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Fr. Cesare in the St. Matthew Province

Fr. Cesare in the St. Matthew Province

By: Rev. John Francis Aberion, RCJ

“To tell our story to the Lord is to enter into his gaze of compassionate love for us and for others. We can recount to him the stories we live, bringing to him the people and the situations that fill our lives. With him we can re-weave the fabric of life, darning its rips and tears. How much we, all of us, need to do exactly this!”

- An Excerpt of the Message of Pope Francis For the 54th World Communications Day, 24 May 2020

To those who knew him, the passing of Fr. Cesare Bettoni, RCJ last May 21 became a moment of re-telling stories about him. To many, he was a father, a friend, a Confrere, a spiritual director, a spiritual warrior, a missionary – and a servant of the Lord. His life touched many people in many special ways, as it may be evident through the tributes given in his honor. They penned how they were reminded of God’s love through Fr. Cesare.

Such may be said of the story of the community of St. Matthew Province, who gained God’s mercy through Fr. Cesare’s courage and zeal to serve Him in the faces of his Confreres.

Fr. Cesare was born in Travagliato, in the province of Brescia, Italy on July 14, 1953. In 1964, he entered the Apostolic School of Desenzano del Garda as a minor seminarian. He was admitted to the Novitiate in Zagarolo (Rome) on Sept. 29, 1969. A year after, he made his first religious profession. On Sept. 29, 1979, he made his perpetual profession in Grottaferrata. The following year, he was ordained a priest on June 21, 1980. He made his perpetual profession in Grottaferrata on September 29, 1979 and the following year he was ordained a priest on June 21, 1980.

In 1985, he was assigned to the Rogationist mission in the Philippines as a formator and spent most of his priestly years there. He worked in the formation of young religious students of the Fr. Di Francia Center of Studies, which was then located at 1 Calcutta St. (now 24 Calcutta St.) in Merville Park, Parañaque City. He was assigned as the Novice Master of the Province from 1995 to 1998. He actively collaborated as a member of the government of the Rogationist Philippine-Indian Delegation from 1986 to 1998.

In the General Chapter of 1998, he was elected General Councilor, a position he held for six years. During this incumbency, he was also the superior of the Rogationist International Center of Studies in Grottaferrata.

In 2005, he returned to the Philippines to resume the task as Master of Novices in Silang, Cavite. With the convening of the XI General Chapter in 2010, which discussed the “Rogationist Rule of Life,” Fr. Cesare was one of those elected to represent the Philippine Quasi-Province and worked on the revision of the Constitutions and Norms.

From 2010 to 2014, he was elected as Provincial Vicar and Councilor on Religious Formation of the Philippine Quasi-Province. During this time, he translated many Rogationist literature from Italian into English, thus making them available to the confreres and those interested. Among the important documents he worked on, was the English edition of the 2010 Constitutions and Norms.

Due to his illness, he returned to Italy in 2016, hoping to regain his health. He was assisted by his family with care. Notwithstanding, his declining condition, he continued to translate voluminous amount of Rogationist literature while staying with the community in Desenzano del Garda.

When he became the formator in the Philippines, as early as 1986, he began calling everybody “makulit” – an expression to every formand, who is a “disciple” striving to follow Jesus in the Rogationist religious life. It was his lighthearted way of saying that one must be “persistent” in following the Lord Jesus Christ crucified.

For the Rogationists, St. Hannibal Mary Di Francia is the model in following Jesus Christ. His understanding of and zeal for the Rogate is the way of life as individuals and as communities. Such may be said of Fr. Cesare, who strived to imitate the Father Founder and the Congregation.

To know the heart of the Founder and the growth of the congregation, one must laboriously pore over the writings of the Founder and study the history of the “small caravan”, that is, the Congregation. Fr. Cesare used to tell the novices, “If one is interested…,” to clearly express his desire that every Rogationist must be ready and work hard to study and make the Father Founder relevant in our time.

St. Hannibal Mary Di Francia said, “We have to bear in mind that our Lord, as a sign that he was the divine messiah, to the miracle of his omnipotence added the miracle of his mercy: ‘The poor are evangelized.’ But evangelizing the poor without helping them is an unfinished work. We must join both; by so doing, we will do a good service pleasing the adorable heart of Jesus, who will reciprocate by giving us copious, divine blessings; therefore, this double charity must never fail" (The Father’s Soul, p. 463).

Fr. Bruno Rampazzo, the Superior General, in his homily given during the Funeral Mass of Fr. Cesare, noted: “He had a particular attention to the poor, those who are most in need, and those who are sick. In the Novitiate house in Silang, Philippines, where he was the Novice Master, he immediately identified the poorest families in the area. He made sure that they had their daily lunch together with the novices. He entertained the poor families, who came just to have, at least, one meal a day. He took care of many of their children and tried to help them in every way. I am aware that here, every year, there was a fund raising in your place to help these poor people who came to Fr. Cesare every day.”

In addition, Fr. Cesare, while giving them the sustenance for the day, tried his best to teach the poor to pray for the perseverance of the young religious students and of the novices. For him, it was a two-fold “win-win” solution: as the poor receive blessings, so, too, they are invited to pray for more vocations and for the perseverance of the candidates to the religious life.

