The priests that break the ice
Posted by Paolo Sottopietra on 17 February 2012 ·
This is the fifth time I have come to Siberia to visit our house. The first time was in 2007, shortly after Paolo Pezzi’s ordination in the Episcopal Cathedral in Moscow. Since then I have returned each year in October. Alfredo Fecondo, a philosopher from Abruzzo and Francesco Bertolina, a mountain spirit transplanted to these high Valtellina plains.
I never take this leap into a different world that requires me to visit a distant home for granted. Siberia is always a special challenge, and knows how to catch me off guard. Here, time flows at a different speed. When you arrive, you must be ready to slow down, like when you are suddenly in front of a wall of cars lined up on the highway. Accepting that you must put the brakes on, and quickly, is the only way to understand and to be immersed in this reality.
A far away home
Novosibirsk is a barrier of cold that imprisons people in their homes for many months a year, which reduces the willingness of initiative to the bare minimum. It is a city of one million and half people. The members of our group who live here know maybe a hundred people and can count their friends on the fingers of one hand or a little more. It takes a long time to feel at home here.
We are in the former Soviet Union. The barrier to overcome is not only that of the temperature but also the invisible barrier of a bureaucracy that reminds one of the exact measure of one’s insignificance. “One could say, with Milosz, that if we are here it is thanks to the powerful” says our philosopher, smiling from behind a plate of spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and a lot of red pepper. “We are all in debt, and by definition out of place. If we make good, however, we can stay.”
The distance between Novosibirsk and Italy, even more than geographical, is psychological. It is the distance of exile, of the deportation experienced by millions of unhappy people under the Tsars and under Stalin.
For all these reasons, “Novo”, as the Italians familiarly call the Siberian city, is a place where one goes only if on is sent. “We feel that we are sent. We need to hear it every day,” Alfredo explains. This is the reason that I travel to visit the houses. I want to strengthen our missionaries’ link with the roots, that is, with the communion that sends them to the ends of the earth. I am going there to stay with them, and I am going there to repeat the words that root us all together in the certainty of the most crucial links that we have, those that arise from faith and vocation. One cannot, in fact, give hope to anyone, without living in hope and certainty.
When I arrive here, I always have to force myself not to count, not to measure. I have to accept that things are the way they were. Only then do I again find the path to understanding that the logic by which I judge things is different, it is always another thing, one of the pure gratuity of a presence.
Perhaps this is why God has called Francesco Bertonlina here. “He can drive two hundred kilometers to go to a place where only two old ladies live,” Bishop Joseph Werth said to me, “And he does so as if it were easy. He’s a good priest.” What seems like a waste, an unreasonable investment of time and energy actually pushes my eyes to see the true utility of it. So, slowly, things are revealed that at first glance one does not see.
A cry in the university…
Fecondo’s work at the university of Akadem Gorodok, slowly emerges while I listen to his stories. Fec, as his friends call him, studied in the Philosophy Department to get a doctoral degree. But what will he do with it? “I won’t tell you what I’ll do with it. I’ll tell you what I see now. I see that I’m entering their atheistic world, into the way they think, into the mindset in which they are formed. Here, communism has left behind only a desperate nihilism”.
One day his thesis advisor, sitting in his office, asked him gravely: “Why are you here?”. “They know who we are,” Fec says. “So I told him the truth: ‘You know…I am a Catholic priest’. I saw him jump in his seat. It seemed like a spontaneous reaction, as though he did not expect it. From that moment, a challenging relationship began. There were still warnings in the old style, when I would say a few words too many in front of the students, but underneath it all, there was a relationship of respect. A few days ago, suddenly, he said: ‘In the future, you could work on the area of ancient Rome’. This was an opening that I had not been expecting”. Among the professors of the department, the dominant mindset is still Marxist: materialism, even its psychoanalytic version. “Deep down, they think that history, not Marx, was wrong!” Fec smiles. “I have a polite relationship with many of my colleagues, however. They ask me questions, and listen to me. They are interested in the Greeks. They hate Plato, it is true, for his openness to the transcendent, “but also because he said that atheists should be put in jail,” Fec adds, laughing. “They study Democritus.” Dp they look to his theory of atoms for the reasons for a materialistic hope they feel betrayed by? “One day a colleague of mine asked me, seriously: ‘Why do you think Epicureanism ended?’. The question had a hidden implication: that it was Christianity’s fault! So I said: ‘I think it ended by itself because it did not have sufficient internal push to last’”. Fec reflects a little, saying “But there is a cry in these people! They are searching for something”.
…and in the southern villages
Francesco also told me about this cry, the cry of the many desperate people that he meets, the suicides and homicides, the abandoned women, the brothers born each to a different father who then disappeared forever, and the men drowning in alcohol. “Husbands are often shadows. Even when they are there, you see only their shadow,” the serious mountaineer joked. The land of the southern villages of Novo is black like the coal it contains in its bowels, and like the desolation of hearts, where the ice is not only outside, but also in.
For several months, Francesco has been working with Father Viktor, a priest of the Diocese of Novosibirsk, fresh from studying in Rome, who the bishop instructed him to help. Together they try to overcome the bureaucracy of the provincial districts of the South and to register the Catholic communities in new villages. Perhaps they will even be able to build a new church in the capital of the province in which they reside. This new aid is of great comfort to Francesco. Here solitude is a faithful companion.
Sitting in front of me, he talks incessantly, like a raging torrent. “I met a twenty year old girl from the villages, who now lives here in Novo, not far from our house. She had a brother from another father. This boy had been in prison. Here, if you end up in prison one time, life gets tough, nobody will offer you a job, so he was jailed again. I knew when he would come out again and I had agreed with his sister to go and meet him. I know that I cannot solve these people’s problems, I just wanted to understand the situation and perhaps help in some way. Maybe only by comforting them. Once he was freed, however, he almost immediately went to live in another province, and so we never met. Then the phone call came a few weeks ago from his grandmother. She told me, crying, that he had hung himself”. Francesco also cries as he says this. “I cannot tell the story without reliving it,” he says. “I was so sorry! Sometimes I think about the great gift that the presence of a priest is for these people. Certainly not even I realize it often. And sometimes, before the mystery of the fact that I cannot reach them, I ask: ‘Who are you, O God? Who are you?’”. He pauses. Then he says: “It’s the same question, I think, that St. Francis asked himself.”