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On the Road

Seeds scattered on the green field of America: small communities of the Movement are springing up here and there in original, unpredictable ways. Indiana, Missouri, Evansville, Raleigh, Houston... A brief look at some of these stories...
Marco Bardazzi

A little book of less than a hundred pages is at the top of the non-fiction bestseller lists in the United States. It is called The Prayer of Jabez and was written by a Protestant minister from Atlanta, who had ferreted out a passage of five lines in the Bible from the Book of Chronicles, in which a shepherd, Jabez by name, turns to the Lord asking Him to enlarge his property, and his prayer is answered. A couple of phrases in all, a walk-on part in the great script of the Bible. On this unknown man, the clever minister has built up a whole philosophy of life, suggesting Jabez’s prayer as a solution to every problem, the key to reading every event, and even as a business strategy (which is, if you pray to God to make you rich, the Most High will grant your request).

The book has sold more than 5 million copies in just a few months. This means that millions of people, closed up in their offices in Manhattan or their houses in California, meditate on the prayer of the Middle Eastern shepherd to try to come to terms with their own lives. In terrifying solitude.

Fr Giussani’s books have not sold 5 million copies in the United States, up to now. The number of copies in circulation between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is considerably lower. And yet each one of those books, just like every copy of Traces, seems to carry with it the seed of a new friendship. The seeds are being scattered, and they bloom. And not one of them, after it has blossomed, wants to live alone any more, as is the fate, instead, of the followers of Jabez.

“After the beginning of the life of the Movement in the United States, we are now seeing something that God is enabling beyond any pre-envisioned plan or strategy,” Giorgio Vittadini observed recently, while listening (in a room with a view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers) to the many great and small stories brought to him by Movement friends from all over America.

The traces of CL are now scattered around at least 60 cities in the United States and have marked the life of people of every sort, totally and incredibly different from each other. “People who have in common only Christ and Fr Giussani,” Riro sums it up. Along with Jonathan, Angelo, and other friends, Riro has the task of maintaining contacts on the immense prairie. Here are some stories gathered here and there, on the road.

Notre Dame: The librarian in Indiana
Patti is a bright Texan with a law degree, who, after living and working in Minnesota, has put down roots in South Bend, Indiana, where she works at the University of Notre Dame, an old and prestigious Catholic institution. It is not her faith that keeps her in this place, given her Methodist background, but her work as a librarian. One evening, a friend (Paolo) invited her to the School of Community. She had no idea what he was inviting her to, but she wanted to go. Prior commitments kept her from going, but she was left holding a flyer with a name on it, Luigi Giussani. As a booklover she logged on to the Internet and went to the Amazon web site to look for Giussani. Several titles came up. Curious, in light of her friend’s invitation, she bought The Religious Sense. “I devoured it in a weekend, then I read everything that I found on Fr Giussani,” she recounts. “I understood immediately that those books were speaking right to me.”

The next step was School of Community. Just a few sessions were sufficient to confirm her first impression of a correspondence and to make her take the step of conversion from Methodist to Catholic. “There were a lot of things that struck me at the beginning,” she says. “One of these things was hearing Our Lady being talked about in that fascinating way. For me, she had always been a secondary presence, a little figure without particular significance who resurfaced at Christmas.”

In May, Patti heard that the CL university (CLU) group was preparing a vacation on the East Coast. She set out by herself, traveling 22 hours, sleeping in her car, arriving on the first morning of the vacation. “Hi, I’m Patti. I came here to be with you…” In June, for the Retreat in Washington, she drove another 11 hours, to watch with dozens of friends some video cassettes recorded in a faraway place (Rimini, Italy). On the big screen were unknown faces, and yet they were surprisingly familiar.

Branson: The postman in Missouri
“First of all, explain something to me: why in the books and in Traces is there all this insistence on the ‘I’? What is the ‘I’ and what does it have to do with me?” Alvaro and Mark had barely gotten off the airplane that brought them from Washington, and already Dale was knocking them off-balance with his thirst to understand. They were taken aback, but not terribly surprised. With Dale, a postman from Branson, Missouri, you have to be prepared for surprises. Besides, those two were the first faces of Movement people that he saw after having discovered the existence of CL in a round-about way, as is always the case in the United States.

Dale and his wife Micki have been searching all their lives for an answer to the demand for happiness that they feel inside them. This sometimes unclear desire has led them to wander about from Washington state to Missouri, in search of a religious community that turned out to be very unlike their expectations as newly converted Catholics. Their family lives in straitened circumstances, with six children sharing the house with a number of dogs and cats, in an indifferent and sometimes hostile town in the middle of the Protestant “Bible Belt.” Branson, 5,000 inhabitants, is a sort of little Las Vegas, famous for its low-cost musicals (it boasts more theater seats than all of Broadway) and for its summer shows by little-known singers.

Dale and Micki live there as best they can, in an extraordinarily close family. And they never stop seeking. In his eagerness for answers, Dale one day wandered into the Vatican’s Internet web site, opened the pages of L’Osservatore Romano, and read an article on CL. Something struck him. He started searching, dug up the number of the Movement office in New York, and asked for information. He received Traces and Giussani’s books and started doing School of Community at home, with Micki and his older children.

His desire to know more and more made him the first person in the entire United States to have a copy of Why the Church? in his hands. While the Movement offices in New York and Washington were waiting to receive the new volume, he called the publisher in Canada and had them send him one, ahead of everyone else…

When Alvaro and Mark came down the steps off the airplane, Dale had loads of questions running through his head and joyous gratitude for those two friends who had arrived in Branson after an eight-hour trip.

