Five Minutes with Father Italo Dell'Oro: Finding a new mountain to climb

July 14, 2015

HOUSTON — When Father Italo Dell’Oro, C.R.S., first arrived in Galveston-Houston in 1992, his initial assignment was as pastor of Assumption Church in Houston. Growing up in Valmadrera, Italy, the Somascan priest was an avid rock-climber and mountaineer during his teen years on the pristine countryside of Lake Como. He wasn’t familiar with topography of the Bayou City upon arrival.

“When I came to Houston I started looking for mountains, excited to have found near Assumption Church the street named ‘W. Mount Houston,’” he said. “I followed it and found myself in the subdivision Hidden Valley. So I took up jogging, which I still try to do.”

The 62-year-old priest has adjusted well to the local landscape and has discovered other figurative mountains to climb during his time in Galveston-Houston. In 2001, he served as Director of Vocations for the Somascan Fathers in Houston before taking on the role of Formation Director in 2014. From 2005 to 2012, he also worked as Director of the Ministry to Priests for Galveston-Houston.

He accepted another challenge this past May when he was named director of Clergy Formation and Chaplaincy Services and Vicar for Clergy. He is replacing Father Brendan Cahill, who was ordained Bishop of Victoria on June 29 (see coverage in this issue).

Father Dell’Oro recently spent some time to respond to questions from the Texas Catholic Herald about his calling to the priesthood, the Year of Consecrated Life (YCL) and his new role with the Archdiocese.

TCH: When were you “called” to the priesthood?
Father Dell’Oro: Although I always felt some sort of attraction to it, as I had for other career options, it was at 15 that the possibility of being called dawned on me. A few young men in my home parish left home to enter the seminary, and that impacted me. However, I went on building my life until at 21 and 22 the “vocational restlessness” grew to an unbearable level. I had to do something.

Texas Catholic Herald: Growing up, was there a priest you viewed as a role model or someone who inspired you to consider the priesthood?
Father Dell’Oro: The young priest who came to my parish when I was in eighth grade. A holy, intelligent and charismatic priest, great preacher and spiritual director, who formed several young men and women to priesthood, consecrated life and marriage. Father Luigi Stucchi is now an Auxiliary Bishop in Milan.

Texas Catholic Herald: What drew you to the Somascans?
Father Dell’Oro: Somasca, the place where St. Jerome Emiliani organized the first community of followers, is about six miles from my hometown. Somasca is a place of pilgrimage, to which devotees to the saint come from the surrounding area — the most famous being the little boy Giuseppe Roncalli, now St. John XXIII. I, too, with my cousins, would bike to Somasca, after meeting up with another cousin who lived right in the next small village. Actually, we used to call Somasca with the name of saint: San Girolamo, so that we would say: “shall we go to St. Jerome?” But I didn’t know about the Somascans.
During my discernment, however, a very good friend of mine, one of those who had left home years earlier, became very persistent in telling me that I needed to make a decision about my vocation. He was with the Somascan Fathers. Well, in the end I knocked at that door and it opened. This was in 1976.

TCH: What does your role as Director of Clergy Formation and Chaplaincy Services entail? How do you think your perspective as a religious order priest will benefit your new role?
Father Dell’Oro: My new activity, which also includes being the Vicar for Clergy, is divided in three areas. One is the supervision of very effective departments that have to do with priestly formation, such as the Office of Vocation, (St. Mary’s) Seminary and the Permanent Diaconate, and the hospital, prison and port chaplaincies, all the way to the Mission Office. 
A second one, of great relevance is to be the Archbishop’s Vicar for Clergy, which brings me very close to the clergy in general and the priests in particular. It is an “awesome” — as the youth used to say — responsibility. 
The third one, as chairperson of the priests’ personnel board, is to assist our Archbishop in priests’ assignments.
As a religious priest, I think I can bring in the experience of community life, a certain closeness with my confreres, similar perhaps to that of a family, in which we pretty much know each other’s qualities, but also an understanding of our humanity and its flaws. I know that my confreres know that about me. Such experience helped me to highlight a sense of solidarity with one another. And, according to our charism as followers of St. Jerome Emiliani — the Universal Patron of Orphans and Abandoned Youth, a heightened sense of solidarity with the poor, who in many cases are the recently arrived immigrants. Also, a clearer sense of working in a new cultural environment, even though there are so many international priests with a similar experience, that I do not feel that “unique” in such regard. Perhaps, one more dimension is the awareness of the wealth of charisms that consecrated women and men bring to this Archdiocese, some of it perhaps still untapped.

