He wanted to be Christ’s “undercover agent”. A kind of fifth column in the midst of all normal occupations, interests and hobbies of the Italian teenagers. Indeed, Matteo Farina was a very normal boyin most ways, and yet an extraordinary in one; a kid who liked sports, music, friends and his girlfriend, but who loved, above all, Jesus Christ.
Matteo was born in southern Italy in 1990; he had a loving family, and had a very special bond with his elder sister, Erika. He was educated in the Christian faith by his parents, Miky and Paola, and by the Capuchin friars of their parish church; they also encouraged his devotion to St Pio of Pietrelcina, the Capuchin friar who had lived just a few kilometers from Matteo’s place.
As a child, Matteo was a serene, sociable and intelligent boy, and many of his friends describe him as “sweetness embodied”. While in primary school, he was fascinated by the new subjects he was discovering, by the music he liked to play, and by the adventure of faith. Matteo gradually discovered the fascination of transcendence, and once wrote in his journal: “I hope to realise my mission of ‘undercover agent’ among the young, speaking to them of God (being enlightened by Himself)”; he wanted to “infect” his friends with the “disease of Love”.
He liked to study Scripture (as a 9-year-old he read the entire Gospel of Matthew during Lent), and to pray the Rosary. He nourished his faith with daily prayer and a regular schedule of piety and devotion.
At the age of thirteen, however, Matteo was diagnosed with a brain cancer. He underwent a first operation in Hannover, Germany, after many journeys to several Italian hospitals. He started writing his journal, where he noted:
“I hope to succeed in giving joy and strength to those in need”. It may seem incredible, but he also wrote that his illness was, for him, “one of those adventures which change both your life and the others’. It helps you to be stronger and to grow, particularly in faith. […] This is the journal of a thirteen-years old boy in an amazing experience. […] This is the beautiful aspect of this adventure: it seems like a dream, but it’s true”.
(I must admit that translating these sentences into English is a very humbling experience for an adult who is very far from achieving a faith comparable to Matteo’s.)
Back home, Matteo resumed his studies at school and his hobbies, without forgetting the poor: he had a special moneybox for the missions in Mozambique and he convinced his family to renounce Christmas presents in favour of the needy.
Unfortunately, his illness struck again and again; he had to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy, frequently at hospitals very far from his home. In spite of this, he continued his studies and was particularly interested in chemistry, not least because the structure of matter looked, in his eyes, like a fascinating proof of God’s loving and creative power.
He was loved and admired by his friends, though occasionally mocked for his faith; he didn’t care about this, but wished to work more effectively in his quality of “secret agent” for God. At 15 he wrote: “I’d like to integrate better with my peers, but without being forced to mimic their errors. I’d like to participate more deeply in their groups, but without having to renounce my Christian principles. It’s hard. Hard but not impossible”.
He did his best, however, to be a boy like all others as far as this did not conflict with his faith; for example, he was the acclaimed singer of a rock band, the “No Name”. He sometimes dreamed of his future; he considered becoming a priest, but was worried that his precarious health might prevent that. At seventeen, he met Serena, his girlfriend and “the most beautiful gift I could receive from the Lord”. He started to meditate on the mystery of human love as mirroring the love of God. His love for Serena was symbolized by the image of walking hand in hand: this was the icon of conjugality, for him, and of a love which became companionship, communion and sharing.
But his illness was ready to strike once more, and in 2009 he underwent his third operation, which left him partially paralysed. He understood that his life might be short, and he wrote: “We must live every day as if it were the last, but not in the sadness of death, rather in the joy of being ready for our encounter with the Lord”. And that encounter arrived, for him, in the spring of 2009.
Matteo is possibly the first “servant of God 2.0”: the canonical cause for his beatification, which has reached an important step this month, has been fostered by word of mouth, on social media and the web. Here, one can find many excerpts from his writings, which testify to the simplicity and strength of his faith. A faith which Matteo himself described thus:
“Faith does not mean to expect a grace from God. No! Faith is holding on to God to spread His Word. It’s praying, in order to be nourished by his food, the one which will forever help us; it’s being committed to follow God’s plans in the best possible fashion; it’s bending the head down without lifting it up in pride; it’s doing good in silence and reflecting on the evil we’ve done”.
But one should not think that everything was easy for Matteo. He had his moments of anguish, particularly in the face of illness and suffering. He wrotes:
“One day you play with your friends, you laugh and are happy. Then, suddenly, she comes: illness, pain. Without realizing it, you’re plunged into a world which seems not your own. It seems impossible, like a thing happening only in movies. Then you come back: The Lord is great, what happiness! You believe you’re healed, but after a little while you’re suffering again. You can’t believe it. You believe everything is falling on you. Unexpectedly, in an afternoon you’d have thought a common one, an afternoon you’d have wasted as usual in letting yourself be saddened, you meet a humble priest, simple but wise. Under his guidance you embrace with God once more; you find joy and hope again. You get back home, among friends and family, and everything goes splendidly, better and better. Doctors can’t explain your getting better, but you can, and you laugh… You would like to cry to the world that you would do anything for your Saviour, that you are ready to suffer to save souls, to die for him. You’ll have the possibility to show Him your love”.
And when the pain was simply too much, Matteo wondered where could God be.
“Has God deserted you? No. In silence, He’s always at your side, He wipes away your tears and holds you in His arms, until you’ll be strong enough to walk for yourself, holding His hands in yours vigorously. Fatigue. Curl up humbly in His arms and you’ll be sheltered there until good weather will come again. You’ll shine again, then, in His love, giving a caress, a smile, your small contribution to help those who, like you, are in need or tired; bring them to God. They’ll resurrect in turn, with our Lord, to a life of love”.
And we can believe, indeed, that this life of love is what Matteo did find.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.