty and truth that radiates out of every verse of his songs. The first time he played in front of those strange people, Alfredo was struck: “They were actually listening to the words. It had never happened to me before.” Another thing surprised Nando: “They are all college graduates and professional people. For us to understand why they had come here instead of to the “in” places of Naples was like the ignition of an engine. It made us discover a new perspective. The problems don’t disappear, but you tackle them in a new way.”

“This is my family…”
The tour goes on–meetings, greetings. A lady comes up and whispers something to Mario, then he laughs, “Don’t worry, ma’am.” He told me, “She wanted to know when we could bring her the parcel.” The “parcel” is the one from the Solidarity Food Bank, groceries for the more needy families, delivered by volunteers who strike up a friendship with those they help. Almost 200 people are assisted in this way in the district. Need is growing so much that a halt of several weeks was necessary to reorganize. During that time, there were often angry people to be found knocking on the door of Via Castrucci. “Why don’t you bring us the parcel any more? It’s all a swindle; you are keeping them for yourselves!” You know what happened?” asked Felice Siciliano, the head of the local Companionship of Works. “Anna, one of the women we met, who lives across the road, began to fight in defense of us. ‘You mustn’t dare accuse them; these people are my family,’ she said.” This is probably why more people came to join the first volunteers, people belonging to CL. There were women who at first received the parcels, and now do all they can to deliver them to others. Tonino goes on: “A few days ago, we organized an assembly. In order to provoke them, I said, ‘Since there are problems, perhaps we should stop it.’ Another woman named Anna, a mother we had met only recently, replied, ‘Are you crazy? Charitable work is too important for me. It helped me discover a new life. It saved my husband. Why should we stop?’”

Anna uses precisely these words, even when you meet her personally, down at the center: “charitable work” and “new life.” And she adds others that are so deep that they send a shiver down your spine: “There is no one here who has no value. They have shown me a more real world, and now I cannot manage without it. I have to keep coming here; it’s mine.” It’s amazing to hear Fr. Giussani’s own sayings cropping up here and there, in the flesh. “You see, here, School of Community is truly a life,” Tonino explains. “You cannot give speeches–no one will follow you for more than a minute. It’s astounding; they skip over all the schemes and you can learn from what they say.” You can learn from the other Anna, the one across the road: one day she went to the doctor’s office and when she heard some comments in the waiting room she responded, “I am having a hard time, too; I’ve a load of problems, but I’ve met something beautiful that helps me to live.” “What is it? And who are you?” “I am Anna-of-Communion-and-Liberation.” It all came out in one breath, because the bit added on is now part of her and therefore part of her name. You just have to look her in the face to see it, or hear her telling of her pain, of her children, and of that unforeseen encounter that led her and her husband to marry in the Church after 20 years together, and that now has her bringing him to the center every time she can, “because something can always happen. My grandmother used to say, ‘One hour is enough for God to do His work.’”

A Fixed Point
And how He works! But you have to look carefully at what He does, so as not to get bogged down in commonplace observations like reducing Naples to “pizza, almonds, and hospitality.” The problems remain, and they are serious. There is still the drug problem, and the loan sharks are still throttling people (“just in the past two days, four people came to ask for help,” they told us). Even gambling has its portion of blame, with mothers spending the whole night playing bingo and losing a lot of money. “But those who meet what is positive get attached and don’t let go, because they realize there is a point of leverage,” says Ubaldo, one of the first, who came here as a university student.

This was in the ’80s. The scugnizzi (street urchins) saw those young boys going in and out of the door on Via Castrucci and began to ask themselves what was inside. The afternoon study group began like this, almost by chance, and put down roots in a phrase that Tonino heard from Fr. Giussani: “In Naples, everything is always changing. What is needed is a fixed point amidst all the chaos.” Thanks to the Vincentian Fathers, that place became the fixed point. “Once we had graduated from the university, we decided to stay in Naples,” Mario tells us. “Perhaps we were a bit naïve, but now we are quite aware of what we are doing. We would not change our choice for the world.”

He’s right. Put yourself in their shoes, people accustomed, from birth, to the litany, “We can’t do anything about it!” Now, step-by-step, they see, in their own experience, a real chance to help the situation. Something is working, there, too; something is winning. Consider what it means to bind yourself more and more to that Something, to that Fact that you met years ago, and that the more you go ahead, the more it generates humanity, in you and around you. How could you consider going away? Tonino often recalls another phrase of Fr. Giussani: “We were in the car on the overpass. He had me pull over at a stop where you could see the whole of Naples. He looked down on the city and said to me, ‘Tonino, there is still a people here, but it needs to be educated.’” We are understanding now what he meant.

Another key word. It is not just the work of the center or the two schools (of 1,300 students) they have taken on, or the sports center where Mario is also involved, bringing together kids from the Sanità District with those of the more bourgeois districts (not any easy task in these parts). This unity makes an impact in initiatives like the public meetings held last year for the crisis over the refuse in the streets, an emergency seen as a scandal by the rest of the world, which in reality was much worse than it appeared. “You came home from work of an evening and you were unable to get into your house,” says Felice. “And it seemed impossible to do anything about it.”
From there comes the question, almost a cry: “What has the Christian experience to do with this? Because if it has nothing to do with it, then we are all wrong.” That evening at the Teatro Mediterraneo, where the meeting about the crisis was held, with witnesses, songs, and stories of those who were at the barricades, many discovered that Christianity really did have to do with it. “We met lots of people there,” Tonino tells us. “Later, they all said, ‘We were depressed, we were looking for something to distract us, and instead we found a proposal for living.’ Many of them never went away.” It was still months until the trucks came to take away the rubbish from the streets, but those months were lived differently. “There was a point on which to build, and it was not simply a reaction,” explains Felice. It depends on the terrain on which you plant your feet, and on the fact of not being alone, as was the case during the crisis of those days.

Projects and Reality
You think it over as you go back to the corridors of the house. A party: music and pastries; charity sale and macaroni… a game of bingo, played in the old-fashioned style, and the witness of Fr. Paolo who lives in Paraguay with Fr. Aldo Trento. Children, students, mothers… the people of the district, celebrating themselves and Christmas that was coming under a banner made to narrate what had happened over recent months, saying, “An encounter that corresponds beyond all expectations.” “It was they who prepared it, not us,” says Mario.

The clear impression is that of a resurrection, of a human fabric that is already rich but which in the encounter with Christianity comes fully into bloom. “It’s not simply a matter of blooming, but of rediscovering its origins. We asked ourselves many times if staying here was worthwhile. Now we no longer ask the question. We are free; we could change everything tomorrow, if we needed to. And perhaps Christianity is precisely that: being able to start over again every instant, following what reality suggests.”

The end of the evening. The door closes, but the heart of Naples does not. It keeps beating in the Sanità, as one of Alfredo’s finest songs expresses it. It speaks of the district, his district; of the Mystery that penetrates it, and of how you can look it in the face, recognize it, widening your eyes that are narrow, and reach the depth of your desire that, crisis or not, accompanies all of us.