The fourth of November will mark 40 years as a priest for don Massimo. The journalist and writer Emilio Bonicelli recounts his story here

The occasion of our dialogue is an anniversary, for which many are extremely grateful: forty years since the priestly ordination of don Massimo. Massimo Camisasca, born in Milan on the 3rd of November 1946, was ordained a priest the 4th of November 1975, the day after his 29th birthday. Today, he is the bishop of the diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla. In his study inside the bishop’s residence, we look back on the various stages and the meaning of his journey of faith.

At the beginning there is always an encounter. What is the encounter out of which matured your vocation to the priesthood?
There have been many encounters, with priests that fascinated me. I would like to recall, among the others, don Piero Verrini, vicepastor of Leggiuno, the small town where I lived as a child. He taught me that Christianity is based on mercy and is capable of bending down to humanity that is wounded.
However, the decisive encounter was certainty the encounter with don Giussani, which gave me a fuller sense of Christianity and of existence. Everything that I was able to experience in the following years in the Church I owe to him. Fr. Giussani educated me to life as openness, offering me the possibility to unveil ever-new horizons, in any and every facet of life. It is precisely this characteristic of his that I feel stable and alive in me today: his ability to open us up continuously to the infinite, to the universe, to others, his capacity to understand life, and in particular life in the Church, as a discovery that never ends.

One is prepared for the priesthood with great care. Years of study. But what has most struck you within your concrete experience? What had you not expected? What had you not imagined would be part of the priestly life?
One cannot truly imagine the future. He might have a sense of how things will go, or might desire that they go in a certain way, but he cannot imagine exactly how they will go. Indubitably, I was already living certain aspects of the priestly life as a layman. The example that comes to mind is an interest in words. From the earliest years in college, I’ve tried to express through words that which renders man’s life full and beautiful, in a way that could also interest others. Words, therefore, have marked my entire life, not only in the form of preaching (with thousands of lessons, conferences, homilies) but also words savored in novels, in poetry, in meditations on the Scriptures, and overall in the Psalms, the Gospels, and in the letters of St. Paul.
Furthermore, I had always thought of the priestly life as a time in which the sacrament of the Church and the sacraments would be at the center. And it has been like this: the Eucharist lies at the center of my existence, not so much in my poor awareness nor in my extremely poor adoration, as much as in the necessity to always return to that powerful presence, so exposed and luminous, yet so hidden; so silent, yet so richly expressive. I had always expected this of the priestly life and it has been realized super-abundantly.
I was not able to foresee the many encounters that I have experienced, just as I was not able to predict the birth of the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo. The Fraternity has been an immense gift from God, unmerited, even if secretly I had been waiting for it. I hadn’t imagined that I would have dedicated 30 years of my life to the education of young men to the priesthood. This commitment has been the most continuous, the strongest, the most satisfying, and the most enthusing of my life, because it has permitted me to get to deeply know the lives of hundreds of young men, by way of a lengthy process of dialogue, and to lead them, step by step, toward the fulfillment of their expectations and their deepest aspirations.

You cited the numerous lessons, conferences, homilies, and discourses, to which one could add the many books written in these forty years. Does the thought that you have sowed in vain ever haunt you?
I have never had this thought, not even for an instant. It’s the opposite. When I think of the parable of the sower, I understand that it is God who sows, as the Gospel says, even in earth that is full of rocks and brambles. It might seem useless, but nevertheless God continues to sow seeds, even in a soil of such a state. To the priests who complain about the youngsters who have distanced themselves from the parishes after confirmation I always say: not even a word that you have sown in them will be lost. Instead, all will come to light in a positive way when and how God wants. If our words seek to be an echo of the word of Christ they will always contain a hidden fruitfulness.

Forty years of priesthood lived in belonging to the ecclesial movement of Communion and Liberation. What is the specific contribution, the riches brought by the Movement that was born from the charism of don Giussani, to the Church today?
Don Giussani’s contribution to the Church in part has been brought to the light thanks to the testimony of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, who have shared an attention towards the Movement; that said, in large part, the contribution of CL to the Church must be studied and brought to light again. I can nevertheless say that the contribution given to the Church on the part of don Giussani is the discovery and rediscovery of Christianity as an Event, and therefore of Christianity as an encounter between the person and the person of Jesus, in whom is manifest the love of the Father for the world. The character of the event removes every trace of intellectualism or legalism from the heart of Christianity. This event regards the person, but also makes each one of us discover himself to be together with others. Christianity has, therefore, a necessary communitarian characteristic. In this way Fr. Giussani has brought to light not only what Christianity might be, but also how it might be lived out.
Furthermore, Fr. Giussani indicated the historical importance of the Christian in the world, both in his forceful underlining of Baptism and the characteristics of the new man, and with the courage with which he lived his testimony of faith. I believe that we must rediscover Fr. Giussani everyday, within the circumstances and situations that change so rapidly, but that also might help us understand all of the relevance of his teaching.

At the beginning of your priestly experience you were the responsible of the external relations of CL with the Vatican. Carrying out this task, you were able to know personally Saint John Paul II, and the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. How has the encounter with these two great Christian figures affected your own experience?
In John Paul II, I was able to see the courage and the joy that stem from the faith. That he was intelligent and cultured is well known; however, he was also a man of prayer, a great athlete, and had a great sense of humor. His serenity and calmness, even during very grave moments, always struck me, as well as his capacity to look with a positive eye on men, his collaborators, without wasting time on gossip. He had a great awareness of the mission that God had entrusted him. When I think of him, I think of a man who had truly and completely entrusted himself into the arms of God and of his Mother, the Virgin Mary. In regards to then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, what strikes me is his meekness, and his capacity to see the questions of the faith within the story of the Church and within the evolution of human thought. He knew how to individuate clearly the forces acting within the present, seeking to valorize the positive aspects that were opening and open the future of the Church, and he has always stood with humility in front of the magnitude of such forces.

In the present social and ecclesiastical context, what is the reason for the crisis of vocations to the priesthood? What educational path have you proposed to your seminarians in order to help them rediscover what is fascinating about being a priest?
There are many reasons for the vocation crisis. Certainly, we mustn’t think that God calls less in a certain time. God always calls; we are the ones who do not listen. Today, there are fewer young people, more families with only one child, and this fact often makes parents very possessive. We also live in a social context in which the priesthood is not appreciated as it was in the past. In addition, the life of the priest is less fascinating because it is beset with many tasks and many problems. If we want to break the chain of the diminution of vocations, we need to show that the priestly life is fascinating. This task has become more difficult, as I was saying, due to the lack of priests; the few that remain carry many commitments on their backs. Considering this, we must help our priests to discern which commitments are essential and which can be left behind.
During the path of education to the priesthood, it is fundamental to make apparent the reasons why this vocation is a fascinating one. It is necessary to show that the path of the priest is a path of complete fulfillment for a human being, and that this complete fulfillment does not result from lessening the radicality of the priestly life, but from accepting it completely. This means accepting that to live means to obey, and that the truest obedience happens within a friendship. It means understanding that the distance from material goods helps us to live more freely, and that virginity helps us show the true meaning of every affective relationship to everyone we meet. In the Fraternity of Saint Charles, we decided that our priests would live a common life because it is truly a great school, a real university, for the understanding of one’s self, for living the change of one’s own temperament, for offering one’s gifts to others, and for showing to everyone, in particular to families, that fidelity is possible, and that spending the entirety of one’s life with another needn’t be a reason for fear, but, with the help of God, a reason for hope.