Fr. Fabio Baroncini (Photo: Paolo Bonfanti, Archive of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation))

Fr. Fabio, companion towards destiny

Davide Prosperi's letter to Fr. Fabio Baroncini, his friend who passed away last December 21. We also propose an unpublished video from 1994, in which the priest presented T.S Eliot's Choruses from “The Rock” at the CLU Exercises.
Davide Prosperi

"Our friend, our brother / up in Paradise, up in Paradise / let him go through Your mountains." This song, a single radiant voice rose towards the sky and filled the silence of the churchyard of San Nicolò’s Basilica in Lecco, crowded with people - despite the Covid restrictions. And it warmed our hearts, at least a little bit, on such a cold and cloudy day as that day before Christmas could be. I was moved as I followed your funeral service next to Giancarlo, trying to guess his feelings as I listened to Fr. Ottavio's last farewell. The friends with whom you have been fighting for a lifetime, consuming themselves for the Ideal, are moving on, while some of us are asked to stay. Perhaps because our task is not yet complete, as we still have to grow up first. Gandolla had then asked me to take you out together with some of those thousands of boys that you have raised as men. Thank you Raimondo, I did not expect it.

I thus also sang along with the others, and I was feeling all the depth of the lived history of what I was singing – I who, like you, love the mountains so much and many times we found ourselves telling each other about our past "exploits" on the peaks of the Alps, on our way back by car (I usually drove) from some assembly or dinner to which you had dragged me. That is right, because you were almost always around for dinners and evenings with friends or CL communities. In fact, it is no secret that, for you, friendship as you lived it was a value that no one could question, because this friendship - a friendship such as can be found in our great companionship - holds the meaning of life, the great Ideal present that makes life a mission and thus reveals the secret of the gusto for living that everyone seeks; yet not everyone receives and, above all, welcomes the gift of experiencing it. And when you receive such a gift and you do not take advantage of it, lingering in analysis and reasoning, too bad for you – as you would say. Not that you had any problem with being alone (at least the way I saw it), with your "Lombard" temperament - maybe that is why, by contrast, people were struck by the importance you placed upon companionship.

An ideal, therefore, for which spending one's life is not a project to be realized, but the presence of the destiny in which everything is fulfilled, Christ, who still materializes today in the same form as two thousand years ago; a presence which generates a place of humanity in communion, men upon a path through the affairs of the world who are not subjects of the world, men without a homeland, as Saint John Paul II said to Fr. Giussani. But before saying Christ - in order to be able to say Christ! - it is necessary to recognize the precious value of this friendship in which Christ overcomes - not all at once with a stroke of a sponge, but little by little, with patience - our meanness. Fr. Giussani himself recommended it to a gathering of novices of the Memores Domini: "So, we have an ideal and it is Christ. I would not say Christ straight away, because it is Jesus of Nazareth: what we meet is a man; the one who is present to us is a man in whom the power of the Mystery reveals itself in its relationship with its creature, in all its possibilities". This is really a great fortune that has happened to us - God knows us very well. Mankind cannot bear too much reality; the nihilism towards which we would be inexorably dragged without this carnal presence, which proposes itself as a companion towards our destiny, has its root in the fact that man would otherwise tend to defend himself from reality.

As I stood there and sang with these friends, a thought took hold of me: that I was grateful to this man. After all, I had been grateful ever since I met you. Of course, I cannot say that we always agreed on everything (but I challenge anyone to say otherwise…). On the contrary, I think it was almost impossible to always agree: you often found a way to contradict us even if you agreed with the substance of what the other person was saying. In fact, my first impact with you was anything but soft. I do not know if you remember, I remember it very well. We were at a vacation of university students from CL, at Passo del Tonale and, following a suggestion of Cesana's, I unfortunately invited you to present one of the recommended books for that summer. It was the novel Letters of Abelard and Heloise. You did not even let me finish my introduction and you immediately began to demolish every word I had (perhaps) improperly said. Because not all words are the same, as even words are a gesture. This scene was repeated several times afterwards. Even though you may have been wrong on the merits, the lesson certainly stuck with me. At first, you seemed to me to be gruff, angular, let us say even unfriendly if not indigestible. However, the clearest memory I have of the impression I had is of a strange attraction: on the one hand, there was nothing that apparently resembled me in terms of manners, on the other hand I felt attracted and somehow wounded. Wounded not so much in pride, but by your boldness. In this respect you reminded me of Fr. Giussani, whom I had begun to associate with a few years earlier. Proud because he was humble. One can behave with boldness that is not pride, but rather bravado; because deep down we often think we are more than we often are, and then we become ridiculous, quixotic, and ultimately a slave to our insecurities. But that pride, on the other hand, was solid, of the consistency of the Serizzo of Val Masino, because it was not sure of itself, it all rested upon the rock of a history that is greater than itself, but to which we belong by grace received. With you, I have discovered that the pride of a temperament and the greatness that comes with it does not clash with humility, rather it is its child. "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. For behold, from now all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty one has done great things for me.” I never heard you exalt yourself, but you always exalted the greatness of Christian existence.

