Fr. Paolo Prosperi and CLU students.

Breaking into Three Dimensions

As university students around the nation began to question reason's relation to the faith in their work on Fr. Giussani's The Religious Sense, some met for a "rest" time focused on silence and witness; wonder and mission…
Santi Ramos and Chiara Tanzi

"Why are we here in this beautiful place in the middle of nowhere?" So begins Fr. Pietro's conversation with 90 college students, accompanied by four professors, at the annual CLU Spiritual Exercises at the beginning of March. They came from Boston, New York City, Washington, DC, and Indiana, among other places. Not a big number. But many participants could testify to an interesting story of how they got there–a sense of destiny, perhaps, or mission, or at least a search of some sort.

Tom Simenon is an interesting case. Tom was born in Illinois to a Baptist family and spent his childhood living in ten states, and fourteen different cities. He was raised in the American fundamentalist tradition, which looks skeptically at evolution, non-literal interpretations of the Bible, and the Catholic Church. After attending a small Bible college in the Southeast, Tom enrolled in graduate school in Boston College's philosophy department, hoping to understand more about life. By his second year of studies, however, Tom realized that he needed more than knowledge. He hungered for deeper friendships and a community. Among the many friends he found, a couple of them were from Communion and Liberation. They invited him to School of Community and, without knowing what to expect, a few months later he jumped on board with nine others from Boston headed to the CL University (CLU) Exercises.

The Exercises were held just a few days before Ash Wednesday at the "Fatima Renewal Center," near Scranton, Pennsylvania. The provocative theme this year was, "Who Do You Say that I Am?" Fr. Pietro Rossotti led these Exercises for the first time–and this was only the third year of the Exercises, which were begun in order to establish a time to "rest," where rest means "to see the meaning of things, to see we are given the possibility of knowing the truth, of enjoying the truth." The simple intent of the weekend was clear: "We are asked to seek, to look, to help each other to see, to be surprised again by what is going on in our existence."

In his introduction, Fr. Pietro spoke about one necessary condition for answering the question on the theme: silence. This is a silence "as God was in silence when He was contemplating what He had just done," and as we are in silence in the first moment after falling in love. Fr. Pietro invited us to be in such silence in front of our whole lives.

Fr. Pietro Rossotti, National Leader of CLU, and Vitaliy Kuzmin.

SURPRISED BY REALITY. Tom was not looking forward to spending any time in silence. Yet, during the retreat, he arrived at a new perspective on what that word can mean: "I realized that reality wasn't surprising to me because of a lack of silence in my life. This silence, I discovered, is not synonymous with being alone. I am frequently alone, but I have been mistaken in thinking of it as 'silence.' When the judgment of Christ's presence begins to arise from that moment of silence after being struck by something wonderful and mysterious, all of reality can become a beautiful surprise."

Within the silence, in which we acknowledged our own inattention and sometimes dissipated lifestyles, we also had the opportunity to glimpse a different possibility altogether: "life as listening to the One who gives Himself away for you," a life where everything matters and everything is an occasion for Christ to come and embrace your brokenness. It's a life which emerges from flat schema–like the fundamentalism of Tom's childhood–and breaks into three dimensions. One student related how the experience of CLU was exactly this, an explosion of life as he really wanted it to be, of being able "to listen, to laugh, to respond, and to be surprised" every day. And another found the key to belonging: "If Christ came to meet me yesterday and today, He will also walk with me tomorrow. I am starting to understand the word 'vocation,' and to trust in a promise for my life that stretches far beyond my studies and social activities."

Stories like Tom's are one kind of witness: that of the searcher who finds something new. But there is another type of witness: that of somebody who has been living as a Christian for a long time and can tell us what it's like. Two such witnesses spoke at these Exercises–Dr. Steven Brown and Salvatore Francomarco.

Steve Brown, Professor of Engineering at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, spoke about his experience of fatherhood. As a father of six, he affirmed that fatherhood is not what society often claims it to be, a biological fact or being the one who solves problems and provides security. Rather, fatherhood is about "generating people" by walking with them and communicating certainty about life, which gives hope. This kind of fatherhood is only possible if one is first a son, that is, if one is first given hope and certainty. The father is not one who has all the answers, Steve explained. He is the one who can teach his sons and daughters where to actually stake their hope–not in their father's abilities, but in the belonging to Christ. Brown spoke of how people have asked him how he can be sure of how his son, Carlo, who has Down Syndrome, will be doing in ten years. Steve explained that his certainty for Carlo is the same as it is for his five other children: it lies in the knowledge that this child has been thought of by God from all eternity. The role of the father is simply to accompany that person for as long as they are given, communicating the fact that God loves them and will fulfill their life.

Salvatore Francomarco, a member of Memores Domini, also from DC and an engineer for the government, spoke about his experience of mission. As a child, he was convinced that he should become a missionary by moving to the jungle in Brazil, but the reality of mission ended up being something altogether different.

Sal didn't end up in Brazil; now he is in DC. But he discovered that his "mission territory" is wherever he lives and works. And his mission was not so much to broadcast the Word of the Lord on loudspeakers, or even to speak religiously, but first of all to love. Simply by being himself in belonging to Christ, people around him were moved. For example, he described the mission of his house in LA as, basically, cooking meals for people and inviting them over. People were attracted to their way of living Christianity incarnate, and sought out their company. Other friends with anti-religious sentiments were opened again, by their friendship, to the tenderness which is the real face of the people of God.

Sal concluded by saying that "mission is never a matter of capacity. It's a matter of how much I love–how much I love what made me happy and the people in front of me. I love them and so I want them to meet what I met."

. In the conclusion to the Exercises, Fr. Pietro spoke of how this encounter with the Mystery lets us enter into a whole new world–one of peace, not dominated by stress and yet full of desire. This is the life of a friendship with the Infinite. Tyra, a junior from Maryland, put it simply: "The fact that you guys are still asking yourselves these questions and still being so sincere in front of life makes everything more worth living for me." Newly generated and belonging to Him, we can know both peace and enthusiasm for our lives at school and in our families. As Tom insisted, "All of reality can become a beautiful surprise."