Remembering Fr. John Bonanomi: The tolerant man and example of humility

Fr. Giovanni Bonanomi (centre) in the Alpignano community receives a visit from his confreres from the missions in Africa. Photo: Jaime C. Patias

Talk of a tolerant people, and I can swear there are few, if not rare! Tolerance is rather a special and scarce gift. In truth, it is a vital virtue, that helps us to put up with individuals with different ways as well as opinions in life. If there is a tolerant person I have ever met, it was Fr. John Bonanomi who passed away on 03 April 2024 at the age of 92.

By Jonah M. Makau *

Having been his student in the propaedeutic stage of formation in 2002 to 2003, I can attest that he not only welcomed us and introduced us into religious life, but also calmed our fears in what was a turbulent here. As the assistance of Fr. Giancarlo Rossi, the Rector, Fr. Bonanomi demonstrated the best example of collaboration and humility. As part of the formative team, he worked closely with the tough Rector and yet still found a way of not being overbearing to us.

His gift of tolerance made him understand that many of us were new in the religious environment, and therefore we needed time and encouragement to catch up with those who had been in minor seminaries. As a father, Fr. Bon, as we used to call him, was excellent in that. He never assumed anything. He was ready to go over something over and over again, until a person understood. To him, everybody could be moulded into something good. He seemed to believe that anyone could shine into what God had created him for, if he is given time, help and some kind of encouragement.

Having been his student also in philosophy, many of us can verify that if anybody was dismissed by Fr. Bonanomi from the seminary, then that person was truly not called to be a priest, leave alone a Consolata missionary. Fr. Bonanomi had a heart of gold. He never forced his will on people, and yet he never became their puppet. His gift of tolerance enabled him to be both firm in formative principles, and yet fatherly enough to make even the most stubborn student to see his mistake. That’s the complexity of the gift of tolerance. It does not mean closing the eyes so as not to see mistakes, ignoring errors, or pretending not to see the needed corrections.

Fr. Giovanni Bonanomi and Fr. Jonah M. Makau in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Personal archive

Tolerance is not the acceptance of a situation for the sake of peace. Instead, tolerance is remembering that all of us are created differently, and that there is a need to collaborate, to cooperate, and to coexist in peace and harmony. Tolerance is the capacity to give a person a second, a third, and even forth chance. It is the capacity to see a promising future in a turbulent young person who is trying his best to dodge the challenges of youth. Fr. Bonanomi happened to have had that rare gift. This does not mean that he never got pissed off by our behaviours. It means that as an elder, he knew how to handle his disappointment is in dealings with us. As an elder, he knew how to handle the frustrations of living with growing young people, who were in need of constant direction and correction. He was truly worthy of the title “an elder”: even when he was annoyed, he knew how to control his emotions and to avoid outbursts.

It was the opportunity to be his students in theology that made us that we were living with a holy man. Many of us remember Fr. Bonanomi who left us this year, as a person who taught through examples. Although it may be true that sparing the rod spoils the child (Proverbs 13:24), Fr. Bonanomi chose a higher wisdom: tolerance. Probably he used to meditate a lot on Psalms 135:3-5. It says, “Lord if you would count our transgression, Lord, who would stand?” It seems that this verse gave bearing to his decisions. He understood that God tolerates his people, forgives them, and gives them a new chance to live as his children, using his own grace. This maybe explains why Fr. Bonanomi was a magnet to the students. He seemed to radiate peace and unity, even in situations that could have brought down the community due to tensions. As we remember Fr. John Bonanomi the great missionary who spend 40 years in Kenya, we should try to be as tolerant as he was. May the words of St. Paul, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23-24), wake us up from hypocritic self-righteousness, every time we are tempted to judge others harshly. May the lord make us also sharers in the gift of tolerance that he gives a chosen few.

* Fr. Jonah M. Makau, IMC, is taking a course of postulation in the Lateran Pontifical University in Rome.

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