Peruvian Landscape. Creative Commons CC0

Generation Peru

In the classrooms of a university for the poor in Lima, the Movement met hundreds. It began from three young professors to “the story of a new society." Here you see the charism of students, adults, and children, or in the middle of the Amazon...

Alessandra Stoppa

The forest is a mystery. He says that when it rains, you feel an energy that is concentrated even in the last hidden leaf: a force that penetrates everything, violent like the light of the sun today in the dense interweaving of this large hut. Beneath the straw roof are wooden tables and benches–the cafeteria of a university in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. And Feliciano is an indigenous boy, age 21, who is studying to become a teacher. He speaks Asháninka. Before coming here, he didn’t even know that his language had verbs. “I spoke it, but I didn’t know anything about it,” he says, laughing heartily.

The community where he was born and grew up is in Charahuaja, two hours from here by river, where there are 38 families and no lights, water, or roads. They live by hunting and fishing–all of their livelihood is in nature. And he speaks to you of Father Giussani: “He opened my eyes. I had never asked myself who put all of this beauty in front of me, or what this reality is made of. And who created me? Who am I?” He looks happily at the 75 acres around him, where large huts emerge: the classrooms, the farmland, the dormitory. He says that he still does not know the answers to those questions. But he wants to request Baptism: “Giussani explains that it is the possibility to be reborn and to be happy. So it’s the beginning of the answer.” He stops. “The mystery of the forest demands Baptism.”

If it is possible to witness the pure and naked heart of Feliciano, it is because the charism of Fr. Giussani came to this faraway point in the forest beyond the Andes, near the city of Atalaya, where, along the Rio Marankiari, the “river of the serpent,” they give lessons on The Religious Sense. This flower also blossomed because of the life of the Movement in Peru, which took root at the end of the 1980s. It began in the coastal capital, inhabited by 10 million people, and home to practically the entire community–except for a few “detachments” here and there–like the one in the rainforest, which is only the latest in chronological order.

It gets dark too quickly. The hub, however, has always been the UCSS in Lima, the Universidad Católica Sedes Sapientiae–or rather, three young Italian professors, three Memores Domini, who came here as missionaries over a handful of years. Andrea Aziani came first, in 1989. And he lived here until the end. Andrea died four years ago, suddenly, after having made hundreds of people fall in love with Christ, through the powerful and humble allure of his own life. Dado Peluso and Giambattista “Tista” Bolis arrived shortly after Andrea. The three of them taught together in various faculties in the rich parts of Lima, until a bishop sought Andrea out to help in setting up the UCSS, the first university for the youth of the poor Cono Norte district and its ring of hills crowded with shacks. At its inception in 1998, the university was housed in a plain brick building with an iron door, and the three Memores distributed flyers in the parishes on Saturdays and Sundays. “Now there are five departments and 6,000 students. And they call us from various dioceses, to start courses there, too–from Tarma, in the center of the country, to Churcanas, on the border with Ecuador,” recounts Tista, from the second floor of the UCSS. He came to Peru two months before Fujimori’s coup d’etat: curfew, tanks, and a sadness that beset him every afternoon, though he wasn’t sure why. Then he realized that here the darkness fell too quickly. “Everything, even that detail, was a provocation to my destiny in those years, to ask myself continually why I am here.” He takes leave brusquely, in the manner of someone from Bergamo, Italy, and goes to class.

The most powerful impetus for the life of the Movement in Peru came from these classrooms–especially from the courses taught to all of the students in the first three semesters, which are Fr. Giussani’s trilogy (The Religious Sense, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, and Why the Church?). Year after year, many were caught up by the Christian experience and by those three professors. And even today, most of the Peruvian community, around 200 people, is made up of former students of the UCSS who became fathers and mothers. And more than a few of them, in turn, teach here at the university: three floors of full-length windows and balconies overlooking the entrance, which is a continuous coming and going of students.

“Instinctively, it’s the last place where I’d want to be.” Giuliana Contini, Dean of the Department of Education for six years, does not mince words. For her it was a “triple somersault” to come here after 11 years of mission work in the more “European” environment of Santiago, Chile. “But you say yes to God, without calculations. And I’m better off for it: I bet on what I’ve learned, that is, that circumstances are always lovable, and I discover what comes out of it. And I’m happy, because Christ is always more and more evident to me.” She is 71 years old and has the eyes of a young girl. “It’s true what Giussani wrote to me in the beginning: ‘After all, everything is nothing, except loving Christ,’” she repeats decisively from her desk. She quickly demolishes any “poetics of the poor,” is ironic about the slovenliness of the mentality here, and hammers on the purpose of this place: to educate free men. But what does that mean? “I see them: they leave as young people on a path, who sense where freedom is born. And it’s not culture, but perceiving that there is a meaning in everything–culture is only an instrument.” The relationship with students and professors is “a continual starting over, because every instant is an instant for freedom to reopen itself,” she continues as she shows off the “Aziani Room.” When Andrea died, all of his books were placed here, “so the students can read them; it is the library that they don’t have at home.”

