Como, Italy. Wikimedia Commons

No Discounts Here

The life of a community of families outside Como, Italy, whose dedication to foster parenting has expanded into an outreach that includes an afterschool center for youths. We went to see how this vocation renews the journey of adults and young people.
Paola Bergamini

Before setting out for Como, I noted on a piece of paper, so as not to make mistakes when I arrived, the names and numbers of the Cometa community: Erasmo and Serena: 2 children of their own and 6 foster children; Cente and Marina: 8 children of their own and 6 foster children; Mirella and Lorenzo: 3 children of their own and 5 foster children; Paolo and Marilena: 2 children of their own and 6 foster children; Elisabetta and Marco: 3 children of their own and 5 foster children. At the Como station, where Mirella picks me up, I put the paper in my pocket; I may need it later. When I arrive at Cometa, Susy greets me: “Come up to the studio for a minute. Erasmo is expecting you. Actually, everyone is expecting you.” I can imagine. It’s not just because I am writing an article on the center; anyone who crosses the threshold of Cometa is expected and welcomed. I’ve seen and experienced this every time I’ve come alone or accompanied someone. You never leave unchanged. This restored farmstead outside Como, home today to five families who have opened their lives to fostering minors, is not only beautiful, but is cared for in even the smallest details. “I’ll see you later at my house for coffee. In the meantime, I’ll carry in the groceries,” says Mirella. Here, time is not wasted; one has the impression that it expands, because of the love of living that permeates the air. The offices of the Figini&Pagani restoration company, responsible for the Cometa restoration project, are on the first floor. “I just wanted to tell you one thing,” says Erasmo Figini, “The point of origin of all that is alive here is the communion and conversion of four people in the encounter with an irreducible witness, Fr. Giussani. From that moment on, there has been a series of dizzying ‘yes’es. Tomorrow, Cometa might no longer exist.”

What does this mean, that it might no longer exist?! It seems unthinkable. I sense that this is the “point of newness” to understand while I am here today. “It is the Lord who does this, and who accompanies us, as it has been with all the children we have had and have fostered, as it was with Chicca. It was a grace to have her with us.” In May, Erasmo and his wife Serena welcomed two-month-old Chicca, who had a degenerative disease, and fostered her until her death on October 14th. “In all these years, we have always refused situations of illness and pain, but then she arrived and we said ‘yes.’ It strengthened the relationships in our family, for our natural children and our foster children. They also accompanied her, certain of a good thing.” He looks out the window as Serena passes through the courtyard with a newborn in her arms. “He’s the latest arrival, and will be adopted. Today, after 38 years of marriage, I still look at Serena’s beauty, and see how much the Mystery has done. He has taken nothing away, only added.” And then, he is back to work.

Mirella and Lorenzo live in a new wing of Cometa. “The furnishings are a bit Provence-style. Erasmo thought of it with my husband, when he was returning from the hospital one evening. He’s a doctor.” And before? “We lived nearby. I came by strange coincidence. I was working with Maria Grazia as a social assistant, and when I got married in 1998 she said, ‘Go see what my brothers are doing.’ We were struck; it was for us.” They moved to Como. Their own children were born, and then they began fostering children. “This is a particular experience, one of communion.” Those two words–experience and communion–return. “You are supported in what is asked of you. The goal is not the children. The Lord is the one who acts; otherwise, it is impossible. How often has it happened that you have expectations of the child you foster?! You need someone who makes you lift your gaze. Then the Lord always gives you miracles.”

This was the case with Mirella’s father, who initially disagreed with their choice. In 2007, they were vacationing at the Romagna Riviera, during the week of the Rimini Meeting. Mirella threw out the suggestion, “Come and see the exhibit we did on Cometa,” and she organized a private tour for her father. After the final panel, he sought her out: “I’m moved. This is your vocation.” Now he comes to visit, sometimes taking a few kids on outings. What do their own children say? “If they see we are certain, they are content.” Her cell phone vibrates with an incoming message. ‘Can you stop by the pharmacy, so I can bring a child to the ‘Family Space’? This is communion, too: you ask.”

“Use me as your tool.” The phone rings continually in the two rooms of the Cometa Association overlooking Lake Como. On the walls are the children’s drawings. It is the nerve center for educators, psychologists, volunteers, natural and foster parents... for everyone. “Come inside,” calls Maria Grazia, director of the Association’s activities. “Here, you are always ‘on live feed,’ in good situations and in painful situations, from morning to evening. You avoid becoming overwhelmed only if you do it to serve an Other. The Lord lines up my schedule every day.” When social services called to ask for a family for Chicca, who was destined to die in a few months, Grazia was initially opposed. It seemed too difficult a situation to put before the eyes of children who already had so many wounds and so much pain of their own. A doctor said to her, “I’m surprised that you, of all people, should say this. Death is part of life.” “It was a lesson. Living in this place is a continual provocation to my vocation.” For you, a member of the Memores Domini? “Yes. Seeing these adults so proud of their own life, engaged with seriousness and simplicity, keeps me from being complacent. I think of it every morning, when I see the mothers up at six am to dress their children. Life is made up of simple gestures. Certainly, the Lord doesn’t give me any discounts. At times, the pain of the parents and the children is truly great. There are days that I slip into the idea that I can solve everything, or that I haven’t done enough.” When this happens, Grazie asks for a ride into Como and spends an hour walking in the city, alone. “I continue repeating, ‘Jesus, You take care of it. Use me as Your tool, infinitely.’ Because Cometa is nothing.” This is what Erasmo told me this morning. Another puzzle piece for understanding. “Tomorrow, for various reasons–economic, bureaucratic, or other–it could close. Cometa is a possibility, a form. But the experience remains. Nobody takes it away because it was given to us. It is only to be cherished and lived. At times, we are fierce, so that we take nothing for granted.” During a meeting of the Association directors, discussing the departure of one of the children, Erasmo burst out, “Can I at least say that I feel badly about the idea that this child is leaving, even if I know that it’s the best thing for him?” He received the answer, “Okay. But what do you desire for him?”

