The Way of the Cross is an experience to be lived and for this reason it is a road to be discovered. Step-by-step, without haste, without giving in to endless distraction, and asking for the grace to be able truly to identify in first person with the cross of Christ, we begin to know God and, therefore, we begin to know man.
God appears to me in the awesome wonder of His love and I cannot avoid anything that God is calling me to accomplish along the way of the cross. God is love and for this reason He is absolute correspondence, immeasureable fullness, and endless mercy (cfr. Psalm 16:11). However, God is only so according to the criteria He determines, and by way of the path He forges. The “road” is God’s freedom united with our own in order to be made like Him. His love is overwhelming for this reason: He loves our freedom so much that he does not interfere in order to keep us from sin. Though He wishes to move us towards ultimate good, He allows us to choose roads that lead us far away from Him, while constantly providing the way for us to start over and be rescued from our nothingness.
This is how God appears to us on the way of the cross: as a lover seeking the beloved, willing to enter the dark pit of our existence. Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death you are with me (cfr. Psalm 23:4).
Milciádes is a nine year old boy that sustained a severe head injury. The doctors have concluded that he has very little brain tissue. Children in this condition, if left untreated, die within two years. That’s why his case is quite extraordinary because when he is spoken to he reacts and even smiles. Before being admitted to the clinic his father forced him to beg on the streets. Marianna still remembers the first time she saw him: “The first time I saw Milciádes he was lying on his bed holding his paralyzed arm with his good one. He didn’t move or speak. What I saw before me affected me so much that I couldn’t go near him. A few days later he came down with a case of the measles and the patient next to him, a five year old child, had to be moved. This left Milciádes completely alone. He began to cry inconsolably. I decided I had to do something to relieve of some of his pain. I approached his bed and broke out with the only song I knew how to sing in Spanish. Something akin to ‘Pop goes the weasel’. Milciádes immediately began to laugh. As the days went by, each time I walked into his room and said, ‘What’s up, Mil?’, before he could even see my face he began to look for me reached out to find me with his good arm. All of this is amazing to me given that a child in his condition does not normally respond to stimuli. I realized at that moment the amazing power of Christ to make his Presence known.”
Marcos is a 40 year old man diagnosed with AIDS. Marianna, Chiara, and Anna remember one thing in particular about him: he insisted he wanted his picture taken. “In all of his years – Chiara explained – no one had ever taken his picture. But the smile with which he requested his picture be taken helped us realize that this man was not afraid to die.” He told them on several occasions: “I have already found paradise right here, where I am. That’s why I am not afraid of what happens next.”
Mariela was 31 years old and had given birth to two children, the father being the man she lived with. She had breast cancer but ultimately the cancer spread to her bones and to her brain. When she arrived at the clinic she spoke with no one. She was extremely angry. Two days later, she began to smile. She finally asked Fr. Aldo to administer the sacrament of marriage to her and her long time companion. She died a few days later wearing her wedding gown, her hair and nails done, and smelling of fine perfume. Mariela died smiling. “She had understood – explained Marianna – that the grace she received in this place was worth more than life itself.”
January 26, 2007
My stay in Nairobi is coming to its end. I have met so many people, witnessed so much faith and poverty, joy and illness, hope and misfortune. Most of all, however, I have spent a lot of time with our four priests and have become familiar with their particular responsibilities. I have visited with the various parish groups, the schools that we have opened. I leave here convinced that the path we have begun to tread is the correct one: that of education. And not only for us, but for Africa. We are doing something useful not just for the Church but for these communities, as well. I hope that my diary has been useful for all those persons that wished to have news from me while in Nairobi. I also hope that the diary has afforded the opportunity for further reflection. My luggage awaits, as well as all those persons that I wish to bid farewell.
Good-bye Nairobi, farewell Africa.
