Saturday, October 31, 2020

Meeting "Jesus and His Friends" in the Communion of Saints

It is the last day of October, the Vigil of the Feast of All Saints according to the Roman liturgical calendar, "All Hallows' Eve" they used to call it in English (hence Hallow'een even today).

I want to give the "last word" of the month to that blessed girl we just celebrated, and to one of her great concerns, young people like herself — not just people who were young in 1990 but youth of every generation:

Chiara Badano fought bone cancer for two years. She suffered a lot. She persevered by being drawn into the depths of the suffering of Jesus. Such depths often draw forth the language of paradox.

And so she speaks about herself as "nothingness" (literally nulla in Italian, "nothing") while at the same time "offering" this "nothing"-that-is-herself (one of the mysterious ways that Jesus has transformed suffering and death from within) and basically "asking for the moon"! She asks for the Holy Spirit to come upon young people, to give them the awareness of the precious gift of life and enable them to live every moment in the fullness of God.

What audacity! Human beings can't make up these kinds of things from their own imaginations. This is from God.

And yet (again, like Jesus) she remains deeply human, concerned about her friends, about the future, about those who are suffering. From what I can tell, Chiara was specially drawn to accompanying suffering people even as a child. She gave much time to young people who had problems, her schoolmates with their many difficulties, the girl in the hospital with depression and drug problems.

She had great hopes for young people.

But she was no fool. She didn't condemn her generation; rather she suffered with it, trusting in the infinite mercy of Jesus and seeking to be with Him especially in His accompaniment of those who are "on the margins," indeed those whose own minds and hearts are troubled, confused, broken, and even far from God. As she once said, "I can find Him in the distant ones, in atheists, and I must love them in a very special way, without interest" (i.e. I think "without interest" means without demanding or expecting to experience being "loved back" by them).

As an old cynic like me would put it, "she knew her generation was deeply screwed up." She never said things like that, but she spent lots of time with others her age and knew what they were going through.

She was also sustained and enlightened by the charism of the Focolare movement, and the friends who shared with her its profound pedagogy and "style" of Christian life. I don't know much about the Focolare movement (from what I do know, I am in awe of it — which is not to say that I think their people have never had any problems). I have belonged to the Communion and Liberation movement for 30 years, even if I am something of an oddball among the thousands of "students" of the great 20th century "teacher-of-humanity" Msgr Luigi Giussani (I am an "oddball" everywhere, it seems). Ecclesial movements are great sources of grace for the Church and the world in our times. Their members are not perfect. We journey by imperfect roads toward the perfection of our God and His Son, Jesus.

All that being said, Chiara Badano strikes me as a living example of the distinctive spirituality and graces God gives through Focolare. The people who live the charism of Focolare within the Church are in a privileged position to help us understand more fully the gift that Blessed Chiara is for the whole Church and the world. Today they collaborate with the current ecclesiastical authorities and the Chiara Badano Foundation set up by her parents. Click here for the website. "Meet" Chiara for yourself.

My reflections about my adopted, spiritual "kid sister" are only my own efforts to communicate about a "personal relationship" which I find hard to define, and about which I am far from being an authority (or even "the-one-in-charge" in any sense — perhaps I am really the "kid brother"😉).

Getting back to the subject of "young people," the old cynic can't resist speaking again: "If youth in the 1980s were messed up, boy-o-boy, youth in the 2010s-2020s are really really messed up!"

Well... the old cynic has a point...

...but only insofar as he constantly forgets about what might be called the "mystical practicality" of the love of Jesus Christ. What does that mean? In part, it could mean that "the New Evangelization" is going to "look" different in some ways from what we — the Catholic intelligentsia — are expecting.

I have always cared about young people. First I was a young person (and I was screwed up — recently I referred to it as "drowning"). Then I encountered Christ and found the joy of following Him in the Church (and in this one sentence I have condensed a long process that included more screw-ups... and still does!😉). Then I became a professor in order to "teach" young people, and I became a husband and father with my own young people under my roof. I worked very hard, too hard.

Then I got my butt kicked!

"Retired" before the age of 50 to the ranks of the "disabled."

I have slowly been opening up to the mysterious course of my own life, to God's love for me, to His goodness. I wrote a book about some of this, ten years ago. I'm still learning more about how "belonging to God" and "living every moment in the fullness of God" are where we find the meaning of life, and not in the successes and failures of our projects.

I have "met" a surprising variety of people — many of them young people — over the past decade, and some of them are not the kind of people I would have gone looking for.

In the days leading up to the Spring equinox of the year 2012, I first "met" Chiara 'Luce' Badano. I had never heard of her before in all my life (she had just recently been beatified, but I didn't know about it). I met her quite accidentally, while surfing the internet. I still don't know what led me to her website (the same website I have linked above). But there I was, on that website, reading this incredible story and looking at this girl's face!

It was "one of those days" that shook me deeply. At the end of that day, I wrote about it on my blog, though I didn't know quite what to say. It was a really personal event, an encounter. She sort of "showed up" in my life and said, "I'm here" with a heart like a big open space where I could pour out my soul. I was scared, I was overwhelmed, but that was okay. She wasn't going anywhere. She was listening, and... how to describe it?... involved, in a gentle way.

Here's what I wrote that evening. It's still in the blog archive:

Since then, lots and lots of people all over the world have "met" her in similar ways, and she has brought "light" ("luce") — the "light of Christ" — into the dark places of their lives.

Yes, someone can become a great friend to your life even if you don't "meet" them until after they are dead.

The apparently enormous and complicated processes by which the Church takes up a "cause" for "canonization" have their roots in this fact, and are sustained by it. It starts with people who are drawn by someone's life — not only during that person's life but especially after their death. People are changed by their encounter with this person, and they share their experience with others. What it develops into from there is God's business. There are lots more saints in glory than there are official feast days on the calendar. They all get covered tomorrow, in the Feast of All Saints.

