Paris, France. Creative Commons CC0

Vive le France: From the front steps of Berchet High School to Boulevard Saint Germain

Traces begins here a journey through the life of CL communities in Europe, starting with France, the favorite daughter of Rome. The paternal embrace of Cardinal Lustiger. A history of faithfulness that has lasted forty years.
Paola Ronconi

Boulevard Saint Germain around Christmastime is a spectacular sight: it is the classic shopping street, not too chic, never ordinary. Christmas decorations are everywhere, a crowd of people presses along the sidewalks. In front of Saint Germain dés Pres, a small band plays jazz, which clashes slightly with the posters on the church door announcing, “De Jérusalem vers toutes les Nations,” the French version of the exhibition “From the Land to the Peoples,” which started out from Rimini in 1996 and is here in Paris, presented by Msgr. D’Ornellas, Director of the Institute of Theology founded by Cardinal Lustiger. Inside the badly lit Gothic church–a shame for the bas reliefs and the stained glass windows in the dark–only the exhibition panels are illuminated. People read curiously; it’s rare to see something like this offered. “Do you see the book placed near the door?” asked a girl who was guiding us. “Many people have written comments in it expressing their appreciation and gratitude for this show. But there’s more: people come back a second time to write down the texts that are on the panels!” Even though there are just a few of them, they have done something big: as Piccinini said once–he would go see them periodically–“A small community, but Paris is great.” The history of the CL community in Paris begins on the front steps of Berchet High School, in class I-E. Dino Quartana told his story: “I was the deskmate of Pigi Bernareggi [who later went to Brazil on mission]. Giussani was our teacher for three years as was Miccinesi, our philosophy teacher, the one involved with Giussani in the debate about the existence of America and the concept of ‘reasonable.’ Dino was part of the first group that formed around our religion teacher, a bit off-and-on, but more or less aware of what he had. When high school was over, he started architecture studies at the university. “Pigi pulled me back into the group by inviting me on a vacation. It was there that, thanks to a guitar and a little imagination, songs were born like The Goldfish, GS Cha Cha, The Symphony of Ararat”– classics of the Movement’s tradition. “My friend Pigi attacked one day when we were out: ‘Dino, have you ever thought about what you want to do in life?’ ‘Nah,’ I answered. I had never thought and never imagined that my life could take a form completely dedicated to God. Pigi asked me to come with him, Giussani, and some others to Via Martinengo, Tuesday evening. It was a question of ‘verifying’ the possibility of a consecrated life.” Dino finished the university, but kept studying, in particular the work of Le Corbusier, the architect who designed, among other things, the chapel at Ronchamp. “GS invited the Dominican Father Cocagnac to Milan, the one of the songs, you know. I knew him by name, as he was the editor of Art sacré, a prestigious journal of sacred architecture. I was greatly struck by his personality. The work of Dominicans in the artistic field was interesting to me, and it was an attractive form of vocation. So I decided to make a request to enter the Dominican order in Paris.”

