Dear brothers and sisters,
This farewell liturgy, which we are celebrating with heartfelt filial abandonment to the will of God, takes place at the beginning of the Advent Season. We cannot but see in this a mysterious and providential sign from God. It reminds us to consider, not only the coming of Jesus in history in the stable of Bethlehem, not only his coming to our heart in every moment through the gift of the Spirit, but also his coming in glory: the moment when he will deliver the whole universe to the Father (cfr. 1 Cor. 15: 24) at the fulfilment of time, knowing that everything is in his hands. At that moment, as we have heard from the reading of Isaiah’s prophecy offered by the Church, the time of suffering and death will definitively come to an end.
Not only this: every one of our tears will be wiped away, and every lie will be unmasked, because God will strip away the veil that covers the destiny of all peoples (cfr. Is. 25: 7). Our life will consist only of joy and communion. In the communion with the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit, our completely purified existences will appear transparent. The rich banquet with abundant food and excellent wines, for which we have been prepared by not only the Old Testament for us, but also the words of Jesus, reveals to us, poor men, what we are awaiting, even despite the vague and faraway image.
In this light, the mystery of death appears to us as an extremely painful wound, but, at the same time, as a day of birth – dies natalis – according to the beautiful expression used in the Early Church. We walked though life in darkness towards the light. The brilliance of Plato had already understood this. We live in a cave [cfr. The Republic, Book VIII, 514b-520], like a baby in the placenta of the mother during the months of pregnancy, but this is not the whole of life, even though it is already life illumined and conquered by the grace of God. It is awaiting its definitive fulfillment. Just as a baby painfully leaves the mother’s womb, so too we leave this existence with great suffering in order to enter into our definitive life. St. Thérèse of Lisieux wisely said with simplicity, “I am not dying. I am entering life” [Letter 244].
This funeral liturgy demands, with sweet obligation, to speak about Father Antonio, in order that the luminous sign of his life may not be forgotten. Father Antonio was the first young man that I met among those who would eventually enter the Fraternity of St. Charles. I was 21, and he was 18. Right away, our relationship became an event of friendship that did not cease for more than 50 years. None of us could have imagined, not even remotely, where life would have taken us. We were two young men, passionate for Christ and for the Church, conquered by the missionary zeal of Father Giussani, full of desire to communicate the reason for our joy to all of our peers. After a few years, we found ourselves in the seminary of Bergamo, and there, together with Umberto Fantoni, the first seed of what would later become the Fraternity of St. Charles began to spring. We let ourselves be simply carried by what the Spirit was telling us through the request of our friends and of the Church. Antonio was moved by endless generosity, which seemed even to be a bit foolish in my eyes. Even as a young man, he connected with an infinite amount of people who never faded away in his memory, whom he would visit after decades as if it were the first time, arriving always late because his heart pushed him to schedule meetings with more people than he could realistically attend. His car was his home, and I had fears, thinking of the possible danger that he was running into every day, but I was not able to change him. Through him, hundreds of young people – from Pescara to Rome and Groseto where he taught at a highschool for more than 20 years – met Christ for the first time or got to know Him in a new and fascinating way, one they would not forget. Dozens of them would discover their vocation of total commitment to God in various forms present in the Church. For all of them, Father Antonio was a father.
In the past week, I was moved by the letters written by them. “With him, a part of me died – died because I feel that the experience of affection and fatherhood formed in my adolescent years has been ripped away. He taught me that everything beautiful in our lives will be for eternity”, wrote one of his students who is now military chaplain. He adds, “[Father Antonio] was disorganized, a traveler of thousands of kilometers, careless, puzzled, did not have the sense of time. You would find him at the door, any time of the day, coming from any part of Italy”. Another writes, “He entered the highschool classroom of Grosseto, with the northern accent. He asked us to suggest songs or poems to talk about together. His classes always had an existential touch to them, which was totally new to me. We began the journey of friendship in which we saw each other almost every day. The greatest love that he handed on to me was for the Eucharist. I learnt from him what it means to have missionary zeal. His constant late arrivals provoked us”. He concludes the letter, very much moved, “Couldn’t he come late this time as well?”.
With time, Father Antonio changed. An infinite number of people, spiritually and physically sick, entered his life. Thus, his devotion to Mary, pilgrimages to Medjugorje, prayers of liberation, grew. At times, I found myself pointing out some aspects of his pastoral work that seemed exaggerated to me. However, as always, he did not know any other except one rule: unsparing dedication to the people who were coming to him.
When he arrived in Reggio and became the rector of the sanctuary of San Valentino, he was visibly aged. Although the calendar was saying that he could still have many years, his face and his voce were telling me of his interior tiredness,which disheartened me. He had clearly given his whole self.
This passing away has not been like any others for me – the death of another friend, numerous friends, who have preceded in returning to the Father’s house. This death is of a brother with whom I have shared countless moments of life. It is strange: after I signed, together with other brothers, the founding of the Fraternity, he did not enter to take part in the government of the Fraternity. I did not ask him, and he did not complain.
More and more, he preferred a solitary life, not because he wanted to avoid companionship, but because this was his way of being in the Church. Even in a Society of Apostolic Life, one can live in solitude. Although his way was an exception, we need to remember that the Spirit always has supremacy over all of our projects, even those that are well-intended.
The passing of Father Antonio, which took place in a strange and terrible way – preventing us from even saying farewell – reminds me to look at the approaching fulfillment of my life with simplicity and peace. As St. Paul invites us, we need to strive for the things that are above and to think of the things that are above (cfr. Col. 3: 1-4), not absolutely to escape from the present life, but in order to savor, with greater depth and intelligence, eternity that is already present in it, as embers are present under the ashes.
Thank you, Father Antonio, for the gift of your life, which you made not only unsparingly, but also without vainglory, without thinking twice about it! Thank you for your joy, your childlike freshness, and for your love for Christ and for the Church!