Father Andrea Balbo (Fr Novo) from the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, has been called a real giant. He is remembered for many things. He helped to give birth to the Branch of the Religious in the Focolare Movement; he was their secure guide, and had the special task of accompanying Chiara Lubich as her confessor up until her last moment. “Let us pray for him with the certainty that from Heaven he continues to watch over us who are still in the tension to holiness,” wrote Maria Voce in the telegram in which she notified the members of the Focolare of his death. We publish some brief information about his life.
Fr. Novo was one of the first religious to meet the charism of unity and for many years was responsible for the Branch and of the Movement of Men Religious in the Focolare.
He was born in the province of Vicenza, Italy, the second of five brothers. At the age of 13 he entered the seminary of the Friars Minor. Studying became his ideal in life, as he himself puts it: “I was in love with philosophy and science and I was so passionate about the new technology that had been developed due to the war.” After studying theology in the Holy Land, he spent two years at the Anatomy Institute of Naples, and another four years studying chemistry, physics and astronomy at the Sorbonne in Paris. He had been the first friar to place foot inside that university since after the French Revolution.
In the summer of 1953 he was invited to attend a meeting in the Dolomite Mountains, Trent, Italy. He was pleased about going, because it would provide him with an opportunity to do some geological research. And he arrived at the place with all of his geological equipment in tow. But he never found the time to do any such research. The meeting turned out to be a Mariapolis, the summer gathering of the Focolare Movement. He recounts: “The whole world that I had built up inside of me began to be demolished, gradually giving way to a new vision of things. A new catalyst permeated my soul at the Mariapolis: God, the presence of Jesus in our midst. A entirely new order began to be created in me, even in my way of thinking.”
His encounter with Chiara Lubich was a defining moment for him at the conclusion of the Mariapolis, during a trip around Rome by train where she suggested a new name for him: Father “Novo” (meaning ‘new’), together with a sentence from the Gospel: “If you are not born anew, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven (see Jn. 3:7).” “From then on my relationship with Chiara remained uninterrupted. I had the grace of having her always near to me in my life and of being near her in all types of situations, even in the most sorrowful ones.”
In 1954 his superiors sent him to Bethlehem, to teach high school Science in the Holy Land. It was a period of great darkness for him. One day as he celebrated Mass at the Manger, a thought suddenly flashed through his mind: “Chiara has always spoken to me about Jesus forsaken. Isn’t what I’m going through an aspect of Jesus forsaken?” He immediately wrote to Chiara and she responded in a letter of 16 October 1954: “. . . this is the first time that I feel the same accent in another soul that is the same as what accents my soul. Truly – today I’m certain of it – Father Novo is truly Father “Novo”. He’s been renewed, cleansed in the cleansing of the Cross, which for us is Jesus forsaken. And I was so happy, that you can’t even imagine. Now all that matters is to stay faithful to him until death. I’m so happy! Now, Father, who knows what Jesus will do to bring fruits to your soul! Now, you’re united to us more than ever, with me in particular…”.
The following year Chiara went to visit him in the Holy Land, and shortly afterwards he was called back to Rome where he continued his ‘adventure” near to her. In 1980 having been given permission by his superiors to dedicated himself full-time to the Movement, he began a permanent centre for men Religious who belong to the Movement. He also launched summer courses for men Religious, which are still held in Loppiano. Above all he was a secure guide for all the Religious who felt called to live their own charisms in in the light of unity.
The most precious task that Father Novo carried out was that of being constantly at Chiara’s side as her confessor ever since his return from the Holy Land in 1955, and during the more difficult moments such as her illness and the nights of the soul. He was a faithful and discreet presence, a person who succeeded in fulfilling the charge given to him by Chiara, to stay faithful to Jesus forsaken until death.
Following Chiara’s departure for Heaven, Father Novo’s health began to deteriorate more and more. He was admitted to a Franciscan nursing home near Padua, where he was lovingly looked after by the members of the community there, beginning with his superior, Father Camillo. It would be impossible to speak of Father Novo’s life, his deep union with God and all that he did for the Church and for the Focolare Movement in particular. More will be said in the future.
His funeral was held on 2 August 2012 at the international headquarters of the Focolare Movement in Rocca di Papa. He now rests in the local cemetery alongside Chiara’s first companions.
A video greeting from Father Novo to the men at their meeting of February 2009.