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Catholic Education

Father Michael Davitti gets around language barriers in Chinatown.

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Father Michael Davitti doesn't think he ended up in Chicago by chance. He believes that providence, greeted with an open mind, has guided him on a journey from Italy, where he was born in 1943, to Africa to the Saint Therese Chinese Catholic Mission, a small church near the heart of Chinatown where for the last three years he's been the pastor.

The members of Davitti's congregation are mostly Asian, and the consensus among them seems to be that he's done wonders for their church. He's overseen a major renovation of the building and has been largely responsible for increasing attendance, which was evident in the packed house at this year's three Easter Sunday masses. He speaks no Cantonese beyond greetings, but one parishioner says, "Father Michael speaks the language of the church, the language of love," and that's enough for her.

As a kid growing up in Florence, Davitti says, he wasn't particularly religious. His father was a truck driver, his mother a housewife with a "great sensitivity to the needs of people." He knew from an early age that he wanted to do work that helped others, and he thought of becoming a scientist or a doctor. But as a teenager he developed a desire "to discover whether there was a plan that could justify the universe, my existence, and the great suffering of people." He began taking prayer seriously, and as he got older he decided he wanted to do something that would combine his religious faith with his desire to improve people's lives. In 1961, when he was 18, he joined the congregation of the Xaverian Mission in Parma intending to become a missionary.

Over the next decade Davitti did things he thought would make his work as a missionary more effective. He studied theology with the Jesuits in Rome, and he studied Islam, since where he was going, Sierra Leone, was predominantly Muslim. Then he went to London to get a degree in cultural anthropology. He was convinced that if the church was to be successful in Africa it had to try to understand the people it was preaching to. And he believed that its insistence on doing things such as building Gothic cathedrals in the jungle was thwarting its efforts to take root there.

Davitti arrived in Sierra Leone in 1973, three years after being ordained as a priest. He was given the parish of the cathedral of Makeni, a small town in the middle of the country, and most of his job involved training young clergy. He got it because no one else wanted it. "Sierra Leone is called the white man's grave," he says. Food shortages and malaria and cholera made for a high mortality rate among the missionaries. "The missionaries that went there, some lasted two or three months."

More troubling to Davitti was the cultural divide between the Africans and the Europeans. Because he was white and an outsider, many of the Africans kept him at a distance. And he thought his religious teaching was ineffective. Cate-chism--taught through a series of questions and answers and based on syllogism and a Western idea of objective truth--didn't make sense to the Africans. For them, he says, truth was less rigid and was found in social relationships: if two people agreed that something was so, then it was so. And the Africans' sense of time, which Davitti says was focused on the present, made it difficult to get across the Christian ideas of reward and punishment, heaven and hell. Much of the Christian doctrine as he'd been taught it started falling apart, and he realized that Christianity didn't have a monopoly on truth.

After three years he was worn-out physically and psychologically. He had malaria and had lost so much weight that when he arrived at the airport in Milan his friends didn't recognize him.

He started lecturing at the Xaverian school in Parma. He says that because his ideas had been shaped by his own experiences in Africa, they were valued by his students and other teachers, but they were also threatening because they clashed with the received wisdom. At the time, the church was most concerned with increasing the number of names in its registry, so it approached people it wanted to convert, offered them its teaching, and assumed they would see the light. "It didn't work that way," he says. He argued that the church should focus on improving the lives of the Africans by providing them with schools and the ability to support themselves on the land, and that it should act as a model that would inspire people to convert.

Around this time Davitti met a Jesuit who'd spent 50 years in Japan and was teaching a course in Parma on Zen. Davitti took the course and has been meditating three times a day ever since. At first he valued meditation because it gave structure to his life and because it forced him to take time out of the day for himself. But over the next several years Zen changed the way he thought about God, and he came to believe that it complemented his Christianity. "God is no longer to be found in the sky," he says. "I don't believe in heaven. God is to be found here in human beings."

In 1989 he returned to Sierra Leone. This time he went to Freetown, where he worked as the liaison between the Vatican and the bishops of West Africa. His job was to help the Vatican understand what was really going on in Africa and to make sure that money donated by the West made it into the coffers of the churches in Africa.

But he wanted to avoid making the Africans dependent on the west. "When you are starving, is it fair that I should buy your faith, your baptism, because of rice?" he says. "I asked, 'Which is the best way to help you? The simplest way is to pay for all your needs, but will it work?' For example, the chronic shortage of food." Importing cows wouldn't solve that problem because they're susceptible to malaria--and it would make the Africans dependent on imported cows.

Eventually he decided that the answer was to introduce alternative food sources, so he sent a soil sample to agricultural scientists back in Parma. "They told me you could grow soybeans here," he says. "And along with the soybeans you can have soy milk that is as nutritious as the milk that the cow would give you. You could have tofu that is as nutritious as cheese or meat. This is the way you could help them."

Ten years later, the civil war that had been building in Sierra Leone finally arrived in Freetown. Davitti was there the first two times the city was taken, but the third time the Italian government evacuated the missionaries, who were being killed and whose churches were being destroyed. "They were killing so many of us," he says. "They killed five sisters from America, six sisters from Mother Teresa of Calcutta--in cold blood. They killed fathers, they killed priests."

After he got back to Italy, Davitti decided he couldn't stay. "I said it's useless to live in Italy with the heart in Africa," he says. "If I remain in Italy I have an easy game. After a while I will repeat myself."

He asked to be transferred. Two positions in the Chicago area were open--one at a missionary school in Mundelein, the other in Chinatown. He chose Chinatown, he says, because he'd rather work with people than books.

"Three years ago," he says, "I decided to push aside for a while all the experience of Africa and to jump into this one. Here I have the feeling that I'm receiving a lot. In Chicago I can travel the whole world without leaving the city--Indiantown, Greektown, Koreatown. To me it's always going from one wonder to another."

He says he isn't learning Cantonese because he's too old and doesn't have the time. "It's a language that deserves far more respect than I can give," he says. "An old man like me, it'd take at least eight years to learn it, and I don't have in mind to remain here."

He'd like to go back to Africa someday, though he doesn't really care where he goes. "Because the journey will continue, and there is always a superior power that is leading me," he says. "When I close this chapter a new one will open. This is my attitude."

But for now he's glad to be here. "The people that are closest to me here are the Chinese ladies that are illiterate," he says. "They are closer to me because we can communicate beyond words, on a deeper level, and I find myself to be fully accepted and loved by them. This is my passion. I don't have a wife. I don't have a family. My family is the church. I told the cardinal that I am a happy person now--not because I have solved all my problems, but because I am on my journey."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saveria Truglia.

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