Jesus Blessing the Children. Wikimedia Commons

Prodigal Sons

The search for self and the chance to rediscover the Father. On the other end, patience and waiting. Parents, teachers, and young people share their experiences of a love that says not “Get out,” but “Go,” just as in the parable.
Paola Bergamini

When Life Suffocates
Alexandra was five years old when she became a part of Angela and Roberto’s life. After being married for almost 10 years, they decided to open their family to adoption. “Ale” is a bright girl with a strong will, as her adoptive parents could see from the beginning. Angela remembers, “With her, we couldn’t rely on nice words. She fixed her eyes on you, waiting for a response.” Her arrival in the family was followed by that of Alfonso and Mario. Alfonso had a serious congenital heart condition, and died when he was only 22 months old. “We knew from the beginning that his chances of survival were low, but he changed our family’s life forever. We learned not to be afraid of death, and that’s the only way you can educate your children to love life. It was possible because of the friends who were there for us, helping us to turn our gaze heavenward.” The day of the funeral, Alexandra slid over to her mom and told her, “I’m not sad. Look at how many people loved him and love us.” At age sixteen, Ale decided she was being suffocated in all areas of life, with school at the top of the list. She dropped out in her third year of high school, and began a nomadic period. She says of that time, “I was getting along all right with the family, but it was as if it were a sweater that was too warm. I wanted something else, so I went to look for it.” Her parents responded, “Okay, in that case you can’t live at home. You need to find a job.” She worked for six months in a factory. Then, she moved and went back to school, but dropped out yet again. “The freedom that my parents gave me wasn’t in what they allowed me to do,” Ale explains, “but in the way they looked at me. They respected me and the fact that I was looking for something in life, the same thing that they wanted for their lives, though we went about it in different ways.”

They were difficult years, full of conflicts, of running away and coming home. Angela tells us, “If you respect your freedom–in other words, if you adhere to the plan God has for you, then you can respect your children’s freedom. When they say to you, ‘Now I’m calling the shots for my life; I’m leaving,’ you can say ‘Go,’ and not ‘Get out.’ The father of the prodigal son didn’t run after him, but he did wait for him. You cannot chain them to the behaviors that you would like to see.”

It’s not always easy, Roberto reminds us. “Of course, you learn to nurture the capacity for empathy, and so not let yourself be overcome by fear. It becomes possible when you are surrounded by friends who share the journey with you; friends you can always call upon. And then... you learn to keep a healthy distance from dramatic situations, first and foremost to protect your relationship as husband and wife. Every so often, Angela and I went away for a couple of days. We asked relatives and friends to help us with our kids, so that we, together, could form a safe harbor where our kids could always return.”

When she was 18, Ale decided to travel to the U.S. to work as a nanny. She was there for two months, and then returned. “My boyfriend was still in Italy, but that wasn’t the only reason I wanted to come back. Even there, life seemed suffocating, but I began to miss the friendship that I had always seen at home growing up. I didn’t remember any of the things they told me, but I remembered what they had done for me. One thing was clear: they never looked at me as just a problem to fix, and neither did their friends.”

When she got back to Italy, she went to work for Roberto’s company and continued studying independently to take the state exam for her high school diploma. One morning at breakfast she told her parents, “Deep down, I only wanted to know if you loved me, or the idea you had of me.” Life no longer seems suffocating. She graduated from the European Institute of Design (IED), found a job, a husband, and had three children. Still, something was missing.

One evening, at the video link-up with Fr. Carrón’s School of Community, Angela saw her walk in the door. “I thought she must need help with her kids.” But then, Alexandra sat down and began to listen. “That summer, at the invitation of some friends, I had gone on a CL vacation. I saw something so beautiful that it overcame all my previous opinions. They lived with a depth that I wanted for my life, for my family. It was what I had seen before in my parents.” It was a safe harbor for life.

I've Come Home
Enrico is what you would call the “spirited” type, restless and just mischievous enough to still be endearing. He always had a hard time with school. He failed his first year of high school, and decided instead to go to a school specializing in technology. Marina, a teacher and the leader of the GS group in Genoa, always got along with him well, though the relationship was not without conflict. He attended meetings, vacations, outings, and worked for a month over the summer in a hotel where he met some CL friends. Life was fascinating, but not always easy. “In my third year of high school, I failed again. I stuck with my friends, but it seemed like things had begun to come undone.” At times he felt like certain questions about the meaning of life, made even more urgent by some difficult situations at home, might totally overwhelm him. “At one point, I couldn’t take it anymore. I said ‘enough.’ It would be better not to think.” He didn’t slam the door on his friends, but he stopped showing up. All he told Marina is that he was able to study better with a few other classmates. It was an excuse, and both he and Marina knew it, but she didn’t take time to lecture him or cook up a scheme to bring him back. “Working with young people, you engage their freedom within a relationship, without schemes to get them to do what you want. You have to love them, finding a thousand ways to meet their gaze, but always aware that the action is always God’s; it’s always His way, in His time. It’s the only way not to constantly worry about what to do, though it’s sometimes hard not to get angry. Enrico still had a place in my heart.” Every so often, she called him and asked how he was doing, and relayed greetings from one friend or another.