The Homeless Bishop
In this part of Lima, “15 years ago there was nothing, only a lot of delinquency and 500,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 29. No one would have ever bet on this place,” says Bishop Lino Panizza of Carabayllo. The UCSS was his idea. In the beginning, he had neither a house nor a cathedral, and his office was his car, in which he toured his diocese of 2.5 million people. “In the schools, I saw the educational situation. It was a disaster. From there, the university, which is a work of God, grew because of one sign of Providence after another–just as it has been throughout my life.” Including the house in which he receives you, near the UCSS: “One evening, out of nowhere, a man that I had never seen before showed up with an envelope. He had made a vow to Padre Pio and had read my name in a magazine. Inside the envelope was $20,000. Exactly the sum that I needed to pay off the house.”

Many UCSS students come from the cerros, the hills full of shacks. Most have only one parent, and often have to provide for families who have fallen on hard times. And so they study and work: there are those who work during the day and take night courses until 10:30 pm, then eat, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day. Even the CLU School of Community is divided into two shifts, to accommodate those who have lessons during the day or at night. “I have students who work at night, and my first task in class is to keep them awake,” explains Paolo Bidinost, while drinking a chicha morada in the coffee shop. He is the Dean of Administration and lives in the Memores house in Lima, in the San Isidro neighborhood. Andrea used to live there, too. “He was a man totally defined by faith,” Bidinost recalls. “His only preoccupation was to affirm Christ, even in his mistakes. He left his mark on everything here.” You can see it. There are even children who bear his name, Andrés, as they call him here; they are the children of people who, in looking at him, started to desire life. His is an invasive presence, transparent as he was. “You never knew where he was,” says Christian, who grew up around Andrea. “He gave himself, he literally consumed himself, to meet people. Only when he died, did we truly realize how many ‘children’ he had.” Like Giovanna, who met him when she was a child, bringing bread to the houses at dawn, and today lives “down there in the nothingness,” that is, in Villa el Salvador, in a block of blue bricks; you enter, and hanging on the wall is the photo of Giussani with the Pope. Or Sebastiana, who lived on the streets and slept under the overpasses. One day, a man came up to her; it was Andrea. “He stayed with me and kissed my dirty, wounded feet.” She has never been able to get that kiss out of her head. Andrea’s tomb is a plaque in the grass, in a cemetery in the northern suburbs of Lima. Alongside runs the Pan-American Highway, which stretches for more than 3,100 miles until it reaches the sea, where the poor of the forest and the Andes have invaded the dunes. They live in houses on the sand, and they spend their time in the grass of the medians, as if on an outing, amid the exhaust of the dented taxis and the combis, overcrowded minibuses that go like crazy. “Andrea is a reminder to me, to say yes to the Mystery now,” says Father Giovanni Paccosi as he drives. A great friend of Andrea, he took over the responsibility of the Movement in Peru after him. Today, he is a pastor in Lima Norte with Fr. Paolo Bargigia, another Florentine. Inseparable friends since GS, they discovered their vocations together, and today they find themselves on mission here. Their friendship is a breath of fresh air, as is their house: there is a continuous reception here, among the obligations of the parish, which have “industrial dimensions, like everything in Lima,” according to Paolo. Outside the door, the soccer field is set up like a church, with tents and beams, because there can be more than 150 people receiving First Communion or Confirmation at a time.

I Want to Get Married
The two priests are also professors at the UCSS: in the evening, together with the other teachers, they talk about what happens inside and outside of the classrooms. “After a lesson on The Religious Sense, a student came up to me and said, ‘Professor, after what I heard, I can’t go on living with my boyfriend–I want to get married,’” recounts Marialuisa. “Some of them ask for the sacraments.” They were all taken over by Christ because of a lesson, a phrase, a sign in which they experienced what Marialuisa sums up: “There are people who see the depths of your heart: this is the miracle. Who can do this?”

