Completely New and the Same as Ever Before
Suffering the loss of a dear friend, the Greenville GS embraces the whole St. Joe's community
The GS* meeting at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, SC, on the night of Wednesday, March 30, 2022, was both completely new and the same as ever before.
It was the same because it was a gathering of high school students seeking a place where they could face the drama of their lives without running away or ignoring their hearts; a place where they could live their questions and their doubts and experience the hope of not being alone. Just like any other Wednesday night, they shared a meal, sang meaningful songs, read a text, compared their experiences to it, and shared their experiences with the community.
It was completely new because of the dramatic events of the preceding twenty-four hours, events which had impacted the entire student body, and the 11th and 12th grades in particular. It was completely new because circumstances had provoked so many students to feel their need and ask ultimate questions. A senior girl, Emily, passed away in a car accident the night before. She was an artist, poet, actress, singer, cellist, athlete, and Kairos retreat leader. She was, above all, a friend to the outsider. She embodied what Fr. Giussani teaches in The Journey to Truth is an Experience:
"Only one who has experienced powerlessness to its depths, and hence personal solitude, feels close to others and is easily drawn to them. Like someone lost, without shelter in a storm, he or she feels his or her cry at one with the cries of others, his or her anxiety and expectation at one with the anxieties and expectations of all others." (The Journey to Truth Is an Experience, pp. 55-56.)
That morning, after a brief assembly where I informed the high school student body of her death, we remained in the chapel for a time of grieving and silent prayer. I went out to a group of seniors who were friends of hers and regular attendees of GS: “Should we have GS tonight, with all this going on?” I expected them to say “Yeah, Mr. Lewis, maybe not tonight…”
Instead one of them said “YES” before I could even finish the question and the others around him nodded in agreement.
The fact of Emily being a Kairos retreat leader was significant due to the relationship between Kairos and GS at St. Joseph’s. This year we had nineteen Kairos retreat leaders and the majority of these students regularly attended GS. Almost all of them came to the GS Advent Retreat this year, and many of them attended the New York Encounter hardly a month before Emily passed away. A group of these students had attended the GS vacation three years earlier, which was the first vacation I had ever attended as campus minister, and the first national GS Vacation hosted in South Carolina. While Emily was not a regular GS attendee, she had shared the intense experience of preparing for the Kairos retreat (a preparation that lasts months) with the core senior group at the heart of GS at St. Joseph’s this year.
It has been apparent to me how their education in Christian life, through the methodology of Fr. Giussani, has borne fruit. From a group of six freshmen attending that first GS Vacation, they have become a community of about twenty seniors whose lives are an invitation to the whole school. Their parents are surprised: “Why does my daughter insist on going every Wednesday?” or “Why does my son wake up early on Friday mornings to go to school early just for this meeting?” None of their parents know the Movement. They just know that their kids are happier when they come home.
The kids insisted we organize a group to go to the New York Encounter this year, despite the difficulties related to the pandemic. Shortly after the trip, one of those students decided to be confirmed as a Catholic. Another senior who regularly attends GS is also being confirmed. Yet, the GS group remains ecumenical. The students come because it helps them take their lives seriously and makes faith actually matter, even as they sometimes question their faith.
I’m trying to paint a picture of the group that was at the heart of the senior class when their classmate and dear friend, Emily, died. It was a group of students who had been prepared in a particular way, educated to take their struggles and questions and needs seriously.
And so on the night of Wednesday, March 30, after a day of shock and grief, they invited their classmates to the place where they always went with their hurt and their questions: Wednesday night GS. Nearly 100 students came, many of whom had never set foot in a GS meeting before. A dozen moms rallied to provide food for everyone on very short notice. Several teachers, administrators, and parents stayed to listen as we sang and read and shared. Afterwards several adults came and said “that was incredible, what you all organized on such short notice, how you all led that night.” While I understood the sentiment, I was struck because I realized we did not do anything exceptional. We did exactly what we did every single Wednesday night, as we have learned from Fr. Giussani, Fr. Carrón, Fr. José, and so many others. The numbers were more, because more people were actually experiencing the need, but the form was the same as ever.
And the amazing thing is that it was adequate to the situation. The School of Community was adequate to face even these terrible circumstances. It was a difference of degree, but not of essence. At the heart of the student community’s response to the tragedy was a group of students who had learned (and I had learned along with them) to not censor any question, any experience, but to bring our hearts with us, even as they burn within us, to the community gathered in faith as the visible sign of God-with-us, of Christ. I could look back from that night and see how, through so many events and circumstances, God had formed “a people” who could help the school discover his presence even in the face of death.
Gabe, Greenville, SC
*Gioventù Studentesca: high school students who meet weekly, following the charism of Fr. Giussani