Friday, July 18, 2008
Friar Gino Piccoli: Working On the Rez without Reservations
“Before we leave,” Father Gino announces, “let’s end the Mass with a Native American blessing. Would that be okay?” Parishioners at the 5:15 Saturday Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Sacramento nod in eager agreement. In the course of the hour-long liturgy, Friar Gino Piccoli—visiting from the San Carlos (Arizona) Apache reservation-- has clearly won them over with his warmth and sincerity:
“Good. Let’s stand and turn to the East—the rising Sun, the sign of God’s faithfulness everyday. Remember, God doesn’t forget us in the night….. Now, to the South: Sister Rain. We depend upon God for Water. Without it, we are dead… Now, the West: Bother Sun goes to bed every night. Causes us to think of our elders, how they and we are preparing for our eternal bed… Finally, let’s turn to the North. Do we have any ice in our hearts? People we have not forgiven? Are we holding any grudges? Let’s let go of all of that before we leave church….”
The following day, I had the chance to chat with Father Gino a bit: “That was a beautiful blessing you gave us, Brother,” I asked. “How do you think Native American spirituality and the Franciscan spirit 'fit'?” “The more I find out about it, “ he answers, “the more it seems that the two are interchangeable. Take the blessing of the four directions. God is all around me. Apache spirituality is so Franciscan since it doesn't see God 'up there' in the heavens...nor 'over there' at a holy place (e.g.,Fatima, Assisi). Rather, God means to envelope you 24 hours a day. So as longa s you remain the middle--surrounded at all times by the presence of the Divine--as symbolized by turning in a circle when we say 'Amen!', God will always be present...Churches, shrines, Sacraments are beautiful--but will not make God more present than the God who wants to be around you at all times."
Father Gino knows what he’s talking about. At age 68, the Chicago native speaks with the frankness of an urban Midwesterner. Physically, he is solidly built, compact, down to earth as well. Gino has been living and working on the San Carlos Apache reservation outside of Phoenix for eleven years now. He knows something of both the beauty of Native American people, their culture, and their spirituality as well as the sometimes brutal harshness of life on the rez.
“Unfortunately, the Indian spirituality is no longer on the reservation in a very clear way,” he continues. “The kids don’t have it; the adults who are drinking don’t have it; and the people who do have it don’t share it much. For myself, after eleven years, I feel like I am just beginning to know the people. And you learn by trial and error here. There are no books; nobody who is an ombudsman for you—nobody who will take you aside and say, “Look Father, we don’t do things here that way.”
“For example, you need to understand the importance of ‘blood’ (relationship). It is said that the Apaches sometimes don’t like to volunteer for things because that would mean that you are putting yourself forward too much. Or if you ask people to do something, they will rarely say ‘no’ but then they may not show up, which is okay, because it allows them to save face. But if it’s about blood relationship —if the whole family or clan decides to get involved-- there’s absolutely no problem. At a bazaar, for example, if we have a booth with fry bread, then 6-8 relatives will all show up to help. It’s no problem at all. It takes a long time for an outsider to ‘get ‘ something like that.”
In addition to being a dedicated pastor, Gino is an accomplished artist—his works grace several of our parishes and friaries—but he would be the first to downplay the fact: “I’ve never been a fine artist; I only do artwork that has a purpose. For me, it’s about community, about involving people. It’s how I get to know them. I don’t have my habit on, for example. We work together side by side and everybody gets dirty.” At the same time, he is quite upfront about the limits of this kind of approach on the reservation.
The Franciscan friars have been in the US Southwest for more than four hundred years now. The presence of men from the St. Barbara Province on the San Carlos reservation dates from around 1918. For the most part, many of these ‘home missionary’ friars have lived alone in the villages, coming together periodically for prayer and community. Gino is part of that tradition; he uses his day off to connect with Friar Eddie Fronske, who has been working among another branch of the Nation—the White River Apaches-- for more than two decades. “ We’ll meet at a restaurant in Globe, have a meal, and just sit for two or three hours talking. What is especially good about it (the fraternal connection) for us is that unless you’ve been there, you don’t really understand. With Eddie I don’t have to explain myself. He knows exactly what I’ve been experiencing and what I feel.” Mutual fraternal support is crucial to the life and work of the friars in this context.
Despite the challenges of the pastoral situation, there are also wonderful blessings that come with living and working on the reservation. Most recently, one of the young men from the Apache nation, Phillip Polk, has been accepted into our postulancy program—a cause for great celebration and joy for both the Franciscans and the people of San Carlos.
How does the future look to Father Gino? Will he continue to work on the rez? “I came here because I was sent here, “ Gino shares. “But it’s the Gospel that has kept me here. Over time I’ve learned to feel helpless with people—looking for the right thing to do to make a difference and rarely finding it. But you just have to keep faithful on the path where there is often very little immediate reward. If I started over again, I wouldn’t live in the rectory. I’d get an old trailer and bring it on the property. Live more like the people here live.”
“Even with the struggles, though, being on the rez has been a blessing. It has brought me back to my dreams about what we friars should be and be about. I would like to continue (my ministry here). I would like to die here if I could. Living and working with the poor, with no status, no security. The lifestyle represents so much for me what I would like to be and become as a friar."
Posted by Fr. Charles Talley, ofm at 3:26 PM