GIACOMO’S NINETEEN HOURS OF LIFE
It is so rare to truly see reality, that when it happens you fear you might be a visionary. It seems “too much” when, at a certain point, everything in your day becomes a sign. But if a child, “the most needy of all,” as his father Mirco says, in the simple fact of living less than a day, makes the life of many people more of a life, maybe it is evidence that there is something deep that usually you do not see, and that you need to understand.
This happened in the obstetrics and gynecology ward of Saint Ursula Hospital in Bologna, Italy, which is known for its numerous abortions and in vitro fertilization procedures. Here, on October 1st, Giacomino came into the world with a malformation that was incompatible with life. Generally, a child like this is aborted right after diagnosis, because he would be born only to die right away. Instead, things happened differently in Giacomino’s case. In a few hours’ time, he revolutionized the ward, the hearts, and the work of those who were there, to the point that today they are talking about establishing a “comfort care” setting for newborns like him. In Italy, there are no such provisions. Here it was unimaginable until that October day. But everything in this story went like this. Before Giacomo’s arrival, “I was living, wedging things into place and ending up trapped myself, even in my relationship with my wife,” recounts Mirco. He and Natascia have two living children, Francesca and Federica; their firstborn, Michela, died soon after birth, 11 years ago. The news of this fourth pregnancy arrived during one of the most difficult points of their marriage. “You start planning again, you try to put things back together... And it only gets worse.” But they asked God a very sincere question about their relationship. “I couldn’t accept that the promise of our marriage was lost,” says Natascia. “For two years, I cried inside myself, ‘Lord, I miss You!’”
Thinking of the new baby, she could not sleep, and one morning confided to Mirco, “I feel like I have to walk a narrow road.” When they had the three-month sonogram, the diagnosis was brutal: anencephaly. Giacomo, like Michela, did not have a cranium, and would not live. The gynecologist continued talking but they heard nothing. He was already prepared to schedule the abortion. “We stopped him. But I was desperate. The sense of injustice was terrible, and it was not taken for granted that we would continue the pregnancy.” They isolated themselves for a while to decide, but all was silence. The first murmur of goodness came from their conversation with the gynecologist Patrizio Calderoni, who suggested they ask for help from the Archbishop of Bologna, Carlo Caffarra. Full of doubt, they went to the meeting. Natascia wanted to know from the Cardinal if you could call it “life” when it is known that the child cannot survive. “I had held Michela close in my arms. Do you think that I didn’t know the answer?”, she says, with tenderness for herself. “It’s that I was looking for an escape route.” However, she did not expect Caffarra’s response: “You do not have the strength. The Lord is asking you to run, but your feet are lacerated. You have to ask Him for strength. I am with you. I will say Masses for you and, when you want, I will be here. Natascia, ask Our Lady for a miracle, because you women understand each other.” He told her to place herself before the cross and not to try to reason, but just to trust, to say, “Save me.” He gave her the words. “It was what I needed, because I was so angry that I couldn’t even pray.”
They left the Archbishop’s building without doubts. They had expected to be preached at but, instead, that day was the beginning of a friendship they never would have imagined possible. “He saw our need,” says Mirco. “In his embrace, I was certain I could trust him.” From then on, Caffarra welcomed them in the most difficult moments, when they faced decisions, even in how to tell the children or whether to have a C-section delivery. They began to see a companionship accompanying them in everything; whenever they faced some particularly painful moment, something would happen, “non-stop,” says Mirco. One morning, he came home from work because Natascia was going through a crisis, screaming and crying. Shortly after, they received a phone call to inform them that Fr. Julián Carrón would receive them. “I headed out for Milan already certain that it was Christ who was answering me,” Mirco recounts. “He wanted to verify with us that faith wins in life. I said to myself that if I bet on what I have seen, I will not lose.” When they left their meeting with Carrón, everything had changed. “It seemed like we were leaving our wedding reception.” On the train journey home, they looked at each other and spoke with each other as they hadn’t done for years.
