When the family lives in the parish
“My husband works, I chose to stay home. We have five children, ages three to 17. Our life is normal, we go to work, we take our kids to school, to sports. We just share the day with whoever comes by. They know the door to our house is always open”. Maida lives with her husband Marco in the Sacro Cuore parish, in Ponte Lambro, a Milan suburb. As Eugenio, one of the pioneers of this experience did for many years, she says, “The fact that we see each other in church, but also at the supermarket or at school, makes people feel closer to them”.
They are called “Missionary Families zero-kilometer”. Couples with children who have decided to live in a parish. Next to the parish priest’s house or in his, when the diocese has not been able to find a replacement. It all began in 2008, when Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi met some families returning from missions abroad, including that of Eugenio Di Giovine, who was responsible for a very large parish in Venezuela because there were no priests. After listening to his testimony, he asked him, “But can’t we imagine doing the same thing here, in churches where there is no longer a parish priest?” And so, the first experiments began. In Milan today there are 32 families. In addition, there are also families in Treviso, Padua, Verona, Turin, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Florence and Ancona; families who have never departed for foreign countries are also approaching this project.
They are not sextons. They have an outside job. They pay their utility bills, and often rent too. Of course, they participate in the life of the parish; in fact, more than the roles, the innocation is their very presence. In some cases, it is an extended fraternity. Like in the parish of Sacro Cuore, in Ponte Lambro, where Don Alberto Bruzzone lives together with Marco and Maida’s family and a community of Marcelline nuns. It is about “experiencing a fraternity of different vocations, prioritizing above all the living together and not the roles. This means praying together, reading the word of God together, but also spending holidays together or eating together if it so happens”. And there is also reliable help too, for example “It can happen that if Marco and Maida have to go out and the children are left alone, we go and take them”. This is a form of co-responsibility (and communion) that helps dioceses respond to the lack of priests, helps them not to be alone, and helps families to live within a network of relationships. Before arriving in Ponte Lambro, Marco and Maida had been on mission in Peru. “When we returned, we reflected on how we wanted to live - says Maida - We didn’t like the idea of closing ourselves away in our house”. This was 2017. The reality of Families Zero-kilometer was being established in those years. Why this choice? “To go against a world that tells you to think only about getting ahead. When I look at my children, first of all I want them to be good. Fraternity gives you this sense of freedom”.
This is a solution that solves the shortage of pastors. “In Milan, as everywhere else, there are few. Maybe they only come on Sundays for Mass”, Eugenio explains. Among other things, this formula has brought about another innovation, which is the presence of women in pastoral service. “Women have arrived in places where there are usually only men. This changes the way problems are addressed”. Eugenio teaches in a high school, Elisabetta, his wife, is a doctor, and they have five children. “We lived in the rectory, where the priest used to live”. They lived the life of everyone. “Then, however, we were there. Many, for example, confided their problems to Elisabetta. Something that with others, perhaps, they would not have done”. Or, living everyone’s life, you understand that certain choices are not good: “If you hold Mass at 9a.m., those who are at work can never come”. The relationship with the priest? “We built it together. As you do on mission”.
Of course, a new balance must be built. “It was our children who helped us understand that the first vocation was for us the family. As Tettamanzi said to those leaving for the mission: Always do everything with your children, not ‘in spite of’ your children. By living in the parish, one becomes more aware of needs. This is how the summer oratory for the elderly, help for the poor, the rebirth of abandoned oratories, and after-school activities for children came about”. In some cases, families fill in for the ministries of priests. “For Advent - Eugenio says - we went to bring the blessing to the houses, as the Ambrosian rite requires. At first, people were perplexed, but then we saw people’s joy. They understood that it wasn’t a question of taking someone’s place, but of the Church coming alive”.
As the years go by, families who are not from the missions are approaching this innovation. Like Emanuela and Andrea, who have been in the Santi Magi community in Legnano for a year, with their children aged 17 and 20. Both parents work, the children study. “Life in the parish - they explain- is not an ‘after-work’ activity. We are looking for the depth of a shared faith, starting from opportunities of normal life”. They call it the “coffee ministry”, in the sense that even such a simple gesture can become an occasion: “In a family atmosphere it is easier to get to know each other, to confide in each other and to pray”. On Sundays, the place of mission is the churchyard: “We meet people after Mass and share moments of life, sometimes seemingly insignificant, but it is these attentions that help us become familiar with one another”.
Even for a priest, living together with a family is a life-changing experience. “In these twenty years - says Don Alberto - I have learned not to think of myself as the undisputed head of the parish, to understand that the community is not mine, but of the Christian people”. Fraternity among different vocations “helps to rediscover one’s own. And those who meet us are given an image of a family church”. Moreover, it is also a way to overcome the loneliness of priests. “The first page of the Bible says that it is not good for man to be alone. It also applies to us. Celibacy is not synonymous with isolation. We are not single. I try to live it as an opportunity for free and deep relationships. Fraternity is the most normal way to live celibacy”. A small revolution that is getting bigger, with the strength of true things.
by Elisa Calessi