January 25, 2007
We are back from two days at Lake Nakuru, one of the many volcanic lakes of the Rift Valley, famous for the thousands and thousands of flamingos that populate the rivers. We toured the savannah and the forest in our Toyota. We saw antelopes, gazelles, zebras, rhinos, buffalos, baboons, giraffes, and hyenas. Along the lake there were swarms of pelicans and flamingos. We held the meeting of the house in this earthly paradise knowing full well that it is an oasis in the middle of a very different world. Here in Nairobi the Social Forum against globalization has begun. It is very anti-Bush (the billboards here refer to him as “number one in terror”). The thousand or so persons that are here for the forum don’t come from Africa, but from the western world. Everything looks really old—70s sort—with a mirage of revolution. I think the path of education that we have chosen is a much more interesting one. Creating new leading classes via long and arduous work, but classes comprised of people fascinated by education. Saving the poor through the conversion of the hearts and minds of the rich and powerful. Today we will discuss the following topics: the young, school, education. Tomorrow will more than likely be a “vacation” day. Friday we will hold an administrative meeting and during the evening we embark on our trip back to Italy. Today I’ll have lunch with AIDS patients at our meeting point that gathers them in and takes care of them.
January 20, 2007
Visited the Wendani and Kahawa neighborhoods that are in the parish. These last few years have seen the construction of new buildings that stick out like soar thumbs amidst poorly constructed homes in an area lacking a sewer system, paved roads, and the presence of a sanitation department. Fr. Alfonso knows a lot people and as we tour the area many greet and are greeted by him. He often stops to ask for news about someone or another. We approach a home where a woman is holding her son. He is skin and bones, suffers from a deformity, and is very small. He is 16 years old but doesn’t speak and is affected by a number of illnesses. His mother tries to feed him some cereal but he is not able to ingest anything. This family receives assistance through our sponsorship program. We visit the clinic run by our parish. I am told that there is a bit of a wait because it is Saturday morning. The people that frequent the clinic most are ill with malaria or tuberculosis. Others come for HIV tests. The clinic is in need of more modern equipment. That’s why we have asked the Knights of Malta for assistance. Afternoon: rest. During the evening I’ll read a few pages from Claudel. Tomorrow, January 21, 2007, I will celebrate mass at the parish. After mass I will meet with the Pastoral Council and speak on the topic of co-responsibility. On Sunday afternoon I will meet with the CL community. January 22 and 23 I will go on Safari in a national park. I’ll take up my diary again on Wednesday, January 24th.
January 17, 2007
I spent the morning at the nuncio’s office. Two hours of conversation with nuncio, Monsignor Alain Lebeaupin. We discussed various topics. Together with Valerio and Carlo, at noon, we will go to the Gitega slum, the largest slum in all of Africa; one million people! There is an elementary school there run by volunteers in the CL movement. They will receive us with song and dance. The school takes its name from the famous book by French author Antoine de Saint Exupery: The Little Prince. In my opinion, it is a very important initiative given the dramatic circumstances (and location) that it finds itself in. A ray of light amidst unimaginable degradation. January 16, 2007 Today will be a day completely dedicated to the schools. During the morning I’ll visit the San Kizito professional school which has its origin in the movement of Communion and Liberation and is led by Fr. Valerio since its beginning (1992-93). It trains carpenters, electricians, hydraulic technicians, iron workers, tailors and seamstresses, electronics technicians, auto-body repairmen…. It is truly a model school and is admired in Kenya. Each program lasts two years. Every year almost 200 students obtain a diploma. Next to the school is a furniture maker that makes large wooden furniture for homes and hotels in the entire country. I will speak to a group of young workers about my conversations with Fr. Giussani and about the meaning and value of work. I will then visit Otunga High School which opened two years ago. It is also an initiative of the movement of CL. The school will soon move to a new building that is now under construction at the parish where the Carovana Middle School will also be housed (the elementary schools will remain where they are along with the E. Mazzola Day Care). During the afternoon I will meet with the teachers of the day care and of the Carovana Elementary School. We will discuss their experience as teachers and the miracles that occur when children live a non-authoritarian relationship with their teachers. The discarding of formalism and authoritarianism is a new frontier in African education. January 15, 2007 Today is a touring day. I rest as my Sunday was quite intense. During the morning hours we will spend some time discussing the various responsibilities