“BECOME SAINT AND DO IT SOON” FOR THE START OF THE MURIALDO YEAR
Circ. No. 5
Rome, March 30, 2019
Dear members of the Family of St. Leonard,
Today, March 30 2019, begins the Murialdo Year, which remembers the 120th anniversary of the death of St. Leonard and the 50th anniversary of his canonization. This is an occasion to be valued for reflecting on our journey toward holiness. A reflection that is to be personal, communitarian, as Congregation, and as Family of St. Leonard. With this circular letter, I want to get close to each one of you and to your communities, all invited to live this day of prayer and reflection. The official opening is celebrated at Villa Bosch, Buenos Aires, with the presence of a large number of confreres coming from all the organisms of the congregation. The conclusion will be on May 3, 2020, in Turin.
Good journey to all.
1. The Saints next door
Pope Francis in the apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate talks about “the saints next door” (nos. 6-9). These are believers, who live their life in the ordinariness of existence, who do not call attention with sensational gestures or deeds, who are besides us and we almost do not notice. Their holiness manifests itself in small and great gestures that life requires of all: on the occasion of fundamental choices, in managing life in its various and progressive stages, in accepting also the difficulties and pains of everyday life. They are saints because fully human, totally within the living conditions of men and women of this time. Their state of life (priest, religious, lay, married, young or old) is not an obstacle to realize the journey of the common vocation to holiness; rather, it gives color to the “type” of holiness, the quality of the message, the personal style. The saints are never equal one to another.
These considerations of pope Francis remind me of what Fr. Eugenio Reffo, first biographer of our saint, writes: “When one speaks of the holiness of theologian Murialdo, it should not be understood in terms of extraordinary things: there was nothing or almost nothing in him of extraordinary in the common sense of the word; but in his daily living he was so irreproachable and perfect and for so long a period of years, that this perfection and irreproachability must be considered as something extraordinary. We, who conversed with him familiarly for more than thirty years and frequented his room and ate with him, who saw him in prayer and assisted him sick and dying, we can confirm the extraordinariness of his virtues, because for such a long time and in such varied circumstances, conditions, places, we never caught him committing a fall of some relevance that was voluntary” (REFFO, Vita, pp. 207-208).
On the same line was Paul VI on the day of his beatification (November 3, 1963), when, answering the question: “Who is Murialdo?” said: “His history is simple, has no mysteries, does not have extraordinary adventures. It happens in a relatively calm way amid well-known places, persons, events (…) This new blessed is not a distant and difficult man; he is not a saint alien to our conversation; he is our brother, our priest, our companion on the journey” (Discourse quoted in REFFO, Vita, pp. 369-370).
It seems to me that, first of all, St. Leonard transmits to us a “style,” a certain way of living our own journey toward holiness. We, members of the Family of St. Leonard, want to recognize in the life of our founder a first and exemplary interpretation of “fare e tacere,” (do and be silent): namely, that “humility and charity” can and must be lived together.
2. A double immersion
Is there a secret that makes possible this journey of holiness? What was the “heart” from which the being and doing of St. Leonard found impulse? What is the “focus” of his existence?
St. Leonard spoke often of his baptism, reminding of it both himself and his confreres. In his Spiritual Testament he recalls with commotion the baptistry of the church of St. Dalmazzo where he was baptized on October 27, 1828, the day of his birth. He writes: “I enter your temple, my God. What impression of peace and love! In fact, here everything speaks to me of love: of that love that you had and that you still have for me, of that love that I owe you. Behold the sacred fount where your love gave me innocence and adopted me as your son through holy baptism.” (MURIALDO, Testamento Spirituale, 2010, p. 201). In a conference, he reminded his confreres: “Baptism calls us to be saints” (MURIALDO, Scritti, IV, p. 358).
St. Leonard tells us that, thanks to baptism, from the very beginning of his life he was immersed in the love of God, realizing that first and irrevocable immersion which is the very meaning of the word baptism. It is thanks to this immersion that from the beginning of our life we have received the call to holiness.
