[Rimini, Italy]: The annual seaside festival in this northern Italian town organised by the Communion and Liberation (CL) movement since 1980 is an extraordinary phenomenon. “Il meeting”, as it is known – full name: Meeting for Friendship among Peoples -- last year attracted 800,000 visitors and this year numbers are steady. An unpaid troupe of 3,000 students, drawn from CL’s huge network of "confraternities" (60,000 belong in Italy alone) manage the 11 auditoriums, stands, exhibitions, shops, sports facilities, and children’s crèches, demonstrating the movement’s powerful bonds and sense of commitment.
Since I arrived on Wednesday, staggered by the crowds, noise and sweltering heat, there has been no shortage of carabinieri and secret service men outside the hall, to protect the government ministers and captains of industry (a speech yesterday by the head of the Fiat car empire is on the front pages today) coming in and out. The bigwigs take advantage of the free platform – and the hundreds of accredited journalists –the festival offers to movers and shakers of all kinds in both Church and public life (international speakers this year include the Irish president, Mary McAleese) who come to "dialogue" on politics, economics, theology and the arts.
But what most strikes me is that this is pre-eminently the locus of Catholic civil society in northern Italy, the place where it shows itself off and builds relationships with people who matter. Politically, Il Meeting has a strong centre-right feel – unsurprising, given that many of the leaders of the old Christian Democratic movement came out of CL’s circles. CL was born in Milan, and the festival is dominated by the wealthy Catholic northern bourgeoisie, who still fear communism and are inclined to overlook Italian president Berlusconi's many faults because he is pro-life and pro them.
The head of the press office here, Matteo Lessi, stresses, however, the openness of Il Meeting to all political opinions, citing as example the presence of former socialist prime minister Guiliano Amato, a jurist who will be speaking later today on the presence of religion in the public sphere . The most controversial speaker – given the Church’s outspoken opposition to Berlusconi’s vicious anti-immigration agenda – is the Minister for Immigration, Roberto Marini, who belongs to Berlusconi’s coalition partner, the xenophobic Northern League. The Minister used his platform to quote Caritas in Veritate on the global nature of immigration, and to make his case for the integration of immigrants depending on strong security policies. But he was flanked onstage by speakers from two CL Milanese organisations that assist immigrants - - Portofranco helps hundreds of undocumented migrant children with school lessons; Gruppo La Strada assists the homeless. The dialogue, it is hoped, is two-way.
The most important thing about the political speakers here, is of course, the fact they are here at all, proof of the Church’s continuing powerful presence in Italian society and politics.
Nor is there any shortage of leading church figures. The bishop mostly closely associated with CL, the formidably intellectual Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Scola, spoke Wednesday on faith and postmodernity. Earlier in the week Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin used the example of Cardinal Newman to call on the Irish Church “to try to conquer a space in the public sphere which at the moment it does not have”.
Il Meeting is also a chance, of course, for promoting CL, and witnessing to the strong bonds of friendship which its members see as the sign of the Holy Spirit's presence among them. The festival’s themes always focus on a key insight of its charismatic founder, the schoolteacher Don Luigi Giussani, who died in 2003. This year’s is the “heart” in its Biblical sense of the place where desires meet Christ.
CL was born out of study circles and retreats which Don Giussani gave to university students in the 1950s, although it didn’t receive canonical recognition until 1982 – as with many movements, the process of finding a legal structure within the Church was fraught with difficulties. Its base remains in schools and universities, but members go on to join "confraternities", "schools of communion" where they meet to ponder the letters and books of Don Giussani, commit to charitable works – the movement has generated some remarkable projects, including an orphanage at Lake Garda, where children are brought up in a place of breathtaking beauty – and spend time in “mission”, which may involve service in a parish or to one of the movement’s works.
The confraternity model is, of course, a powerful one in church history, and key to the vitality of civil society – the “subsidiarity” principle in Catholic Social Teaching. For a Catholic coming from market-dominated, individualistic, Anglo-Saxon societies, the Meeting is something of a culture shock, like entering a forest from a flat plain. The sheer number of what Catholic Social Teaching calls "intermediate associations" on display here -- NGOs, small businesses, sindaci and so on -- is testament to the vigor of Italian civil society, nourished by the Church. The many talks here are concerned with defending that space: "What role for NGOs?" -- "More society, less state: the experience of gift in Italian society" -- "How to grow human capital" -- and so on. Each day there is a panel (I spoke on it last night about London Citizens) organised by the "Foundation for Subsidiarity". Tonight features the British thinker Philip Blond, head of the ResPublic thinktank in London, who is credited with influencing British prime minister David Cameron's vision of the "Big Society".
The question that Il Meeting unintentionally poses is this: Can you have a big society without these networks of faith-driven confraternities, where people learn to be in communion with others? Civil society is where individuals become persons – giving of themselves, for others, fired by common purpose. The energy generated by this “belonging” are the roots which faith institutions put down. Projects, charities, NGOs are the fruits. The habits of communion engendered by the Church are key.
I shared last night's panel with Professor John Milbank, the Anglican academic expert on Catholic Social Teaching who is a regular here. The next post will be on his assessment of the future of the Big Society idea in Britain.