London, England. Wikimedia Commons

The Rock and the City

In the “wasteland” recounted by Eliot, where Catholics are 10% of the population, the history of the British CL community. Starting from the experience of Fisher House at Cambridge all the way to the economic heart of the capital.
Anna Leonardi

London. The bloody wars between the Tudors and Stuarts, Shakespeare’s theater, Henry VIII’s headstrong act, the Industrial Revolution, London soot, Prince Charles in his kilt, double-decker buses, the Notting Hill street markets, and Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus ending up in the National Gallery. When your thoughts go to the other side of the Channel, that’s what swarms through your head. But this is not all there is. Among the streets of the City, teeming with business people, or the rows of identical houses lining the streets of the suburbs, you can discover something absolutely new.

Here the Movement was born literally as movement, a constant back and forth flow of peoples who since the mid-1980s have been mapping out a new history in Great Britain.

Ana Lydia, a Brazilian biologist, met Ellis, a librarian from Turin, in Cambridge in 1985. Ana Lydia was there for a Ph.D. in nutrition, coming from the Memores Domini house in São Paulo. “Father Giussani,” says Ellis, now director of the library at Catholic University of Milan, “did not want Ana Lydia to be there alone, and he was thinking about the little group of people who grew up around her through their interest in our experience. I had been to Cambridge already some years before for my thesis, and had been impressed by the efficiency of English libraries. It was just an idea, an intuition, but one that Father Giussani immediately put into action. “Well then, why don’t you write to the Cambridge University Library?” he suggested to me. The letter of reply was not long in coming, with the offer of a one-year contract. “I left for England at the beginning of January 1985. Ana Lydia and I started setting up a mini Memores Domini house.” It was a house that very soon became the reference point for all the friends met at Fisher House, the Catholic chaplaincy within the university. “Some friends came home with Ana Lydia after their classes, then they started wanting to stay for Vespers, and then stayed also for dinner. Among them was John Zucchi, a Canadian (with some Italian blood in his veins). He pestered us constantly with questions. Every day brought him another step inside our history.” The first School of Community sessions started up at Fisher House: “It was always an arduous task,” Ellis smiles, “because at that time there were very few translated texts. Something might come from Uganda, but soon John attempted his first translations, laying the foundations for a great career and a service to all the English-speaking Movement!”

Twelve months later, the time to pack up and leave came for John, called by McGill University in Montreal; for Ellis, whose year’s leave of absence from the library of the Politecnico in Turin had run out; and for Ana Lydia, who had finished her doctorate. The English friends they had made–among them Mandy, Chris, Tricia, and Heraldo–wondered if this was the beginning of the end. “At the international CL vacation in Corvara, Italy,” Ellis recounts, “there was an air of dejection hanging over our little group. I remember that Ana Lydia had confided in Father Tiboni, ‘It is impossible for the Movement to get started in England,’ and he said, ‘If it’s impossible, then you have to do it!’ Two hours later, Father Giussani stopped me and said, ‘I just met a red-haired English girl. She’s on the ball. It’s worth going up there every month even just for her!’ And so it was. Over the next few years, one Friday a month, I would get on a plane and fly to London.” More movement.
In York, a city in the English countryside, history seems to repeat itself. In 1988 Gianmaria arrived, a young economics graduate from Milan. He immediately created a group with some English students: Amos, Dom, Roger, John, and Jackie. As the years passed, the thread did not break, but grew stronger. One of them now lives in the Memores house, the others are married and live in London.

In the heart of London
Today, years after those first steps, the scenarios have changed. An interlocking chain of friendships, encounters, and new arrivals has brought the number to over 100, concentrated mainly in London. “Whereas during our university days we could be counted on the fingers of one hand,” Amos says, “now we need an address book.” A men’s Memores house, some twenty or so families, a few young workers and a handful of university students scattered among the various universities in the United Kingdom. Not much for those who are used to judging by numbers, an abundance of Grace for those who remember that here, Catholics are only 10% of the population, that they have been free to profess their faith only in the past 150 years, and that it takes effort to find a Catholic church. “In the City, where most of us work,” says Ettore, manager of the London branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, “there is just one Catholic church, where the only weekday Mass is celebrated at 1 o’clock. The first time I went in, I don’t really know what I expected, but certainly not to find about three hundred businessmen lined up to receive Communion, distributed by an Anglican priest converted to Catholicism!” When this priest embraced the Catholic faith, his “Anglican pastor,” at the age of 80, understood his reasons and followed him into the Church. Now he is his curate in the chapel in the City. “In England, Catholic churches are full,” explains Chris, of Welsh origin and now a lawyer in the City. “It is because here whoever is Catholic is a practicing Catholic and when he goes into church he knows well what he will find there. The Anglican church, instead, has lost its flock and is now only an institution.” But even the Catholics have a big job to do: “… all that was good you must fight to keep… the Church must be forever building,” as Eliot urges the workmen of the Church in his Choruses fromThe Rock.” “Maybe it’s the influence of Protestantism, aggravated by the centuries of hiding,” Mandy explains, “but if there is one word that makes the English tremble, it is ‘belonging.’ There is great resistance to understanding why you need companionship to live your relationship with God. It is very unlikely that the person sitting next to you at Mass will think that you have anything to do with him, with the experience of faith you are living.” And Eliot once again tells us, “You live dispersed on ribbon roads,/ and no man knows or cares who is his neighbor./ What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community,/ and no community not lived in praise of God.”

