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Ready to give one's life… in small things too
An evangelising pastoral strategy touching all practical aspects of life
What is the secret for creating community? Cultivating authentic relationships with everyone, being the first to love in fidelity to the Gospel. This does not happen by chance, or because we have “studied” the faith, but rather through the “training” that life provides. There are periods, situations and places where this training is especially challenging.
Discerning the will of God in pastoral workMy pastoral work experience began as an assistant parish priest, and lasted for 11 years, up until September 2010. In all that time, in the same place, I had done nothing else but try and discern the will of God. When I managed to do this straight away, placing everything in the Father’s hands, I discovered to my surprise that problems which seemed important and beyond my control, were resolved.
I was often left with very little time to prepare talks for groups or for the community, but I experienced “give and there will be gifts for you”. For example during our regular Monday meeting with fellow priests who share a deep communion together, we were talking about a certain subject, and I realised that it was precisely what some of my groups needed to hear. The same thing happened during the formation meetings for priests organised by the diocese. I gave my time to Jesus in serving people with charity and he prepared the talks I had to deliver. I had the impression that God in his Love was guiding my pastoral work.
One day I was worried because I had to book a camping site, but I had to spend time in order to listen properly to someone. Immediately afterwards, the priest in charge of the camping facilities called me, and the problem was solved!
Relationships first of allI have dedicated most of my time to personal contacts - home visiting with families, young people in and outside the parish, fellow pastoral workers – devoting most of my time and energy to listening.
Every now and then I have to prepare engaged couples who because of work commitments have no time to attend the organised courses. I have to adapt to the times when they can make it. I try to act in such a way that they feel the concrete love of the Church. They always respond well, and if I give them biblical texts to read or something else to do, they do it willingly. One person had shifts that changed every week, and he phoned me as soon as he knew in order not to miss our appointment.
Some young people have rediscovered their relationship with God in confession, after I tried to make personal contact with them, or to phone them. I felt what seemed to be an inspiration of the Spirit and I listened to it.
I often find that if I have read something interesting, very shortly someone appears who needed to hear it. I had been provided with it by God, not to improve my own education, but because it was going to be useful for that particular person.
I helped to set up a group of separated and divorced people, which lasted several years. My aim was that they should experience God’s love in their painful situations. It often happened that we felt God’s presence during these meetings. Once we were speaking about children and a mother told how she had up until then subconsciously set her children against their father and now needed to change. Another mother told how that same evening she had seen the results of her love for her children, one of whom had been a bit cold towards her. They now saw fruits that they had never noticed before.
At every meeting people said how important it was for them to have someone with whom to share their worries, their anxieties, their unease. In the light of this sharing in mutual love, things appeared different. A lot of changes have happened in this group. They feel trust, hope and the sense of belonging to a community.
Celebrating marriagesI have blessed many marriages. Normally, as we know, a lot of people come to Church more as a social event than out of faith or to meet Jesus. The guests arrive at least a half hour late. And the Church often becomes a market place, where everyone feels free to chatter out loud. It is often a real din. The entry of the groom and then the bride is a moment of confusion. People shout, they clap, and they rush up and down the Church. The photographers spend ages with their lights, often disturbing others while they find the best vantage points.
I have always tried not to be alarmed by these things, trying to love everyone. During the entrance I let them do what they want: wedding marches, greetings, hugs, applause. I wait in a corner praying and wait quietly until they have finished. When the bride has arrived and the greetings are over, and they have taken photos, when they seem to have calmed down a bit, I wait a moment and then I come in quietly, silently, smiling, not judging, in the presence of God within me, with whom I have been conversing during the initial confusion. I greet everyone with love, one by one: the spouses, the parents, the photographers.
Then little by little we begin to pray. I turn to God who I feel very present. Having prayed up until that moment, I am not nervous, and quite calm, ready to draw the mixed congregation along with me. I begin the ceremony and silence is gradually established, people are attentive and they listen. In my homily I speak about Jesus and his love, of his welcome for everyone, of his offer of a wonderful life. The words touch people’s hearts. After each ceremony there are always some who come to thank me, because they have felt something special inside.
Four months at LoppianoAfter 11 years I was nominated parish priest. Before entrusting me with a parish, the Bishop gave me the opportunity of passing four months in the little town of Loppiano, at the formation centre for diocesan priests. I joined about twenty priests and seminarians who had come from all over the world to live a gospel experience of communion.
At this school of life everything is done in unity: praying and meditating together, attending lessons rich in theological, biblical and pastoral insights from a variety of places, working in the garden, washing the floors, translating into various languages, teaching Italian, playing soccer…
The fact of doing normal jobs, rather than limiting ourselves to the typical work of priests, just like Jesus did for thirty years in Nazareth, makes this a truly holistic school. For example we work in the refectory on a Sunday, together with men religious from various congregations, consecrated single people, and married men who share the same experience in the town, in order to provide lunch for the many visitors and laying tables and afterwards washing the dishes and pots until 4 or 5 in the afternoon.
There is such a heap of things to wash up that the work has to be done in unity rather than alone, stopping at times if a fellow worker is getting overloaded. It all has to be done as a body, a person working alone would take three days to do it. This is just one of the things we did, but it was new for me and taught me a lot.
No room for clericalismThe simple fact of working from Monday to Friday varnishing in the carpentry workshop helped me to appreciate Saturday and Sunday in a different way, just like my parishioners. In most of the jobs, two or more pairs of hands are required. You have to work in time with others. Things go smoothly when there is no need to speak in order to understand what is required in each moment, in order to do your task and make the other’s task lighter. Unity is necessary for this work.
