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from issue no. 02 - 2004

THE FORTY YEARS OF SERMIG. An interview with Ernesto Olivero

«The beginning? An emotion to which I said yes».

The Youth Missionary Service involves thousands of people, especially young people, who every day devote their time to taking in the poor and initiating projects of development in more than a hundred countries of the world. The founder tells of the beginning of the story and speaks of the friends met along the way, such as Mother Teresa, dom Helder Câmara and Cardinal Van Thuân and Norberto Bobbio

by Paolo Mattei

Left, John Paul II with Ernesto Olivero during an audience in the Paul VI Hall on 31 January 2004, on the fortieth anniversary of SERMIG; right, Palestinian children watch a demonstration of Orthodox Jews in the old city of Jerusalem.

Left, John Paul II with Ernesto Olivero during an audience in the Paul VI Hall on 31 January 2004, on the fortieth anniversary of SERMIG; right, Palestinian children watch a demonstration of Orthodox Jews in the old city of Jerusalem.

«The things which we’ve been able to do in these years are like the dough of the relationships of friendship with all the people we have known and loved.» Ernesto Olivero, born in 1940, married and father of three children, thus sums up the forty year old story of SERMIG, the organization he founded in 1964, the year in which he left his job as bank clerk so as to devote himself entirely to his mission to aid the poorest and for peace in the world and to help young people. SERMIG, the Youth Missionary Service, was started in Turin and since then has come to involve thousands of people, especially young ones, who daily dedicate their time to receiving the poor and homeless and in working on countless projects of development in more than a hundred countries throughout the world. Since 1983 SERMIG has its center in the 45 thousand square meters of the old military Arsenal in Turin, re-baptized Arsenal of Peace, which in 1996 was “twinned” with the Arsenal of Hope, whose center is in San Paolo in Brazil.
On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of SERMIG, celebrated by ten thousand young people in the presence of the Pope on 31 January last, in memory of Saint John Bosco, we talked with Ernesto Olivero who described for us some of those fundamental meetings that gave life to the “dough” of his missionary organization.

The story of SERMIG began with an intuition of yours. What drove you to undertake this venture and what did you have in mind to do?

ERNESTO OLIVERO: When an adventure begins you never know where it is going to end. The idea I had was to combat, not to defeat, but to combat hunger in the world. But the point of departure was an emotion, compassion for a poor person who had no roof under which to pass the night. The beginning of every beautiful and great adventure, such as that of SERMIG, is marked I think by an emotion to which you say “yes”. After that first “yes”, I said others, and forty years later I’m aware that I have, thank God, said perhaps a billion.
The beginnings were not easy, even if you were given great help by the Archbishop of Turin, Cardinal Michele Pellegrino.
OLIVERO: Yes, it was he who in 1969, a few years after the foundation of SERMIG, offered us the church in Via dell’Arcivescovado as a center, at a moment in which we didn’t know “where to rest our head”, because in the diocese of Turin we were not well regarded. The Cardinal was a man of God, a humble man of the Church, who spoke of justice. He recognized us when we “did not yet know ourselves”. He was our first friend. Through him we got to know Dom Helder Câmara, with whom we organized, in 1972, a public meeting together with ten thousand young people in the of Sports’ Palace in Turin. Dom Helder also became our friend.
Helder Câmara and Mother Teresa of Calcutta: two people who were great friends of SERMIG

Helder Câmara and Mother Teresa of Calcutta: two people who were great friends of SERMIG

