In May 2018, Father Francesco Mary Gavazzi was ordained a priest with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The ordination marked a 12-year journey for the Australian native that began in 2006 at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Fr Gavazzi spoke with The Catholic Leader from his new home at St Fidelis Friary in London about his vocation as a Franciscan of the Renewal, seeking Christ, and why God’s love is so great.
What was your involvement in the Catholic Church growing up?
I was baptised and raised Catholic. My two brothers, three sisters and I went to Catholic schools. But growing up in Sydney, we didn’t have much involvement in the Church apart from going to Mass on Sunday. Life was pretty good and secure and I suppose we thought we had all we needed.
Things changed when I was 17. Mum was diagnosed with cancer after my sister Emma, who has Down syndrome, was born. With Mum’s illness, we started to pray together as a family. That was when I got more involved in the Church.
My twin brother and I began to serve at Mass. When I prayed and served at the altar I had this growing awareness that God was close and that He was leading me somewhere.
Still I had no attraction to any of the parish activities so I never really got involved in parish life. Instead, my dad, twin brother and I got connected with a homeless shelter for men in the inner city. We’d go down every Monday night and sometimes we’d stay there overnight. Having travelled to Indonesia as a family as kids, I’d been exposed to poverty, but this was the first really close encounter with the suffering poor.
Looking back, my dad’s witness was an inspiration because he’d stay overnight with us and the guys at the shelter, even though he had a full day of work the next day. This was a big deal because the shelter was just a big hall and all of us would camp out on the floor. Almost all the men were struggling with addiction or mental illness, so sleep could be hard to come by. Yet Dad was always faithful to it and joyful even after a rough night. Even more than that, he got to know the guys by name, and has stayed in contact with some of them over the years.
What made you decide to go to America and become a priest?
I think the answer to that is simply that I was led to this specific community – the CFRs – who happen to be founded and based in New York. A priest once told me that God calls a person not so much to marriage in general, but to be married to this or that specific person. I think the same is true of religious life. When God calls a person to consecrated life, He (usually) also has a specific community in mind where a person can live out concretely his or her vocation. It’s the idea that every vocation has to “take flesh” in a specific context. For me, this has been the CFRs.
Our community is based in New York and that is where the formation happens. So no matter what part of the world you come from, New York is where you go first. We have guys from all over the world – Ireland, England, Nigeria, Canada, Guatemala, Poland, Germany, France etc.
During my years at uni, I loved to travel, but never had a desire even to visit America, let alone live there. But when I was in Germany for World Youth Day in 2005, I ran into this group of friars outside a church. They were standing outside a black van with tinted windows that said “Bronx Brothers” on the side of it, with guitars and music equipment all around them. I’ll never forget the way one of them walked into the church with a guitar in either hand and got down on both knees in front of the tabernacle. To me, that image captures what attracted me to this community. I also remember one of the friars sharing his story and explaining how when he was younger he had been blocking out God’s voice like someone putting on a pair of ear muffs. I knew I was meant to hear it because that’s what I had been doing since I first experienced the initial call. After the trip to Germany for World Youth Day and that encounter with the friars, I was pretty sure that if I ever said “Yes” to this vocation, it would be with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. In 2006, I left Sydney for New York City. More than anything, more than knowing where it all would lead, as I got on the plane, I just wanted to follow and live for God alone – even if it meant leaving Australia, as hard it was at the time.
Why did you choose the friars?
I met a couple of religious communities in Sydney and was familiar with the diocesan priesthood, growing up in the parish. Still I never felt drawn to those communities or to the diocesan priesthood. That’s why the encounter with the friars in Germany was really significant. For the first time I saw the possibility of responding to God’s call. It became real for me. It even became attractive.
Why the friars? I think what happened to me was something similar to what happened to Andrew and Peter and the other disciples – even before they knew who Jesus really was, they simply ran into Someone who was human and yet had something more, something exceptional. Before they knew He was the Christ, the Son of God, they simply wanted to be with Him, to hang out with Him. Because they’d never met anyone like Him. It was something like this when I met the friars. Even more than the things you look for in a community – a love for Jesus in the Eucharist, the Church, Our Lady, prayer, being close to those who suffer, etc. – in the end it was where I felt myself being led. This definitely meant letting go of my plans and allowing my life to become part of God’s plan. But, with the friars, it became something that I desired to do too, as though my will and God’s will were starting to align.
