Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Thirty Years Ago: Encountering a New Humanity (Part 1)

In the midst of this year, with all its confusion, I have had much occasion to remember what happened to me 30 years ago, and how important those days remain for me. I have been struck by this in spite of many distractions (or, rather, it has proven resilient and vital again and again in response to what would otherwise be nothing but frustrating distractions).

Thus I have recognized and relied on the ongoing relevance of an essential and formative encounter that began for me in those days, and that continues to grow even with my stubborn and complicated character, my strange and peculiar life, and all the resistance of my pride.

It was in the year 1990 that I "first became involved with" a group of Catholic Christians on the campus of CUA (where I was studying theology as a lay student at the Dominican House of Studies). At the time, I saw this involvement primarily as a rather clever choice that I was making to associate with like-minded young people.

Yes, young people. I was 27 years old in 1990. 

In spite of the campus meeting place, not many who belonged to this group were students. It was mostly Catholic young urban professionals, men and women in their 20s, well-educated, intellectually inclined, and (with a few exceptions) single.

"Joining this group" was an intelligent choice, one of the few I have really made in my largely hesitant, mediocre life. But it was so was much more than "my choice." It was a gift given to me, a crucial event that happened to me. It was a whole beautiful and mysterious path that opened up for my life — a path that was to shape profoundly the ensuing 30 years (though I have often wandered off to the side or moved very slowly during that time).

Every week, the group met for Mass, then gathered in a classroom for what seemed like a disorganized and free-wheeling discussion about how we were experiencing and living our faith. Afterwards we would go out for pizza. On weekends and at other times we would also hang out, not just for fun, but also to explore the awareness we were trying to cultivate that we were a community in Christ. The discussions at the weekly meetings were loosely based (often very loosely) on a reading for the week from an intriguing and difficult text, a book by an Italian priest that had only very recently been translated into English.

The priest was Monsignor Luigi Giussani. The book was The Religious Sense.

But I have forgotten another very important reality. In the midst of the large weekly meeting there were always a few Italians. They were students or professionals working in the Washington D.C. area who also participated in Giussani's movement in Italy. They didn't try to take over the group, or put on a show of being "experts in Giussani-ism" (😜). They had not come with a "plan" to "start the movement in the USA." But they were active and engaged with the rest of us, and they had a kind of groundedness and freedom which shaped them as very distinct, self-possessed, confident personalities who were also some of the most open people I have ever known.

We were pretty clueless as to what this "movement" was all about or what the heck we were doing. But the Italians didn't really try to "explain it" to us, and they certainly didn't try to impose anything on us. Rather, they befriended us with what I later realized was tremendous confidence in the grace of Jesus Christ and His presence among us. And they shared their own experiences with us of "Comunione e Liberazione,the immense Catholic movement in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe) through which they had discovered that Christ was real, that He was the meaning of all of life.

Being with them and with one another (and studying this seemingly incomprehensible book), we encountered Jesus Christ in a particularly vital way, a way that corresponded to the depths of our own humanity, and a way that called us to be incorporated more profoundly into His Body, His Church, with a greater attention to reality, a deeper charity, and a passion to be witnesses in the world to Him. An ecclesial movement called Communion and Liberation thus began to be (and continues to be) a small but tenacious and fruitful gathering of people who live their Catholic faith with the "accent" of this particular charism, fully and faithfully inserted within the whole Church and in the society of the USA.

Two people I met in those early years of belonging to CL stand out immediately for me. One of them was Msgr Giussani himself. I have written already about his particular counsel and encouragement for me in my professional vocation as a teacher. I didn't meet him until 1991. But the other person is someone I met on the first day, when I went into that classroom for my first experience of the "School of Community." It was more than an "occasion" — the fact is that everything that happened to engender, build up, and sustain my companionship with this person over the years remains rooted in that friendship with Christ that we both began to experience in those days, 30 years ago.

That person is sitting here with me in the same room as I write these words. Her name was different 30 years ago; it has long been changed to what it is today: "Eileen Janaro."😉

[to be continued...]