The festival begins at six in the evening, but Fr. Ghio is already in position in the courtyard, with his nerdy glasses and a lit-cigarette in hand. Unfortunately, the soft wind that brings a foretaste of the Roman summer is white hot. Sergio doesn’t sweat, tall and slim as he is. He remains a pragmatic Milanese, even if he has been in Rome since 1990: his welcoming committee for his helpers is a gigantic Moka coffeepot, almost a foot and a half tall.
We are on the Oppio Hill, in the heart of Rome: behind the seat of the Youth center on the Via delle Sette Sale, there lies the Coliseum, the remains of the Bath of Traiano and the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The celebrities that live in the neighborhood Monti, from Napolitano to Raul Bova, give way, as one gradually gets closer the park, to the immigrants who have pitched camp in the shade of the palm trees. Fr. Ghio has been the responsible of Centro since 2000, which is attached the local building of Caritas [Translator’s note: the Italian equivalent of Catholic Charities]. In the beginning, for this center of education for young people, it wasn’t easy to share the space with a soup kitchen, especially for the parents. “When we arrived,” recounts Fr. Ghio, “There were 400 Kurdish people camped out front.”
Back in the day, Centro was just an abandoned building. “It was a mightily derelict place,” as Stefano, one the first parents involved in the restoration of the building, colorfully summarizes. The photos from the beginning show walls covered with mold, the plaster dried and cracked. Another of the “founders”, Maria, recalls the old days: “There wasn’t even a heater when we got here. I was helping the kids study, for charitable work. It was cold as death; it was like being in Siberia.” However, today we find ourselves in a welcoming courtyard, with colored lights that animate the night, with wainscoted walls and wooden benches. Over the stage, there is a banner which carries this phrase: “The Infinite Goodness has open arms/ Which embrace all those who turn to Her.” Even the menu is pure poetry, between the rigatoni and the orecchiette: it comes as a surprise that the vegetable timbale (“Vegan but not just for vegans!”) is the sold-out item.
In 2003, Fr. Sergio became the pastor of the church of Saint Mary in Domnica, also known as “La Navicella” (“the little boat”), a beauty 9th century church located a few hundred yards from Centro. The Fraternity established a house there, where today live the assistant pastor, Fr. Luca Speziale, Fr. Matteo Stoduto, rector of the Insitute of Sant’Orsola, Fr. Agapitus Angii, hospital chaplain, Deacon Marco Vignolo, recently ordained, and Jean-Marie Locatelli, father of Fr. Lorenzo Locatelli, a missionary of the Saint Charles serving in Santiago, Chile, who grew up frequenting Centro and discovered his vocation to the priesthood in that context. The missionaries divide themselves between the school, the parish, and their relationship with the people of the Movement. In particular, Fr. Ghio follows the high school students, who eat lunch together at the Centro every Friday, before their weekly meeting. Fr. Luca is responsible for the middle schoolers, a group entitled “The Boat of Peter”, and follows the group that prepares the elementary schoolers for the sacraments, called “the Stars of St. Lawrence”. The parish also proposes various charitable works, helped by many seminarians of the Saint Charles, such as visits to a nursing home, helping the poor, and assisting students with their studies. “It’s a work that is useful above all for us,” guarantees one mother, Alessandra, “It helps us consider life as an act of service.”
Alessandra escapes for a moment, and Giulia takes her place. She is the head-chef, over seventy years old, and still makes the pilgrimage of Macerata-Loreto in sandals. “Here you have everything: friends, parishioners, folks who don’t believe but ask for the sacraments for their children. This dinner is a great way to encounter everyone.” “My daughter was always very curious,” recounts Stefano, “right from when she was in elementary school, at the assemblies and the various manifestations. But I was never worried because I know this place is a solid foundation for her.” Maria’s children are all grown but she continues to come, attracted by the fact that “there is a normal life here, a company that sustains you, a real friendship. Here the students feel that they are made for great things, and it is feeling the responsibility for these great things that makes them bloom.”
Of course, the party is here, in these days of encounters and music, as well as in the dinners that happen on every other Saturday: 130 places, an occasion to risk, in our encounter with the others, that which we hold most dear. At one table, I discovered a small group of young people of this little known hangout of Rome, high schoolers and college kids alike: Michele, Andrea, Francesco, Miriam, Luca, Giacomo, Giulia, Giovanni and others. There was no need to lead in with a question to hear their witnesses: “We are very important for Father Sergio. I come here for that reason.” “I am struck by the seriousness here, that unifying gaze that doesn’t leave anything out.” “I have always been struck simply by seeing the seminarians who come here so happy. I’ve realized that their life is desirable, that is possible even for those with other states of of life. It’s possible for me.” “Now that I am in college, I understand that I don’t need to come back here to live a life of mission. I bring the Centro with me wherever I go.”
The evening has almost come to a close, but there are still some questions remaining for Father Sergio: his relationship with the “motherhouse” of the Fraternity, his self-awareness, the vocation. “I am amazed by the fortune I have had in these years. I think of myself as one who has not been left in his solitude. I am also grateful because my superiors told me ‘Go, get to work, judge everything, take risks.’ Then, you know, everyone responds to what is asked of him, from picking up cigarette butts to cooking meals for the others. In the end, responding is better than chasing after the plans you have in your head.” I turn for a moment, and he is already gone, picking up spent cigarettes, turning off the lights. It’s not just that Fr. Sergio is essential and pragmatic. It’s that he has better things to do.
Photo taken at the Festival of Centro.