In his life, St. Leonard lived a “second immersion,” especially from the day when he accepted to be the Rector of the Artigianelli Boarding School: November 13, 1866. Fr. Vercellono writes: “In the life of this humble Servant of God we would search in vain for sensational and extraordinary deeds as we find in the lives of other founders of religious institutes. This is what is extraordinary: that he, coming from an illustrious and rich family, chose to live poor in midst of poor youth and persevered in his vocation notwithstanding the myriad of difficulties that he encountered, notwithstanding the oppositions and humiliations coming also from persons dear to him and through this perseverance he accomplished his sanctification” (VERCELLONO, Vita…, pp. 163-164)
What did immersion in the world of poor youth mean for St. Leonard? “Their moral misery should move us more than their material poverty: and, instead of becoming angry and losing too soon patience and hope, it should impel us to work harder and full of compassion toward these unhappy youth, not rarely truly more unhappy than guilty, such as we ourselves would probably be if, like them, we had been abandoned” (MURIALDO, Scritti, I, p. 90).
In the Josephan tradition we have always made ours the expression that we find in the text of the Rule: “The confreres love to live among youth as their friends, brothers and fathers, participating in their life, sharing their joys and sufferings, and creating with them a climate of trust and optimism” (RULE, Constitutions 50).
The St. Leonard whom we know immersed in the love of God, is the same person immersed among youth in order to be a witness of that same love. In other words: the tonality of God’s love toward himself that St. Leonard emphasizes, especially the characteristic of mercy, forms the foundation of his style of staying among youth. He welcomes because welcomed; loves because loved; forgives because forgiven; is merciful because he is aware of having received mercy…
In conclusion, he is father of youth because of the strong, rich and deep experience of the fatherhood of God. We (educators, religious, lay people, parents, teachers, etc.) are called to embrace St. Leonard’s charism in its spiritual and apostolic entirety. It is a specific path of holiness that St. Leonard lived first and that today it is offered to us in its exemplarity.
3. The exemplarity of St. Leonard
Can we speak of exemplarity? St. Leonard died in 1900, 120 years ago. He lived in a time distant from us in every aspect: cultural, ecclesial, civil, social, etc. Not only. In Gaudete et exultate, Pope Francis writes: “’Each in his or her own way’ the Council says. We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable. There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them” (GE 11).
What of the spiritual experience of St. Leonard can still interest us so that it may remain for us model and point of reference for a path of holiness? Our founder himself offers the answer:
a) Fr. Reffo writes: “Our venerable founder, just as he wanted holiness for himself, he wanted for his sons. There was no other goal for his works and ministries than to fulfill perfectly the program that should be shared by all priests: become saint and sanctify others” (REFFO, Vita, p. 216). A clear and precise program. There would be no need to add anything else because, as the pope says, the path to holiness is realized according to the times and the situations of each individual. The pope writes: “He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence. The call to holiness is present in various ways from the very first pages of the Bible. We see it expressed in the Lord’s words to Abraham: “Walk before me, and be blameless” (GE 1).
b) “Education is also a means of sanctification. Those who sanctify are sanctified. Have you saved a soul? You have predestined your own soul. How dear to God is this mission” (MURIALDO, Scritti, IV, p. 423). Maybe we have not reflected enough on the fact that mission is the way to sanctification, even though the first article of our Rule says that we “consecrate ourselves to God dedicating ourselves to poor youths” (RULE, Constitutions, 1). Consecration and mission cannot be separated. Together they are the way to holiness. Besides, in our mission we are at the service of the vocation of our youth, that they may discover God’s plan for them. Education thus becomes, at the same time, a human and Christian offer, an offer of the path of holiness for youth. Pope Francis writes: “We must be saints so that we can invite the young to be saints” (Synod 2018, Final Document. n. 166).
