The spiritual fatherhood is one of the central experience of being a priest: a testimony from Turin.

Trentino, summer of 2008. I was in my first years of seminary and my friends from the Movement of Piacenza had invited me to their summer vacation to share my vocation story. About half an hour before entering the pavilion, full of familiar as well as new faces, I went off into the edge of the forest, which had been marked out for games, to pray the rosary. After reciting the Salve Regina, I sat on a swing, trying to organize my thoughts. A bad mistake! The creaking of the swing drew a little boy, around six years of age, towards me.
“Hi”, I answered back, a bit annoyed by the disturbance. I tried not to look at him too much, in order to not give him the possibility to begin talking again. But he insisted:
“Where are your kids?”
This question, so out of the blue just like his own presence had been, totally caught me off guard. I did not have any desire nor time to explain to him that I was a seminarian and that I wanted to become a priest, and thus I did not have any kids nor would I be having any. So I cut it short, saying:
“Look, I don’t have any children”.
After a moment of hesitation, the little child stared at me and answered with a smile,
“What do you mean, you don’t have any kids? I can tell you are a dad!”
He left after a few more swings. I am not sure what that little boy saw in me, but from that moment on, I had a clear perception that the Lord was seeing the same thing in me: He was asking me to become a father.
Spiritual fatherhood is one of the most beautiful experiences that I have had and am having in these years of priesthood in Turin. It is especially beautiful with children that could have the ages of children that I do not have. Often, I find myself saying the beautiful prayer that Saint-Exupèry – the author of The Little Prince – wrote in his diary: “Lord, do not give me what I desire, but what I am in need”.
“That of which I am in need” usually corresponds to teenagers, spirited, full of energy, and capable of making great sacrifices, but, at the same time, fragile. Many of them do not know how to love one another; they have low self-esteem, and they do not feel like they are loved for who they are. They show themselves off on social media, but hide their true thoughts. Some of them live with a never-ending anxiety in front of the need to impress: at school, with their parents and their peers.
In spite of all these burdens, their attraction to the good always resurfaces. Once in a while, some of them even have the courage to entrust the weight they carry to someone who can embrace it. As a teenage girl wrote to me: “I have many doubts about life, but I know that I want to be happy. It’s true that sometimes anxiety takes me over: the anxiety of not being talented, not being good enough, and not being able to satisfy all the expectations – which are so often unrealistically high.” For me, fatherhood means taking seriously this desire and this interior unrest, offering answers that I have found, and accompanying them with discretion – sometimes from up close and other times from far away. Sometimes daily, and other times, waiting years for them to come.
I have noticed an unfortunate rise in teenagers who are affectively wounded by interrupted or soured relationships with family members or peers. I asked one of the girls that had gone through various trials of this sort, “Why do you come to us? What do you find different in coming here?” Her reply gave me goosebumps: “I come here because until now every man has betrayed me and my mother. But I see that you are all very different, faithful; the family that I would have liked to have. This fills me with hope.”
This girl helped me to recall the words of the little boy that I met by chance in Trentino twelve years ago: “I can see that you are a dad”. It is true that one discovers his sonship in front of a father; it is also true that one discovers his fatherhood in front of his sons and daughters.

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