There is no need to do an interview to know that Father Valerio is a happy man. You only need to look at a photo of him with children of Nairobi, Kenya, where he is for the past 33 years. However, you need to hear his story to see where his joy comes from.
We meet him at Santa Sofia, a little town on the Apennine where he was born, with a flooding rain that locks up 4000 residents of the town in their houses. He is in Italy to take part in the Assembly to elect the new superior general of the Fraternity of St. Charles. He smiles as rain pours down from the sky – without an umbrella and not even a rain jacket – yet he looks as if he were at peace with the world. He tells us, “here is the house where I lived as a child, a mill along the river.” Father Valerio is the youngest of four children. He was a bright student as a child who loved to study. For middle school, he had to go back and forth between his home and Galeata, covering 20 kilometers of dirt road one way. His friend Luciano, a year before, entered the seminary at San Sepolcro. And he follows him.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it was an opportunity to go ahead with the studies”, he remembers today. This would become the first of many trips that would take him farther than what he could have imagined. “On this journey, my vocation matured, especially during the high school years in Florence. I was attracted to what I saw in my superiors, even if the desire to live for the Lord was not yet clear.” However, it would become evident that what is at stake is “to offer the whole life for Him. From that moment, there hasn’t been any doubt about it.” The studies at Florence are also an introduction to visual art, museums, and to the beauty of the city. “The encounter with Father Giussani, many years later, helped me to understand why I was so attracted to this beauty. I didn’t know, but it was telling me about God. Once I arrived in Africa, it was the same beauty that we tried to live and build.”
After Florence, it is Rome where Father Valerio remains for seven years at the Seminary Lombardo. Philosophy at the Gregorian University with the Jesuits, then Theology at Sant’Anselmo, the university of Benedictines. “A welcoming atmosphere in a city rich in history and ecclesial experience. In the seminary I felt welcomed. They helped me to understand who I was, my vocation and my limits. They accompanied me to look beyond, to not close in myself.” These are the years of the Second Vatican Council: on January 25th 1959, when Pope John XXIII announces the Council at Saint Paul outside the Walls, Father Valerio is also there. “I remember people talking about renewing the Church in a changing world. Actually, it was a whole lot more, an attempt to rethink the experience of the Church.”
At that time, everything is in Latin, not only the Mass. “We used to talk in Latin with the teachers, with priests that we met on pilgrimages, with university students that came from 130 different countries! The courses, handouts and exams were all in Latin.” But now the Church opens up to the world: the language, rites and the missal. “It was very exciting”, Father Valerio lights up. “A victorious Church, that seemed determined, grand: in those days, there were 3000 bishops in Rome! Everything was permeated with positive sentiment from the desire to follow through with the announcement. After a little, disputes would enter the walls of the Church and would hit us, especially the young priests. Many professors left as well as many friends. It is a wound that still hurts.” It is astonishing to listen to Father Valerio, so careful and attentive to not leave anything behind, ready to find that word that could straighten the crooked lines in history, the word that could give meaning to everything. What was missing in professors and friends? “The certainty that what they were teaching could become life. This is what I encountered in Father Giussani: a place where everything could become experience. My encounter with him salved me.”
That encounter at La Verna
They talk for the first time in 1967. Father Valerio, ordained priest in 1964, came back to San Sepolcro where he lives in a small community of priests: they have a parish, follow a group of students of the parish as well as those in GS. “Their enthusiasm, along with their seriousness and the beauty of their experience struck me. When the priest who used to follow the high school and university students left, I took his place. It all began like this.” The encounter with Father Giussani happened in an evocative setting of La Verna: “A gathering of CL priests. I remember Father Giussani coming unwillingly, forced by Father Ricci. He himself told this to us: he had received a prohibition from Cardinal Colombo to go outside of the diocese. But Father Ricci insisted, saying that the Movement is growing. “You need to start following these priests”, he told Father Giussani. There were about 20 of us present.” End of September, cold and foggy. “Father Giussani used to go around with a cloak and a black Basque beret. I recall the Mass, the prayers, the works of Della Robbia, but most of all, I remember the conferences that he gave on virginity. For the first time, I heard someone talking about virginity as the fulfilment of the person, as imitation of Christ. Father Giussani also dealt with other aspects of Christian life in a way that I had never heard before. He was very welcoming and fatherly with us priests. Today, I miss his intense humanity, his enthusiasm, that embrace which would strike anyone. But I don’t have nostalgia. I feel that what I’ve lived can continue even now, in the Fraternity of St. Charles and in the Movement.
