The 2012 Rimini Meeting. Via Meeting Rimini Flickr

An American Experience

A first-timer in Rimini tells of his week’s journey, through the surprised eyes of “a baby just born.” The days inside (and outside) the conference center tell the story of an “explosion” never known before.
Jonathan Ghaly

At 10:30 am: I’m riding on the back of a scooter while my new Italian friend is weaving through cars, driving on sidewalks, and against oncoming traffic. I risk my life taking a video of this wild ride through Rimini, Italy, an ancient Roman city known for its vibrant nightlife and sparkling beaches, and now, in the past decade or so, for “The Meeting” it hosts every August. We finally reach the colossal Meeting conference center, where I embark on the great adventure of exploring the week’s theme: “By Nature, Man is Relation to the Infinite.”

11:15 am: I’m sitting on the floor of a packed room taking notes while listening on headphones to the live English translation of erudite professors and archeologists as they discuss the people of ancient Mesopotamia, the Bible, and... the positivity of reality.

1 pm: I’m eating lunch with some new friends in a jammed cafeteria auditorium, discussing Italian food and our mornings. Scores of volunteers are hard at work in the overflowing fast food stands and restaurants, but they seem happy.

2 pm: I go to view the exhibit on the financing and construction of the Duomo cathedral in Milan. Hundreds of people are in line, which we bypass, needing a translator. An Italian English-speaking volunteer, whom I discover is a university professor, is happy to guide and translate for us, and does so with tremendous passion.

3 pm: Once again, I’m sitting in a large auditorium with over 3,000 people listening attentively to a famous Irish journalist speak fascinatingly about the desire for the infinite in rock & roll music. I’m dumbfounded, since I’ve been entranced by this very topic for the past eight years, but have never heard anyone discuss it. The crowd bursts into applause. A lively Q & A begins.

5 pm: I find myself saying, “Piacere!” again, running into old friends. They propose to have a “birra” while catching up outside near the pools and fountains. Thousands of people pass us by in an aura of energy and joy, intermingling with volunteers hard at work at food and drink stands or selling lottery tickets.

6:30 pm: I run into some American friends, and we speak English freely, without apology, marveling at the newness and its correspondence to us, even as foreigners. Everywhere I look, volunteers are serving and guiding and cleaning in every sector.

7 pm: I go by myself to see the exhibit of the French doctor Jérôme Lejeune, who discovered Down’s Syndrome. A French volunteer changes her schedule to guide me alone through the exhibit. She speaks passionately and tearfully. While looking in a window display of the long letters to his wife, an elderly lady nudges me aside, longingly inspecting the correspondences. The volunteer tells me it is Mrs. Lejeune herself.

8 pm: I meet up with some more new Italian friends and we have dinner. We laugh for two hours, drink wine, tell stories, and they try to teach me Italian while correcting my horrible efforts.

10 pm: We go to the Irish concert where thousands of people (mostly Italian) are singing, “The Fields of Athenry” and “Wild Rover,” jumping up and down. I greet my friend Fr. Michael, an Irishman living and working in my home parish, who has just arrived excitedly.

11 pm: Some friends take me out to a famous outdoor restaurant serving “piadina”–the staple food of Rimini. We eat and smoke and talk about our days for hours.

1:30 am: These friends give me a ride to my host family’s flat. This wonderful Italian family invites me into their kitchen to enjoy fresh figs, peaches, and cheese with them and the other guests from Africa and Canada who are crowding their kitchen.

2:45 am: “I must learn Italian.” I pray a Memorare and go to bed completely exhausted, but fulfilled.

''By Nature, Man is Relation to the Infinite,'' Meeting 2012. Via Flickr

All-embracing. As unbelievable as it sounds, this was what just about every day for me was like at the Meeting–an impossible experience of disbelief of my own eyes at the largest annual cultural festival in the world. But there it was, happening right in front of me. I felt like a baby just born, surprised to find everything it wants and needs already there, beyond its expectations. The entire Meeting is a miracle. I was shocked not only by the sheer size of the event (close to one million people came and went during the week), but also the all-embracing comprehensiveness of it–from a plethora of conferences and exhibits to sports and concerts, to theaters and restaurants and multitudes of friends, old and new. It contained all the aspects of reality. I’ve never heard of anything like this. Even World Youth Day does not have the all-encompassing nature of the Meeting. I was shocked yet joyful because it corresponded to what I want to live in my “everyday” life–an intense friendship, curiosity about reality, and energy and availability to express that which generates life: the relationship with the Infinite. So, I’d like to tell of just a few of the countless things that struck me about the impossible Meeting of Rimini.