Marie Michèle, Father Salvatore, and company
The next summer, Dino spent a couple of months in Paris, and in September, during a retreat in Varigotti, he took the answer he had received from the order to Father Giussani: “‘There are no contraidications,’ was what it said. So I went to Lille for my novitiate.” As soon as he received Holy Orders, Dino (Dinò to the French) began studying sculpture in Paris, and today teaches it in the public school. In 1969, during a spiritual retreat open to lay people, he met Marie Michèle. He spoke to her of the Movement and of Father Giussani: “The enthusiasm and intelligence of that priest’s faith overwhelmed me, even though I was already part of a Catholic group,” said Marie Michèle, now a successful sculptor. “Father Salvatore, a priest ‘passing through,’ and five Italian students who belonged to CL arrived in Paris, and thus we began doing the first Schools of Community.” “Concrete sharing of life, belonging to the Church, building her, became, little by little, a real and daily experience, with clear faces in front of us,” Marie Michèle underlined. “In the beginning we had to do a big job of translating and copying Giussani’s texts. We were afraid of stating openly that we were part of an Italian Catholic movement, so often we purposely refrained from saying it. Persons like Monsignor Scola and Father Ricci, even if sometimes only for short periods, helped us to understand how to live the Movement in a ‘far-away’ country like France, and Paris in particular. These were extremely paternal figures for us. Then came the first international vacation, a great breath of air for our community. ‘If this experience is true, it will go beyond national borders,’ I said to myself.” In the “City of Lights,” Father Giussani’s Movement thus took shape, as it always does, from a small group of people. “About ten years ago,” Dino continued, “Silvio Guerra arrived to study at the University of Paris. He found a wife and a job and decided to stay.” In the beginning, Silvio seemed to be the bearer of an unfamiliar movement to Dino–“During my years of absence from Italy, what I knew, GS, had developed in different forms”–but over time a relationship of esteem and friendship grew up between them. The Paris community has today a good-sized Fraternity group. To be sure, in the beginning there were a lot of “transmigrated” Italians, some with their families, but the Movement has slowly been putting down roots in French soil “in the sense that it is becoming an experience of the French, for the French,” Silvio explains. “A few years ago, to get some families involved, we started organizing weekends in Burgundy. There would be 15 people at School of Community, and 40 on the trips! There would be caravans of automobiles to get there, and then obviously, once we arrived, caravans of baby carriages! We carefully chose the places to go: next we went to the Romanesque abbeys (and in that area there are some truly splendid ones); there were always great wine cellars (and the wine of Burgundy…). On our last trip, we went to Lisieux, to a sixteenth-century castle. We discovered afterwards that it was there that Henry IV of Bourbon, in 1593, was converted, making his famous remark, “Paris is well worth a Mass!” And then, free rein to fancy: summer vacations, rather than the date with the pilgrimage to Chartres, as the opening gesture of the year.

Revolution and works
It is true that in France the French Revolution and its aftermath, besides having created a secular mentality, have by now left behind just some stone ruins, tourist attractions. “They call it the game of democracy,” Silvio explained. “You’re free to say whatever you want, but remember that on certain subjects, you’re not to open your mouth. The State can attack the Church, and she can defend herself, but this freedom is only a facade. In a word, she is not to bother anybody, she can’t interfere. But the proposal that we have encountered is for man. If you do not live the Movement’s proposal as mission, as risk, everything becomes an objection.” This may be the reason why a few months ago they started producing Traces (pronounced träs) in Paris. And this is the reason that many things have started moving on the public level in recent years: besides the recent exhibition, three lectures on The Religious Sense were held at Saint Germain des Prés and were greeted with a positive reaction by secular Paris. Then came the great presentation in January 1999 of Giussani’s La conscience religieuse de l’homme moderne (The Religious Awareness of Modern Man) at Unesco, the Areopagus of the twentieth century, in the words of John Paul II. Organized by Monsignor Frana, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to Unesco, the symposium attracted prominent thinkers. The speakers were Dr. Brague, philosophy teacher at the Sorbonne, and Monsignor Scola. “This was an important gesture,” said Father Ribadaud-Dumas, responsible for youth pastorate in Paris. “In this secular and lay society, it is necessary to occupy the civilian terrain in an intelligent manner, and with this presentation, you have received indirect recognition as a Catholic group. The fact that Unesco agreed to host the event is something that grants credentials.” “And too, organizing concrete events, you realize your ability to do things. You also develop a critical capacity. We divided up the city parishes to go introduce ourselves and invite the parish priests. There were more than 350 participants,” Silvio pointed out. It was also the occasion to meet, once again, the Cardinal of Paris, Lustiger. After participating in the Meeting in Rimini in 1986, he invited the Parisian community to a private Mass. At the end of the encounter, the Cardinal jokingly said to the tiny handful of people who were there, “Now I want to see you again when there are 300 of you.” Thus right on the eve of the Unesco event, he opened his arms once again to our little big experience. The paternal embrace of the Cardinal, who has known how to renew the face of the Church in France in these recent years, widened to take in also the experience of the university pastorate, which for a while now has been serving some Erasmus students. Father Renaud de Dinechin, University Chaplain at the Sorbonne who is also responsible for vocations for the Diocese of Paris, unhesitatingly welcomed the first School of Community in his chaplaincy a couple of years ago. He immediately threw out a challenge: “Now you have to convert the 15,000 students at the Sorbonne.” Hearing it put like this, the CLU students were thrown a little off-balance, but they took up the gauntlet and set out “full speed ahead,” juggling the demands of a different language, university courses, home, organizing spaghetti dinners, film and poetry festivals, art happenings, and, igniting a real revolution, organizing some days together to study and to prepare for exams. Thus, the next year, Father Jorens–curate of the parish of Saint Germain des Prés, also responsible for the university pastorate in Paris–proposed starting a new School of Community at the University of Jussieu (science faculty with 70,000 students), explaining his motive in these words: “I have been greatly struck by the enthusiasm of the CL youth. They live faith in a spontaneous and fresh way and they have truly changed the way one takes part in the university chaplaincy. At the most recent meeting of the university chaplains in Paris, I said, ‘The proposal that CL makes to young people is more complete than ours [the university pastorate], because when they come up with an initiative, it is intended to embrace the whole person, whoever he is.’”

