He's one of the JPII vocations, having been marked by God through the influence of the Polish pope.
Father Francesco Chiarini, 39, a priest of the Neocatechumenal Way in the Diocese of Fermo, Italy, believes his vocation is related to an unexpected encounter he had as an 8-year-old boy. John Paul II visited Chiarini’s hometown on December 30, 1988. Pope John Paul II, then 67 years old, descended from the sky—literally: He got down from a helicopter, wearing a red cape. A joyful crowd celebrated his apostolic visit. Kiko Argüello, then 48 years old, one of the founders of the Neocatechumenal Way, accompanied the Pontiff to the entrance of the International Center for Evangelization of Porto San Giorgio, located in the central Italian region of Marche.
Among the crowd, an Italian boy holding a small Vatican flag ran with his brother to see the Successor of Peter. They were stopped by a metal barrier. It seemed it would be impossible to see the pope close up, but the future saint took special notice of the elder of the brothers; he stopped in front of the clear-eyed, smiling little boy, who was almost hanging off that barrier.
“We got past the barrier,” Chiarini tells Aleteia. “The pope came to me—I don’t know why he didn’t do the same with my brother, who was next to me—and he caressed my cheek, almost like a friendly and soft pat. I still remember his fragrance.”
Chiarini is now a young priest, ordained in 2010 on the second Sunday of Easter, the feast of Divine Mercy, a celebration proclaimed 10 years earlier by John Paul II.
That encounter was a special moment. The little boy felt something indescribable in his heart, he says. “A few days later, my parish priest, Fr. Enrico, whom you see in the photo, asked all the children taking First Communion preparation course what we wanted to be when we grew up. Without hesitation, I answered: ‘a priest!’”
The encounter took place on the Feast of the Holy Family of Nazareth in 1988 when John Paul II celebrated Mass and sent out the first families of that International Center as missionaries. They later went to the humblest peripheries of Asia and Africa, forming small evangelization teams accompanied by a priest.
Chiarini was 17 years old when, in August 1997, he participated with a group of young people from the Neocatechumenal Way in the 12th International World Youth Day (WYD) in Paris. The young man again considered being a priest when he heard John Paul II’s words: “Follow Jesus! Do not be afraid of the ‘new life’ that He offers you.”
“John Paul II loved Jesus Christ deeply, and he was a witness to prayer. This gave him immense freedom in everything: to say things to young people and to be a young man with young people,” says Chiarini.
Today, the Italian priest holds a doctorate in Biblical Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and has been a professor at the Theological Institute of Marche in Fermo, Italy, since 2009.
Love, suffering and the Cross
In fact, the pontificate of John Paul II had an impact on the lives of millions of young people. On Palm Sunday, 1986, the first WYD took place in Rome. It contributed to Karol Wojtyła receiving the nickname of “the Pope of youth,” and “the Pope of vocations”—both vocations of families and of consecrated men and women.
Chiarini sees another revealing sign of his vocation in the fact that he wrote his thesis for his bachelor’s degree in theology on the writings of a 16th-century Spanish friar, St. John of the Cross, considered the summit of Christian experimental mysticism. The saint’s writings (primarily poetry) inspired Chiarini to study the grace of the gratuitousness of Christ’s love.
In fact, unknown to Chiarini at the time, John Paul II had obtained his doctorate in theology (1948) with a thesis on the theme of faith in the works of none other than St. John of the Cross. Moreover, years earlier, after the sorrowful death of his father, John Paul II had found that reading the holy poet gave him comfort, at the same time as his awareness of his vocation grew in admiration of the sacrifice of Catholic priests in Nazi concentration camps.
Fr. Chiarini considers the intimacy of his prayer life to be another spiritual link with Wojtyła, who placed every decision in God’s hands. His bond with John Paul II is also a link with his own father, who died some time ago and who was very devoted to the Polish saint. Chiarini’s father prayed to St. John Paul II, asking that through his intercession the Lord would protect his family, help the young people he catechized, and grant him health. The message of Pope Wojtyła strengthened the unity of Chiarini’s family.
John Paul II: An inspiration
“God helps me live the call. The more I go on as a priest, the more I feel an emptying (kenosis) of myself, and the more I trust fully in his love, thus increasing my capacity to serve and be with young people. John Paul II loved Christ, so the crowds followed him. I feel a ‘gratuitous love’ that ‘I do not deserve,’ but every day, God comes looking for me, even though I am nothing but a poor priest. While I am free, I feel chosen and consoled by Christ.”
Fr. Chiarini says that he’s received a hundred times more than he has given. As an example of how God’s grace works through him, he tells us about his participation in an international amateur football championship he played in while studying at a seminary in Taiwan. In the final qualifying match, he scored the winning goal, and immediately his opponent’s goalkeeper, in a fit of blind rage due to the defeat, struck and broke Chiarini’s leg (tibia and fibula).
Before leaving the field, although he was in pain, Chiarini felt the need to make a gesture which he says came not from him, but from God. Before getting on the stretcher and being taken to hospital where he would later undergo reconstructive surgery, he took the hand of the young Canadian who had injured him, looked him in the eyes, and said, “I forgive you!”
“The young man was an atheist,” Chiarini says, “but he came to visit me in the hospital. Although he didn’t know where to find me, he did everything possible to talk to me before the operation. Perhaps the Lord put forgiveness in my mouth to save this young man.”