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“He Governed the Church With the Austerity of Fasting”
St. Eusebius of Vercelli, the first bishop of northern Italy of whom we have sure knowledge. Born in Sardinia at the beginning of the fourth century, at a young age he transferred to Rome with his family. Later he was instituted as a lector: In this way he came to form part of the clergy of Urbe, during the time that the Church was suffering the difficult test of the Arian heresy.
The great esteem that many had for Eusebius explains his election, in 345, as the bishop of Vercelli. The new bishop immediately began an intense program of evangelization in a territory that was still to a large extent pagan, especially in the rural areas.
Inspired by St. Athanasius — who had written “The Life of St. Anthony,” founder of Eastern monasticism — founded in Vercelli a community of priests, similar to a monastic community. This monastery gave to the clergy of northern Italy a significant character of apostolic sanctity, and inspired important bishops such as Limenio and Honoratus, successors of Eusebius in Vercelli, Gaudentius in Novara, Exuperantius in Tortona, Eustasius in Aosta, Eulogius in Ivrea, Maximus in Turin, all venerated by the Church as saints.
Solidly formed in the faith of the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius defended with all his strength the full divinity of Jesus Christ, defined by the Nicene Creed as “of the same nature” as the Father. With this objective he allied himself with the great fathers of the fourth century, above all St. Athanasius, the herald of the Nicene orthodoxy, against the pro-Arian politics of the emperor.
For the emperor the simpler Arian faith was more useful politically as an ideology of the empire. For him the truth didn’t count, only the political opportunity: He wanted to use religion as a tie to unite the empire. But these great fathers resisted, defending the truth over and against political domination. For this reason, Eusebius was condemned to exile, as were other bishops of the East and the West: such as Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and Osius of Cordoba. At Scythopolis in Palestine, where he was confined from 355 to 360, Eusebius wrote a wonderful page of his life. Here too he founded a monastery with a small group of disciples, and from there maintained correspondence with this faithful in Piedmont, which is demonstrated best by the second of the three letters of Eusebius that have been recognized as authentic.
After 360 he was exiled to Cappadocia and in Thebaid, where he suffered severe physical maltreatment. In 361, Emperor Constantius II died, and was succeeded by Emperor Julian, known as the Apostate, who was not interested in Christianity as the religion of empire, but rather wanted to restore paganism. He ended the exile of bishops and in this way permitted Eusebius to take back his see.
In 362 Eusebius was invited by Athanasius to participate in the Council of Alexandria, which decided to pardon Arian bishops provided they reverted to the lay state. Eusebius was able to exercise his episcopal ministry for another decade, until he died, establishing with his city an exemplary relationship, which inspired the pastoral service of other bishops of northern Italy, whom we shall talk about in future catecheses, such as St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Maximus of Turin.
The relationship between the bishop of Vercelli and his city is made clear above all by two epistolary testimonies. The first is found in the letter we already cited, which Eusebius wrote from exile in Scythopolis “to my most delightful brethren and to my beloved priests, as well as to the holy peoples of Vercelli, Novara, Ivrea and Tortona, keeping firm in the faith” (“Ep. secunda,” CCL 9, p. 104).
These greetings, which show the emotion of the good shepherd when speaking to his flock, is confirmed to a large extent at the end of the letter, in the warm greetings of the father to each and every one of his sons in Vercelli, with expressions overflowing with affection and love.
One must underline above all the explicit relationship that unites the bishop to the “sanctae plebes” [holy people] not only of Vercelli — the first, and for many more years, the only diocese of the Piedmont region — but also of Novara, Ivrea and Tortona, that is to say, those Christian communities within his diocese that had reached a certain consistency and autonomy.
Another interesting element can be found in the farewell of the letter: Eusebius asks his sons and daughters to greet “even those who are outside the Church, and who have deigned to love us:” (etiam hos, qui foris sunt et nos dignantur diligere.) This is an evident sign that the bishop’s relationship with his city was not limited to the Christian population, but also extended to those outside the Church who recognized in a certain sense his spiritual authority, and loved this exemplary man.
The second testimony of the singular relationship the bishop had with his city appears in the letter that St. Ambrose of Milan wrote to the Christians of Vercelli around 394, more than 20 years after Eusebius’ death (“Ep. extra collectionem 14”: Maur. 63).