we have in the life of the movement of Communion and Liberation. I will take-up the same themes from our previous discussions. During the afternoon I will read Ratzinger again (Faith, Truth and Tolerance – that will be more or less the theme of the next Meeting in Rimini and also the subject of Angelo Cardinal Scola’s book about Giussani). I’ll read from a foray of books in the library (Claudel and Danielou). During the evening I’ll read Guareschi’s surreal Don Camillo books. January 12, 2007 In my spare time, I continue to write my lessons for the retreat in March on the feminine in the Church. Reading Ratzinger’s books on the topic, I have been able to discover almost by accident, the continuity and the evolution of his thought process over the years. It would be interesting to do a study of Ratzinger during the Council and of his theology beginning in the early 70s, without pre-determined text to defend, but with the purpose of actually taking a look at reality in light of his writings (even those of a later period). I have prepared the homily for Sunday’s mass, which I will be celebrating. I am really looking forward to the African liturgy (replete with song and dance). Perhaps we are already becoming acculturated and haven’t even noticed it. At noon I will visit the parish day care that was inaugurated five years ago. The children, who number the maximum capacity allowable, are waiting for me at the front entrance where we will sing and dance together. They will want to be picked up and have their pictures taken, they’ll have gifts to give me (their drawings). Afterwards I’ll have lunch with them. A lovely (and delicious) plate o rice and beans. The older children (5 years) help the younger ones while at the table. These children are a joy that I have not known before. Their education is the great thing that can be accomplished in and for Africa. January 10, 2007
First I will celebrate mass for them and then I will speak briefly of my various meetings with Mother Teresa. Later I will visit the various areas of the home: it houses more than 300 people among which are very young children abandoned by their parents; older children that are mentally and/or physically handicapped; women with mental illnesses (I am told that men live in another house). This is also the house where the novices to Africa come to live (currently numbering 57). It is a microcosm of the ills of the world that through the presence of the Missionaries of Charity becomes a expression of the ability of the faith to render human even the most deplorable conditions. Upon my return home this evening, I will read to the other priests a chapter of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed.
January 8-9, 2007
I continue my diary.
In the morning the entire group met for three hours to discuss the topic of evangelization. After having shared with everyone the reason for my trip and for my extended stay among them, I decided to limit myself to listening and taking notes. I listened to all four of our priests as they discussed several areas of their mission. They told me about the small groups of 10-20 people (called Jumujas) that make up the larger parish community. Each priest meets on a weekly basis with the small groups in his care. It provides an excellent opportunity for people to gather together in order to listen and to talk with one another. Without ever even planning it, these groups now total a few hundred people. What about the rest of the community? The Holy Mass on Sunday is very well attended. I think people are drawn to the community by the beauty of the recently built church. A weekly catechetical lesson is offered to the entire parish (a school of Christianity). The participation seems to vary significantly. Its structure is now being rethought. It seems that a longer, more intense and perhaps even, a more all-encompassing preparation is required. This preparation is being discussed with the group of people involved. We must find a way to “enter” into their language and understand what fascinates them. A possible solution would be to offer everyone that attends a short written text (the important points of the homily? a judgment on what has been occurring? a brief phrase that introduces what will be discussed more in depth in the school of Christianity? Perhaps all three are needed).
We cannot limit ourselves merely to responding to isolated questions. But perhaps these questions are a good starting point in order to arrive at a systematic and critical proposal. If this does not occur, maturity of thought and a convinced and free adherence, is not possible. Later we spoke about liturgy as the road of evangelization. We also talked about the use of song and dance. That’s how we ended up discussing evangelization as being tied to the celebration of the sacraments, especially those of baptism and marriage. Later, I was updated on the diversity of community life and movements that have a presence in the parish: Catholic Action, Communion and Liberation, the Charismatic movement, and the Marriage Encounter (a movement that I am familiar with, founded in Spain, that branched off from the Equipes di Notre Dame)…. There are currently four Schools of Community being run in the parish that meet on a bi-weekly basis.
