Diocesan chapter of ecclesial movement getting underway at St. John Neumann
By Bill Brewer
The Diocese of Knoxville is now home to a new lay ministry that traces its roots to Italy and whose mission is to form its members as adults in the Christian faith who seek Jesus Christ in each moment of daily life.
Communion and Liberation is an international ecclesial movement in the Catholic Church that was recognized pontifically in 1982. It is a community of people who have been changed by their encounter with Christ. The name refers to the conviction that Christianity, lived in communion, is the foundation of authentic human liberation.
The members join in friendship to learn how to judge life’s experiences with the knowledge that “faith corresponds to some fundamental, original need that all men and women feel in their hearts,” according to Communion and Liberation founder Monsignor Luigi Giussani.
The Communion and Liberation mission is the education toward Christian maturity of its members and collaboration in the overall mission of the Catholic Church in all areas of contemporary life. It was defined by Pope John Paul II, as “one of the beautiful fruits of the Holy Spirit for the entire Church.”
Local chapters of Communion and Liberation (CL) welcome anyone interested in learning how to see the face of Christ in all circumstances. They meet regularly for what is called School of Community, a small-group-style meeting where they reflect on readings, discuss questions, and engage in finding out what Christ wants to do in their lives in a concrete way.
They openly discuss how their encounters with Christ not only happen in personal ways but also in their daily professional and social activities.
The movement has found its way to East Tennessee.
On Sept. 23, Father Joe Reed, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut, celebrated Mass for the new Communion and Liberation group in the Knoxville area. Following Mass, local CL leaders held a “Beginning Day” program in the library of St. John Neumann School to introduce the movement to East Tennessee.
The program was emceed by Federico Gallo, an aerospace engineer who is a group leader in the enrichment science engineering division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. His wife, Mandy Pekowski, and their friend from CL, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Carie Boothe, gave their personal witness to the Beginning Day group as to how Jesus Christ has impacted their lives.
“What the movement is not is a replacement of the Catholic Church. It is a movement within the Catholic Church and is a particular charism that helps participants follow the Catholic Church,” Dr. Gallo said during the Beginning Day program.
When Dr. Gallo and Ms. Pekowski moved to Farragut in January 2022 with their children, they brought Communion and Liberation with them. They relocated from Houston when he accepted a position at ORNL. They spent their first year acclimating to East Tennessee and the Diocese of Knoxville. Then earlier this year they began to incorporate Communion and Liberation into their lives in their new home.
Dr. Gallo explained that while a permanent Communion and Liberation chapter has just started in Knoxville, there have been movement members who have transitioned into the diocese in the past. They were doing a School of Community (weekly meeting) in person and remotely.
As he and his family were preparing to move to East Tennessee, Dr. Gallo said members of Communion and Liberation in Houston, which has a membership of about 150 people, told him that God was sending him to Knoxville for a reason, not only because of a position at ORNL.
“They told me to not feel detached from the Houston community just because I got this job. They said there is something for me there. He sends you there. There is Christ in that,” said Dr. Gallo, who is originally from Italy. “It’s like my friend in Houston said, I’m being asked because God was already here making this happen. It’s like discipleship.”
“I met Communion and Liberation in Italy during my last year of high school. I’ve been doing it a while. I need places like this (St. John Neumann Parish) to remind me of that beauty. Listening to my wife talk about her experience was like, ‘Wow!’ Sometimes I forget. That’s why these moments are so beautiful. Even for myself, having known it so long, I can take it for granted. I need people to remind me how present it is right now and how it’s happening right now. It’s not an experience that only happened in Italy. It’s happening here now. But it’s Christ, and Christ happens everywhere,” he noted.
Dr. Gallo pointed out that Communion and Liberation is open to all Catholics, active and those who have fallen away from the Church, and is open to non-Catholics, too. It is open to singles, couples, families, youth and young adults, and older faithful.
“Communion and Liberation also is a fraternity, which means at a certain point you make a choice and you say ‘I sign up for a fraternity,’ which means I follow the Catholic Church but I follow particularly this charism that allows me to follow the Catholic Church. It’s like Opus Dei or other Catholic movements. At a certain point I signed up for this fraternity because this is the way that helps me the most in following the Catholic faith. For me, it’s kind of like marriage,” Dr. Gallo said. “At a certain point, you have to decide to take a certain road. So, God sends us to Knoxville. I belong to Communion and Liberation. So, somehow there is something that God is making happen for me and for Communion and Liberation in Knoxville. And I am a witness to it, so much so that that is the reason why my wife gave her witness. She said, ‘I need Beginning Day.’”
He singled out his wife as an excellent example for whom Communion and Liberation is meant. She left the Catholic Church but was drawn back through CL. He also cited Lt. Cmdr. Boothe, saying she flies military helicopters while she is active in her Catholic faith.
“God is making this. We’re here. … We’re this charism, and as we follow it, and as things evolve, we’ll see what happens. This is our mission,” Dr. Gallo said, adding that Father Reed is supporting the local movement.
During her witness, Ms. Pekowski explained how she first encountered the Communion and Liberation movement through then-acquaintance Federico Gallo while attending the University of Texas in Austin.
“I was pretty much an atheist at the time. I was raised Catholic, but honestly, I never really believed. I went through all the sacraments, really just because my dad told me to. I went through religious education for the same reasons, because my dad told me to. After I got to high school, religious education and the classes I took didn’t really seem to me to have the answers to the most important questions I had about my life at the time, such as what is the meaning of life,” she shared.
“It seemed like what I was being taught was more of a rules system. Questions like ‘Why shouldn’t you do this?’ were answered with ‘Well, the Church says you shouldn’t.’ The teenager in me said, ‘Well, why?’ ‘Well, because.” For me, that answer wasn’t enough,” she added.
