Adapting culturally across continents
A missionary shares dreams, challenges and experiences
By Fr. Bruno Piccolo
Over the course of my 80 years of life, I have gone through many transitions and changes, as I lived in four different countries on three continents. Reflecting on my life experience, what has helped me to change?
I was born in a farming community in Northern Italy. I’m the last of nine children, and since the age of eight I had thought about being a missionary. When I finished grade school at the age of 11, it was an adventure for me to move 200 miles away from home to attend middle school, high school, as well as college in two different missionary seminaries in the same area.
I joined the PIME Missionary Institute (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions), a society of Apostolic Life. Founded in Italy in 1850 and now international, it is dedicated to the foreign missions. We are present in 18 countries and there are a little over 400 members.
In 1961, I was asked to come to the United States and study theology in the small town of Memphis, Michigan. My priority was to become fluent in English. I had already studied it for a year, an hour each day, but I was far from my goal. During the first three months upon arrival, I studied English intensely, and then I immersed myself in theological courses.
After ordination I moved to New Jersey to work at a diocesan high school minor seminary. Having a day off every week gave me the opportunity to visit New York City quite often. During the summers, I attended the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and I loved the city. The summers offered concerts, plays at the Mall, parades, a lot of sightseeing ... There are many interesting museums and historical landmarks. In the capital city, I took in the sights and made many friends.
The Asian chapter
In 1968, I was assigned to the Philippines, where I ministered for eight years. I tried to study Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, on my own, but soon realized that I needed to attend classes. After five months I felt comfortable enough to go out for ministry, and by year’s end, I was fluent.
I quickly got used to the Filipino cuisine. It consists mainly of rice, vegetables, chicken, fish and plenty of fresh fruits. One delicacy I liked with a cold beer was balut, a duck egg hatched for 14 days and boiled for 45 minutes. It was definitely a different taste, to say the least, but I was open to it and got to like it.
In 1977, I returned to the States and went to Chicago. My task was to accompany a dozen young American men who were attending their theological courses at the Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in preparation for their ordination to the priesthood. CTU had a couple of hundred students from different communities of religious men and women, as well as some lay people. It was a good opportunity to update myself on theological trends and meet members of different congregations.
About 11 years later, I was assigned as a pastor to a parish in Los Angeles. There I realized that I needed to learn another language: Spanish. For this reason, I took three weeks off to study and then moved into the parish. It was a “sink or swim” experience at first, but with practice I could manage the language very well.
I was struck by the young people who, even though they were studying or working during the day and attending English classes at night, would still attend the prayer group meetings on Friday evenings. Among them, I chose four young men and four young women as leaders. Every Sunday evening, though tired, I would spend time with them, sharing reflections and experiences on the Gospel. It was a joy for me to see their growth in faith and as persons.
After six years among the Latino community in Los Angeles, I moved to Acapulco, Mexico, to be with an indigenous community, the Mixteco. I thought that being in Mexico, I could use my Spanish, but I saw that community members spoke Mixteco. I wanted to learn it, but I had no time to study and quickly realized that I was not young anymore. Languages are a challenge after you reach the age of 35, and I was 54 at the time.
Re-adjusting to my homeland
After one year in Mexico, I briefly returned to the U.S., and in 2005 moved back to Italy. After having been away for 45 years, at first I felt a bit disoriented.
Bureaucracy is a reality in every country, and Italy was no exception. I was required to take classes to get my Italian driver’s license, even though I had been driving for 45 years. It’s because the Italian government does not recognize the American driver’s license for anyone who resides in Italy. And the Italian driving style was certainly not what I was used to!
As a senior citizen I could get a pension, but since I receive a pension in the U.S., I needed to declare it. It was not always easy to find where the different offices were and to know their hours, but little by little I re-familiarized myself with the ways of the Italians.
In 2017 I was reassigned back to the States in New York City, where I am now. I feel at home here, and I enjoy my stay. In this diverse city I use both English and Spanish and at times, Italian and Tagalog.
I believe it has been easy for me to move around because of my desire to go to other countries. Certainly the presence of my missionary community, friends and relatives, wherever I went, helped me immensely. I feel that the knowledge of the languages has given me self-confidence and inner freedom. Love for reading, especially of history and biographies as well as travel, has enhanced my familiarity with the environment and the people I met and served.
Through the years, I have accumulated many books, notes, letters and personal contacts. Yet having had to move many times has helped me to alleviate the burden of carrying all these items with me. What I have found most difficult was letting go of the friendships. I have come to feel and understand that I need to cultivate a few and be faithful to those friends.
Besides the missionary community and the knowledge of languages, I believe what has helped me greatly has been the spirituality of the Focolare which I met (and made my own) in 1968. Wherever I went, near or far, there were Focolare households, and I sought them out and made connections with the community and the religious. Their companionship gave me the opportunity to share prayer, interests, experiences, dreams, frustrations and challenges; and this helped me become acquainted with the culture, history and local church.
Looking back over the years, I have seen the changes that have taken place in me. As a young missionary I was a go-getter, always on the move. As the years went by, I learned to step back, observe, listen, consult and watch. One can always find something new to learn. There is great wisdom in reflection, silence and solitude. When the opportunity or the need arises, I am willing to get involved and give; and I see that it is a free giving, without imposing or expecting results, appreciation or gratitude. I am free.
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