Until now my online reflections have been focused on the city of Rome. That makes sense since I hadn’t ventured beyond Rome since my arrival in Italy on January 13th this year. An outing to Umbria, land of Saint Francis, took place on the weekend of March 24th, which I will now recount.
For many years my monastery of Christ in the Desert has had contacts with the larger “Spiritual Family of Blessed Charles de Foucauld,” as it is sometimes called. I will leave it up to you to find out more about the life and spirituality of the hermit and martyr of the Sahara desert, Charles de Foucauld, who lived from 1858 to1916, and now counted among the Blesseds of the Catholic Church.
While de Foucauld never had followers, as much as he had hoped to establish a religious order, after his death in 1916 a host of followers emerged, both men and women. In time they became the Little Brothers of Jesus, the Little Sisters of Jesus, the Little Brothers of the Gospel, the Little Sisters of the Gospel, and many other religious and lay communities and associations. These too can be discovered and studied online (and in books—remember those?) at your leisure.
Over the past fifty years the monks at Christ in the Desert have welcomed for retreat and have visited various members or communities of the family of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. One such community we have come to know is the “Piccoli Fratelli (Little Brothers) di Jesus Caritas,” most of whom live at the ancient Abbey of Sassovivo (literally, “living rock”), near the Umbrian city of Foligno in Italy. A number of our monks have been able to visit the brothers at Sassovivo over the years, including myself. It had been many years since my last visit, but I was there again from March 24 – 26 this year.
The “Piccoli Fratelli di Jesus Caritas” community is composed of approximately twenty men from various countries who live a life of prayer and work and have some apostolic work in the Diocese of Foligno. They are much loved by the bishop and people of the diocese, as well as beyond. In addition to their presence in the diocese of Foligno, they have a small fraternity of brothers at Nazareth in the Holy Land, living at the former Poor Clare monastery where Blessed Charles de Foucauld spent time as a helper to the nuns for three years, beginning in 1897, while in his late twenties. This was after he had spent seven years at a Trappist monastery in France.
This year two of the young brothers of the Jesus Caritas community, deacons for some time, were ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Gualtiero Sigismondi of Foligno, on March 25th, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. I took the opportunity to be with the brothers for this wonderful occasion and it was a blessed time of celebration and prayer for the community, as well as many of their family members and friends from near and far.
I left by train from Rome on Friday afternoon, March 24th and was in Foligno in Umbria in less than two hours. Father Cruz Oswaldo, originally from Guatemala, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus Caritas for many years, was at the train station to meet me. From there we went to a nearby retreat house, called “Villa La Quiete,” run by the Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart, usually called the “Dehony Fathers,” after their founder, Venerable Leon Dehon, a French priest, who lived from 1843 to 1925.
The Sacred Heart retreat house is open to groups and individuals and a number of the guests of the Sassovivo brothers were lodged at Villa La Quiete on “Annunciation weekend.” Father Oswaldo left me there to get settled and returned for me a couple of hours later, for cena (supper) with his community at Sassovivo, up a winding road in the Umbrian hills above Foligno, about a five minute drive from Villa La Quiete. After an enjoyable cena and recreation with the brothers, Father Oswaldo brought me back to Villa La Quiete.
On Saturday morning, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, I was collected at 9:30 am to go the nearby church in the town of Limini, where the ordination Mass was held. Sad to say, the cathedral of Foligno, where ordinations normally take place, has been closed because of recent earthquakes in the region.
The parish church of Limini, where three of the Jesus Caritas members reside and minister to God’s people is about a ten minute drive from Sassovivo. Everything seems to be close by in Umbria! The town of Assisi is not far away, within sight of the Limini church parking lot. Father Cruz Oswaldo said that sometimes he has walked to Assisi from Limini.
The church in Limini was very full for the ordination Mass on March 25th, with some 400 people for Mass and some 50 priests concelebrating. The 56 year old bishop of Foligno, Gualtiero (Walter) Sigismondo, presided and preached at the ordination Mass that began at 11:00 and ended at about 1:00 pm (13.00).
