Milan—the largest city in Northern Italy (and the second-largest in the country after Rome), with a population of over 1.3 million. Milan is known as the trend-setter of fashion and as a leading tourist center. One of the most beautiful Roman Catholic cathedrals is located there—an architectural extravagance of the fourteen-nineteenth centuries, built of white marble in the Gothic style. For Orthodox people, Milan is an important place of pilgrimage—in a crypt in the Basilica of St. Ambrose (Sant ‘Ambroggio), situated on the square of the same name, rest the relics of St. Ambrose of Mediolanus (Milan), a bishop of the fourth century who was a famous preacher and hymnographer.
Some Orthodox people travel to Milan to meet and talk with a man of lofty faith and sincere Christian convictions, living in our own day. Archimandrite Dimitri (Fantini), rector of the Church of SS. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov, and Vicentius of Saragossa—a native Italian who has become the spiritual guide for many Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldavians who have come to the land of Italy. Batiushka’s fate and his road to Orthodoxy are one of the multitude of miracles with which God glorifies His Church.
But as a teenager, Giuseppino became disenchanted with the Roman Church, left it, and went off to the Methodists. As Batiushka said to me, "Thanks to my personal experience, I know all the Christian confessions well: Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism." The future archimandrite received a strictly secular education: he graduated from medical school.
"I wanted to become a doctor," says Fr. Dimitri. “My dream came true, and I really did become a doctor, a traumatologist. I worked for more than twenty years at the Institute of Traumatology in Bergamo… At this same time I was spiritually searching, which led me to Orthodoxy.
As Batiushka acknowledges, this searching was not simple, and took several years. His first step was becoming acquainted with the great writers of the nineteenth century, and through them—with Orthodox Russia and its spirituality. However, one of the founts of this spirituality was quite nearby: at that time, the parish of St. Nicholas under the omophorion of the Moscow Patriarchate was open in Milan.
“Everything happened in a kind of amazing, miraculous way,” says Fr. Dimitri. “I remember, I said to myself on the twelfth of December 1976, ‘Today I’m not going to the Methodists; I’m going to the Russian Orthodox church.’ Thus I found myself in the chapel of a medieval hospital, where the community held services. There weren’t very many people—mostly old women from the first wave of emigrés. I was enchanted by the atmosphere of the service and the church chanting. After the service I went up to the priest and introduced myself…. But, as it appeared to me, no visible changes occurred after my visit: I went back to my customary religious practice in the Methodist community.
However, the Italian who was seeking the truth was slightly mistaken: they did not forget him in the Russian community. The next year Giuseppino unexpectedly received an invitation to visit Russia. Archimandrite Evlogy (Hessler), the rector of St. Nicholas Church in Milan, was the one who invited him. The trip to the USSR had a mostly touristic character, but nevertheless included a visit to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and even a meeting with Patriarch Pimen. There were a great many impressions, even though the guest from Italy saw only a little bit of Russian Orthodoxy. But when Giuseppino Fantini returned home to Italy, it seemed to him that everything had ended and that there would be nothing more.
“I went to the Russian church to thank Fr. Evlogy for the trip. They unexpectedly asked me to sing in the choir,” relates Fr. Dimitri. “I agreed, although I stayed Methodist. In 1978 I travelled to Russia a second time at the invitation of the Patriarchate, as a member of a group of singers. The program of the second visit was more religious and therefore allowed me to get to know Orthodoxy better. For example, we visited monasteries, and our guide was Archimandrite Lev (Tserpitsky), now Metropolitan of Novgorod. He spoke Italian very well.
Giuseppino Fantini made a radical decision soon after his second trip to the USSR: in 1979 the former Methodist became Orthodox. In 1980 he became a monk, and at the end of the same year—a priest (the ordination was performed by Bishop Seraphim (Rodionov), vicar of the Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate in Western Europe). Unfortunately, the religious situation in Milan at that time changed for the worse: Archimandrite Evlogy left the Russian Orthodox Church and went into schism, subsequently going from one uncanonical jurisdiction to the next. At the present time Evlogy heads the self-proclaimed “Milan Synod.”
Fr. Dimitri, realizing the perniciousness of schism, always remained faithful to the Russian Church. The Providence of God was evident in this: the young Hieromonk Dimitri set off on the path of priestly service just at the time that Archimandrite Evlogy began to bring into reality his idea of leaving the canonical jurisdiction.
