Friday, December 21, 2018

 I published this in the past, but now that I have a Blog, I want it as part of it as a rather unique celebration of the Christmas Season

A Bizarre Christmas Celebration
In December 1990 I led a troupe from RAI/TV-1, the national Italian TV channel, on an expedition to document the work done by the Comboni Missionaries in Kalongo, North Uganda.

LRA Rebels near Kalongo
As it turned out, we were headed for trouble. On December 17, while driving through the bush to reach the landing strip where our rented Cessna was waiting, we were ambushed by about 50 Lord Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. Shots were fired into the vehicle, but the situation was defused thanks to the driver’s and my knowledge of the local language and customs. Nobody was killed, but the rebels kidnapped George, my cameraman – returnable in three days, so they said – so he could film their exploits.

After shipping off the producer and the tapes, I decided to stay behind to face hostile local authorities and to begin the long wait. Sure enough, on December 20 George was found wandering along a dusty road, tired but free. People took him to the Uganda Army base in Kitgum where I was also summoned. Once there, we were summarily accused of having made up the whole story, loaded on a helicopter and, as far as the rest of the world knew, disappeared into thin air. By night time we were being held under heavy guard at the army’s headquarters near Lira.

We were placed in what was left of a small house. The walls were riddled with hundreds of bullet
Well guarded
holes, there was no glass on the windows and no front door. We were issued a thin mattress and a blanket, a chair, a table with only three legs and a candle. Twenty heavily armed soldiers were sent to guard us. They showed up with an impressive array of AK-47s, two heavy machine guns, a bazooka and even an anti-aircraft gun. As I chatted with them over the eight days of detention, I realized that most of these youngsters had grown up in our mission schools and fondly remembered those days as the only happy times of their young lives.

Captain Peter ruled our days. He informed us that we were being protected “while our chiefs sort it all out.” Then he made a fatal mistake. He told us publicly that we were “guests.” In the local tradition, a guest is sacred and I decided to take full advantage of it. Every day, I “kindly” asked for anything that came to mind: reading material, toiletries, other simple stuff. The important this was that I had regained some control over my life and George’s. It worked!

A cake and Christmas bliss
On Christmas Eve things began to look up. Two CIDs showed up with a gift. It was a cake from Sr. Alba, the principal of the Aboke School for Girls. Stuck in the cake there was a note: “We finally know where you are and we are praying for you.” The cake emboldened me as I gave my daily list to Captain Peter. I felt that we “needed” a portable altar to celebrate Christmas Mass, a radio to provide Christmas music and a bottle of wine to accompany the cake. We had been on a diet of goat meat, plantain mush and tea. His emissaries must have headed straight for one of our missions, because by evening my wishes had been granted and we had all that we needed.

In the evening, Giorgio picked up some charcoal from the soldiers’ fire and drew a life size nativity
African Nativity
set on the bare wall. We then filled the bullet holes with rhododendron flowers (the guy with the bazooka helped me pick them). Around midnight, when all was quiet and our guards were snoring under the trees, Giorgio and I sat at our three legged table propped up against the wall, sang “Oh come all ye faithful” ever so softly and celebrated Christmas Mass at the flickering light of a 2” wax candle. It was a very emotional and down to the bare bones, intimate celebration. We then uncorked the bottle, cut the cake and continued to celebrate. At 7:00 am, when our “guardian” came to inspect the premises, we offered him a glass of wine and a piece of cake.
First Class to Rome with the crisis manager of the Italian Foreign
By then, my Comboni brothers in Kampala had alerted the Hon. Paul Ssemogwerere. As a Ugandan refugee in the USA in the days of Idi Amin, he and I had become very close friends. By 1990 was second in command to the president of Uganda. He knew
I was in the country and he was anxious to have me meet his children. But, when all of this took place, he was out of the country on a state visit to Libya with Uganda’s President. He managed to cut the visit two days short for my sake. Upon their return, a presidential order for our release was issued and on December 28, we returned to Kampala in an embassy car with flags flying, went through the Entebbe airport VIP lounge and flew home on a first class ticket to Rome.
 Once in Rome, I shaved for the first time in two weeks, slept for 12 hours straight and then went home to celebrate my “return to life” with my family. Oh, what a Christmas it was! ***

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

This column first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Comboni Missions
Aliens: The Truth Is Out There

Recently someone asked me to write something from a “personal, missionary perspective” to explain the increasing opposition to “aliens” in our country. Actually, the fact that the word alien is used gives you a good idea of the prejudice behind the question. Since this is personal, I will limit my thoughts to mid-America, which is where we live. It is the America I know best. And because the perspective is missionary, it may shake you up.

Our past
Let me start with a quote:

“When the hordes of other lands are permitted to come here, as is the case daily; when ignorance, poverty, crime is allowed to land upon our shores and be transformed, hardly without ceremony, and with no time to learn the nature of our institutions, into what is called the American citizens-when these things are done, it is time that good men lifted their arms and sounded their voices against the abomination.” (The Know-Nothing: and American Crusader, July 15, 1854)

The “hordes of other lands” were the German and Irish Catholic immigrants. It echoes the feelings of John Jay, first chief justice of the Supreme Court, warning against “Catholic alien invaders:” “We should build a wall of brass around the country.” A wall, imagine that!
By 1924, a quota system was invented to keep Italians and other undesirables from coming to damage the WASP system. Change German and Irish into Latinos, Syrians, Muslim, and you have the 2018 version of the American xenophobic, racist streak. It’s in the genes!

Why is America such an easy prey for xenophobia? Mine is not a scholarly answer. It comes from being a foreign-born WWII survivor with sixty years of experience in mid-America and an entire missionary life spent covering the globe. 

