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.”
Shortly before summer, a young mother in one of the villages where I carry out my pastoral work died tragically. She fell sleep with a lighted cigarette, and was suffocated by the beginnings of a fire. She left three children, by three different fathers. She had been baptized two years earlier, together with her mother. She had a strong desire to overcome her alcoholism, which we had spoken of many times, including during her baptismal catechesis. I spoke with her on the phone a few days before she died – she wanted to know what time Mass would be celebrated on Ascension…
In my relations with this woman animated by good and sincere intentions – which, sadly, remained only intentions – I became conscious of the fact that the Lord gave me insight into her limitations so as to show me my own.
The news of her death reached me unexpectedly, and I wept. I wept for the bond that had been established between us, in which I found myself also to be needy, a beggar. I wept for her three children. For two years they had been living in an orphanage about 200 kilometers away, but spent the summers with her. The next day, I left for the woman’s village, planning to stop first at the orphanage. During the trip I would communicate the terrible news to the children; but how, and when?
I prayed as I went to the orphanage. I knew the director had not told the children, who weren’t the least surprised that I came to pick them up, since there was only one day left of school. The smallest, eight years old, got in the car and said right away: «Mommy will be so happy we’re coming today!». They like me, and speak quite freely with me. At one stretch, while we were looking out the windows at the magnificent landscape, deep green from the constant rains, I said to them that God is great to have given us such a beautiful world. I began to speak of creation, and of the Creator, encouraging them with questions: «Who created all this? Who created us?».
Little by little, I moved the conversation to life, and death, reminding them of their grandfather’s death and funeral two years earlier: «Where is your grandfather now? Who knows?… Do they weep in Paradise?…».
The moment had arrived: I stopped the car, and told them that their mother was now flying toward heaven, and that we all needed to pray a lot for her to help her in that flight. I tried to help them understand that what they would soon see would just be their mother’s body: she had died on this earth, but her soul was still alive and one day, when God wills it, we will see her again.
After a long moment of silence, during which the children looked at each other, crying, the little one surprised me by saying: «Mommy is now with grandpa in Paradise». Those words expressed the certainty that had been born in them: their mother was no more, they could no longer see her – but she was alive. This certainty stayed with them during the funeral and the days that followed, during which they had to stay at the orphanage while their aunt sorted out the issue of their adoption.
Precisely that certainty was the greatest gift that the Lord gave me in all this, and it made an impression on all those who saw it. A woman of the village, for example, a friend of the aunt, asked me for a ride to Novosibirsk just as I was taking the children back to the orphanage. «I can’t understand how come they don’t cry for their mother», she said to me in amazement, «I would cry constantly ». I replied that in the hearts of those children, weeping had been replaced by the certainty of eternal life and the immense hope of seeing their mother again in heaven.