One hundred people gathered for the assembly with Fr. Carron. Traces.

He Who Directs the Road

They’ve come from 12 countries around the continent, but the gathering in Nairobi, for the Assembly of CL leaders, is without ethnicity, race or age. Because where you find happiness, you also find “the source.”
Alessandra Stoppa

Fr. Eloi climbs into the “vintage” bus, in his hand a piece of wood he’ll use to keep the door latched. He has ahead of him five days of travel and various means of transportation to get home. He’ll spend another five to get to Nairobi from his village, Minembwe, close to Lake Tanganyika in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). All to spend 48 hours in Kenya. In his mind, there was no question about going. “It’s not every day you have an opportunity like this!” To get together with Fr. Julián Carrón and approximately 100 friends from 12 countries throughout Africa to discuss life, which is happening every day.

The journey is worth it for this, for ordinary life to be made new: a failed exam, having to move, sad events on a Sunday afternoon, or something a colleague said at work. They could be insignificant moments, or a series of “free gestures from Christ who directs the road each of us is walking. And comes to save us from the desert in which we live,” as Carrón would say. This group of friends, leaders of the communities in Africa, shared what has happened in the last year during the three-day Assembly held in Kenya. Over the three days, “the battle between two ways of looking at reality” appears again and again, between “our rationalistic one, which sees only appearances, and the one that God calls us to, looking at the truth of things. Looking at them as they really are: full of Mystery.”

Yellow Fever
Grace, with a head full of black braids, is a teenager from Kampala, whose pure and beautiful voice accompanied the days through song. Her mother had left her behind, going to live far away, and she’d like to go find her and stay with her, but she’s afraid of losing Jesus and the friendship that she’s met in the Movement. “What is it that we’ve met? What does it mean to have met Christ?” she asks Carrón. “He found you and said to you, ‘You are mine, Grace. I love you; I will be with you forever.’ This is the bond he establishes with you. Anywhere you go, at any moment, Christ is with you. When you’re with your friends, when you’re with your mom, when you wake up alone… Your life is forever accompanied by Christ. The problem is not one of distance, because He is present in every instant; the problem is awareness. We’re not alone! We’re distracted. This is why so often it’s fear that dominates our life.” “As I listened to this discussion, I found Jesus again.” They are the words of a priest, around a table in the evening. Fr. Adriano is from Angola, where is a pastor in Lobito, in the Diocese of Benguela. He’s 48 years old and stands out because of his joyful face. “Today it’s as if God took away the ‘vestments,’ the ‘role’ of priest, to speak to me.” He’d met the Movement years ago in Italy, but just found it again a year and a half ago in Angola, through his Bishop’s request that they connect with CL. That prompt led to a new chapter of relationships and a School of Community with the teenagers of the parish. In February, when they had just begun to read The Meaning of Charitable Work together, there was a terrible outbreak of yellow fever. The number of victims kept growing, and many people couldn’t afford to get vaccinations. The young people in his parish started offering them for free, even out on street corners. “When people asked them why they did it, they said, ‘We’re reading a book... by a priest named Fr. Giussani!’” This makes him laugh because he is happy–not that life is easy in his country, which came out of a war in 2002 and has many intractable problems, like the president who has been in office since 1979.

No one could take getting to Nairobi for granted. For some, it meant major challenges to cross borders, with visas and security checks. The Nigerians were delayed for four hours at the airport, and the Cameroonians were not allowed to leave due to a question of security, but also of prejudice. There’s nothing common or automatic about the fact that there was no ethnicity, race, language, or tribe in the flower-filled courtyard on Karen Road that hosted the Assembly. It’s a community: that impossible familiarity among strangers; those who’ve known each other for years; the beauty and difficulties of continuing to build together; the dramas closest to their hearts; songs in Swahili and canti alpini intoned by Roland, a young, muscular Nigerian who will be leaving his friends in Lagos and moving to Abuja for a new job in a matter of days. “Before today,” he said, “I was afraid of making the change. But now I know I’ll never be alone.”

Jean Marie from Burundi was there thanks to a picnic. “I sat there, watching the people around me, and I understood that faith wasn’t something abstract for them. In this companionship, I’ve felt loved. Experiencing this love is now the only thing that matters to me in life. I don’t need anything else.” Carrón describes the choice we have in these words: “We’re either visionaries, or simple enough that we accept being surprised, amazed by someone.” And the other anchor of salvation is “your own heart,” that grabs you by the collar when you get complacent.

