The name comes from an island in southern Maryland that we visited during one of our camping trips: St. Clement Island. Here we found a small museum, with some plaques recounting the experiences of the first Catholic pilgrims: having fled England, they intended to land on this shore – Maryland, the “land of Mary” – but they wanted to debark on the day of the Annunciation. They waited in their ships for a few days, so they would arrive on March 25. This impressed us so much that we baptized our little group, just beginning, the “Knights of St. Clement.”
We have our meetings on Fridays. At the beginning we met after school: we began with a snack, then we had a discussion, and we finished with some songs and games. This program has remained unchanged: what has changed is the relationship of friendship among the Knights, now established and deepening.
The discovery of song
On our last camping trip, last June after school was out, there were about 40 boys and girls from the middle school, along with 5 adults. We planned the days together, dividing up the tasks (cooking, games, activities). When we arrived at the campground, the young people began to take notes on what happened and in the evening, around the campfire, they did skits parodying the day. And not just the extroverts, but even some who found it difficult even to say their name, opened right up in such a beautiful atmosphere of friendship, to everyone’s surprise.
A boy from GS (from the high school) had brought his guitar. He organized the songs and worked with the young people from the middle school, even correcting them when necessary. When we began to sing, many wanted nothing to do with it. He burst out: “When I was your age, I hated to sing too – it seemed like something for little kids. Then, listening to others, I discovered a beauty I had never known before, and from then on I have not only begun to sing, but also to play the guitar.” He had challenged them, and they were taken aback – and attracted – by that boy. They stayed to listen to him, and their attitude changed.
Another surprise was the charity among them: whatever was helpful – going to get water or wood, starting the fire or cleaning up the campground – they were always willing. Perhaps the most interesting thing, however, even more so than this willingness, was to look at and judge the day with the criterion that what happens, does not happen by chance – as our “rule” teaches.
The Friday rule
In 2007 I happened to read the summary of a conversation of Julián Carrón with some of the leaders of CL. I was deeply touched by it, and tried to communicate it in simple terms to the Knights. So, I formulated a rule, with three points: “1) The Lord is proposing something great to you now. 2) If you see it, say it or write it down. 3) If you don’t see it, say a Memorare so that you would.”
We began to ask, among ourselves, if something had struck us during the week; in the first meetings little or nothing came forth, in fact the kids found it difficult to remember what had happened either in school or afterwards. After a few months, some Knights began to tell about something that had happened to them, trying to explain it. One of the first examples was a girl who, referring to a professor’s beautiful lecture which had enthralled many of them, said: “Look, this is Jesus who wants to say something to me.”
Since then, the rule has become the format for our Friday meeting. We begin with a prayer (a Glory Be or the Memorare) and we ask the saints – and Fr. Giussani – to help us to be together. We also pray at the end of the meeting, but for particular intentions: for someone who is sick, or looking for work, or for a friend whose family is having difficulties. At this point they are very attentive. They see the connection between what the Lord is doing and what is happening in their lives. The situations come to light, whereas before it was as though they were invisible.
In this way, the Memorare has become a looking more deeply at those around us, to perceive their needs (economic, physical, spiritual), and asking the Blessed Mother to help them and ourselves.
From the rule came also the “Promise”: to say a Memorare every day and to do an act of charity, either at home or at school. This is bearing very beautiful fruit: a “knight,” for example, for the first time asked his mother, “can I help you?” The parents themselves have been amazed: when they come to pick up their kids (we usually wait for them at the end of the day and take them to a nearby parish), they stop to speak with us, especially the moms. They tell us of the change in their children: they don’t fight any more, they help around the house, they begin to open their eyes to what is happening around them.
The newness of repetition
I repeat the rule every Friday, especially after the Promise, and I see that everyone has taken it seriously. Of course, someone might forget about it. But bringing it back to their attention every week is always a chance to begin again.
This is how I discovered the importance of repetition (at that age especially, but also later). We meet, and we know why we are meeting: it is not just to play together. And it is no longer something off the cuff: if, at the beginning, almost no one remembered what had happened during the week, now they begin to look at their week with careful attention: “Monday, this happened to me … Thursday it happened that …” Far from being irritating, repetition always results in something new. The most important thing is to keep asking “What is causing you to see Jesus, what is he teaching you through the things that happen?” (rule number 1). After a while, they see fruits that make them understand that it is the Holy Spirit at work.
To sum up: prayer opens their eyes and makes them more attentive. Young people, especially at that age, tend to a total inattention, whether at school or at home. Those who live the experience of the Knights have another way of being at school, and another way of playing. If they see a scrap of paper on the ground they pick it up, and offer the act for the Knights or for someone who needs it. Once I told them of St. Teresa’s saying: “Even if you pick up a pin with love or for love, you can help Jesus to save a soul.” When they remember this, it shows.
in the photo, a view of the St. Clement Island
“A city on a hilltop” is how John Winthrop, perhaps the first American historical figure, described the ideal that brought the first pilgrims from England to the New World. From the beginning, their ideal was one of founding an unambiguously Christian society which could enlighten, even from such a distance, a Europe torn by wars of religion. I have only been in the United States for a few months, beginning a year of overseas formation in our house in Washington; and yet, in such a brief time, I have seen that this ideal is still very much alive in the stories and lives of Americans. Even today America, despite a history rich in contradictions, at times even wrenching, feels itself the bearer of a mission. You notice it as soon as you arrive; it’s impossible to ignore.
Especially at school. The families I meet, often very large, truly believe in constructing works of value. If there is something they hope in, they throw themselves into it completely: time, energy, money. There isn’t the cynicism that often hangs over all of our initiatives in Italy, leading us in the end to prefer that everything stay as it is.
Teaching in America, I face young people who have never had contact with a tradition. Not only have they read very little, but they have never seen a Roman ruin, a mediaeval church or a baroque altar. If on the one hand this is a problem – because they lack a unifying and critical vision – on the other hand it makes the students open to everything.
All that is needed is someone capable of accompanying them in the discovery. In Italy, our tradition and our history, if there is no one to introduce us to it, becomes a huge moloch that keeps us from advancing; it fills us with prejudices and makes us cynical.
I am reading Dante with one of my Italian students. How wonderful to see his excitement as he encounters a master who helps us open our desires to the whole universe, both the visible and the invisible.
All in all, during these months I have felt a burning desire that the American people could have a truly Catholic experience. The Fraternity, in my life, is a company of men which bears within itself a perspective – Christ’s perspective – of complete openness to the world. Indeed, our life in the house and our mission are not a retreat on a hilltop, but a lived communion.