WHEN speaking to Fr Eugenio Montesi at his parish of St Bartholomew’s in Castlemilk, in the Archdiocese of Glasgow, it’s difficult to fathom that this man with the lovely Italian lilt to his voice has actually spent far more time away from his native home than he has in it. Such is the life of a missionary priest! Indeed, his mission has seen him spend 30 years in Sierra Leone, 20 in Scotland, seven in the USA and some short spells in other African countries too.
However, it was in his hometown of Corinaldo, where his family have a farm, that the seeds of a strong faith were firmly planted. He was raised within a very faith-filled environment, with his mother being described by the parish priest at her funeral as a woman of ‘tremendous faith,’ his father being in charge of Catholic Action in the parish and one of his two brothers eventually following in his footsteps by becoming a Xaverian Missionary too. That said, with Corinaldo also being the hometown of St Maria Goretti and her mother, Mamma Assunta, witnessing a powerful example of forgiveness that sprung from within the saint’s own tragic story, no doubt played a pivotal part in Fr Eugenio’s own journey to the priesthood.
“The fact that Corinaldo is the birthplace of St Maria Goretti is something that I treasure everywhere I go,” he explained. “I tell the story of my hometown, because when we were primary schoolchildren our teacher used to take us to visit Mamma Assunta, the mother of Maria Goretti. She lived opposite the big parish church and our primary school teacher used to take us to see her and she was living in a little house and in a wheelchair.
“Mamma Assunta was always talking about pardon and forgiveness. One day we saw her in her wheelchair being pushed to the altar rail of the church by Alessandro Serenelli, Maria Goretti’s killer. As children we were shocked, but it’s beautiful to remember now that Mamma Assunta pardoned Alessandro after 27 years in prison. He finally changed his life. For the first seven years in prison he never repented, but apparently Maria Goretti appeared to him in a dream, giving him flowers and telling him that she was praying for him saying: ‘I pray that you will be with me in paradise one day.’ He changed his life, came out of prison and the first thing he did was come to Corinaldo to visit Mamma Assunta to ask forgiveness. She told him that because God forgives him, she did and Maria forgives him too. I remember after the funeral of Mamma Assunta in 1954, we were in in the church and the first person following the hearse was Alessandro.
“There is a big church now in Corinaldo with the Shrine to St Maria Goretti and outside the church there is a beautiful painting of Mamma Assunta and Alessandro, with her on one side and him on the other. The parish priest put a big inscription on the church saying: ‘this is the shrine of forgiveness, of pardon.’ Inside the church there are two people buried at the back, one is Mamma Assunta and the other is Alessandro Serenelli, so anyone coming to Corinaldo—lots of visitors come—is struck by the scene of Mamma Assunta on one side and Alessandro on the other.
“Everywhere I go I tell the story, because it’s a beautiful story of forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation. And we start every Mass with that. To meet Alessandro face to face was something and then to see them both going up to the altar rail. What a lesson.”
If, as a child, it was a bit of a struggle to come to terms with witnessing a mother and her daughter’s killer having such a strong bond, it was a personal struggle in his teenage years that eventually helped Fr Eugenio to discern his vocation. Being housebound for three months during the summer due to numerous allergies and health concerns, Fr Eugenio couldn’t sleep and would often go out onto his veranda, look up to the skies and ask God what he wanted of him.
“Then, one night something inside of me said: ‘everything or nothing,’ and I wondered what that meant,” he said. “In essence it meant leave everything and go.”
And leave everything he did, joining the Xaverian Missionaries after being impressed by their gentle approach, their motto ‘Caritas Christi Urget Nos—The love of Christ compels us,’ and their desire to make the whole world one family.
“When a Xaverian Father came to visit us in our college he was so gentle,” he said. “He just left me a note and said: ‘Take it or leave it, it’s up to you.’ That challenged me. ‘Don’t let the gift of God pass you by,’ the note read. It really got to me. I think the most beautiful things are not taught, they’re caught. And a vocation is a gift. It’s a way of life. Having a vocation means being someone for other people, because others are there for you too. It’s a beautiful interchange.”
After being sent to Coatbridge in Scotland to learn English, his lifelong connection with Sierra Leone began when he was sent there. During that time, he and his fellow Xaverian Missionaries were involved in numerous pastoral activities, they helped set up Catechetical centres, they established a leprosy control programme—with Sierra Leone becoming one of the first countries where it was brought under control—as well as setting up institutions for children who were suffering from polio, to name a few of their successes. However, being with the people, helping them grow in faith, while also bolstering his own, is what Fr Eugenio most fondly remembers about his time in the African continent.
