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The memory of Father Paolo Oggioni

by Soosai Rathinam

The «Letters» column of the March edition of our magazine hosted, on page 13, a letter from Father Paolo Oggioni in which he narrated the events of his illness. In the month of May Father Paolo left this earth to receive the prize reserved by the Lord for good servants in building the Kingdom of brotherhood and love. It seems right to us to remember the passing of Father Paolo today with the memory of Father Soosai Rathinam, responsible for the young Guanellian province including India, the Philippines, the USA and Vietnam, and who had the privilege of being close to him and knowing him in his capacity as a brother, educator and authentic apostle of charity. 

 

Father Paolo was one of us and wrote some of the most important and exciting pages in our history. It is necessary to talk about him because he was a precious gift received from above. One of the most difficult tasks of his future biographers will be to establish which Province of the Congregation he belonged to, because in his tireless commitment he served the Congregation all over the world: Italy, Latin America, United States of America, Philippines and even Africa, if his health had not abandoned him in the last period of his earthly transit.

His illness prevailed and so he was not allowed to serve in the Dark Continent. Africa was in his dreams, since his own brother, as a religious man, had joined the White Fathers and had spent several years in Congo. In that land of profound suffering he had been beaten by the rebels and had been forced to return to Italy, where he died shortly later following his wounds. Father Paolo, in other words, truly had the missionary spirit in his family DNA. And in fact he has been a missionary since birth, a man born for a mission and for missions. He was a man open to every new experience and free from fear, ready at any moment to leave to go to the farthest ends of the earth, as the Gospel says, following and living the Founder's admonition to feel at home everywhere, because « The whole world is your homeland." His homeland was Lombardy, the same region of Northern Italy where the Founder was born. Father Paolo was born in Pioltello, near Milan, on 17 November 1943. The patron saint of his parish church was Saint Andrew, one of the first disciples called by Jesus to become fishers of men. 

And precisely in the footsteps of Saint Andrew, Father Paolo had left the fishing nets very early to give his whole life in the name of the Gospel. While still young he had entered among the spiritual children of Don Guanella. In September 1961 he began his novitiate in Barza d'Ispra and on 24 September 1963 he made his first profession among the Servants of Charity. Exceptional years, those of the birth of his vocation, because precisely in that phase Father Paolo had had the opportunity to participate in the beatification of the Founder (1964) and in the glorious pilgrimage of the Founder's body in Northern Italy (1965). Those same years were also exceptional for two further reasons: the event of the Second Vatican Council - with its powerful yearning for renewal for the universal Church - and the presence at the seminary in which he was training of highly qualified teachers, who accompanied and strongly supported his spiritual and cultural growth.

On 19 December 1970, the Founder's birthday, Father Paolo was ordained a priest in Milan by Cardinal Archbishop Giovanni Colombo. He received his first obedience as a priest and was sent to Milan, to the San Gaetano Institute. After three years, in 1973, he was transferred to Chiavenna to replace Father Pellegrini in the role of local superior of that community, where he spent nine years. New obediences then led him to the most remote ends of the earth and, moreover, into contact with the poorest. His long journey as a missionary took him to South America, North America, until he reached Asia: in comparison with different countries and cultures, different languages, climates and spiritualities. And yet, despite the extreme variety of experiences he lived, he always knew how to remain himself: a man always available for others, open to dialogue and meeting, passionate about his mission, totally dedicated to it through work and prayer. Father Paolo was also supported by a strong personality and an unshakable willpower, which supported and guided him until the end. When his body ceased to support him in his tireless work, he said: «I have done enough both for the poor and for the cult in honor of Saint Joseph» and asked to return to his home province. In fact, he wanted to die in Como, right next to the Founder whom he loved so much.

A shining witness and advocate of Don Guanella's devotion to Saint Joseph, Father Paolo left a concrete mark in the United States, giving a strong boost to the local center of the Pious Union of the Transit of Saint Joseph. Through his constant commitment he revitalized and animated the activity of the Pious Union, initially only dreaming and then concretely designing a citadel dedicated to the cult of Saint Joseph in which a very special place and attention were reserved precisely for the Latin faithful. Americans: a people who, due to their language and culture, followed Father Paolo with absolute passion and intense and participatory results. And precisely "evangelization" is the word that accompanied Father Paolo throughout the course of his life. Evangelization comes from listening. Many of us remember him in fact as a man of prayer and study, but even more as a man of listening and discussion. He was never a lazy and boring, tiring and repetitive evangelizer, but always enthusiastic about the Christian message. His entire existence and his example therefore invite us to become constant men always ready to listen to others, to a listening capable of always being updated, informed and in step with the times, so that the way in which the Gospel is preached sounds to the faithful as an ever new and surprising announcement, always capable of attracting and awakening people from the passivity and torpor of our era.

In fact, we know very well that when we announce something in a mechanical, repetitive, trite and boring way, we don't get anywhere. People are not easily inclined to listen, even when what we say is important and true. Consequently, the way in which we preach is equally important for a good and effective proclamation of the Gospel. But there is another, unmistakable sign and gift that his priesthood has left us: the suggestion that the best way to evangelize people is to establish deep, empathetic and personal contact with the listeners who we have before us. It is a direct and humble way of approaching others, which does not require technological means or intellectual artifices, but is indeed the most effective way to people's hearts. Because although nowadays everything seems to have become automatic and computerized, in other words artificial, human relationships remain or should always remain simple and intimate.

No one can announce the Gospel if he is not able to relate to people, if he tends to close himself to them and refuses to communicate with people. Finally, there is one last aspect that deserves to be highlighted in the "Guanellianity" of Father Paolo. His evangelization always started from the less fortunate, from the least of the earth. Because despite the duty to announce the Gospel to everyone, as God does not divide people into different groups, he certainly loves the less gifted first. In fact, God has a particular predilection for the latter, even though he does not discriminate in any way. Father Paolo learned from the Founder that God directs his love first of all towards the least considered, those who are on the margins, the inhabitants of the existential and urban peripheries. It is an intolerable injustice that part of humanity is always on the margins, deprived of the possibility of living with dignity equal to that accorded to other human beings. Even Father Paolo, after having spent his life among the "beauties of God", was tested in body and soul. He had to face an illness that bends us and brings us down, an illness that reveals who you are in flesh and blood, what you are in pain, and what stuff we are made of. And to all this burden of suffering, Father Paolo responded with joy, he gave an answer worthy of the generous believer and of the man consecrated to God in the service of the poorest that he had always been.

We Servants of Charity are very small, almost the last, and during this centenary we will have the privilege of lighting the flame of charity in one of the poorest nations in the world, the Solomon Islands. With this small step we have somehow realized the vocation of our Founder, who always nourished the desire to go and announce the Gospel until the end of the world, but he was not able to do it fully while he was still alive. Fortunately, his message continues to burn within us and spread to every corner of the earth: today, we, his spiritual children, are able to concretely realize what he could only wish for. For this reason we are convinced that he prays for all of us from heaven and continues to observe with looks of tenderness and predilection the members of the Pious Union scattered across the five continents of our planet.

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