Emptying the boot
1984 was the decisive year: in August, at Corvara, “Father Giussani said that we needed to empty the Boot [referring to Italy]. At the proposal to go in mission, I gave my availability and he took seriously my offer right away. He surprised me. I told myself that since I was the only priest of the Movement in Umbria, that he would not consider my offer. Instead, he accepted it immediately. I thought that I would go to South America where I had some friends. Instead, the possibility to go to Nairobi came up. Father Baragoni, a Combonian missionary priest had asked the Movement for some Memores or priests to begin a vocational school. The September of the same year, Pope John Paul II asked us to go forth into all the world. That day, I was in the front row near Father Giussani. When the Pope approaches us, he points at me and says, “This priest will go to Nairobi.” It has been for me a confirmation but at the same time a great surprise. It just happened like this.”
Father Valerio arrived in Africa with 4 Memores in Aprile 1986. “We found ourselves in a new continent where the expectation of the people was the same as ours. We didn’t have a “strategy” to carry out, but a simple idea: to propose what we ourselves have encountered. In our experience, welcoming others corresponded to what we were. It was about sharing a gift.” When they arrive, they have friends, a school where they teach and a post-university college where they celebrate Mass. “The first group of students that saw us, followed us. We began to invite them to our house, to go out together: a group of 15 students, a true journey. Two of them are still with us today.”
Father Valerio would spend many years at the house of the Memores. As soon as 1992, however, he sends a request to enter the Fraternity of St. Charles. “I was afflicted by what Father Massimo calls “nostalgia of a house.” I longed for a place where I could live as a priest, where I could be accompanied in my vocation.” The bishop would not permit this for 5 years. Father Valerio would obtain the permission only in 1997, even though he was already living in a Fraternity’s house for some years. “Here I realized that true authority is someone who accompanies you and loves you, not someone who imposes his own project on you. Fraternity of St. Charles has been a huge gift. It is also a gift for the Movement and for the Church, a sign. In any case, the relationship with the Memores continued to be important: their house is near ours, and together we are at the heart of the Movement in Kenya. The communion between us is a sign – Father Paolo Sottopietra told us – which should not be taken for granted.” And now, the Missionary Sisters are also here with us. “Their discreet yet beautiful presence is another grace that we have received. At the parish, they hold catechism classes and do charitable work: with disabled children and the Meeting Point. Of course, they are also involved in school where they play a significant role.”
Responding to Him
There is still a lot to tell for Father Valerio: for example, about six other priests who live with him, so different in temperament, sensibility and age. The community ranges from 72 year old Father Poppi to Fathers Gabriele Foti and Giuliano Imbasciati in their 40’s, to the youngest, Fathers Luca Montini e Mattia Zuliani. Father Valerio would like to tell us about how the act of following together and to belong to the same story generates unity, and about miracles that take place in friendships that were born. But, there is an important topic, a sort of a litmus test: whether he feels the burden of reaching 80-year mark. To the word “old-age”, Father Valerio rolls his eyes. Definitely he doesn’t even think about it. Then le laughs: “Just like how Father Giussani said one time, “I am old but I don’t feel old.” But I will be 80. I live day by day the circumstances that He offers me, time and energy that he provides. I don’t know what the future has for me, but it is this peace that helps me to be present in front of everything, knowing that what really matters is that I am responding to Him. To do everything at His service gives me peace. Besides, it helps me to sleep well at night.”
(Father Valerio Valeri, born in 1939, is a priest since 1964. He entered the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo in 1997. Today he is an assistant pastor at St. Joseph’s parish and the Head fo the School at St. Kizito Vocational Training Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. A photo with the parish young adult’s group)