During her junior year in college, she and then-Mr. Gallo started having conversations and debates about the Church.
“I found somebody I could engage with at a deeper level. I really liked that. Then we started dating. I saw that he went to Mass every Sunday, and he had a relationship with this group of friends in Houston. At a certain point after we had been dating, I felt like if I really wanted to know him, then I needed to know this thing that was so important to him,” Ms. Pekowski said. “So, I started going to Mass with him every Sunday at the Catholic Center, and then eventually I went to go meet this group of friends he had in Houston.”
The Houston group organized a Way of the Cross on a Good Friday, where group members processed with the cross in a public space, singing songs and sharing reflections.
“That’s how I met the larger movement. The people I met there really struck me. There were mostly families with young kids. There also were young adults and older people, too. People were together in a very joyful way,” she continued. “You could tell there was something outside of all these people, this functional group of people, that kept them together. It wasn’t just because they were good people. There was something else that kept them together.”
In Austin, Ms. Pekowski asked Mr. Gallo if they could begin doing School of Community together as her journey back to the Catholic faith continued.
“At the time it was just him and me, I think it was around 2008, and so it was just me and him doing the School of Community together. I remember the first book we were studying that year was called ‘The Journey to Truth is an Experience’ (by Father Giussani), and my reaction to reading that title was is this a religious book or is this some psychedelic, hippy Allen Ginsberg novel? I thought this is the philosophy of my life. This totally appeals to me. So, we started working on that book together. Slowly, I started making my way back to the Church. I started going to Mass again. We maintained this friendship with the people in Houston. I had my first confession after almost a decade with a priest on a log in a park in Oklahoma on one of the CL vacations. I remember the experience very strongly,” she recalled.
From there, her relationship to God grew stronger. So did her relationship with Mr. Gallo. They married and began a family.
“We moved to Houston about a year after we got married and after our first daughter was born because that’s where he found a job. That’s when we really started belonging to the community of Houston. I met people who still are my closest friends today even though we don’t live in the same place. I met mothers who taught me how to be a mother, and through that life in the movement, CL taught me how to stay in front of the questions that I had about life in a serious way, too, not to just bury them under a rug or ignore the questions that you have. Seriously, ask them; ask the people around you who can help you,” Ms. Pekowski said.
She acknowledged the sadness of leaving Houston, but once in Farragut she decided to take an active role in establishing an active Communion and Liberation chapter in the diocese. She said she was fortunate to find existing CL members and they set about to hold a Beginning Day at St. John Neumann.
“It’s a small world in CL. So, we’ve tried to be part of a movement here. It doesn’t really matter where you go, you find the Church and you find CL,” she said.
Lt. Cmdr. Boothe also shared her personal story of developing a relationship with Jesus Christ, describing her involvement with Communion and Liberation while serving in the Navy.
“Jesus is here, and He is present, and He’s working, and He doesn’t want me to miss anything. So, He lets me come here. And He lets me see what He is doing for all my dear, dear friends and me,” Lt. Cmdr. Boothe said. “My whole time, having met the movement and being here and living this life, there’s always this sensation that something is pulling me along and pulling me by the heart. And I don’t want to miss anything. This has been my whole journey. It’s worth it to keep on going because I don’t know what’s there, but I’m at the beginning of a road I don’t know and I want to walk.”
The naval aviator attended the Farragut Beginning Day at the request of her friends from Houston as she was on a brief leave before being deployed in October.
She said she has learned that even in the military, there is no place she can go where she is too far away from Jesus Christ.
“Positive hypothesis is what I go into with everything. And the positive hypothesis is this: Jesus is here, and He’s present, and He’s working. And He’s working for the benefit of the whole world but first for me. So, everything is really this moment in which I have all the opportunity with my freedom to say yes. Yes, He’s here. And yes, I want to stay here, and I want to stay with Him because this Man is a great friend of mine, and with Him I am myself,” the Navy officer said during her Beginning Day witness.
She said she brings Communion and Liberation with her as she actively serves her country. “I love, love, love the Navy, and the boys and girls I work with are my dearest friends.”
She said as she once transitioned back to the United States from Japan, where she had been stationed, she visited Milan, Italy, and her friend, Father Julián Carrón, former president of Communion and Liberation.
She said Father Carrón told her, “Carie, you need Jesus to remember all of these faces and to remember why they are important. But you need the Navy in order to remember Jesus.”
“I thought that was upside down from how I normally think about it. I normally think that in order for me to survive in the Navy, which I love, I need to insert my faith. But instead, it’s the Navy precisely that pulls out all of my need for this Man who has met me. So, the Navy is essential for my faith,” she concluded.
Dr. Gallo believes Communion and Liberation can be a good fit for those who are looking to enrich their faith or who have questions about it.
He explained that Father Giussani realized that while Catholics in Italy continued to observe basic tenets of Catholicism, such as attending Mass weekly, they were losing touch with the deeper teachings of the Church.
“There was a time in Italy when churches were still full. A lot of people went to church, but there was a bit of mess of the meaning that connected religiosity, specifically the Catholic faith, to everyday life. So, people continued their habit of going to Mass, but some of the foundations connecting the teachings of the Catholic Church to the meaning of daily life was starting to be separated,” Dr. Gallo said.
He said this was “ground zero” for Father Guissani as he began having conversations about ways to change this Catholic culture.
“From his teaching in high school, the kids were attracted by his charism, and as they grew up they went to college and began working and wanted to carry on this way of life themselves, and the movement started that way—a continuation of this experience these kids had in high school,” Dr. Gallo said.
Communion and Liberation was born in Italy, but it has spread around the world.