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Encounter in the American West

Following last month’s visit to the southeastern United States, this month Traces travels to the American West, where for over twenty years a chapter of the Movement’s history has been slowing unfolding.
Damian Bacich

A Web of Relationships
When Msgr. Giussani visited the West in the late 1980s, there were only four small CL communities punctuating the vast expanses between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean: Berkeley and Sacramento in California, Denver, Colorado, and Phoenix, Arizona, places connected by long miles of highway and ties of friendship. Over the years, however, this web of relationships has grown to include places such as Seattle and Portland, Tucson and Los Angeles, San Diego and Stockton. A web of relationships is the best way to describe this series of seemingly chance encounters, like that of Kent, a TV network executive from San Diego. Running late on his way to Good Friday services at the Cathedral and frustrated because he had missed the trolley car to the city center, Kent had no choice but to stay and wait for the next one to arrive. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a group of people approaching behind a large wooden cross. Intrigued, he joined the procession and found out that it was the Good Friday Way of the Cross organized by Communion and Liberation. “Afterward, I felt I had to find out more about this group of people. Someone told me they met on Friday evenings at a local parish, but I didn’t catch the name.”

So, the following week, Kent and his wife went from parish to parish searching for the group they had met. “We had just about given up, but we decided to drive to one more parish. At the parish hall, there was a door open just a crack. I looked inside, and there were those same people I met at the Way of the Cross.” Inside, he found BJ, Lance, and Martin, the inseparable trio of friends whom he had seen just one week before and who, together with their families, form the nucleus of the San Diego CL community. “In those young families, I began to see a type of belonging to Christ that appealed to me, that was concrete. I wanted the same thing for myself. If it hadn’t been for the missed trolley, who knows if I might have met this group?”

We Need an Adult Faith
BJ, one of the people Kent met on that fateful Good Friday, had moved to California for work reasons some years before. But in his home state of Colorado, he left behind a small group of friends whose lives had been changed by the charism of CL. Tommaso and Valeria, from Milan, Italy, who now live in Boulder, tell of their experience with friends of theirs who have recently met CL: “Five of us went to the Fraternity Retreat in California. After that, Matt and Theresa, a young married couple who came with us to the retreat, told us that they were struck by a sentence quoted there: ‘We need an adult faith.’ They said that they recognized that the companionship they were living with us was becoming the place for their education and growth in the faith. So they decided to take this into account when they had to choose the place to live (they were thinking of moving to another state but decided to stay). Then during the summer we had a vacation together in Colorado. What impressed us was that everybody took care of something as an expression of their desire, as a prayer!”

This hope to once again live the experience of the presence of Christ has become personal work and commitment for the people of the Colorado community. Joel, who teaches at the Denver diocesan seminary, organized a presentation on the Liturgy of the Hours using Msgr. Giussani’s book on the Psalms as his guide. The Friday night panel, which included Liturgy and Scripture scholars, was an outgrowth of feedback Joel had received from seminarians who were encouraging parishes to use the Liturgy of the Hours.

A Passion for Christian Reality
Public events like the one organized by Joel are allowing new friends to encounter the Movement in places where it has been long established, places like Sacramento, California. In April, the CL community of Sacramento organized a series of seminars based on Msgr. Giussani’s The Religious Sense hosted at the Cathedral and the local state university campus. E-mails like the following express the wonder and enthusiasm of those who attended: “Bob and I really enjoyed the speaker today! Next week we had planned to not attend because we were coming in from Reno but after today’s talk, we feel compelled to come again next week on our way home–we don’t want to miss anything! We enjoy this type of lecture that inspires deep thinking and provokes lively discussions afterward between us.” Now several people have signaled their interest in learning more about what Fr. Giussani called “a passion for Christian reality in its original elements.”

A Friendship in Christ
This is the same passion that inspired Patrick, a young computer consultant from Stockton, California. Patrick had met CL briefly during the early 1990s, but in the intervening years he had not been able to keep in touch with the community. After getting married and starting a family, he began to sense the urgency of finding a companionship that could help in his vocation as a husband and father. Through an Internet search he found Danny, who leads the Sacramento community. Before long, the friendship with Danny grew into a School of Community in his own parish in Stockton. Now, Patrick says that he is witnessing the growth of “a new organism... not a study group, not a coffee club, not a rag-tag collection of like-minded people... but a friendship in Christ. The facilitation of this by Msgr. Albacete’s visit to us in early February was palpable. For the first time, with such stark evidence, the same unity and beauty that I have seen over the last year in other gatherings of the Movement was present in this School of Community for each of us to recognize!” He continues: “The understanding I have begun to have from the National Diaconia and from Monsignor’s visit is that all of these dramas... all of these human realities and dynamisms in all their fleshy concreteness... are for us the same as what bumping into Christ was for John and Andrew. First, a wonder at the situation, at the reality in front of us. Second, the willingness to confront the question, ‘What do you want?’ with a moral seriousness... with our religious sense in play. Third, the challenge to decide if we will embrace the truth of the problem of meeting this desire–to answer with John and Andrew, ‘To be with You,’ or to be ashamed of our desires and flee. And in the midst of it all, there is the subtle but undeniable need to stay together in front of these dramas.”

