Two Families: the Cometa
A City Within the City

Ten years ago, the beginning: hosting a boy in difficulty. The adventure of Innocente and Erasmo Figini, who open their families to foster care. A place, a home where Christ is recognized as a provocative presence. A work of charity but above all of communion

by Michele Brambilla

Describing the Cometa Association of Como–that is, describing its headquarters, its rooms, its activities–isn’t difficult: it’s almost impossible. You have to go see it, you have to talk with the people who live there in order to understand just how different it is. The Cometa is a “structure” (let’s use the term, even though it doesn’t really do justice to the place) that hosts minors in difficulty, but it is very, very different from so many other “structures.”
It’s different for at least two reasons. The first is the beauty of the home, its rooms. Don’t think that this is a secondary or purely material aspect; beauty has a precise meaning, to make the boys really feel like sons, like members of the family, and not residents of an institution. The second reason is that the Cometa isn’t, in fact, an “institution.” It’s a private home, the home of the two families of two brothers who chose to open their doors to so many “new sons.” The big difference is that at the heart of the Cometa there’s not an organization, an association, or anything of the kind; there’s a family.

Two families, fifty “sons”
The Cometa is a large house on via Madruzza in Como where the two families of two brothers live: Innocente Figini is an optician and Erasmo is a furniture designer. These two brothers–both married, with children–currently host at home twelve boys in residential foster care (that is, the boys live with them day and night, just like natural children) and thirty-seven boys in day foster care. These thirty-seven boys sleep at home with their own natural parents, but during the day the people at the Cometa take responsibility for them: they bring them to school, pick them up, keep them at home in the afternoon, help them study, give them–with the help of professionals–all the necessary psychological and educative help they need. The Cometa also hosts daily seven children between the ages of one and three in a “family nursery.” Last December 13th–with the presence of the Lombardy Region President, Roberto Formigoni, Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini and Como’s mayor, Stefano Bruni–a new wing of the house was inaugurated, so that in 2004 the number of boys in foster care will increase. There will be eighteen boys in residential care and fifty-three in day foster care.
So then, the extraordinary fact of this story is that two families have offered hospitality in their home, alongside their natural children, to about seventy boys. I don’t think there are many other experiences of this kind.

A father’s exhortation
An extraordinary but, at the same time, simple story.
Innocente and Erasmo Figini, now not much more than fifty years old, weren’t, up to their thirties, what you would call practicing Catholics. They converted about twenty years ago, one a year after the other, first Erasmo and then Innocente. Their father, dying, exhorted them, “The important thing is that you live in communion.” So Erasmo and Innocente decided to unite their two families (they were already married) and moved together into the current house on via Madruzza.
One day, about ten years ago, the two brothers received a call from a priest: “Could you host a boy in difficulty for a while?” And this was the beginning, as if by chance, of the story that led to what exists today. The Figini brothers found themselves soon enough having to manage something much bigger than they had expected. In the meantime, in their search for an ideal home within that Church that they had recently discovered, they came to know Communion and Liberation. They requested a meeting with Fr Giussani. They were looking for advice on how to do this unexpected work they were about to begin. Fr Giussani’s response was surprisingly similar to the sentence their father had said on his death-bed: “The important thing isn’t that you do a work of charity; there are already lots of them. The important thing is that you do a work of communion.” Years later, then, another “father” of the Figini brothers repeated the same word: communion.

No particular method
Soon, a third family of friends will join the Figinis. So there will be three families caring for the seventy-odd boys in foster care. Certainly these three families can count on a lot of help, from foundations, public entities and private donors.
The activity of a working reality like the Cometa Association would be impossible without the patient work of the educators, teachers, and many paid or volunteer collaborators who sustain it daily.
Alongside the families, which maintain educative responsibility, is a team of specialists (a pedagogy specialist, a psychologist, a child neuropsychiatrist and a social worker) that every week supervises the activities. In addition, a team of volunteers helps the Association every day, taking turns in supporting the daytime activities.
So many different modalities of relationships, one passion: offering hospitality in order to educate. But the Cometa, I repeat, isn’t an institution; it is a family that welcomes, a family that opens itself up to the collectivity and takes on its problems.
The Figinis explain that there are not particular methods for helping these boys from families in difficulty. “The only method is an authentic passion for the life of the boys in foster care.” The relationship with these boys isn’t always easy, nor is day-to-day life. “But having a child in foster care,” Erasmus explains, “helps you to understand that all children, your natural children as well, are in foster care. It helps you understand that our children aren’t ours, they have been entrusted to our care.”

A tradition that lives again
One last observation: The day the new wing was inaugurated, Giorgio Vittadini reminded us that only since modern times have the poor, the infirm, and those with problems been relegated to institutions separate from families. Before, our society, born of the Christian tradition, didn’t conceive of this separation. The poor, the infirm, the crazy people weren’t outside the homes or outside the villages. Even the lazar houses for lepers were built inside the cities and towns, not outside. Vittadini recalled a beautiful episode from Ermanno Olmi’s film, L’albero degli zoccoli [The Tree of the Wooden Clogs]: the village idiot comes to a peasant family and asks for food, and he’s brought in, lovingly. When he leaves, the children laugh and their mother scolds them, “Don’t laugh at that man, because remember that the less fortunate, those who have received less from life, are those closest to the Lord.” This is the tradition of our families, the tradition that the families of the Figini brothers are bringing to life again.