Fr. Valerio joined the discussion by speaking of our house as “a fountain of evangelization”. But is this really the case? Are we aware of the sacramental value of our house? Are we really “together” in our works? Or are we lone rangers? Is our passion for people authentic, or are we merely “service providers”? Are we closed in upon ourselves as a parish, or are we open to all the people we encounter?
Fr. Agapitus added some important comments on the topic of dialogue in and out of the house. He spoke of being able to draw others in and becoming genuine collaborators. He later spoke of his mission with the children (600 on Sunday!). He then went on to talk about the social activities: long distance adoption as a way to help families educate their children; the medical clinic and its possibilities; the Meeting Point for aids victims (70 HIV positive patients); the care of the physically and mentally handicapped. I decided to leave my comments regarding all of this for our next meeting.
Tomorrow, during daylight hours, I’ll write the meditations for the March retreat I am giving to our female Missionaries while in Germany. The theme will be the “feminine” side of the Christian experience.
In the evening, we will meet with the board of Urafiki Foundation from which the elementary and the middle school had its beginnings (Carovana). This board is now directly involved in the work of the schools. Together with the day care named after Emanuela Mazzola and the high school named after Cardinal Otunga, these schools hold much promise for the future.
But we’ll talk about this more in the days ahead.
In between flights (01/06/07)
I leave for Nairobi by way of Zurich early in the morning with Carlo. A direct flight is not available from Italy; in fact, it’s been this way for many years. The first time I went to Nairobi was in 1991.
At that time, Alitalia had a direct flight to Africa via Gedda. I still had to travel to north Africa in order to reach the southern end of the continent. The fact that this is the case in Italy leaves a lot to be desired.
This is my 5th trip to Nairobi. In 1991, I came in search of a teaching job for Vincent Nagle at Catholic University. But everything changed when Vincent became ill and, after recuperating, was sent to the United States. In 1991 Fr. Valerio was the only member of our Fraternity in Nairobi.
My second trip was in 1996 (if I remember correctly). I came to visit the house that was eventually founded with Roberto Amoruso. The third trip was in 2001 for the inauguration of the day care center. After having spent more than 20 years in Uganda, Alfonso Poppi joined Frs. Valerio and Roberto. We were given the care of St. Joseph’s parish in western Nairobi. We set up a temporary structure to serve as the church and began construction of the day care. This was made by possible by the generosity of the Mazzola family. Today the neighborhood is adorned by a large steeple and our house is the heart and life of the area’s social activities. Both a middle and a high school have been opened but I’ll talk about all this much more after I visit them.
From the airport home Nairobi appears not to have changed. Yet somehow, things are different. New neighborhoods (there are now over three million inhabitants) and asphalted roads. Daniel arap Moi, the much feared president, is no longer in power. Is there less corruption? Is something new occurring? I’ll try to discover it. We arrive at our house at 8 o’clock p.m. local time. It is truly beautiful, just as we planned it together. From the terrace the imposing view of the church is seen. What a joy to be a part of something so great and so beautiful! I hope the local people are proud of it, too.
The Pope stepped up the platform in the outer courtyard while the youth choir from Fr. Ghio’s nearby parish, the “Navicella”, sang the “Te Deum” in German. At the end of the visit, His Holiness greeted all of the people in the community. The Holy Father was accompanied by Camillo Cardinal Ruini and the auxiliary bishop for this area of downtown Rome, Monsignor Ernesto Manara. After having listened to brief speeches given by Guerino Di Tora, the Director of the local diocesan Caritas office, and some of the volunteers and visitors of the Center, the Holy Father spoke about the significance of the Center. “This place is somewhat of a symbol for all of Rome. In this place it is possible to find the presence of Christ in the brother that gives you something to eat. It is only by adhering to the message of love that is communicated by the Nativity of Christ that it is possible to experience the depths of true joy.”
