The experience of feeling welcomed and loved is what each child desires. A testimony of paternity from San Bernardo, Chile.
One day, a girl approaches me for a personal conversation. “Father,” she says “I am thinking about committing suicide.” “And why?”, I respond quickly. After a long silence, she looks me straight in the eye and says, “My grandmother died; she was the person I loved most.” “Ah, now I understand,” I reply. “You thought about suicide because it’s the way that came to mind to be with her again… Look, this bond of love that unites you and your grandmother is awe-inspiring, and it’s right to feel that it must never end. But maybe your idea is not the best solution. I propose to you a different path, that of faith in Jesus…” As I speak these words to her, I see that her despair turns into pain. And in her eyes, a new light breaks through her tears.
The thing that struck me most about that meeting was the experience of a sudden and profound closeness with a young girl who expressed so vehemently the desire to have an answer to her pain. What rendered this unexpected and intense familiarity capable of changing that girl’s soul? It is an experience that has also left a mark my personal history: that of being welcomed and valued in a personal way. Precisely the way with which I’ve been invited, received and integrated, first in the parish of my home community and then in the movement of CL, was one of the decisive factors of my vocation. There was always someone who awaited me. I was called by name, I became a protagonist in the speeches and conversations I was hearing, and I was engaged in the activities. All this happened naturally, effortlessly– as a reverberation of gratitude. It was an amazing experience for me, which I had not experienced in any other circle of friends. Thus now, in my work that consists of proclaiming Christ to young people, it comes to me spontaneously to put special attention and care toward this aspect of hospitality.
In our parish, we gather high school students every Friday for a free proposal of education in the faith. Many times it has happened that the first to arrive says, “No one’s here yet; I’ll just wait outside.” And he sits outside on his cell phone … I, who often find myself in the room with the broom in hand cleaning, began to reply: “Welcome, how are you? Why don’t we shake hands, like respectable adults…” Or: “You seem tired, have you had a difficult week? Sit down for a moment, take a few breaths.” I have found that starting this way generates a different climate among those who remain together in the time that follows: they understand that the educational proposal does not only concern the moment of content but also embraces the other aspects of our being together. To the young people who are starting to take “gusto,” or “flavorful” meaning, from the proposal we are offering, to those I see more deeply invested, I propose we get together another day of the week as a small group of leaders. I entrust to them in a particular way the work of being attentive to the people who come to this Friday group: the new arrivals, as well as those who have joined us at least once and never returned. A list is made of all the people who have ever come to a youth group meeting. Then we divide the names to call each one by phone. The classic objection is: “Father, after inviting them to the meeting, I did not know what to say. It felt like ice was freezing over between us over the phone.” I tell these objectors that at the beginning of our meetings there was some icy discomfort between us too. If I had stopped there, this friendship that now renders our lives more human would never have come about.
(Stefano Don is the pastor at Divine Master parish in San Bernardo, Chile. In the bottom right photograph, Fr. Stefano is pictured with a group of young people from the parish).