GS kids from the London community

Where the Game is Played

In Montreal, London and Germany … A journey to GS communities around the world to catch how these kids deal with everyday life with a challenge: “To see if what we have encountered really has to do with everything.”
Anna Leonardi and Paolo Perego

There were 6,000 of them in the Spring for the Easter Exercises. They came from all over the world--high school kids who live the experience of the movement among the desks of their schools. “The embrace that saves you” is the theme of those three days. But from what do they need to be saved at their age?

You need only to listen to them or be with them for a few hours to understand it; at the GS Equipe in Cervinia in early September, for example, during the assembly with Father Carrón. Elena, a student from Rimini, talks about her month of study in Ireland when she ran into two Muslim kids from Turkey who filled her with questions and to whom she spoke about herself. “We are lacking that encounter you talk about. We need your friendship,” they tell her. “But what did they see?” she asks herself. And Edoardo, from Forli, and his group of friends with whom he has a lot of fun, but then there is this bitter aftertaste, “Clubs and places with them, but then I felt alone, sad. I went to look for a friend that I met on the GS vacation.” Someone who was just like him before, but who is “happy” now and with whom “I am free, I can be myself.” But there are also examples that you will read in the stories that follow. About Irene, from England, dealing with her new friends at school. Or about that small group in Cologne, in Germany, who decided to do charitable work with immigrants in their age group at the welcome center by their school. And then again, with the “new entries” of the Canadian community in Montreal.

In short, these are kids who are facing their lives with all the beauty and difficulty they find in their days. At their age, everything that happens affects them intensely. In the face of a world that labels them as “disinterested” or “insensitive,” the truth is that they are “thin-skinned;” everything touches the living flesh of a 16-year-old.

Friendship, love, desire…
The problem—it was said by a group of them at Cervinia—is that “we live in a historical epoch marked by fear and uncertainty, by a lack of bonds.” In Valtournenche, 500 GS kids were challenged by a question: “Who is the friend who never abandons you?” If it is true that “nothing is enough, everything is inadequate,” even the dearest friends (as Stella, a student from Varese said: “No one is enough, being with them doesn’t satisfy deep down…”), then, what really lasts? What is the path?

“The point is to recognize what has happened to us!” Carrón encouraged them. “It is a fact, an experience,” Father Pigi told them. Like what happened to Peter 2,000 years ago: “He said ‘yes’ because of the sympathy he experienced in relationship with Jesus.” Even though he was full of limits, he realized that with this man he could taste everything and become more himself. “For us, it is no different. We are called to verify if Jesus is truly the source of a way of living that embraces everything, when we study, when we are alone, when we are at home.”
We have tried to make a quick trip through some communities outside Italy to catch that verification in action among these GS kids through “radiuses,” charitable work, family and friendships, with the purpose of discovering where this new life comes from, and how—and why—it can change those who come across it.


“We follow something alive”

To climb Mount Royal, in the heart of Montréal, on foot, requires close to twenty minutes. But the kids in GS did it in much less, as they rushed to arrive before sunset and ee the spectacle of their city from above. Then they waited for the night and the stars. And before they got out their guitars to sing, they listened to a few words of explanation, just to help their eyes to be in front of that immensity.

Looking at these faces, even in a place as multiethnic and bilingual as Quebec, one wonders how these Russians, Chinese, Romanians, Italians and Quebecois came together. “In effect, sometimes we seem like a delegation from Unicef,” laughs Cristiano, who is a doctor by trade, but every Saturday at six in the afternoon drops everything to be with these kids. “Often, we meet up in a Catholic center in the city and do School of Community,” says Elena, an English teacher, 45 years old, thirteen of which she’s spent here. “After pizza, we watch a film or play ‘Mafia’, a popular game in these parts. In theory, we should finish by 10 p.m., but we never manage to send them home before 11:30.”