Matteo, an Italian in Uganda, says he’s discovering more and more that “any newness in my days is brought by Christ.” He was amazed to see how an Italian airline steward who visited their school in Nairobi was moved. The steward lives in Dubai, and the road that brought him to the school was an unlikely one: he was drawn by the “gaze” he saw in a teacher when he was sixteen, seen once again in the CL 60th anniversary video, given to him as a gift. Together, they had inspired him to take advantage of his work travels to Uganda to go and meet the people he saw in the video; but on that trip the resort where he was staying was so nice that he ended up staying put the entire trip. On the return flight, he was filled with regret. “How stupid of me.” But on that very flight there were three friends who caught his attention, again because of “that gaze.” So he asked them, “Are you in CL?” And the story began again.

“A different way of being together at a picnic! Or a gaze!” Carrón insists. “For us, what is a gaze? Almost nothing. Yet it’s something alive that you can’t forget. And it’s capable of changing lives. How many times have we seen this gaze toward us? We lack awareness. But time is given to us in life only so we can grow in this awareness of how much Christ loves us and continues to accompany us.” Sometimes, even through the ephemeral emptiness you experience, even when life is going well. Manolita from Kampala told the story of a friend whom she invited to teach catechism class together. She herself had never received Communion, but she got involved and rediscovered her faith. One day she told her friend, “My partner, seeing how happy I am, asked me to marry him.” Beautiful things are happening, even every day, and yet that feeling of restlessness, the impression that nothing is ever enough, still lingers, as some people described. “This is His preference [for us]! Because only He suffices. It’s the way that He pushes us: don’t you miss Me?” Carrón responded: “It’s the way that our desire manifests itself, helping us to recognize it.”

One Monday morning, Barbara, an Italian working in Nigeria, was listening to a colleague list the countless challenges she faces at the school where she works. “I can’t take it anymore, there are more problems than children!” And there are 700 children. Barbara doesn’t hesitate. “But is that the whole story?” The other woman gets angry. “Don’t give me School of Community! I’m talking about a real problem.” Barbara paused her story to say, “I didn’t want to take the answer to that question for granted, either. I gave it time and space so it could dig deep. And that week was stupendous.” It opened a new world for her. “I started looking again at all of Christ’s presence in my life. It helped refresh the memory of all the signs of Him, including the people He is giving me now.” And so everything becomes “a dialogue, an opportunity to make ourselves more aware of the grace that we have received.”

Rose and the Letter
One evening there were witnesses given by Teddy, Arnold, and Cyprian, a teacher in Mutuati, a village in the forest about 250 miles from Nairobi. For his children (12 of them) and his students, he desires one thing: “That the gaze of Jesus that I’ve encountered happen to them too. It’s all I was look - ing for.” Teddy is from Uganda. She had decided that her happiness lay in getting married, so she did, but her husband became violent and tore the family to pieces. Later, he came back to her. Strengthened by her encounter with Rose and Meet - ing Point International in Kampala, Teddy decided to stay with him. Even though he didn’t change, she stayed with him until the end, when he passed away two years ago. When they came to speak about his inheritance, her husband’s relatives accused her of being proud because she didn’t assert her claim on anything, while they took everything they could. “Yes, I’m proud,” she said. “Proud of Him who is providing for me, who gives me everything, who gives me breath and makes me myself. I belong to this place.”

You hear incredible stories. “And a second later, we already want to hear another one,” Carrón said. “Our problem is being aware that what strikes us is the same gaze that is present in every moment of our lives. Christ continues to happen, second after second. Even if we don’t realize it. The Church wouldn’t exist without being made by Christ in every moment. Each of us is here because Christ is happening.”

