Antique Map of the Southeastern United States. Wikimedia Commons

Springtime in The South: Five Encounters

The Southeast has witnessed a surge of interest in Fr. Giussani. This month, New World recounts stories of the many lives changed by the encounter with Christ. From a companionship to a certainty: verification of the “Something within something.”
Michelle Riconscente

Louisiana: “We are Catholics”
Twenty-five-year-old Felix Cepeda grew up in New York City and the Dominican Republic. In college in the Dominican Republic, he met Professor Pablo Garcia, a Mexican who was also working for AVSI in that country. “I felt very attracted to what he was about and the way he would teach his classes. There was something special about him. We were friends for a year before I went to a CL meeting. I was always in and out, afraid to get too involved. He always said, ‘It’s not an organization, it’s a friendship.’ But I knew that if I went, I was going to like it, and I didn’t need something else.” When Pablo returned to Mexico, Felix stopped attending School of Community. “I love CL and Fr. Giussani. But it’s always been a struggle for me to keep active, because of myself. I disappear!”

Now, five years since his first encounter, Felix is in Louisiana, working for an aid organization to help the victims of Katrina. “We’re working in the schools, bringing literacy programs and enrichment activities to the kids. I’m working with these great people who are all about saving the world. But looking at all these amazing things, like when we build a playground or a garden, you see that they are beautiful, and yet something is missing. No one knows what it is, and people complain a lot: ‘I came down here, dropped what I was doing, and I don’t feel like my need or the needs of the kids or people are being filled.’ The situation is out of our grasp. So I feel what Fr. Giussani spoke about, that there’s something you can’t do yourself. Something bigger has to come join you, and you have to ask for it, too.” Provoked by the posters for the Way of the Cross that will take place across the country, Felix, with encouragement from Riro and New Orleans native Chris Vath, began proposing the idea to his new friends. “I’m the worst CL person, but I’m the only one here! The Mystery, Jesus, puts people in weird positions. I have friends who are Catholic but don’t practice. Now they have started going to Mass with me. Everyone is surprised to see them! ‘You guys are going to Church with Felix?!’ ‘Yes, we’re Catholics!’ I told one of them about the Way of the Cross. He had no idea what it is, but I explained that it is a tradition of the Church. He said, ‘I’m down! Can I carry the cross?’” Now they are preparing a Way of the Cross for New Orleans.

North Carolina: The Strength of Conviction
Paul Kotlowski is Director of Youth Ministries for the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, where only 4 percent of the population is Catholic. “All my life, I have been living with a dream of the Church, working with everything I have at my disposal to realize that dream.” For him, North Carolina is rich in potential, a modern terra incognita at the threshold of a new era of Catholicism. At the same time that other regions of the country are closing churches, in North Carolina they can’t build them quickly enough. Paul sees this growth as sparked by “an authentic representation of Catholicism, which is a serious, ongoing challenge in the South.”

In the early ’90s, Paul met Mike Eppler, and the two friends, both youth ministers, kept in touch over the years. “Through our professional organizations we have always relied on each other. Then at one point Mike said, ‘I’ve met these people; you need to know these people.’” Now Paul, Giusy, Alberto, and several friends participate regularly in a School of Community by phone with Marco and Letizia Bardazzi. In Letizia’s words, “We are particularly moved by the encounter with these new friends. Paul and his friends live their lives completely dedicated to the Church, but one piece was missing within the everyday aspects of life. This missing piece is filled by a companionship that cares for you, a friendship where distance and formalism are abolished, because we point our gaze toward the same destiny.”
The strength of Paul’s conviction is evidenced by the initiatives he is preparing for the youth of his diocese. For the upcoming 29th Annual Diocesan Youth Conference, he has invited Marco to speak about Pope Benedict XVI. And in a presentation dedicated in memoriam to Paul’s brother, Joey Alois, Riro will introduce The Religious Sense through music. “While I consider myself to have a full, lively experience of the Church, in meeting the Movement I have met individuals who truly share my love for Christ and His Church and who desire Him with the same type of intensity, passion, and love. I now have faces in this communal collective who are willing to truly remain close to me, who are my new sacramental reflections of the One we seek to know, love, and serve. This, to me, is sublime.”

The history of the Movement in North Carolina is studded with miracles–from Rob Jones, whose first encounter with the Movement was a copy of Traces in a dentist’s office, to Joshua, a Catholic convert currently in prison, who requested an information packet and was sent friends instead. For over three years, Joshua has been visited every other week by friends whose own faith is fortified through the relationship with him. Writes Letizia, “Joshua is the heart of the charism in North Carolina. The road that separates us from him is a path of conversion and purity, the path given by Our Lady in order to love more, to beg for freedom and charity. Through Joshua’s ‘yes’ and the sacrifice he offers, everything becomes simple.”

Shawn Rispoli met Joshua four years ago. “In prison, you find a lot of different personalities. Josh was more laid back. He studied a lot and seemed at peace. One day, I peeked over his shoulder and read the Alexis Carrel quotation on the first page of The Religious Sense. It was like a light bulb turning on.” Shawn began reading, and eventually received his own copy in the mail along with a letter from Theresa Famolaro.

While Shawn was in prison, his grandfather had passed away. “The last time I saw him was 1999, and this was 2003. I put everything that had to do with religion away for six months, until Josh showed me Giussani’s ‘Moses and the Shuttle’ article. Then I began to understand that it was for a reason. Reading The Religious Sense, I looked at everything just like he was describing it and saw things through a whole new light. I had been anxious and couldn’t sleep. But after I read that, and more of Fr. Giussani’s stuff, I became at peace with myself. Of course, I kept bugging Joshua, ‘What are you reading now?’”