It is only the beginning. By chance, the five-month sonogram was in color, and Natascia saw the malformation better: it was much worse than she had imagined. “In that moment, I had the clear knowledge that Jesus wanted him this way. He loves him this way. I collapsed like a child when she understands that her father has already decided.” Her cry became more and more acute. “I began asking only for Jesus, that He would not leave me, that everything would be full of Him.” At one point, Mirco also felt like screaming, and went to Caffarra: “Why has God chosen this for us?” The Archbishop answered, “Dear Mirco…” “Just the way he said ‘Dear’ would have been enough for me. But he told me, ‘I don’t have an answer to this. Nobody on this earth will have it for you. But what you are experiencing is already the hundredfold; the mysterious design remains.’ He could not answer me, but he did not leave me in the void.” He made them look.
Giacomo’s crying. As they waited for a miracle, there was suffocating pain, but as they waited for Giacomo, their yes became an increasingly intense journey. Everything spoke in the context of one great dialogue, through the dedication of their friends, a message, a conversation over coffee that went straight to the heart, or through Andrea, who returned from Paraguay to be with them, and who at the station knelt before Natascia’s belly. “It seemed crazy,” says Mirco, “but I experienced a strange correspondence. I would understand it better months later.” The more their question opened up, the more they discovered companions on their journey, among old and new friends. “It was an embrace of the whole Church,” continues Natascia. “We had many encounters, but each of them, in its own way, was a trace of Jesus.” They received a letter from Pope Francis, then one from Pope Benedict. “We had written to the whole world, above all to monasteries. Our friends made pilgrimages. There was a people united because of a presence”–one that would come into the world in a short time. The C-section was scheduled for October 1st. “I was sorry that it couldn’t be done on the second,” says Natascia, because she would have preferred for Giacomo to be born to heaven on the feast day of the Guardian Angels.
During the one hundred steps Mirco took from the parking lot to the ward, alongside his wife and child in the womb, “I was at peace. I could only be grateful.” They entered the hospital with the greatest miracle there is, as Fr. Giussani said, “pain that becomes gratitude,” and gratitude that “becomes the source of newness for the world.” Natascia received Communion and entered the delivery room. Outside, their friends prayed the Rosary with Mirco. The child was born, and cried. “We certainly didn’t expect this.” Dr. Guido Cocchi, head of Neonatology, is still moved when he speaks of it. “We were prepared for a heart that would have slowed in a few minutes, a rapid death. Instead, Giacomo cried, forcefully. Usually they don’t have the time and strength for it. Then, we expected a respiratory crisis, but the minutes passed by...” Giacomo would live 19 hours, until dawn of the feast day of the Guardian Angels.
Cocchi has worked there for 36 years, and has seen everything. “But this time, something new happened, because of Giacomo’s behaviour and because of what happened around him, the collaboration that was generated between wards that usually are in friction, and the new way the staff accompanied the family.” After two hours in which Giacomo kicked and made himself heard, they brought him with his mother to a room just for them in the ordinary ward, like all children, without separating them from each other. “It was all very intense, not because of an organization, but just because of a presence that imposed itself,” recounts Dr. Chiara Locatelli, a neonatologist. “It was unthinkable to have it work out like this. Normally, the baby is brought to the intensive care unit. Some of the colleagues were doubtful or argumentative, because there were risks to making a choice ‘outside the protocol.’ For others, it was absolutely absurd that Giacomo should have been born at all. Useless pain.” But those who entered that room changed their minds, just seeing him. “In the face of my colleague’s rancor, I just told her to come with me. When she was there, she was moved. There was such a strong intensity... I thought that it must have been like this on Christmas night.” Everyone wanted to be there. There was a pilgrimage of friends. They greeted him, but then didn’t want to leave. Nurses and doctors asked about this child–is he alive? How is he? Mirco couldn’t fathom it all. “Why was he such important news for everyone?” Giacomo was simply there, crying because he was hungry, looking for his mother, listening to the voice of his father and two siblings who came to meet him. “When there were just the four of us,” says Mirco, “the pain, the toil of those months and the months before abated... everyone was at peace in front of Giacomino.”
