I never forgot the gaze of Don Giussani. I encountered it for the first time in an unexpected manner in 1985. I was living in Brussels but, during a business trip to Milan, I accepted the invitation of a few friends to go and meet him.
In those years I was a little unease with the world, unconsciously looking for a gaze completely determined by Christ. But the way Giussani was present struck me profoundly: it was the look in his eyes. It was impossible not to perceive a gaze that was completely meant for me. Being looked at in this way, I felt both poor and great at the same time: the object of a gratuitous esteem. In a flash he became the greatest friend in my life.
At a certain point in the discussion, he asked me without any hesitation: “Can you come to live in Milano?” An unimaginable invitation fifteen minutes earlier, suddenly became clearly reasonable. This meeting was exactly what I had been waiting for and it required a total response.
I did not go to Milano as he had asked. Eight months later, however, under his direction, I entered the seminary with the nascent Fraternity of St. Charles. And after all these years I look back to that gaze and see the meaning of mission.
(photo: Copyright Fraternità di CL)
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.