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from issue no. 10 - 2011

Operation Mato Grosso

From the Valtellina to the Andes

"I've always wanted to see with my own eyes what the oratory of Valdocco was like when Don Bosco was there. My wish has been granted here, at the foot of the Andes". So said Cardinal Martini when he visited the mission of the Salesian Ugo de Censi, founder of Operation Mato Grosso. We tell the story

by Giovanni Ricciardi

Father Ugo de Censi with Father Daniele Badiali Yanama, Peru, in 1992 [© Don Mirko Santandrea]

Father Ugo de Censi with Father Daniele Badiali Yanama, Peru, in 1992 [© Don Mirko Santandrea]


Father Ugo de Censi is eighty-seven years old today, and has spent sixty as a priest in the Salesian Congregation. Since 1976 he has lived in Chacas, a remote village in eastern Peru, at the foot of the Andes, which remind him, in their majesty, of the mountains of his native Valtellina. A place where life is precarious, the means of subsistence must be wrenched every day from the mountain, and poverty is the common condition.

Con los pobres de la tierra quiero yo mi suerte echar” go the words of one of the most famous Latin American songs, Guantanamera, a verse that sums up, in its beauty, the beauty of the missionary experience of Father Ugo, “I want to throw my lot in with the poor of the world”. Throw in one’s lot, gamble, sow a seed that has given exceptionally abundant fruit in Chacas, so much so that when Cardinal Martini visited the mission to inaugurate a house donated by the diocese of Milan, he said: “I’ve always wanted to see with my own eyes what the oratory of Valdocco was like when Don Bosco was there. My wish has been granted here, at the foot of the Andes”.

Father Ugo returns now and then to Italy to meet the groups of volunteers who for many years have lent him a hand with monthly collections of groceries, clothing, and working for free to send money to the mission: a nondenominational experience, without a legal identity in the Church, which brings together all those who are willing to lend a hand. It has not changed its name since the 1970s: it is called Operation Mato Grosso. Father Ugo preaches on retreats for those who want a more distinctly Catholic moment within the movement. The formulas are simple, one prays according to the tradition of the Church, one goes on one’s knees, also to confess. There are many people who silently take notes as the priest dictates, like an elementary school teacher, improvising very little. This year the theme was: ‘Bernadette and Aquerò’. The purpose of the retreat: ‘Learning to make the sign of the cross well’.

The reference to Lourdes is no accident, but a milestone in the life of this ‘lively, playful and challenging’ Salesian, as defined by his superiors. But also in failing health. Tubercular spondylitis, diagnosed in the seminary, kept him in hospital for three years. And the open fistula that had kept him so long in bed closed up in front of the grotto of Massabielle. So Father Ugo, finally recovered, could be ordained a priest by Cardinal Schuster in 1951, in Milan Cathedral. “But the superiors”, he says, “still considered me a hothead. And so, ‘to rid me of a fondness for joking’, they gave me the post of spiritual director of a male reformatory in Arese”. There he remained for over twenty years: “And there I learned that religious words are useless. The kids who listened to my sermons, turned the other way. And finally, in the face of my disappointment, someone said: ‘But have you looked at yourself? But do you see what you look like? At least try to like me a little’”.

And so, in the late ‘sixties, moved by the stories of fellow missionaries who spoke of poverty and of the immense needs of the missions, he began traveling in South America, and organizing aid for the Salesian charities. Until, in 1976, aged 52, he took the decision to settle in Peru, in Chacas. He was accompanied by some of the kids who had come out of the reformatory in Arese. “I had lost a lot of the outer trappings of religion. But in Chacas I became a child again. And I rediscovered the simple things of faith: the life of Jesus and devotion, singing well in church, keeping your hands joined in prayer. I took up those things again with the mission boys”.

“For the moment I am a priest”, he wrote in the early months of his stay in the Andes: “Chacas has an enormous church on Sundays it fills with people, all silent. I feel at home, I feel them my people. I like to get them to sing. I feel they like me, I’d like to know them one by one”. And again: “I believe that here I’ll really be an old-fashioned priest: catechism, singing, visiting the sick, masses... with these people who need bread, roads, work, hygiene. To find solutions to these needs I’ll get help from the boys of the Operation who will come”.