Beyond our efforts. After a night of watching over him, Natascia saw that he was not breathing well. “She called me and I ran to get the morphine,” recounts Dr. Locatelli, “but I didn’t make it in time. At that point, I wanted to leave him as long as possible in her arms... It was hard for me to let him go. And I realized that up to the last you think that the hope is in what you want.” Instead, Natascia gave him to her, certain, crying, “He is already where he should be.” Two months later, the sense of wonder about what people saw in that room remains. “Giacomo came among us to tell us that he existed and was loved as he was. I think that we all had to deal with this. For many months, I asked the Lord to show me His tenderness and power. These two words, always. And He answered my prayer. He transfigured reality.” Giacomo conquered the world around him, changing it without knowing it, without wanting to, just as was sublimely expressed in the poem, The Mystery of the Holy Innocents by Charles Peguy. A few hours later, when the nurse responsible for the ward, the nurse-midwife, and the delivery room manager came to their room, Mirco and Natascia were alarmed. “We want to thank you. Our work has changed. Now we are going to request that the Healthcare Director institute a ‘Giacomino Protocol.’” This was previously unthinkable in a hospital, where medical care strictly means healing. In fact, according to Calderoni, “For some time, some colleagues and I had been studying how to propose ‘comfort care.’ The presence of Giacomo went far beyond our efforts, and made me desire to have my eyes wide open all the time, because Jesus passes next to me every day.”
“Where was I, up to today?” The nurse responsible for the ward, Maria Antonietta Graziano, ardently desires that the experience of Giacomo become a method. “That day, everything happened in an extraordinary–but spontaneous and natural–way. I don’t know how to express it.” She has been a nurse-midwife for 33 years, but had never been faced with the situation of a baby like Giacomo, because such infants were usually transferred to other teams. But when she knows that the mother wants to be with her child, Antonietta makes herself available. She is a full flowing river. “Seeing the smile of that woman... She never complained; she was not off-putting. All women are that way after giving birth, especially those who have had a C-section. She didn’t say anything. She took her child by the hand and accompanied him to the other life. Look, most people try to have nothing to do with death! But you know what? At a certain point I forgot that he had a pathology. It was so beautiful. My colleagues and I were able to say yes.” In what sense? “In the sense that I asked myself, ‘Where have I been, up to now?’ I understood that I had been anonymous up to the day before, you see?” She says that she woke up “from a dream,” and she did not know she was dreaming. “It opened my eyes, opened a new frontier in my work.”
Mirco kneels in the cemetery thinking of Andrea kneeling before the baby in utero: “She understood that Jesus had come to visit us.” He misses his son. “But when I think of him, I think of where my heart wants to remain attached.” In this period, Natascia realized that they were wedging things into place as they had before, and was afraid. “All this changed the world and it didn’t change us? Instead, it is a fact. You have to look at it, seek it. The question is bigger but precisely because I saw the Truth.”
Mirco recounts how he totters in daily life; it is not that now he sees reality from a higher plane. “Before all this, I had one prayer: to be free. It was the same when I learned of Giacomo, and it is the same now. The fact is that I saw that the Lord took me with my limitations, embraced me through the people around me, and told me, ‘With Me, you can be free.’” The little card they had made up to give people in memory of Giacomo comes to mind: the image has a detail of Beato Angelico’s Universal Judgment, in which a guardian angel welcomes to Heaven the person it protected, and embraces him as if it had always been waiting for him, just as Giacomo is being embraced now.
THE WELL-READ MOM BOOK CLUB
“I’m like Mrs. Turpine: a hypocrite. I never realized that.” This was the reflection of one mother during a discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation, in the reading group founded in Crosby, Minnesota, a little over a year ago by Marcie Stokman, mother of seven, grandmother of four, nurse, psychologist, and lover of beauty. There are now 74 WRM reading groups in 26 U.S. states, Canada, and France. And it all started from a simple need.
“My daughter and daughter-in-law participated in the usual ‘mothers’ groups’ with their neighbors,” recounts Marcie, “but they complained that all they ever talked about was children, and this wasn’t enough for them.” Thus, a reading group was born in her home. They read a book a month, and those who do not manage to read the book can participate in the discussion anyway. Even those most convinced that they lack the time end up finding it. Then, a second group began to meet in the home of Marcie’s oldest daughter. Marcie began preparing short audio recordings to introduce the books and to propose discussion questions. To make things easier, the Well-Read Mom website was created so women could sign up and get material for their gatherings. By the end of 2012, there were 25 groups, but Marcie was hesitant, and wondered if it was worth investing more time in it. Her doubts were eliminated during the last New York Encounter at the performance of The Katrina Letters, by Chris Vath, an ensemble piece based on the 500 letters a family found during cleanup from Hurricane Katrina, chronicling the courtship of their parents during World War II. “I understood that Chris couldn’t have done such a beautiful thing if he hadn’t felt himself part of a people, and this made him want to share what had happened to him. His belonging to the Movement and to the Church encountered my sadness and my desire. In this way, embraced by this people, my reservations vanished.”