“What struck me most about Africa was that it helped me to rediscover faith and trust in God and faith in humans, seeing people with almost nothing but always with a smile,” he said. “Faith was already there. God was already there. We were able to refresh our faith and our life became fresh again just by being in touch with the locals. I rediscovered my faith in Africa.”
That closeness to the people was solidified as civil war took hold of Sierra Leone, a time which he describes as ‘traumatising’ having witnessed young people being maimed and killed and even seeing a bullet fly through the roof of the pastoral centre. Despite this and Irish-born Bishop John O’Riordan telling the missionaries that they were free to leave, Fr Eugenio was the only one who decided to remain with the bishop and the people and his services were called upon by Bishop George Biguzzi, who asked him to accompany him into the forest to rescue a group of sisters from rebel soldiers. Faith, as Fr Eugenio explained, existed even in a situation as perilous as that.
“We went into the forest to retrieve our seven sisters from the rebels,” Fr Eugenio said. “They had been walked miles and miles into the forest and they were kept there for 58 days, with no change of clothes and just a cup of rice a day for sustenance. The rebels wanted to use them as a bargaining chip.
“We managed to contact Foday Sankoh [leader of the Revolutionary United Front] and he said: ‘Ok, come and take them.’ So, at 4 o’clock in the morning we left Freetown in a big Land Cruiser headed into the forest and by 7 o’clock we had the seven sisters back with us.
“The 15 soldiers that brought the sisters back to us had walked all night. The bishop said: ‘Before we depart, let’s pray together.’ The soldiers agreed saying that they knew all the prayers because they had gone to our schools. So, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer there on the bare ground in the forest. Then we took the sisters. They were traumatised, obviously, because of what they had seen. I felt privileged to be able to drive Bishop Biguzzi into the forest and bring the seven sisters—six Italians and one Brazilian—back to safety.”
Generosity and giving Although he left Sierra Leone in 2012, he keeps in touch with the people there on a daily basis and continues—with the help of the churches in Castlemilk and others—to sponsor projects, schools, clinics and hospitals in the country. One of the most recent supported projects centred on helping children with club feet to undergo corrective surgery to allow them to walk again. Some £15,000 has been set from Scotland to Sierra Leone to assist with the project and Fr Eugenio was fulsome in his praise of Scottish generosity.
“The two parishes here in Castlemilk help with so many projects, not just in Sierra Leone but in the 19 developing countries in which we work, from Bangladesh to all over Africa to Latin America, the Amazon and so on,” he said. “The people here in Scotland are tremendously responsive. They respond so much. I’ve never seen so many generous people. It’s amazing.”
Fr Eugenio also took time out to sing the praised of the Pope’s charity, with Missio Scotland having previously supported the construction of the new Love of God Secondary School in Sierra Leone.
“I think it’s important to be in touch with Missio Scotland and to help Missio Scotland because unlike they give everything that they receive,” he said. “With Missio Scotland the money actually reaches the people, that’s why I would encourage people to support Missio Scotland. We are grateful to Missio Scotland, not just in Sierra Leone, but also in many other parts of the world. It is a brilliant charity.”
Mission and missionaries Given Fr Eugenio has been a missionary priest for some six decades, it’s only fitting that we end this feature by allowing him to wax lyrical about what mission means to him, the characteristics needed to be a good missionary priest or sister and the role that lay people can play with regards to mission.
“Mission is an outburst of life,” he said. “Life is complete when you feel you are giving yourself completely. It reminds me of when Jesus said:’ I have come to give you life and life to the fullness.’ I come so that your joy may be complete. In giving, we receive. As a missionary I think we receive much more than we give, thank God.
“And a missionary has to be with people. Sometimes you cannot do much. Only the Lord is the Saviour, you can’t save everyone from situations. I think you have to remain silently close to people and to remain with them. To journey along with them is a beautiful experience and that’s it.
“As for lay people, even in Africa there were so many volunteers. The locals become volunteers. The lay people are tremendous because they do really live with each other, they support each other, they heal each other. The Church is lay people with a few leaders, but it couldn’t be anything else anyway. The Pilgrim Church is lay people working together with a few leaders.”
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