Vilnius, Lithuania. Wikimedia Commons

The True Light of Vilnius

An exhibit that mobilized the CL community has become an event for the entire country. We went to see it, and discovered what kind of heart gave birth to a friendship capable of becoming a proposal for everyone
Davide Perillo

Behind the curtain, it’s pitch black. In the room, there are four rows of stadium-style stairs, a huge photo of a Greek theater on one side, a blank screen on the other, and, in the center, a podium and a spotlight that casts the first ray of light on the actor, or the guide, if you will, because this isn’t a performance, it’s a scientific exhibit: “Langas i‚ sviesa‚” (“Windows on Light”). The route through its seven rooms explains light and its phenomena, leaping from rainbows and Dante quotes to refraction and Van Gogh paintings, models reproducing the sun’s cycle and clips from Massimo Troisi’s film, The Postman. An hour and a half of pure adventure, centered on two ideas that seem to have little to do with optics: knowledge and forgiveness. “In knowledge, you encounter the eternal, the meaning that connects apparently disconnected particulars to the whole,” explains Paolo Di Trapani, a physicist. “The moment of discovery is a bit like something of ours being given back to us. It’s like coming home. This is why I speak of forgiveness.”
Paolo was the one who created the exhibit, who turned the light on this small jewel, set where you would never expect it: on the first floor of the Vilnius central station. Many know him as “Barabba,” a nickname he’s had since university days, more or less the same years in which he began coming to Lithuania, which has always been a leader in his field of research (laser and its applications). So he knows the place well, and the topic. But he never  expected what has happened during these mere two months of the exhibit: long lines at the ticket office, one performance after the other, and 15,000 visitors. Vilnius has 550,000 inhabitants, and Lithuania three and a half million–do the math, and you’ll see that this matches the scale of the Meeting in Rimini.

And, in fact, the heart is the same, as is the people that has generated this fact. Practically the entire CL community of this area has participated in the exhibit, drawing many others who don’t belong to CL, from university students recruited as guides (or actors?!) to the fellow at the ticket office who ended up selling Fr. Giussani’s books in Lithuanian (about a hundred copies), to the Italian ambassador, who came four or five times, very struck and moved by it. In a word, an event, but also an occasion to tell about the life of Communion and Liberation in Lithuania. “Here in CL there are about a hundred people, a great many young people,” explains Paola, a member of Memores Domini who has lived here for eight years. “It’s a story interwoven with the country’s independence, in the early 1990s.”

The Journey to Tallin
In order to find the launching point, you have to take the highway west, passing fifty miles of woods, birches, sky in pastel tones, and many lakes. You can even see one from the veranda on Daiva and Mindaugas’ isolated house in a neighborhood of Kaisiadorys, a town of 12,000. The Movement practically began here, through two Memores Domini members, Roberto and Maurizio, requested by the Nuncio and promptly sent by Fr. Giussani in 1993. Roberto ended up teaching Italian at the University of Vilnius, and Maurizio works in a print shop in Kaisiadorys. “That’s where I met him,” recounts Mindaugas. “He was the only person who looked at the others in a human way, even when there was crisis in the air.” Through a long chat on a business trip to Tallin, Estonia, Mindaugas understood that the faith that accompanied his father for 15 years in a gulag, and brought Mindaugas to the seminary for a year, wasn’t just a private fact. “I was immediately struck by the name, Communion and Liberation, and the idea of sharing, but, above all, I was struck by the friendship.” Contagious. The first to meet his new Italian friends was Daiva, his wife. Having studied Theology and begun teaching religion, she took seriously the provocation that Maurizio threw out during a vacation: “Something can be done at school as well, right?”

Yes, it could. GS budded in this way, and has become firmly rooted, with about thirty kids in the high school and many who’ve moved on to CLU, and then to starting families. Daiva and Mindaugas have set up a home, literally: they built it with friends, and today it’s a point of reference for the community as well as the people of their town. Mindaugas is the secretary of a Parliament member. “I meet a lot of people in need. You can respond formally, expeditiously. Or you can realize that it’s an occasion through which Christ comes to you.”

Unity of Life 
In Lithuania–the last European country to convert to Christianity, at the end of the 1300s, and the only Roman Catholic island in the Soviet ocean–the faith was a notable factor of resistance, but through force of circumstance, was lived individualistically. The KGB didn’t kid around in this land, either.

So, for example, when I asked 52-year-old Arunas, a university colleague of Barabba (“In 1991, he came to Moscow to get me and bring me here.”) what made them become friends, he said, “Paolo brought a new attitude here. At that time, people lived a kind of double life: official and private. On the one hand, there was work and publications, and on the other, personal interests. Instead, he was whole. He brought a sense of freedom.” This friendship became stronger through a vacation together in Italy the next year.

“What’s the use of continuing?”
 His words about freedom and responsibility come to mind as soon as you set foot in the SOTAS offices, the local AVSI (Association for Volunteers in International Service), which in the past five years has helped a score of children and families–a drop in the bucket of need, in a society in which alcohol abuse abounds, the divorce rate is at 60%, 3 out of 10 children are born out of wedlock, and many women end up raising their children alone. “SOTAS was born of the relationship with AVSI and of the desire of some friends to think of a place of hospitality for them, the minors and their families,” recounts Lijana, the director. “At a certain point, we said that it was worth taking the risk.” The risk led here, to this peeling building on the outskirts of Kalvariju. Two floors of plain cement stairs and unplastered walls, a door, and we entered a little oasis of order and beauty. About ten people work here, offering after-school programs for neighborhood children and educational projects for those of the orphanage, involving the families, doing courses for the mothers, to teach them a trade to restore their self-respect. “It’s difficult to get them involved,” Lijana explains. “They come from disastrous backgrounds, with no experience of relationships. The question they ask most often is, ‘What’s the use of continuing?’ We’re not interested so much in the outcome as in the person, taking seriously the other’s desire and recognizing that she is of worth. In doing so, I also discover who I am: the desire for the infinite.

