1910. Salesians of the San Francisco de Sales College in Viedma. Zatti, on the left of Don Bosco
We are in Viedma, around 1940. For a few years now, Salesian coadjutor Artemide Zatti has been the soul of the “San José” hospital that the Salesians have been running since the end of the 19th century in this city in Argentina’s Patagonia. A place where the care of life is not limited to physical health but is offered to people in an integral way … to all people.
A poor sharecropper had been hospitalized for several months. He was grateful for what Artemide Zatti had done for his health and for his whole person – without asking for anything since he was unable to pay. He wants to express his gratitude to him. Not knowing how to do so, he tells him, “Thank you for everything, Mr. Zatti. I salute you and extend many greetings to your wife as well, although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her….” “Neither have I,” Zatti replied, laughing.
In big things, one can pretend. In small things, one shows oneself as one is. And in this answer, we can trace something of Br. Zatti’s life and heart.
Zatti had had to experience uprooting, emigration, the economic constraints that force him to stop studying to work, the difficulties in making his way in his community. All aspects that are symptoms of poverty… and this, paradoxically, will help him understand the pains and needs of the poor.
Living his Salesian vocation as a Salesian “coadjutor” or “brother” facilitates this closeness. Don Bosco thinks of Salesian Coadjutors as having a close educational presence among young people and in working-class sectors. He does this in a social context, that of Italy at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in which there is a lack of empathy on the part of the people toward anything “conventual” or “cloistered.”
This simplicity and the absence of ecclesiastical “forms” in the Salesian Coadjutors – which is not only about the habit or the tasks one performs, but also about the way of thinking, of looking at the world by understanding it as a place where the Kingdom of God grows and develops – allows them to be close and to be one more among others, and to reach out even to environments and people who, otherwise, would be far from the faith.
Thus, this vocation of the Salesian Coadjutor will refer not so much to what one can or cannot do, but how to be in the doing. Thus, many times we find coadjutors doing tasks or proposals that are not usual in Salesian activity, as it was for Br. Zatti to be a nurse.
Zatti’s vocation as a Salesian coadjutor is not the result of a lack or shortage because “he has no other choice,” given the tuberculosis he had suffered while in the Salesian seminary in Bernal prevented him from continuing his dream of being a Salesian priest. Rather, based on that circumstance, he finds another way to develop his life and his desire to serve and be happy. As is often the case, out of pain and limitation can emerge a surplus of love and much broader horizons than foreseen.
This closeness of Br. Zatti also expresses itself in another detail: he continues to move around on a bicycle. They offered to buy him a car, to move “faster” and “reach more people,” to be more effective – an offer he always refused. He prefers his bicycle, which allows him to stop and spend time with people.
Dr. Ecay, a doctor at the hospital, once asked him, “Br. Zatti, how is it you’re always in a good mood?” To which Zatti replied, “It’s easy, doctor: swallow bitter and spit out sweet.”
Having a cheerful face and responding with humor, even in the most difficult circumstances, comes from a heart that is at peace with God and feels loved by Him, that knows how to relativize situations, identifying the essential.
Perhaps Br. Zatti could have answered with an argument focused on the theology of religious life to that person sending his greetings to his wife… but his response was different. Understanding also that the vocation of the Salesian coadjutor is a bit more unknown and misunderstood, sometimes even with a lack of social recognition given the value society has of the figure of the priest. But this does not worry or sadden Zatti. He understands that what is essential continues to be the “people” – Da mihi animas, caetera tolle – and their well-being, and he devotes himself to them.
The nurses who would sometimes catch him at 5:30 a.m., before prayer with the Salesian community, prostrate in the chapel with his face pressed to the floor in deep prayer, know where Zatti found the strength to continue on the sometimes bumpy and difficult path of service to others.
There was always an excellent team at the hospital, which Zatti formed in his own image. Other Salesians and Daughters of Mary Help of Christians worked there, as well as several doctors and nurses. In everyone, the initial motivation was to be able to help those most in need with professionalism and an integral vision of the human being. And, from Zatti’s perspective, to help those who worked with him grow in faith.
One doctor, who had serious doubts about his faith, even said, “Here, in front of Zatti, my disbelief wavers… if there are saints on earth, he is one of them. When I am about to take the scalpel in the operating room and I see him helping in the operations, with his wisdom as a nurse and with the rosary in his hand, the atmosphere is filled with something supernatural….”
The prayer invoking Br. Zatti’s intercession reads, “May the joy of seeing him shining in the Heaven of your saints help us to witness your Light.” May his life as a follower of Jesus in the style of Don Bosco encourage us all to know how to reexamine our path and, in our respective vocations and professions, to allow ourselves to be shaped by God in our daily actions.
Originally published in the Salesian Bulletin of Argentina.