However, let us face it, I had to work hard to earn a place in your heart. But then one day you told me what you thought of me and then it all became clear to me (I apologize to my readers but I will keep this to myself). You treated me the way you wanted to be treated. No flattery (you were intolerant of flattery); to become a man you have to treat yourself as a man, and a man only becomes great if he has the courage to fix his eyes upon the light of truth, no matter how bad it may be for eyes that are used to peering into the darkness. On the other hand, you already had a rough nature, even in your manners, and you loved to dialecticize, but not for mere dialectical taste - at least that is what it seemed to me - but so that those in front of you could fully understand what was hidden beneath the surface of what you were saying. At other times you did not really agree, and then the battle began, until you were at one with the other. Provided that the ultimate judgment always rested with authority, whether he immediately agreed with you or not.

Now, that is one of the things I always envied. If there was a transparent person, far from any claim or complacency towards the "responsibles", it was you. And yet, because of this, your freedom to obey was even more convincing. Where did such freedom come from? It is not difficult to answer this question. What you had met as a young man, which shaped every day of your life - including the effort and satisfactions – was so great and all-encompassing that it was worth your life, let alone your opinions. This companionship towards destiny is driven, thus obedience is a condition for unity. Of course, with you, it was immediately clear that obedience is the highest expression of an accomplished self, and therefore can never be supine. Indeed, as mentioned, it is often forged in the struggle, even dialectical, so that the truth can be affirmed by all and can thus shine brightly for all God's people.

I know something about that... after you had accepted the task that was assigned to me in the community, our discussions were not always all rosy (more often in public than in private to be honest, you were a bit theatrical - it must have been your passion for Eliot...). But even when we left angry, not two days went by before I was invited back to the same forum to move on, publicly affirming the value of our friendship, whether or not we agreed on that point that was obviously still to be understood. An adult, mature obedience. An obedience that in you has completed its trajectory of witness, assuming in the eyes of those who accompanied you in the last phase of your life the image of Cyrene. Forced to carry the cross of Jesus, not a complaint, not an uncertainty that your life in that condition was useless, you who had the living silver on you, you had to spend your last moments in this life without even being able to speak. When I came to visit you with a couple of friends three days before you left us (I knew it would be your last farewell), you were bent over, sunk in the armchair of the apartment where Fr. Ottavio was carefully looking after you. Your gaze could have seemed lost, but instead you were there, you just wanted us to realize what you were staring at and what we often find so hard to see in the difficulties of our lives. Thank you Fabio, we too are trying to learn this obedience towards the Mystery that does everything as it should be done, even when it appears otherwise to us.

Read also - Fr. Carrón's message for the death of Fr. Baroncini

Among the many memories of you that I was able to read in the days following your funeral, all of which were beautiful, I was very moved by Marina Corradi’ memory. "But how, how do you put up with all this?", she asked you. "By offering", was your answer to her. "You have to offer everything to God." Nothing more true characterises us, because despite our claim to autonomy, "sem chi pruvisori" (we are here provisionally), as you loved to often repeat. This is the same thought that came to me the other day, when I was allowed to visit my friend Anas, who for weeks has been struggling between life and death hanging from tubes, machines and drainage tubes due to complications because of Covid. In our eyes, a battered flesh at the mercy of events, but what do we know about what he and Jesus must be saying to each other in the long days of silence? You either offer life or you lose it, there is no alternative. Thinking about our friendship in recent times, where we rarely saw each other anyway, a question sometimes arose: can you be grateful to someone who never agreed with you? And I mean to be truly grateful, with that kind of gratitude that makes you feel nostalgic when you think that you will never see him again in this life...

As your friend Giancarlo said before me, many people came to you, who had personal difficulties in their vocation, work, marriage or in the education of their children. This is something that struck me very much the first time I came to your office in the rectory of the parish of San Martino in Niguarda. I simply had to ask your opinion on a specific situation, and I saw all those people out there that I almost thought there was some event planned. But no, it was normal. Why were they coming? Not just because you were wise, not just because you spoke with authority. They came because you were a true educator. And when you are dealing with a true educator, the night starts to get brighter, and God knows how dark the night is for us poor men sometimes. They needed to see that light to continue to walk in the darkness, to be able to hope to see the sun again. And they were already beginning to see it.

I understood this during the last few years when you were participating in the diocesan diaconate of CL, sitting there at the back of the room, your head tilted to the side, and every now and then you would raise your head when I sensed that the topic sparked your interest (and this did not always happen... alas, I take full responsibility!). One day, one of the participants who had known you in the "roaring" years, so to speak, pointed out to me that it was a pity that you were in the background, as if on the sidelines. I still smile when I think back, because I know what you would say to him: despite all the community vacations, this friend still has not learned how to walk in the mountains. Because when you're walking toward your destination in companionship, the person who knows the way sometimes stays in front and pulls the group along, but when needed, he stays behind to close the line. Otherwise, no matter how good the one walking is, someone might be lost along the way. Someone has to sacrifice to stay behind, to pick up those who are struggling to keep up, and bring them up too.