The lure of power
The challenge of the Christian proposal is lived here primarily in the sphere of work. This concern dominates the life of the families, of the men in the Memores Domini house, of the recent graduates who come to the city for their first jobs. Lawyers, financial consultants, managers of the big multinationals, head hunters, all sucked into the vortex of fast-paced metropolitan life. “Every day you have to decide to whom you belong,” says Ettore, “because power tries to seduce you. Money, career: these are its weapons. But our life at the office, our way of approaching problems contains within it the fact that we do not ultimately belong to the company, the firm. A few days ago my boss called me in. He was under a lot of stress because of work and needed to take it out on somebody. Seeing that I was not yielding under his berating, he shouted with an air of challenge, “I know that you stay calm and detached because you trust in Providence, but if tomorrow your Providence doesn’t help you any more, then what will you do?!” “Well, in that case, I would be in a tough spot.”
Dionino–40 years old, from the Abruzzi region of Italy, now a manager at American Express–testifies how, in the midst of company strategy and criteria, it is possible to take a stand: “At a meeting, a top-level manager tried to fire up our team spirit by making a comparison between our work at American Express and the labors of the builders of Chartres Cathedral. In a word, work had to become our religion. I could see on the faces of the others that they were a bit ill at ease. A multinational that’s like a Gothic cathedral? For an instant I felt coursing through my veins everything that Father Giussani has always said about work, and when the meeting was over, I went up to the boss and said, “You know, because of the Christian ideal that I have encountered, I can listen to your proposal without perceiving a gap, a lack of proportion. And work, although it will never be my religion, can be lived with passion and, even if arid, can be imbued with a great ideal.” This is a presence which sweeps away bosses and subordinates, and begins to coagulate around it a web of relationships, curiosity, and questions. This happened to the point that it has become necessary to start a new School of Community group, to which those who work in the City can invite their colleagues. It is a proposal that is a breath of fresh air, since, as Luciano, an Italian engineer with DHL says, “the height of familiarity between colleagues is an invitation to the pub on Thursday evening. You sit elbow to elbow without saying anything to each other, waiting to finish your double gin and tonic.” In the heart of the empire, Eliot’s prophecy is coming true: “Where the beams are rotten/ we will build with new timbers/ where the word is unspoken/ we will build with new speech.”

Sticking close together
But there is a cradle where this new humanity is born and nourished; this is the family, a rare pearl in these parts. In the melting pot of London, a crucible of races, languages, and cultures, populated by single people consecrated to 14-hour work days, the family has become optional. At the School of Community assembly, which brings everyone together once a month near Victoria Station, some examples can still be seen. There is a bit of a mix: Italian couples, English couples, mixed couples of Irish, Italians, and English. “The community is young,” says Amos, “and the ‘problem’ of where to ‘park’ the children during certain times came up only in this past year.” Living with other families is not easy; London is spread out and getting together in the best of cases takes 45 minutes by car. The children’s schools, catechism, and sports–require attention–you have to roll up your sleeves and call up all your capacities for judgment in order to ferret out the right place.

Imma and Daniele, both from Milan, have been in London for a year and a half, but their path here was not such a direct one. Again, there was a lot of movement. Two months before their departure for London, they rushed to Russia, where an orphanage had accepted their adoption application. Waiting for them there was Stefano, already a year old and with the problems of having been born in a country that is falling apart. Their other child, Sara, had arrived four years ago, when they adopted her at just twenty months old. Today she is a young lady having to deal with that enormous thing, London, and the child’s play which the English language is for her. “We arrived in London with half our house in Milan in tow,” Imma recounts. “We didn’t want the children to feel too much out of place.” Indeed, the children don’t seem to have had any trouble fitting in. “London,” Imma continues, as she points out her kitchen window toward the horses trotting in Hyde Park, “is fascinating. It offers you a thousand opportunities; you feel the wealth. We dived in as soon as we got here. But it didn’t take long to understand that all this abundance was not enough for us if we did not embrace a greater reality, if we did not experience a companionship. So we started everything over again with the people who were already here; we began to ‘stick more closely together.’”

