Don Francesco Bertolina’s phone calls are always preceded by a photograph, a fragment of beauty caught on the fly: a Siberian sunset, with scarlet clouds fraying on the horizon; a forest of white birch trees shining by the roadside; a mother with two little girls preparing Christmas carols in an unadorned little room. The images are followed by words: stories of lost lives, bad marriages, children without fathers in villages which are increasingly neglected. This time, the photography is unusual: a light effect spreads the blue sky over the snowy road, reverberating a path, a destination, perhaps a destiny. Then come the words of a story that, begun nearly 30 years ago, has remained a lively friendship, unpredictably generating, right up to the conclusion of a life, new possibilities for relationships.
“In a few months, on April 25, I will celebrate the anniversary of my priestly ordination. But these days, I am reminded of another anniversary: on September 28, 1991, I arrived for the first time in Siberia. Fr. Ubaldo and I were still deacons, and we were accompanied by Jean Francois Thiry, a Memoris Domini who now lives in Moscow and takes care of the Library of the Spirit, and Fr. Gianni Malberti, the only priest. A few months earlier, John Paul II had created two apostolic administrations, one in European Russia and another in Asian Russia—a new beginning for the Catholic Church in Russia. I remember hearing the news on the radio, at a toll booth near Parma. I already knew that I was going to Siberia, and I was overjoyed. Bishop Joseph Werth would govern the immense territory of this land, from the Urals to Vladivostock.”
Fr. Francesco had been in Novosibirsk for a year and a half when the bishop was told of the presence of Catholics of German origin in two villages that the Fraternity’s mission still follows: Palovinnoje and, further south, Karasuk, near the border with Kazakhstan. At that time, the small church that Fr. Francesco would eventually have raised, with infinite patience, was still a building under construction. So he called a boy who lived in the area to be a janitor at night. His name was Vanja, and he was 17 years old. “After finishing school, he had gone into the military,” he recalls. “The service lasted a year and a half. In the meantime, his older brother Jura had taken over and was helping me fix up the building.” Then Vanja returned and one evening went on a binge with a younger brother and some friends. They drank vodka, laughing until an already drunk man, recently released from prison, knocked on the door. The boys knew him as a violent person and did not open but he broke through a window and into the house. A fight broke out and the next day someone found him on the floor, dead. Vanja and his brother confessed to fighting with him: that’s all they remembered, while their friends denied that they had any responsibility. In the end, he got ten years in prison. “I had visited him several times but they moved him around a lot and it was not easy to follow him regularly. In prison he had also fallen ill with tuberculosis and spent time in the hospital. Ljena, a girl who had grown up with him and had always loved him, had taken to visiting him every month: she brought him things to eat, they talked. I had heard that they even had a kind of civil marriage in prison because they were not baptized.”
When Vanja got out, he moved in with Ljena and a baby girl was born. It was 1999; the couple will remain together until 2016. “One day, while I was in Novosibirsk, Ljena called me: ‘Vanja has lost consciousness, he is very sick. They don’t know what’s wrong with him. He wants to see you.’ I went to the hospital and found him delirious. In a moment of lucidity, he asked me to baptize him and I did. I recovered a relationship with him but he had changed; I was struggling to understand him. He had given up his plan to live in the country and had started drinking. Every now and then he would show up. One day, I learned that he had left his wife and taken up with Ljuba, a widowed woman. He was living with her and her 12-year-old daughter in Novosibirsk.” Every now and then, Francesco’s story was interrupted: an elderly woman, a babuska, wants to know the time of mass, there is a roof to fix in Palovinnoje, and a water leak in Berdsk, where Fr. Alfredo Fecondo’s parish is located. In the intermission, I get pictures: Vanja, a tall, thin 40-year-old man, his face hollowed out, his gaze serious. In one picture he leans on a cane, in another he is surrounded by fellow prisoners, in the last he is sitting on a bench with the very blond Ljuba, his companion of the last few years. In the background, cranes climbing unfinished buildings tell the story of metropolitan suburbia.
