I am coming to the end of this exhilarating, exhausting Italian book tour. I wish I could find the right words to say how much it has meant to me to be here, and to have made such great new friends. Today I had a private lunch with Father Julián Carrón, the worldwide head of Communion and Liberation, and a couple of other folks from CL. It was off the record, so I can’t tell you anything about it, but I can say that it was a rich and satisfying time. With Father Carrón, I met a Christian man with an open mind and open heart. It’s a gift in these times. I’ve spent a lot of time on this trip with CL members, and have been impressed by how much they care for each other, and for the faith. There is a lot of overlap between CL’s way of living out the faith, and my ideas in The Benedict Option. My sense is that the major difference is that I am inclined to be more sharp-edged about facing the world. But that’s just an impression.
The photo above is a parking-lot confessional my publicist Marco and I ran across on our way to a late afternoon event at a bookstore. Isn’t that great? That Dominican was standing around eager to hear the confessions of sinners. The sign says, “Christ comes to bring us mercy.”
At the bookstore, I spoke with about 25 folks who came to ask questions and talk about The Benedict Option (or rather, L’Opzione Benedetto,, which is now Amazon Italy’s No. 1 seller in Christianity & Church History category, and the No. 2 seller in the Roman Catholicism category). It was a great discussion. I find that things go best when I speak concretely about the Ben Op. People still struggle with the concept that I’m not talking about heading for the hills. The more I talk about the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto, the more success I have explaining what the Benedict Option can look like. Federica Sermarini, the wife of Marco, once told me that the Christians of her community can be open to the world “because we know who we are.”
I wish there were more Federica in The Benedict Option. Here’s a passage:
“A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing goes against it,” said G. K. Chesterton.
That quote from The Everlasting Man is the motto of the Scuola libera G. K. Chesterton, the community school of the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic lay community in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy. The school started because Marco Sermarini and his wife Federica had the courage of their countercultural Christian convictions.
Almost a decade ago Marco and Federica began to worry that the state schools and the local Catholic high school would undermine the work of Christian formation that their children received at home and within the Tipi Loschi community.
In June 2008, Marco heard a lecture by Father Ian Boyd, an American priest and Chesterton expert visiting Italy. Father Boyd said that the problem we face today is standardization by low standards. What’s more, people have no time to do creative things—but they must make time, because going with the mainstream means spiritual death.
When he returned home, Marco told his wife they had to start a school. They had three months to do it. “Many people thought I was crazy, and maybe I am, but we started on the fifteenth of September,” Marco said. They had four students, two of them Sermarini children. Today there are seventy students in both a middle school and a high school.
The success of the Chesterton school inspired the Tipi Loschi to dream big. “When we discovered that we could do one strange thing, we started to think about how many things we could do in an unconventional way,” says Sermarini. “We knew that we couldn’t live a regular life with a Christian coating, but had to change the roots.”
Going against Italy’s educational stream, the Tipi Loschi found not only success with their school but inspiration to be countercultural Christians in many other ways.
“Many times in this life you will think it’s impossible to have any other kind of order,” he continues. “But if you start changing things, and moving things where they are meant to be, and if you put God over all of it, then you will be amazed by how many things fall into place.”
After the bookstore event, I went shopping for my wife, then ate a pizza, then had gelato, and ended up having a late drink with Giuseppe Scalas, a longtime reader of and commenter on this blog. When I got back to the hotel room, I saw that Marco Sermarini had texted me this photo from San Benedetto tonight: all the Tipi Loschi families gathered at their clubhouse, Santa Lucia, made a bonfire, and prayed the rosary together.
That, my friends, is what it means for faithful Catholics to live the Benedict Option. The sheer joy of it…
Tomorrow I’m going to the Orthodox liturgy, then taking the day off to visit friends who are trying to start a Benedict Option community with other Catholic families just outside the city. Then, on Monday, I’m off to Genoa for the final speech of this tour.