The week-long Meeting for Friendship among Peoples, the largest yearly cultural conference in Europe, has just concluded at the seaside resort town of Rimini, Italy. Thirty-three years ago, a group of friends from Communion and Liberation sought to share their experience with the many beach tourists who crowded into their town during the summer. From this beginning, the yearly Meeting, with free admission, has continued to today, with some 700,000 expected visitors during the week.
This year's theme comes from Fr. Luigi Giussani's book, The Religious Sense: "By nature, man is relation to the infinite". The talks, exhibits and shows reflect on this human need that reaches beyond ourselves, whether the desire emerges in politics, economics, science or the arts. The pope sent a personal message to the Meeting in which he spoke of the original dependence of the person and the many ways of dodging that relationship, and yet: "This tension is impossible to eliminate from the heart of man: even when one rejects or denies God, the thirst for the infinite that inhabits man does not melt away."
More than just a conference with an exhibition hall and a tight schedule of speakers with the requisite concessions stands, the hallmark of the Meeting is a coterie of volunteers, young and old, from the town and around the world. Last year a group of young people from Haiti found their way to Rimini and offered their help at the regional restaurants set up in the conference halls. The same cheerful middle-aged Italian woman stands at the same cash register day after day, year after year, collecting cash for food tickets. Other volunteers direct cars in parking lots, drive the guest speakers around and set up and take down stages. Franco Casalboni, the volunteer coordinator, described their contribution: "The day has a tight rhythm and well-defined schedule. It begins at 8:45 am with Lauds, then there is work from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm, with a lunch break until 2:15 pm. Work begins again until 6:45 pm. And there will be evening shifts from 8:30 pm to 11:00 pm on August 17 and 18." Last year's volunteers included a group of young Muslims from Egypt.
This year's exhibits feature: Rock and Roll, Dostoevsky, Bellini's Angels of the Pieta, Latin American independence, genetics, the construction of the Milan Cathedral and more. Past years have seen "living" exhibits at the Meeting. Once, a group of handicapped people assembled bicycles in the middle of the room, just as they do for the company they work for founded by people of the movement. Another exhibit on living freely in prison featured a group of prisoners and their guards selling baked goods, indistinguishable in their jail garb. The group sang together accompanied by guitars at the end of the evening and all were struck by an unimaginable friendship. Missionary groups, such as AVSI, share their work, while members of cooperatives from around the world display their handcrafted wares.
A varied and full speaker schedule offered a universal focus. Archbishop Kaigama related the great suffering of Christians in Nigeria, while Vatican UN observer Archbishop Silvano Tomasi spoke of the need to resist ideologies that foster such persecution. Elvira Parravicini, a neonatologist at Columbia University Medical Center, spoke on her work with sick infants and their families. Other talks ranged from biomedical research to Islam to the environment, from poetry to philosophy. Some of the participants over the three decades of the Meeting have included Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the playwright Eugene Ionesco, Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, the Dalai Lama and the artist William Congdon.
Two large halls are also dedicated to youth sports and children's activities, including trampolines, a volleyball court with sand, a soccer field and basketball court, and a triathlon competition. The evenings feature performances such as Lebanese theater, Flamenco dance, Irish music and winning pieces from the Rimini Film Festival. Last year, the Chieftains played in concert to an ecstatic crowd.
Authentic faith requires a dialogue with culture. As Pope John Paul II said, "The Gospel lives in conversation with culture, and if the Church holds back from the culture, the Gospel itself falls silent.” During the week, the Buddhist monk Shodo Habukawa shared his story of a personal friendship with Fr. Giussani, which was paradigmatic for the Meeting itself, as an encounter between people from many different experiences finding a common purpose in their thirst for the infinite.
The Meeting in Rimini has generated similar events in other countries, including Egypt and Spain. The U.S. also hosts a three-day event every January in Manhattan, the New York Encounter.