Fr Gianni Notarianni has recently been appointed as Vocations Director for the Augustinians in the UK, as well as parish priest of St Augustine’s in Hammersmith. He is also at the heart of the new Austin Forum initiative.
Congratulations firstly on all your new appointments!
Many thanks – yes, it does look like quite a lot on paper but I have a great team around me for all of this so I am just taking things day by day at the moment and trying to remind myself that it is the Lord who is in charge here and not me!
How did God lead you to the Augustinians?
I grew up in an Augustinian parish so I got to know the friars as a child. But the Augustinians really began to intrigue me when I was asked to get involved in their youth ministry as a student. Working alongside them helped me to get to know them better and I discovered that they were people I could really identify with. I felt at home with them and realized that I shared the same fundamental outlook and desires as them. From this my sense of being called to a vocation with the Augustinians took root and grew.
I believe you also have a passion for art…
Yes, as well as being an Augustinian priest I’m a painter. So I am very interested in the relationship between the Church and contemporary art. I don’t believe art should be used as a preaching tool - when that happens then art is no longer open to interpretation, a prerequisite for all great art - but I do believe religion and art can complement each other. One offers a creed, the other offers questions; both use the material world as a way into the immaterial world. I’m interested in looking at how Beauty can be a common ground for experiencing the Divine, for believers and non-believers alike.
This vision is central to the Austin Forum initiative. Could you explain what this is?
Austin Forum is a new initiative by the UK Augustinians which provides a creative public space where Catholics and people from other faiths and none can come together to explore spirituality and collaborate on community projects rooted in Augustinian values. We also focus on creative ways of working with young people in and outside the Church through social justice and arts projects.
Where did the idea for the project come from?
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emphasised the need to create meeting places between the Church and society - a space for dialogue "with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.” (Dec. 21, 2009). Pope Benedict likened this point of encounter to the Courtyard of the Gentiles; the part of the Jerusalem Temple where non-believers could ask the priests questions about God. Austin Forum was established with this idea in mind. Augustinian spirituality is shaped by St Augustine of Hippo’s belief that all people - whatever their background - are made in the image of God, and so it seemed natural for us to search for new ways to engage with people beyond the church pews.
How does Austin Forum’s vision connect with your own vocational journey?
My mother was a convert to Catholicism, and so I’ve always been interested in how the Church can be open to others. Many of my friends are not religious, and so I’m sensitive to how the Church is seen from their standpoint. As I approach the altar at Mass I always say the words from the Song of Songs, “Draw me, we shall run after you in the odour of your ointments”. I understand this as St Thérèse of Lisieux did - ‘draw me, Lord, and in following you I will take all those I love and know with me’.
I would say that, like St Augustine himself, an Augustinian is a restless person, somebody who will never say, “I’m content now, I can stop striving for more in life” - a person who’s not afraid to ask the big questions in life and share their search for meaning with others. I think Austin Forum speaks to all of this.
Who is involved in Austin Forum and what are you doing?
We draw upon volunteers from St Augustine’s parish in Hammersmith, where Austin Forum is based. At the heart of the volunteers is the new Augustinian Lay Community for young Catholic adults - a residential community serving the Church, based on Augustinian values.
In concrete terms this means youth work - organising workshops, projects, youth groups and retreats for young adults in and outside of the Church. We offer Confirmation retreat days to youth from other parishes in London. Also, arts-based projects, such as exhibitions by established and emerging artists. We also offer spirituality and interfaith activities – teaching and reflecting on Augustinian spirituality through workshops and retreats which offer opportunities for dialogue and reflection to people of all ages. Also, social justice programmes - reaching out to people outside the Church including marginalised groups such as immigrants. In recent months we have begun free English lessons for immigrants; created a peace garden, and launched an arts project which brings the creativity of Catholic and Muslim school girls together. We have also begun a course called “A Beginner’s Guide to Augustinian Spirituality”, which has proved to be very popular. Many people have commented on how relevant and contemporary the Order’s spirituality is.
And if someone wants to find out more…?
A website is being created but if you want to know more about Austin Forum or the Augustinian Lay Community, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or ‘like’ our Austin Forum Facebook page. And, of course, please keep us in your prayers for the journey ahead!