Evansville: Hearts on fire in the Pizzeria
It was a night in late fall of 2000, and another car was traveling along the Indiana roads, going south, on the return leg of an eight-hour drive made just a few hours earlier. In it were five people: Mike, Philip, Cora, Sarah, and Jason. They were talking, singing, laughing, and listening to the CD of the Bay Ridge Band. Suddenly, they had a flat tire and had to stop. While they were jacking up the car, an Indiana State Police car stopped and an officer looked at those five who were laughing and joking even in the face of a flat tire. “Drunk,” he thought. Sensing his perplexity, they immediately reassured him: “We’re just happy, we met some friends…”

The five from Evansville were returning from South Bend, where they had attended the presentation of The Religious Sense by Msgr Albacete, and above all had seen for the first time faces that they had only imagined before from phone conversations: Riro, Jonathan, Paolo, Mary. Now they know what the Movement they had fallen in love with a year earlier looks like.

“Falling in love” is the only way to describe what has been happening in Evansville since the fall of 1999, when Mike–the dynamic diocesan youth director and driving force behind numerous Catholic initiatives–went into a Barnes & Noble bookstore and browsed through the shelves. Next to the books by Martin Luther, there was one that attracted his attention because it had a painting by Paul Klee on the cover, “one of my favorite artists,” he recounts. That book, The Religious Sense, caused him to remember another “casual” encounter in 1993, in Denver, Colorado, during World Youth Day. On that occasion, Mike, 23 years old and newly wed to Mariah, was impressed by a meeting with the Cardinal of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, who spoke affectionately of the CL experience. Mike was curious, but never heard of the Movement again until that day in the bookstore in 1999. “A seed had been planted,” is his comment today.

The impact with Giussani’s book was to him an immediate provocation. He studied the history of the Movement, began using the book for teaching purposes, and finally gathered together 25 friends–youth and adults–around a table at Turoni’s Pizza, on Main Street, asking them to join together to “do” School of Community. He wasn’t even sure himself how it worked, but he threw himself into it. His friends followed him, “with their hearts on fire,” as Mike recalls now. It was the beginning of the adventure. What happened in Milan in the 1950s is being repeated in the same way today, on the Kentucky border, on the banks of the Ohio River.

Raleigh: The doctor’s waiting room
Robert was seated in his doctor’s waiting room in Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina. On a table were various gossip magazines, the usual things you find in doctor’s waiting rooms all over the world. A magazine that was different from the others attracted his attention. It was called Traces, it had a nice cover, it talked about Christian “stuff.” He was interested, since his job is precisely that of educating adults in the Diocese of Raleigh, where Catholics are barely 8% of the population, in the midst of a Protestant majority. He leafed through it and read a text by Fr Giussani.

“I was struck by the language, by the provocative way of talking about faith. I had never heard anyone talk about the Christian Event in this way,” Robert recalls. “My first thought was that I wanted to know more.” After some e-mails to New York, Robert had other copies of Traces and Giussani’s books in his hands. “I had been looking for some time for a method for teaching my catechesis pupils in these times when things are falling apart. These texts had that method in them. I talked it over with my Bishop, telling him that this was affecting me profoundly, that it felt to me like a new conversion.”

In June, Robert got in his car and crossed North Carolina and all of Virginia to get to Washington in order to meet the people of the Movement for the first time. He took part in the Retreat, ate and joked with his new friends, then said goodbye to everyone and returned to Raleigh. As soon as he arrived back home, he told his wife about what he had seen and heard, then sat down at his computer and sent an e-mail to a friend in New York: “Now I can say that Giussani is my father, because I belong to his children, his company… I thought I knew and understood what Christianity was, but through Giussani’s writings I am learning a newness which goes to the deepest roots of my being; a newness that I had almost forgotten and that I had certainly reduced… What is even more surprising to me is the consciousness of the responsibility to become a ‘father’ for others.”

But there remains a mystery, one that not even Robert can explain: how did that copy of Traces end up in a waiting room in Raleigh?

Houston: A barbecue amid alligators
Fr Giussani’s books and the copies of Traces are handed around also in the fields on the outskirts of Houston, under the sleepy eyes of alligators. The weekend barbecue in the alligator park–with these charming animals circulating, free and undisturbed, just a few yards away–is one of the moments that cement friendship in the frontier community of the Texan CL members.

Among the steaks and spicy Tex-Mex food surface stories of gratuitous adherence to the experience of the growing group that has Paolo and Eduardo at its hub. The stories come from people like Jay, a software consultant in nearby Louisiana, and his wife Stacy, who set up a group in their parish and proposed that everyone work on Fr Giussani’s texts. Perhaps still unsure of what they have encountered, they began with that naïve boldness that is not a rare thing to find around here.

At the barbecues in the park, at Paolo’s house, or on the Bandera ranch where a summer vacation in the “Old West” style is held, you meet–as is common in America–a people that has made diversity one of its riches. There is the Episcopalian couple (he’s a geologist and she’s in public relations) for whom the School of Community is the first real work that they chose to do together. There are a theologian and a former speaker for Radio Vaticana, husband and wife, who find in the texts of the Movement and the faces of those with whom they share them accents of truth they cannot find elsewhere. There is the exile from Sudan whom the UN agency for refugees has sent, after years in Egypt, to live on the other side of the world, in Houston–before he left Cairo, a priest gave him a telephone number of some friends to contact. His life started over with that number.

Words and works walk hand in hand in Texas. It is not a coincidence that there are those who have moved into apartments downtown, just to be closer to friends. And when, in mid-June, Tropical Storm Allison dumped three feet of water on Houston, flooding the city in a weekend, their front doors opened to welcome those driven out of their homes by the fury of the weather.