Your history is marked by many friendships and many important meetings, not only with men of the Church, but also with many great lay people…
OLIVERO: The most important meeting of my life was that with Jesus. It’s to Him that you say yes at the beginning and during the whole venture. The meeting with Him makes you enter into a greatest freedom, because He is the only one who has the words of eternal life, He is the only one who says that the powers of evil will not prevail, the only one who has listened to everyone… Encounters have occurred, without me pursuing them, with people entirely different from me. I listened to them, learned many things, and was very often corrected. And if it happened to be me who corrected one of these people, I hope I did so in a spirit of great openness, in a Christian spirit, that is. One of the great fortunes in being Christian consists in this freedom of dialogue and of relationship with everyone.
The most significant lay person whom you encountered was without doubt Norberto Bobbio, who said of the SERMIG community: «When I’m with you, I too, despite my doubts, abandon myself to hope». A memory of him?
OLIVERO: Only one? I have so many... The day he died I was on a flight from Rome to Trieste. I was reading the Bible, as I do every day. I was at the passage in Luke which says: «And now allow that your servant depart in peace according to your word». I noted the phrase thinking of Norberto, without knowing that he was in a serious condition. On arriving in Trieste at 18:20, I received a telephone call and found out that he had died a short time before. Norberto and I had a friendship that was very beautiful and very human. There were many conflicts because he was a true person and we said everything that we thought face to face. He always explained to me that a row or an animated discussion should never “go beyond the night”. One day we fought and I left his house very angrily. That same evening, having come from the Arsenal, I was told that a letter from him had arrived by pony, in which he wrote: «Sorry. We’ll talk about it again tomorrow more calmly. Dialogue does not interrupt friendship». He was a good man.
Mother Teresa also was a great presence in the history of SERMIG. It was she indeed who proposed you as a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize...
OLIVERO: When I met her - I was very young and Father Pellegrino introduced me to her - I met an ordinary person. The beauty and the greatness of Mother Teresa lay in her simplicity. My heart at that moment told me: if she does all of this, then I can do it too, because I saw normality in her, the disarming simplicity of a Christian woman. The same characteristics which distinguished Cardinal Van Thuan, another great friend of SERMIG. Certain people, very important, who are almost unapproachable, don’t make you feel you want to move, they don’t move you. Mother Teresa, Van Thuan, with their “approachableness”, with their simplicity and humility, were indeed a gift and I’m happy I was able to meet them frequently. Mother Teresa came to visit us a few times in Turin, I saw her again in Rome and I had the great joy of being able to speak to her one final time before she went to India to die.
You named your University of Dialogue after Cardinal François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân.
OLIVERO: Yes. The Pope introduced me to him. The friendship with Cardinal Van Thuân was fundamental to my growth and to the growth of our Christian community. Before he died he gave me a present of three rosaries and a blessing which I store in my heart in a particular way. Kept in his country’s prisons for thirteen years, ten of which were passed standing on his feet in a dark cell with his hands tied behind his back, Van Thuân never ceased to pray for his jailers. For us he is a great witness to peace and it is also in his memory that we ask young people to be with us.
You’ve just returned from Brazil, where SERMIG has been running the Arsenal of Hope since 1966. In Brazil there is another great friend of yours, Archbishop Luciano Pedro Mendes de Almeida.
OLIVERO: I think that the friendship with Dom Luciano is the most important in our story. I met him in January 1988 when he came to visit us in Turin. I had imagined him as a great prelate, but in reality I met a humble priest modestly dressed. We wanted him to tell us about Brazil, instead he talked to us about Lebanon where he had just been. He suggested that I go there, he introduced me to the Maronite Patriarch who invited me to his country where I went to meet the young Lebanese. Thanks to the friendship with Dom Luciano, the “little father” who came so unexpectedly into our lives, we were able to carry out works of charity in Lebanon, in Somalia, in Rwanda, in Iraq. To have known a man so rooted in God and in the Church, so willing, was indeed one of the most beautiful gifts that the Lord made us. It changed our lives. Thanks to Dom Luciano the Middle East became our home. If Brazil is also our home today, if in 1966 we were able to set up the Arsenal of Hope in San Paolo, which daily provides night lodgings for thousands of people, medical care, hot meals and work training courses, it’s thanks to him.
You know Lula well also. Do you think that the hope for positive change kindled by him in the Brazilians before becoming president can still be made real?
OLIVERO: Lula is always Lula. He didn’t change by becoming president. It’s the upper middle class that must commit itself to following his proposals for change. The hopes of Lula can be made concrete if the Brazilians follow him.
One of the striking features of SERMIG is the magnetism the community exercises over a great number of young people.
OLIVERO: My great pain is seeing that young people are themselves the poorest and the least known. The mass media packaged by adults tell only about young girls who shoulder each other aside to become “show girls”, of maladjusted adolescents who don’t know how to overcome their existential failures or crowds of teenagers attracted only by ephemeral and alienating enjoyments. In reality the new generations are seeking two simple things, even though very difficult to find: humility and truth. I’m reminded of two days which give the sense of what I am saying. On 5 October two years ago in Turin we held a “G8 in reverse” in which a hundred thousand young people participated. We called it that because eight young people with difficult pasts on their shoulders spoke of them in front of their peers and the representatives of the institutions. A hundred thousand young people came to Turin without any publicity campaign, without the presence of rock stars, only due to telephone calls. And at the end they even cleaned the square... Then the meeting with the Pope on 31 January last: it was organized in twenty days. Ten thousand people were contacted in a week, and we had to say tens of thousands nos. If things like that happen it means that the image which the media is proposing to us of the world of youth is undoubtedly partial, if not entirely false.
After 11 September fear seems to have taken the place of hope. But the word hope is pre-eminent in the “vocabulary” of SERMIG, in the fight against hunger in the world also...
OLIVERO: Christians live the peace of the heart. Those who live the peace of the heart live a positive restlessness. This is the hope which the Lord gives us and which we want to communicate to the world. We want to communicate our good restlessness to the world so as to get rid of hunger. I cried at 11 September. Woe betide anyone playing dialectical games with that date, which represents a monstrous tragedy. But woe betide also anyone who forgets that every day thirty thousand people die of hunger and illnesses related to poverty. Every day thousands of prisoners experience the darkest despair. So, this restless peace we live is given to us as a gift to help the world open its eyes. In this regard I would like to launch a proposal through your magazine...
OLIVERO: I’d like to go and meet Bush. And I’d like to go as a grateful Italian and European. I’m convinced that we must help our American friends by telling them that if they don’t open their eyes to the issues of peace and justice, they are at the end of their reign. And the end of the reign is a disaster for everyone. I want America to rise again and, as a simple man, want to meet Bush to talk to him about these things. I’d like some of the friends at 30Days to help me to go with some young people to the US President to speak to him about peace, to help America return to its true tradition.

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