The young boy inspired Pope Francis and countless others with his constant, loving service to his father.
A skateboard, a 3D puzzle, a jersey from the Juve football (soccer) club, and a bicycle: those were the Christmas wishes of Mattia Piccoli, who was given the honorary award of Alfiere della Repubblica by Italian President Sergio Mattarella in December 2021. He revealed these wishes, so typical of a boy his age, in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica on the occasion of receiving the presidential honor, as well as answering other questions that were more challenging and unusual for a 12-year-old boy.
Mattia, who is from Concordia Sagittario (a small town northeast of Venice), was awarded this great recognition for the constant, daily, and joyful help he gives to his father, who is affected by early-onset (and consequently even more difficult) Alzheimer’s disease.
He helps his dad to remember the simplest actions, such as how to wash and dress himself. He consoles him when he no longer knows where he is and who the people around him are, and he helps guide him through the day.
He takes care of him as if he were his own father’s father.
A son called to a great task
It was this tender exchange of roles that moved the pope, and with him, the thousands of young people gathered in St. Peter’s Square earlier this month.
On April 18, Easter Monday, the Holy Father met with young people of the Italian dioceses it St. Peter’s Square, and on that occasion of celebration and prayer Mattia bore his testimony of love, dedication, and courage.
Alessandro Gisotti of Vatican News wrote of his impression of the occassion:
“Sometimes it is the youngest who have the greatest love and courage (…) the testimony of 12-year-old Mattia Piccoli, for some years now, who has become the guardian angel of his Alzheimer’s patient father, will remain impressed in everyone’s memory.”
There is no other motivation for Mattia’s behavior than love — love that becomes care, creativity, tenacity, resistance, the ability to make sacrifices. After all, Mattia is still a 12-year-old boy who loves skateboarding and is a soccer fan.
But precisely because of his nature as a son, who recognizes how much his father has loved and accompanied him in his young life, he feels that he cannot do anything else but return that love. At his young age, he has shown, just as the Pontiff reminded the young people, that he has a “nose” for what is important.
Pope Francis referred to this sense during his words to the young people:
Dear boys and girls, you don’t have the experience of adults, but you do have something that we adults have sometimes lost. (…) Many times, the routine of life makes us lose ‘our nose’; you have ‘a keen nose.’ Do not lose this, please! (…) The instinct that John had: as soon as he saw that gentleman there who said: “Cast the net on the right,” his instinct told him: “It is the Lord!” He was the youngest of the apostles. You have the instinct: do not lose it!
Suffering makes us more like Jesus
Our faith teaches us that Jesus is right there with those who suffer. The Lord even went to Heaven with the signs of His Passion. Mattia probably senses this. Perhaps this is also why his father can never become a stranger to him: he knows who he is and he knows who he resembles.
“I never did anything unwillingly or out of obligation,” Mattia said, as reported by SIR News Agency. “I only wished to help my father as an act of love, remembering all that he had done for me.” He went on to explain what it was like to discover his father’s degenerative illness: “I was a typical six-year-old boy who only thought about playing. Everything seemed fine until I started to notice that my father was not himself anymore, he was acting differently; sometimes he would forget important things like picking me up from school or buying the groceries.”
The diagnosis and the pain
The confusion that struck his father Paolo more and more often was also experienced by Mattia and with his mother and brother in some way, even before they knew what was wrong. Mattia didn’t recognize his father anymore, and at some moments—more and more frequently—he couldn’t find his father in that lost gaze.
Then came the dramatic but also clarifying moment of the diagnosis. SIR shares his words: “I could not understand what was happening to my father. On December 19 we learned something that was to change my family’s life: my father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer disease.”
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, involving progressive loss of memory and other intellectual abilities to such a significant degree that it drastically reduces the sufferer’s quality of daily life.
It’s usually associated with advanced age, but 5%t of patients are affected at a much earlier age, between 40 and 60—in the prime of a father’s life, for example.
The impact of the disease on the patient’s entire family is widespread, and treatments and services for patients are still insufficient. The greatest and most robust response to the tidal wave caused by this storm is love.
This is what young Mattia showed with immediacy and disarming simplicity in the embrace of the whole square. “From then on,” Mattia said, “it was my job – not having any external assistance – to help my dad with his daily activities, which he was no longer able to do on his own, such as taking a shower, tying his shoelaces or comforting him when he didn’t know where he was.”
The son has become his father’s guardian, perhaps demonstrating in this very way how much his father has been a true father: he has truly introduced Mattia to life, to his highest task of guarding and protecting those entrusted to him.
Loving as a team
In his words at the event, Mattia revealed the support network that makes him capable of doing what he does. He’s not alone; his family is there to help him and he has faith in God, the faith he learned at home and saw his father live and uphold. Vatican News reports his words to this effect:
This strength comes to me thanks to my family: thanks to the courage of my mom, to the support of my brother, and even from my great dad who has always helped people and taught me the value of solidarity. Even the Christian faith has helped me many times when I’m sad and feel down, because I very much miss my dad as he used to be.
It’s nice to think that we aren’t the only ones taking care of our family, but also the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven. We can pray for everything, healing and holiness, knowing that God’s will is the best shortcut to our happiness and that of the people we love.