To work as a craftsman (varnishing, planning, working the wood) you have to learn to use your eyes, ears and touch and to gauge your strength, otherwise you can ruin the products or the machines and cause problems. Craft work is a school of attentiveness and delicacy, which are important characteristics of life, especially for a priest.
At the beginning, language was a barrier to communication. When Yvon from Madagascar arrived, he spoke only French, and in order to communicate with him I had to translate into English so that Peter from the USA could translate into French. It was quite laborious, but we did it with as much brotherly love as we could and we understood one another perfectly.
Some things required a greater effort, like when it was my turn to cook. We live with things that arrive “from Providence”, which we receive for nothing, so it is not always possible to plan ahead. It is one thing to have the theory of a recipe, and another to actually make it. But love among us helped me to learn.
Daily mass has acquired a new dimension. Offering up one’s work at the moment of the offertory is much more real when your back hurts after spending the whole morning tilling the soil or sanding down wood.
Doing housework together has helped me to more careful and precise. I had always done some chores, but in comparing things with others, I discovered that there are better ways of doing things and mistakes to be corrected. It is not enough to do good, it has to be done well.
Refining the gospel life in small thingsOver time, either at home or at work you meet the same people every day. So it is normal that little judgments creep in, and the fear of being judged, or of not being up to the task. You can get the impression that you are not accepted or that you have made mistakes in your behaviour towards others, you become aware of small actions that lack charity, you discover defects in your own makeup and in that of others…
These are all things that can be obstacles for a truly free and unconditional relationship of giving. My effort was directed to clearing my mind of these thoughts one by one as they arose, and to give myself to the person in question with the simplicity of a child, with no ifs and buts.
In the workshop I tried to learn everyone’s name, to greet them when it was convenient, to smile always, even when seemingly it was not returned. To complete a good job is important, but so too are relationships, and if they are built they last longer than a piece of furniture for a child’s bedroom.
Humility was important. I wanted to learn from everybody, to ask for further clarifications if I was not sure I had understood, and to be careful in all my tasks. I had to understand when it was time to be serious and when a joke could help everyone to relax, or when it was good to work in silence in order to concentrate, and when it was possible to talk.
You had to be ready to listen all the time, to work hard, and to do things at a certain speed so that production would not be stalled if you had not finished your piece. Manual work was a true school of life.
For some time I had been following a group of people from my region who had all been touched in some way by the ideal of unity. In coming to the course, I had less time to keep in touch with them and accompany them. The story that follows showed me that if you cannot go to visit them, they come to you. If you are doing God’s will, even if this means not doing important things, you should not worry because God looks after things.
One Monday we did something unusual by arriving early in Church to pray a rosary for the health of Nicolas, one of our colleagues who was ill. While I was praying, someone knelt down beside me. It was Luciano, one of the people I had been trying to stay in touch with. What a surprise! He had sent me a text message two days previously from Assisi, where he had been to “recharge his spiritual batteries”.
He had arrived on the day that a convention was to be held at Loppiano on the communion among charisms in the Church today. Among the speakers was Maria Voce, known as Emmaus, the president of the Focolare movement, who had been in the room next to him in Assisi.
“Are you in Loppiano?” he asked when he phoned me. “Yes”. “Where is it?” “Three kilometers from the motorway exit at Incisa”. On his homeward journey he had seen the sign for Incisa and had decided to stop in and see me.
I had my phone turned off, so he could not let me know. He came to look for me in the church on the only day when I had arrived early, he had parked in front of the van I was driving, and many other little coincidences made me think that this brief visit had been planned by God.
It was a bit painful because since 2006 both he and some other friends, Mario and Bruno, had distanced themselves from the Focolare movement. Obviously I respected their choice. Now Luciano was here and was taking part in a meeting where the ideal of unity was being proclaimed. He saw the beautiful show about Chiara Luce Badano and he told me he wanted to come back, and bring our other friends too.
One of the great dangers for a priest in a parish is to live following his own plan, thinking he is doing great things without seeing the plans of God. Here I learnt to do little things in a better way. These humble tasks helped me to try and live for God all the time and to find him in everything.
Do not give sacred things, give GodI have often set out to love a neighbour, but have had my pride wounded by their words and let this affect me. I now realise how good this experience of daily life with people from very different cultures has been for me. It was a constant effort to relate to other people who feel, think and react differently to me. Now that I am back with people of a similar culture, I find I am more patient.
At Mary “Theotokos”, the Church in Loppiano, I really enjoyed the Eucharistic celebrations with all the inhabitants in a way I used to as a lay person before entering the seminary. In fact, there had been a risk that the Eucharist was becoming above all a time for speaking to the people. My experience at Loppiano left me with the certainty that first of all it was a meeting with Jesus in our midst, Jesus in the word, and Jesus in the Eucharist. Rather than giving something to the people, I would be giving Someone.
Those few months did me good, because I rediscovered the royal priesthood of all Christians, and its necessity as the basis for my priestly ministry. The manual work helped me to understand the lives of my people better. I understood what the weekend means and what Monday means for them. I have understood what it means to witness to the faith at work.
Above all, now, I can now see my own shortcomings as a priest from the point of view of the laity, and I hope that I can improve. Countless times my role as a priest, in judging and evaluating people’s worth, had prohibited me from truly loving. I barely noticed this before, but now I can see this quite clearly and I am going to become a parish priest with the grace of being able to see myself as the people see me.