S.E.R. Mons. Robert Baker, Bishop of Birmingham – USA
How did you get to know about the Community and what impressed you most about Mother Elvira’s method?
I was studying in Rome at the Angelicum and they introduced me another American priest, Mons. Anthony La Femina, member of the Family Council who was preparing a document the title of which was ‘From despair to hope’ on drug addiction and family life. He had had the opportunity to meet many people in the Italian Church responsible for different initiatives aimed at helping drug addicts and he advised me to contact and meet Mother Elvira Petrozzi: that was in 1992. I did and I took part with her in a meeting of the Cenacolo families in the area around Rome and there she invited me to come to Saluzzo. On that occasion I really appreciated Mother Elvira’s hospitality, I learnt something about the Community and I asked her to send some representatives of the Cenacolo to help us in the United States, because I felt that the Catholic Church in America didn’t fully use its resources to help the people suffering from addictions: in our country the Baptists and other Churches avail themselves of the Bible whereas we Catholics don’t so much. I felt that the Virgin Mary was trying to reach out to the people that were suffering to take them to Jesus, to help them recover.
That’s what I was looking for and there was no other community in the world, except for the one of Mother Elvira, that put forward this kind of combination: the Holy Communion and Our Lady, which I believed was the winning formula to help people who were trying to fight against all kinds of poverty.
So I was really enthusiastic at the prospects of taking the Cenacolo Community to the USA.
The first two young people who arrived in 1993 were Franco and Massimo and they opened the way for seven other young people whom Mother Elvira had chosen as the first group in the USA.
When you first met us as a priest, the Cenacolo didn’t as yet have homes far away from Italy. What did you see in the Community that you felt was important for young people in the USA?
Well, as I had been a student in Italy I knew enough Italian to understand what Mother Elvira was trying to do. There were several interesting things in the Community as well as the Holy Communion and the devotion to the Virgin Mary. Discipline, for example, was very important: Americans need a strict lifestyle. I also felt that there were aspects of the Italian culture which could benefit the American people. I saw that through a life of prayers people could recover; but there were other things as well, difficult things, above all the length of the journey to be undertaken. I believe that European culture has a sense of tradition that is missing in American culture: it’s not part of the American mentality to accept that it takes time to bring about changes. Therefore I knew this would be a problem. I have learnt from the Community about the meaning of the Divine Providence and it has been a very important experience both when I was a priest and now that I am a Bishop. However, at that time I didn’t fully realise the importance of my proposal for Mother Elvira: to trust completely in God for the support of the Community.
My idea was that the boys should support themselves financially by setting up a garden centre to sell ornamental plants: I had already asked for and obtained the permit to do it! Once again I was thinking as an American and as a priest, used as I was to find by myself the resources to run the Parish. When I shared my project with the boys, Massimo told me: ‘Mother Elvira won’t let you do it, she won’t give us the permission to run a commercial activity, handling money.’ I said: ‘Well, so how does she expect to support the Community without it?’ He replied: ‘Divine Providence, Father!’ And I said: ‘What does that mean?’ And he said: ‘You’ll see.’
And I did! And this has been another dimension which I now see as fundamental, a prophetic intuition that Mother Elvira has had since the very beginning.
The first few years of the Community in Florida were difficult, it seemed as if the young Americans couldn’t make it. What gave you the strength to continue to believe despite the difficulties you were having?
I must say that I found the strength precisely in the young missionaries, in those young Italian boys and girls who trusted Mother Elvira and shared her wish to give the American people a hand and to be patient with us. We have seen the struggle of the seven boys and girls who opened the house, the effort they put in to help the Americans stay in the Community and, to be honest, I think this difficulty is still there today. In the American mentality when you have been in the Community for a year, it is difficult to stay on because in our culture we only think of the future, how to be successful, how to get money. For young people this means a radical change of perspective: from making money to creating a new life inside them! The reason why they became drug addicts was precisely because they were always under pressure to make money, but they never had any real support to create something within themselves… And these two things are very different: this was initially the big problem for the Americans, because we are used to having everything immediately, without waiting.