So Marcie accepted an invitation to present her idea at the local university, Saint Thomas: “About 80 people came, and after the gathering another 21 groups started. In September they numbered 40, and now there are 74.” Each “club” involves from 4 to 40 people. Marcie sends the material to the person who founds the group, but does not know exactly how many people participate. What books are chosen, and why? Last year, 2012, the books followed the “Year of the Daughter” theme, “because we all begin life as daughters.” This year is the “Year of the Mother,” and next year will be the “Year of the Wife.” The books range from Jane Eyre to The Odyssey; from the Confessions of Saint Augustine to Babette’s Feast; from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dorothy Day, and Sigrid Undset to Saint Therese of Lisieux.
“Many husbands and children have come to thank me for the work I do. Now they are the ones to encourage their wives and mothers to find the time to read. They tell me that their dinner table discussions have changed, becoming more lively and interesting. And friendships have grown among the participants. I even have three Lutheran women coming to the group in my home.” But Marcie realizes that there is more. “I have seen people in difficult situations begin to look at themselves, their lives, and their marriages in a different light. Some have succeeded in facing a depression or a difficult child. There was even a case in which the divorce papers were ready, but were never signed.” So then, they gather to discuss books, but it does not seem like the usual literary club. Life has erupted in the “moms’ groups”–not that they did not live before, but their horizon has changed, opened by the words of great literature.
The bookshop owners. At times, Marcie receives e-mails from strangers thanking her for what she does. She hears from booksellers in the boondocks who are amazed at the titles that are insistently requested. Once, looking into a car parked next to hers, she saw a woman reading their book of the month, the Confessions of Saint Augustine. “I felt an explosion of joy. My effort was putting me in connection with many hearts made like my own,” scores of people, most of whom were strangers, drawn by a different way of reading and thinking about their lives, but also by a newness in the way of being together. “I am amazed, because none of this began with a project of my own. One day a friend asked if I prayed for the 74 groups that follow us,” says Marcie, “and from then on I began doing so every day, and this has opened my heart in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible.”
SANTIAGO'S WAREHOUSE HOUSE
As we speak, Dolores is unloading pallets of food from a truck, to carry them to the second floor of a small apartment building in Montevideo, Uruguay. “She is a great friend. She has the keys to my house–otherwise, now that I am in Buenos Aires, how can we keep running the Banco de Alimentos [Food Bank]?”, explains Santiago Abdala from the university where he is doing his Masters in Business Administration. Santiago, 31 years old, is from Argentina and works in a bank in Uruguay. The story leading up to his apartment full of pallets of food is one of “a man who was captured very slowly.” There is one date he remembers very well: July 3, 2012. “That was the day the first donation arrived: over 9,000 cans of freeze-dried chicken soup with herbs, almost 300 pounds. A deliveryman from a food company brought them. We didn’t know where to put them. The guest room was free....”.That was the beginning of the Food Bank in Uruguay, a little more than a year ago. Today, it helps 47 charitable groups and 7,000 individuals. It is only a drop in the ocean of need: “We are collecting money to gain legal status, and the Global Food Banking Network has already recognized us and allocated funds to us.” The Network is not the only source of support. “We meet many interesting realities, and many people who get involved, even just to give a hand,” says Santiago. Dolores, for example. She is a mother and homemaker, and came on behalf of a charitable organization to get food. “She said to me, ‘If you need a hand…’” And so it was with the doorman and others. Now, about 10 people help with the Food Bank at “The Abdala Home.” “It is a small enterprise, maybe a bit disorganized, and yet it is growing, and attracts people. If I think of how it started... It was a journey, in search of something to fill my life.”
He has always been certain of one thing: faith is something that makes life better, for himself and for others. He experienced this years earlier when he used to go with a missionary group to play with the children in the villages of the Pampa. “It was really beautiful. I have always searched for that fullness and now it is here, in my living room. It has a well-defined face, that of Christ.”