For a while Batiushka served in the Romanian church in Milan (and also in the Church of All Saints in Modena and in the Zurich parish before Archimandrite Gury (Shalimov) was assigned there), but later he was able to found the parish of Sts. Sergius of Radonezh and Seraphim of Sarov in Milan, in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. His first liturgy in the rented quarters of the new church (in a residential building in Milan) was served in November 1985. Fr. Dimitri himself painted the icons for the church and the iconostasis. In 1996 the community moved to the Church of St. Vicentius (on Giorgio Giulini St.), which to this day houses the Romanian parish. After the move, the name of St. Vicentius of Saragossa (a fourth century Spanish hieromartyr who suffered for the Faith during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian) was added to the name of the community. The church on Giulini Street has remained the place for their services to the present day, because there is as yet, unfortunately, no opportunity to build their own church in the community of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Impelled by a missionary calling, Fr. Dimitri also founded parishes in other cities in Northern Italy: Turin, Verona, Brescia and Varese. All these are still functioning in good order to the present day. In Turin the rector has been Igumen (Abbot) Ambrose (Cassinasco) since 2001; in Brescia Archimandrite Vladimir (Porubin) performs the Divine services; in Verona, Archpriest Sergei Dmitriev; and in Varese, Fr. Vladimir Homenko. Fr. Dimitri left his work as a traumatologist in the hospital in 1991 and now is able to fully devote himself to serving in Milan.
“At first, of course, I had to combine serving with secular work,” recalls Batiushka. “I served in Milan, but worked in Bergamo, fifty kilometers from Milan. At work no one knew that I was a priest. They only found out when I appeared on a religious television program one Sunday morning. I thought that no one watched this program, but I was mistaken. The next day everyone at the hospital was talking about the fact that I was a priest.”
“And how did they relate to that?”
“Positively on the part of the patients and medical personnel; negatively on the part of the management. The administration could not even conceive of someone being a doctor and a priest at the same time.”
“Did they force you to quit?”
“No—things didn’t get that far. Leaving was my own personal choice. I left in 1991, when I could receive a normal pension. I think that it was providential: a mass emigration from the former USSR began in the 1990’s, and I was able to give all my time to the people who came to church, as there were more and more of them….”
Incidentally, at first Fr. Dimitri tried to actively use Italian in the services, but later he went back to Church Slavonic, which he learned on his own. The reasons were clear: there were very few Italians in the parish; the parishioners were mostly composed of people from the Ukraine, Russia, Moldavia, and also from the Baltics. Naturally, for the majority of them, Church Slavonic was familiar and something that they were used to. On the other hand, doesn’t the absence of the Italian language in the services quench the missionary spirit, which an Orthodox service might bring in Italy?
“You know, when I became a priest I dreamed of converting the majority of Italians to Orthodoxy, from darkness to the light,” says Fr. Dimitri. “Now, after serving for thirty-five years, my attitude has become more reserved. Even if Italians ask to convert to Orthodoxy, I try to find out how deep and sincere their motives are. Unfortunately, not so very many people seek God with their whole heart. Sometimes Orthodox women who have married Italians try with all their might to convert their husbands to Orthodoxy. I try to stop such “family” conversions, because very often they happen not from the heart, but rather are forced by the pressure of close ones.”
“No doubt the conversion of Catholics to Orthodoxy is also received negatively by the Catholic Church?”
“Formerly that was the case…. In their time, my relatives regarded my conversion to Orthodoxy very negatively. Hardly anyone knew about Orthodoxy in Italy at the end of the 1970’s. It seemed to my relatives that I was going off into some kind of sect, although, for example, my parents were not actively religious (and I, too, at that time was already outside the Roman Catholic Church). But now many more people know about Orthodoxy. But Catholics themselves, in my opinion, have become less zealous and more indifferent, more secular. The Catholic Church looks at this very negatively. From my point of view, ecumenism has made the situation even worse. Now all non-Catholic churches are lumped together into one “pot,” as it were, in the eyes of the Vatican, as secondary before the full primacy of Catholics. Catholics who earlier wanted to change their religion often do not see such a possibility and hold off from such a step.”
Of course, the example of the ascetic, self-sacrificing monastic life and the sincere love of God and neighbor that is evident in Archimandrite Dimitri’s service inspires and sets the heart alight; it does not leave the people around him indifferent. As the Gospel says, a light cannot be hid under a bushel. Thanks to Fr. Dimitri’s example, six men have realized their calling and have become monks, including the present rectors of the parishes in Turin and Novara, Frs. Ambrogio (Cassinasco) and Teofilo (Barbieri), and also the second priest of the Milan parish, Hieromonk Silouan (Yaroslavtsev). Fr. Silouan was ordained a hierodeacon in May of 2012 (in November of 2013 he became a hieromonk) and since then he has helped Archimandrite Dimitri in the services. Incidentally, it is in the parish where Fr. Dimitri serves that the present-day Georgian and Serbian communities of the Orthodox Church in Milan sprang up, for Fr. Dimitri has been a father and guide to all Milanese Orthodox for decades—regardless of their language or nationality. As Hieromonk Silouan remarked, “You’ve got to see with what love Fr. Dimitri’s former parishioners come to visit him.”