My brother, Bishop Pablo David (“Bishop Ambo”) became auxiliary bishop of San Fernando Pampanga two years ago. In this role, he assists Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, the head of the diocese. In the Vatican’s roster of bishops, however, Bishop Ambo carries the extra title “Vescovo Titolare di Guardialfiera.” Where is Guardialfiera? And what does it mean to be titular bishop of a diocese, I asked him.
A diocese is “a governor’s or a bishop’s territorial jurisdiction.” Every bishop, apparently, has to have a diocese of his own, even if only in name. And so, it has been a long-standing practice, presumably dating back to an era when the Roman Catholic Church actually ruled over an empire, for the Pope to give auxiliary bishops their own dioceses in some remote corner of the ancient world. Most of these dioceses now exist only in name. The communities to which they refer have either been erased or aggregated into the larger cities of the modern world.
Founded in 1061, Guardialfiera thrived as an independent diocese until 1818, when it was absorbed by the nearby diocese of Termoli.
But this medieval town of a thousand people in the Molise region of Italy, near the Adriatic Sea, has stood up to time in all other respects. It has kept its name, its traditions, and, above all, it has preserved its collective memory against the tide of migration and urbanization. Its eleventh century cathedral remains the focal point of the community, structurally and symbolically.
Perched majestically on the highest point of a hill, the Church of S. Maria Assunta, served not only as a place of worship but also as the main rampart of what used to be a walled city. Homes carved out of solid rock buttress its walls. They are intact and still very much inhabited. In the olden days, the bishop of Guardialfiera took care not only of the souls of his flock but, as well, of the military defense of the place.
Bishop Ambo had assumed that Guardialfiera no longer exists and was thus unaware of all this until Don Vincenzo Di Sabato, the town’s historian and president of the cultural center, called him one day to say that “his” cathedral awaits him. Bishop Ambo learned that his immediate predecessor, the auxiliary bishop of Guatemala, Don Juan Jose Conedera, had visited their community often. A human rights activist in the mold of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Conedera was brutally murdered in Guatemala in 1998. A simple glass case containing his miter and cap memorializes his martyrdom.
So touched was my brother by the unexpected enthusiasm of his titular flock that on his first trip to Italy as a bishop, he made it a point to visit Guardialfiera. He vividly remembers how the whole town dressed up to attend his first Mass. But he could only stay briefly, and he made a promise to come back.
The promise was redeemed last week. Bishop Ambo is on a monthlong visit to Rome to attend the Synod of Bishops. As luck would have it, Karina and I were in Europe to visit our daughter, Jika, an exchange student in Spain. “Come with me to Guardialfiera,” my brother said.
We had planned to take the train from Rome to Campobasso, the capital province, and then take a local bus to Guardialfiera. But our host Don Vincenzo, a charming and diminutive man in his early seventies who speaks with the erudition and liveliness of an Italian professor, would not allow it. He himself came to Rome to fetch us, traveling for 4 hours with the vice president of the cultural center, Carmela, the only one who spoke English, and two other men — Giuseppe, who I presumed was an assistant, and Emilio, the driver.
Our first stop was the office of the mayor of Guardialfiera — none other than Giuseppe. He led us to the hall where the municipal council meets. On one of its walls hung a big picture of my brother, “Il Vescovo Titolare di Guardialfiera.” The church and state seem one here, I muttered to the bishop. Then it was our driver Emilio’s turn to show us his office. “I am the chief of police,” he said, “the only policeman, because there’s no crime here!” He is assisted by a volunteer corps of young people.
We next visited the schoolchildren and their teachers, and then met with the key person of the community to whom everyone deferred — Don Nicola, Guardialfiera’s parish priest for the last 35 years. He embraced my brother warmly, kissing him on both cheeks. He led us to his convento, which he had converted into a home for the elderly. Sparkling clean and quiet, its picture windows open out to the lake and the surrounding olive groves. The 20 residents, of whom the eldest is 102, came out to greet us. There we had lunch, a complete home-cooked Italian meal, featuring everything that the local village produced — from the wine to the olives and sausages, to the unique cavatelli pasta.
Our final stop was the cathedral. “Your cathedral,” Don Vincenzo gestured to my brother in what seemed like a re-enactment of a medieval ritual. The cathedral walls were a medley of stones from as early as the 3rd century, forming a palimpsest on which had been written layers of signs from various eras. I felt like an intruder in a period movie set.
But for our hosts, every stone in Guardialfiera pulsates with memory and love. Wrote Antonietta Caruso, a scholar who had been baptized in the cathedral: “One cannot love what one does not know; love is born from knowledge. And one does not take care of something that one does not feel tied to. Care is born from love… love for what surrounds us and belongs to us, love of a life that would have no sense without memory, and love for future generations, to whom we hand the world…”
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