QUEBEC,QC,CA – It is probable that few at the 49th International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) have as deep an understanding of the meaning of its theme as do a group of young men from St. Augustine, Florida. The theme proclaims, “The Eucharist, gift of God for the life of the world.” These men of Comunita Cenacolo (Italian for Cenacle Community) attending the IEC to lead worship at one of its many venues, solemnly admitted in an interview with Catholic Exchange that they had been dead and have found new life in the Eucharist.
The community was started 25 years ago in Italy by Sister Elvira Petrozzi who, as she tells it, “heard the cry of addicts and alcoholics in her heart.” With no training in treatment methodologies, what resulted was an experience that offers a living relationship with the living God through the Eucharist, the Rosary and the Sacrament of Penance. In later years, she added other houses throughout Europe and also added houses for women. In 1993, Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, then a parish priest, worked with Sr. Elvira to bring the community to St. Augustine.
The young men of Cenacolo are unwavering in their belief that it is devotion to the Eucharist that delivered them out of death and into life. “Without the Eucharist, none of this makes any sense; that’s what holds everything together,” said Ryan who has been a member for six months.” Their experience proves, however that true devotion to the Eucharist comes through sacrifice and true friendship. Their lives within the community are a daily practice of total self-giving. They live without worldly goods: no money, no telephones, no television and no computers.
Upon entering the community they are asked to commit three years, and from that point forward they learn in a tangible way what St Paul would tell them, “Your life is not your own.”
Waking at 6:00 each morning with an hour of adoration and the first rosary of the day before breakfast, they prepare for a day of work. As in a monastic community, each is given a job intended to help in the ‘family life’ and upon which their brothers depend. Much of their work is outdoors: farming, landscaping, caring for animals or repairing their home. Other members of the community prepare meals or clean the common areas. Their day proceeds with work, prayer, meals and the occasional soccer game.
Not a Treatment Center
Cenacolo is not a treatment center: there are no doctors, no medicine and no therapists. “I have literally been in about 15 different treatment centers,” Ryan admitted. “Sometimes I only lasted a day. There just wasn’t anything there for me.”
Albino, who oversees the community in the Americas, told CE, “Cenacolo is a ‘School of Life’. These guys used drugs and alcohol in response to their pain, emptiness and the meaninglessness of their lives. They had lost the ability to trust. In community, they learn to trust: first in each other, then in God.”
“We see that when they first come here they don’t want to have anything to do with God,” Albino continued. “They can trust a guy who has lived life like they had. This is how they get reintroduced to God. God uses this true friendship to help the new guys learn to trust again. The addict learns to trust God by trusting the other guys.”
Ryan offered, “What made the difference for me here was the way I was treated by the other guys. In the treatment centers I went to, people didn’t want to have anything to do with me. These guys were happy just to have me around. They took me in, and the other thing is, they are always laughing and happy.”
Trust is also a radical undertaking at Cenacolo. “Each day Elvira wants us to have a sign that God loves us,” explains David a 4-year member of the community. “Instead of relying on a homily, we let God give us tangible proof of His love. We work for nothing, ask for nothing, own nothing and we get to see if God take care of us.” The community subsists entirely on gifts of providence from others. “This way,” David continued, “others get to enjoy the experience of giving.” When asked if God provides, David smiled with confidence and responded, “For 25 years, and now with 56 houses around the world, there’s always been food, there’s always been clothes and there’s always been a place to sleep. I know His love is real!”
“Sometimes we don’t have sugar or salt,” admitted Brendan a one-year member. “That just means we’re not praying enough, or we’re not grateful enough for what we have.” Members share freely with each other. As we sat with among the men, we witnessed them share food and water; they also shared raincoats on this rainy day. “We always share clothes if someone needs something,” Brendan confirmed. “It’s no big deal.”
Fit for Life in the World
There are the inevitable questions that arise whenever such a radical solution is offered: Does it work? What is the success rate? Can they function in society? To this, Cenacolo has a single answer, “Trust in God.”
Cenacolo is more concerned with their mission than in proving it. “We have no interest in statistics,” responded Albino. “These guys do well when they leave if they accept the proposal of our radical life centered on Jesus Christ. We know they are ready when they address their pride, stop being a liar, stop hiding things and learn to accept criticism and reprove.”
The men easily shared success stories of former members who have gone on to live productive lives and raise families. Members might also stay on in a consecrated or ordained life. The men know of failures as well: “Community gives you tools to live your life,” Mike a member for one year told CE. “I know guys who left and didn’t use them and just went back to their old ways; they don’t make it. Especially, if they leave before community tells them they’re ready.”
“They leave community with the same brokenness and flaws they entered with,” concluded Albino. “The difference is that they have the tools to deal with their defects. The choice is up to them.”
To meet the men of Cenacolo is to probe the wounds of Christ and to see Him living before you. With their friendliness, good nature and openness to singing, they are powerful witnesses to the healing power of the Eucharist. Each day they die a little more to themselves so that they might be risen in Christ.