Thursday, May 15, 2008

What is Communion and Liberation to me?

The information you will find here comes from the CL website. Lately people have been asking me why I belong to a movement, and why CL? Here's my attempt at an answer:

I first heard about Communion and Liberation in 1997. During the six years we had been living in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, we had belonged to St. Thomas the Apostle parish. St. Thomas was the first parish that my husband and I joined as adults, and our three daughters (the twins had not been born yet) had been baptized there by Reverend Jack Farry. I had been a catechist at St. Thomas, and many of our fellow parishioners were also co-workers or neighbors. I had the sense of being a grown-up Catholic. I met Sarah when I signed my oldest daughter up for the preschool catechesis program. To my delight and amazement, Sarah and her assistant were offering Catechesis of the Good Shepherd! I promptly signed up my second daughter as well and began to spend the sessions in the back of the atrium, lurking.

As Sarah and I became better friends, and as I began to fall in love with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Sarah told me that she also belonged to a lay ecclesial movement, called Communion and Liberation. I think this was the first time I'd heard of a movement in the Church. I remember thinking that CL must be cool, since Sarah was also into CGS, and it was super cool, but aside from hearing about what it meant for her, I wasn't really very interested in it. My life was full to bursting with my young children and with learning about CGS. I was also about to embark on grad school, for a second time. But when my husband told me that he needed something more, in order to live his faith more fully, I quickly recommended that he speak to Sarah and her husband about CL. Well, he fell in love right away, and started giving me Father Giussani's books to read and asking me to come to School of Community. I read the books, and found them very beautiful, if unoriginal (yes, I'm sorry, but my only criticism of Father Giussani was that he wasn't saying "anything new." Now, I think one of the greatest things about him is that he doesn't say "anything new"!). But as for School of Community, I didn't want to give up an evening at home with my children so that I could meet with a bunch of adults to speak about Jesus -- my faith received such a powerful electric charge when I became a mother, and it seemed wrong not to include my children in every aspect of my spiritual journey.

When we moved to Ohio three years ago, it was a time to make new friends, and I wanted to meet other people who were following Father Giussani. Though I still thought that he wasn't saying "anything new," I was hungry for friends who were following the Church: the old, essential, not-at-all new Church. Sometimes, among other Catholics, I feel so disoriented hearing about particular devotions or charisms that seem unfamiliar to me. Father Giussani had the peculiar genius for cutting through all of the "extras" and going straight to the heart of Christianity -- he tirelessly proposed Jesus Christ (much as our current Pope, Benedict XVI does).

What is new about CL is not so much a particular theology, but a way of living out Christianity that is vital, vibrant, and vivifying. This I did not understand from reading the books. I had caught glimpses of it while I still lived in Chicago -- when one member of the community got sick, everyone simply canceled everything to go pray the rosary in the hospital chapel the next day; or when we invited our friends to our daughter's Baptism, the CL people showed up en masse, though they had further to travel and didn't know us as well; when a teenage girl from Milan came to stay with us for two summers, she became like one of the family almost instantly. This "something new" is hard to see unless you're looking for it. It involves being able to see our Lord, beloved and adored, in the bonds of friendship that exist between and among ordinary, sometimes uninspiring, Christians. What Father Giussani both proposed and also demonstrated in reality is that Christ is not only present as Bread and Wine in the Eucharist, he is also present in the unity that exists in his people -- the Body of Christ. When we gather together, we can meet him in the flesh.

Some people wonder: why do you need anything in addition to parish life? After all, the parish is the Eucharistic community, where this presence can make itself most felt...? It is true that the Eucharist vivifies and enlivens any particular parish community, but what seems to be most difficult for us is to live with an awareness of what the sacraments mean. Without an awareness of what our Baptism means, what our Confirmation means, what our participation in the Eucharist means, we sleepwalk through our lives, and miss so much! God is reaching out toward us, wanting to meet us in all our present moments, but we easily get distracted. We need friends who live this awareness, who are willing to live this awareness along with us.

