He would have chosen an arts high school, but his parents sent him to the science high school, assuming it would have helped him to take up architecture. But some lessons were very boring and as pupil, John used to draw cartoons on his notebook, such as the supply English teacher, who after a few hours of teaching became hysteric and her hair messy, or his math teacher who targeted the “nerd” of the class because sometimes he knew more than she did. Then he passed these cartoons to his classmates to get some feedback, a prototype of social networks.
We met John Berti, aka Gioba, in the parish he had been assigned to by the Bishop 6 months ago in Moniga del Garda, province of Brescia, diocese of Verona. There is an enchanting view on the Lake Garda. Your sight follows the line of the south coast, Desenzano, Sirmione, Peschiera… In front of the rectory, there is the ancient keep of the castle. The Hungarians built it in the tenth century for defense reasons. Today it is a bell tower. “From here, I can operate the bells with an electronic device” Father John says. Now he has learned to use them, but he had gotten in trouble at the beginning: “I had to set the bells for 1 minute and 15 seconds once, instead I set them for an hour and 15 minutes. The bells have started to ring and I had no idea how to stop them. I panicked for a moment,” he tells us smiling. Father John is like that. He likes to play down and laugh at things that others take too seriously. “There was always merriment in my family.” His father, mother, and three sisters, all of whom are married today. Whereas he has chosen a different path.
He invites us to sit down on the sofas of his office at the rectory. There is a computer with two screens in front of us. He uses it also to paint his cartoons. Yet, he creates his artistic and pastoral work at a large desk, with papers, pencils, and other things scattered all over it. Some cartoons can be seen among his books, one of which is Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
Why did you start drawing?
“It was a game. A way to represent thoughts that crossed my mind, most of which were a fruit of my imagination. Often, I photographed details that a naked eye could not grasp”.
Who were your first victims?
“My school teachers. I drew caricatures of them to survive boredom. I was keeping a diary that might be considered a prototype of social networks. Every now and then it disappeared and travelled among my classmates. Then, I received it back enriched by the contributions of other pupils.
How did you represent your teachers?
“I am not a caricaturist. I did not draw their looks, but represented behavior patterns.”
You drew your cartoons and at a certain point you had the idea of becoming a priest. How did it happen?
“I have not thought about becoming a priest. It was spiritual growth, as it were. In fifth grade, I felt the need to question myself about a vocation. I had a friend who was in the seminary and I decided enter it too. He told me: ‘If one is too much of a priest before entering the seminary, he should stop.'”
Curiosity or search for prosperity?
“I would say it was a spiritual need to search for my path in life. Now, 23 years later, I am happy with this choice. The curiosity is that my friend in the seminary left the seminary and married my sister.”
Have you kept cultivating your passion also in the seminary?
“Yes. I used the common bulletin board where I attacked my cartoons. Satire helps to demystify the figure of authority. I teased both the rector and vice-rector, but in a funny way, to draw near, not to push away.”
At what age did you become a priest?
What is your source of inspiration today?
“People I associate with. I take cue also from the Gospel, trying to look at it in a funny way. The Gospel in my cartoons are ironic. When I speak of the Church, I do so in a teasing way.”
What kind of person is Jesus, in your opinion?
“We can only know Jesus through the mediation of the first witnesses. They had a human relationship with him and it was beautiful. That is how I feel about Jesus. Thanks to the Gospel, we do not perceive him only as the true God, but also as a real man, fully human. And when I meet people who are beautiful from a human point of view, I see Christ mirrored in them. Jesus even challenges the customs of the time to take care of people. This is why I like him.”
Every Sunday, you post on your blog a cartoon that captures the essence of the Gospel of the day. Can you joke about Jesus? Does one not risk trivialization?
“There are irreverent elements in the Gospel itself. Jesus was a great desecrator. Some biblical scholars point out that apparently, he healed on Saturdays intentionally to break the customs.”
Is it a way to evangelize?
“My blog is made of cartoons to express myself ironically. But it is also a way to prepare myself for the explanation of the Word, which is the primary task for me. Look up images, examples, keep it short…”
But sometimes you make fun also of certain aspects of the Church…
“Some people have even got angry. Perhaps I exaggerate at times. But Jesus’ friends were the ones who received the harshest treatment from him. He did so to help them grow, not guided by anti-clericalism “.
Pope Francis too uses harsh words to talk about the Church.
“He is doing great things, changing the perception that people have of the Church. Moreover only DGMI remain, everything else can be revised. A Church that hides in the trenches is useless. ‘The image of the Church as a field hospital is very beautiful. Jesus meets in the first place, then it generates repentance, not the other way around.”
For whom is your blog?
“I started the blog, then I started to use social networks, thus widening my communication area. It ‘is nice when someone writes, commenting, even saying that they have a different opinion. It is not easy to accept criticism but it is important in communication.”
The meeting with Operation Dove. How did it happen?
“In 2012, during a pilgrimage I made with young people, we were in Al Tuwani, in the Palestinian village in the hills south of Hebron, to meet other volunteers of the Operation Dove (Nonviolent Peace Corps). I was struck by the fact that a strongly religious community such as John XXIII connects with young people, some of whom are distant from the Church, through the topic of peace.”
What do you think about peace?
“That we cannot be at peace on the question of peace. Being peaceful people means commitment, even indignation. Building bridges instead of building trenches means believing, having faith. These people help me in my faith.”
Do you have points of reference as a cartoonist?
“The Peanuts, Charlie Brown: I like the simple and sarcastic quality that characterizes them. In Vauro, I like synthesis. To make a joke means to have an important ability to synthetize. My aspiration is to say something great, which gives food for thought, with a minimum of words.”
Do you have plans?
“My plan is to do be a good parish priest.”
Do you use cartoons also in this service?
“Usually, I put them in the back of the church. However, even during the sermon, I try to communicate through images while using words. The intimate encounter with the Lord is not programmable. I can hear Him speaking to me, but one needs to prepare to listen. The Word of God helps me a lot. I wish everyone could take a taste for God’s Word”.
What do people expect from you, a priest, today?
“They expect me to help them believe. A pastor should help everyone find something in the Gospel that is worth spending one’s life. Let people know that everything can be experienced in the spirit of the Gospel”.
Do you feel more a priest or a cartoonist?
“Definitely a priest. One is a priest first and foremost as a human being. My signature reads John Father, because the person comes first. Making cartoons is a characteristic of mine, others have other qualities. It is nice that everyone enriches his priesthood with personal features, one ‘s own humanity.”
Taken from Always