The Church of Vercelli was going through a difficult time: It was divided and without a bishop. With frankness, Ambrose declared that he couldn’t recognize in them “the descendants of the holy fathers, who elected Eusebius as soon as they saw him, without even having known him beforehand, passing over even their own fellow citizens.” In the same letter, the bishop of Milan clearly bore witness to his esteem for Eusebius: “A great man,” he wrote decisively, who “deserved to be elected by the whole Church.”
Ambrose’s admiration for Eusebius was based above all on the fact that Eusebius governed his diocese with the witness of his own life: “He governed the Church with the austerity of fasting.” In fact, Ambrose himself was fascinated, as he himself admitted, by the monastic ideal of contemplating God, which Eusebius had pursued in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah.
To begin with, Ambrose noted, the bishop of Vercelli gathered his own priests into “vita communis” [community life] and educated them “in the observance of monastic rules, even though they lived in the middle of the city.” The bishop and his priests had to share the problems of their fellow citizens, and they did this credibly by cultivating at the same time a different citizenship, that of heaven (cf. Hebrews 13:14). Thus they truly constructed a genuine citizenship in true solidarity with the citizens of Vercelli.
In this way Eusebius, while he took up the cause of the “sancta plebs” of Vercelli, lived in the midst of the city like a monk, opening his city to God. This trait did not take anything away from his exemplary pastoral dynamism.
Among other things, it seems that he set up parish churches in Vercelli to establish ecclesial services that were organized and stable, and that he promoted Marian shrines for the conversion of pagan rural populations. On the contrary, this “monastic character” gave a particular dimension to the relationship of the bishop with his city. Like the apostles, for whom Jesus prayed at the Last Supper, the pastors and the faithful of the Church “are in the world” (John 17:11), but not “of the world.”
Therefore, the pastors, Eusebius reminds us, should exhort the faithful not to consider the cities of the world as their permanent dwelling, but rather to seek the future city, the definitive Jerusalem in heaven. This “eschatological dimension” allows the pastors and the faithful to protect the hierarchy of just values, without giving into the trend of the moment, or to the unjust demands of political power. The authentic hierarchy of values, Eusebius’ whole life seems to tell us, does not come from the emperors of yesterday or today, but from Jesus Christ, the perfect man, equal to the Father in divinity, but at the same time a man like us.
Referring to this scale of values, Eusebius does not tire of “recommending without reservations” to his faithful to guard, “with every resource, the faith, to maintain harmony, to be assiduous in prayer” (“Ep. secunda,” cit.).
Dear brothers and sisters, I too recommend to you with all my heart these perennial values, and I bless and greet you with the same words St. Eusebius used to conclude his second letter: “I address you all, my brothers and holy sisters, sons and daughters, the faithful of both sexes and every age, so that … you may bring our greetings even to those who are outside the Church, but who deign to love us” (ibid.).
Cyril took care to ensure that his theology was firmly situated within the tradition of the Church, by which he sees the guarantee of continuity with the Apostles and with Christ himself.
Venerated as a saint in both the East and the West, in 1882 St. Cyril was proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII, who at that time also gave the same title to another important representative of Greek patristics, St. Cyril of Jerusalem. This shows that Pope’s attention and love for the Eastern Christian traditions; he would later proclaim St. John Damascene a doctor of the Church, showing how the Eastern and Western traditions express the doctrine of the one Church of Christ.
Information on the life of Cyril before his election to the important See of Alexandria is scarce. A nephew of Theophilus — who, as bishop from 385, upheld the Diocese of Alexandria with resolve and prestige — Cyril was most likely born in that same Egyptian city sometime between 370-380. He soon embraced the ecclesiastical life and received a good education, both in culture and theology. In 403, he was in Constantinople following his powerful uncle and, here, he participated in the so-called Synod of the Oak, which deposed the city’s bishop — John, later called Chrysostom. This indicated the triumph of the Alexandrian See over its traditional rival, the See of Constantinople, where the emperor resided.
Upon the death of his uncle Theophilus, though still young, Cyril was elected bishop of the influential Church of Alexandria in 412, which he governed with great energy for 32 years, working tirelessly to affirm its primacy in the East, strengthened by its traditional bonds with Rome.