Anyway, do not be offended if I let myself go with a small compliment, but I really mean it: you were someone who could be liked or disliked, but you were certainly a presence that catalyzed the interest of those who were around. When you told anecdotes of events that you had lived, but even more so when you presented the works of Dostoevsky, Dante, Milosz, Peguy, Manzoni, Eliot... you made us see things that we are not used to seeing so lucidly. I hope that some young people will pick up this legacy, that it will not be lost. I believe that Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock”, a play that you presented on several occasions, gives us a measure of that gusto for life, always at play, always on the attack, asserting without hesitation the human gain of the Christian experience in dialectic with any power in the world, which you always tirelessly reminded us of, just as your beloved teacher Fr. Giussani had transmitted to you. Watching that video from 1994 again today gives me the shivers. It should be said that it takes courage to go out in front of eight thousand university students still shaken by the earthquake that had hit them a few hours earlier when Fr. Giussani gave "Recognizing Christ", his Saturday afternoon lesson during the CLU Spiritual Exercises. But what is striking is precisely the ability to identify with the charism, which that day was communicated in such a persuasive and radical way, so much so that many young people after those two days of retreat took the decision to fully dedicate their lives to Christ by following the path of virginity. Therefore, that moment that had been entrusted to you could no longer be your space, but had to be entirely at the service of that event that was investing the hearts of those young people – I was among them, 22 years old, who were participating more or less consciously in something that would change their lives definitively.

To borrow your words from that evening, "the Church says: do not think of the harvest but of the right sowing." Gratitude for the good that has gratuitously taken our existence - we are unworthy, yet chosen! - generates a gratuitousness of which we would not be capable by our own strength alone. The struggle, in us as in everyone else, between affirming the positivity of existence and denying it - this will never change. As you said, in our current culture, everyone denies what has been done in the past, in order to have an alibi for their own endless whining and idleness. Instead, the good man is the one who builds, taking courage from the past. In the vacant places, we will build with new bricks. Even in the face of this humanity marked by nihilism, there is no possibility of surrender by virtue of this Presence, Christ, the factor of new humanity. Outside of this, we are condemned to live life living and partly living.

“What life have you, if you have not life together?" you asked, quoting Eliot. There is no life, no possibility of experiencing correspondence to human desire, of finding gusto in the web of relationships up to the building of a civilization, if it is not lived in community, and there is no community if it is not lived in praise of God. We too cannot make excuses. It is the event of an encounter with a new humanity, present in history, which has the face of a rock, of a companionship. This makes us men and women work, we cannot linger, we cannot wait! It is a decision for existence. From this presence of a new humanity comes an unimagined fruitfulness. We build in vain if the Lord does not build with us. With a trowel in one hand (to build) and a gun in the holster (to defend ourselves, because this presence will always be opposed to!). "Let us be realists," you thundered, "someone has to build, and the others meanwhile have to harness their spears," because power will never be in favour of a presence that is fiercely irreducible to it.

Thus, I am reminded of the homily you gave during the celebration in the Church of San Luca in Bologna in 2015, on the occasion of the sixteenth anniversary of the death of Enzo Piccinini. You took up the words that Peter addresses to Jesus in the Gospel, "We left everything and followed you. What do we gain?", and Jesus responds to him, "Truly I tell you, no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age…along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.” On this you commented: "I learned first of all of a radicalness in making decisions that is needed in the Christian experience, and that was the characteristic of Enzo's temperament. Trying to fix things, keeping one's own project on life for oneself, is a disaster. It makes existence sad, it always forces us to calculate and measure what we do, instead of plunging into life to pursue what is true, beautiful and right, which we have seen. What does the hundredfold down here consist of, which our conscience and our reason need in order for the act of faith to be reasonable? It consists in a more human humanity, which we obtain by grace if we follow our Lord Jesus Christ. That our humanity is more human is seen by the realization of a communion among all those who believe in Christ. We can use another word instead of communion, which is theologically difficult: gift. We receive the gift of a friendship from Christ ".

Now, dear Fr. Fabio, now that you are resting in the arms of your beloved Jesus, do not forget those who are still in the trenches. Before saying goodbye, allow me to ask you a small favor. If, by chance, in those parts, in the depths of Being, you should meet a boy who is a little more than thirty years old (he is my father, you can easily recognize him even if I have not seen him for more than 40 years), invite him to the table with you, Fr. Giuss, Enzo, Emilia, Andrea, Fr. Giorgio, Fr. Ciccio, Fr. Pigi and many others who made this story of ours grow and thus saved my life. I would like him to be with you, I am sure he is very grateful to you, because at the beginning I think he was a bit worried about how things were going for me. I still have a lot to grow, I am only at the beginning of the journey, but I hope one day, with your help from heaven, to be able to see you too at the banquet of joy prepared by our Lord.