Some people also wonder whether joining a movement narrows our involvement in the Church. Nothing could be further from my own experience! The more I follow this one particular charism, the more universal my understanding of so many other aspects of the Church has become. In fact, being involved with CL has opened me up to the international dimension of the Church, as well as opening my heart to people in my immediate environment who are different from me. The law of the Incarnation always works this way -- Christ comes to me and shows me the whole, in all its universality, through particular circumstances.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Father Vincent. Even though my involvement with CL had become more consistent and serious when we moved to Ohio three years ago, it wasn't until the first Lent retreat we had here in my new town, led by Father Vincent, that I finally let my heart be fully engaged in CL. I never get tired of thinking about those events. Father Vincent is now in Jordan, working as a missionary. I pray for his work there, and that he may bring even more people into our beautiful friendship!

* * *

Here is a description of the circumstances leading to my becoming more "consistent and serious":

In March of 2006, Fr. Vincent came to give the first ever Fraternity Lent retreat for our small community. I was on ballet driving duty the day of the retreat, so I slipped into the room late, after Fr. Vincent had already been talking for about an hour. I think he was speaking about the movie, Mad Max, when I entered, I am not sure. In any case, the experience was, for me, one of walking into a room where people are discussing a movie I haven't seen. I picked up some familiar words, like "encounter," "drama," "hope," and "event." But when he was finished speaking, I wasn't certain I knew what he'd been talking about. There was a good question about the word "verify" and what we mean when we use it in Communion and Liberation. Father Vincent said something about how it seems almost blasphemous to us that we should test what God tells us, and we wouldn't have the nerve to do it except that God himself tells us to verify what he says: Jesus tells us to "Come and See," and the angels invite us to "Behold," and then there is the most dramatic moment when Jesus tells Thomas to place his hand into the marks of the nails and believe.

Then there was a time for silence and confessions, and I wandered over to the chapel to wait my turn to receive the Sacrament. A young woman was ahead of me in line, and she took twenty minutes of the hour that had been given for confessions. As I was waiting for her to come out, a young man came in. Evidently he didn't notice me because when the young woman came out, he slipped in behind her. Now another twenty minutes were going to be lost! As I was waiting for the young man to finish, two other men came in, both of whom were in the Fraternity and actively involved with CL. My first thought was, 'I should let them go ahead of me. This is their thing. I can always go to confession somewhere else.' I am always letting people go ahead of me; it is habitual for me, and the fact that I thought of letting them go ahead of me didn't surprise me. What did surprise me was the very next thought I had: 'No! This is for me!' Where did that come from? Why did I think that going to confession with this particular priest was "for me"? I was not in the Fraternity, and I would barely admit to being "in" CL. How did I dare to think, 'No! This is for me'?

Well, it was so surprising to me that I decided to follow it to see where it would lead. When the young man came out of the confessional, I did not let anyone go ahead of me. Instead, I marched right up to the door and let myself in.

The confession was a good one, but Fr. Vincent didn't say anything earth-shaking or astonishing. I didn't think that I had received any new insights into my sinfulness. He gave me advice that felt like penance, and penance that felt like advice, but other than that, it didn't feel like an unusual confession. I was left with the astonishing thought I'd had before going into confession.

We were supposed to host the convivenza at our house, after the retreat, but one of my daughters had mono that day, and we didn't want to expose anyone else to it. I brought a cake over to the new party location, stayed for just a short time, and then left to look after my sick daughter. As I was leaving, Fr. Vincent made a point of interrupting his conversation to thank me for bringing plastic bags to the party. That struck me as funny, given all the work that had gone into my cake. But okay, the retreat was over for me.

All of that happened on a Saturday. Then, on Monday morning I woke up with the thought, 'I want to join the Fraternity.' Here was another strange thought for me! My next thought was, 'Really?!' But since my mind didn't seem to care to elaborate or expand on the original thought, after a moment, I said to my husband, "I'm going to join the Fraternity." He was so startled, he didn't know what to say. For years he had been deeply involved with CL while I stayed on the sidelines, baking cakes, showing up late to things, and quibbling. Finally, he came out with, "I'll go get the form for you" and climbed out of bed. So then I said, "It's okay. You don't have to rush. I'm not going to change my mind." And that's how I came to join the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

So then when we heard that Fr. Vincent would be giving a series of parish missions at five churches in Pittsburgh (which is about an hour from where we live) that summer, I very much wanted to see him again and hear him preach. I wanted to know just what it was about him that had started this chain of surprising reactions within me.