Two or three years later, in 417 or 418, the bishop of Alexandria showed himself to be a realist and healed the rift in the communion with Constantinople, which had been going on since 406, in the wake of Chrysostom’s removal from office.
But the old conflict with the See of Constantinople was rekindled some 10 years later, when Nestorius was elected in 428, a prestigious but severe monk, educated in Antioch. The new bishop of Constantinople quickly brought much opposition because he preferred the title “Mother of Christ” (Christotòkos) for Mary, in place of “Mother of God” (Theotòkos), which was already beloved in popular devotion.
The reason for Bishop Nestorius’ choice was his adhesion to the Christology of the Antiochean tradition, which, to safeguard the importance of Christ’s humanity, ended up affirming its separation from his divinity. Thus, there was no longer an authentic union between God and the man Christ, and therefore, one could no longer speak of a “Mother of God.”
Cyril — the leading exponent of Alexandrian Christology at the time, one who emphatically underlined the unity of Christ’s person — reacted almost immediately, using every means possible beginning in 429, even writing letters to Nestorius himself.
In the second letter (PG 77, 44-49) which Cyril sent to him, in February 430, we read a clear affirmation of the pastor’s task to preserve the faith of God’s people. This was his criterion, which is still valid today: The faith of God’s people is an expression of tradition, a guarantee of sound doctrine. He wrote to Nestorius: “It is necessary to explain the teaching and interpretation of the faith to the people in an irreproachable way, and recall that he who scandalizes even one of these little ones who believes in Christ will suffer an intolerable punishment.”
In the same letter to Nestorius — which later, in 451, would be approved by the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon — Cyril describes his Christological faith with clarity: “The natures that have united in a true unity are different, but from both resulted one Christ and Son, not because, due to the unity, the differences of the human and divine natures have been eliminated, but rather because humanity and divinity united in an ineffable way have produced the one Lord, Christ, the Son of God.”
And this is important: The true humanity and the true divinity are really united in one person, our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, continues the bishop of Alexandria, “we profess only one Christ and Lord, not in the sense that we adore the man together with the Logos, so as not to insinuate the idea of separation by saying ‘together,’ but rather in the sense that we adore only one; his body is not something detached from the Logos, who sits at the Father’s side. There are not two sons sitting at his side, but one alone united with his own flesh.”
Soon the bishop of Alexandria, thanks to shrewd alliances, saw to it that Nestorius was repeatedly condemned: by the Roman See with a series of 12 anathemas Cyril himself composed and, in the end, by the council held in Ephesus in 431, the Third Ecumenical Council.
The assembly, which took place amid tumultuous and alternating incidents, concluded with the great triumph of devotion to Mary and with the exile of the bishop of Constantinople, who refused to recognize Mary under the title of “Mother of God,” because of a mistaken Christology, which claimed that Christ was divided in himself.
After prevailing in such a definitive way over his rival and his doctrine, Cyril was able to reach, as soon as 433, a theological formula of compromise and reconciliation with the people of Antioch. And this is also significant: On one hand there is clarity about the doctrine of faith, but on the other, there is the intense search for unity and reconciliation. In the years that followed, he dedicated himself in every way to defend and clarify his theological position until his death on June 27, 444.
Cyril’s writings — numerous and widespread in various Latin and Eastern traditions even during his life, which is a testament to their immediate success — are of the utmost importance for the history of Christianity. His commentaries on many of the books of the Old and New Testaments, including the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Psalms and the Gospels of John and Luke, are important. Many of his doctrinal works are also greatly important, in which he continually defends the Trinitarian faith against the Arian theses and Nestorius.
The basis of Cyril’s teaching is the ecclesiastical tradition, and in particular, as I mentioned, the writings of Athanasius, his great predecessor in the Alexandrian See. Among Cyril’s other writings, we must recall the books “Against Julian,” the last great answer to anti-Christian polemics, dictated by the bishop of Alexandria most likely during the last years of his life as a response to “Against the Galileans,” written many years before, in 363, by the emperor who was called an apostate for having abandoned the Christianity in which he had been educated.
