To chose anything as one’s favorite, whether it is a favorite book, piece of music, or movie star, is highly subjective. Nonetheless, it brings to mind categories that help to justify the choice.
I have met and befriended many priests over the course of my long life. Why would one stand above all the others to merit such an accolade? Generosity, helpfulness, and holiness would be winning characteristics. But they might not be personal in a way that I and only I would fully appreciate.
My choice goes to Father Forni, a parish assistant at Holy Rosary Church in Fall River, Massachusetts. The church was set facing Columbus Part where fireworks exploded every October 12. It was flanked on the right by Marzilli’s Bakery and on the left by the Sons of Italy social club. It could hardly have been more Italian.
My paternal grandfather’s brother-in-law was the church sexton and lived right next door to the church that was so dear to his heart. Uncle Mike and Aunt Peppina lived in a cozy little cottage and raised a bounty of fruits and vegetables in their prized garden. I was convinced at my young age that they lived in paradise.
It had fallen to Fr. Forni to prepare a motley group of ten-year-olds to become altar boys. I was numbered among the ten and took my assignment with a mixture of awe and apprehension. We were required at that time to memorize a series of prayers in Latin. The first line still sticks in my mind: “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutum meum” (I go the the Lord who gives joy to my youth). God was, indeed, good to me in my early years of living in a proud Italian parish.
Fr. Forni, knowing how burdensome it would be for preteens to memorize verses in an alien language, had mercy on us. He purchased a basketball, took us downstairs to the gym and taught us the rudiments of a game that has since swelled to becoming an international colossus.
We were impressed. The good priest was tuned into the hearts and minds of his future altar servers. And so, I learned how to shoot free throws, two hands, underhand. The gap between a group of tenderfeet and an ordained priest was erased by a basketball.
It was in the basement gym of Holy Rosary Church, therefore, where I made my first basket and realized that a priest can be a father figure purely out of the generosity of his heart.
I was standing on the street, outside the church rectory one evening and saw, through the window, Fr. Forni at his desk doing what was presumably some important work. Yet, to my deep dismay, my clerical hero was smoking a cigarette! Fr. Forni had let me down a notch. Well, I thought to myself, Christ would not smoke. I still have an unblemished hero, one who is entirely and always above reproach.
There are three levels of fatherhood, the biological, the spiritual, and “our Father Who art in heaven.” Their representatives should form an alliance and teach young boys, although in different ways, about generosity, friendship, and the future. My dad learned from his parish priests. They, in turn, learned from God the Father. Fatherhood has functions that are both distinct and complementary.
I never did get the become an altar server. My family moved to a different parish and my debut on the altar was indefinitely postponed. At the same time I have not forgotten Fr. Forni’s kindness and approachability. In later years most of my relationships with priests have been on the level of friendship.
I select Fr. Forni as my favorite priest because his influence on my life spans the longest amount of time. He was also the first to introduce me to what a Catholic priest should be. If he could read this essay, he would be surprised, puzzled, and amused. Perhaps a person is at his best when he does things spontaneously in the complete absence of any fanfare.