As it happens, there are quite a few young people who are being considered for beatification and canonization (just recently a 15-year-old boy who died in 2006, Blessed Carlo Acutis, was beatified — I want to learn more about him). You can meet these people and learn their stories on the internet. They are young people who died in accidents or from afflictions. There are even some who were inspired by Chiara Badano to embrace their own sufferings.

This group of Jesus and His friends — His young friends — is "updating" all the time. To be honest, the closer they get to the present day, the harder it gets for me to deal with it on a human-emotional level. When they get close to being contemporaries of my own kids, it hits me at a gut level that's pretty overwhelming. No doubt the parents of these kids receive extraordinary graces. That was certainly true for Chiara's parents, but that doesn't mean they didn't go through a lot of suffering. Their own beautiful testimony does not imply that they were exempted from grief.

I still have lots of fears, at various physico-psycho-spiritual levels, besides the ordinary aversion to death that is natural to our humanity. When I write about these things, I don't want to be superficial, much less pretend that I could handle anything like this. Of course, there seem to be many more kids who die tragic deaths than those who die saintly, inspiring deaths. In any case, I hope I can have compassion for the sorrow of the parents (and in a special way for the fathers).

Live this moment in the fullness of God. The focus is here.

I would like to ask some of Chiara's old friends from this world — if I had the chance — whether she was the kind of person who facilitated "people meeting other people." I have never heard anyone say that she was a "networker" in the old-fashioned sense — someone who brought people together. I know she had a lot of friends and acquaintances as a teenager, and apparently they had plenty of house guests. Certainly she brought the people around her closer to God and closer together.

I will venture to say that, for me, she has been something of a quiet but determined networker. I'm still rather awkward at following her lead. But she doesn't give up. I'm a little nervous about where she may want to take me, frankly. But, I must live a little beyond my nerves, at least. If I think she is giving me a "nudge," I intend to follow through with it. She prompts me to go beyond myself and helps clear the way. There are some specific instances where I think this has happened and continues to happen.

Having said all that, I don't have much to offer in terms of a "testimony" in any conventional sense.

Whatever particulars I may hint about, even to myself, in my own mysterious connection with Blessed Chiara cannot count for much — my thoughts and attempted interpretations of any details are just smoke and wind. It's me and what I pull up from my subjectivity, which is a cluttered place, not noted for its reliability. I claim nothing, assert nothing, refer to nothing worthy of more regard than a roll of the dice. But for me, personally, it's a serious thing (even though an enigmatic thing). And sometimes, in life, one has to gamble...

So I "bet on" what seemed to be one of those nudges four years and a few months after March 12, 2012, not far from the Summer solstice of 2016, when — again on the internet — I read about another young person. It was the terrible story of the death of a girl, under very different circumstances (which are unbearable to think of, coming as they did from sudden, unprovoked violence). It had just happened, and the news was everywhere. Famous people were lamenting her loss, and it sounded so appalling. But I got a gentle nudge or a tap on the elbow or something, and I can't say I "heard words" but if I had to articulate what came to me at that time I would say that it seemed like Chiara was there, saying, "look, look, there is the light of Christ!" So, I looked. I can't say I was "convinced" immediately, or that I even knew what I was supposed to be looking for. But in time I began to see many things, and I saw another unforgettable face, and — yes — the light of Christ shined brightly there.

As I said, my thoughts on this are smoke and wind. Maybe it's just coincidence or my overactive imagination that puts these two girls together. But on a subjective level, I go with the sense that Chiara had a hand in getting my attention to a very different story about someone who wasn't even Catholic, who I had to look at with some attention before beginning to see the "extraordinary-within-the-ordinary" that shaped her whole young life. Indeed, it could be said that it was her "offering-of-life" to a Christ-centered mission within the world of popular music (using her voice "for His glory" and giving herself "with love" to whoever God entrusted to her) that ultimately led Christina Victoria Grimmie to open her arms to welcome the stranger who killed her on June 10, 2016.

Chiara Badano is not the only person in the last ten years who has become my friend after her death. 

There are a few other "coincidences" that I have noticed with Chiara and Christina, and what they mean to me. These girls both had a special love for those who were on the margins, who were suffering, or broken in various ways (or "oddballs" like me). For both, cancer was a major factor in their sufferings (with Christina it was her mother). I'll admit, I like to "look for coincidences" once I see that there is some foundation for them. I used to wonder if there was any "reason" why I met Chiara in the middle of March. What happened on March 12 that has anything to do with Chiara? Why March 12? Well, that's Christina Grimmie's birthday. In fact (unbeknownst to me at the time) Christina turned 18 years old on the day I first read about Chiara dying at the age of 18. 

I can't help noticing these things.

In any case, it's clear that these girls are not entirely unalike. I'm inclined to think they are friends now, and even collaborators in the communion of saints with their immense compassion for young people... and others too. My sense is that both of them continue to be a great help to me.

I often speak of friendships with those who have gone before us, who have finished the race and kept the faith. Such "spiritual companions" — and their prayers — are important to our journey in this life. Tomorrow we will celebrate, affirm, and ask for the prayers of all the members of the heavenly Church. Tomorrow we include everybody who is not on "the list," and those who are not likely ever to make any kind of list.

Blessed Chiara Badano knows well these unusual saints, and I think she continues to seek to draw more future saints from unusual places, and even from great distances and out of the midst of great troubles. Her role will grow greater in the years to come, and she will have no shortage of collaborators helping to "light the way" that leads to eternal life. She is immersed in the heart of Jesus, and knows the mysterious depths of His fullness.