The exhibition on Fr. Giussani set up in the Opera prison house (Milan)

The "thank you" sung behind bars

The volunteers of Incontro e Presenza brought Fr. Giussani's centenary exhibition to the Opera prison in Milan. In the prisoners' stories, the figure of a priest they never knew, who is changing their lives (from the September issue of Tracce.
Giorgio Paolucci*

"Thank you to life, which has given me so much.” Giuseppe, who is serving his sentence in prison, passionately sings the Violeta Parra song that has become world famous. We are in a hall of the prison house in Opera, on the outskirts of Milan, where the volunteers of Incontro e Presenza are presenting the exhibition for the centenary of Fr. Giussani. Alberto Savorana – 'ex-article 17 volunteer', as they say in prison jargon – after listening to the song, described the thrill that came over him: “Whoever says ‘thank you for life’ in an undesirable condition like this is either crazy or must have a solid reason for doing so; they must have encountered something that has radically changed his existence. Fr. Giussani gave his life to make the person encounter this reason, to make them discover that there is no situation in which a person cannot live.”

The volunteers, who have been coming to Opera every Saturday for eleven years to experience charity, decided to organize the exhibition with a precise intention, as Guido Boldrin, head of the group, recounted: "We wanted to let inmates know what the origin of our actions is, who educated us in gratuitousness and taught us that the person can never be reduced to their error, but as a creature they can always find the good destiny for which each person is made.”

Maria Luisa Manzi, educator, did the honours on behalf of the prison management: "The attraction for beauty lives in all people. Everyone, no one excluded. We must recognise its reflection, even in painful stories. It is not a mystical experience, it is something you can touch, it is someone whose hand you can shake. And Giussani's life bore witness to this, to the point of generating people and works that have contributed to changing the existence of many, even in this place.”

Guido Boldrin and Alberto Savorana during the meeting

At the microphone, the speeches of prisoners followed one another. Listening to them one could understand well – once again – that the dynamic of Christianity today, as in Jesus’ time, is linked to the encounter with witnesses. The first to speak was Emanuele R: "I met Giussani in the faces of the volunteers who come to see me every week. I always felt welcomed and never judged. Thanks to them, after many years of mistakes, my attitude towards others changed, and I understood that we all need to love and be loved just as we are." Giulio came out of a period of depression. His friendship with Emanuele was contagious and thanks to him he got to know the 'Saturday Volunteers', to the point of participating (on leave) in the Fraternity's Spiritual Exercises, following them online in a parish in Milan. He recounted: “I will be eternally grateful to these people; without their friendship my existence would have been devoured by despair and I would have given in to the temptation to take my own life.”

Paolo only knew Giussani “through hearsay, but everything changed when I met his friends here. I understand that if we are what we are, it is only thanks to the encounters we make day after day.” Khalid was won over by the word "desire", because "it unites men of every race and religion, and I have experienced this with you.”

Raffaele spoke of a life spent “imitating men who cultivated evil and became my teachers,” and of the gift received “by getting to know people like you who made me discover how much more convenient it is to imitate those who cultivate good.” For a long time Giuseppe "met" Giussani every morning when he opened his eyes, because his cellmate had hung the Christmas and Easter posters that the volunteers gave him every year on his wall. Then he began to read Tracce, getting to know "that strange priest" and the fruits born of his charism, discovered their shared passion for Leopardi ("my favourite poet"), read The Religious Sense, and began to talk about the man himself to the other inmates. One example is Emanuele B., who spoke of the weekly talks with the volunteers as “a decisive help to personally start again after a life full of so many mistakes and many years spent in a complicated world like prison. It was through their faces that God came looking for me, and I let Him find me.”

When he was studying Classical Literature at the Catholic University of Milan, Alessandro attended Fr. Giussani's Introduction to Theology courses in the Gemelli lecture hall for two years. "I was struck by his ability to engage with us young people, listening to questions and objections and always focusing on the reasonableness of faith. And to have found his 'followers' here – many of which we have become friends with – makes me think back to when he spoke of the 'encounter' as a fundamental way of getting to know Christianity.”

Reading Giussani's biography in prison, Gianluca discovered a man who “listened to everyone and learned from everyone.” Savorana starts precisely from here, from Giussani's ability to meet people, discovering in each person the same desire for happiness and fulfilment that burned in his heart, and valuing every patch of humanity. He speaks of the young seminarian from Desio who cultivated great desires, but did not know how to fulfil them, until the 'beautiful day' when, listening to a teacher reading the Gospel of John, he perceived that God had taken pity on men who could not find the path to fulfil their aspirations, to the point of becoming a man in the flesh to accompany “the march of their weary feet.” as the song by Violeta Parra says.

That story that began two thousand years ago has come down to us thanks to a chain of faces and encounters, up to those that happen every Saturday in the Opera prison. Savorana quoted the very challenging words spoken by Giussani at the end of the 1950s, but which seem to have been written for those present: “The person is beyond all that we feel, beyond all that they do, beyond their own physiognomy. The person is totally beyond what we see in them. So I even can – and must – love even those who kill me, because their personal value is beyond their wickedness.”

Antonio Boi, Director General of the prison police department, knows well the stories of pain that inhabit the cells, and recognises "how precious the work of the volunteers is, who share with the inmates the living legacy of a man like Giussani and his passion in proposing reasons for living that can sustain existence. Running into someone who lives by this certainty can become an opportunity to begin unpredictable paths of rebirth.” A rebirth that sets the person in motion and opens the heart wide: in recent years, many inmates have joined the National Food Collection Day promoted in prison, some have organised an extraordinary collection of food for Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Italy, others have proposed a recital of songs and poems whose proceeds were donated to an association that helps children with leukaemia.

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For Fr. Francesco Palumbo, chaplain at Opera, “putting the human being at the centre rather than the crime committed or the prison record, considering the person in their nakedness, going beyond commonplaces and prejudices, is decisive for improving the quality of relationships and helping life to flourish, and you bear witness to this. But the human person needs something to nourish them, as Giussani testified: I am struck by the fact that before going to the interviews with prisoners you attend Mass, to meet the One who really can make you and them happy.”

Enrica Spreafico has been in prison for 31 years with the association Sesta Opera San Fedele. She met Giussani as a young man at the Manzoni high school in Lecco ("I was Angelo Scola's classmate") and today she sees in the volunteers "the same passion for witnessing Christ as the meaning of existence and as the possibility of fully living one's humanity in all circumstances. And so, inside a prison, prisoners can meet someone who accompanies them on a journey of rediscovery of their own dignity.” "This is exactly what we learn by going to charitable work: the infinite value of the person," says Fabio Romano, president of Incontro e Presenza. "This is why when we go home we find that we are full of gratitude, and we can also say – like Joseph and like Violeta Parra – 'thank you for life.”

*journalist and volunteer of "Incontro e Presenza"