Presbyterorum Ordinis

Fr. Enrico Gemma, carved by the visit of God in his life

Witness to the “Great Hope”

Michele Gatta

When he was young he was religious, volcanic and dynamic until his crisis during the years of the youth protest. As a diocesan priest, the first parish priest in the Colle Salario district, a northern suburb of Rome, he was a real organizer, drawing people to mature faith. But in his sickness, how did he still remain a witness of God's mercy, a true son of Mary, becoming a refined contemplative by God’s presence in his illness?

"How are you, Father Enrico?" asks Anna, one of the first members of the community. And he, jokingly replied, "My body is not going forward ... But I am!"

His parish is located in a commuter area, like so many that were built in the past decades around the big cities.

This is a story that started in 1989. Since Fr. Enrico was sent to this neighborhood it has been coloured with hope, strengthened in mercy and covered with love. A deep connection came to life, through the years, between the priest and the community, made stronger not only because of the small hopes (the construction of a church, social issues, daily life…) but because of the big hope, the only one able to give meaning to life. Within this hope, many people rediscovered the value of faith, beauty, nature and life.

He was born in Arce, Ciociaria (Central Italy) and after his studies with the Carmelite fathers he was ordained a priest in Cerano in 1967. Following the years of the youth protest, Fr. Enrico went through a major crisis, to the point of deciding to leave the Carmelite Order. He asked Cardinal Poletto to enter the diocesan clergy. He met the Focolare Movement and shared its spirituality. The Archbishop himself then suggested that he start a parish community in the Colle Salario district. On October 6th 2001, that community participated in the inauguration of the church dedicated to St. John of the Cross and of the parish music group.

But the real news was what had taken place in February 2001. "It pleased the Eternal Father to interrupt my journey, to better aim the compass on my way and to make the greatness of his mercy shine on me too," with great simplicity and truth this is how he later commented on the event to his friends.

Surgery to remove the tumor was successful. Enrico was happy. He needed a long convalescence. He was surrounded by care and attention; he continued to follow the construction of the church. He understood that God was asking him to detach himself from it completely, but that was a painful cut. Enrico recovered and returned to the parish. But the surprises continued. He had to undergo chemotherapy because some metastases had appeared. The treatment was continuous. Enrico himself described one of these days at the Gemelli Hospital. "Today I’m having my chemo session. This time I have come to the out-patient clinic. There are eight of us, each one lying on his armchair. Each one of us is attached to a tube from which the drug of our salvation falls drop by drop." Then he adds, "So to speak."
"We don’t have to do anything, just to be. For three, four and even six hours, letting ourselves be invaded by that powerful drop, which - they say - destroys the bad cells and gives each one a life extension. However our being is constructive... there are those who read a magazine, those who tell a joke to their neighbour, those who make a phone call, those who do a crossword puzzle and those who are deep in thought. I look at my travelling companions and with a Hail Mary I wish for each one that this drop may give them much life. [?] To do the will of God is what gives me peace. Keep me connected daily to that tube of the present moment, which drop by drop instills in me the "grace" of the moment. So be it today, tomorrow, on the day when my hour comes. In this way I feel as if a drop of eternity comes into my life, until the complete transfusion."

Enrico lived with advancing disease, but the presence of the Spirit was refined in him. The doctors were surprised by his resistance.
More from his diary: "Thank you, Jesus, for this extension of earthly life that you have found necessary in order to complete in me the work of the Father’s mercy and because you have made my illness sweet. In it I can embrace you in your abandonment on the Cross. You are really my only good." He did not ask for his health, "God's plan in my life is so clear to me that I fear to interfere with it by chasing other desires. I just say thank you, Jesus."

However, there was not just fatigue, but also the joy of building fraternal relationships. Enrico was the first to get up in the morning to prepare breakfast for the other priests. He liked parties. He was very good in organizing trips outside Rome with the other priests, even with a good lunch that became an occasion for sharing.

Fr. Cesar, who remained with him for five years, remembers, "He taught me how to live through an illness as a Christian, accepting it without having it destroy you. He never complained." In 2012 his health deteriorated quickly. Fr. Cesar remembers more, "Two days before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, he realized that his 'hour' was approaching." The night was tough, Enrico sometimes dozed off and when he caught sight of Fr. Cesar in the chair next to him, he said to him, "My faithful friend, how sorry I am to see you like this!" "He touched my soul," the young priest commented. On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, mass was celebrated in his room. We greeted each other. That night, between eleven and twelve, Fr. Enrico was relaxed, in bed. He addressed Mary and said: "I am ready". Later, he passed away.