When Brother Alessandro Brustenghi, OFM, was a teenager, he had two loves: music and Michael Jackson. Influenced by the King of Pop, the young Italian, born in a small village near Perugia, decided he wanted to be a drummer. But little did Alessandro realize that, when he was in his 30s, he would become a Franciscan friar and, like his boyhood hero, would cut a professional album of song entitled Voice from Assisi. Universal Music Group, the largest American Music Corporation in the world, produced the album.
His robust tenor voice, belying his slight build, resembles that of Spanish tenor José Carreras, who sings with such power. “Alessandro’s voice is pure,” says one critic. “His rendering of 11 songs on the album in Latin and Italian, like ‘Fratello Sole Sorella Luna’ and ‘Panis Angelicus,’ is passionately beautiful.”
Alessandro shuns publicity, but he graciously granted St. Anthony’s Guild permission to shoot a video as he answered questions about his twin vocation in good, if not always precise, English. As he talks, the friar radiates love and joy. He smiles continually and laughs often. But he admits that, like St. Francis, answering the call to serve Jesus unconditionally became a struggle.
Noting his musical talent and desire, Alessandro’s parents sent him to music school, where he began with the organ and piano. Then he graduated to an experimental school with normal lessons and many hours of music; finally to a conservatory. “We studied chant, harmony, composition and the history of music,” the friar recalls. “I also sang in the choir, but I had a tiny, thin voice.”
Meanwhile, in his late teen years, the shy young man enjoyed a religious experience. “I discovered the presence of God,” he humbly says, “not just the feeling of goodness but God as a person. I felt him close.”
Later, he saw a movie on the life of St. Francis. “I was deeply impressed by his simplicity and joy, his love of Jesus, his willingness to give up all material possessions, his love for all people, especially the poor.”
When he was 19, Alessandro began talking to a friar about entering the Franciscan Order. He confessed that he felt torn. “I wanted to become a musician and have a wife and children, a family of my own, but the call to become a friar was also strong.” It was a hard choice. “Finally,” he said, “I thought that my music, the organ and piano (he had long forgotten about the drums) was a gift I wanted to sacrifice everything to God. Of course,” he said with a laugh, “you need to sacrifice the bad things, not the good. But I did not know it then.”
He entered the Franciscan Order as a postulant in 1999 when he was 21. By this time he was singing, but he felt he did not have to sacrifice song, because “I was not very good.”
But he had not found peace in the first few years, so he withdrew for three years to live like a hermit, not wearing a habit, but singing, woodworking and restoring musical instruments. Eventually, he decided to re-enter the friary in 2005 and continue singing. By that time, his voice had matured and grown in timbre.
Woodworking for Bro. Alessandro is a passion that began in his childhood. “To work with wood is like working with people. There are different kinds of wood, as well as people, each one with its own imperfections, but beautiful.”
Bro. Alessandro has found peace and joy in his vocation and speaks lovingly of his commitment and his life in community. He describes his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, (solemnly professed in 2009,) as “links to Jesus.” Poverty, he explains, means to share everything with others; chastity to live truthfully, to be transparent and available to serve everyone; and obedience to forget self and remember others.
“The vows are not for yourself,” he explains. “They are for the whole Church. I want to live as St. Francis did. I feel his presence here.” (The interview was taking place in the old refectory in the Portiuncula Friary, located in St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi. The Portiuncula is the small chapel that served as the dwelling place for St. Francis, restored within the much larger Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.) “The saint,” the friar says, “became a true friend of Jesus, a genius in discovering the real message of Jesus, a genius in becoming a troubadour and following Jesus with joy, happiness and peace.”
He also considers his singing talent as a gift, but not for himself. “I see singing as just another way of doing evangelization, of making people feel the love of God. A homily by a good preacher can do that, but so can a song when sung right.”
Bro. Alessandro likes all good music—from Gregorian chant, to jazz, pop, rock and religious music. “Both Johann Sebastian Bach and Michael Jackson,” he says, “realized that good music comes from heaven and goes back to God.” He concedes that Jackson was not a Christian, but he insists, “He was a believer.”
For Bro. Alessandro, to be a lesser Brother is an opportunity to serve the needy ones, and to see the other person as a brother or sister, in the way St. Francis did. While being a friar in Assisi is a real challenge, Bro. Alessandro wants to make sure that the tourists he encounters leave Assisi as good pilgrims. “They come here to see the paintings, beautiful buildings, statues, but our call is to help them to discover Jesus, Francis, Clare and the Blessed Mother. That is a real challenge.”
Apart from his ministry in the Assisi friary as woodworker in restoring old furniture and being a host for tourists, the friar sings at concerts and exhibitions. His rich voice was brought to the attention of British music producer Mike Hedges, whose credits include U2, The Cure, and many others. Hedges arranged for Bro. Alessandro to fly to the famous Abbey Road Studios in London to record Voice from Assisi. It was the singer’s first plane flight.