The same intensity is present even in the “late” arrivals. Teresa is here because of a strange story of faithfulness to her heart: she met the Movement three years ago, after having searched for the truth in studies of philosophy and in summers spent in the library in Heidelberg, amid disappointments and attempts, until “I met a gaze that I had never seen before, and then I read this phrase: ‘the fact of Christ.’ I said to myself: the fact? But what is it, does it really exist? It blew me away. I discovered that the truth is an embrace.” Among the “old-timers” is Modesta, who directs the CIDIR, a center for the formation of public administrators, and Daniela, who monitors the AVSI projects. They tell you that “there is Something beyond you that acts in your daily work. You wouldn’t even notice, because you see ‘only’ your work, but instead, in time, the story of a new society is built.” You become aware of it the next day, in Huachipa, where CESAL, a Spanish NGO, is at work, and has brought to life a nursery school, a school of tailoring, and a center for literacy and nutrition that helps more than 200 families–all of this in a place where the babies spend their days tied to the backs of their mothers or inside the clay pits where bricks are made–and all around them, the desert.

Lucio is an extremely sharp art teacher who explains the retablos, the wooden altar pieces that fill the churches of Lima, dramatic and colorful like the life here. “Even nature is extreme,” he says. “It’s a tropical country with perennial snow. There’s the Amazon rainforest and the Nazca Desert, where it hasn’t rained for 1,500 years. There are mountains almost 20,000 feet tall and the deepest canyon in the world, the Cotahuasi.” And there is a history made up of saints. The Franciscans left two by two from the Ocopa monastery, at an altitude of 13,000 feet in the Andes, to evangelize the forest, and never returned.

That row of shoes. They come to your mind in Pachacamac, 25 miles southeast of Lima where, in the midst of rocks and dusty roads, sits the house of the Sisters of Punto Corazón. According to the wish of founder Father Thierry de Roucy, their mission around the world is sustained by the work of the School of Community. They are almost all French, and they live 650 yards from a small town of 1,500 people. “We don’t do anything big,” says Hermana Leonor. “We visit the houses, to meet the people.” They are there, that’s it. As the name of the order states, they are Servants of the Presence of God. “This morning, I met two campesinos on a path, and I realized that they wanted to talk a little bit about the well and the harvest. They just wanted me to stay with them.” The next morning, you leave for the forest–for Atalaya, where you will meet Feliciano, and where the university in the forest was born from the encounter between the Movement and a Franciscan bishop: Gerardo Zerdin, the Monseñor of the indigenous people. He is the head of the Diocese of San Ramón: 50,000 miles of forest and serpentines of water. He is Slovenian, and arrived in 1975 as a seminarian. He has experienced terrorism firsthand, and has lived many years in the indigenous communities, doing everything as they do. Today, he is a large man with a hunting vest who resembles Rambo, and when the plane is about to take off he makes the sign of the cross. “I wanted to make a university to form indigenous teachers. But I could not find anyone who would help me without thinking of his own gain. Msgr. Panizza pointed CL out to me.” And so today there are more than 400 students, including Feliciano who, with five friends, all from different ethnic groups, can be found under a tree reading Giussani. They had started doing it with Angelica, a Memores who, after some time here, had to leave. “I would never have wanted to leave the forest,” she will tell you at the UCSS, where she teaches now. “It was a painful step. But if I don’t continually leave that which ‘I think’ is right, I don’t live: when I stick to my preconceptions, I don’t go forward. Instead, when I don’t choose them, then I truly discover reality.”

Returning to Lima, you go to the Fr. Giussani Nursery School in Zapallal, in the northern suburbs. Here a row of unmatched shoes dangles from a cord stretched between two roofs: “They are the trophies of the criminal bands,” mentions Vanessa, the director of the nursery school, without going into any further explanation. She, too, had a poor life. “One afternoon, I got down on my knees: if this is life, I don’t want to live.” Then she wound up at the UCSS, and among her professors was Fr. Michele Berchi, on mission here until 2008. “I would go to work and continue to think about the lesson; I asked myself why my heart was eating me up like this.” Until she heard him talk about John and Andrew: “I started to cry, and I started to follow him.” Everything was different. She used Facebook to look for her father, who had abandoned her, her mother, and her brothers in order to go to the U.S. “I wrote to him: ‘I met God, and because of Him I forgive you.’” She started to do charitable work with the children here, to the point of transforming the rooms of the parish into a nursery school. “I always hated the idea of being a teacher, because it meant staying poor. When I had to decide, I had a different idea of my life in mind, but my heart was bubbling over. It was God who wanted His heart here.”

(Preceding articles of this series: the stories of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, and the Assembly of Responsibles for Latin America)