The lady running on the side of the road is wearing a jacket that seems much too heavy for a morning workout. Fr. Michael Carvill breaks, wheels sliding a bit on the snowy road, and rolls down his side-window. “Good morning! Would you like a lift?” “Thank you, Father,” she responds with a smile, as she catches her breath. It is just a few minutes before 7:30 and the roads of Broomfield are white with a fine blanket of snow that fell during the night, but within the span of a few hours it will all be dissolved in the golden light of a glorious autumn afternoon.
The presence of the Fraternity of St. Charles in the United States takes the form, among others, of a driver who sees a friend along the road and tells her, “Hop in!” At the first Mass there are hundreds of people and many orange jerseys of the local football team, the Broncos.
The suburb of Denver where you can find the parish of the Nativity of Our Lord, one of the largest parishes of the diocese, is low and vast, and leaves ample space for the horizon that is divided in two by the rugged outline of the Rocky Mountains. It is not hard to understand why the poet, Katherine Lee Bates, chose the majesty of these snow-capped peaks, tinged with crimson at sundown, as one of the images for “America the Beautiful,” a very popular patriotic hymn. “America, America, God shed His grace on thee”: generations of Americans have sung these verses, whether gathered around a campfire or watching the Super Bowl from their couch, assembled in the school gym or facing an altar. These are words that exhibit the intimate messianic character of the American project, like a bridge launching towards a superhuman destination, yet built entirely by the hands of man. Fr. Michael says that America is “almost a religious proposal”; it is a posture, an implicit orientation that comes before the faith one professes. He recalls a visit to West Point, where he saw a plaque that listed all of the duties of a good cadet. The final duty went more or less like this: “Serve the religion that is chosen for him”. What does it mean be a missionary here, in the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation,” where a civil religiosity is the natural given, and every other belonging has value as the expression of a subjective choice? This has been a recurring question since the first priests of the Fraternity arrived in the United States, in 1994. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., there is a house of priests, all dedicated to teaching. In Boston, Fr. Stefano Colombo and Fr. Paolo Cumin work at the parish of St. Clement. Fr. Luca Brancolini, who works principally in a school, lives with them as well.
The far west
Denver is the outpost of the Fraternity in the far West. In the world-map of the Fraternity, moving west from Denver, the first house you come across is the house of Taipei. The neighborhoods of Broomfield seem to follow the imagery of the comfortable and restless Suburban America, as represented in certain films of Terrence Malick, with its sense of contentment and its’ cul-de-sacs that symbolize isolation and self-sufficiency, urban realizations of the absolute sovereignty of the “I.” The surrounding metropolis, seated at the feet of the mountains, is swarming with life. None of the other great American cities is growing as much as Denver, a magnet for millennials attracted by a booming economy, by the beauty of the mountains, by start-ups, and by the light drugs legalized in Colorado in 2014.
When Fr. Michael says that, compared to the first parish entrusted to the Fraternity in Fall River, Massachusetts, the situation in Denver seems like The Truman Show, he is only half-joking. The parish is perfectly inserted in the social context. “When we arrived here seven years ago we didn’t need to do anything. The activities moved forward thanks to a very competent staff, the budget was balanced, the priests were occupied with the sacraments and nothing more. We could have easily continued to run the place as it had been run. There was no situation to save,” says Fr. Michael, explaining that in such an environment, preaching is easy. “What is difficult is generating a life that is born from the charism of Giussani. Many parishioners esteem us and follow us, but in the end what we say remains an option among many, maybe a more authoritative option, but one that nonetheless often struggles to introduce a radical change in the way of thinking about themselves and about the world.” He defines the widespread attitude, especially in the field of education, with the formula, “voluntaristic enthusiasm,” which tends to create comfortable environments and feel-good situations, not real conversions of heart. There was a moment in which, in order to offer themselves, the priests had to oppose a work-mentality that was closed in on itself and grounded in efficiency, and was widespread even in the catholic world. As time went on, various employees of the parish went their separate ways, frightened by the entrance of these priests in their inviolable comfort zones. The proposal of these priests was invasive, uncomfortable, at odds with the American reverence of the private. However, with those who remained, a new life began that slowly began to permeate every place and event, from the aridity of the administrative meetings of the parish to the caroling high-schoolers, going door to door in the neighborhood to announce the birth of Jesus, postmodern Christmas angels rocking kicks. “We begin even our operative moments with a reflection and a judgment, a sort of diaconia,” says Fr. Michael, “The idea that there is no separation between Christian communion and business is revolutionary.”
The communion and the sword
There are different accents of the dramatic relationship between communion and the sword. It is Fr. Gabriele Azzalin, sitting at a table covered in the homework from his religion class that needs correcting, who uses these terms to describe his mission: “The first proposal we offer is the communion, what Giussani called ‘visibile unity.’ But then there is also the apparent contradiction of Christ who said that he came to bring the sword. This means living and communicating a challenge that, in this context, is particularly far from the dominating sensibility: if you do not love me, says Jesus, then neither can you love your brothers and your sisters, your classmates or your football teammates.”
Fr. Accursio Ciaccio, who even in the parish bulletin is presented as “Fr. Accu,” sees this challenge through the eyes of the middle-schoolers and high-schoolers that he is accompanying on the journey of the faith. Fr. Roberto Amorouso, who lives in the house of Washington, has been involved in the same kind of work for some years now.
When one talks of the young “knights,” the Venturers of the Stars, Fr. Accu’s eyes light up more than a little. “Some of the kids are beginning to realize that the friendship they have here is different than the one they have outside of the group,” he recounts. Last year they made “The Promise”, the first step towards a deeper adhesion to the friendship they have encountered in the group, and Fr. Accursio was “moved by the seriousness with which they made the gesture.” There were those who adhered because they had experienced the presence of Christ in a powerful way during an evening of songs around a campfire, an extremely simple moment. But also those who did not feel up for “the Promise” wanted, nonetheless, to put their reasons on paper: “They are beautiful letters, and speak volumes about the freshness and the vivacity of the desire that these kids have to live for a great ideal.”
The life of the priests is totally mixed in with that of the parishioners, without withdrawing from or censuring even the most dramatic moments. Fr. Accu had arrived in Denver only a short while when he was asked to go to a house where a twenty-year-old young man had just died of a sudden and rapid case of meningitis. The recently arrived priest went by bike, as he did not yet own a car. He was welcomed at the house by the hysterical scream of the mother: “It was your God who killed him!” Fr. Accursio’s actions were reduced to a simple remaining, which is the best word that comes to mind, reiterated so forcefully in the fifteenth chapter of John. Beginning from that dramatic moment, a mysterious friendship began to form, and today that mother, Mari Welch, cries with gratitude while telling the story of her friendship with the priests: “I am profoundly grateful to God because He put someone on our path who said to us: You are not alone.”
Cover photo by Sheila Sund