Who would have thought of it in 2004, when, a high school graduate, and already employed, he left everything in Buenos Aires and went to Majorca, with only a few euros in his pocket. “I was dissatisfied with everything. I wanted more, without knowing what.” He spent a couple of months with a friend working hard in clubs and bars, often drunk, “to be more simpatico with the clients.” Then he left Spain for London, to work and maybe attend university. But his life did not improve. At Easter in 2005, he received an invitation from his friend Roberto, “a friend from an Italian CL family, who lives near Milan. He invited me to visit for the holidays.” A few days later, Santiago was at the Sanctuary of Caravaggio, at the CL university students’ Way of the Cross. “I didn’t understand everything, but I was struck”–by the silence, the readings, and, “above all, Mozart’s Requiem, in church. I thought of old churches as made of dead stones, but there, that beautiful music made them beautiful, living.” There was something “that was worthwhile.”
From Zurich to Montevideo. Roberto encouraged him to enroll in the university in Lugano, Switzerland, and helped him get a scholarship. “I was close to the friends in the CL university students group, but I was still diffident.” When he finished his studies they invited him on the pilgrimage to Czestochowa. “I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t like to do things proposed by the Movement.” But a friend, Luca, insisted, and even said he would pay. “It was like a bolt of lightning.” That friendship and that life truly interested him. He accepted work in Geneva, rather than returning to Argentina. “There, I lost sight of the Movement. I was involved in another set of friendships. Then, one day, I received a phone call. My mother had cancer. She had to have surgery and undergo therapy. I asked to be transferred to South America” but, instead, his company sent him to Zurich. “I was alone; I wanted true companionship.” He began returning to Lugano, after work. “I had dinner with my friends, Luca and Agnese, then I headed back in the morning. It was worth it just to spend time with them, even for a short conversation.”
He was finally transferred to Montevideo at the end of 2010. “I wanted that friendship and fraternity to continue.” He asked Luca for the book of School of Community and began to spend time with the Uruguayan CL members. “But it wasn’t enough just to see them every now and then. Also, I began considering that proposal of the Movement, charitable work, indicated as a fundamental point, together with the School of Community.” Santiago proposed it to everyone. “We went to a parish. The priest told us to bring food every Saturday, and he would re-sell it at low cost to the poor.” They began this work, and met to read the booklet on charitable work. “But this was not useful. Certainly, the need of the poor people was real, but doing it like that was empty.” Then, Santiago recalled the experience of the Food Bank he had seen in Italy. “I called Marco Lucchini, who was a director of the Food Bank. He told me how it worked, but he insisted, above all, that the heart of charity is gratuitousness.” Not just giving food for free, no. He spoke about an educative dimension for oneself in the relationship with all things. “The issue was, once again, to go deep down into my own need.” So they started. They made a few contacts and then met some directors of large food firms, who were impressed and decided to participate. “Then that first soup arrived...”
In the meantime, his apartment continues to fill up with pallets. Santiago jokes, “In April, I’m getting married. How will we manage?” But he knows what is important: “I just desire that He not stop making Himself present. Otherwise, what would be the use of all this?” That includes not heating his apartment, to prevent the food from spoiling. “But Jesus was, and is, so precise in the opportunities to educate me that I don’t want to miss one of them. I am walking with friends who have just shown up, like gifts.” He says he is gaining in terms of living. “It’s beautiful, like the Requiem I heard in the Church. Those cans are the stones, and they are beautiful because Someone who sings so well brings them to life. I’m not the one.”
THE CHOIR IN THE DESERT
Within the course of two and a half years, Paolo saw his wife Marta for a total of four months. He alternated 90 days in the desert with two weeks in Italy–then it was back to the “camp,” a compound more than two hours from Dubai by car. There, in prefabricated buildings furnished only with necessities, 22,000 people from all over the world worked for 14 hours a day, sometimes in 120-degree temperatures, to construct a large petrochemical plant. Thinking back on it now, he realizes he had only one concern: “To live humanly in such an inhuman place.”