A Question of Gaze

Her words are echoed by Nijole, who encountered the Movement when she came here to work. 

“I had known since I was a child that God was a mystery. But reading Fr. Giussani, I discovered that man is too. Every man. This is amazingly new, and it has revolutionized my way of working”–with, for example, the 15-year-old unwed mother who wanted to leave her child in the orphanage. “She asked me to give her a reason for going on. I understood that the point wasn’t an assistance project, but helping her discover the beauty that I am living. We would go to the theater together, and we kept her company. In the end, she decided not to abandon her son, and she found a job.” Andrius also arrived at SOTAS for work, as a psychologist. He wasn’t even a Christian, at first. “My grandfather was a Christian. He was deported and spent years in Siberia. My father always told me that when he came from Mass he had another face: happy. I always thought that God was just for the stupid, but the figure of my grandfather shook me up, because he was an intelligent man. I couldn’t understand what that had to do with the faith.” In order truly to understand, he had to meet Lijana, and Roberto, and Nijole, and then the families for hospitality, Cometa, the faces he met in Italy. “I began asking myself what these people here had. I asked Lijana on the way back to Vilnius. She smiled and told me, ‘Andrius, you’ve encountered Christ.’” It changed his way of working. “Now my work as a psychologist is also charged with this gaze. Experience is a whole, no longer divided into compartments. It’s a more authentic way of living, in which doing something gratuitous to help others or telling my wife that I love her aren’t stupid things, but are reasonable.”

This is a perfect example of what it means to “broaden reason.” Another one comes from the CLU kids. A female majority, no doubt about it. Sprightly faces, those which last year, for example, moved some of them to engage in a battle defending the Pope’s words in Regensburg with public meetings, an exhibit, and a letter to the Pope (published in the February 2007 issue of Traces [Vol. 9, No. 2]). When you meet them, just a gaze is enough to grasp the source of this vivacious and tenacious passion, which is “from Christ, who is the meaning of everything,” says Rimgaile, with disarming simplicity. “I met the Movement when I was 13. In the beginning, I didn’t understand anything. I thought that The Religious Sense was a novel. Now it’s very clear that everything becomes a road to my destiny.” 

They speak about praying the Angelus before classes; of the short study vacations (“around here that sounds crazy: getting together with your friends to study instead of to drink,” Inga smiles); of the friends who study in Italy (there are six from this area); and of singing, which for R?ta is also the vocation of her studies and for Rimgaile has always been a passion (you should hear their duet of Luntane, cchiù luntane or some of the splendid Lithuanian songs.

What’s this got to do with the stars?

It is possible to live this way, judging what you live, as with the exhibit, which demanded considerable effort. After the last performance, there was an assembly with about forty of those who had helped, and, Baltic reserve to the winds, the contributions were numerous. Inga comments, “It was an occasion to learn to judge, to use a method. Everything is for me.” Rita adds, “And the discovery of things that I live without even realizing it: forgiveness.” Provocations arrive from many others, from the numerous helpers who didn’t even know what CL was and ended up as guides for student groups or helping with ticket sales. Now they’re talking about the miracle month, and Petras tells about “a kid at the entrance who said, ‘This exhibit’s going to be stupid; what’s physics got to do with religion?’ I told him I hoped he’d find out inside. At the exit I asked him if he’d found an answer. He lowered his eyes, but the eyes of his friend next to him were shining. They’d found it. For me, doing the exhibit was worth it for just that one kid.” At the end of the assembly, Barabba was touched. “I need help to get deeper into the relationship with what I love. And they’re my help.”

Home is where you feel at home

Another trip in the car, other homes where you feel at home. This time it’s Barabba’s, where we see his wife Maria dedicate heart and soul to their four children, giving us a clearer idea of what Christ’s gaze for man is like: dedication, patience, total passion. Who said that doing housework doesn’t build the Kingdom of God? About 300 yards down the road, there’s the Memores Domini house, with Lijana and three others now. Cristiana tells us decisively that “the three most beautiful things in my life are the encounter, my vocation, and my arrival here.” When? “Five years ago. I didn’t know English, much less Lithuanian. And yet, I’m experiencing a great correspondence. Total. Because Christ talks to you through the facts.”  Paola who arrived here in the summer of 2006 but also remembers the day she was asked to come: “March 19th. I was very happy in Pesaro, but this was the chance to give everything to Christ. I wanted everything, and it came; the relationship with Him has become everything, even in asking Him the simplest things, that it not be too cold, or that the others understand me better when I speak Lithuanian.” Banal? Not really, when the thermometer gets to –10°F and where if you don’t learn the language fast (and it’s complicated, believe me) you can’t even exchange pleasantries with the woman next to you on the bus. “All things that instinctively I don’t like, and yet they correspond totally. I’m not ashamed of saying it: I had never understood the Movement in this way. Everything is so that I can say ‘I.’”
Everything. “Everything is born of a yes,” adds the other Paola. “I’ve been here longer. The Movement was small. You can be tempted to say, ‘Now let’s do CL.”’ Instead, it’s all much simpler. It’s sufficient just to be true in the relationship with Christ. I always think of that page in the Gospel just after Peter’s ‘yes,’ when Christ calls him over, and Peter says to Him, ‘What about John?’ and Jesus answers, ‘Don’t you worry about John. You come with Me.’ Here, this is the essential thing.” And this is the light of Vilnius.