The Smoky Mountains. Wikimedia Commons

Who is this Man?

Here a student reflects on her time at the CLU vacation and how those in attendance lived "a different reality" informed by Christ. "'Obviously, this is God.' But now, I am finally starting to know, not merely say, that this is true."
Francesca Fornasini

I remember the opening of the first GS summer vacation I attended in the summer of 2002, right after my 8th-grade graduation. I walked into one of those big university lecture halls with sloping floors, finding it strange that a piece of classical music was playing, sitting down, and reading the theme of the vacation on a huge banner hung up in the front of the room: “What you are looking for exists.” With what must have been a smug smile (I thought highly of myself now that I was officially a high-schooler), I turned to my friend Ana Carolina, whom I had invited to the vacation, and, pointing to the banner, asked her, “Do you know what that’s referring to?” She shrugged her shoulders. With my smart-aleck attitude, I confidently replied, “Obviously, it’s God.”
The only thing that is obvious is that I had no idea who God was; He was an abstraction, an intellectual concept. For me, “looking for God” was a phrase used in a religion classroom, not the longing expressed in the piece of classical music that I dismissed as boring.

Yet, six years, many vacations, and even more Schools of Community later, God still tends to be an abstraction in my daily life. I pray the Hours in the morning and in the evening, but more often than not, this prayer is mechanical; rarely do I feel moved to pray during the day because of something that happens. Furthermore, I am usually asking God to change difficult circumstances, thanking Him for things that went well, or asking Him to be more present in my life. Thus, the God whom I pray to is the cause of circumstances I have to live but He is absent from them. He must be asked into my life, prayed into my life, applied to my life through morality and the suppression of certain instincts and feelings.

Reason and Experience
That is why when Chris Bacich began the first lesson of the 2008 CL university students (CLU) vacation with this quotation from Fr. Giussani–“For the majority of people, even those who go to church, the relationship with God, the divine, and we should say ‘with that which therefore should be perceived as the origin and destiny of everything’ is nothing but words”–I knew this vacation would be a real turning point for me. Chris pointed out that many of us feel like we must “drag God into our lives” because we do not believe that He is already present. He stressed that our abstracted view of God is only defeated when reason is engaged with experience; if we allow reality to impact us, if we consider what happens, the desires of our heart will break out. It is only through an awareness of these desires that we can discover who God really is. Thus, the theme of the vacation was a question that emerges in each one of us if we paid attention to the gestures of the vacation: “Who is this man?”–this man whom we claim is present in this companionship, making it different, exceptional?

I was amazed also by the witnesses of two university students. Tierney Monahan, who attends McGill University in Montreal, recently met the Movement and was surprised to discover that CL was not just another youth group; she said that although School of Community was sometimes clarifying and sometimes confusing, she could not resist the pull of her friendship with the students she met there. Because of these friendships, Christ became an integral part of her life. In fact, her attraction to these friendships was so strong that she decided it was more important to stay with them than study abroad in Ecuador next year, which had been one of her lifelong dreams. She said, “I made up a list of pros and cons, and CL was at the top of the list, every single time… CL allows me to be Catholic, but it also allows me to be free–it allows me to have Christ here on earth, through the people here.” Her decision struck me, because it was motivated by a genuine attraction greater than her attachment to her own plans.

Another witness was Vitaliy Kuzmin, the new CLU secretary, who spoke about his experience of freshman year at Fordham University. In high school, he had developed a great passion for history and was excited for college. However, he soon became bored in many of his classes, because they turned into mere debates with his professors. Vitaliy told us that a strong cynicism developed within him when he began to doubt that “they could actually teach me something.” However, while working on the chapter about faith in Is It Possible to Live this Way?, the following passage stood out to him: “Picking up the glass to drink, I see out of the corner of my eye that Carlo’s imposingly off to my right. That’s the same way Christ becomes a Presence, just out of the corner of my eye, a continual presence–but in time.” Taking this claim to heart changed everything, Vitaliy told us: “Life became an adventure for me, because I can look for Him even in those classes where I am bored.”

