Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini and Don Damiano with him until the end: 'So his soul flew away from me'

A request to which he could not say no: 'Would you feel like accompanying me until I died?'. And so for three years Don Damiano, a provincial priest, shared his fragility and thoughts with one of the greatest minds of the Church. Including the last smile, on a day of pouring rain

  carlo-maria-martini-damiano-modena Carlo Maria Martini (1927-2012) with Don Damiano Modena (on the right), now 53 years old Photo Video

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini asked him: «Would you feel like accompanying me until I die?». Don Damiano Modena replied: «Father, if you think I can be the right person, yes, even beyond!». It was July 2009. The priest willing to give his life for the cardinal was then just 40 years old. It was the last day of vacation in the hamlet of Chiesa di Formazza, in the homonymous valley on the border between Piedmont and Switzerland – Photo | video

The funeral of Carlo Maria Martini: the embrace of all his Milan The funeral of Carlo Maria Martini: the embrace of all his Milan

«At 21 we returned from the walk after dinner. Your Eminence had taken advantage of it for a few phone calls to family and friends. I held his hand, fearing that he would fall. Parkinson's disease had manifested itself in the last five years as archbishop of Milan. At his question I stopped petrified. But don't be surprised: a Jesuit begins to think about death from the age of 14'. Ten years have passed since Cardinal Martini left. In the previous 35 months, from 28 September 2009 to 31 August 2012, he always had this priest by his side who from Bussolengo, in the Verona area, went to be parish priest 60 kilometers further down from Eboli, the town where Christ stopped. Don Modena arrived in Laurino, in the province of Salerno, in 1994, as soon as he was ordained. After the extraordinary human and spiritual adventure that happened to him, he has been in Ogliastro Cilento since 2016. He who could have become Pope in Benedict XVI's place presented him to everyone like this, affectionately: 'This is Don Damiano, our clown.' Because the young priest didn't limit himself to being his secretary, chauffeur, carer who lifted him out of bed in the morning and helped him to bed in the evening, butler who assisted him during the shower and dressed him, nurse who positioned his 'Urocontrol, an external catheter applied to those who are no longer able to stand up. No, he was also the entertainer who convinced the giant of thought to accept the TV in his room, who watched Heidi cartoons with him and even Batman, who made him laugh to the last. In return he had a legacy to keep in his heart. And the blue linen shirt, too large, that he wears today: 'His father wore it in the summer in Val Formazza'.

Wasn't it a gamble to agree to stand by him? That's what I thought the night after I swore to stay with him even beyond death if necessary. I felt inadequate. The next morning I confided to him: father, a Bible scholar cannot find comfort in a little priest who only knows about moral theology, after a while he will get tired of talking to me about things I don't understand, I will never be an incentive for him. Answer: 'Don't worry. I deal with my stimuli. Just help me.'

But what was special about Don Damiano? I never dared ask him. Many others asked him. And the cardinal always gave the same answer: 'I chose him out of a thousand!''.

How did you come to know Cardinal Martini? “I am a former child who has always had the sensation of being loved by God. At the age of 7 they already called me crazy because I went to mass at 6 in the morning. There were only the parish priest and four old ladies. After graduating as a dental technician, I entered the seminary in Alexandria. Then I went to attend the Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, in Naples. It was the principal of the time, Bruno Forte, now the archbishop of Chieti-Vasto, who took me to Martini. They were friends, they called each other '.

When did you first meet him? “In 2003, in the Jesuit house in Ariccia. I went with Forte to present him the thesis I had dedicated to him. In preparation, I had read 130 books about him, but by then more than 800 had been published.'

Three are his, the last is The Silence of the Word. Today there are over 1,200. I was so moved that, in kissing his ring, I fell to my knees. 'What are you doing? Stay up! We are friends,' he told me. He leafed through the thesis. 'I see things about myself that I don't like,' he commented. I was holding my breath. He searched the index for topics of interest to him, read the relevant pages. 'My thoughts on justice are missing. Add it. I care about it'. He concluded: 'I am not worthy of such a great job'. It was 350 pages”.

Did she make the additions he recommended? “Yes, and the following year I graduated with 110 cum laude, even though after his death I thought: it's all straw, this thesis is useless, I'll burn it. The father had written It is not justice. Who judges who judges? How much should those who make mistakes be helped? He had a biblical idea of ​​law: God forgets the sin and saves the sinner. In dismissing me he asked: 'Have you ever been to Jerusalem?'. No, I replied. 'Bad. Every Christian must go there on pilgrimage at least once in their life. Come and see me for Easter'”.

Having left the leadership of the diocese of Milan at the age of 75, Martini had moved to the Holy City. “He returned to Italy every three months and immediately left for Palestine again. I visited him three times at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. He acted as my interpreter. He spoke several languages: Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese… 'About a dozen', he minimized himself. Well, humility was his hallmark. I reciprocated as a bricklayer”.

Mason? The environment was very old. The uneven tiles of his bedroom moved. Big trouble for a Parkinsonian: he risks tripping. So I started to paint the tiles. For a dental technician experienced in amalgam and dental plaster impressions it was not difficult. I also put the anti-fall grab bars in the bathroom for him”.