I loved the homilies he gave at the various parishes he visited, and I loved the time we spent with him after Mass, when we went out for dinner with him, or out for a picnic with him. As I spent more time with him, it began to make sense to me that he would have opened up a new view of CL for me. The most striking thing about him, or one of the most striking things, was the way in which he paid attention to whomever was in front of him. He really listens to people and really responds to what they say. He also has amazing experiences to relate -- about his childhood, about his vocation, and about his travels. And he never stops talking about Jesus. I remember one time, while listening to him speak, thinking that I wished that I could be a priest, just so that I could have an excuse to talk about Jesus all the time, and nothing else.

Well, during his second-to-last visit to Pittsburgh, I screwed up my courage and told him I would like to ask him for something. He immediately said, "Yes, anything." That made me laugh, because he could have no idea what I would be asking for! So, I told him that I wanted to invite him to our house for dinner. Would that be possible? He said that it was possible, and that we could do it during his next visit to Pittsburgh. I was so excited! I love to cook for the people I care for, and I began planning for this wonderful meal I would serve him. I had several basil plants I had been growing all summer, from seeds. I planned to harvest them and make a monster batch of pesto.

As we got closer to the date, I called Fr. Vincent to see whether he wanted the dinner to be small, just my family, or whether he wanted me to invite anyone else from the community. He told me to invite everyone, because he never wants to say no to Jesus. So, we put the word out and made a plan for everyone to go first to Mass at the parish where he would be preaching and then come for lunch at our house afterwards (dinner would be too late). The week leading up to the lunch, I made many preparations, including baking a massive cake on that Friday evening -- one that could serve all the people who would be coming. Then two of my friends came with me on Saturday evening to attend the vigil Mass at the parish where Fr. Vincent would be preaching.

Well, during the homily, Fr. Vincent revealed that Pope Benedict XVI had called for a day of prayer and penance, to be observed on the following day, Sunday, to pray for peace in the Middle East. He explained why this fact was particularly significant to him, because he would be moving, within the week, to Bethlehem in Israel to begin a new missionary work in the Left Bank. He told everyone in the church that he would be fasting during the next day, and he asked us to join him. As my friends and I were leaving the church, I went to embrace him, and then I asked him if this meant that he wouldn't be eating any of my cake. How kindly he told me no, that he would be eating nothing but bread and water during the next day!

What a blow! As we climbed back into the car, I felt stunned. It took me a while to find my key and another long while to figure out how to get it into the ignition. I found it very difficult even to process this new information. It was very good to have my friends there with me. I think that all three of us were completely flummoxed. As we drove home, I kept thinking of ways in which the cake could be salvaged. My mind simply couldn't wrap itself around the idea that we would not be having our feast together. The conversation turned to questions of etiquette, even the theological nuances of fasting. On the way, we stopped to buy fifteen loaves of my favorite bread and a case of bottled water. Then I dropped one friend off at her home, and while I was dropping the other one at her place, the first friend told her husband what had happened. The husband called my husband, and by the time I had returned home, my husband had all the details, such as they were. So, shortly after I arrived home, I heard his verdict -- of course the feast was off. Though I'd had more time to process all that had happened, I still had not come to that conclusion, and so this "final word" on my feast struck me as unjust. But, as the two men reasoned, if the pope had said to pray and fast on that day, then there was really no choice. It seemed to me that I had been planning and anticipating my party since well before the pope had capriciously chosen the same date for this observation. One friend, a young woman who was staying with us at the time, pointed out that the Church never asks us to fast on a Sunday...But then my husband said, if the pope wants to, he doesn't have to follow any such rule. I listened to the back and forth and had nothing to contribute. All I really wanted to do was cry and write protest letters to the Vatican.