The three days of the Assembly are beautiful and intense, but not automatic, nor are they generated by anyone’s own energy. “It’s Jesus who makes us beautiful,” Rose Busingye, leader of CL in Africa, had written in her invitation letter. “Now I am even more certain,” she says, resting on a couch during one of the breaks between assemblies, which were striking in the freedom with which participants spoke, even the young people, and the long lines of people wanting to ask questions. “We are all so preferred,” Rose goes on to say, “we who are nothing, who could be thrown away with the trash; we are loved. We can only believe it because it happens.” As she traveled here she asked herself: what will we do? What will we say? “But God comes before us. He happens and attracts us.” Thinking about the upcoming days, she wanted Carrón to explain that the Jesus met by the Apostles is the same Jesus of today, because she often sees an incredulity about this. “But Jesus spoke for Himself!” she says, smiling. “Appearing through Carrón’s face, he spoke to everyone.”

Without End
Arnold, who is 17, shared his questions about Jesus and how to recognize His presence. “When did you encounter Him? What was the moment? What were the facts that made you recognize this encounter?” Carrón challenges him, even asking him to write his answer as if in a journal. He doesn’t hesitate; he writes it all down and shares the gift of his story by reading it aloud. “I was forgetting the beauty of what happened to me.” He told the story of his encounter with “the life of Fr. Luigi,” as he calls Giussani, at school. When he was able to visit his tomb for the first time, during a trip to Italy to treat a serious problem with his eyes, “I didn’t ask him not to become blind. I asked to have the same desire he has.”

Hearing what Arnold says gets Priscilla, who is shy, to open up. The 35-year-old Kenyan IT specialist told her story at dinner. “For me, the moment happened a few months ago. And I never want to forget it.” She was at home on a Sunday afternoon, feeling very sad. Not knowing what to do, she picked up the magazine she buys at her parish, Traces, and opened it. There’s a letter from an Italian girl who is studying in Germany which describes how much she misses her friends. Priscilla thought, “How can you have friends who you miss so much? Could I have friends like this, too?” She sent an e-mail to the address she found in the magazine, and now she’s come to Nairobi. “I’m not perfect, but I’ve met friends who love me as I am.” She calls what has happened her “revelation,” that gradually touched as well the heart of her sister, who hasn’t even been baptized.

“You have a value.” How many times this phrase has been heard, spoken by Rose to the women living with AIDS at Meeting Point International in Kampala, and lived out by them and communicated to others, and the chain continues. During the days in Nairobi, it becomes clearer that life has a value because so does every instant: “Nothing is wasted,” Carrón says, “if we look at everything as it is offered to us by the Mystery,” who quietly builds His story within history. This saves “us and our way of treating things just like everyone else, even though we believe in Christ.”

You can even organize an important event and watch all your planning unravel. Fr. Gabriele, a missionary priest with the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo in Nairobi, was angry. The light made it hard to see the video, and a noisy party in the next room made it hard to hear. At the end, as people said goodbye they told him, “We’ve encountered something new. It’s incredible.” He described his reaction: “My heart was closed. I started to ask to learn from them.” Or from the priests he lives with. “When I was looking at everything the wrong way, Fr. Valerio told me, ‘Watch, watch what’s happening.’” “Either we are stuck alone with our own perception,” Carrón said, “or we accept Christ who comes to save us through someone we can’t reduce to our own measure.”

The last assembly was dedicated to the three dimensions–culture, charity, and mission–that together make an action true, full and human, a Christian action. The key is “not reducing desire, whether ours or that of others, because then we can’t respond to anything.” And in these countries where the needs are so expansive and so numerous, “it’s even more important,” Carrón says. “What does it mean to truly love? Not sparing them the difficulties, but generating a person who is strong.” Two days before, at a meeting with the college students in Kenya, Daisy had spoken about their charitable work in an orphanage. “There, I learn about the relationship Christ has with me. And I find myself happy. What is the source of my happiness? This question keeps growing.” “Little by little, Christ reveals Himself to us more and more. But there is a starting point,” Carrón emphasized. “The experience of happiness. Christ doesn’t enter our lives because we speak about Him, but because we experience happiness. May you all be this happy!”

The Assembly is not over, though it has ended. Many left right away to go home, while others were generously hosted at the home of the Memores Domini who live in Nairobi: Masu, Nino, and Andrea, who tirelessly take care of each person’s needs. With lots of singing. While Fr. Eloi continued his long journey home. The bus he traveled on with young people from DRC and Uganda was stopped at the border because of a visa issue, and some didn’t have the money to go on. But all the others quickly took up a collection. Now, who could stop them?