What are you doing in London now you’re settled?
I arrived in July in the midst of a beautiful and warm London summer. Despite the warm weather, we still had about 50 people coming to our soup kitchen (here in East London) during the day for food, clothing, a shower or just some company. As it has gotten colder, the demand for those basic things has increased. Thankfully, we are blessed with many friends who help us run the soup kitchen, both serving and providing for the material needs. We’re now preparing for our annual Christmas party for our guests. Beyond this, outside our local area, we receive lots of requests for retreats, parish missions, talks, Masses and confessions and we’ve been responding to these as much as we can. One of the brothers and I are actually going to Poland for a retreat with about 400 youth after Christmas. Then there is a monthly “discipleship day” that we host here at the friary for those seeking to go deeper in following Jesus. We also have an event called the “Catholic Underground” every second month at the local parish which includes Eucharistic adoration, music and fellowship. Of course, with all this apostolic activity, what keeps us rooted and grounded is our life of prayer, especially daily Mass and holy hour.Actually, the daily holy hour is something Mother Teresa personally encouraged our founders to do as they were beginning the community back in 1987. As a priest, putting the Eucharist and the Gospel at the heart of my life is still the most important thing because this is the source of our life as Christians and the heart of all mission. Any true renewal we hope to see in London, in New York, in Sydney, in Brisbane, will flow from this.
What led you to deepen your faith with the Lord?
There is a line in one of the psalms that says “taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8). When I experienced that this is really true, and as I have grown in certainty that this is true, I would say that at some point I arrived at the point Peter reached in John’s Gospel. Many are leaving Jesus because they don’t understand what he is saying, and he asks those around him if they want to go as well, and Peter basically says (if you’ll let me paraphrase St Peter), “Lord, who else will we go to? You are the only One who makes life truly complete (only you have the words of eternal life)” (John 6:68). As a Franciscan priest, the opportunity is ever-present to allow God to be Who He is every day. That might sound odd – that we could allow God to be Himself – maybe it’s better to say that we can allow God to be Himself for us. Mother Teresa used to say “give God permission”.
When we say Yes to God’s will for our life, even His will for this moment, we give Him permission to provide, guide and bring new life – His life – to the most ordinary circumstances. My vocation as a Franciscan and priest is the particular way I have been called to live the primary vocation of every Christian – to follow Christ wherever He leads. This is the great adventure and it calls every Christian to act with great courage, fidelity to truth, charity and perseverance.
Why should we seek Christ?
When we discover that Christ has first sought us, that he is the One who has come to us, something that man could never have foreseen or imagined – that God Himself would become so close to us as to become human – not because we were worthy but precisely because we weren’t and yet still he gives Himself. When this fact pierces our heart, when it becomes a reality that is experienced (not only an idea) – we are moved to seek Him.
Moved by the God who is moved toward us. When I discover that there is Someone who is moved towards me, desires to be with me and to lift me up from my waywardness and sinfulness to share in a new kind of existence – this is a wonder that evokes a response in me – and a desire to spend my life in the presence of this Person.
I think every Christian must arrive at that point where we can say with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In Christ, truth and love coincide.
Why is God’s love so great?
“God is love” (1 John 8). One of my favourite descriptions of love is to prefer the destiny of the other even at the cost of one’s own life. This is the love of God in Christ. This is what we see when we look at the crucified Christ, what we put before our eyes on Good Friday, what is made present at every Mass – a love that goes “to the end” (John 13:1) for you and I. The Lord says through the prophet Jeremiah “I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have drawn you with unfailing kindness”. (Jeremiah 31:3) The saints let this truth transform them.
Their lives were a response to it. One of the best books I’ve read on St Francis is called Love’s Reply. That’s it. Francis’ life was a response – his poverty, preaching, love for lepers, fasting, prayer, his vision of creation etc. – all of it was a response to the love of God that he had encountered. He couldn’t find adequate words to describe the love of God in Christ. Of the Eucharist he said: “O humble sublimity. O sublime humility. That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread.”