A moment of the CLU Conference at Benedictine College in Atchinson, Kansas

Kansas: The spark on campus

The first 'conference' of CL univeristy students at Benedictine College in Atchinson. A small weekend-long meeting involving sixty students from the United States and four from Italy. Here is their account.
Davide Perillo

"I saw the same work we are doing here: the verification of faith in the totality of life. Today those people, even though they are on the other side of the world, are my friends because they help me grow in this.” For Giovanni Pellegrini, a fifth-year physics student in Milan, this “other side of the world” is eight thousand kilometres away: Atchison, Kansas. And Benedictine College, where on the last weekend of September the CLU (CL university students) from the United States organised their first conference. Three days of meetings, exhibitions, and performances at the university, with a challenging title ("Faith and Culture: Luigi Giussani and the Christian Presence on Campus") and a simple and clear desire: to tell everyone that they have encountered Christ and that this helps them to study, love, have fun... To live.

Giovanni arrived there together with three Italian colleagues, after the CLU Equipe dedicated precisely to The Verification of Faith, at the invitation of their responsible, Fr. Francesco Ferrari: “He asked us to be a sign of friendship from Italy for the young people who were organising this gesture in the US,” says Beatrice Galeotto, a first-year Philosophy major at the Catholic University in Milan. And they accepted, amid gratitude and curiosity, but without imagining that they would experience what Maria Zagra, Beatrice's fellow student, now calls "the best week of my life", because "I was among people I had never seen before, but I felt at home, every moment."

They landed in Kansas a week early, just in time to experience the final preparations for what for the local university community ("about thirty people, but at its centre about a dozen students") was an important moment: the first public gesture of CL university students in the United States. A mini-Meeting that drew some sixty young people from various corners of the States to Atchison, plus all the meetings as they went along.

The programme was busy. From the welcome by Kim Shankman, Dean of the College, to the speech by Aaron Riches, a theologian from the same university (who recounted how he rediscovered the beauty of faith by encountering the "taste for life" of the people of CL); from Michael Waldstein's lecture on the Gospel of John and the theme of encounter according to Fr. Giussani (with a title that says it all: "A Life Changing Encounter"), to the testimony of Sofia Carozza, neuroscientist, on the relationship between her faith and research in a secular environment like academia; from the exhibition on Giussani himself ("From my life to yours") to the concert by pianist Kuok-Wai Lio. And dialogues, lunches, an evening of songs.... Meetings with “young people like us who have had their lives changed by what they encountered, and you see it,” says Pietro Lanzi, a Math student at the State University in Milan. "One of them, Mason, grew up in a non-Catholic family – his mother was a hippy, his father I am not sure what – and met a priest in high school and chose Benedictine because he wanted to spend more time with the CLU students, even at the cost of paying off his university loan. He is the one who, after seeing the Campus, the party organised by the Bologna university students while he was in Italy for a few months, thought: 'It would be nice to do it here too'.”

This is how the spark of the Conference was ignited. "And it struck me because of the freedom I saw in them to expose themselves in front of everyone," adds Pietro. "They recounted their experience and proposed it in a clear, even pragmatic way: 'We are in the CLU for these reasons, we do these things, we meet here,’ complete with Power Point presentation. That is the freedom I want for myself.”

Maria, too, says she was struck “by the simplicity of the proposal: no filters, no superstructures. At the beginning, perhaps, they were a bit shy; you could tell it was something new for them. We are more used to these kinds of moments: elections at university, parties... Since there was a cafeteria upstairs, we went there and invited the students who passed by. The Americans were a bit astonished at first, but then they followed us.” Encounters? "Lots of them. I have in mind one guy who finally came down and would not leave. He came to the concert. And on Sunday, after mass, he sought me out: 'I wanted to thank you for yesterday'. He was grateful.” On the last day, Joseph, the responsible of the CLU, invited everyone: “Tonight, for those who want to, let us sing together at my place.” "His flat was full of people," says Maria. "More and more people continued to come.”

The proposal of a lifetime, in short. Simple and radical at the same time. "Besides being fascinated by it, it raised a question for me," says Beatrice. "Am I ready to be the face of Jesus wherever I go? Do I really believe this? For me, it was a chance for conversion. Of regaining the essential." She recounts that on the last evening, before leaving, they sang Non c'è nessuno, by Adriana Mascagni: "I heard that she wrote it to say goodbye to friends. We sang 'now I must leave, but love must not end', and I thought that it was true. Tomorrow I will be in Italy, but what I have lived here cannot end: you can live there too.”

And her friends? What do they take home from Kansas? “For me it was a gift,” says Giovanni, “Something that when you recount it, others say: ‘So jealous’.” Not because of the trip to America, but because I found that I was freer to love. I looked at those guys during the song evening and said to myself: I really love these people. Even if I do not know them, even if I will never see them again. That is it, a freedom to love.” Pietro? "I am taking friends home, for sure. From day one there was an inexplicable familiarity. And it was evident that the beauty we saw was done by the Lord. Nothing we did would be enough to explain it."

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Maria also speaks of gratitude '”or something free, undeserved. You go home, you think back on something like that and say: Oh God, what now? But it is undeniable that things are also happening here that tell me it is a love given to my life.” Examples? "Bea and I proposed to the community to say Lauds together in the morning because we saw the Atchison students doing it there at dawn. And when I came back I said to myself: I cannot help but start my day this way, opening my heart to the One who alone can fill it."