The very joy lived by Roberto, a 40 year old man that spoke as representative of all those that benefit from the Center’s services. “In this place, Your Holiness, I have not only been able to find a plate of food, but the family that I lost”. The day ended with the Holy Father’s Apostolic blessing and an encore performance of the “Te Deum” in German, one of the Holy Father’s favorite hymns.
Now it was time to get back to an ordinary day. As all of the visitors began to vacate the premises, at the main entrance gate, all of the Center’s “ordinary guests” began to arrive. All those persons that everyday at Noon arrive and are offered their daily bread.
In the few evenings I have free, I have decided to re-watch some pieces by Pirandello on DVD, that came as a gift with some magazines. Pirandello foresaw the crisis that would seize the European man in 1900 and he conveyed this through stories about the collapse of the middle-class family, which, according to him, marked the end of the family as an institution. This relationship, articulated by the playwright, between the difficulties of man and those of the family, made me reflect.
The problems he described coincide with those that come up in the almost daily meetings that I have with people who come to me for advice or help. If Pirandello was right, the dark path along which our families are walking is the result of the blurred awareness that man has of himself, consequently, the path towards a new beginning coincides with that towards the rebirth of the personal identity.
The human being lives in a condition of constant need. He needs other people to live, to become aware of himself, to become aware of his cultural, sexual, and moral identity. The first people that he experiences as ‘other’ from himself are his parents. Then there are friends and teachers. But one of the parental figures can be torn away from his family by death, and a family can fall apart for serious reasons. It is not my intention to pass judgment. Instead, I wish to indicate a real ideal, that can make life easier. Without doubt, having parents that love each other, in times of tension, trial, and difficulty as well, is a good thing for any child. Of course, people are going to do what is possible, but I cannot help indicating what I deeply desire for everyone, in other words, what has been prepared by God for each one of us. Parents ought to separate only due to extremely serious reasons. It must be the very last resort, a decision taken after long thought, and always for the sake of the children. Since I want to avoid any misinterpretation of my desire, as a magic formula or as an abstract idea, I am going to explain how this wish can become a reality. First of all, they must have friends who can advise and encourage; then there needs to be financial assistance for the children’s education, to prevent parents from being overwhelmed by their jobs when they should be with their children; they must have schools that can share the burden of education. Priests also ought to consider helping families as one of the primary responsibilities of their ministry. Above all, it is necessary to trust in God, to ask for His help, and to start praying again in our homes, even a few minutes every day: before each meal, before going to bed, in the morning, before going out. To recite simple prayers such as the Hail Mary or Our Father or the Angelus. We must be brave and confess to God our difficulties and ask for His help.
Today we are overwhelmed by information: fertility and sexuality have been separated, the male and female are no longer relevant. “We must break free from any predetermination. It’s up to us to decide if we are male or female; if we want to be in a stable relationship with a man or with a woman; if we want to have children or not and the children we are going to have.”
Alongside with the negative aspects of our times, we also have to acknowledge the steps forward that have been made, such as welfare policies that provide support for families and for maternity; medical research on fetal diseases, clinical tests to investigate the reasons of infertility, etc. But despite these positive developments, we have to bear in mind that our happiness depends on our acceptance of the objective data that exists before us and makes our growth possible: we receive our sexual identity, just as falling in love is a free act and a child is a gift. If the fundamental structure of our life is discarded, we won’t be following a path towards a greater good, but towards greater confusion which will make everyone more unhappy.
Christmas brings the Holy Family once again to our attention, who through their normality preserved something exceptional. Their normality was made up of the mutual trust between Joseph and Mary, who truly loved each other and faced together the exceptional destiny of their child, a boy like any other boy, who was, however, born through God’s will, with no intervention of his earthly father and who was God made man. How open to the unexpected, how great and confident is the soul that was dwelt with that Presence. I pray that it will be the same in the families of my readers.
In the picture: on the first page, mosaic by Marko Rupnik: Nativity, in the Chapel of the Adoring Nuns in Lenno, Como. The picture is taken by a calendar available on the website: www.lipaonline.org.