United World Project


“So this is life!”: my Genfest, 50 years ago!

1 July 2024   |   Italy, Genfest, Loppiano
Genfest 1973 - Foto Archivio Loppiano
Genfest 1973 – Foto Archivio Loppiano

Valerio Gentile, who was there at the first Genfests, tells us his story…

Imagine a group of youth that roams around half of northern Italy between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, armed with guitars, who are also long-haired and wear some bell-bottoms. Whether they are in the conservatory in Milan, at the Genoa fair, or in a theater in Turin, they sing and talk about a revolution; they are bearers of a message that is some kind of challenge to society, heralding a change from what is happening.

Valerio Gentile
Valerio Gentile

Keep calm; it is not what you think. This is another revolution that involves thousands of youth and that, in those years, brought about the birth of the Genfest. Let’s take a step back with Valerio Gentile, who, at the beginning of the 1970s, was a 20-year-old youth from Turin who studied foreign languages and literature and worked in his family’s sports items shop. “We were young like the others, immersed in the current challenges, and we used the breath culturally as well, all the suggestions of those time that were also made up of the youth protests of 1968, but we had another revolution.” Valerio had known the ideal of fraternity proposed by Chiara Lubich, and he had made it his own: “It was inevitable to talk about revolution because it was about this, but it was made of the love for God, for the others, that would take you to experience a change of thought and action, with at the center, the others”.

Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement, in that context launches the “youth days” held in the common gathering places of the youth. “Chiara’s idea of launching the days of the youth was certainly also a response to the ferment of 1968” – continues Valerio – “The youth protests were characterized by the school and university assemblies so much so that a meeting such as the Genfest is today, was already beginning to take its roots on those occasions. There was a whole legacy of the big rallies, like Woodstock, for example, and we used to organize them as well and smaller ones, we did crazy things back then.” Valerio talks about Turin to Milan and night return journeys, to talk to a group of youth, to prepare another appointment, and to arrange themselves with the whole team on the next steps to take. There’s was no internet, WhatsApp, or Zoom; it’s all done with a landline from home, without any privacy from the families who don’t always understand, and with long journeys and sacrifices to meet physically.

Loppiano, the international citadel of the Focolare near Florence, has been around for a few years and look at what is happening around it, and it is just like this that we begin to talk about a big meeting at Loppiano. “Maybe it was already the 1st of May, that 1971, when the rally took the form of a big meeting of music groups. I, like many young people back then, was part of a band that wanted to convey unity through music, and we also participated with two songs.” That first meeting is great evidence that the “gen,” the youth of the Focolare’s, are not different from the other youth; they have the same aspirations of beauty, greatness, and fullness of life. Valerio continues: “That 1971 was in fact a great emotional rollercoaster, and we already felt it was all going to become something even greater, so much so that already in 1972, the manifestation was replicated. But it is in 1973 that I can say I participated in my first Genfest.” In fact, from the rally of 1971, the experience grows into a bigger tree that involves, starting from its preparation, youth from all over Italy as well as Europe with the same means of travel and landlines and with an Italy that doesn’t yet have all its highways built. In one of those meetings that take him to Milan once a week, Valerio is asked to prepare the opening speech of the manifestation with the title “Mankind beyond all barriers.” To pass from the theater or conservatory stages to the stage of the first Genfest is something almost quite natural: “Of course we were aware that all our effort meant building a new world where the values in which we believed in were kept within everyone’s reach. And this meant a very intense organization to prepare experiences, songs, and themes, but then we confronted each other, and at times it was difficult, but that sense of coming together and of being one body only gave us infinite motivation. We did not live in an air bubble; the enthusiasm was real.”

One of Valerio’s particular memories is the Genfest of 1974, now that they have started creating a tradition of this big youth meeting, the number of participants in a few years has grown quickly.

“A downpour was already expected the previous day, and it was practically impossible to stop the buses with the youth reaching Loppiano from all over Europe for a rally organized outdoors. What should we do? In the night, we temporarily liberated the sheds where they used to raise chicken, setting up makeshift rooms by ridding them of the smell of chickens with incense; the next day, we carried out a “rotating” program in different locations so that everyone would have the same experiences, but at different times.”

The Genfest of 1974, Valerio remembers, is thus prophetic in a way, as it gives out the numbers of what will happen in the years to come with the local Genfests: smaller rallies but on the same image of the bigger ones, precisely like what will take place at Aparecida and other parts of the world in a few days.

“The rest is history; from 1975 the Genfests moved to Rome, and now since a few years in other parts of the world, but the numbers are always the same, as Chiara Lubich taught us: that also a smile, not made not shared out of love, is love. I mean, we used to give an extreme value to loving others, even absurdly, sometimes without saying anything. First there was this testimony, and the Genfests were also born from this, or at least I lived them like this.”

Valerio greets us with a wish for the youth who are about to experience a Genfest: “Today there has been a great evolution in everything, but I wish them what I experienced. The Genfest was a very important moment of my life where I understood that God needed me because he has the dream “that all may be one.” A dream, madness, but the Genfest has put it in my veins, taking me to live a revolution that is not made up of 8 hours of occupation at a university but instead, it asks us to love who we have next to us 24 hours on 24 hours. But this is the life! This is the life! I wish that each youth may discover and rediscover the force and beauty of all of this”.

Genfest 1973 – Foto Archivio Loppiano