Since last September, I’ve been teaching religion at a high school in Bologna together with Fr. Paolo Paganini. As a boy, I attended a hospitality school before going to college and I had never set foot in a high school. I have to admit it felt pretty good to enter as a teacher. It was the first period of my first day: in front of me were about twenty kids from the linguistic school. They were 15, 16 years old. I introduced myself by saying where I came from, then did a long roll-call in which I asked each one the same question: where do you come from and why are you here? Some wake up at 7:30, others at 5 in the morning. Many are from Bologna. Others come from nearby towns, and still others come from villages I’ve never heard of in the Bolognese low country. The names of those places have started to become something concrete, like the faces of the kids who had previously been strangers. When there were twenty minutes left in the class, I had just enough time to give them a “taste” (I did go to hospitality school, after all!) of what I would like to do this year. I projected a beautiful photo of a starry sky, then the painting Walk in the Moonlight by Van Gogh. Next, a piece from Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia by Leopardi. But to be on the safe side, I read them an excerpt from an interview that had been published the week before in the Corriere della Sera, [one of the main daily newspapers in Italy], where a famous figure from the entertainment world was talking about what he had lived while sick with Covid: “Every man, even the most atheist, when he sees death up close appeals to something greater: it can be God or anything else that he can grab on to”. “Who do you think it is?,” I asked the curious kids. No one knew. I showed a photo of the mysterious character. It was J-Ax [an Italian rapper]! At that point I said: “I don’t know if you feel like the scientist that studies the cosmos or like that friend of mine who is stunned by its beauty. Or if it’s ever happened to you that you’ve been taken in by a sunset or if, like the poet, you’ve asked yourselves what our place is in the world. I don’t know if, like a rapper, you felt that need to grab on to one thing or another. I’ll leave you a sheet of paper and ten minutes to write down your deepest questions.” The result? About sixty questions such as: “Why are we afraid to show who we are?”; “Why is living worthwhile?”; “Why are we born if one day we will die?”; “Why does evil exist?”.
The next week, at the end of the period, two girls from that class came up to me: “Can we ask you a direct question? Why did you become a priest?” It was 1:30 and the last period of the day! I told them that, if they wanted, we could talk about it in a more relaxed setting over something to eat. The next week they brought me to an American-style place that seemed like Arnold’s from Happy Days: over a burger and some chicken pops, they told me a little about themselves. The mother of one of them is a catechist but the girl doesn’t go to church even though she had received the sacraments. The other’s parents and grandparents are atheists: she claims to be one herself but she spent the last year and a half with her great-grandmother who has a simple and deep faith. I also tried to tell a little of my story. For example, I spoke about the importance of my first confession after a few years in which I had abandoned the Church. The girl who had declared herself an atheist asked me: “But what is confession? I wasn’t even baptized.” And then a flurry of questions: “I’m a rather rational person. I ask myself how it’s possible to believe in something that I don’t experience. I don’t doubt that Jesus existed but that he was God…I really just don’t understand. How can a man say that he is God? Isn’t it an absurd premise?”. We stayed together until 4:00 in the afternoon.
What a treasure the heart of a young person is! And what a treasure the heart of God is! One of the fundamental and fascinating aspects of the priesthood is precisely the chance to be the bridge between these two treasures, listening to the hearts of these kids and introducing them to a relationship with the heart of God. In class or over a burger.
Stefano Lavelli lives in the house in Bologna where he teaches religion in a high school. In the photo, he is with some of the kids.