Ciudad de Asunción, Paraguay. Photo by FF MM via Wikimedia Commons

Violeta's Question

The missionary life of a few has borne fruit in an explosion of growth for a small people in the land of the Guaraní. As the country celebrates the bicentennial of its independence, a story of friendship is being renewed.
Alessandra Stoppa

“What is this man doing here with us?” It was not that Violeta was seeing him for the first time. She knew him well; he was her friend. But the question only burned more strongly in her heart: “Why would such an interesting person come from so far away to share his life with someone like me?”

This Paraguayan woman could not explain why an Italian priest should have come so far to give his life. She saw him spend his days with strangers, then become ill and die, ten thousand miles from his birthplace. The question throbbed even more, insatiably, and she wrote it as a note for herself at the beginning of a journey: “Nothing can explain this unknown factor that goes far beyond any logic. In the face of the Mystery, there is no explanation: only observing, watching, feeling the Mystery and believing.”

Uncomfortable questions. Feeling and believing together: the only thing similar is an embrace, received without having merited it, received this way and given this way. The story of the Movement in Paraguay is entirely written in this mysterious logic. The “unknown” for Violeta, the question of why Fr. Danilo Muzzin, a priest from Lombardy, Italy, should have lived his final four years of mission here, is the same “unknown” harbored in the life of this Christian people born of Fr. Giussani’s charism in the red land of the Guaraní. Asunción, San Lorenzo, Villarica, Caaguazú, Encarnación, Ciudad del Este... It is a very beautiful unknown because it is familiar, alive in a bond that is deepening without being planned and with no separation between life, School of Community, vacations, work, and all the works of charity I witnessed during these days. This friendship brings friends here from Brazil and other countries, even if only to stop for twenty-four hours and then return.

At the San Rafael parish in the Tembertary neighborhood of Asunción, about 50 GS (youth group) high schoolers with backpacks still on their backs were animated and excited because the bus had gotten stuck in the mud and they had pulled it out with a rope. They had just returned from a few days in the mountains with Fr. Paolino Buscaroli, who was even more enthusiastic than they. A native of the Romagna region of Italy, he had come from Chile nine years before to work with Fr. Aldo Trento. His words about “his” kids were spellbinding: “They have uncomfortable questions that provoke my life. They are profound and unsatisfied. They help me see that reality cannot be avoided: either it is a curse or it is the push to truly live.” He held in his hand a letter from a young man of the parish. “Father, I understand why kids like me commit suicide. I can’t find any meaning for what happens to me, and I don’t know what to do. It’s a torment...” “They’re inconsolable. They need to be helped not to fear what they feel, because it’s true. It’s an opportunity for me and for them to discover Who can console us.”

Paolino takes care of catechesis, home visitations, Masses in the neighborhood squares, and the lives of over 200 children and young adults, most of whom come from broken families. “In order to stay with them in front of life, I need the friendship of Christ I experience with Fr. Aldo, Cleuza, Marcos, and the others.” He shares everything with them, from seeing “how Christ wins over hearts” to the pain of the betrayal of “a son you raised and who suddenly leaves.” There is a great deal of work “to learn to judge together with this people that is at once religious and unstable, sentimental.”

This year is the bicentennial of the country’s independence. Asunción is covered with the three colors of the flag. “The desire for freedom, which is so good,” says Fr. Paolino, “has become an attempt to be independent from Christ,” even in a country that has the Mystery engraved in its geography. When John Paul II consecrated Paraguay to the Blessed Virgin of Caacupé, he spoke to the crowd about the Christian mysteries using the names of the cities–Concepción, Encarnación, Asunción–and asked Our Lady for “a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit” for the country, “with the fecundity of Christian testimony.” This was in May of 1988; two months later, Fr. Giussani concluded a message of hope for the seed of the Movement that was being born here with the words: “Faith in Christ is the means for living more intensely in this world, too. Courage! Until we meet again.”

Fr. Aldo Trento arrived in Paraguay a year later. Now, in 2011, we set out early in the morning for Mass in the Granja Padre Pio, a farm in Itá, 24 miles from Asunción. We drove on roads of red earth, past poor homes. When we stopped, four men were already there waiting in the morning fog, soundlessly. They seemed like monks, but Thomás, Alcides, Vicente, and Miguel are actually AIDS victims saved in the clinic from death. They now work caring for the vegetable garden and bottling the water. The Mass was in the little church built next to their home. Miguel said he weighed 66 pounds when he arrived, but now he is a big man, moved by gratitude.

A powerful diversity. The park was perfectly cared for, like the one I saw at the Virgen de Caacupé House in a wood once choked by liana climbing vines, now transformed into a garden with paths and orchids, where Pedro, a member of Memores Domini, lives his life with 15 recovering juvenile delinquents. Already, this is something that has no logic. Another thing was that this day at School of Community they were joined by some campesinos who had occupied part of their land. The events that occurred in these places were powerful, as was the difference from everything that surrounded us. In the evening, Fr. Aldo, during dinner with Jorge and Fr. Anibal, with whom he shares responsibility for the Movement here, told how all this is possible: “It was conceived by God. I am continually conceived by God. From this certainty, all the rest is born. The works are a fruit. I was ashamed of myself, of my story, but then I was embraced. Only in this way does my ‘I,’ like that of a dying man, emerge in all its humanity, because there is an overwhelming thing we’re not conscious of: first comes love, then evil. Before sin there is forgiveness.”

