This past week, I came to the city of Rimini on the Adriatic (East) Coast of Italy for the annual “Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples”. What is “il Meeting”, as it is called in Italian?
In the early 80’s, some families who belong to the movement Communion and Liberation had the desire to offer something of substance to those who came to vacation at the popular Rimini beaches. And so, the Meeting was born to answer to this desire and this question: Is our “free time”, our vacation, the time when we do nothing, when we turn off, or is it a time to pursue more deeply those things that matter most to us? Whereas most people–Catholic or not–see vacation and free time as a way to “get away from it all”, these families desired something more: to go to the heart of life in the leisure and the freedom that vacation offers.
And so, the Meeting was born and has become a large and important cultural event. Last year’s Meeting counted some 800,000 visitors over the week. Noteworthy visitors over the past 30 years include John Paul II, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and many other religious, cultural, political, and business leaders. This year’s Meeting opened with a talk by the Prime Minister of Italy, Enrico Letta.
So what is the Meeting all about? What did we meet for?
The title of this year’s meeting was “Emergenza Uomo/The Human Person in a State of Emergency”.
On May 18, 2013, Pope Francis told the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Vigil of Pentecost that the various crises in the world cannot be reduced to their economic or political causes or consequences. He said that the crisis we have seen in various countries, to varying degrees,
is a human crisis: it is the human person that is in a crisis! Man himself is in danger of being destroyed! But man is the image of God! This is why it is a profound crisis! At this time of crisis we cannot be concerned solely about ourselves, withdrawing into seclusion, discouragement, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of problems. Please, don’t shut yourselves in.
Confirmed by these words of Pope Francis, the Meeting sought to look at this emergency in which we find ourselves in so many ways, individually and culturally. The point of the Meeting was not to analyze or to blame someone, but precisely to see something beautiful that “emerges” when humanity finds itself in crisis. To this end, nothing was excluded from the interest of the Meeting, nothing is ever excluded from the interest of the Meeting. The Meeting is a truly Catholic event because, as a professor once told me, “a Catholic is someone who can see Christ in everything.”
If you would like to know about all of the things that were offered this week, I invite you to check out www.meetingrimini.org/eng. It is truly an all-encompassing event. Why? Because God became man! When we meet Christ, everything and everyone become interesting to us, because everything is a chance to meet this God who has involved Himself in our lives.
Of all the things I experienced this week, I want to share three:
(1) On Thursday afternoon, I saw a group of teenagers swarming around some tables with their attention fixed on someone. Who could it be? I came closer to look at what had so grabbed the attention of these young people. Maybe a movie star or a famous athlete had made his way to the Meeting? As I came closer, I saw a woman who I had recognized from earlier in the Meeting: an art historian. An art historian! I was struck. I don’t know too many teenagers like this, even good Catholic teenagers. What is it that awakens these teenagers that they give their full attention to an art historian for the better part of an hour? Who can open our lives and our minds and our hearts in this way? But this is precisely the Christian event: meeting Christ makes me interested in everything, because everything is an occasion to know Him.
(2) On Friday evening, I saw the exhibit on the Orthodox Russian martyrs of the Soviet period. One story from our guide amazed me. On the first day of the Meeting, Sunday, a Russian woman who lives in Italy had come to Rimini just to see this exhibit. At a certain point she stopped in front of a picture and asked, “How did you get that photo?” These pictures showed the faces of people who had just been condemned to death during the period of Stalin. One of these “mug shots” turned out to be the cousin of this woman’s father, a priest. He had been killed by the Soviets and put into a mass grave, but the family did not know how he had been killed or where he had been buried.
A coincidence? Yes, but who makes such things “coincide”? It is the personal God who “goes before” us and waits for us, as Pope Francis said:
We say we must seek God, go to him and ask forgiveness, but when we go, he is waiting for us, he is there first! In Spanish we have a word that explains this well: primerear–the Lord always gets there before us, he gets there first, he is waiting for us! To find someone waiting for you is truly a great grace.
(3) On Wednesday, I went to the talk of Father Pepe, a priest from Buenos Aires who was sent by his bishop to work in the poor neighborhoods of his diocese. His testimony about his work, but also about his relationship with his bishop, really struck me. Of course, his bishop was Cardinal Bergoglio, our new Pope! Through this talk, I felt like I got to know this new pope, who he is and what he stands for. He teaches us that we go to seek Christ in the poor, not because of some ideology or political stance we have taken beforehand, but because Christ had promised to be there. It is that simple. He goes before us and waits for us.
I needed to hear these stories and see these witnesses. I needed Father Pepe to reawaken me, which in fact, was the title of all the testimonies in those days: “What awakens our humanity?” It was a mercy of Christ to wake up, to expect Him again, to look for His traces in the events of my day. Something like the Meeting so obviously belongs to Christ, and still it is possible to treat it as just one more thing to do. Even at a place like the Meeting of Rimini, it is possible to fall asleep to the reality of Christ. We are never spared the battle of finding and following Christ.
What emerges during this human emergency? I saw during these days in Rimini that it is possible for something profoundly beautiful to emerge from our human emergencies. That is a promise not just at the seaside town of Rimini, but everyday of my life.