By David Brooks
COMO, Italy — Some of the people who do the most good have a willingness to be radically changed. They are sensitive to the problems around them, which a lot of us are, but they are also willing to transform their lives to address them, which a lot of us don’t consider. I met many such people at a place here in northern Italy called Cometa.
Thirty-five years ago, the two Figini brothers, Erasmo and Innocente, were living in Como with their wives, Serena and Marina. Erasmo was a famous fabric designer. Innocente was a prominent eye surgeon. They were successful, but along with their wives, spiritually unfulfilled, unable to understand the meaning of the suffering they saw and felt.
Erasmo went to see a renowned priest, Father Luigi Giussani, who saw faith not as an intellectual system, but as an encounter with beauty, a love story. Erasmo returned to his wife and reported: “God exists. I have met someone who is a witness to his reality.” Serena was intrigued: Erasmo was the last person you’d call religious. But eventually, both couples met with Giussani and all found faith.
One day in 1986, Innocente reported that there was an H.I.V.-infected baby at the hospital whose mother was dying. Erasmo and Serena had vowed to each other that they would never have children, but they felt a swelling of gratitude and said they would foster the baby.
Cometa has grown and grown over the years, meeting needs when they present themselves.
Soon, other children came along, and still more. Over the past three decades, hundreds of foster children have lived in the Figinis’ compound, now called Cometa. If you go to dinner there you find five adult couples and up to 40 children around a long U-shaped table.
Last week Marina spent most of the meal with an infant with Down syndrome on her lap. “At first, I was afraid of disabled children,” she said. “But her presence has been a revolution of love for the entire family.”
Like all of us, the people at Cometa are aware that the worldwide decline of family and community has left millions of children estranged from any experience of a loving home. Unlike most of us, they’ve transformed their life plans to fill the gap.
But the willingness to change did not end there. When foster children elsewhere in Como seemed unmotivated, Cometa started an after-school program, which now hosts 130 kids. Because local kids were dropping out of school, Cometa built a 450-student vocational high school on the compound. Cometa also has a woodworking facility, a parental counseling center, a mental health center and a cafe in a local park. It helps direct a hotel management school, also.
None of this was planned. Needs were evident, and the Cometa philosophy is to say yes after yes. The C.E.O., Alessandro Mele, left his life as a tax consultant and now lives on campus amid hundreds of children. The man who runs the cafe, Marcello, left his old life and now mentors disabled apprentices. “I’m the 100 percent real Marcello here. I’m talking about my life, not my job,” he said.
If you or I had hundreds of kids running around there’d be general chaos. But Cometa is beautiful. The gardens are immaculate and meticulously designed. The family homes are modest but look like they came out of Architectural Digest. Every piece of furniture in the high school is colorful, elegant and unusual.
“Beauty educates,” said Serena, quoting Giussani. The children who come here often feel tossed aside. One used to be awakened by her mother with the words, “Get up, you piece of [expletive]. Breakfast is ready, you piece of [expletive].” But beautiful surroundings make the children who come here feel important, welcomed and cherished. If a toy breaks at Cometa, it is fixed right away. Likewise, every child is recoverable.
The people in Cometa don’t only treasure beauty, they assume it. In a world of distrust and betrayal, they assume there is beauty in each person and in every situation, so they lead with an almost unnerving level of hospitality.
The vocational high school curriculum is built around the idea that machines will soon be doing most physical tasks, but no machine will be able to create the feeling of a loving home. Whether they are being trained as waiters, carpenters, fabric designers or pastry chefs, students are taught to understand and create hospitable experiences. “Everything is a home,” said Mele. “Everything says, ‘Welcome to my home.’”
The idea is to give students the power to welcome others, born out of a sense that they have been welcomed. One of Giussani’s mottos resonates through Cometa: “Reality will not let you down.” You can take the radical leap, because life ultimately is beautiful.
This takes stubborn determination. Imagine looking after hundreds of children across 30 years, 24/7. By dinnertime, the adults around the table look exhausted. There are children seeking attention every second. Their daily lives are tied down to this place, even while some of the adults also work full-time jobs in the world outside. The sacrifices are real.
But this village-size family is like an embodied philosophy, a belief in beauty expressed in every personal and practical way.
This article was originally published by The New York Times.