The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb by Eugene Burnand via Wikimedia Commons

He Gave Life to My life

Edoarda was a novice, full of questions, when she first heard him speak. A friendship sprung up that was never lost, one that “gave a name” to everything she was living.
Paola Bergamini

Milan, Italy, early 1970s. Sister Edoarda, of the order of the Infant Mary, and head of the Infant Surgery Ward at the Mangigalli Hospital, walks decisively toward the Aula Magna, the great hall. There is a meeting on the subject of education. The speaker, a certain Fr. Luigi Giussani. It is part of a cycle of lectures on ethics that the priest is giving at the nursing school. Giussani speaks of man–he says that prior to all constructs: what is fundamental is what is human. He attacks superficial knowledge and favors an active education aimed at each individual person, one which springs from the relationship between educator and learner. His words are tough, but they have an affectionate accent that strikes Sr. Edoarda. She wants to meet him. She has to meet him. She is a young novice at a particularly difficult moment of her life. One day, she waits for him outside of the classroom where he is giving his lecture. “Father, I need to meet with you.” “I can’t right now.” “I’ll wait right here until you have time.” “I don’t have much time.” “All right, ‘waste’ a little time. Spend a moment with me.” “You’re tough!” “What does that mean?” “Come.” They meet for an hour. It is the beginning of a personal relationship that spans 30 years, meeting or speaking by telephone perhaps once or twice a year, until the death of Fr. Giussani.

Nowadays, Sr. Edoarda Cassi, 72 years old, offers pastoral care to the ill and their family members in Milan’s Niguarda Hospital. When we meet, the first thing she says is, “That man gave focus to my life. He looked at me as a person, even before being a nun. Our relationship was always tough, dialectical; he never let anything slip by. And I was not very agreeable if I didn’t understand something. He was very important for my life.” She stops and looks me in the eye: “Do you understand what I’m saying?” I do, somewhat. “Can we begin with the first time you met?” Like a child, her eyes light up. At 72 years of age, in a white tunic and veil, one can be beautiful. I jot down some fragments of that first conversation in order to capture the immediacy of faith that she communicated to me. Fr. Giussani: “What are you doing with your life?” Sr. Edoarda: “What I’ve fallen into. Father, the cross, the suffering that I see every day, what meaning…?” “You have to give it a name.” “So help me. I am not able.” “Accept with goodness and build your existence on what you are called to, not on what is immediate. You don’t love the Man who desires to meet you: Christ. He wants you to be there, where there is the cross and suffering. To live a consecrated life does not mean a life of privilege. The chalice I use to celebrate the Eucharist only has value because of how I make use of it, but Christ gives me the use. For you it is the same.” “Father, I don’t understand everything. Can I telephone you if I need to?” “Call me.”

From the Mangiagalli Hospital, Sr. Edoarda was transferred to the Valtelline Valley of Northern Italy, where there was a request for a “consecrated religious woman” to work in some social and pastoral activities. Later, she was sent to work in Caritas in Bergamo, and then in Brescia, where she was needed. Then, six years ago, she was sent to Niguarda. And during all that time there were the telephone calls and meetings with Fr. Giussani.

Like a Rushing River
In one of the rooms of the spinal ward I ask her why she trusted him. “He was a trustworthy person. Actually, because he was a man of God, without rhetoric. He had the gift of divine intuition. He never asked you anything for curiosity’s sake, but only out of love for you, love for your good. I said to him one day, “Try to love my good a little less!” And he answered, “Let me decide that. You just keep going. You need to find out what the Lord wants from you.” He went beyond emotions, feelings, reactions. And he kept telling me: “The Person within you seeks your trust.” He had an extraordinary relationship with God. The extraordinary part was that he bet on man as man.” Whenever she needed, she called him. Like the time she found herself aiding a young man who was dying from automobile accident injuries. His father, who had been driving, and his mother, who was in the passenger seat, were unharmed. The young man wanted to have nothing to do with them. Sr. Edoarda did everything she could to make him reconcile with his parents, but to no avail. One day, she called Fr. Giussani and explained the situation to him. Giussani: “You don’t trust God. You are talking about yourself. That’s why the boy can’t manage.” And she replied, “So I’ll pass you to him. He’s right next to me.” “Pass me to him! Accept your parents.” The young man dies after a month, and during his last few days he requested the presence of his parents. That night, Sr. Edoarda calls Fr. Giussani: “You were powerful! You put life in my life once again. That boy had become someone else.” From the receiver comes the reply: “Once again you were trusting what was most immediate. That young man must interest you. Now, if you want, say three rosaries for him on our knees.” “That’s too much!” “Just keep being a pagan.”

She smiles as she recounts that episode, but what is most striking is her energy as she speaks. Not one word of those encounters slipped away from her; all of them took on flesh in her life. And she is a rushing river: “I realized that those talks were changing my life. I was serene, trusting in myself…” She stops for an instant. “Most of all, I learned compassionate nearness.” Please explain. “When I have the urge to criticize, if it is not positive, I ask myself, ‘What good does it do?’ Giussani taught me that: ‘You have to criticize, we’re not stupid, but we must criticize as intelligent people.’ He gave me the gift of wanting to live for God and therefore to work for Him.” At times, for Sr. Edoarda this was not easy. Giussani was always allergic to structures, to formalism. “I learned to accept.” She continues, “No, I used the wrong verb. To accept is something passive. I learned to share, but to share with Him, not with evil or my limits.”

“As a Grace.”
One day, Fr. Giussani calls her to tell her he is ill, and then he adds, “Keep in mind who you are.” She replies, “I don’t understand. I am coming over so you can explain.” Now her eyes well up as she remembers that last meeting. Giussani: “I have always treated you roughly, because I knew that the Lord wanted much from you. Christ is with you. With people, you establish a profound, Christian relationship.” “You taught me.” “It is neither your credit nor mine. God’s existence has entered into you.” Then, he spoke of pain and the Cross: “To share the Cross is the most radical way to understand that being Christian–and above all consecrated–is not a piece of information about you; it is a fact of decision, a fact of faith that decides to travel with Jesus, like Jesus. But if the Cross places this demand on us–it is important that I tell you this–it does so as a grace, the grace that makes things possible and forgives. The Lord first says, ‘I am with you,’ and then, ‘Come and follow Me.’ It is Christ’s fidelity to you.” She reads these last sentences from a piece of paper. “Last night, I wrote down these lines so as to never forget them. I was afraid that I didn’t have them clear in my mind. I can say it: that was a heavenly encounter. Now that is enough . I have to go.” It is all clear, Sr. Edoarda.

As she walks me to the exit, she tells me, “Once I was in Bormio; I was assisting a person with leukemia. And I was struggling, a lot. I called him and said, ‘I can’t do this. Can you come to see this kid?’ The next day, he arrived. And he stayed with the boy for two hours. That is the way he was.” We say goodbye. I see her leave with her quick and decisive steps, just like that day in the hallway of the Mangiagalli Hospital.