Today, Shawn manages a Waffle House in Raleigh, North Carolina, responsible for everything from cooking to resolving customer issues and helping his wait staff. When large weekend crowds fill the restaurant, things can get hectic. To handle those moments, Shawn has started praying–out loud. “I step back and say a ‘Hail Mary’ real quick and just get back up on the grill. Some of my waitresses see me saying my prayer. ‘Say one for me,’ they’ll insist.” And he will cheerily shoot back, “Why don’t you say one for yourself?” Some asked him to write down the prayer for them. “Since they’ve started reciting it, they’ve seen a change in their own attitudes and in that of their customers, and in the way they make tips.” Recently, Shawn visited the CL community in Maryland to spend time with his new friends. Now he’s hoping to start a School of Community with Rob in Raleigh. “Before, I was in a little cube, stuck in my own little world. Ever since I came into contact with CL, everything has come to more and more peace. I don’t think some of the things I’m doing now, like being a manager and earning my GED, would have happened without Luigi [Giussani]’s guidance.”

Waffle House. Wikimedia Commons

Georgia: Converging on Christ
Jim Cork lives in Atlanta, but his first encounter with the Movement unfolded thousands of miles away, in Hiroshima in 1999, where for a year, at the invitation of an American friend there, he attended School of Community. “It was interesting, but when I got back to the U.S., there was nothing here in Georgia.” Then, last year, he heard the news of Fr. Giussani’s death. From the CL website, he found an Atlanta contact, Jim Ewing, and e-mailed him, who put him in touch with Riro at the National Office. After that, Lizzy from Tampa would join Jim and his wife for dinner on her frequent business trips to Atlanta.

“Last October, Riro e-mailed that he and some CL friends would be in Atlanta for a youth conference. At the same time, Kate Maloney, who had met the Movement in Boston and relocated to the Atlanta area, was in communication with Riro about getting the Movement started here. Then, in the same month, Benedetta arrived from Italy to study at Georgia Tech.” The unlikely group gathered for their first dinner in October 2005.

Since then, the situation continues to develop in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. “Amy Welborn announced on her popular blog that anyone interested in participating in CL in Atlanta should call me. Franklin saw that, contacted me, and has been joining us for School of Community.” Kathy, who had been subscribing to Traces for a year, has joined them as well. And Noah drives the two hours each way from Birmingham, Alabama, to meet. As Benedetta described, “I have been very struck by the arrival of Noah, whose initial critique of our way of doing School of Community forced us to ask ourselves what it means to do School of Community, what it means to compare our experience to the text. This dialogue has changed all of us. For me, it has been the experience of how the Church is not something static but is a life that invests our lives.”

Jim’s reasons for following the Movement have become clearer to him over time. “At the Diaconia in Boston, the emphasis was on answering the question that Christ asks us, ‘What do you want?’ I had never heard the question put that way before. Normally, people tell you what you should want, what you should be trying to be. So what I want is to know how to know Christ better, how to follow Him, I want to know how to follow this experience that I’ve had, how to deepen the experience that I had in Boston and that I have in my School of Community here.”

South Carolina: A Growing Certainty
Like Jim, the encounter with the Movement for Bill and Therese DeMars spanned continents. Fifteen years ago, friends at Notre Dame had invited them to School of Community, but with already busy schedules they graciously declined. After a year of study abroad, they returned to the U.S. They were active, believing Catholics, but felt, in Therese’s words, “spiritually empty.” Bill explained, “Looking back on it now, I can say that our desire was being crushed. So we looked for something. School of Community was meeting nearby and we joined them. This was over the years 1991-1996, when Michael and Susie Waldstein were leading it along with Jay and Ruth Thompson. I didn’t understand a word of what Giussani was saying! But I did notice that when I was in School of Community, my life would be different. I could see Christ in my life, be attracted to Him and move toward Him more easily. School of Community was stirring my desire for Christ.”

Then Bill and Therese left for a new job in Egypt. One day, an Italian priest arrived at their expatriate church to say Mass. Something about his homily rang of CL. Bill continued, “He ended up leading School of Community in our flat. It was then that I made the decision that I needed this in my life.” Four years later, they returned to the U.S., and transitioned into a new job at Wofford College in Charleston, South Carolina. “We waited for School of Community to start. After two years, my wife said, ‘We should pray for it instead of wait for it!’ Two weeks later, a couple showed up who had been studying in Austria. They proposed School of Community and someone said to look up the DeMars family. So, it’s true that you have to beg for what you want!”

Then, in 2004, Bill finally mustered the courage to propose a book presentation at Wofford, which his chaplain enthusiastically supported. “For certain people who were looking for something, that public gesture was a beacon of hope. Two other families, who are now the stalwarts in our community, came as a result.” The friendships springing from the experience of the Movement over time grew to include the family of the headmaster at the school attended by the DeMars’s eldest son. Now GS is thriving there as well.

“We had our first public Beginning Day last fall. And the reason we held it is that I finally reached a point of certainty in my own verification of the presence of Christ in my life, a kind of tipping point where I was willing to bet on this. That’s why we went ahead and organized the day. It was very small, but among ourselves the testimonies were very clear: we are verifying.”