The Christian faith is above all a meeting with Jesus, “a person who gives life a new horizon” (encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” No. 1). St. Cyril of Alexandria was an untiring and firm witness of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, emphasizing his unity above all, as he repeats in his first letter in 433 to Bishop Succens: “One alone is the Son, one alone is the Lord Jesus Christ, before the incarnation and after the incarnation. In fact, it is not a question of a Son, the Logos, born of God the Father, and another, born of the holy Virgin; but we believe that he who is before all time was born according to the flesh of a woman.”
This affirmation, beyond its doctrinal significance, shows that faith in Jesus, the “Logos,” born of the Father, is also deeply rooted in history because, as St. Cyril says, this same Jesus came in time by being born of Mary, the “Theotòkos,” and will be, according to his promise, with us always. And this is important: God is eternal, he was born of a woman and remains with us every day. We live in this trust, in this trust we find the path of our life.
The Servant of God was born in the little village of Faglavik, in the province of Alvsborg, on the 4 June 1870, the fifth of thirteen children born to Augusto Roberto Hesselblad and Cajsa Pettesdotter Dag. The following month she was baptized and received into the Reformed Church of Sweden in her parish in Hundene. Her childhood was lived out in various places, since economic difficulties forced the family to move on several occasions.
In 1886, in order to make a living and to support her family, she went to work first of all in Karlosborg and then in the United States of America. She went to nursing school at the Roosevelt hospital in New York and dedicated herself to home care of the sick. This meant that she continually had to make many sacrifices, which did not do her health any good, but certainly helped her soul to flourish. The contact she had with so many sick catholics and her thirst for truth helped to keep alive in her heart her search for the true flock of Christ. Through prayer, personal study and a deep daughterly devotion to the Mother of the Redeemer, she was decisively led to the Catholic Church and, on the 15 August 1902, in the Convent of the Visitation in Washington, she received conditional baptism from Fr. Giovani Giorgio Hagen, S.J., who also became her spiritual director. Looking back on that moment of grace, she wrote, “In an instant the love of God was poured over me. I understood that I could respond to that love only through sacrifice and a love prepared to suffer for His glory and for the Church. Without hesitation I offered Him my life, and my will to follow Him on the Way of the Cross.” Two days later she was nourished by the Eucharist, and then she left for Europe.
In Rome she received the Sacrament of Confirmation and she clearly perceived that she was to dedicate herself to the unity of Christians. She also visited the church and house of Saint Bridget of Sweden (+ 1373), and came away with a deep and lasting impression: “It is in this place that I want you to serve me.” She returned to the United States but, her poor health notwithstanding, she left everything and on 25 March 1904 she settled in Rome at the Casa di Santa Brigida, receiving a wonderful welcome from the Carmelite Nuns who lived there. In silence and in prayer she made great progress in her knowledge and love of Christ, fostered devotion to Saint Bridget and Saint Catherine of Sweden, and nourished a growing concern for her people and the Church.
In 1906 Pope Saint Pius X allowed her to take the habit of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of Saint Bridget and profess vows as a spiritual daughter of the Swedish saint. In the years that followed she strove to bring back to Rome the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, and to that end she visited the few existing Brigettine monasteries in Europe, an experience that brought joys, disappointments and no concrete help. Her dream of bringing to birth a Brigettine community in Rome that was made up of members coming from monasteries of ancient observance, was not realized. However Divine Providence, in ways that were quite unexpected, enabled a new branch to grow from the ancient Brigettine trunk. In fact, on the 9 November 1911, the Servant of God welcomed three young English postulants and refounded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of Saint Bridget, whose particular mission was to pray and work, especially for the unity of Scandinavian Christians with the Catholic Church.
In 1931 she experienced the great joy of receiving the Holy See’s permission to have permanent use of the church and house of Saint Bridget in Rome. These became the centre of activity for the Order which, driven on by its missionary zeal, also established foundations in India (1937).
During and after the Second World War, the Servant of God performed great works of charity on behalf of the poor and those who suffered because of racial laws; she promoted a movement for peace that involved catholics and non-catholics; she multiplied her ecumenical endeavours and for many people who belonged to other religions or other christian confessions, she was part of their journey towards the Catholic Church.
