Christ Discovered in the Temple by Artist Simone Martini via Wikimedia Commons

Hungry for Reality

We went to explore what is going on in the “GS” student world, and discovered dozens of experiences, and faces–a network of relationships that tell of young people who started to take life seriously–tales of a friendship that breathes life into people.
Paolo Perego

“If life is something just to be endured then it’s like being already dead, and the last thing I want is to be dead.” Aida writes to her teacher. “The people close to me tell me I have nothing to complain about because I have all I need. What nonsense! Once in a while, I think I am crazy, that I’m the only one with the problem, and that it’s all due to my own complexes.” Paolo, too, had a lot of questions, and needed someone to talk to about his life, about how he felt. It wasn’t possible with his group–all they had in common was alcohol and hash. Maybe it was better not to worry too much, after all. Then came the meeting with “two splendid people.” Paolo went back to his friends: “I’ve seen that there’s another way to live.” The answer he got: “Forget the philosophy, idiot.” In the meantime, though, a way opened up. For Marianna, too, the same thing happened. She met a friend after some years and asked her, “How are you?” and got the answer: “I am happy to be alive.” The girl told her about the friends she had met, and how her life had been changed. Marianna just kept quiet at first, but, after a moment, suddenly said, “I want to be with you and your friends. I want what you are talking about, for my own life.”

We are Not Crazy
We have come across dozens of stories like these over this year, in which we have been dredging the world of GS (Student Youth, CL high school students). There are letters and accounts of facts that in the “banality” of a lesson or in the drama of the death of a friend or of someone dear, all have a common denominator–that it is possible to live what happens like men, taking ourselves seriously, even at the age of sixteen.

“You aren’t crazy, Aida, nor are we,” says Franco Nembrini, a teacher and a responsible for GS, from the stage in Milan’s Dal Verme Theater, where more than a thousand GSers are gathered, on Sunday morning, March 7th. This was the first of a series of meetings on Fr. Giussani’s book Is It Possible To Live This Way? “Your desire, our desire, is what supports the whole of life,” Nembrini goes on. “The problem is to find something or someone that has an exceptional human diversity that corresponds with you.” Two thousand eyes are glued to the stage, in silence, listening to a man who is talking about himself, yet seems to be speaking for all of them. “I was your age, and all at once I realized that everything I was doing and everything I liked were empty. I saw things ‘dying’ and felt them ‘dying.’ Something was devouring them and taking them from me.” Then came the encounter–three days spent with GS in the early 1970s. “I didn’t understand everything, but the following Thursday, when I went back to my town, I had an inkling that I had met something I needed. So I said, ‘Show me.’”

The same thing happened to Tatiana, a high school student from Milan: school, friends, a boyfriend, and then that odd teacher who, in class, spoke of happiness, of desire, of the human heart, and of God. They are questions that maybe you can put off, but then her boyfriend died in a car accident. Shortly afterwards, she wrote to that teacher, who stayed close to her, never abandoning her for a moment. Tatiana says, “Death for me, now, is the concreteness of a Presence. I am not afraid of suffering too much, because I know that even when my heart explodes and my eyes burn with too much crying, I will not be alone. This is a certainty that comforts me more and more each day. I am in His hands. Thanks for what you do for me every day, coming into our little class, loving us. And I know you will say that I should thank God, and I do, continually.” Tatiana has now asked to be baptized.
“When what happens has all this in it, you cannot do without it. We are ‘stuffed’ with reality and we will get indigestion,” said Nembrini that day in the theater. And that friendship which has begun to link together students from different cities and different schools is also “stuffed” with reality. They travel many miles, often accompanied by teachers as fascinated as they, to visit just one of them because “he has the same desire as we have.” So it is that they go from Milan to spend Saturday evenings in other cities like Bergamo, joined by people traveling from as far away as Crema. In the summer, groups even travel to visit friends on vacation, just in order to have dinner together. Miles and miles of friendships that support life.

For example at Forlì, in Romagna, they organized a party so as to invite all their friends. “What do I expect from this party?” Maria Chiara asked herself. Then she remembered a phrase she had read at the School of Community: “We need people who, in their lives, incarnate a real chance to live today as men…” “I want those who come to the party to see the One who has changed my life.” She sent e-mails and made phone calls all over Italy to those friends she had met a few weeks before at the Rimini Meeting, invited her classmates and her teacher. “So the party was me with my friends,” coming from Milan, Udine, Palermo, and from Syracuse–like Agnes, who, at first, was a spectator, but later described the evening as “an electric shock that gave me back my breath. Now, every morning as I go to school, or as I am studying, I see clearly that everything is an opportunity for me.”
Maria Chiara mentioned the Rimini Meeting. At last year’s Meeting, the students took over a space between two pavilions and called it, “Majakovski Square,” a rendezvous for the GSers from all over Italy, and a place for meeting the many guests who stop to be drilled by the students’ questions–Cleuza and Marcos Zerbini, Fr. Aldo Trento, and John Waters, among others. This began a friendship between Gianni, a philosophy teacher in a high school near Milan, and Maddalena from Modena. It all started from the exhibition on the Reducciones in Paraguay and the question of the Spanish conquistadores. “This is quite different from what I studied in school; so who is telling the truth? How can I know who is lying?” Maddalena asks. Gianni challenges her, “Study the facts, work on it, then I’ll come to see you and you can tell me what you have found out.” Three weeks later, in Modena, there are 100 students waiting for him. “She took the challenge seriously,” says Gianni. “She did a great job, but the most fascinating thing is that, in the end, a huge discussion was unleashed on what it means to enjoy life more and to have a passion for what happens at school.”

