Raffaele Xu was one of my students who studied Italian. He was not one seeking what to do with his life, but one moving with a clear idea and direction. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree he continued his studies for a masters, beginning his studies in Taiwan and finishing in Italy. During his time studying in Taiwan he began teaching Italian in a few high schools on the island. His students loved him. Shortly after, he found work in the Italian representative office in Taipei, where he worked with another student of ours, Clara. At the end of January, I received many phone calls telling me that Raffaele was recovering in the hospital. Raffaele’s sister told me how a few days before, they were in a car together when he collapsed on the steering wheel. He momentarily recovered after the incident before his heart stopped. He was now in coma, in the intensive care unit, attached to an artificial heart that was keeping him alive.
When I arrived in the hospital, the sister told me that she thought Raffaele was Christian. She told me that when Raffaele was studying in Italy he bought a ring on which was engraved the Our Father. She had often seen him in the evening praying with the ring in the palm of his hand. The sister wanted Raffaele to be baptized before he was taken off the machines that were keeping him alive. At the hospital, there were also his parents and his twin brother. I begin to explain to them what I was going to do. For a Taiwanese, a son who becomes Catholic is a very grave fact. It is like losing him forever. A son who becomes Christian, in fact, will not be able to help his parents “spiritually” when they move on to the afterlife. The Taiwanese people believe that the living descendants are able to give to their deceased through rites what is necessary for living a dignified afterlife: prayers, food, incense and money.
With the agreement of the parents, I entered the intensive care unit and saw Raffaele on the bed covered in tubes. His conditions were very critical: I baptized him, administered the sacrament of confirmation, and the anointing of the sick. I remained in the hospital with the family for a few days. The doctors said that there was no hope. In my heart I continued to expect Raffaele to awake, to sit up and begin speaking with us, but I also thought that maybe God has other miracles that He wants to work in mind. At a certain point Raffaele began to depart, and we began praying the rosary. The mother, more than the others, was unable to remain in silence. In their religion, while affronting death, it is tradition to avoid remaining silent; instead one should speak an abundance of formulas and rituals, as if to secure that the spirit finds the right direction for arriving to peace and not remain a wanderer on the Earth.
I have witnessed many deaths in this parish and I have seen many as they die; however, seeing the parents, sister, and brother say goodbye to Raffaele was difficult also for me. I asked God to give me the strength to be a sign of hope for the family. We fixed the date for the funeral at our parish, St. Paolo, even if the family lives in another city along the coast. On the day of the funeral, to my surprise, I found the church full. There was a complete choir, representatives of Italy, other relatives, lots of friends, students of Italian, and professors. The homily was the most difficult part, and I spoke just a few words: life is not measured by the successes one is able to obtain or by the years one is given to live. In the eyes of the world, the life of Raffaele was cut short living only 18 years. We would have liked to pass more time with him. But in the eyes of God Raffaele’s life was complete. In the end he received the greatest gift a man is able to receive, Baptism and eternal life.
It seemed as if the story would finish with the funeral. However, a few days after I received a phone call from the sister of Raffaele. She told me that her mother, desiring to be close to her son, has decided to begin going to church. She now helps with the Mass and participates in the catechism classes. She was baptized, and chose the name Lucia. I was moved. I responded that it was a sign of the fact that her brother is really in heaven and from there he is changing the life of his family. It is the miracle that God continues to work through the life of Raffaele.
Fr. Emanuele Angiola with some of his parishioners during a recent trip in Italy.