Lack of Information
Courtesy UN photo
First of all, the average American’s ignorance about the world is staggering. For a large portion of mid-America, the world is divided into two parts. One is the “over here,” where we live. The other is the “down there,” where the rest of humanity lives. It’s Us over here and Them down there. Given a world map, too many of Us can’t find the countries belonging to Them. 
 These countries have a history that explains why they are who they are, just like us. Some, like Syria and Iran (Persia), go back thousands of years. Others, like Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Saudi Arabia are the results of world wars and oil wars. Some of these countries do not like us because we have negatively meddled in their own affairs, Iran being a case in point. 

Others among Them insist on wanting to come north. Nowadays, many are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. There must be a reason, right? They are fleeing the results of local corruption and of our own military and economic oppression that has included and often still include, genocide, death squads, gangs, and land-grabbing. We reap what we sow. If you think I am making this up, Google some of this stuff. Just to get you started, look up Rios Montt, convicted of genocide, and his love affair with Ronald Reagan and Pat Robertson, and see what comes up. 

More could be said, but I am just trying to whet your appetite. 

Lack of Personal Experience
By the time I was nine, I had already seen and survived more action than some of our people in uniform will ever see: air raids, crossing bombed railway bridges, Panzers rolling into town, Nazi occupation, Resistance underground activity, and hunger. In third grade, posters in my classroom did not teach us how to cross the street. They had pictures of hand grenades, mines, booby traps, and other deadly devices we were taught to avoid. Perhaps that’s why I strongly sympathize with Syrian refugees and the survivors of Guatemala’s genocide and Salvadoran death squads. 

Courtesy UNHCR
By the grace of God, mid-America lacks this experience because when we fight a war, we prefer to go and blow up someone else’s country, either personally or by proxy. Your neighborhood was never bombed while your kids were in school and you were at work, nor did you have to risk being blown to bits as you ventured across town to go scavenging for food. You and your children never stood against a wall with submachine guns pointed at you. You never had to walk downtown to see the rubble of what was left of it.

The refugee families knocking at our door have seen it all and worse. You need to learn how to practice sympathy and solidarity.

The Triumph of the Irrational
Ignorance begets fear and fear begets hatred. If we do not know Them, we are likely to be afraid of them. That’s when a demagogue can play on our fears and turn them into hatred. In our case, the last few years have exposed the smelly underbelly of White society’s xenophobia and given it a voice. In today’s America, people who are not white and comfortable feel the danger and the uneasiness.

What Now?
Is there a solution? We need an enlightened social system that will build bridges of understanding, so that we may realize that Them and Us belong to the same family. 

As Catholics, we need to move away from a model of Church that’s run as a mostly male, mostly white management corporation. We need a prophetic Church that will stand up for all life and speak up for those “alien” minorities such as Muslims, migrants, and any other endangered group. 

And what about our very own “not so white” brothers and sisters? When it comes to immigrants from the South who settle in our parishes, do we love them as equals or do we simply tolerate them? Faced with our shrinking, greying congregations, and the youth we have surrendered to megachurches, does the thought cross our leaders’ mind that the American Church of the future is knocking at our doors and it will not be White? Embrace it or shrivel. ■

Thursday, September 27, 2018


It has been a while since I wrote anything in my blog. I needed time to fully recover and to do some thinking. Either that or I was too lazy or a little dispirited to want to set anything into print. Dispirited, you may ask? Why would I feel low just at a time when I have been given a new lease on life?
If I didn’t know any better, I could blame it on the times we are in. Old folks tend to do that.

After all I just turned 81 at a time when it seems to be perfectly OK to insult minorities and people who are “different” from you, when lying by the highest authority in the land is a daily occurrence, when the poor, the sick and the elderly are persecuted by a privileged, mostly white and male elite, when taking revenge on someone who dared “to be President while Black” goes unchallenged, when our Church leaders have often being too busy to “defend” some petty rights and the “structure” rather than the poor, the migrants and the persecuted. Living in what is for the most part a white male dominated, management style, complacent Church is not conducive to enthusiasm, either. And the daily repetition that we are in “The Trump Era” is enough to turn one to drink. Enough said.

Forget the “dispirited” part. I am, in fact, very hopeful about the future, but I needed something to hook my thought on, like an historical perspective. I got it last week.

A dear friend of mine, a “good Catholic” who deep down in his American soul thinks I am a heretic, but loves me anyway, told me over a good shot of single malt Scotch that he had just become a great-great-grandfather. Later that evening the thought came to me: what will the world be like when this child turns 80? Will 2018 or any one person’s “Era” have a special meaning for him? Probably not.

For all that’s worth, I base myself on my own growing up experience. I was born in Italy in 1937. At that time Mussolini was the DUCE (all caps, please), the head of a new Roman Empire, adored by millions of Italians, respected by other European powers, personally envied by Adolf Hitler. His quotes inflamed the populace, spurred colonial armies, and were printed on a thousand walls. Endless bliss, power and glory were in the future.
Ah, by the time I turned eight the immortal DUCE had been dead four months, his legacy forgotten and his name was mud. I grew up in a newly minted democracy and the rest is history, as we like to say.

Panta Rei, everything passes, the Greeks used to say.

The same will happen to the newly born of 2018. Eighty years from now I doubt the average American will remember that Trump was ever president (perhaps as an oddity in our history, perhaps for his Tweets?) and that we thought the current stream of evil engulfing the country would have an everlasting effect. In the end, cooler and wiser heads will prevail, new challenges will arise, borders and alliances will have changed, people will have a better understanding of the Universe we are in, someone’s country will be (or want to be) #1 and there will be new struggles to be faced.

And socially minded Catholic “heretics” will still live by mercy rather than by the law, and practice Matthew 5, 1-12 and Matthew 25.