After everyone went to bed, I was able to finally have my good cry. The thing that disturbed me most was how upset I was about the whole thing. Was I just the Great Gatsby, living for the thrill of throwing big parties, and doing it all for the wrong reasons? Why was I so unable to bend my will to the will of the pope? Why was this so hard for me? I even stayed up late to watch the movie version of The Great Gatsby, to try to find an answer. That was a wise move, because after viewing the film, I felt certain that I am not the Great Gatsby. Then, at four in the morning, I finally came to a moment of clarity: the whole point of this party is to show love to Fr. Vincent. If this is the way he wants to be loved, then this is how we will love him, by eating bread and water with him. That thought brought me enough peace to finally stop crying and get a little sleep.

In the morning, I revised my menu. Of course, the bulk of what I would offer would be those fifteen loaves of bread and the case of bottled water. But since children and the elderly and anyone whose health is fragile are not obliged to fast, I would offer some other foods as well -- peanut butter and cheese to go with the bread, a small bowl of pasta with a little pesto on it, and some milk and juice. Then my friend's husband called to tell my husband that they had gone online and discovered that the pope had called for "prayer and penance" and had never mentioned "fasting." They said that it was wrong to force all these other people to fast, when the pope had never called for it. Thus, we should go ahead with the feast as planned! Now it was my turn to say no, that I would only be serving bread and water plus some other foods for those who can't fast, and explained the conclusion I'd come to at four in the morning -- that the party is in Fr. Vincent's honor and this would be the way we could love him. My stubbornness caused a heated dispute that was only resolved (or at least ended) when I reminded everyone involved that it was my party.

So, the guests arrived, and some of them grumbled. They were accustomed to being feasted at my house, and this very different experience wasn't nearly so pleasant. But when I asked Fr. Vincent to come into the dining room to bless the food, he was delighted to see what was on the table. And then, because there was no food to exclaim over, we all crowded into the living room, where Fr. Vincent regaled us with his stories and listened to ours.

I still remember all the things we talked about and how important each thing was for my life. One of his stories ended with the beautiful line, "Christ comes through assholes like us." Another conversation ended with the observation that in order to convert others, we must be willing to go to their living rooms. One sad story concluded with the observation that unless we let Christ embrace all of ourselves, we can get lost and discouraged and fall away.

We sent him on his way to Israel that afternoon with a loaf of bread tucked under each arm. I remember feeling frustrated as I watched him go -- I had wanted to do something for him, to give him a gift, and yet again, he had given me everything, so much more than I even knew I needed.

What did he give? He brought with him, everywhere I have ever met him, the presence of Christ. It is true that Christ comes through schmucks like us (I can't bring myself to use his colorful language except when directly quoting him!), but for me to be able to see this fact, I first had to see Christ in this one very exceptional priest, who made this fact so undeniably evident to me that I couldn't ignore it. It is not just that he embodied Christ for me -- even more importantly, he saw Christ in all the ordinary people around me, so that by following his gaze, I could see Who he was seeing! And this is why I joined the Fraternity and why I give myself to it with my whole heart.


Emily said...

"yes, I'm sorry, but my only criticism of Father Giussani was that he wasn't saying "anything new." Now, I think one of the greatest things about him is that he doesn't say "anything new"!"

My experience of Giussani has been the exact opposite of this -- it seems that almost everything he says has surprised me in some way.

Suzanne said...

Before I read Father Giussani, I had read a lot of Romano Guardini and, of course, Sofia Cavalletti. Also, a lot of Jean Danielou, some Balthasar, and quite a bit of de Lubac. So, I kind of came at Father Giussani through the back door.

Freder1ck said...

for me, I'd read too much Balthasar, etc. My first reaction was: not more books! I'd had enough of standing outside looking at the menu - CL invited me inside.

Suzanne said...

what a beautiful image -- CL invited you inside! For me, it was different because of Good Shepherd. You can't get more inside than the atrium.

Emily said...

Well, I'd read too much... well, let's not talk about what I'd read too much of! :-P

Anyway, I'm a relatively "young" Catholic -- just entered the Church in 2003 -- and when you're new to something, it's hard to know what's legitimate and what isn't. I guess my litmus test is to ask myself: does this make sense to my heart? Does it allow me to be Catholic AND human? Giussani passes the test.

Marc said...

Thanks for the great post. Next year I'm trying to bring CL to my seminary. One thing I love about people in CL is that they are so spontaneous, just like you said they drop everything and do what the Lord calls them to.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."