My first contact with Fr. Andrea Balbo and another Franciscan friar from the Friars Minor, was on the steps of St. John Lateran’s Archbasilica in Rome, Italy (1953). It was a encounter,including an invitation to the Focolare Movement‘s summer gathering in the Dolomite Mountains. I don’t recall how long he was able to stay up in the mountains, but he returned to Rome with many of us on the same train. Chiara Lubich was sitting with him in his train compartment and she gave him the name Father “Novo” (New).
Then I remember, in 1954, his words were rather crucial for Chiara at Fr. Pasquale Foresi’s ordination, when Chiara was undergoing both spiritual and physical trials.
Later on the superiors of his Order sent him to the Holy Land and it was precisely through the love of Fr. Novo that Chiara went there in 1956. We were a small travelling party: Bishop Pavel Hnilica (Fr Maria), Fr Angelo Bghetto (Nazareno), Fr Pasquale Foresi, Guido Mirti (Cengia), Aletta and I. In those days, the Holy Land was largely in Palestinian territory. With great competence, Fr. Novo toured around the sites associated with the life of Jesus: Jerusalem, Bethany, Bethlehem, Emmaus, Jericho, the Dead Sea…
A week later as we were leaving for Beirut, seeing tears in his eyes, Chiara turned to me and asked: “Would you like to stay a while longer?” And so I stayed behind in the Holy Land for another few months, sharing the Ideal with the Franciscan Fathers and people they knew.
During those years in which the Movement was under investigation by the Church, Bishop Gawlina, Fr Maria, Fr Nazereno and Fr Novo began the Mystici Corporis League to be an umbrella under which the Movement was able to carry out its activities.
There were a few hard years especially for our priests and consecrated men religious. I recall how after the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Novo worked as an archivist with Cardinal Konig for thirteen years at the Secretariat for the non-believers, which had just been erected by Paul VI (and is now called the Pontifical Council for Culture).
In 1962 there was a first approval by the Holy See. But only after a private conversation between Chiara and Paul VI and later John Paul II was the Work of Mary able to express her true physiognomy. In 1990 Chiara declared that the Work of Mary was accomplished and that “Mary” contains all the vocations.
It is a charism of unity which is all Gospel, one which even people who follow different charisms, both ancient and new, are also able to share. The Work of Mary is to be “alter Maria” (other Mary) who brings Jesus to light and, in Him, all His features that the saints have highlighted through the centuries. It brings out the diverse beauty of the Church which is the Body of Christ.
Over time the other branches of the Movement were born: the men and women focolarini, the men and women volunteers, the priests and religious – each of them attached to the Work of Mary in their own way, but all of them carriers of the same charism of unity.
In 1980 Fr Novo was given permission by his superiors to dedicate himself to the consecrated religious members of the Movement. Then he was able to be much more involved in the practical developments: starting a school of formation in the charism of unity for men religious at the permanent Mariapolis of Loppiano; promoting summer gatherings; and creating local secretariats in zones that had consecrated men religious who belonged to the Movement in different parts of the world.
He was a great friend of Fr Silvano Cola who was responsible for the diocesan priests of the Focolare Movement.
When the Abba School started with Bishop Klaus Hemmerle, Chiara invited the religious to be part of it, bringing with them the richness of their own charisms. They included Fr Jesus Castellano OCD, Fr Fabio Ciardi OMI and, first among all, Fr Novo OFM.
Fr Novo remained at the Focolare’s Centre for Consecrated Religious Men, faithful to the ideal of unity, for as long as his health lasted. He had a personal relationship with Chiara also as her confessor. In the difficult moments and in the long trials, he was there for her with exceptional availability. It was he who administered the Sacrament of the Sick to Chiara at Gemelli Hospital in Rome.
Now we imagine him in Heaven being embraced not only by the Trinity, but also by Mary, since he helped to build her Work. Now he is with Chiara, Foco, Fr Maria, Fr Nazareno, Fr Massimei, Fr Svastano, Fr Cik and Fr Leonardi who were all members of the first centre for consecrated men religious. Then there were so many focolarini and focolarine who benefited from his counsel, and so many others.
Let us t thank Fr Novo for his faithfulness to the Work of Mary. Just recently he wanted to return to the Centre of the Movement and now he’s buried here in Rocca di Papa, in the common tomb of many first focolarini and focolarine. And on this common tomb are engraved the words: “We have believed in Love”.