Battles in the Benches
It’s something that gets you passionately involved, so much so that it is hard to keep quiet when you hear words or facts that contrast with what you experience in this friendship. Stefano was studying geography at the time when the European Court of Human Rights declared that it was illegal to hang the crucifix in school classrooms. His textbook claimed that in Europe more attention is given “to the identity of all peoples and the various traditions” than in America. During a break, he took up the matter with the teacher saying, “What is happening seems to contradict what we have read.” The discussion was heated. “I really came under attack,” he said, but he was happy not to have let the question pass unnoticed. The same thing happened to Mario over the question of removing the crucifixes from Italian schools. “I asked my Italian teacher [an anticlerical atheist] what he thought. Although he trounced me dialectically, I pursued the matter further, looking for documentation and asking the opinion of my law teacher and my religion teacher.”

It’s a new judgment, valid in every circumstance. For instance, take Noemi’s research on Alessandro Manzoni. In her enthusiasm at her “encounter” with the Italian novelist (“a human being like me, with the same desires”), she finds that she has the same passion for the most difficult subjects–“because if this correspondence were to end with Manzoni, it would be a swindle.” And it is valid for the relationship with her companions, too, as it is for Mark’s relationship with his new friend, Cecilia, his political opponent in the high school Student Council in Pesaro. He was not satisfied with having branded her as an enemy to be avoided. “It was like doing away with a piece of what I had met, as if to say, ‘For her, it’s not true.’ So I prayed to be able to recognize Christ even in my relationship with her.” And when Mark and a friend of his decided to support one of her initiatives (and they were the only ones to do so), she didn’t understand why, and asked, “What do you care?” Mark answered, “I care about you”–leaving her even more astounded.
Then Chiara, from Rome, tells us of her schoolmate Raniero, who is a real nuisance, but full of questions. He has always challenged her and her companions over anything and everything. “He keeps us alert, so that we don’t miss anything; we have to be ready to answer him. This stops us from being passive, and makes us risk judgments, to have reasons for all we do. Some time ago, he asked me, ‘Why are you, Richard, and Adrian such good friends?’ Now we are becoming friends with him, too, because what we want is to live, and to live everything.”

Tales, episodes, and faces from all over: Hassina, a Muslim girl from Milan, who came across GS at Portofranco (a study group for students), Maria Teresa from Matera Province, the only GSer from her town, who has to follow the adults’ School of Community; Vittorio, from the Italian Marches region, involved with a fellow student who was more than curious to see him reading the booklet of the CLU exercises in class; Marco from Bergamo, who says of his great friendship with two fellow students, “It saved my life”–and now the whole school is fascinated by how they have changed and by the way they stick together.

They are the Event

We seem to be reading over, in every detail, what Fr. Giussani said in a short text in 1964, as he explained what GS is, speaking of the need for Christ to be encountered in the classroom, “as the principle capable of enlightening minds and problems,” as something that pushes the person who meets Him to “act and affirm oneself, as something that is not so strange as to be unspeakable, or so forgotten as to be embarrassing.” He goes on, saying, “It’s up to the students themselves to make Christianity present and effective in their environment. And does this not perhaps mean that Christ’s presence in the school depends on their communitarian witness?” “They themselves are the Event,” said Gianni Mereghetti, the teacher mentioned earlier. He watched this friendship, this new dynamic in the world of GS, being born, as one of the catalysts of that group of students and teachers with whom it all started one year ago. “It is a perspective that overturned the way I am present in class.” These days, Gianni is undergoing a long rehabilitation after a stroke. A letter from his student, Jaio, a GSer preparing for his final exams, tells of his fascinating friendship with Giovanni and Giulia (see Traces, No. 4, 2010). It shows what kind of journey can be begun when someone looks at you like this, as an Event. Someone who looks at a young person like this is a father to him. But Gianni is only one example.

There is also Valentina, who teaches Italian at a public high school in Milan. As she does roll-call every morning, she doesn’t just call by name, but asks the students how they are, provoking them with questions. One of her students, Giulia, says, “At that moment, we are called to look each other in the face. We can bring out all the questions of our life, all our experiences. She asks us about ourselves.” Valentina invited them all to a work of charity, visiting old people on Saturday afternoon, and 23 out of 25 accepted the invitation. Matteo, who teaches in a private high school in Bergamo, shares the same passion. Every point that is put forth during class by the students, whether in history or in philosophy, becomes an opportunity for work and study, and perhaps for a meeting with someone who can help to grasp the subject better. There are hundreds of people throughout Italy who teach with this approach–Alberto, Cinetta, Laura, Raffaella… the list is long. Fr. Giorgio Pontiggia was like this. For many years, it was he who was responsible for GS, dedicating more than half of his life to it, up until his death last October. Many of these teachers are Fr. Giorgio’s “children.”

Who can Answer?
“If life is something just to be endured then it’s like being already dead, and the last thing I want is to be dead,” that student wrote to Nembrini. At Portofranco, a student is studying with his friend: The girl says, “In all that I do, I am never really happy. I have something like an emptiness inside, so I am never really satisfied. I don’t want to do anything.” Her neighbor answers ironically, “So why don’t you kill yourself?” Sitting opposite them is Sofia; she had come to help the students, but there is no one who needs her help, so she is doing her own assignments, her head over her books. Those words feel like stones striking her. “Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help overhearing you. I feel dissatisfied at times, too, but I found a group of friends who help me not to ignore the emptiness I often feel inside. With them, I am not ashamed of this problem. I’d like you to meet them.” Their reaction is amazement, and interest. The three of them start talking together, and as they leave, they ask, “Can we meet again?” “Yes. See you soon.”