“Ljuba lived in the village where Vanya’s family had moved, a hundred kilometers from Novosibirsk. See how everything is connected? His parents had left Palovinnoje in shame, and he, once out of prison, had met this girl while visiting them. Then, he had looked for a job in Novosibirsk, even though a hematoma on his head had left him with a form of epilepsy. I had tried to maintain a relationship with him: at times when he was unemployed, I would call him in Palovinnoje to do some work but mostly to catch up with the old friendship. Vanja was truly an affable person. When he was not drinking, he was a special guy, he liked to do things well. I used to leave all the finishing work to him….”
Then things went downhill: Vanja was hospitalized again, when he came out he was addicted to pain medication. “On September 26, right after lunch, I got a message from Ljuba: ‘Vanja is dead.’ I didn’t know what to think. In the evening she told me that he could not breathe, and that he died in the ambulance. She told me the place where the funeral will be held, and I assured her that I would be there, praying with the relatives. I called Ljena, who for sixteen years had cared for him and had a daughter with him: she confessed to me that it makes her uncomfortable to meet Vanja’s brothers. When he drank and disappeared for days at a time, she recalls, they did not want to help her. Fr. Francesco tells his sad stories with a delicacy that transforms a life that seems lost into a precious destiny. “The moment a person enters your life, he enters eternity,” he explains. “She can never come out again. It is as if the Lord is creating her in that moment for you. There is an eternal perspective whereby that encounter is forever and will have an original development that is not given to me to know. But it is forever. Hence, there arises a tension toward people and their history that is often dramatic. You don’t discover it right away but little by little. That’s why it is necessary to have a respectful attitude before the people whom the Lord makes you meet. Each one of them opens the face of God in your life, in a certain sense opens you wide to the Mystery. This allows you to find a positivity in each person and a bond is created with them, even an emotional one.” Fr. Francesco spoke to Ljena, reminding her of those 300 km traveled every month, for ten years, to bring Vanja something to eat in prison. He confessed to her that he has always admired her for her perseverance and dedication. And she agreed to go.
The next day, Fr. Bertolina drove up to Vanja’s mother’s house: her father took his own life years before. It was pouring rain: time for a prayer on the square, a few words, then it was off again to the cemetery. “In the car, Ljena vented and poured out on me all the discomfort she has experienced over the years. She had tried to catch up with Vanja, asking him not to drink. But in this way she had driven him to exasperation: he could not bear to have become different from what he was before. At the cemetery, as we wait for the workers to bury him, I see a few familiar faces. A brother of Vanja says to me, ‘We have to meet because I want to be baptized and I want you to baptize my five children as well.’ Then a cousin arrived. ‘I would like to talk to you, give me your number.’ As workers threw dirt on the coffin, a stranger approached. In a few words, he told his story: ‘I was in prison with Vanja,’ he said. ‘When I heard you speak, I cried for the first time in my life.’ I don’t know exactly what struck him about what I said. I gave him my phone number, and told him to call me so that we could talk without being rushed. There was another of Vanja’s fellow prisoners: his name is Sergej, a Baptist with an Orthodox wife; they live in Bjersk near Don Alfredo’s parish. Since I was a friend of Vanja’s, Sergej also considered me a friend. He promised to call me back and a few days after the funeral he sent me a photograph with his wife and daughter.” Finally, there was Jura, Vanja’s older brother. Fr. Francesco ended up baptizing his children: “He remained silent. I noticed that he had started drinking. I consider him a great friend, though. Last year he came to see me at church. He wanted to see how far along the work he had started with me was.”
He smiles, Fr. Francesco, as he recounts the paradox of “a funeral that turned into a grape harvest.” Then he corrects himself, “Perhaps grape harvest is not the right word to say that our plans are not God’s. Everything is unpredictable, so many things have happened but at the moment they are all potential. Just like a sunrise. So we wait to see the sun.” What is our part? “I always make sure that to have a big openness on my part: if there is someone who has not behaved too well, I don’t weigh it, I move on. You have to see how these prospects will materialize over time. And that also depends on my freedom and that of those I meet.” A bet? “If I sit down at the table and think about how much I’m spending in time, money, effort on the work I’m doing, it seems like something doesn’t add up: it’s all completely out of proportion. But that’s what Jesus did, though: it’s disproportionate the way He came to us. Isn’t it obvious?”
Francesco Bertolina, on mission in Siberia since 1991, is pastor in Krasnazjorsk and Palovinnoje.
He is pictured with some parishioners in an image from 1995.