Many of these kids discovered GS about a year ago. They had met Pierluigi, a history teacher who arrived in Canada from Italy 23 year ago, where he had met the experience of the movement. Today he teaches at the Collège International, one of the most “in” high schools in the city. “It is a very selective high school. Not surprisingly, it is attended by children of immigrants who often are the most motivated. In these years, I have always proposed a trip to the theater or a lecture to my student, which facilitated a friendship with a few of them,” recalls Pierluigi. “In the Summer of 2014, I invited them to come with me to Europe to walk the Camino of Santiago. I thought that ten of them would sign up, but instead they were forty. At the end of the pilgrimage, I told them: “What if our whole life became a Camino?” And there I understood that unless I recommitted myself to following the movement, I couldn’t bring any of them along.”

Merging. Back home, after a few months, he looked up Elena and Cristiano. The two of them lead a small group of GS, made up almost entirely of Quebecois families from the Movement. There was a study weekend in Kingston with their friends from Toronto and Ottawa, and it worked for them to meet up there. Pierluigi brought four students: two Chinese and two Russians. For those kids, the weekend became part of the history of GS, not so much for the studying, but for the “merging.” Because it wasn’t painless. Ben, who now is 18 and is studying to become a firefighter, remembers it as a shock: “These new kids seemed to have so much to say, instead I hardly ever spoke up. They seemed farther ahead of me, and I was envious of their questions. I asked myself, ‘How did they get involved so quickly?’”

Also for Jean-Etiene it was a jolt: “GS was never a choice for me, it was always something routine, like going to school. To see these new kids, for whom the Movement wasn’t something hereditary, but a decisive friendship that kept them coming back week after week, made me understand that I was missing out on something.” It was a wave that entered the lives of each of them to make them truer. And Elena and Cristiano weren’t afraid to catch it: “GS did not belong to us because we were here longer,” they challenged their friends. “We follow something alive and we would be disloyal if we didn’t ask how this newness can become useful for us. This place is for those who have a question now.” Even Pierluigi is not afraid to say to the kids on Sunday before they return home, “This is a bit of a strange place, from which I’ve walked away many times, but there was always a nostalgia that brought me back. I said so many ‘no’s’ and so few ‘yeses,’ but we just have to start walking again today.” One of the new kids is Alexandra, the “Queen of Russia,” somewhat because of her personality and somewhat because of her origin. Her family is Orthodox, but when she was 15 she fell in love with a Muslim boy and started wearing the veil. At school, it was a big to-do: her friends were scandalized and her professors formed a united front with her family to try and convince her to desist. At the end of the school year, she sought out Pierluigi: “Professor, excuse me, I would also like to come on the pilgrimage to Santiago.” Pierluigi was clear: “Alexandra, during the Camino, we’ll read the Gospel and pray together. If that’s okay with you, I would be happy if you came.” From that moment, she never left them again. “Sometimes on Saturday I am very tired because I train on my bike on day,” she says. “I come home and throw myself on the bed and think that I won’t be able to go to School of Community. But there is always a moment in which I remember that it is the thing I have been waiting to do all week. Going to GS is never a struggle for me, rather it is the contrary. Because it cancels out all my tiredness.”
Sebastien too comes from an Orthodox family, but his mother, because of a vow to Saint Joseph, baptized him Catholic. He went on the Summer Vacation for the first time in 2015: “When I came home, I had the impression that someone had opened my eyes. I saw that I can live every detail of the day intensely. So, the first thing I did, walking down the street, was to take out my headphones and stop listening to music. The emptiness that I felt no longer scared me and I didn’t need to fill it anymore.”

“I have to see.” Sylvain and Ruijie, instead, are Chinese and like their three friends who come to GS (Alexandre, David and Yulaine), are not baptized. This whole year, they read The Religious Sense together. “There was a whirl of questions. They took account of every word. Alexandre, for example, could not accept that sadness was ‘the desire for an absent good,’ but simply something that happens to neurotransmitters in the brain,” Cristiano remembers. But it is never an explanation that changes our way of thinking. Like what happened to Sylvain and Ruijie, who in the middle of the year asked Pierluigi to take Baptismal preparation classes. “In reality, Ruijie told me that she was not certain if she wanted to receive Baptism, but she wanted to take a class to understand more,” Pierluigi clarifies. Sylvain, though, was totally convinced, so much so that one Saturday evening he came with his mother. “I kept talking about what we did together, but at a certain point she told me: ‘I have to see,’ and so I brought her.” Today she goes to the School of Community for adults, together with Sylvain who translates for her.