From the very beginning of her Foundation she was particularly attentive to the formation of her spiritual daughters, for whom she was both a mother and a guide. She implored them to live in close union with God, to have a fervent desire to be conformed to our Divine Saviour, to possess a great love for the Church and the Roman Pontiff, and to pray constantly that there be only one flock and one shepherd, adding, “This is the prime goal of our vocation.” She also devoted herself to fostering a unity of spirit within the Order. “The Lord has called us from different nations,” she wrote, “but we must be united with one heart and one soul. In the divine Heart of Jesus we will always meet one another and there we seek our strength to face the difficulties of life. May we be strengthened to practice the beautiful virtues of charity, humility and patience. Then our religious life will be the antechamber to Heaven.” On other occasions she said, “Our religious houses must be formed after the example of Nazareth: prayer, work, sacrifice. The human heart can aspire to nothing greater.”
Throughout her life she remained faithful to what she had written in 1904: “Dear Lord, I do not ask to see the path. In darkness, in anguish and in fear, I will hang on tightly to your hand and I will close my eyes, so that you know how much trust I place in you, Spouse of my soul.” Hope in God and in His providence supported her in every moment, especially in times of testing, solitude and the cross. She put the things of Heaven before the things of earth, God’s will before her own, the good of her neighbour before her own benefit.
Contemplating the infinite love of the Son of God, who sacrificed Himself for our salvation, she fed the flame of love in her heart, as manifested by the goodness of her works. Repeatedly to her daughters she said, “We must nourish a great love for God and our neighbors; a strong love, an ardent love, a love that burns away imperfections, a love that gently bears an act of impatience, or a bitter word, a love that lets an inadvertence or act of neglect pass without comment, a love that lends itself readily to an act of charity.” The Servant of God was like a garden in which the sun of charity brought to bloom the flowers of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. She was filled with care and concern for her Sisters, for the poor, the sick, the persecuted Jewish people, for priests, for the children to whom she taught Christian doctrine, for her family and for the people of Sweden and Rome. She was a humble Sister and most obliging to all who sought her help. She always felt a sense of duty and great joy in sharing with others the gifts she had received from the Lord, and this she did with gentleness, graciousness and simplicity. She was prudent in her work for the Kingdom of God, in her speaking, acting, advising and correcting. She had great respect for the religious freedom of non-christians and non-catholics, whom she received gladly under her roof. She practiced justice towards God and neighbour, temperance, self-control, reserve, detachment from the honours and things of the world, humility, chastity, obedience, fortitude in tribulation, perseverance in her praise and service of God, faithfulness to her religious consecration.
She walked with God, clinging to the cross of Christ, who was her companion from the days of her youth. “For me,” she said, “the way of the Cross has been the most beautiful of all because on this path I have met and known my Lord and Saviour.” Unremittingly her physical suffering went hand in hand with her moral suffering. The cross became particularly heavy and painful during the final years of her life, when the Holy See prepared the Canonical Visit of her Order as her health got progressively worse. In prayer and peaceful submission to God’s will she prepared herself for the final meeting with the Divine Spouse, who called her to Himself in the early hours of 24 April 1957.
The reputation for holiness which surrounded her in life increased after her death, and almost immediately the Vicariate of Rome began the cause for Beatification.
“Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).
Like the Apostle Paul, Padre Pio da Pietrelcina placed at the centre of his life and apostolic work the Cross of his Lord as his strength, his wisdom and his glory. Inflamed by love of Jesus Christ, he became like him in the sacrifice of himself for the salvation of the world. In his following and imitation of the Crucified Christ he was so generous and perfect that he could have said: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). And the treasures of grace which God had granted him so lavishly and unceasingly he passed on through his ministry, serving the men and women who came to him in ever greater numbers, and bringing to birth an immense host of spiritual sons and daughters.
This worthy follower of Saint Francis of Assisi was born on 25 May 1887 at Pietrelcina in the Archdiocese of Benevento, the son of Grazio Forgione and Maria Giuseppa De Nunzio. He was baptized the next day and given the name Francesco. At the age of twelve he received the Sacrament of Confirmation and made his First Holy Communion.
On 6 January 1903, at the age of sixteen, he entered the novitiate of the Capuchin Friars at Morcone, where on 22 January he took the Franciscan habit and the name Brother Pio. At the end of his novitiate year he took simple vows, and on 27 January 1907 made his solemn profession.