He called Marta every night. They dedicated this time to each other as a rule and as a sieve, sifting through their many thoughts and fatigue in order to find the essential. “It was easy to do everything without thinking for a minute about the meaning of the day.” For this reason, he never missed Mass at the Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, making the trip on his day off, Friday (which was “Sunday” there, because the work week started on Saturday). Every two weeks, he went to Dubai for School of Community and to be with his friends, the small “family” of the Movement, made up of people whose work had brought them there: Roberto and Silvia, Luís and Pilar, and all of the others who, for different stretches of their road–some for years and some for only a few months–were involved in this friendship.
It’s only logical. “In time, I learned that, in order to truly live at the compound, I didn’t have to ‘bring’ anything, but to be myself,” explains Paolo. “So it was an open question: What am I made of?” When he received the e-mail from the logistics manager, inviting all of the Christians in the camp to say the Rosary, he participated. “Thus, from the unity in this Rosary group, the ‘choir’ was born:” a small group of strangers, from various countries, who started to get together every week. “In order to follow what I love, I suggested learning some songs in English, and I found before me three Filipinos who wanted to do it with me–Jan, Allen, and Noel. And so our little choir began.” The rehearsals, after work, were always an invitation: “I understood better what friendship is. We had nothing in common, and yet there was an attachment that caused me to be reborn, even only in the reminder to offer the day, which then becomes more than just, ‘It went well’ or, ‘It went poorly.’” They started to do School of Community together and to get to know Fr. Giussani, a new name for the others. “I still remember Allen’s words one day: ‘Since we started the choir, my life at the construction site has changed. I want to share all of this with my wife as soon as I get home.’”
Now Paolo has been transferred to a camp at Ruwais, more than 200 miles from Dubai, and Marta and his children have joined him. They have just returned from the Beginning Day, a five-hour drive from the compound. There were around 20 people present–a small community that surprises itself. “Not everyone knew each other,” says Marta, “but they wanted to spend two days together. Here, the first thing that people normally do is keep their distance.” Roberto and Silvia were there, having just returned from Italy after the unexpected death of Roberto’s mother. “It was a pain that ran over us like a train. Attending a weekend event with the CL community was not our first thought, but these people whom we did not choose are the privileged place to live life’s big questions,” says Roberto. He speaks of the “given companionship” of Luís and Pilar, who met the Movement in Madrid (“while looking for a school for our daughters, it was we who were educated”); of Marcela, a Mexican flight attendant, and of Perrin from Geneva; then there is Agnese, who is studying in Kuwait; Luciano from Oman, with one of his colleagues; two other Italians; and five young people from Lebanon, who met CL in Dubai. One of them is Salim, a computer engineer. The first time that he had lunch at Roberto’s house, he was bewildered: “Why are they inviting a stranger to their home?” But he was struck by a phrase from the video of the 2012 Spiritual Exercises, which he remembers: “It’s only logical to believe.” “I always thought that faith was a sentiment,” he explains. “This encounter gave me a different perspective on life and on my belief in Jesus. A challenge was launched, and I am following it.”
Behind appearances. Roberto thinks back to Fr. Carrón’s exhortation, which left its mark on him with particular intensity this year: witness is drinking, eating, living, and dying. “It is hearing Christ’s voice calling me once more. Don’t ‘do,’ but ‘be.’” Here, it is difficult to get it wrong, because they can hardly do anything, not even charitable work. The church is always crowded, and there are 600 children at catechesis, but the parish has no distinctive signs, and public gestures, like processions, are forbidden–there is freedom of worship, not of religion. “And well-being is exaggerated. It’s as if there were no place for need.” Yet, by simply living, he has seen relationships with colleagues take a leap forward–for example, when he quit a job that took up all of his time, right at the apex of his career. Meanwhile, Silvia, who is an obstetrician, started giving childbirth classes to some mothers. “Behind appearances, there is much fragility and anxiety; their relationship with their children is entirely delegated to their Filipino nannies. So the first fidelity is you to yourself, for a diversity that is given to you, the fruit of the encounter that took hold of your life.”
Here, the cultural difference is the greatest difficulty and the greatest encouragement. “It calls you to be more aware,” says Luís. “You can say that it’s a complicated society as much as you want, but what truly frightens me is being alone with my plans.” He has discovered that he needs School of Community in order to live: “When I return to the Destiny that called us, I won’t be afraid. The days are not spent in insistence on my ideas and limits, but instead they are the verification that Christ goes on living.”