Fr. Aldo’s story has been told often, as has the story of the San Riccardo Pampuri clinic (see Traces, Vol. 11, No. 8, 2009, pp. 26–31), but to visit there is to set foot in a holy place that cannot possibly be born of man. All this is born, like the times of the day, of silence before Christ, before every bed, before a mystery that gives previously unseen beauty to living and dying, even just to breathing.

The clinic is next to the San Rafael parish church. Many people come here, young people and adults who do charitable work, people from the neighborhood or from other parts of the city, even from far away, to have their confession heard, to ask for help, or just to see. It was early morning but a woman was already sitting there waiting on the steps of the house of Fr. Aldo and Paolino, in tears. As soon as the door opened, she stood up. “Father, I need....” It is always this way here. The peace with which Sister Sonia, Andre, Sergio, and all the others who work here engage in their day is surprising. Nearby are the school and little houses for the orphan children and unwed mothers–some twelve years old, heavy with child or with one in their arms. “You don’t know what life is, and you’ve already generated it,” Fr. Aldo said, hugging one such girl, as he went to every house to say goodnight, as he does every evening.

Called together by a newness. In a culture where Christianity has been reduced to social work, “there is not another ‘Catholic discourse’ to propose,” explained Fr. Anibal Amarilla, a Paraguayan and parish priest of San Cristóbal. “The Lord doesn’t respond with a discourse, but by making Himself present through certain people.” He added, “This is the same thing that happened with our friendship. It is born of a fact that we ourselves did not produce.” Jorge Larrosa, one of the very first in the Movement and in the Memores Domini in Asunción, spoke of the “leap” that happened with the 2009 vacation held in Iguaçu, where 900 people gathered from all over Latin America, called together by a different friendship, a tumult, and described the way their relationships have simplified in the steps taken since then. “There was a dramatic and painful point within the community as well; there were many changes for everyone, but the road was to follow what Christ was making happen,” without the problem of managing, without titanic efforts to live “in a certain way.” For example, it is not a project that the arrival of Fr. Julián de la Morena (CL responsible for Latin America) in Brazil became a point of growth for the entire Movement. It is not a project that the emotion felt by a woman like Cleuza in discovering that every hair of her head was counted then reawakened others, reaching as far as these friends in Paraguay. It is not a project, but “the acknowledgment of a fact,” said Anibal, “and to the degree to which one acknowledges what happens, unity grows. It is the same reason a house like Pedro’s is possible, a clinic like Aldo’s, a school like Giovanna’s.” Giovanna Tagliabue is one of the first seeds planted in this land. Ever since she was a girl, her heart burned for the missions, and in 1987 she was sent here by Fr. Giussani, and never left. The Santa Caterina da Siena School–in the small town of Lambaré–practically grew up around her. In the beginning, there was just the desire of some parents of the Movement to educate their children, and today there are 300 children and 50 teachers. More than anything else, this life has reflected the journey to the destiny of each person, and her own. “It’s easy to arrive and think you’ll save the other and change the world. Then there is a road to travel to learn not to ‘take possession’ of the other or of responsibility. To love. And you see that if the ‘I’ does not change, nothing changes; sooner or later everything decays.” She asked Our Lady of Caacupé to “live the charism until my death without reductions, that is, following. Now I see that all the good of Giussani for me was that I might have a stable relationship with Christ.”

Primo’s EKG. In the evening, before the community Mass in the Asunción CL center, there was a meeting of about 40 CLU students from various faculties, to look together at the discoveries and difficulties of the week. Laura, who studies at the Conservatory, spoke of posting an old photo of a GS vacation on Facebook. Some friends who had shared the same experience began to comment, “How I miss that life...” In the face of their melancholy, she exclaimed, “I realized in that moment that all my life long, I can be a protagonist of this road, because it is a proposal that never ends, and I only have to respond ‘yes.’ In my littleness, I feel I am a living person.”

Some of these young people grew up with Fr. Danilo; he was only here four years, but he marked them for life. This was the case for the community of San Lorenzo, a little inland town of 50,000. Veronica, an engineer, is 37 years old, with her daughter Maria Gemma in her arms and two other children running around the room. “We had never met a man like him. He threw life wide open for us. When he died, I thought that everything was over, but instead everything has exploded.” For the funeral, unknown people from the more internal zones began arriving, people he had been faithful to like a father–and they discovered each other only now. “The fact that nothing is finished is the sign that I am always looked at and this makes me happy.” Veronica told me about the Cultural Center, set up by three people in just two weeks, about the Food Bank, the experience of the “little chapels,” and of catechesis in the neighborhoods. All this came about “because of the freedom that grew in us through the work of School of Community.”

It is also the help at the root of the other communities in places like Villarica and Ciudad del Este, and in the lives of those I just encountered briefly, such as Miriam, Teresita, and Primo. When the latter, a cardiologist, spoke of his encounter with the Movement, it was like hearing about John and Andrew. He was at the university, distracted in the back of a classroom, when a priest came in (Fr. Lino Mazzocco). “The moment he started talking, I stopped, and afterwards I could not get his face and his words out of my mind. I returned home and told my sister that something great had happened to me.” Now, every time he does an EKG for a patient, he tells the person, “This heart will stop some day, but there is another one that doesn’t stop, and that is the one you need to take care of.” Dialogues, conflicts, friendships, all sorts of things are born. Why does he do it? “I need to encounter another heart that vibrates, because this helps mine to vibrate. I need the other person to discover his own heart.”

These are the faces reflecting what Fr. Aldo had told me about: “The happening of the Movement is people who breathe. The more you live Christ, the more you live dramatically, and the more fervent and ardent you are with the cry of your humanity, because you live in continual relationship with the Mystery,” who is making all of reality now, and is no longer an Unknown.