Graduation came, and Enrico finished with excellent grades. He found a job in September, and at the same time he met a girl and began dating her. Everything seemed to be getting better; all the puzzle pieces were in place. “I finally seemed to have found peace.” Then, overnight, the puzzle fell to pieces. “My girlfriend left me, and work didn’t satisfy me. Maybe I didn’t want to admit to myself that there was something else that wasn’t right, but I decided to make a clean break with that life.”

Enrico moved to Milan, looking for a new job. He was alone. One day, his sister, who studied in Milan, made him an offer: “I’d like you to meet Claudio Bottini [one of the CL responsibles of the local community] and his friends. Why don’t you come to School of Community with him?” Enrico responded, “I’ll think about it.”

“When the day came,” he tells us, “I decided to go. I couldn’t say why; I guess I was really at rock bottom. No friends, no girlfriend, no job. In the end, what did I have to lose? And then, I had always trusted my sister. I could see that she was happy.” He went to the School of Community and met Claudio, along with Riccardo,

Witnesses CL Life
Matteo, Giacomo and others. The desire for fulfillment and the questions about life that seemed to be dormant in him burst back to life. This time, through his friends, he found a response. It brought back all his memories from GS, not as a ghost from the past, but as something even more solid than before. It was an unexpected new beginning. After a few months, he called Marina. “I have to tell you what happened to me. When I come home, I’m coming to visit you.”

One summer evening, he rang her doorbell. “Hi, it’s me.” “Come on in, the GS kids are over for dinner.” Enrico entered, and though by then he didn’t know any of the students, he began to tell his story. “At the end I said to myself, ‘I’ve come home.’ Jesus, through the companionship of the Movement, never left me. He was always waiting.”

Luigi and Fernanda's first years of marriage were colored by the painful experience of four miscarriages in a row. For both, one thing became very clear: “Children are a gift. Something we wish for, yes, but always a gift. They carry with them a promise that doesn’t depend on us.” After the years of loss, Lucia, Laura, Caterina, and Giovanni all arrived, one after another.

Life went on, without major problems or rebellions from their kids. In Luigi’s words, “We always tried to encourage them to follow what we hold most dear: the companionship of the Movement, which they could see in our daily relationships with our friends, but we never said, ‘Go to GS; go on the vacation.’ They met people who shared our experience, and they were fascinated.” The temptation to tell them what to do, what the best choice is, is always lurking. Fernanda continues, “You always want something more for them, that they could struggle less, because you’ve gone through it before and you know how things will go. However, sometimes you have to just stop and be supportive. Bite your tongue. Stop lecturing. Of the four, probably the one who we struggled with the most was Laura, because she never accepted ‘because you should’ as a reason.” But, of all their children, it was Laura who announced the decision, in May 2013, that in September she would enter the novitiate at the Trappist cloistered convent of Vitorchiano, about an hour and a half outside of Rome. In July, she finished her degree in medicine. “In the months leading up to it, we had noticed a greater intensity and seriousness in facing life, in every respect,” Fernanda said. She passed her exams with the highest scores possible. Even the professor who guided her thesis was amazed by her work. As Luigi recalls, “We watched her, intuiting something special was happening. Unexpectedly, our roles were reversed: we were following her. Of course, the radical form of life was a surprise to us.” The temptation could have been to say, “You’ve done so well in your studies, you like it so much, look how hard you’ve worked, you should at least take the State licensing exam, and then decide.” Fernanda tells us, “It really required our freedom to accompany her. We faced the sadness knowing that we wouldn’t be able to speak to her or see her whenever we wanted. There was the suffering of detachment, of letting go.” In mid September, they took her to Vitorchiano. For Fernanda and Luigi, life was forever changed. The relationship between the two changed; they stopped taking things for granted. As they prayed every morning for Laura, as she did for them, Jesus became closer and closer as a companion. “We learn from our children,” Fernanda says. And so, one morning on the kitchen table she found a note: “I’m sorry for yesterday evening. Luigi.” It was the first time in 32 years of marriage that it had happened. The wrong he referred to had been nothing more than an argument about an insignificant event, but they could no longer let anything slide by. Luigi adds, “I felt just like the ‘good’ brother in the parable of the prodigal son. I thought I already knew it all. Everything was fine. Then we had a new beginning.”

In November 2014, the professor who guided Laura’s thesis attended the ceremony for her investiture. Once again, she asked, “But how does what you studied have anything to do with the decision you are making?” Laura responded, “From the moment of my conception, everything that my parents have invested in me was for this, so that I could arrive here.” At home.