After he was ordained priest on 10 August 1910 at Benevento, he stayed at home with his family until 1916 for health reasons. In September of that year he was sent to the friary of San Giovanni Rotondo and remained there until his death.
Filled with love of God and love of neighbour, Padre Pio lived to the full the vocation to work for the redemption of man, in accordance with the special mission which marked his entire life and which he exercised through the spiritual direction of the faithful, the sacramental reconciliation of penitents and the celebration of the Eucharist. The pinnacle of his apostolic activity was the celebration of Holy Mass. The faithful who took part witnessed the summit and fullness of his spirituality.
On the level of social charity, he committed himself to relieving the pain and suffering of many families, chiefly through the foundation of the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (House for the Relief of Suffering), opened on 5 May 1956.
For the Servant of God, faith was life: he willed everything and did everything in the light of faith. He was assiduously devoted to prayer. He passed the day and a large part of the night in conversation with God. He would say: “In books we seek God, in prayer we find him. Prayer is the key which opens God’s heart”. Faith led him always to accept God’s mysterious will.
He was always immersed in supernatural realities. Not only was he himself a man of hope and total trust in God, but by word and example he communicated these virtues to all who approached him.
The love of God filled him, and satisfied his every desire; charity was the chief inspiration of his day: to love God and to help others to love him. His special concern was to grow in charity and to lead others to do so.
He demonstrated to the full his love of neighbour by welcoming, for more than fifty years, countless people who had recourse to his ministry and his confessional, his counsel and his consolation. He was almost besieged: they sought him in church, in the sacristy, in the friary. And he gave himself to everyone, rekindling faith, dispensing grace, bringing light. But especially in the poor, the suffering and the sick he saw the image of Christ, and he gave himself particularly to them.
He exercised to an exemplary degree the virtue of prudence, acting and counselling in the light of God.
His concern was the glory of God and the good of souls. He treated everyone with justice, frankness and great respect.
The virtue of fortitude shone in him. He understood very early in life that his would be the way of the Cross, and he accepted it at once with courage and out of love. For many years, he experienced spiritual sufferings. For years he endured the pains of his wounds with admirable serenity. He accepted in silence the many interventions of his Superiors, and in the face of calumnies he always remained silent.
He habitually practised mortification in order to gain the virtue of temperance, in keeping with the Franciscan style. He was temperate in his attitude and in his way of life.
Conscious of the commitments which he had undertaken when he entered the consecrated life, he observed with generosity the vows he had professed. He was obedient in all things to the commands of his Superiors, even when they were burdensome. His obedience was supernatural in intention, universal in its scope and complete in its execution. He lived the spirit of poverty with total detachment from self, from earthly goods, from his own comfort and from honours. He always had a great love for the virtue of chastity. His behaviour was modest in all situations and with all people.
He sincerely thought of himself as useless, unworthy of God’s gifts, full of weakness and infirmity, and at the same time blessed with divine favours. Amid so much admiration around him, he would say: “I only want to be a poor friar who prays”.
From his youth, his health was not very robust, and especially in the last years of his life it declined rapidly. Sister Death took him well prepared and serene on 23 September 1968 at the age of eighty-one. An extraordinary gathering of people attended his funeral.
On 20 February 1971, barely three years after the death of the Servant of God, Pope Paul VI, speaking to the Superiors of the Capuchin Order, said of him: “Look what fame he had, what a worldwide following gathered around him! But why? Perhaps because he was a philosopher? Because he was wise? Because he had resources at his disposal? Because he said Mass humbly, heard confessions from dawn to dusk and was – it is not easy to say it – one who bore the wounds of our Lord. He was a man of prayer and suffering”.
Even during his lifetime, he enjoyed a vast reputation for sanctity, because of his virtues, his spirit of prayer, sacrifice and total dedication to the good of souls.
In the years following his death, his reputation for sanctity and miracles grew steadily, and became established in the Church, all over the world and among all kinds of people.