I myself shared this perspective and kept asking myself how they could one day support their family and many other things but then I ‘converted’ and learnt from Mother Elvira not to think too much about time, not to be too anxious and worried. It took us at least five years to change our American way of thinking. We want to teach our youths that changes don’t take place overnight and not even after three years in the Community, but are part of a long term project.
That’s why I thank the first missionaries who patiently stayed with us, despite the disappointment of seeing young people come and leave immediately, waiting for some of them to understand and appreciate what was being given to them.
Today the Community in the USA has grown, there are three fraternities, many young people and also many families are converting to God. How do you feel about this?
I get the feeling that now we have laid the foundations in the USA and I hope that all the people that have come through the Community will continue on their journey with God every day. I would also like to find the way to take the Community to other places, including here in our parish in Birmingham. It is one of my greatest hopes for which I pray every day.
You have wanted to be present at the Festival of Life to celebrate with us the 25th anniversary together with many American youths and families. Why?
I wanted to thank Mother Elvira for everything that she has done for the Community in America and throughout the world. The Festival of Life has truly been a special event of prayers and joy and I decided to accept the invitation because the 25th anniversary is a historical event and I wanted to be part of it. I was also happy to celebrate Mass on three different occasions, twice together with Father Stefano and once with Mons. Giovanni D’Ercole and then, after the Festival, in the Casa di Formazione in Pagno, also with Father Massimo, one of the first friends I met 16 years ago… it was like meeting up with ‘old friends’. I also fondly remember the last Mass celebrated together: it was a simple and moving experience. In Italy I felt really welcome and I am thankful for that.
The main reason why I came here has been to say thank you for all these years of sharing and love, to say thank you together with many people of different cultures, including many American youths and families.
How did you feel in those days?
First of all I was proud to see that our American youths were well and felt part of the Festival; I was very happy to see that many of their families had come to celebrate and then continued in the following days on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The most moving evening was the Eucharistic vigil when we commemorated the 25 years of the Community. I was particularly moved when you gave Mother Elvira the restored picture of the Virgin Mary which was placed above the door of the mother house that had ‘welcomed’ her on the day of the birth of the Community. Then the torch-light procession and the testimonies in front of the Holy Sacrament.. It was very moving. There were also many moments of sharing and listening which were very important to my spiritual growth. In actual fact, the whole experience of the Festival was like a concentrated spiritual retreat, a big event.
I saw the enthusiasm of many young people who had come back on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Community to thank Mother Elvira and many other people, I saw boys and girls I had met in Florida in the Community who are now married, have children and who came back to say thank you with their parents: these are real testimonies of people whose life has changed and I hope that this will happen more and more also in the USA.
Even as a Bishop you continue to support us. With regards to your faith, what has the Community represented for you?
As I said before I too had a change of perspective on Christian life, which had a tremendous influence on me: it has helped me to be more patient, to concentrate on the important things in life and not to be worried about the momentary success or to think that I am the face of the Church. It has helped me to resort to God, to trust Him, to lead a life of prayer and devotion to the Eucharist and to the Virgin Mary and to make them become the centre of my life.
The life she has spent on those who fight against despair has moved me both as a priest and as a Bishop, towards the complete trust in the Divine Providence, learning how to take our responsibilities and placing God first.
I hope that one day I will be able to see another house in Birmingham where we can spread this message both in the Parish and through EWTN, the Catholic television of Mother Angelica who is now in the ‘courtyard’ of my parish so as to tell the world about the hope of rebirth for many young people.
I would like to reach the largest number of people who are fighting to tell them that there is hope for everyone but that there is a price for hope and it is our faith and our commitment that allow God to work well within us.
Dear ‘Bishop Baker’, thank you because your wish to give American youths not just any recovery programme but the hope which comes from a Christian life the same that made you meet the Community years ago. Your trust in us made us come to the States and today we can ………. And thank you because you are still now like you were then a true and loyal friend!