Castelgandolfo, Italy, 15-18 November 2012. Faces and stories came together like a puzzle composing a portrait of hope. This year’s congress for adherents of the Focolare Movement was attended by one thousand people and was based on their lived experiences throughout the year.
Tanino had taught in Hungary several years ago. He was warned of the “spies” that may have been planted among the students by the regime. He recounts: “I went to class trying not to think about spies, but about discovering the positive in each of the students. I noticed one student looking very serious. I approached him and asked what was wrong. He told me of a small child in poor health and living under very poor conditions. I was helped by my sister to find clothing and other things for the child, and we took care of him.” When Communism ended Tanino discovered that it was precisely that student that was the spy. “The important thing is to love,” Tanino concludes, “if I had searched for the spy, I would have been distracted from noticing the problems of the student whom I had shown more love.”
Then Grace from Catania in Italy spoke. Her story involved the whole city in reacting against the gambling that had also involved minors as young as thirteen, and produced a debt of 18,000 Euros. It becomes a burden that can lead a boy to contemplate suicide. Grace had become aware of this during her time in classrooms. She began a neighbourhood awareness project geared towards mothers and teachers. A signature campaign was begun in favour of a law that would forbid gambling halls within school areas and publicity for the game in newspapers and television.
Discovering that we are brothers and sisters was the overriding theme of all these experiences. They did not come from Europe only but also from the Philippines, for example, where there was a presentation by Bukas Palad (With Open Hands) Community Centres. These centres offer third level care for children suffering from malnutrition. They provide education, hygiene, medical care and distance adoption that helps people rise out of poverty. They have opened kindergartens for 500 children this year alone and professional training schools for teenagers. With their motto: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt 10:8), Bukas Palad has assisted more than 90,000 people for twenty years, promoting a life based on reciprocity in which the one who receives assistance, offers assistance in return.
Then there are the people who are waiting for a smile or for some concrete gesture. And so there were also the experiences of those who had used their own salaries to buy a stove for someone on Christmas day; to open the doors of their home to a gypsy, overcoming common prejudices and discovering a sister in the stranger’s face. “We met Pietro,” Luigino and Esterina recount, who have been married for forty years. “He is an elderly man without a home. We tried to reach out to him in his need, changing his clothes, welcoming him into our home. Easter morning he asked Luigino if he could bathe him and cut his fingernails. By saying yes, we experienced a profound joy at having loved and served Jesus in Pietro.” We could continue by recalling the thirty seven people who attended from Lebanon; the anti-conformist priest; the experiences of teenagers from Peru, Panama, and many more. As the curtains seemed to close on the congress, there was an artistic performance by the singers from the Arena in Verona, Italy. But the congress will go on in the choices of those who have constructed it if they take seriously the words of the Gospel where the message originates: “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these brethren of mine, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40). Comfortable habits are overcome, the Golden Rule seems reasonable and, through love for others, conflicts are transformed into relationships.