How did the presence in the United States of the Fraternity of St. Charles begin?
It began with me, when I did my year of diaconate in a downtown parish in Sacramento, California, at the invitation of the pastor. A few months after my arrival I was joined by Antonio Baracchini. Fr. Massimo Camisasca came to visit us twice during that year. It was not possible, however, to become established in that diocese.
After that first attempt, for about two years Antonio and I served in a parish in Tampa, Florida. There too, in the end we were not welcomed by the bishop. Of course, at that time – the early 90’s – we were taking our first steps, and we were very inexperienced. After Agostino Molteni, the first to go on mission, in Brazil, it was us. We didn’t know very well what it would take to open a house. We learned through the experience that the only way to become established in the United States would be to receive and accept an invitation from a bishop.
And did a bishop invite you?
Yes. After some time, I expressed to Fr. Massimo my desire to pursue my Licentiate at the John Paul II Institute in Washington. There I met Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, who had a lively interest in the experience of the movement started by Fr. Giussani. One day he invited me to lunch. I spoke to him of our desire to find a way to establish our mission. He immediately took out his cell phone, called a friend of his and told him about us. On the line was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, at that time bishop of Fall River, Massachusetts. The result of the conversation was an appointment with him in Washington three days later. I was very nervous; it was the first time that I had to speak for the Fraternity before such a person. I had prepared my presentation. Bishop O’Malley entered the waiting room dressed as a Franciscan; we shook hands and sat down. I began by saying that I was from the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, and he responded: “Yes, I know.” I told him of our interest in a stable presence in the U.S. “Why don’t you come to Fall River?” was his open and generous response. He didn’t need great speeches or explanations; he simply invited us to settle in his diocese, south of Boston. And so we opened the first house: myself, Vincent Nagle and Antonio López.
How did you live that first experience of being established in America?
Fr. Massimo’s closeness to us, especially through his many visits, was extremely important. I remember once he told us that he saw our house as being entirely sustained by the ideal. In fact we lived very intensely the great ideal of following the Church, of following Jesus Christ and of making him known as we have known him. As for the parish, at Fall River we found a wonderful community of elderly people, with whom we developed an excellent relationship; but there were few young families.
Then you left Fall River. Why?
In 2000 the bishop asked us to move to another parish, in a bigger city: Attleboro. Here we began an excellent relationship with the parishioners. The diocese, however, had to reduce the three parishes in the city to one. We offered to take charge of this project, but the diocese made other choices. In the meantime other bishops had begun to request our presence. In particular, the invitation of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado immediately caught our attention. He wrote us after reading Fr. Massimo’s book, “Together on the Road”: he was struck by our desire to live a common life as priests. In our dialogue with him an important prospect opened: the possibility of a missionary presence and a community to serve. All of this led us to a decision to move.
Not without sadness did we tell the bishop of Fall River that we would be leaving. We continue to cherish a great respect for Cardinal O’Malley and his successor. We are very grateful for all the years during which we were able to serve them; but I believe this was a step indicated to us by the Lord.
So now there is a house of the Fraternity in Denver…
The archbishop received us very much as a father. He entrusted to us a parish serving Broomfield, a small town founded only 30 years ago, 20 minutes from Denver. He has given us a great opportunity. Myself, Fr. Gabriele and Fr. Accursio can work together: I am the pastor, Gabriele is chaplain of the high school, and Accursio teaches and is chaplain in the parish middle school. The fact of having well-functioning Catholic schools in the parish gives us the opportunity to proclaim Christ to many young people. Moreover, what makes us joyful and confident in our task is the possibility offered to us in the house of continual challenge and support.
I am certain that without the 20 years of experiences – and ups and downs – we would never have reached where we are now. I remember with gratitude all those who participated in, and made their contribution to, this history, especially Vincent Nagle and Luca Brancolini, my companions in the house for years. I also think of the many seminarians who spent a year of formation with us. Many of them are by now on mission in the world; I follow them closely and pray for them.
What is Denver like?
Above all, it is a very young city. Think of it – the first settlements were established here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains only 150 years ago.
In the parish we have found a lively community, with many young families. Many people, after much wandering, have found a home in the U.S. – people from South America, from the Far East, but even from many other parts of the U.S.
Among others, the story of a refugee who fled Vietnam in the 70’s has impressed me. At the time he was 20 years old. Attempting to escape the horrors of the war, he was shipwrecked twice and tortured. On the third try, he reached the U.S. He didn’t know a word of English. He studied and worked non-stop in order to found a family. His wife is Catholic, he is Buddhist. He has gone to Mass every Sunday for 20 years. Now he has decided to ask for baptism. Behind every person we meet there is a story of suffering and of hope, either waiting to meet Christ or to know him and love him more deeply.
“A city on a hilltop” is how John Winthrop, perhaps the first American historical figure, described the ideal that brought the first pilgrims from England to the New World. From the beginning, their ideal was one of founding an unambiguously Christian society which could enlighten, even from such a distance, a Europe torn by wars of religion. I have only been in the United States for a few months, beginning a year of overseas formation in our house in Washington; and yet, in such a brief time, I have seen that this ideal is still very much alive in the stories and lives of Americans. Even today America, despite a history rich in contradictions, at times even wrenching, feels itself the bearer of a mission. You notice it as soon as you arrive; it’s impossible to ignore.
Especially at school. The families I meet, often very large, truly believe in constructing works of value. If there is something they hope in, they throw themselves into it completely: time, energy, money. There isn’t the cynicism that often hangs over all of our initiatives in Italy, leading us in the end to prefer that everything stay as it is.
Teaching in America, I face young people who have never had contact with a tradition. Not only have they read very little, but they have never seen a Roman ruin, a mediaeval church or a baroque altar. If on the one hand this is a problem – because they lack a unifying and critical vision – on the other hand it makes the students open to everything.
All that is needed is someone capable of accompanying them in the discovery. In Italy, our tradition and our history, if there is no one to introduce us to it, becomes a huge moloch that keeps us from advancing; it fills us with prejudices and makes us cynical.
I am reading Dante with one of my Italian students. How wonderful to see his excitement as he encounters a master who helps us open our desires to the whole universe, both the visible and the invisible.
All in all, during these months I have felt a burning desire that the American people could have a truly Catholic experience. The Fraternity, in my life, is a company of men which bears within itself a perspective – Christ’s perspective – of complete openness to the world. Indeed, our life in the house and our mission are not a retreat on a hilltop, but a lived communion.