And that’s what happened in the years that followed. With the help of the volunteers of Operation Mato Grosso, Father Ugo established an impressive number of charitable institutions: schools for professional wood carvers, for nurses and school teachers, a hospital in Chacas, homes for orphaned or abandoned children, repair and construction of bridges and roads, even the construction of a hydroelectric plant that supplies energy to the village. All these works are named after Don Bosco or Mary Help of Christians, in the genuine Salesian tradition. And of course, there had to be the oratory for thousands of children and young people, who crowd it every Sunday.

‘You should come to Chacas’, writes one of his Salesian brothers and co-workers of Father Ugo, ‘to get to know his home, so you can discover the richness of a heart as free as his, a heart with which it is easy to fall in love. You would discover that the home of Father Ugo is a square with no walls, no doors, not because there aren’t any but because they were thrown down by the people who crowded at the door to get into the house. A little like the Psalm says: ‘Of the Lord’s vineyard the boundary walls have been thrown down and every wayfarer makes harvest’”.

The sanctuary of Pomallucay in Peru (near which the seminary of the diocese of Huari was opened in 1992) designed and built by the volunteers of Operation Mato Grosso [© Don Mirko Santandrea]

The sanctuary of Pomallucay in Peru (near which the seminary of the diocese of Huari was opened in 1992) designed and built by the volunteers of Operation Mato Grosso [© Don Mirko Santandrea]

In recent years, hundreds of Italian volunteers have dedicated a few months to help Father Ugo in his mission. Some stayed for more than a year, others still decided to stay forever. Others have felt, through the priest’s example, the desire to follow his path in the priesthood. Father Ugo founded a seminary for aspirants to the priesthood, who are then ‘donated’ to the various dioceses of Peru, since Operation Mato Grosso has no legal standing in the Church. Among them, there was a young Italian priest, Father Daniele Badiali, who ended his earthly existence in 1997, murdered by a group of gunmen who abducted him for a big ransom.

Father Daniele had developed his vocation in Operation Mato Grosso. Two years of volunteer work in Chacas from 1984 to 1986, led him to take the final decision. He returned to Faenza, studied in the Bologna regional seminary, and immediately after his ordination for the Faenza-Modigliana diocese was sent as a fidei donum priest to the diocese of Huari in Peru, to help Father Ugo at his mission, taking charge, on 1 September 1991, of the parish of San Luis, in the Cordillera Blanca, a vast area, with more than sixty villages scattered over the mountains, that can be reached only on foot or on horseback. Father Daniele tried to be in contact with all communities, even the most distant, and his parish house became a point of reference for the many needs of the poor. In a letter describing this situation: “I have stolen the time to write from the people who are constantly knocking at my door asking for food, medicine, asking, asking, asking... My head whirls with these continuous assaults, it’s difficult for me to leave the house, I immediately see them running after me, looking for me, to ask. I don’t know what to do... I’d run away in the face of all this, because I can’t say yes and I well know that I can’t deny help... I’m called to give everything away knowing that I’ll start over again tomorrow and I must give everything away again. The thorn given to me by the poor is a constant pain that I’d like to soothe but it’s not up to me. It’s noon, I’m going to eat with the boys of the taller [workshop, ed], there’s an old woman here on the doorstep. She doesn’t speak, others will beg till you’re tired out. Her silence has gone to my heart, I close my eyes, I go down to get a bowl of soup, the pasta is Italian: I give it to her, I’m ashamed, it is she who must beg Jesus for the grace to save me. She thanks me with a smile that seems very sweet to me. And if behind this dirty little old woman there really were Jesus?”.

He began Oratory work with the children. In March 1992 he prepared four hundred for First Communion. In October of that year, Giulio Rocca, a volunteer and friend of Daniele’s, who was also developing a vocation for the priesthood, was killed by a terrorist group. Daniele wrote of his death: “Giulio died like a martyr, he did not choose it, the shape of things led him to die a violent death similar to that of the martyrs. The path of Operation Mato Grosso is now clear for me also: to give one’s life to the point of martyrdom. All of this frightens me, but at the same time I feel a peace inside me...”.

