Today is downright difficult. We’ve been walking for 40 minutes around downtown Bologna and Irene has yet to stop crying. She seems inconsolable. Irene is a girl who lives in Bologna at Casa Mantovani, one of the facilities of the Nazarene Cooperative, which welcomes persons with psychiatric illnesses. She’s young and was studying art until she suddenly had a serious breakdown and had to interrupt her studies. Now her problems occupy the entirety of her mind and she lives obsessed with them. She isn’t able to think of anything else. For this reason, the staff of Casa Mantovani asked her to take me around Bologna, to see the frescoes and works of art. But today not even this stroll through her city is able to take her mind off things.
As the porticoes pass by, I find myself feeling embarrassed. My superiors proposed that I spend some weeks of the summer at Casa Mantovani along with three other seminarians, but I hadn’t imagined that I would find myself in a situation of this kind: myself and a girl in tears, walking around Bologna, just us two. I try to talk to her, to stray from the topic, to change the subject, but Irene constantly brings it back up. Her thoughts torment her and she isn’t able to pull her attention away from them. Meanwhile, we’ve been walking for an hour in a Bologna red-hot from the July sun.
Finally, Irene stops at the entrance of a church, Saints Vitale and Agricola. I take a good look at the façade and remember that I visited this church during my time in college. We go in. Irene heads for the crypt. I notice that her crying has calmed down a bit. We go down the stairs and find ourselves in a small room with a low ceiling, with small interweaving arches sustained by columns. In the welcoming silence of the crypt, the desire to pray comes to me. We sit down on a small bench, facing the altar that contains the remains of the two proto-martyrs of Bologna. How many things have changed since the last time I was here! One thing is sure: during my time in college I wasn’t thinking of the priesthood, much less that one day I would find myself here with Irene.
After a couple minutes of silence, Irene asks me to pray with her. With a reaction somewhere between shocked and pleased, I begin with an Our Father, and then a Hail Mary. Afterwards, we continue to sit in silence. After a few minutes, she asks me, “God listens to me, right?” “Of course. God listens to you.” Another period of silence. “You know, I suffer a lot. Can I ask God to alleviate my suffering?” “For sure, ask him for this. And the pain that he leaves you, offer it up for the people that you love.” Silence once again.
In the sparse light diffused through the crypt, I slowly realize that, right next to me, something sacred is happening. Irene is speaking with God and it is granted to me to be beside her, to serve this mysterious exchange of gazes and silence. Even when there is pathology as strong as Irene’s, God desires continuously to speak with her; He continuously desires to be loved by her, and continues to see in her a hidden beauty. Therein lies the awesome marvel of the human person: even when it is impossible for her to maintain a relationship with others or even with herself, there remains nevertheless the indelible possibility of a relationship with God, of a dialogue with Him. The beauty of the priesthood lies in serving this dialogue.
Saint Catherine wrote that God is in love with the souls he has created. When one loves, he is extra-sensitive to any movement of the heart of the other person; whether the beloved is upset or moved, the lover participates. The lover perceives the pain of the beloved as if was his own. God is head over heels in love with Irene. Because of this love, His divine heart is moved by the pain of this girl, all the way to tears. Today, a ray of this compassion burns my heart and I intuit that, from now on, I’m united to the suffering of Irene forever.
Irene interrupts my thoughts. “God won’t abandon me, right?” “No, God won’t abandon you. He is closer to you than I am right now, and I’m sitting here right next to you.” After another few minutes of silence, we recite another Our Father and Hail Mary, then get up and continue exploring Bologna together.

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