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Academic found God in history

Stefano Girola

New book: Dr Stefano Girola with some of the work he has published including his latest book Report of Rosendo Salvado to Propaganda Fide in 1883.

CRITICAL thinking, knowledge and an inquisitive nature have all been apart of  Stefano Girola’s faith journey.

The Brisbane-based academic, after years away from the Church in his youth, wants to one day translate and see published all the Italian works of Spanish Benedictine priest Fr Rosendo Salvado.

Dr Girola, an honorary fellow with the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University and a lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland recently launched his fifth book – Report of Rosendo Salvado to Propaganda Fide in 1883. 

Fr Salvado’s report on the New Norcia community among the Noongar people of Western Australia was of particular interest to the Christian historian who had been fascinated with and researching the relationship between the Church and indigenous people since his days as a university honours student in Milan.

Stefano was born in Milan in the late 1960s to a deeply Catholic mother and “an agnostic” father.

“My mum comes from Veneto, in North Eastern Italy. Veneto is probably one of the strongest Catholic regions of Italy where Catholicism has been part of the daily life of most people for a long time,” he said.

“My father came from a very different background. His father was a socialist bricklayer who had a little bit of trouble during the Mussolini period. 

“Since I was a child, I’ve had these opposite influences religious wise.”

Stefano said his father never objected to his Catholic upbringing, and his mother’s influence was strongest during his childhood and early teens. 

“In my late teenager and university years instead I went through a radical change so I began to totally question religion and I would have called myself an atheist in those times,” he said.

Stefano, who is a member of the Brisbane Catholic Historical Society, said although he had certain ideas and was influenced by the philosophers he was reading at the time, questioning of the Church didn’t stop him majoring in History of Christianity. 

“I chose to do my honours thesis on a 20th Century priest Fr Ernesto Balducci from Florence who was one of the most important figures in the peace movement in Italy,” he said.

He said Fr Balducci was a theologian, an author and well-known in Italy.

“He was the sort of priest who when he preached a homily, even people who did not profess any attachment to religion would just go and listen to because the way he approached religion was inclusivity first of all and also of course with a strong focus on social justice and peace,” he said.

An inclusive Church was important to Dr Girola.

“Because (if it wasn’t inclusive) I would exclude part of myself, my father, my grandfather many of the people I highly respect and (who) have contributed to who I am,” he said.

“Fr Balducci inspired me to be interested in what happens when two vastly different cultures meet like Europeans and the Mayans or Aztecs.

“Through deepening my understanding of his (Balducci’s) sort of Christianity of the 20th Century, I especially got interested in the relationship between Christianity and Catholicism and non-European cultures.”

It was during this time that Stefano was to meet his future wife and he eventually followed her back to Australia.

“While I was in Florence doing my research for my thesis on Balducci I met an Australian girl in 1994,” he said.

He said the couple were friends, but he had fallen in love and she was about to embark on a long trip to Africa.

Owing to life events the couple lost touch, but Stefano said he kept remembering her and eventually wrote a letter to an Ingham address she had given him.

He suggested travelling to Australia for a visit.

“I visited for the first time in 1997 and I came when the Stolen Generation report, Bringing them Home, was first published,” he said.

“Teaching history in Italy I knew some things, but our history is more Eurocentric, so I knew things but I knew very little of Australian history and so I began to want to know what is this story, the Stolen Generation.”

Stefano said in the context of his previous research he became interested in the issue.

He said after several years of commuting between Italy and Australia the couple realised if they were to stay together one would have to move.

At that stage Stefano was a high school teacher in Italy, but his future wife Leanne was a speech pathologist, and it was decided he would be the one to move.

“In terms of opportunities and work it was better for me to move here,” he said.

Stefano had also always wanted to do his doctorate and applied to the University of Queensland in 1999 with a research project aimed at investigating the policies and attitudes of the Catholic Church with regard to indigenous Australians. 

His project was successful and he moved to Australia in 2000.

After the move to Australia, Stefano began to re-establish his childhood relationship with the Church.

“I think that moving to Australia and away from my family and friends and my background it obviously has brought me also to a re-alignment of my ideas, my values, my spirituality,” he said.

“The more I learnt about the Church, the more I could understand how some of my previous attitudes were too drastic. 

“I began to see that issues were much more complex and I also began to go back again slowly, to come closer to the Church again.”

The couple were married in 2003 and have two children aged seven and nine.

“I’ve lost that negative attitude I had and I am bringing up my children in the Catholic faith,” Stefano said.

He said his previous self was rational.

“I still consider myself a person in a spiritual journey searching and sometimes questioning like many people,” he said.

“Sometimes you feel – has God abandoned us – so I haven’t gone from a sort of atheism to blind acceptance.

“I still am that critical person in a sense of always using my understanding and rationality for deepen understanding even when I look at Church history, but at the same time I felt that I’ve come home; I feel that something that was missing has now been restored.”

Finishing his doctorate, Stefano took his family back to Italy for a year before returning to Australia to work.

During his doctoral research he had come across comments regarding Fr Rosendo Salvado’s Italian writings, “As I was doing my PhD, I came across Salvado and New Norcia.

“I had that curiosity and noticed there was no bibliographical reference for those Italian writings by Rosendo Salvado that were mentioned in a book. I knew that if they were published they would have a reference, so when I finished my PhD I wanted to find out more.”

Stefano contacted the abbot of New Norcia of the time, Abbot Placid Spearritt and told him he suspected there were documents in Italian that would be interesting to translate and publish.

This was also a dream of Abbot Placid Spearritt and, after his death, the New Norcia community implemented the Abbot Placid Spearritt Memorial Scholarship. 

Stefano was a recipient of the scholarship in 2012 and his translation of the Report of Rosendo Salvado to Propaganda Fide in 1883 has just been published.

Stefano has embraced Abbot Placid Spearritt’s dream and hopes to eventually see all of Fr Salvado’s reports translated into English and published for the wider community.

“I’m already working on the last report he wrote with backing from the Western Australian History Foundation and it will be published next year,” he said.

He said New Norcia had a unique role in Australian and Catholic history.

“New Norcia is still existing even though it has now become a monastic village (and) it is the only institution that was established by the Catholic Church for missionary purposes with the Aborigines in Australia in the 19th Century that has continued,” he said.

By Robin Williams

Written by: The Catholic Leader

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