First: the volunteers. I had heard about these people, but when I saw them in action it was different. The massive event is run entirely by volunteers. In fact, they have to pay for food and lodging just like anyone else. Everywhere I went, there they were, thousands of them: cooking food, distributing headphones, doing live translations, guiding exhibits, keeping order in the conferences, running the shows, hosting the speakers, cleaning morning and night, waiting on tables, giving directions, running the blistering hot parking lots... More than that, they would chat with me. So many times I said to myself, “They all love this.” They were working intensely, exhausted by the end of the day, but happy and alive (in contrast to the paid employees of the company sponsors manning their booths, who, it seemed to me, looked less than happy). My profit mentality wondered, “Why the heck are they doing this, and for free?” But they knew something I did not: they were being generated. This is the “explosion of the ‘I.’” Seeing “new creatures” living a new life would be impossible in an ideological and individualist world, but not here. As I told a friend, “You haven’t seen this much creative energy since the building of the cathedrals in the Middle Ages!”

Not just experts. Second: the avid interest of the visitors and the speakers. The hundreds of thousands of people, along with the speakers, seemed to be just as happy and eager as I was, running to conferences, standing in exhibit lines for hours, and talking and laughing until the midnight shut-down. The extreme curiosity and engrossment of the large crowds was not a herd mentality, but individuals awakened and ready for an encounter. I beheld massive crowds keenly interested in everything: the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia, the present-day persecutions of Christians in Nigeria, the construction of the Duomo cathedral, biological evolution, Dostoevsky and Christ, solutions to the economic crisis, Islam today, desire in rock ‘n’ roll, drama in the neonatology room, and more.

I asked myself, “How is all this possible?” It soon became plainly evident to me that for each of these “topics” there was a person and an experience behind them, which made it much more interesting. The speakers weren’t just experts giving intellectual talks, but persons in dialogue about their own lives and that which fascinates them. I have been to several Catholic conferences of all types over the years, and they always left me feeling dissatisfied and empty in a sea of theological truths and lists of virtues to master, which quickly became dry and uninteresting for my life. The conferences and exhibits of the Meeting weren’t about abstract topics like “faith” and “science,” but had specific angles because they were born out of actual experiences. Nothing at the Meeting seemed constructed conceptually, a priori, but everything presented took shape starting from the experience of a real person. These encounters involving thousands of people shocked me, showing me again that the theme of the Meeting was alive and well even today.

Finally, and most importantly: my friendships in the midst of the crowds. At the beginning, I felt like a burden to these new friends I had met, who were always giving me rides to and from the Meeting, hosting me at their houses, taking me out for dinner, and simply looking for me. But they convinced me that friendship is never a burden, only a privilege. This stunned me. One of them wrote me: “I’ve found in you a new friend, but it’s as if you already are an old one, and it’s surprising for me...” This was precisely my experience. I was profoundly struck by the fact that with them–and other dear “old” friends I hadn’t seen in years–I was so happy, and taken care of.

Something ineradicable. Near the end of the Meeting, I was becoming sad and anxious. I did not want to leave this place, and was even a bit scandalized at my desire to move to Italy. The question inevitably arises: Is all of this beauty and friendship I experienced simply how Italians are? Or is there something else? They asked me, without dismissing my desire to move to Italy, “Do you think the root of what you experienced is from the same root as that which you experience in the Movement in Denver?”

Looking at the Meeting and my trip from this perspective, I saw that the origin of all that energy, passion, availability, and love was the same as that which is present in my Denver life. I saw very clearly this desire and relationship with the Infinite in my own heart and I wanted all the beauty, truth, reason, energy, food (!), and freedom of that place, forever. These facts are evidence for me that, though I am a sinful, forgetful, and broken man, this desire and this relationship with the Infinite is ineradicable in me, as well as in the hearts of hundreds of thousands whom I saw with my own eyes. For me and my friends, that week was the Infinite made flesh.