Many who knew Fr. Cesare, especially the Rogationist Fathers and Brothers in the St. Matthew Province, can attest that he was never idle. In the communities of the Province where he was assigned, he would find ways to tinker things as if they are an “unfinished work.” Fr. Ronald Masilang, RCJ, one of the Filipino novices under Fr. Cesare’s care, attests that “he was never idle, always looking for something to do, an artist.” From a simple digging at the garden of the Novitiate to a reflective analysis of the situation of the congregation from one epoch to another, he was a personification of zeal to work.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that wherever he was assigned, there are touches and hints of his contribution to transform and beautify the areas of the community. In his contribution to the growth of the St. Matthew Province, Fr. Cesare already personified and became exemplar to the maxim he gave his Novices, “Work means work!” True to the task of a Novice Master, he fully dedicated himself to the work of forming future Rogationist religious, dedicating his time to inculcate the formation of the Novices. This may only be possible to one who, like Fr. Cesare, is zealous to work for the Rogate.

Fr. Cesare probably had no birthmark in his physique. But he had a “spiritual” one, unique and exuding his character. The Gospel, just as it proclaims joy and hope, is also disturbing. As Fr. Rogie Quinga, RCJ posted in his Facebook account, who seemed to talk directly to Fr. Cesare, “Your presence is disturbing coz [because] your serenity reminds us of our restlessness.” Many novices can also attest that his presence can change the “climate” of a setting towards an opportunity to learn from the demands of the Gospel.

The Superior General, Fr. Bruno Rampazzo, RCJ, made a touching remark on the last four years of Fr. Cesare. “Certainly, the last and most painful challenge that Fr. Cesare faced in his last four years, since 2016, was his illness, which constrained him to live the pain that consumed him. He gave us an example of accepting God’s will by renewing his trust in the Lord of Life every day and every session of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Eventually, as he was exhausted by medicine, he did not make it anymore, and left. He brought nothing with him, except the example that he left for us: love, forgiveness, drying the tears in the faces of others, and his hard-fought acceptance of illness.”

The history of the St. Matthew Province, though it has written witnesses, also thrives on the stories of many people yet to write about Fr. Cesare. Like any other else who has a good share of God’s mercy amidst imperfections and weaknesses, Fr. Cesare edified many through his own humanity.

Fr. Cesare now belongs to the roster of the pioneer Rogationist missionaries, who through their prayers, generosity, and sacrifices, has watered the seed of the Rogationist mission in the Philippines to thrive, grow, and produce new seeds of vocations and fervor in spreading the Rogate. Stories will be written of him, and these will serve as a record in the growth of the St. Matthew Province, and for the generations of Rogationist Fathers and Brothers to come.

As of this moment, from social media posts to touching tributes through other means of social communication, many still continue to write of him, which the St. Matthew Province strived to collect, preserve, and perhaps as an instrument to edify future Rogationist religious and to other people who desire to share in the mission of praying and working for vocations.

Would it not be an exaggeration to say that Fr. Cesare’s life may be akin to what the Fourth Gospel concludes about Jesus: “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25)?

Maybe not.

After all, discipleship is geared towards an “imitation” of Jesus. A disciple is like a child who seeks to acquire what he can so that he could please and imitate his Father. Jesus’ presence continues to be written through the pages of the life-history of his disciples who strived to imitate Him. And He wants that all may reach the “place” where He is now: to be at the Father’s right hand – the core of the message of the Ascension of the Lord.

With all of Fr. Cesare’s struggles that the God knows best, his Confreres in the St. Matthew Province knew quite well that in a special way, he strived his best to follow the Lord Jesus.

Children may have beautiful experience of bedtime stories of heroes who relentlessly defeat their enemies and reign victorious in every bout. They were immortalized. And they even want to imitate the way they dress, the script they usually utter, the way they walk or run – and the way the stood up to the test of their time.

Fr. Cesare is not an immortal being – at least, in the philosophical sense. But more than his weaknesses and struggles, it is about his willingness to share in the “immortality” promised by Jesus through the Eucharist. He did not stop there. Fr. Cesare also hoped that, through the simple things he can do to serve, others, too, may share in Christ’s promise of “immortality.”

And it is not a footnote.

The history of St. Matthew Province continues to be written even today. Countless lives have been poured out to let the “small caravan” of the Rogate in Asia flourish and bloom. Fr. Cesare is one of them. Discipleship is neither a race to the “Hall of Fame” or pursuit to have his/her name made into a plaque glued in the streets of Hollywood. Fr. Cesare may not be a hall of famer, but just, in his humble and simple way, a disciple of the Lord.

As Fr. Cesare is now in heaven, he lives to pray for all before the Father. Now that he is able to meet St. Hannibal face to face, he can now ask the Father of the congregation to tell the Almighty Father and King of the Universe to take care of the Rogationists.

It would be nice to end this reflection, again, with the words that concluded Fr. Bruno’s homily: “Dear Fr. Cesare, the Lord Jesus, who defeated death in his risen body, waited for you and prepared a place for you next to him. Bring our embrace and our tears with you, “keep your eyes, which are full of glory, focused on our eyes that are full of tears". Thank you. Rest in peace.”

From the Community of the Rogationist St. Matthew Province, thank you Fr. Cesare!

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