The Montréal GS Community during a hike at the summer vacation. Traces

Following Something Alive

For some of them it was something normal, like going to school. For others it was something they had never heard of before. Here the stories of the GS communities in Montréal and in London who are discovering what moves their life and causes it to flower.
Anna Leonardi

It usually takes about 20 minutes to walk to the top of Mount Royal, in the heart of Montréal, but the GS students did it much more quickly, such was their hurry to arrive before sunset and look down upon the beauty of their city. Then they waited for nightfall and the stars, and before pulling out their guitars and starting to sing, they listened to some words of explanation to help them as they gazed at all that immensity.

Looking at them, even in a multiethnic and bilingual place like Québec, you might be tempted to ask what all these Russians, Chinese, Romanians, Italians, and Québécois are doing together. “In effect, at times it seems like a UNICEF delegation,” joked Cristiano, a physician who drops everything every Saturday afternoon to spend the rest of the day with the teenagers. “Usually we meet at a Catholic center in the city and do School of Community,” recounts Elena, an English teacher, 45 years old, 13 years of which she has spent here. “After pizza we watch a film or play ‘Mafia,’ a role-playing game that’s very popular here. In theory we should end by ten, but we never manage to send them home before 11:30.”

Many of these teenagers discovered GS a year ago, when they met Pierluigi, a history teacher who arrived in Canada 23 years ago from Italy, where he had encountered the experience of the Movement. Then in Montréal, after a series of highs and lows, he had drifted away. Today he teaches at the Collège International, one of the city’s most “in” high schools. “It’s a very selective school, and it’s no coincidence that children of immigrants attend too, because they’re often the most motivated. In these years I’ve always proposed some theatre activities or readings to my students, and this has facilitated a friendship with some of them,” recounts Pierluigi. “In the summer of 2014 I invited them to come to Europe with me to do the Road to Santiago. I thought maybe 10 would come, but instead I found myself leading 40 of them. At the end of the pilgrimage I said to them, “How would it be if your whole life became a journey?” I understood then that if I didn’t get back to following the Movement myself, I wouldn’t lead them anywhere.”

A few months after returning home, Pierluigi sought out Elena and Cristiano, who were leading a small GS group, almost all of them Québécois youth from families in the Movement. There was a study weekend in Kingston with the friends of Toronto and Ottawa scheduled, and it presented the right opportunity to get to know each other. Pierluigi arrived with four students, two Chinese and two Russians. For those teenagers the weekend has entered the annals of history, more for the merging that happened than for the studies, because it was not a painless experience. Ben, who at the time was 18 and attending firefighter school, remembers it as a shock. “These new kids seemed to have so much more to say, while I had never spoken up. They seemed so far ahead of me, and I was jealous of their questions. I asked myself how they managed to jump in so quickly.”

It also shook up Jean-Etienne. “GS had never been a choice for me; it was always a routine, like going to school. Seeing these new kids for whom the Movement wasn’t a family inheritance but a decisive friendship that made them come back week after week made me understand that I was missing something.” It is a wave that enters each person’s life and makes it truer. Elena and Cristiano had no fear of riding that wave. “GS isn’t ours because we’ve been here longer,” they challenged the young people. “We follow something alive, and we’d be disloyal to ourselves if we didn’t ask how this new thing can be useful for us. This place is for someone who has a question now.”

Pierluigi was not afraid either, and told the teenagers about himself on Sunday before they left for home. “This is a kind of strange place that I’ve left many times, but it has always held an attraction that made me return. I’ve said many nos and few yeses, but enough yeses to be able to begin walking together again today.”

Among the new young people was Alexandra, nicknamed “Queen of Russia” partly because of her origin and partly because of her personality. Her family is Orthodox, but when she was fifteen she fell in love with a Muslim boy and started wearing a hijab. There was an uproar at school. Her classmates were scandalized and her teachers joined together with the family to try to get her to stop. At the end of the school year she sought out Pierluigi. “Excuse me, I’d like to come too on the pilgrimage to Santiago.” Pierluigi was clear with her. “Alexandra, during the walk we’ll read the Gospels and pray together. If that’s okay with you, I’d be very happy for you to come.” From that moment on, she never left them. “At times on Saturday I’m dead tired because I train all day on my bicycle,” she recounts. “I return home and throw myself on my bed, and think I’ll never make it to School of Community. But there’s always a moment when I realize that it’s the thing I’ve most desired all week. Going to GS is never an effort, just the opposite, because it wipes away all my tiredness.

Sebastien also comes from an Orthodox family, but his mother had him baptized a Catholic because of a vow she had made to Saint Joseph. He went to the summer vacation for the first time in 2015. “As I was returning home, I had the impression that someone had opened my eyes. I saw that it was possible to live every detail of the day intensely. So the first thing I did walking along the road was to take off my earphones and stop listening to music. All the emptiness I heard no longer frightened me and I no longer needed to fill it myself.”

“I Have to See”
Sylvain and Ruijie are Chinese, like three others who are in GS (Alexandre, David, and Yulaine), and they have not been baptized. All year they have been reading The Religious Sense together. “The Chinese students were a whirlwind of questions. They asked for an explanation of every word. For example, Alexandre couldn’t accept the idea that sadness was ‘the desire for an absent good,’ saying instead that it’s simply something that happens in the neurotransmitters in your brain,” recounts Cristiano. But what changes their way of thinking is never an explanation. Halfway through the year Sylvain and Ruijie asked Pierluigi to be able to do a course to prepare them for Baptism. “Actually, Ruijie told me he wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to be baptized, but he wanted to do a journey to understand it more,” Pierluigi explains. Instead, Sylvain was sure, and one Saturday night he came to School of Community with his mother. “I kept telling her about what we did together, but at a certain point she said she wanted to see for herself, and so I brought her.” Today she goes to the School of Community with the adults, together with Sylvain, who helps her by translating.

Marie-Jeanne is also a source of many invitations. The 15-year-old who attends the Marcelline girls’ school has never spoken up at the meetings and always grumbles when they ask her to play guitar, but every week she arrives with a new classmate. A month ago she came with Shaza and Marie-Elene, two young Syrian girls who had fled from the war.

Jean-François, instead, took a different route. He left at the time when everyone else was arriving, and missed out on the famous merging. At school he began to get involved in politics and after months away from GS, told Elena and Cristiano that he was not coming back. “I wanted to understand what was truly important for me for living. GS didn’t seem to have anything to do with what I desired,” he recounts today. “We didn’t do anything to keep him from leaving,” Elena remembers, “but not out of indifference. Leaving him free to take his own steps made us feel both expectation and trepidation for him.”

A Text Message
During the next two years that he spent away from the Movement, Jean-François grew his hair long, became a vegetarian, and was a leftist. So Cristiano’s heart leapt in January when he received the text message, “I’d like to come to the winter vacation.” In the hotel in Orford, Jean-François found that things were very different. He thought that he had changed a lot, but found that his friends had changed even more. At the assembly he was the first to speak up. “What I missed were the questions we ask here. I thought they were natural in me, but in these months I had begun to forget them. In the end I began to feel unsure about everything, even God. I would go into a Church but I couldn’t talk to Him like I used to.” From the moment of that winter vacation, GS truly became his home. He even brought his girlfriend, and wants to help out with the organization of the gatherings. “I’ve developed a lot of interests in these months,” Jean-François explains. “But they would bore me and I’d feel suffocated if I didn’t have these friends. I need this place so that the things I do will continue to interest me, and life will continue to speak to me.”