In this last part, Stephen Ssenkaaba looks at John Scalabrini’s bumpy road to the priesthood
TRANQUILLO Scalabrini loved all his four children- equally. But one of them was particularly dear to him: his third child-John. Eighty odd years later, John Scalabrini still relishes the happy childhood days spent in his father’s protective arms. “He would carry me shoulder-high as we toured the fields. Sometimes taking me to the factory and asking me to observe and learn.” All was well at the Scalabrini family home in the Northern Italy town of Limido where John lived with his parents, two brothers and a sister. His father owned a thriving textile business. His mother Maria took care of the home, sometimes taking her children with her to cultivate in the fields. “It was a happy, close-knit family,” Fr. Scalabrini recalls. One day, he returned home with some news for his family. “I was joining the seminary; to train for priesthood.” He was only 18 years old. His father was livid.
The seeds of discord
This marked the beginning of a protracted rift between a promising son and his dotting father. It strained the family. Even though he never said it directly, Tranquillo Scalabrini had been known to have grand plans for his favourite son John. It showed in the way he trusted and confided in him. Looking back many years now, Fr. John Scalabrini believes that he was being groomed to take charge of the family business. The young man’s plans couldn’t be more different.
Born into a staunch Catholic family, John Scalabrini had picked interest in church work early in his school days. He spent his spare time helping at the local church and interacting with priests. His love for missionary work had been especially ignited by a visit to a Comboni Mission near his home where a priest friend “showed me fascinating pictures of their work in Africa.” This would leave a lasting impression on him. Initially, his family did not read much into John Scalabrini’s interest in church work; neither did he say much to them about his growing interest in a priestly vocation. Until he was ready to join the seminary. His father could not take any of it.
“I had obtained my admission and was ready to leave for the seminary in Brescia. I was about to say my goodbyes when my father stopped me,”Fr. Scalabrini recounts. Father and son went into long battles, which even drew in John Scalabrini’s mother. “One time I came back home late in the night, having spent time at the Mission. My father became agitated. He could not settle. He blamed my mother for not doing enough to discourage me from joining the seminary. He stayed up late to wait for my return. When I came in he cried out and said: “My son where have you been, why do you want to abandon me.”
The rift between John Scalabrini and his father only intensified as the days for his departure to the seminary drew closer. When time came for him to leave home, his distraught father told him off. “If you leave this home, he said, you will never get anything from me.”
“He confiscated the small suitcase that I had prepared to take with me. He did not give me any money. I left home without anything, except the clothes I wore that day. There was no one to bid me farewell.”
John Scalabrini convinced his cousin to accompany him to the train station. With only a fraction of the transport fare, he made half the journey. He was dully thrown out of the passengers’ line as he got on the next train to the seminary. “I was only saved by a stranger who offered to pay for my full fare to my destination,” he recounts.
Life in the seminary
Despite a bumpy start, John Scalabrini was happy to arrive at the seminary in Brescia. He started his studies in 1952. Two years later he was sent to continue at the Comboni Novitiate in Florence. He left the Novitiate after three years and went on to Verona for his studies in Philosophy from where he joined the Diocesan seminary in Milan for four years of studies in theology. Throughout ten years of his time under seminary formation, John Scalabrini had very minimal contact with his family. “I went home only once or twice. And it was very difficult,” he recalls. Difficult because his broken father could not speak to him. “This hurt me very much. Even as a young person, it made me cry,” he says.
Tranquillo Scalabrini was among the guests in attendance when his favourite child John was ordained a priest in Milan, on Monday, April 2, 1962 by Giovanni Battista, Cardinal Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, the Archbishop of Rome (later Pope Paul VI). But he wasn’t happy.
Fr. Scalabrini spent his first two years of priesthood teaching at a Comboni Missionary seminary in Italy. The difficult relationship with his father got only worse when he left his home country to start working in Uganda in 1964. My father did not say farewell. Even when I went back home for holidays or to raise funds for our projects in Gulu, he completely ignored me,” Scalabrini says. This went on for 23 years.
Thawing of a difficult relationship
Fr. Scalabrini’s dad spoke to him for the first time in over 20 years when the priest made a brief stopover in Italy on his way to Germany. “The old man was very sick. He requested to see the place where I worked before he became too weak to move. It was early 1974.” In August of the same year arrangements were made for Tranquillo Scalabrini to visit to Uganda. “We took him around different places in Gulu; and people came to greet him. He was so overwhelmed he never forgot his experience in Uganda.”
While his visit did not change his attitude towards his son’s long absence from home and choice of work, it gradually softened Tranquillo Scalabrini’s heart. “Such was the impact of this visit that dad offered to pay for the air ticket and stay in Nairobi when I traveled to Kenya in 1975 to sort out outstanding Gulu diocese administration issues with Bishop Kihangire following my deportation from Uganda. He was so happy that his son, who had initially sought to borrow from his brothers to fund his travel to Kenya, could accept his offer.
One and a half years later, Fr. John Scalabrini received the news that his father was bed-ridden. The priest was on hand that wintry day on January 06, 1977 to administer the last sacraments to his dying father. The old man managed a few words. “My son,” he said, I have done so much damage to your life. Find it in your heart to forgive me.” John Scalabrini smiled. He felt happy. His father smiled back and said. “I can now go and meet my maker. I now know that someone will receive me happily.” His equally sick mother was present too. They all smiled in unity. Everybody’s prayer that unity and love comes back to the Scalabrini family was finally answered. Not even the fact that Tranquillo Scalabrini had bequeathed some money and his house to his son John could beat the feeling of a once lost love reborn in death.