Special to The Tablet. Published January 2, 2021
A master of the love lyric, a jazz trumpeter, an internationally-respected municipal consultant and a one-time Augustinian friar who became a parish priest in small-town Ontario. There has never been a diocesan priest quite like Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, who died a year ago last month
“We didn’t know quite what to do with him,” a fellow priest observed. “It was like having Gerard Manley Hopkins as your presbyteral brother.” But while Hopkins’ exquisitely crafted sermons were mostly inaccessible to the congregations in the Jesuit churches where he was stationed, the beautifully baritone-modulated homilies of Fr Di Cicco touched the hearts if not always the heads of the people he served.
I first encountered Pier Giorgio Di Cicco when I was a contributing writer to Gamut, an arts journal founded by two of his friends – Alfredo and Mario Romano – which included on its board Norman Choate, the priest-president of St Jerome’s, a Catholic university where I then worked, which is federated with the University of Waterloo, Ontario. When Di Cicco submitted “Male Rage Poem” – replete with angry expletives – for publication, Fr Choate, anticipating trouble with the bishop, decided this was not a hill he was prepared to die on. I later had the delicious pleasure of informing Fr Choate that the author of the overly salacious verse had just been received into an Augustinian monastery as a novice.
Two decades later, when I invited Fr Di Cicco to speak in a series on the arts and religious sensibility I had created while President of St Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, it wasn’t a contrite guilt-laden cleric I met, but an artist who could still sing his love poems, a thinker devoted to the Swiss theologian Romano Guardini, a man fully alive to the sacramental imagination, intolerant of intellectual complacency.
Born in 1949 in Arezzo, Tuscany, his family moved to Montreal, Baltimore, and then Toronto, specifically in the Italian section known as Christie Pitts. These different cultural and linguistic communities profoundly shaped his imagination and his spiritual horizon. He once observed that he was “only at home when boundaries collide”.
Di Cicco found himself at the nexus of a European conceptual universe at odds with New World pragmatism. One minute he is besotted with Hollywood 1950s celebrities and in the next the deep layers of Mezzogiorno immigrant culture. He saw his Italian Catholic heritage as determinative. He deplored the fact that he lived in a Protestant country where “they have no talent for metaphysics”. Not quite true, of course. Baltimore – the Catholic primatial see in the United States – has a uniquely Catholic history, Montreal is French Catholic to its core, and Toronto at the time of Di Cicco’s maturity as a poet was largely a Catholic city. Not very Protestant at all. But the disinclination to think metaphysically? That remains incontrovertibly true.
A renegade artist attached to the talented generation of Canadians making their mark on the literary scene in the 1970s and early 1980s, Di Cicco led a bohemian life of letters, exploring the themes that would define him for decades: the slippery and fecund role of memory, yearning for the other, love in its myriad manifestations. But he was drawn to the deep recesses of the interior life. His “return” to Catholicism was not a Damascene epiphany but a plodding, intellectual conversion, circumspect, slow, suspicious. He explained: “I couldn’t get a government grant to study prayer so I decided to join a community that knows something about it.”
He became an Augustinian. It was the natural next step in his perigrinatio. When he felt that their “drift from the contemplative to the active was in fact a drift from St Augustine himself ”, he left the order for ministry in the Archdiocese of Toronto. He was ordained in 1990.
Di Cicco is nothing if not a fan of paradox as a mode of living and thinking, of the quixotic in our spiritual life, of the wildly irrational comingled with the ratiocinative. He left a contemplative order because it was not contemplative enough and chose as his locus for pastoral ministry Canada’s largest metropolis, where he became a sought-after consultant advising planners and architects in cities as diverse as Tehran, Lisbon, St Petersburg and Calgary how to craft an urban aesthetic of civil and spiritual living.
By the end of the 1990s he was coming out of a prolonged and self-imposed silence as a poet. He had substituted cowl and cloister for the fast track of literary stardom. But it didn’t last. No longer an Augustinian but a parochial priest with a wide berth, the poet now re-emerged with all the fury of a pent-up dynamo. In The Honeymoon Wilderness (2002), he ruefully observed that “maybe at 50 all men run out of things to say, except praying newly”. In “praying newly” he searched the memories of his childhood, his youth, relationships with family and friends and invites them to “come to my heart that is beginning to understand”.
Serving in a rural church, St Mary’s in Nobleton, he rediscovered his need for solitude and silence, the desert experience, presiding over the rhythm of mundane parochial duties in a way that is suffused with a liberating grace disclosed in real time, his life and ministry a natural prayer. It is his “chapel on the hill”, his sanctuary:
Here are two stars, in different colours.
Here are the northern lights, opening and shutting their lattices. Here is warm snow, and stones in the wavelets, trees lit and unlit.
My hands unlatch the night.
I walk through to the altar, the madonna on my right, in the chapel breath.
It is my breath, the stars an exhalation.
This poem, “The Prayer”, drawn from his 2003 collection The Dark Time of Angels, combines Di Cicco’s contemplative attention to the plenitude that is nature, the cosmic glory that unfolds in a grain of sand, with the quiet ritual of the country priest.
Persuaded that we need a grand synthesis, a unifying narrative as a species that allows us to think and feel metaphysically, that permits us to touch in metaphor the majesty of all that is, Di Cicco conceived of his priesthood as a portal, the sacraments a conduit, opening the imagination on to a cosmology brimming with terror and calling us to adoration.
When he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 70 just over a year ago, he was the resident priest of St Columbkille in Uptergrove, a rural redoubt that allowed him to reconnect with his Augustinian disposition as well as allowing him freedom for both parish ministrations and the poetic muse.
He was settled in time and place, his imagination soaring, his poems prayers.
This content is published with the permission of The Tablet and originally appeared in the January 2, 2021 issue.