All went very well and Deacons Jonathan Wilfredo from Guatemala and Giovanni Marco from Italy were of course radiant before, during and after the ceremony. As we sometimes say on such auspicious occasions: “Today the glory; tomorrow the grime.” Father Jonathan’s family did not travel from Guatemala for the event, but the Mass was streamed live to Guatemala and his family was able to follow everything from there, even if it was at 3:00 in the morning in Guatemala! The parents and many other family members and friends of Father Giovanni Marco, an Italian by birth, were present for the occasion. Some came from Milan and some from Calabria.
After Mass all drove another five minutes to a large community center outside of Foligno where a delicious lunch was provided for the many guests. At the end of the meal a huge cake was brought out which all enjoyed as well. Mid-afternoon I was brought back to Villa La Quiete for a little break and rest, then went to Sassovivo Abbey again that evening for supper with the Jesus Caritas brothers and the newly ordained. As a small-town paper might express such cultural gatherings, “A good time was had by all.” After cena and recreation, Father Oswaldo brought me back to Villa La Quiete.
Sunday morning, March 26th, I returned to Limini with Father Oswaldo for Mass in the church where we had celebrated the ordinations on Saturday. The Sunday congregation was not large, in part perhaps, Father Oswaldo speculated, because many had attended Mass the day before and the weather was great on Sunday, so maybe an inclination to skip their Sunday devotion. In any case, Mass went well, and after there was a chance to visit the brothers who live at the parish in Limini.
One of the Jesus Caritas brothers, Father Pier, pastor of the Limini parish, is now suffering serious health problems, and mostly bedridden. It is a hardship, as he has always enjoyed good health until now. Father Piero was able to attend the ordination Mass on Saturday in his wheelchair. When he came into the sanctuary before that Mass, there were many applauds for him, the people thereby expressing their love and concern for him. That was very moving to say the least. On Sunday after Mass I showed Father Pier pictures I had taken on my phone at the ordination and he asked that I send some of them to him which I immediately did.
Sunday morning also provided an opportunity to see Lilliana Carretto again. She is the sister of the late Brother Carlo Carretto, who was born in 1910 and died in 1988, a member of the Little Brothers of the Gospel. Carlo Carretto is known for his spiritual writings, translated into various languages and many of them still in print, including, “Letters from the Desert,” probably my favorite of his books.
Brother Carlo was instrumental in the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus Caritas. Though never a member himself, Carlo assisted the first brothers, most of whom are still alive, including the founder, Father Giancarlo Sibilla.
Carlo Carretto’s sister Lilliana was for many years cook for the Piccoli Fratelli at Sassovivo. That is where I first met her. And she is a wonderful cook! Lilliana now lives most of the year in Rome, but part of the year in Umbria as well, usually at Limini, since the steps at Sassovivo can be challenging, whereas the Limini fraternity is all on one floor.
Sunday afternoon I was brought to the Foligno train station by Father Giovanni Marco to take the train back to Rome. A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum (or in this case, to Rome itself and the nearby Forum). As the train to Rome came to a stop at Binario 3 (Platform 3) in Foligno, and just as boarding the train was taking place, a women approach me with her smart phone in hand, preparing to show me something on her phone.
How strange, I thought, until she showed me a photo of “little old me” concelebrating at Mass that morning with Father Oswaldo in the Limini parish! Obviously the woman had also been at the Mass, but don’t say who she was and simply showed me the photo, smiled and got on the train and I never saw her again. She was also heading to Rome, I image, and maybe had attended the ordinations on Saturday also, but I’ll never know. Life is filled with surprises, part of God’s “Commedia Divina,” divine comedy.
In another installment I will write more about the beautiful Abbey of Sassovivo where I spent part of the weekend of March 24 – 26 this year.