The community’s first public gesture was the fruit of this new experience of living together, of the stability of the relationship between the Fraterntiy and the Memores Domini. At Canada House in Trafalgar Square, they presented The Religious Sense, with the participation of Ian Ker, a well-known scholar of Cardinal Newman, Michael Waldstein, and John Zucchi, whom we have already mentioned, now a history professor at McGill University.

An almost-perfect system
The presence of this group is one that is starting to gain momentum, pulling with it all its rich past. The experience in the universities has never ceased in all these years. Today a solid network of relationships has grown up among the students coming to the various colleges throughout Great Britain, and Gianluca runs through this network every week. “Every two weeks I go to see Giovanni, an engineering student in Sheffield,” says Gianluca, who is in a master’s program at the University of London, “then there are four kids at the University of Southampton, and Mariadonata in Edinburgh. Each of them, according to his own temperament and taking into consideration his circumstances, has brought into the university a crumb, a spark of what makes up the experience of the Movement.”

As soon as he arrived in Sheffield, Giovanni turned to the Catholic chaplain’s office to find compatible classmates, and there he met Maurizio, who is also in the Movement. They organized a School of Community in a little room that the chaplain let them use. Out of conscientiousness, they put up a notice on the bulletin board. The result was that at the first meeting, there were already about fifteen people, a mixture of Germans, French, Poles, English, and Mexicans. This was in November, and the group met periodically until January, when the time came for the chaplain’s office to set up the schedule for the coming semester’s meetings. “Giovanni, why don’t we have a meeting where you tell about your Movement?,” Veronica asked in the planning meeting. Giovanni immediately phoned the house in London: Gianluca was very enthusiastic and proposed to Joe, a music teacher in a school in London, to prepare his testimony. When they arrived in Sheffield they found thirty people waiting for them, and two Mexican girls standing with their guitars, ready to intone the much loved Spanish song, Hoy arriesgaré [Today I Will Risk].

Giovanni has to return home to Padua in a month, but he has already planned their first reunion, which will be a summer gathering at the Meeting in Rimini.

In southwest England
Tony, Bizzo, Doni, and Nicola are in Southampton, in southwest England. “The university here,” they recount, “offers a lot: tutors, computers, and student clubs for the widest range of sports and cultural activities. There is even a cinema inside the college, and on Friday night the whole university turns into a disco. We threw ourselves into it. How could we resist? But after the first weeks it was clear that despite the enormous availability of infrastructures, despite the apparently perfect system, there was still something wrong. The English kids we spent time with did not seem happy to us; they needed to drink in order to have fun, and the only purpose of parties seemed to be that of pairing off. Above all, they barely studied; it was very hard to work with them on group projects.” “Sharing our days with the friends in the Movement in London,” they continue, “has shown us a passion–for work, for colleagues, and for moments of relaxation–that is much greater than what we had. All the attention that was lavished on us by our CL London friends, we then turned toward the people we encountered. This is a way to communicate something new to everyone.”

Even the newly appointed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of London, who celebrated an academic Mass for the Catholic university students, became aware of this growing reality in the universities. When the ten members of CL, grouped together in the back of Westminster Abbey, presented themselves to him, the Cardinal spent a few extra minutes with them, attempting a greeting in Italian. Then, in English, he said, “Pray for me on February 21st, the day of my consecration in Rome.”

These are small and big steps forward, all sustained by the certainty of the task, which in this “wasteland”–no one is afraid to say it–is to build the Church. “The Church has to bring into society not only spirituality, but also humanity.” This was the comment of the Apostolic Nuncio in Great Britain, His Excellency Pablo Puente, to Chris and Daniel, whom he received privately. Just as it shocks the sensibilities to enter the Tate Modern Gallery, the symbol of contemporary culture and the city’s showpiece. Here, in a museum installed in the former Bankside electrical station on the banks of the Thames, among the works of famous (and not so famous) contemporary artists, one realizes the point that human creativity has reached: misshapen men, chopped off arms and legs, women in agony, hospital refuse, dung, lines that run nowhere. “Farther from God and nearer to the Dust,” Eliot would say.