Fr. Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Toronto’s poet laureate from 2004-09, calls himself “a creative cities exponent with a Gospel mandate underneath.” Photo by Michael Swan

The gospel according to Di Cicco

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  • May 27, 2017

UPTERGROVE, ONT. – Ordinary lives, however quiet or unnoticed, are a sequence of miracles, tragedies and triumphs. We all stumble into hell and are repeatedly resurrected into ultimate beauty.

But that’s not the language of daily life. We talk about the weather, old times and how things have changed. We are dismayed by the news. We mutter about a narrow range of acceptable topics. But love, death, the communion of the saints, the body of Christ, transcendence and eternity, redemption, resurrection — all of that is uncertain ground for cautious, ordinary pilgrims.

Which is why we need Fr. Pier Giorgio Di Cicco — priest, poet and essayist. Di Cicco lives inside the language of holy mysteries and understands daily life in terms of our common quest for transcendence.

“Before you’re a saint, you have to become a mystic,” Di Cicco tells me over fried eggs in his red brick rectory in the middle of farm country north of Lake Simcoe.

Di Cicco was Toronto’s second poet laureate and held the post from 2004 to 2009. In addition to at least 20 volumes of poetry, he is the author of Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City – a thin volume of crystallized insights into the challenge of contemporary urban life.

Since the early 2000s he has consulted with municipal and regional governments across Canada and the United States, helping civil servants and politicians think about their jurisdictions as more than infrastructure, architecture, markets and regulations. He talks to planners, architects and geographers about what they do as a contribution to the culture of encounter.

He calls himself, “a creative cities exponent with a Gospel mandate underneath.”

Di Cicco is rather proud of that bit about a Gospel mandate. With friends such as urban thinker Richard Florida, broadcasting mogul Moses Znaimer and former Toronto mayor David Crombie, Di Cicco has snuck his Gospel sensibility into conversations at the highest levels about how we live in cities.

In Municipal Mind Di Cicco urges civic leaders to fall in love.

“People who are not in love are irresponsible,” he writes. “A town that is not in love with itself is irresponsible, and civically apt for mistakes. Responsibility is a cold duty. It inspires no one. A citizenry is incited to action by the eros of mutual care, by having a common object of love — their city.”

If there’s any irony in an urban thinker and poet living as resident priest at St. Collumbkille Church in Uptergrove, Ont., Di Cicco doesn’t acknowledge it. Surrounded by farm country about 140 km north of downtown Toronto, he’s more surprised to find that the area’s Irish families have so easily accepted an Italian priest.

Born in Arezzo, an hour south of Florence, Italy, Di Cicco landed in Canada as a three-year-old in 1952, part of the great wave of post-war immigration. He grew up in Toronto, Montreal and Baltimore, Md., to tend bar and study literature at the University of Toronto, publishing poetry in chapbooks available in literary haunts near the campus. By 1978 the 29-year-old Di Cicco was not only an established voice in a generation of emerging poets, he was editor of a significant volume of Italian-Canadian poetry called Roman Candles.

We now take for granted that Canadian literature synthesizes the world. Our literary awards and best-sellers’ lists are dominated by names such as MG Vassanji, Austin Clarke, Rohinton Mistry, Yann Martel, Michael Ondaatje, Vincent Lam and Madeleine Thien. But in 1978, the business of English literature in Canada was largely a branch plant operation with its head office somewhere in England, but operating as an adjunct to the New York office. Di Cicco was one of the first to challenge that narrow triangle with a more global view.

And then he went away.

Di Cicco vacated his literary career in the 1980s to become an Augustinian monk. But life in the monastery was in flux in those days and Di Cicco found himself out of tune with some of the changes. He left religious life, became an Archdiocese of Toronto diocesan priest and gradually rediscovered his lyric voice.

He also (at the age of 58) started playing trumpet, learning to improvise. A mouthpiece to keep his embouchure in shape sits in the middle of his kitchen table. In the front room of the rectory are a few of his 13 trumpets along with sheet music, LPs and unpacked boxes of books. He’s only been in Uptergrove a couple of months and unpacking doesn’t fit his routine.

Di Cicco’s career may sound a bit too romantic for a respectable novel. Who could sell the idea of a jazz-musician, poet-priest who hobnobs with politicians and academics on matters of urban philosophy while living in splendid isolation in Ontario’s most famous haunted, country church? (That’s right, Google “St. Columbkille in Uptergrove” and you will come up with ghost stories. “The Irish love that stuff,” Di Cicco tells me.) But the reality of Di Cicco’s life is tied down to the most ordinary experience of any parish priest.

A life dedicated to being with people as they face their ultimate destiny is behind his latest book of poetry, My Life Without Me. Available from Mansfield Press, these 60 poems face all manner of disembodied experience — from the onset of dementia to how our lives are absorbed into the Internet.

“I was never in my body, and I drifted through/others like wind through sheaves of wheat,/in the exoskeleton of faith,” he writes in “Lyric For The Soul’s Confections.”

Di Cicco can accept Alzheimer’s with more equanimity than our culture’s preference for the web. “The cyberworld is evacuating the physical world,” he said.

He sees the empty streets of towns, villages and cities after 8 p.m. and wonders how we will ever know or experience the body of Christ if we do not know ourselves as real people — humans who can only know themselves by knowing others. “The genius of casual encounters in the incarnate realm,” are the only thing Di Cicco knows that can keep us human. As we lose our humanity, we lose Christ.

We now face “the anti-Christ in the guise of a microchip,” Di Cicco told me. “We’ve been very naive and stupid about it.”

“People still suppose that technology services them,” he says and rolls his eyes. “We no longer access the web. We are the web.”

His own solution is to offer up his struggles — his loneliness, his failing memory, his sense of being out of place in this world — to God. “When you offer it up to God, you shorten the grieving process,” he said. “What you heal in yourself you heal in the body of Christ.”

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