Scattered traps
Then there are the things that happen without your having to lift a finger. There are, as C.S. Lewis says, “little traps scattered everywhere: ‘Bibles left open, millions of surprises.’ God has very few scruples.” And men, at times, “fall into them.” “On the occasion of one of the lectures on The Religious Sense,” Silvio continued, “we met Marc, a student at the Sorbonne. About ten years earlier, his father (a member of Opus Dei), who was in Rome on business, came across a copy of 30giorni (30days), read some of Giussani’s writings, and discovered the existence of the CL Movement. 30giorni also has a French edition, thus once he was back in France he began asking around, but people told him that CL was an essentially Italian movement. He and his son continued to read the magazine, especially the texts by Giussani. Ten years of faithfulness through a magazine. Then one day Marc arrived in Paris to attend the Sorbonne, and there were the lectures, and all the rest. Since then, he has never stopped coming to School of Community, and he, his mother, and father all come every year to the Fraternity Retreat, which is open to all. They ask us for Giussani’s texts and distribute them to their Opus Dei friends. One time when we met, Marc said to me, ‘I really liked reading those texts, but I always knew I was missing something, and I understood what it was when I met you.’ Do you see? What you bear is always greater than you are, and is transmitted despite your limitations.” But that’s not all. Silvio went on, “One day I received a letter from a monk who lives in a remote area at the farthest point of Brittany, saying that he had read a review of the little green book entitled, Communion and Liberation. A Movement in the Church, and that he would like a copy for his library. He is the librarian of his monastery, and already has all of Giussani’s books and recommends them to everyone who comes to see him, as well as to his fellow monks.” We managed to get in touch with him by telephone, and he told us that the name of CL had been known to him since the 1970s (his father was of Italian origin). Then came the theological series published by Jaca Book, directed by Msgr. Scola, and the visit to the Meeting in Rimini in 2000 when he was in Rome. “You see, I believe that the Church today needs committed lay people in the spiritual wasteland of our times, and we monks ‘take advantage’ of the enthusiasm and youthfulness of your Movement. How could we not remember that the first acknowledgment of your Fraternity was given by the Abbot of Montecassino? How could we not underline the harmony between Giussani’s thought (the centrality of Christ, the invitation to members to seek holiness) and the Benedictine tradition?” “Just think,” Silvio continued, “we have never met, we have only written to each other, and yet it is as though we see each other every day.”