Even Marie-Jeanne invited others. She is 15 years old and goes to an all-girls school. At the meetings, she never spoke and scoffed everything time they asked her to play the guitar, but every week she showed up with a new friend. One month, she came with Shaza and Marie-Elene, two Syrian girls who escaped from the war.

Jean-Francois, instead, took the opposite path. He took off when everyone arrived. He missed out on the famous “merging.” He began to get involved with politics at school and, after months of hiding, communicated to Elena and Cristiano that he would no longer be coming: “I wanted to understand what truly helps me live. And GS did not seem to have anything to do with what I desired,” he says today. “We did not try to stop him,” Elena remembers, “but not because of indifference. Leaving him free to make his own journey reawakened in us an expectation, a deep care for him.”

A Text. In the two years he spent away, every now and then they ran into him: he had long hair, was a vegetarian and a leftist. So, Cristiano’s heart jumped when in January he received a text: “I want to come on the Winter Vacation.” In the hotel at Orford, Jean-Francois found that the picture was very different. He who thought he had changed so much found that his friends had changed even more. At the assembly, he was the first to speak: “The thing that I missed the most were the question that we ask here. I thought they were naturally in me, instead in these months I have started to forget them. And in the end, I started to be insecure about everything. Even about God. I came to church, but I could no longer talk to him like I did before.” From that moment, GS truly became his home. He even brought his girlfriend and got her to lend a hand in organizing the meetings. “I developed so many interests in these months,” Jean-Francois explains. “But I get fed up, I feel suffocated, if I don’t have these friends. I need this place so that everything I do can continue to interest me. And so that life can keep speaking to me.”


“They always surprise me”

“Student Youth is a friendship, not a place.” A perfect summary for Martha, 16 years old, from Maidenhead, a suburb of the British capital. She started to attend GS a couple of years ago, after the invitation from Father Pepe, the Spanish priest from her neighborhood (see Traces, n. 10, October 2015), during her preparation for Confirmation. Today, at the radius, she talks about her Summer, the vacation, her friends and the GS Equipe in Italy, where she went for the first time. With her in Cervinia, there was Anna from the City: “We felt welcome right when we thought we would feel alone.” They experienced an unexpected familiarity with everyone: “Those unknown kids had the same questions I did.”

Singing Coldplay. “Even Giorgia has the same question,” Martha says about her classmate who was not even baptized. “Last year I tried to invite my friends to GS events. I wanted them to come with me, but almost egotistically. Instead, I understood that what I encountered is also for them, for their happiness.” A new hypothesis with which to face everything, from classmates to passions, like theater. “GS outside of GS” is how she now defines the discovery to challenge everything, starting from what has happened to her.

Out of this new gaze came the invitation to Giorgia in early September, for a day together organized by the London GS kids: games, dances, and radius together. And finaly, a shot at a few modern songs, from Coldplay to Brandi Carlile, trying to compare themselves to the texts. “Here it is not normal for a Catholic to invite an ‘outsider’ to a Catholic event,” Father Pepe explains. And instead, Giorgia was there. And she will also be there on other occasions with the English community, 30 young people in all, some of them kids from families in the Movement, as well as some transplanted Italians, others “non-indigenous,” in London as exchange students.

The same wound. And then there is the group from Maidenhead. The context? “There is prejudice towards the Church, certainly. Here, the rule of life is to be ‘cool’ about things. You have to go to parties, maybe drink. And if that is not adequate … In GS instead, they say it themselves, the kids discover a relationship in which they don’t have to fake anything, in which they can be themselves. They feel embraced. But this is not an anti-atomic bunker in which to hide themselves, I always tell them. And if someone tries to live it like that, others begin to pose the problem of how the experience they are having in GS can ‘challenge’ every aspect of life.”