Liberating Experience
Two hours away by plane lies Seattle, home of Microsoft, Starbucks, and grunge rock. There, a small community has grown up around Gregory Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image, a journal dedicated to the intersection of faith and the arts. Greg, who also teaches writing at Seattle Pacific University, eloquently recounts his first experiences with the Movement in the pages of Image: “I first encountered Giussani when I chanced upon a book of his entitled, Morality: Memory and Desire. It was the subtitle that got me: not only the allusion to the phrase from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but a sudden intuition that these two words might make sense of a subject that has been reduced, time and time again, to banality. In the book, Giussani writes that morality is less a set of abstract principles or laws than a way of honoring a relationship. The essence of the Way lies in the companionship of those who live in memory of the Event… A few years later, I attended a retreat held by the Catholic lay movement Giussani founded: Communion and Liberation. After a day of spiritual meditations, the evening was devoted to a party. Because the Movement was only just beginning in the United States, there were a lot of Italians in the room that night. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and the wine was plentiful. A pianist and a saxophonist were jamming somewhere in the blue haze. I think the cluster of people I was with were discussing the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Then, late that evening, one of the elders of the group–he must have been all of thirty-five–stood up and announced that it was time to go to bed. Within seconds, the entire group was chanting the Salve Regina in hushed unison. The party was over... until the following evening. For an American like me, used to thinking that religion involved segmenting my life into sacred and profane compartments, the experience was disconcerting and, well, liberating. I suspected that national character had something to do with it, but there was also something else at work, a spirit of freedom that I had not felt before.”

A New Hope
Yet Seattle is not the only place in the Pacific Northwest where the Movement has taken root. For some years now, a small but stable community has formed thanks to Sergio, an Italian whose work brought him to Portland, in the shadow of the majestic Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Among them are people like Fr. Luan, who, as a parish priest, already had a deep attachment to the Church, but whose faith and priestly vocation were strengthened by the encounter with Fr. Giussani. There are also Elizabeth and Catherine, two sisters who met the Movement through their sister Margaret in California. Elizabeth, a nurse and mother of eight, notices the change that has taken place in her in the brief time since she has been involved: “Every moment of my life now seems to be a drama. The stakes are so high... eternity! My family is changing in so many beautiful ways; they seem happier. Even my kids away at college have been part of this in some mysterious way. We are all closer. I feel less defensive about my faults and seem to have more humor about myself. The questions I have about my life and my family have changed and the answers are also different and filled with a hope that was not there for me before.”

Experience, not Abstractions
From the mountains of the Pacific Northwest to the deserts of the great Southwest, individuals and groups of friends have been brought together by a desire to live the experience of John and Andrew after they met the Messiah. That is the story of Doug, a graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. For Doug, the experience of the faith came alive when he met Msgr. Albacete at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC. Later, when he moved to Tucson, he wished to continue the experience he had in Washington, so he got in touch with the CL community in Phoenix, 80 miles away. Now, a small group gathers together with him for the School of Community every week in Tucson. “Most of us are graduate students and the texts we examine in our School of Community combined with our experience allow us to more truly know ourselves without the abstractions (a temptation for grad students!), abstractions that prevent this attentive and passionate growth in awareness which makes us recognize, admire, thank, and live Christ.”

Renewed Awareness
Doug did not find himself alone in Arizona thanks to Paolo, who had come to this country with the idea of documenting the lives of native peoples on reservations throughout the U.S. His brief adventure became a permanent stay when he met Pamela, his future wife, on the Apache reservation in Arizona. Two decades and four children later, they are the core of the CL community in Phoenix. “I’m still the same guy, with the same limits and the same shortfalls,” confesses Paolo, “but I am a man with a renewed awareness of my relationship with each one in my family and with the people I encounter, my relationship with Christ.” Recently, the Movement in Phoenix organized a presentation of The Risk of Education, presented by Msgr. Albacete and hosted by the Diocese of Phoenix.

The response was amazing, according to Paolo. “The community is growing… We have new friends who are high school theology teachers, university fellows and professors, artists, campus ministers, youth ministers, and parish faith formation ministers. We have one friend who dedicates her whole life to charitable work by opening and managing homes for single mothers-to-be, where they can welcome their newborns in a loving, caring, and educational environment. So now, after eighteen years of being just ‘four cats and four dogs’ in this community, when I receive an e-mail asking for information about the CL local presence or answer a phone call with the person at the other end asking, ‘I was wondering… is CL still in Phoenix?’ I cannot help but recognize that tender and passionate awareness of what is continually given to my life, and the only possible response is, ‘Thank you God, thank you Christ.’”