Chocolate and deer
But there are also those whose road to the Movement has been through their stomach: Jean Pierre Lemaire is a poet and literature teacher in the high school where Dino Quartana teaches. More or less by chance, he met Dino and a friend, Therese, to drink hot chocolate in a nearby café. It became a habit, and a standing date. Jean Pierre recounted, “But they were often in a hurry to go off to another kind of school, which I later discovered was School of Community.” Jean Pierre started reading Giussani’s books then. “I was impressed, because this man managed to find the trait d’union, the link between reason and feeling that I had been seeking for years. For him, reality has to answer to this desire. And then, the concept of experience: talking about literature and experiencing literature are two different things.” A couple of times per month, Silvio travels almost 100 miles to do School of Community with other friends at Point Coeur (Heart Point). We have already spoken of the experience of Father Thierry de Roucy, the founder of the Point Coeur missions in the poorest areas of the world. In an area north of Paris, which Napoleon turned into the largest woodlands in France, is Compiegne, and here, where the deer cross the road in front of you every day, and where the houses seem to have come out of The Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, is a training house for Point Coeur missionaries. It was like going into a convent: we were welcomed very cordially; they were expecting us for dinner. Along with the young people who are preparing to leave for their mission, there are two university students from Milan who are studying here in Compiegne with the Erasmus project. They too do School of Community with Silvio. Father Thierry holds the Movement and Giussani’s educational method in high esteem, so that the study of Giussani’s books make up an integral part of his work, and he personally asked Silvio to make these monthly “trips.”

But France is not only the Eiffel Tower, even though Parisians (the true Parisians) try to convince you that outside their ville there is only the province, not in the sense of the region but in the sense of the “provinces.” In a bistro in front of the Opera, we had a little time to talk with Lionel. He lives and works in Paris, but is from Toulon. In a distinctly “Frenchified” Italian, he told us, “One day my priest, Père Arnaud, said to me, ‘I have met a group of Catholic students, and I want to take you on a vacation with them.’ ‘OK, let’s go,’ I and some others said to him. There were 300 of us in the mountains, ten of us French, and they had a way of being together that I had never seen before. I met a boy during those days, his name was Andrea Mandelli. He would die soon after that. He knew he was dying and he was happier than I was. I didn’t have any problems, and yet he was happier than I was. Once we got back to France, Père Arnaud proposed that we ‘do’ the Movement in some way. ‘Do you all want to?’ Certainly I wanted to! This is how it started in Toulon, 11 years ago.” After that, two Memores Domini, Flora and Simonetta, came from Italy to Toulon to teach religion in a school for a year, followed by two priests from the St. Charles Borromeo Fraternity, Father Gino and Father Peppino, who accompanied the little communities of Toulon, Marseilles, and Bormes les Mimosas. “When I was at the university,” Lionel went on, “some students from the State University of Milan would come every two weeks to do School of Community with us, and I would wonder: don’t these kids have anything better to do than to travel four hours to be with us? A beautiful friendship grew up between us, and it has been a great boost also for the Movement in Toulon.”

April 1991. Mirko and Eloisa had just come from Italy to Lyons, where they had been sent for work. The next day they received a phone call. A couple that lived just outside the city wanted to know about the Movement. “In this unexpected beginning, we can sum up the whole history of the community of Lyons: an experience that began with us, but not because we did anything special,” Mirko told us. The first few years, there were about ten people doing School of Community, in the house of an Italian couple. “It was a mixed group, from age 17 to 70!” Lyons has a peculiar character: despite its size (a million and a half population, the second largest urban area in France), it is a city of people “passing through” on business or for study. Many Italian students from CL have spent their Erasmus time there. So there has been lots of “turnover” for some years. “It’s an adventurous condition. For two years now, however, we’ve had a little group that is stable,” says Mirko. Lyons–the city of St. Blandina and her friends, the first Christian martyrs in France, of fathers of the Church like Irenæus, and the primatial see of the three Gauls–lies halfway between Paris and Toulon. Like Rimini for the Italian communities, Lyons “for years,” Mirko told us, “has been the seat of the CL Spiritual Retreat of Francony (France, Belgium, French-speaking Switzerland, and a pinch of Holland). Here we meet for the French diakonia, and here there is the beginning core of a central secretariat.” In the life of a small community, every event has real weight for everyone–the death of a dear friend or the friendly and fraternal meeting with the Archbishop of Lyons, Primate of France, and President of the French Episcopal Conference, Msgr. Billé. Who knows how many other “traps” are lying in wait all over France, maybe even in isolation, like Father Francesco?