c) Fr. Reffo testifies: “Our venerated founder was a man of action and prayer, more of prayer than action” (REFFO, Vita, p. 255). Today we speak more commonly of Lectio divina, concelebration, desert, etc. But the invitation remains because it does not concern the content and forms of prayer, which depend on times and culture, but to praying as such, prayer as explicit and profound relationship with God. Pope Francis helps us to understand what it means to nourish our life with prayer. Let us listen: “Finally, though it may seem obvious, we should remember that holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration. The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God. They find an exclusive concern with this world to be narrow and stifling, and, amid their own concerns and commitments, they long for God, losing themselves in praise and contemplation of the Lord. I do not believe in holiness without prayer, even though that prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions” (GE 147).
d) In September 1898, St. Leonard is in Pinerolo for the spiritual exercises. He writes a series of notes in French, normally the language he chooses to express his most personal and intimate thoughts. He wonders whether those may be his last spiritual exercises and his reflections insist on the conviction of not having corresponded to the mercy of God, notwithstanding the many appeals and occasions offered by God’s grace. What to do now? This is the question. St. Leonard makes his own verse 11 of Psalm 76: “Nunc coepi,” “Now I begin.” In the section God to me” of the Spiritual Testament, St. Leonard expresses the same concept. He imagines God speaking to him and listing all the benefits with which he has enriched his life. From his point of view, he recognizes his lack of correspondence, made above all of refusal and apathy. Then the question returns: what can be done? “Nunc coepi,” “Now I start.” This is the answer, the determination, expression of trust and hope, that intentions become reality and that the desire of holiness does not remain… a pious desire. And us? An answer is needed.
e) Finally. Pope Francis states: “Growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others… Each community is called to create a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord” (GE 141, 142). St. Leonard borrowed an ancient expression and adapted it to religious life, even though it applies not only to religious, just think of family life: “Religious aut sint ut unum sint aut non sint” (MURIALDO, Scritti, IV, p. 351). Religious are either one united thing (a profound unity) or they are not. If communion belongs to the DNA of religious life, just as of family life, without it there is no path to holiness. In this sense we are called to create that “God-enlightened space” that is fraternity – a fraternity in which each individual realizes that reciprocity in love, that is the support and source of one’s journey as Christian and as religious.
f) If we imagine entering the Artigianelli Boarding School at the time of St. Leonard, we will meet some priests, religious and diocesan, but will certainly encounter many lay people. They are teachers, directors of laboratories, assistants, people responsible for the shops, volunteers. A little big world that collaborates in giving life daily to a project that is, at the same time, educational, human, and religious. I imagine them around a table, listening to St. Leonard who tells them: “We serve directly God by serving souls;” “It is good to gather together, but with the condition that our gatherings be what they must be: friendly, fraternal, charitable gatherings in order to do the good well;” “It is God who does the good, but demands as condition that we work, sow, do all we can and, then, pray, pray” (MURIALDO, Scritti, V, p. 22, 36, 65). When inaugurating the Family-Home in 1879, he told those present: “Take out, gentlemen, the religious spirit from this body that you have formed and what will your work achieve? (MURIALDO, Scritti, IV. P. 253).
4. On the way
St. Leonard always felt to be on the way. On his death bed, to the doctor who asked him how he felt, he answered: “I am waiting.” In his docility to the will of God he lived in this attitude of “waiting” for the encounter with his Lord, that Lord from whose mercy he felt surrounded during his whole life and to which he totally abandoned himself. Maybe here is the secret of everything: to abandon oneself to the mercy of God. As St. Leonard said: “Let us give space to God. He loves us more than we love ourselves and our destiny is better in his hands than in our own” (MURIALDO, Epistolario, III, 1222).
Pope Francis writes: “Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint” (EG 34).
To everyone, have a good journey in this Year of St. Leonard.
Let us ask to our patron saints that this year may bear fruit in living our consecration and mission in the name of St. Leonard.
30 marzo 2019