In the end he wanted her next to him in Gallarate, at the Aloisianum of the Society of Jesus. “The first three months were terrible. I had to assist him only when he woke up and went to bed. For the rest, I was shut up all day in a 5 square meter room, with my ear pricked up. Only company, cigarettes. Even today I smoke almost a pack of Philip Morris super lights a day. I complained to him: you know, father, as a child I was very good, in the seminary I learned many bad things, as a priest I was ruined, but the worst phase of my life is here with you. 'You wouldn't think so', she heartened me, and she let loose. It was good to see him laugh. Then he added, serious: 'Hold on, I'll need you' ”.

The prophecy soon came true, unfortunately. At Easter 2010, after an intestinal obstruction that lasted for days, he lost his voice. The man of the Word became dumb. It was a personal tragedy. I thought he would die soon. Instead he stayed with us for more than two years. I learned to interpret their lip language. He began the speech therapy exercises, which exhausted him: 'Aaa, caaasa, ooo, cooosa...'. One day he exploded: 'You have to commit yourself! You have to help me!' But he with his eyes asked: 'Why am I still here, if I can't speak?' '.

Was he in a lot of pain? Parkinson's is treated with dopamine. Proteins contrast it, so the doctors forced him to follow a strict diet: no meat, no cheese, no eggs. Only pasta with tomato sauce. A penance for a man who ate very little, but he loved steak. Once a week he was allowed an exception to the rule. He kept the numbers of all the restaurants in Gallarate and the surrounding area close to the phone ”.

He will have seen her as a jailer. Only once did he get angry with me. It was when the neurologist Gianni Pezzoli, a luminary in the treatment of Parkinson's, took his dopamine away. Obligatory choice to avoid an overdose. He went into withdrawal symptoms. He grabbed me by the collar: 'It's you, it's you who doesn't give me the medicine!'. I went to get the boxes of Madopar: here you go, father, he takes as many capsules as he wants. He looked down and apologised.'

It must have been humiliating for the cardinal to show himself in all his fragility. No, because I tried to look like him. The disease caused him to lose his grip on objects. A glass slipped from his hand, it was a drama for him. In turn, I dropped another on the ground, which shattered to pieces. 'But you're crazy!' he exclaimed. Was he tripping? I pretended to trip too.”

A prince of the Church laid bare. It's hard. At first the embarrassment was only mine. I looked away as I helped him shower and put his underwear on. In the morning at 6 I found him awake. After the first dopamine pill, he listened to Mozart at full volume or with headphones, it gave him energy. He followed the rhythm with his hand. To get him out of his chair, I had devised a technique that amazed Professor Ignazio Marino. The former mayor of Rome came to visit him. Although he is a surgeon specializing in liver transplants, in no hospital had he ever seen a nurse who places his knees against those of the patient and lifts him ”.

Was Cardinal Martini your confessor? “It seemed excessive to burden him even with the weight of my sins. He only confessed to me twice.'

What sin was he inclined to unforgive? No one, because he didn't judge'.

And which one did you consider more venial than mortal? “To him they were all venial, I think. But Father Silvano Fausti, the Jesuit who came to confess him every month, could express himself better on this. Jesus himself says in the Gospel that only the sin against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven forever. And this sin is the conscious refusal of forgiveness”.

Can you tell me how the end came? On Monday we photographed him smiling, standing up. By Friday he was already dead. He was afraid of suffocating, as Parkinsonians do. Or falling to the floor, breaking her femur and wasting herself in bed. And I: but father, don't you remember how the Scripture of the Nazarene on Golgotha ​​speaks? 'No bone will be broken.' In fact, he never broke. On Thursday he stopped eating. He sighed: 'I can't take it anymore. Let me sleep.'”

As he fell asleep, what did you say to each other? I leaned my forehead on his and whispered to him: Father, can you pass me some of your files? I immediately pushed her away: I'm sorry, father, but nothing has entered, my head is too small. He shook his head as if to say: 'You're the usual imbecile'. I had snatched the last smile from him'.

What else do you remember about August 31, 2012? The dark clouds, the pouring rain. And a very strong wind howling through the cracks in the windows.”

«God comes with the wind», as a child he taught Enzo Biagi. It's a very true statement. I did not know her'.

Was Martini based his hope in the resurrection on faith or on reasoning? On Reasoned Scripture. Six months before his death he said to us, while he was celebrating mass: 'Even if I didn't find anything in the afterlife, I would be equally happy to have been here with you''.

Do you visit him sometimes? “I return to Milan on purpose to stop at his tomb in the Cathedral, at the foot of the crucifix that Saint Charles Borromeo carried in procession against the plague in 1576. I would like to talk to him about many things. But I find myself with an empty head. So I just tell him: thank you”.

Have you ever dreamed about it? Twice. We were in a retirement home, from which, however, they kicked me out to entrust him to the care of others. The father looked at me, sad in the face, and sighed: 'Forget it'. I think it's a product of my subconscious, the perception of not being able to do everything as well as I would have liked'.