Witness and Education
People like Tierney and Vitaliy are witnesses, testifying to the presence of Christ as something real, something that impacts our lives in concrete ways. Ester Ippolito, a recent graduate of the University of Dallas, told me that it was precisely these kinds of witnesses to the faith that attracted her to Communion and Liberation. After graduating from college in May of 2007, she felt lost. Last fall, she began asking many of her Catholic friends about the various charisms that they belonged to because she needed the faith she had grown up in to be “more than Mass once a week.” Her friend Nicole Habashy invited her to a CL cultural lecture series in Houston, and Ester said that there she “fell in love with something in the Movement,” though this “something” remained unclear even after attending the Diaconia in New York. She accepted Nicole’s invitation to the CLU vacation eagerly because she had “discovered that what was lacking from my faith was not a solid theological base, nor a yearning to encounter Christ, but, rather, an absence of witnesses to the faith.” Ester was grateful for having found such witnesses at the CLU vacation, people who help her live in reality and judge her experience, which, she realized, are “necessary steps to encountering Christ.”

The vacation proved to be more than witnessing to one another; it was also an education to how we can live our lives more attentively, so as to be able to recognize the many ways in which Christ calls to us through reality. Thus, for example, we went on two hikes, one that led to a pool at the base of a raging waterfall where many of us went for a swim, and another that went up and around several valleys, giving us spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains. We walked part of each of these hikes in silence, so that we could pay attention to the natural beauty surrounding us rather than to our own thoughts and preoccupations. For a similar reason, later on, Francis Petruccelli, a rising sophomore at Benedictine College, presented one of his favorite composers, Chopin, and helped us to listen to several of his classical piano pieces; Francis selected pieces that he found particularly moving because they were dominated by Chopin’s great nostalgia for his homeland.

During much of the second hike, Elizabeth Dausch, a rising junior at Fordham University, was walking beside me. Later, she told me that one of the aspects that struck her most about the vacation was that “we took time before any activity to explain and remind ourselves of why we were doing things such as hiking in silence or listening to classical music. I appreciated this element of the vacation because it is easy in our culture to follow the crowd unquestioningly, without truly evaluating the worth and reason of our actions.” Elizabeth met CLU students in New York because her high school friend, Emily Matich, urged her to get in touch with them after she herself met the Movement at Notre Dame this past fall. Though both of them were initially attracted by the “spiritual lens” through which CL looked at art and culture, they realized that the proposal of the Movement was much broader and much deeper, “examining every part of our life experience and its relationship to our faith.”

During one of the assemblies, Monsignor Albacete made it clear that “every part of our life experience” truly means every part of life, including friends, recreation, fun–even those parts of life that some deem “secular,” or even “profane.” “If following Christ requires me to avoid the distraction of being happy with friends, or to think about physical need for companionship, if Christianity means setting aside this human reality, then it’s a monstrosity.” He said these realities are not to be rejected; rather, we must adhere to these things that we love and recognize that our desire is still greater than all the admittedly good things the world has to offer. Msgr. Albacete continued, “The path of following Christ is precisely one of saving these realities that mean so much to me. We’ve turned this around, so that following Christ is to cut down on the intensity of living this humanity, but that is false. Christ will intensify your love of friends, beer, women, whatever–if He does not do that, then why bother?”

“Not a moment together was wasted”
While driving back to Washington, D.C., in a 15-passenger van, many of us mentioned this point that Msgr. Albacete made as one of the most pivotal and liberating. Driving the van was Abby Holtz, rising sophomore at the University of Maryland–College Park, who reflected: “What I found most striking was how, as a whole, not a moment together was wasted. In the car, waiting outside, back at the cabins, everywhere was a chance for something beautiful to happen, so we naturally used the time as a work to judge what had been presented earlier or to prepare for the next gesture.” Every moment was filled with the additional intensity that Albacete spoke about, charged with life. Our final night together, during which we all squeezed into one of the cabins to sing and drink beer, was no exception. This final celebration was not an attempt to forget that these beautiful days we spent together were coming to an end but rather an affirmation of the real joy born in our friendship. We ended the night by singing “Luntane cchiú luntane” (“Far, Farther Away”) beneath a star-speckled sky, a sign that in all of our merriment we did not forget that part of us which reaches “far, farther than the farthest star.”

“Who is this man?” When I was thirteen years old, my quick answer to such a question would have been, “Obviously, this is God.” But now, I am finally starting to know, not merely say, that this is true.