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Don Zeno Saltini: an “outgoing” priest with the heart of a father

Ahead of the Pope’s visit ot Nomadelfia and Loppiano, we asked bishop Ceteloni - who will welcome Francis upon his arrival on May 10 - the president of the Community, and the successor of Don Zeno, to share their portrait on the figure of Don Zeno. The Holy Father will gather in prayer before his tomb, against the backdrop of the spiritual testament of the priest from Modena. Francis will also pay homage to the tomb of “mother Irene”, NelusWhile and Pino Arpioni, and proceed to visit the "Poggetto" followed by a celebration in the Don Zeno Hall, and by his address

foto SIR/Marco Calvarese

(from Nomadelfia) “L’uomo è diverso”, in one hand and “Exsultate et gaudete” in the other. These two books are the first things we are shown by our host, Msgr. Rodolfo Ceteloni, as we enter the episcopate in Grosseto. The first was written by the founder of Nomadelfia, the other by the Pope, who decided to pay homage to Don Zeno Saltini next May 10, upon his 22nd pastoral visit to Italy with two destinations: Nomadelfia e Loppiano, two citadels that share the thrust to unity and togetherness as a universal aspiration for the brotherhood of mankind. These two words – along with people, family, and faithfulness to the Church – are those resonating most frequently while interviewing Francesco Matterazzo, President of Nomadelfia, and Don Ferdinando Neri, third successor of Don Zeno in the site located in Tuscany’s countryside, that will soon see Francis stop at the grave of Don Zeno, 70 years since the foundation of his “creature” and 50 since the establishment of the first family-school.

On May 10, the Pope will gather in prayer before the tomb of Don Zeno, against the backdrop of his last words, his spiritual will.

The Holy Father will then proceed to visit the families living in the “Poggetto”, followed by a feast with the community, in the hall that bears the name of the priest from Modena, before delivering his address.

Next-door saints. “It’s a precious opportunity, so that even our Church may further recognize the gift of Don Zeno and Nomadelfia, whose people have been living here for over half a century”, said Msgr. Rodolfo Cetoloni, bishop of Grossetto, describing the atmosphere that will welcome the Pope on May 10. “As opposed to barren, enslaving forms of individualism, Nomadelfia is one of those realities that shows that the Gospel can be lived out.” These are the “saints next door”, highlighted by Francis in his latest apostolic exhortation, which has the face of people who, like Fr Zeno, “have experienced the inconvenience of being Christians: for them, for their Churches and for the times they lived in.”

“Today we need to understand what Nomadelfia means for the Church, and what the Church means for Nomadelfia”, is the wish ahead of the papal visit

From death to life. Don Zeno transformed Fossoli’s former concentration from a place of death into a place of life; he emptied the orphanage in Rome bringing 120 children with him, infants and adolescents, “discarded” youths, as society defined them at the time, victims of the “throwaway culture”, as Pope Francis would define them today. These are some snapshots of the 70-year history of Nomadelfia shared by its president Francesco Matterazzo, whilst describing “a new, alternative people, rooted in the Gospel, the cornerstone of Christian life. That was the plan of Don Zeno. When the community moved from Fossoli to Nomadelfia in 1954, he gave life to a “veritable social reality”, Francesco said. Don Zeno conceived the figure of the “vocation mother”, the first of whom was mother Irene. On May 10 the Pope will pay homage at his tomb, along with that of Don Zeno and Nelusco, the father of the first family who decided to welcome the “sons and daughters of abandonment”– orphans, detainees, disabled people, victims of violence, war refugees – into their household. As many as 5.000 have been “saved” until today. Francis will then pause to pray in the cemetery at the tomb of Pino Arpioni, collaborator of Giorgio La Pira.

Outgoing, hence, going forth. Don Ferdinando Neri is the third successor of Don Zeno at the lead of Nomadelfia. He wishes to speak about him in terms of a model priest “of his own genus, outside the box.” When he became a priest at the age of 31, after graduating in Law at the Catholic University, he did not enter the seminary, in fact he condensed his formation to the priesthood in just one year.

“His confreres viewed him as a man lacking religious formation, thus flawed, while he was forthcoming, he went forth”

said Fr Ferdinando, for whom paternity is the key to understand the priest that Don Zeno embodied.

Paternity and “orphanhood.” In his first solemn Mass at the Cathedral of Carpi he asked an ex convict, left without a family, society’s castaway, to stand beside him at the altar as if he were his own son. It could have been mistaken for exhibitionism, but it turned out to be a painfully discriminating decision. When in 1952 he was abandoned by the Church, and the Nomadelfia community had been broken up, Don Zeno was faced with a tragic choice: to let his sons and daughters fall into the grips of criminal activity, or continue being their father, and in order to do so leave the priesthood. A year later he sent a request to return to the lay state, yet it didn’t make him feel he was no longer a priest. His paternity was not only spiritual; it was concrete. He knew that the people of Nomadelfia would have no other but him as their father. For Don Zeno the term “orphan” had to be erased. It reminds us of Pope Francis, when he says that “orphanhood” is one of the most serious diseases of our times.

In Tanzania? When asked what he will say to the Pope, Don Ferdinando did not answer directly and highlighted the need to rediscover the many aspects of the figure of Don Zeno that are yet to be delved into, perhaps by opening the Vatican archives that refer to him. “Even though Don Zeno shunned being placed in a niche, his figure deserves being restudied and his valuable contribution revived.” Just as the charism of Nomadelfia, a patrimony that deserves being exported worldwide: in Tanzania, for example, where exchange visits are ongoing between the members of the Nomadelfia community and the Fathers of the Monastery of Mvimwa. “We await instructions”, said Don Ferdinando, looking forward to May 10.

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