Many questions. At lunch, I find in my arms the most recent foster child. “Every time, it’s a new adventure,” says Serena. Then, turning to the girl at my right, she asks, “Abi, how did driving school go?” “Good. It’s not easy.” They chat about how the morning went and about plans for the afternoon, until Grazia enters. “This little one will be adopted very soon, in a few days.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” How many children have passed through her arms in these years? “The separation is always hard. They take away a piece of you.” Antonella, the woman who helps every morning with the cleaning, tells me, “I’m never still a minute, but I am happy to work here. One evening, I invited all the children, even the little ones, to dinner at my house in Cantù. We told Serena and Erasmo, but didn’t invite them! It was a really beautiful evening.”

This is how Cometa is, moving from encounter to encounter. In the big attic, the 107 children of the afterschool center, from elementary school to high school, do their homework on the ancient tables. Many also come for lunch. They are divided into small groups, with educators and volunteers who guide them. Some have individual tutoring. After homework, there’s time for a game of five-on-five soccer or maybe just a chat. “Some have difficult family situations,” explains Stefano, an educator. “But you help all of them grow, not just to do well at school.” They laugh and joke, while someone gets up, with an excuse, and walks around, then is called back and sits again. Two minutes later, he gets up again. Stefano continues, “A kid is not defined by his behavior. He tells you to go screw yourself, but you are not the problem. It’s a continual provocation, and many educators can’t handle it. Every day, I return home with many questions.”

I accompany Marina to pick up the five families’ worth of children who attend the elementary school and nursery school of the Canossian Sisters in Como. This time, I end up holding two-year-old Sara, a child with Down Syndrome. She arrived as a foster child, but then the natural children of Marina and Cente asked, “Why don’t we keep her with us forever?” Their parents were straightforward: “Are you aware that when we are dead, it will be your responsibility to take care of her?” The answer was certain: “Yes. For us, Sara is our sister.” Marina tells me, “Now we hope the documents will arrive so that we can bring her with us to Lourdes for Christmas.” But others leave them, and accompanying a little one to the moment of separation is not easy. “No, it’s not. I remember once, for a child who was with us for over four years, Fr. Julián Carrón had said, ‘Can you be absolutely sure that this child will be happy only with you? You are not God. Remember that the apex of reason is possibility.’ Since then, that judgment has been the light that illuminates my whole existence. We are always on the journey.” What does this mean in the relationship with your husband? “Sometimes just a gaze is enough to understand each other. Cente has a rapidity of judgment that amazes me every time. His presence, even if we see each other less, makes my heart leap. I cherish it within during the day.” In the school halls, the children we have to bring home have requests to make, stories to recount. All of them, not just her siblings, have a kiss for Sara.

Mealtime. Dinner at Cometa includes four families, with the fifth on rotation because there aren’t enough seats. They ask me to tell them about the Cotignac sanctuary (where St. Joseph appeared in 1660). “When we go to Lourdes we can stop by,” says Cente, looking at Marina. Some of the kids arrive later because of sports, or driving school, or babysitting. A little one jumps up into someone’s arms and doesn’t want to eat, pushing away the plate. Things that happen in all families. The noise of the voices goes up, and someone says, “Who knows anything about the school strikes?” “Nothing at our school.” Erasmo interjects, “Hey, pay attention. We have to choose new plates. Look, blue or yellow?” A mother on the other side of the room says, “The important thing is that they withstand being thrown into the dishwasher.” At the end of the meal, they recite a decade of the Rosary.

Paolo Binda accompanies me to see the apartment made available to families that are in the process of adopting one of the children there. “Normally, they stay a week or two,” he recounts. Paolo is the coordinator of the work area. “I began following the first projects of the afterschool center. Then, with Marilena, we decided to open our family to fostering.” Binda is anything but loquacious. “We’re all very different, as are even the founders, the two Figini brothers–like day and night. The only thing that saves is precisely the communion between us, which is the handiwork of Jesus. But you have to desire it, and ask for it. This is conversion. This saves you from being bourgeois, from sheltering in your own little corner. After all, to have the hundredfold Jesus promised, your little corner is not enough.” And the hard work, Paolo? “There’s certainly hard work, but is hard work the problem?” Understood.

In the morning at 6:40 in the small chapel, I recite the Angelus with all the mothers. Elisabetta tells me, “Prayer at the beginning of the day is the hypothesis with which you start out, to face everything. Then maybe you forget it, but these faces soon help you remember it. Now, come to my place for breakfast. Mine is the house of the little ones, and it’s a bit noisy...”

On the train, I find the note I’d put in my pocket. In and of themselves, the numbers are newsworthy, but they don’t express what the Lord has given them all, and those who encounter them.