Friday, January 29, 2010

People of the Year - #4

From Inside the Vatican

Each year for the past 10 years, Inside the Vatican has chosen 10 "People of the Year" -- men and women of courage, vision, learning and faith.

I find myself unable to write currently, and so in my desire to bring Freedom Through Truth, will be bringing to you things that I have seen and admire for their veracity.

Here is the fourth member of that illustrious group.

Don Luigi Maria Epicoco
Many of us saw him next to the Pope on that April 28th in L’Aquila, close to his young friends in front of the ruins of the “Home of the Student.”
Luigi Maria Epicoco is the young parish priest of San Giuseppe Artigiano, the university parish in this town in the region Abruzzo, which on April 6th was hit by a violent earthquake.
Dozens of building collapsed. Hundreds were trapped in the rubble. Dozens died. Many of the victims were young people, students. And they had to be buried.
Don Gino, as everybody calls him, never lost his courage. And our selection of him as one of out “Top Ten” of 2009 is really in part a selection of all those who confront a great tragedy and retain their courage and hope, and keep going.

“Communication is important,” he wrote on his blog, “not only because it keeps the attention focused on the problems, but because communication is the first way we have of sharing what we are and what we experience.”

That was the easiest and most direct way he could find of continuing his conversations with “his” young friends (55 among them are not here any more).

But there are so many others to take care of. The university parish of L’Aquila has 30.000 members, the entire pastoral activity must be reorganized. Also through the web site of the parish and through the social network Facebook with photo and posts of the students and the priests.

“We are trying to reorganize the pastoral activity in the light of what has happened. We don’t even have a pastoral geography any more. We are reconsidering the limits of the parish, because the population has moved and now lives in places which we never reached before, but which now are full of people.”

Don Luigi always uses the present tense talking about his parish and its activities and catechesis. It is a quite particular parish, a personal parish for the pastoral care of the university students. It has no defined territory. “In the entire diocese, wherever there is a university student, professor or technician, there is the parish.” And in the summer, thanks to the Erasmus program, there are the European students, so the activity never stops.

He has had to deal with the problem that his parish was scattered, but soon the activities could start again although slowly. Don Luigi tells his young parishioners that they can learn something from the earthquake.
“The earthquake taught us something that we used to preach but that we now know is true, that the Church is not made of stones but of people. The earthquake has almost forced our conversion. It has also taught us that people don’t have to come to us, but that we have to go to them. We are shepherds who must run after these lambs wherever they have been scattered.”

For Don Gino, the parish is wherever his young parishioners are. In the faculties, in the tents, in the few remaining student houses.
“Almost nobody has managed to return to the house where they lived before. The most lucky have managed to bring with them some of their things. All the free homes have been requisitioned by their owners who lived in other houses which have been damaged, or as potential homes for families which have lost everything. The university students will get their lodging after the others, and that is a pity, because the students are an entire people in L’Aquila. The ancient city centre as a matter of fact was dominated by the university. And that night it was almost empty, because the students were on their spring holidays. Otherwise it would have been a massacre.”

One particular day marked the watershed between before and after the earthquake: the Pope’s visit. On the web site of the parish, Don Luigi wrote: “The Home of the Student is now not only the macabre theater of those who have seen their future betrayed and were buried beneath those walls. But it is a reminder for those who will reconstruct, that engineering must not consist only in correct calculations but also in the awareness that life is more important than any other interest. This is what Peter’s successor did. He turned horror into an opportunity, ‘our mourning into dancing’ (PS 30:12).

“I think that the stress has helped people to deepen and mature, but also to learn to deal with this sorrow, because if you don’t, you remain in an immense frustration. So it really is an opportunity. Either this experience makes us better, or it makes us frustrated… and this is what the pastoral work is about: how to stand up in front of this sorrow.”

I asked the young pastor what his plans are now.

“Simply to allow reality to guide us instead of our pastoral programs,” he told me. “We are playing it by ear, but we are not lost. I continue to think that the Word of God and the Holy Spirit are not only beatiful words that we preach from the pulpit. They are a compass which helps us in dark moments, in the mist and in the struggle.
"I notice this now when I celebrate and when I read the Gospel, that these words are not only true, they are real, concrete, much more than beautiful. The temptation of the fear of being left alone is always there outside our door. But if Christ says that he will not leave us alone until the end of the world, he will find a way of staying with us, especially in the hour of the Cross.” —Angela Ambrogetti

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