Irene, for example, changed schools and at the beginning of the year participated in a gathering with her new classmates, where she experienced the unbearableness of “their superficial conversation and the despair I felt at having to spend the better part of two years with them.” What did the experience of Student Youth have to do with this? At the radius, she wrote down these notes: “I can play the victim. Or else I can remember the unconditional love that moved me.” “Only starting from here, from this embrace, you can see that the others are no different than you. Don’t they have the same wound as you?” Father Pepe asked, indicating the theme for the next meeting.

“They always surprise me,” the priest says. “I see things happening in them that I ‘already know.’ I see Christ changing their life and the lives of those they meet. Like a certain mother … She recognized that her daughter was different; happy. She came to see and has now started to come to School of Community as well.”


Interested in everything

Clara and Annalena, in the end, decided to invite everyone to Stuttgart, their city and, a few days ago, twenty of their friends from Cologne, Munich, and Ingolstadt got together for the day. “GS in Germany is like this. Small groups, dispersed in various cities all over the country. Bremen, Freiburg, Eichstätt. Some are even by themselves,” says Katharina Kessler, teacher at a high school in Neuss, near Düsseldorf, who “accompanies” the German GS kids. She was with a few of them at the Equipe in Cervinia, with Father Gianluca from Cologne.

Towards the Dolomites. Among them, Clara and Annalena, who came back enthusiastic, struck above all “by Father Carrón in the assembly. We found ourselves defensive in front of his challenge to go to the depth of the fascination that had grasped us and for which we were there.”

“GS was born in Germany a few years ago, initially through the friendship among the children of a few families from the movement. It was a way of continuing to live relationship that grew in the life of the community of their parents,” explains Father Gianluca. “It is not easy to see each other.” It is the distance between cities. And then it is the context, where life is always full, Katharina says: “German kids do a lot of activities. They play instruments and a lot of sports. It is hard to get together outside of moments like the radius or the vacations.” Last Summer, a bus leaving from Cologne filled up, city after city: “To the Dolomites, for a vacation together, in the end we were more than 70, because Father Gianluca had invited ‘his’ kids as well,” Katharina explains.
“I have taught in a Catholic school in Cologne for seven years,” the priest says. “I started to speak with a few students and proposed a journey to them. And when they met the GS kids, they understood that it was the same Christian proposal they were living at school.”

“We are Christians.” That is, something that makes them interested in everything. Take Thomas, Anna and Frederik, for example. Passionate about reading, they started to look regularly at titles which, from a recommendation or out of curiosity, they happened to have in their hands. Last year, getting together to read about politics and law in the newspapers, they tried to meet “those people who appeared in the articles that interested them;” not sooner said than done. They wrote letters to politicians, ministers, judges: “From the Minister for Instruction to the Defense for the Federal Government, they met them all!” says Father Gianluca. The president of the Constitutional Court, in Berlin, not able to welcome the kids personally, entrusted them to his “vice.” “Half an hour of various explanations on the foundations of justice and tribunals and then: ‘Any questions?’ The kids flooded him: liberty, truth, justice … ‘But who are you?’, the judge said at the end. ‘We are Christians,’ one of them responded;” Christians. It seems banal, but the motor of these kids’ lives is all here. Maybe they are not able to explain it, “but the beauty of what they live is such that it pushes them to put the faith on the table in everything they live,” says Father Gianluca.

This is true even in front of immigrants, those they see in ever greater number on the streets of their city. “In front of the hypothesis that these people ‘are not a problem but an opportunity,’ they came up with many initiatives to meet them;” plays, concerts, fundraising. For months, the kids expressed their desire to go and meet those people in the camp where they live. “At the end of September, they got permission to go into a welcome center for minors and to begin a charitable work, after school, to accompany them.” When 15 of them presented themselves, the director of the house could not believe it: “I thought there would be two or three …” They spent an afternoon meeting each other, talking together: “Why do we do it? Eh … We are Christian.” There they are again, those words, “sprung from gratitude for what they are living.”

Speaking with the facts. Christianity as life, not as etiquette, is told by the creativity and the activities of this GS kids: “What happened to them? They ran into a hypothesis that life might be more interesting than they thought, and that in some way this has to do with Jesus. And they, with facts more than with words, tell you that even if they don’t understand it all, this new way of looking at things makes everything they live more interesting.”