Fr Luciano received the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, with the following justification: “Popular and loved in Melbourne and across Australia, Fr Luciano Rocchi has combined around 60 years of tireless pastoral activity, particularly in favour of those most in need, with his valuable contribution to journalism, thus becoming an irreplaceable reference point for Italians residing in Australia and an admirable example of devotion to one’s homeland.”
These words were spoken in August 2009, by the then Consul General of Italy in Melbourne Francesco De Conno, in St Anthony’s Shrine in Hawthorn.
Never has there been a more apt description.
Born Camillo Rocchi but fondly referred to as Fr Luciano, the Capuchin priest passed away two weeks ago at Cabrini Hospital.
Over the years, Fr Luciano was not only a committed priest with remarkable qualities, but he was also so much more.
Born 91 years ago in Prignano sulla Secchia, in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, Fr Luciano was the only son among six daughters.
He began his religious studies at the age of 13 at the seminary in Reggio Emilia.
Just months after he was ordained in 1950, he left his job as a humanities teacher at the Liceo di Pavullo, in Modena, to accept an offer to go to Australia as a missionary.
In the following years, Australia would become a second home for thousands of Italian migrants.
The 25-year-old wanted to go to Ethiopia, but due to the Italo-Ethiopian conflict, the Church chose to send only Maltese missionaries there.
Many years have passed since that September in 1951, when, on the ship that transported him to Australia, the young Luciano Rocchi looked out of the porthole to take an “explorer’s glimpse” at Melbourne - an image captured by the lens of a photojournalist.
During those years, his pastoral activities led him to his involvement in the gradual formation of the Italian communities in various areas of Australia.
Fr Luciano stayed in Melbourne until 1953 (at Saint George’s Church - now Sacred Heart Catholic Church - on Rathdowne Street in Carlton), before spending two years in Adelaide, then moving to Halifax, in Queensland, in 1956 where he stayed until 1962.
After two years in Brisbane, he moved on to Perth for a year, before spending around five years in Griffith, in NSW, where he taught Italian and Latin at the seminary at Plumpton and offered his services at the leper hospital in Bathurst.
From 1971 to 1977, Fr Luciano was in Melbourne, then Adelaide until 1980, before he finally settled in Melbourne, becoming appointed rector and pastor at St Anthony’s Shrine.
It was there that he lived out his golden years, as editor of the religious periodical Il Campanile, published by the church.
Following Fr Luciano’s return to Melbourne, St Anthony’s Shrine soon replaced St George’s Church as the church of the Italian community.
There are thousands of photos which portray happy couples before the famous altar, with their shiny, new wedding rings on their fingers.
There are thousands of parents who had their children baptised there – children who would go on to celebrate their sacraments there, and perhaps even say their wedding vows in the same church.
I met Father Luciano in October 1988, when the then President of Italy Francesco Cossiga visited Melbourne, and I was covering the event for SBS Radio.
A mutual friend - Luciano Bini - introduced us, identifying the man standing before me in white pants and shoes and a red Ferrari jacket as Fr Luciano.
I thought he was kidding until I saw, under the jacket of a hardcore fan, a clerical collar.
Then I realised he was serious.
His passion for motorsport was legendary, so much so, that in an article published years ago in LA FIAMMA, the late Pino Bosi defined him as the “flying Capuchin”.
Fr Luciano - who presented a religious radio segment on Rete Italia for years, opening with the iconic words “Pace e bene, buona sera” (Peace and goodwill, good evening) – was a man of faith, a Ferrari fan and a car enthusiast.
His first love was the Alfa Romeo, but he later “converted” to BMW.
On one occasion, he told me of when he returned home to Prignano sulla Secchia, not far from Maranello, where it’s tradition to ring the church bells when Ferrari win a Grand Prix.
“I went to see the parish priest,” Fr Luciano said with a smile.
“I introduced myself and asked if I could go to the bell tower to ring the bells.”
He also recalled the time he had his licence confiscated for speeding en route from Melbourne to Canberra.
“I was going too fast, I have to admit; I had a beautiful Alfa which went like a dream,” he said.
“When I arrived in Canberra I was stopped by the police. I phoned a close friend – the Anglican Bishop in Canberra – and asked for his advice. He told me to go to the hotel, and that meanwhile he would find out and let me know. A few days later I had my licence back.”
To which I remarked, “So it’s true that the ways of the Lord are infinite.”
“Exactly,” he said.
Fr Luciano knew how to deal with the media, and every year his photo would appear in Melbourne’s newspapers for the blessing of the animals, which he celebrated at the beginning of October on the feast day of Saint Francis.
His devotion to both his homeland and his adopted home was unwavering.
Fr Luciano wrote a protest letter - published in an edition of IL GLOBO in March 1976 - against a bill supported by Italy’s three major political parties for the establishment of consular committees (precursors to Comites), which foresaw the exclusion from the voting process of those Italians who had acquired Australian citizenship.
In the letter, he stressed that the Italians who chose to become “naturalised” remained as Italian as ever.
“Our countrymen love, we love, Italy…undaunted and without reservation,” he wrote.
In the same letter, Fr Luciano declared his identity, affirming that after 20 years of holding Australian citizenship (in those days, priests without citizenship couldn’t celebrate marriages), and 25 years of missionary work within the Italian community, he would feel offended if “natives” didn't consider him for what he was - an Italian.
“In fact, my Australian friends would disown me,” he added.
Also unquestionable was Fr Luciano’s love for his mission in Australia.
In an interview published in IL GLOBO in 1981, our colleague Ivano Ercole asked him to describe his 30 years of priesthood, to which he replied: “A beautiful journey. There were some difficult moments, but mainly it was wonderful. It’s been an exciting experience.”
But we should be excited, for having had the privilege of knowing this man.
He was always ready to offer encouragement and a smile.
He welcomed everyone with open arms - in the church or elsewhere - in a collective embrace.
Personally, I will miss Fr Luciano’s visits to the offices of IL GLOBO and Rete Italia, when he would work his way around to every desk to give us each a prayer card.
I’ll miss his extended greetings when he would grab your arm and not let go, and the way he called us “champions” because we followed his lead in continuing to serve the community.
Fr Luciano Rocchi will be rightfully remembered at St Anthony’s Shrine, which he made the “Italian church” of Melbourne.
The church’s new rector and chaplain, Fr Giuliano Messina, has said that his first job will be to unveil a plaque in honour of the “flying Capuchin”, and he will also form a committee to decide on a monument in memory of Fr Luciano.