Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons

A Study Tour to Moscow

Here is the story of the movement's birth in Russia, a place "...with hunger for Christ, with pain for the humiliated humanity all around us."
Giovanna Parravicini

The first attempts to lay a bridge between Italy and what was then the practically impenetrable Soviet Union date to the end of the sixties, when Father Scalfi undertook to drive across the country in his Volkswagen. This expedition was made up of two cars, who passed the official map back and forth so that the car without a map would inevitably get lost in some village. There, in the main square, with the hood of our car up (which could be counted on to attract a crowd of curious onlookers), we would start a conversation. The answers we got back were not very satisfying. "We went into space but we didn't see God, therefore he doesn't exist!" And, at the end of our trip, the customs officer told Father Scalfi openly that "if Russia hasn't yet made you sick, you should know that Russia instead is sick of you!"

So, for twenty years, Russia kept its shutters closed, without achieving great results, however, because in fact the exchange of people, books, and reports never let up, moving through the most diverse channels, from diplomatic bags to Russian language students. In the samizdat the texts of the Movement began circulating, seminars were organized periodically in which Italian friends participated together with the communities of young Russians brought together by the desire to find a real answer to humanity's question. All of this, naturally, took place in a climate of complete conspiracy: calling only from public telephones, to avoid as much as possible the ever-present microphones in the hotels and boarding houses reserved for foreigners; in the houses of friends, writing information and the most important facts and figures on pieces of paper that could be torn up immediately and, in any case, as a general rule, talking only with the radio on in the background, in order to "disturb the enemy as much as possible."

In July 1979, I myself became a part of this chain. A little group of seven friends, led by Father Fernando Tagliabue, set out as part of one of the many group study tours organized by structures connected with the Italian Communist Party (it was the only way to get into the Soviet Union). We were stuffed, under our clothes and in our suitcases, with "compromising" material: Bibles and religious books, rosaries, addresses and telephone numbers camouflaged in our agendas (every once in a while we masked them so well that even we couldn't reconstruct the original text!).

There we were in customs, suitcases, purses, and pockets of the group members were turned inside out: our throats tight, we passed along the note we had forgotten to hide from one pocket to the other - was it better to keep it in plain sight pretending nothing was going on, or to stick it under our clothes? And if they frisk you, will they understand you're doing something wrong? What is the best tactic? After a couple of hours of anxiety, we found ourselves all on the other side of the barrier, "in the fatherland," as Father Scalfi taught us to say, and we discovered to our great wonder that they did not find anything on us seven, while some of the others, young Communists at that moment somewhat subdued, had had taken away from them pornographic magazines and other "immoral and anti-Soviet" material.

The fact is, in the new world in which we found ourselves, where one had to be afraid if he or she even looked at a church too long (we were still a long way away from perestroika), where the morning classes were used to find out about you (where were you yesterday, who did you talk to, what do you do in your free time…), we learned immediately some fundamentals about reality that here can be breathed with the air: above all, that we have the wind in our sails, and that blowing on them is Another, the one who sent us all the way here; that chance does not exist, because everything that happens is an occasion that this Other has sent you; that every person you meet is a miracle, because in the widespread grayness and lies there suddenly bloom the flowers of truth and friendship, another world in this world.
In the summer of 1980 there was a turn of the screw: the friends whom we had met in the preceding years were all interned in a lager, because the regime had decided to clean things up in preparation for the Olympics. And one of them, Vladimir Poresh, answered the judge who had asked him rather dumbfounded, "But really, you have a family (his wife was expecting their second daughter), a good job (researcher at the university), couldn't you pray on your own, why do you want to create a community at any cost?" with these words, "Why? Because for me that was too little! We want the whole world!" A wonderful answer, which helps us to see that Christ is worth your life, and in the meantime for him it was worth five years in a lager and three in exile.

In those same years, our friendship grew deeper with Father Aleksandr Men. One day he would be known as the Apostle of Russia in the 20th century.We met this saint, we walked, laughed, ate together with him. The first thing that charmed you about him-when after great adventure you finally arrived at the little wooden church forty kilometers from Moscow where he celebrated-was the luminous smile with which he came to meet you, as though you were a precious gift, and you understood that this man truly saw in you something that you did not know, your limits did not matter to him because he went straight to the heart of the "I"-"I am You who makes me." He is "a man who leaps to meet us from the undivided Church," as one of his spiritual children defined him, a man who saw the positivity, the beauty, the agreeableness of all aspects of reality, who looked at it with clear, investigating, wondering eyes. Among the books we gave him, his favorite was The Religious Sense, so much so that he wanted to write the introduction to the first Russian edition.

May 1991. Perestroika had begun, and we had started sending the first translations of the Movement's books through the mail to a few dozen of our friends. All at once hundreds, thousands of letters started coming from all over the Soviet Union, unknown people who had found out, who knows how, that we printed Christian books and were asking us for them, and at the same time they asked us to help them live the Christian experience. One of the "hottest" spots was Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia: we didn't know a whole lot about it, except that there was a very enterprising young Franciscan there, Father Pavel.
So there I was on the airplane between St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk, only because at the last minute Father Scalfi had been refused a visa (the Wall had not yet come completely down). On the plane I found out-I hadn't thought about it before-that there were four hours time difference; that is, the plane would not land at 10 p.m., as I had thought, but at 2 a.m. The idea of finding myself alone at night in the middle of Siberia was not a pleasing one to me, so when at the airport I saw a Franciscan habit I ran to meet it. "But how did you ever recognize me?" asked the beatifically astounded Father Pavel, the only Franciscan in all of Siberia. And he took me home with him to a miniscule, sparkling clean parish house in the grayness of the city. The first things I saw, coming in, were our books on the shelves. Then the sensation that I was on the other side of the world which had gripped me until that moment was immediately replaced by the certainty that I had arrived home. I only stayed there two days, but they were so thick with meetings, with hunger for Christ, with pain for the humiliated humanity all around us, that while the plane took off I prayed with all my heart that the destiny of this people might be fulfilled. And once again, miraculously, a presence would come forth, from a "promised" land Siberia would become a "chosen" one.