TCH: Pope Francis proclaimed this year to be YCL. As a priest in a religious order, why do you think this celebration is important? What do you hope faithful and others will learn from the YCL?
Father Dell’Oro: Consecrated Life is a tremendous gift to the Church; it enlivens its hierarchical structure that is based on the magisterium. These two dimensions are in ongoing dialogue so that the Church is always going forward, moved by the charismatic dimension of consecrated life, at the same time that is absolutely rooted in the essence of our faith, i.e., the death and resurrection of Jesus, that the bishops — as successors of the apostles — firmly proclaim. And the message is that of love toward all, beginning with the weakest, vulnerable, destitute and poorest ones. The bishops, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, point us to the direction and call us back when we move away from it; consecrated life explores new territories of charity, so that we can move forward. Imagining the Church as a garden, we could see the hierarchical dimension as the network of trails that take us around all the way to the end, while the multi-colored and multi-shaped flowers could indicate consecrated life. And, as there are some flowers that everybody knows about, so there are many little ones, less known, who are both beautiful in themselves, and also lend beauty and color to the entire garden, like an impressionist painting. Yet, even more, there are always new flowers that grow up here, there and that blend in with older ones; all of this is more than a painting, it is a living canopy, with changing colors, always new, and ever in different places. The YCL gives us the opportunity to increase such awareness.
I do hope that we grow in our understanding of a Church that is alive indeed, and that there is future for the believers: we can look forward, without fear, even as we look back to see where we come from. But forward is where we are heading, led by our bishops, on a journey that is both the same great river and yet an ever new one. In the end, I truly wish that we can truly be a people of hope. We fundamentally know where we are heading — to the Father’s house, but we do not know the exact historical circumstances that we will encounter. It’s a bit scary, but trusting God, we can proceed. That is what I mean by being a people of hope. God only knows how much it is needed in our society today.

TCH: You have a long history in Galveston-Houston, particularly as an order priest. What type of impact have you seen by religious communities in the local Church over the years? How has their roles in the (Arch)diocese changed?
Father Dell’Oro: I have been in the Archdiocese since 1992. I have witnessed the changing of men’s religious orders; a few have pulled out due to various reasons, the main being lack of vocations, but others have stepped in, mostly from abroad, Africa and Asia. This is just beautiful, to see how the local Church has changed; in a way, our population also has changed, with an increased number of people who come from all the continents. 
The Church in Galveston-Houston has always found the resources to serve the sacramental needs of our faithful. Perhaps there are other needs that religious communities may be open to address, according to their own charisms, be they of service to the poor, or to increase the depth of spiritual life.

TCH: What ways have religious orders/communities helped form the local Church in Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston?
Father Dell’Oro: I am aware that women religious were instrumental in the establishing of the new diocese of Galveston, with schools and hospitals. Also, differently from other U.S. dioceses, Galveston-Houston never had enough priests of its own to meet the pastoral needs, not even during the great growth of priestly vocations of the 1960s. Since its very beginning, religious priests cooperated substantially to the establishment of the diocese; that reality still continues today, as we realize that one half of our parishes are ministered by religious priests, who also make up half the priests. Bottom line, there are great respect and appreciation between diocesan and religious priests. A reality this that is not common to all dioceses.

TCH: What hobbies do you you pursue in your spare time?
Father Dell’Oro: In my younger years I would have said mountaineering and rock climbing - I have old pictures to prove it! Also, I do like to read, from substantial novels like the “Red Horse”, the “Karamazov Brothers” and easier ones, like Tom Clancy novels. More serious books used to be scripture commentaries; in more recent years I have been reading some books on Christology and theology. I do love classical music: Bach and then so many wonderful others: Beethoven, Vivaldi, etc. Finally, I like TV and movies such as the Bourne Identity (series).

TCH: What words of wisdom do you have for those discerning the priesthood or religious life?
Father Dell’Oro: Be not afraid! You have nothing to lose by exploring this option; if it is not your vocation, you will always find a good woman or a good man and get married. If that is a risk, well… you need to take some risks and let go of what makes you feel safe, so that you start practicing dependence on God. Also, make sure that you have a significant connection with the poor; without it there is no true discernment and indeed, no true Christian vocation. 

Again, be not afraid!