In the following years, apart from visits to Italy for health reasons, he dedicated body and soul to the work of the mission. He built an Andean refuge with his boys to accommodate tourists and climbers and make some money to help the very poor. In 1997, despite a planned return to Italy, he decided to stay in Peru, also taking on the commitments of Father Ugo, who had come to Italy to preach on the volunteers’ retreats. He spent eight weeks in the Yanama area preparing eight hundred children for Confirmation. Every Friday he prepared them for Confession: it was the most important time for Father Daniele, who in that last year of his life described it as follows: “Today is the day of the Passion. I’m speechless, I just want to cry. I felt the cold. I wanted the hands of the boys, I wasn’t asking that they come in my place, but just that they give their hand. What does it mean to give one’s hand to someone who is suffering? I had to talk about the death of Jesus, I couldn’t tell it as a fable. The distraction of the boys came straight to my heart like the devil’s laughter: ‘Why are you striving, why are you worrying. It’s all futile...’. At least they had to pray or keep their hands joined. But one can’t expect, one just has to give... to forgive. I felt like a condemned man, the same scene of the Passion was repeated here. I received all the blows. I had to accept them all, it would have been a mistake not to want them. I only hope that this suffering is of use to someone. I offer it. My God, only of You did I want to speak to the children”.

On his return to the parish of San Luis on 10 March 1997, he began the preparation for the First Communion of five hundred children: two weeks of intense sharing, with catechism, prayer and games, up to Holy Thursday where they were to receive Jesus for the first time. Father Daniele worked tirelessly and awaited the return of Father Ugo from Italy. In those days he wrote: “I find I am incapable of abandoning myself, of leaving everything to God: even if it seems I’m staking everything, I find that I still have to bet on God. Being useless servants is truly calling on the master, leaving everything in his hands, not wanting to lead anything. Being servants of Jesus is really calling upon him with his own weapons: goodness, forgiveness, surrender, patience, a smile... dying”.

Father Daniele hearing confession [© Don Mirko Santandrea]

Father Daniele hearing confession [© Don Mirko Santandrea]

Six days later, on Sunday 16 March, after celebrating evening Mass in the village of Yauya, he suddenly found the road blocked by stones. An armed gunman appeared demanding a hostage. Rosamaria, an Italian aid worker, was about to get off the jeep, but Daniele stopped her: “I’ll go, you stay”. In a note to be delivered to Father Ugo there was a demand for ransom. But two days later, on 18 March, Father Daniele’s body was found on a stone-covered slope. Days before, while still at liberty, he had written to a friend in Italy about the ‘good fight’ of faith: ‘Above all one realizes that the battle on God’s side is already lost... one has to die on the battlefield for God to come in and defeat the enemy, the devil. All we have to do is prepare the coming of God. It costs hugely, because we have to give our life for a God who counts ever less in the lives of men. You’ll soon see that the God you desire to serve isn’t much sought after and well-liked by men. And the more you go on, the more it will seem that this God disappears from the lives of men, even from our own. He leaves you alone to represent him on the battlefield. You’ll often ask yourself: ‘But when will the Lord arrive?’ You won’t hear any reply, you yourself must give the answer with your life. The general will come in when and how He decides... We do not know the moment nor the hour... The only sure things are the instructions left for fighting the enemy: ‘Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor... If you want to be my disciple, take up my cross and follow me ...’. Your companion in battle, Father Daniele’. The diocese of Faenza-Modigliana has now begun the process for his beatification.

Out of Father Daniele‘s martyrdom has come a blossoming of vocations in Operation Mato Grosso. Today the seminary of the diocese of Huari has about forty aspirants to the priesthood and Father Ugo’s mission is more active and prosperous than ever. Although he, at nearly ninety, does not want to appoint a successor, nor give a Rule to his charity: “If it is God’s work”, he often repeated, “then it will remain. Otherwise it’s better it come to an end”.

At his venerable old age, he really seems to become a child again: “God is not what I have”, he says, “but what I lack, and I most want. I can’t help but recognize my unbelief. Being a sinner, incapable of living by God, being a poor man who only needs God’s mercy, needs God. May God take me and make of me what He wants. But let Him take me”.








Operation Mato Grosso

You can contact us by e-mail at info@donbosco3a.it
For information about OMG, the work groups in Italy, the summer work camps and how to help OMG, contact info@operazionematogrosso.it, or visit the site www.operazionematogrosso.it.

To contribute to the process of beatification and canonization of Father Daniele Badiali (giving one’s testimony on Father Daniele, offering letters written by him, providing stories of miraculous events attributed to his intercession), contact Don Alberto Luccaroni, judge delegate. To receive information and publications on Father Daniele, please contact Don Mirko Santandrea, vice-postulator.
For more information visit the site www.padredanielebadiali.it

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