A ‘sold-out’ début theater production with a message of solidarity is brought to the stage in Switzerland’s Canton Valais. The performance stems from the artistic talents and creativity of a group of young people who have been inspired by Pope Francis’ cyclical and aim to raise awareness among all generations.
By Adélaïde Patrignani
Pope Francis’ call for integral ecology has echoed loudly through the Swiss Alps. In Canton Valais, in southern Switzerland, where people grow up among the peaks and vineyards, a group of young Catholics has decided to give voice to Pope Francis’ message through the medium of art.
Benjamin Bender and Guillaume Délèze are 23 years old. The former is a professional actor, involved with children and youth, the latter studies philosophy and musicology at the University of Friborg and has been composing for piano for a decade. Each of them has put their talents into practice to give a theatrical form to Laudato sithe 2015 encyclical on safeguarding our common home.
Genesis of a show
Their projects began to take shape even before the coronavirus pandemic. In Valais, many young Catholics attend the “DJP (Déjeune qui prie)” network which has been offering a Saturday morning meeting since 1997 in which participants recite the lauds together and then enjoy breakfast. DJPs are held in the Diocese of Sion, but also include other events such as the “Open Sky Festival”, which takes place every two years in the town of Fully and welcomes about 1,500 young Catholics gathered for several days of prayer, concerts and testimonies .
During the last edition of the Festival in 2019, an amateur performance sought to retrace the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. The success achieved by this performance prompted the young people to plan a new show for the festival’s 2021 edition, to coincide with the Laudato si Year called for by Pope Francis.
We “were faced with an incredible challenge,” admits Benjamin, who became actively involved in the project along with other young volunteers. “We had to produce art from a theoretical text, from an encyclical”: we just had to face the challenge concretely. The young authors went in search of those who put Laudato si into practice every day: a monk from the Cistercian abbey of Hauterive, a basket maker,” characters from the show in their own right.
Then the pandemic somewhat messed up the project. The 2021 edition of the Open Sky Festival was postponed, but “that gave us a little more time to go deeper into what we wanted to get across as a message,” Benjamin says. It took the groups about a year and a half to actually write the piece.
Over the months, the crew has grown and now includes a dozen actors, the extras, a choir of young people from the village of Bramois, and volunteers: in total, more than 30 young people between the ages of 16 and 22.
Evangelizing through music
The group formed by Guillaume is smaller – eight young people from Wallis – but dynamism and ambition are not lacking. The members – each of whom plays both traditional and more modern instruments – met in the parish group that animates Mass once a month. Then they decided to found Echo – to evangelize in their own way. “In our songs we want to talk about our faith in the way you could talk about it to people outside the faith,” Guillaume sums up. In their first song they wanted to talk about ecology. To do this Guillaume studied the Pope’s document in depth and wrote the lyrics of the songs starting from what had “struck him the most.”
Yet again, the pandemic changed the initially planned stages of the project; but covid withstanding. the main obstacle remains “the agenda of each individual,” Guillaume notes. Despite everything, the young people have had “a lot of encouragement” about their project, and this is a great incentive to persevere, especially since “several songs” are already in preparation.
The path to holiness
There is no boastfulness behind the artistic endeavors of the young people of Valais, only the desire to reach people’s hearts at this time when environmental and social challenges are knocking at the door of the quiet Swiss canton. While traditional values are mistreated, the Church wants to indicate references and open up bold new horizons starting from the Gospel.
“ Laudato si is not just a beautiful piece of writing by the Pope: it is an appeal addressed to all of us,” Benjamin explains. “This encyclical is a heritage. It’s not enough to read it, we have to put it into practice.” “The mountains give so many people a living in Valais, but we are destroying them,” Benjamin worries. the riches that the elderly pass on to us, to achieve a serene sobriety” says the young actor, referring to his region where intergenerational ties, while remaining strong, have a tendency to loosen.
Benjamin insists on the need for everyone’s involvement for an integral ecology. “Young people are very committed, but we all need to be committed together,” he stresses, noting that “in the Church and among adults things drag on a bit….” Deepening this commitment is a sign of a true journey of faith: “It comes close to the concept of next door saintsand that is taking care of our neighbors, our relationships, our surroundings…,” he adds. “The next door saints” the Pope of in the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate is a testimony that is particularly close to Florian’s heart, another young actor in the group.
The musicians of Echo – several of whom, like Guillaume, also participated in Benjamin’s musical show – have set themselves “three goals: to make beautiful music, to bring a message of faith, and to be able to economically help those who most need this kind of help. “
The works produced are, at the moment, disseminated through YouTube, but the young people would like to sell their music to raise money for the associations. That is why they created the label “Dreamsailer Music,” which includes the Echo group and other musical projects run by Guillaume, with this charitable purpose in mind.
Finally, after months of patient and creative effort, dreams are beginning to come true. Last October saw the release of Echo‘s first title, “Harmonie,” with a video shot in the rocky, verdant landscape of the Rhone Valley which speaks of the beauty of Creation.
Four girls, the singers, a violin, a trombone, a piano, and a drum set: the group is unusual, but the title foreshadows the result: true harmony to which the group of musicians bears witness with freshness and dynamism.
Last April 12 and 13, “La Coloc MC” (“The Roommate of the Common Home”) was presented by Benjamin and his troupe in a venue that is as atypical as it is symbolic when it comes to integral ecology: a fruit warehouse near Riddes, right in the middle of orchards. The warehouse’s decorations are understated and made from recycled or salvaged materials. “We have anchored ourselves in a sustainable reality, and this allows us to foster local realities,” Benjamin explains.
Over 250 spectators for each performance: a “really enthusiastic” audience, visibly impressed by these young people committed to the Church and responsive to current issues.
“We don’t just do theater or perform a play: this is truly a human adventure,” the young actor from Wallis continues, noting that many of his companions have matured over the course of this project. “Everyone is ready to set off on another adventure,” but at the moment there is no definite project.
Others will most certainly take up the call of Laudato si to put it into practice: in fact, a Laudato sì Award was established after the second performance, aimed at financially supporting integral ecology projects in the region. Christian Thurre, permanent deacon and ecology delegate for the Diocese of Sion, awarded the first prize to a group that intends to transform a 900m² plot of land into a permaculture area with a social project that revolves around a garret. The second prize – an encouragement prize – was awarded… to the Echo group. The Valais Church relies heavily on the creativity of young people for the message to be embodied in a society that needs passionate and consistent witnesses.