God thus showed the Church his desire to glorify on earth his faithful servant. In a short time the Capuchin Order took the steps prescribed by canon law to begin the Cause of Beatification and Canonization. After examining the case, the Holy See, in accordance with the norm of the Motu Proprio “Sanctitas Clarior”, granted the nihil obstat on 29 November 1982. The Archbishop of Manfredonia was thus enabled to introduce the Cause and set up the informative process (1983- 1990). On 7 December 1990, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints recognized its juridical validity. When the Positio had been completed, there was the usual discussion on whether the Servant of God had exercised the virtues to a heroic degree. On 13 June 1997 the Special Meeting of the Theological Consultors was held and gave a positive judgement. In the Ordinary Session on 21 October 1997, with Bishop Andrea Maria Erba of Velletri-Segni, the Proposer of the Cause, together with the Cardinals and Bishops, recognized that Padre Pio da Pietrelcina had lived to a heroic degree the theological, cardinal and associated virtues.
On 18 December 1997, in the presence of Pope John Paul II, the Decree on heroic virtue was promulgated.
For the Beatification of Padre Pio, the Postulation presented to the competent Congregation the healing of Signora Consiglia De Martino of Salerno. The regular canonical process concerning this case was held at the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Salerno-Campagna-Acerno from July 1996 to June 1997 and the case was recognized as valid by a decree dated 26 September 1997. On 30 April 1998 at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints the Medical Board examined the miracle, and on 22 June 1998 the Special Meeting of Theological Consultors gave its judgment. On 20 October 1998 the Ordinary Congregation of the Cardinals and Bishops belonging to the Congregation, together with the Proposer, Bishop Andrea M. Erba, was held in the Vatican. On 21 December 1998 in the presence of Pope John Paul II the Decree on the miracle was promulgated.
nun, Discalced Carmelite, martyr
“We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting … and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God.” These were the words of Pope John Paul II when he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne on 1 May 1987.
Who was this woman?
Edith Stein was born in Breslau on 12 October 1891, the youngest of 11, as her family were celebrating Yom Kippur, that most important Jewish festival, the Feast of Atonement. “More than anything else, this helped make the youngest child very precious to her mother.” Being born on this day was like a foreshadowing to Edith, a future Carmelite nun.
Edith’s father, who ran a timber business, died when she had only just turned two. Her mother, a very devout, hard-working, strong-willed and truly wonderful woman, now had to fend for herself and to look after the family and their large business. However, she did not succeed in keeping up a living faith in her children. Edith lost her faith in God. “I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying,” she said.
In 1911 she passed her school-leaving exam with flying colours and enrolled at the University of Breslau to study German and history, though this was a mere “bread-and-butter” choice. Her real interest was in philosophy and in women’s issues. She became a member of the Prussian Society for Women’s Franchise. “When I was at school and during my first years at university,” she wrote later, “I was a radical suffragette. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am looking for purely pragmatic solutions.”
In 1913, Edith Stein transferred to G6ttingen University, to study under the mentorship of Edmund Husserl. She became his pupil and teaching assistant, and he later tutored her for a doctorate. At the time, anyone who was interested in philosophy was fascinated by Husserl’s new view of reality, whereby the world as we perceive it does not merely exist in a Kantian way, in our subjective perception. His pupils saw his philosophy as a return to objects: “back to things”. Husserl’s phenomenology unwittingly led many of his pupils to the Christian faith. In G6ttingen Edith Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler, who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, she did not neglect her “bread-and-butter” studies and passed her degree with distinction in January 1915, though she did not follow it up with teacher training.
“I no longer have a life of my own,” she wrote at the beginning of the First World War, having done a nursing course and gone to serve in an Austrian field hospital. This was a hard time for her, during which she looked after the sick in the typhus ward, worked in an operating theatre, and saw young people die. When the hospital was dissolved, in 1916, she followed Husserl as his assistant to the German city of Freiburg, where she passed her doctorate summa cum laude (with the utmost distinction) in 1917, after writing a thesis on “The Problem of Empathy.”
During this period she went to Frankfurt Cathedral and saw a woman with a shopping basket going in to kneel for a brief prayer. “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot. “Towards the end of her dissertation she wrote: “There have been people who believed that a sudden change had occurred within them and that this was a result of God’s grace.” How could she come to such a conclusion?
Edith Stein had been good friends with Husserl’s Göttingen assistant, Adolf Reinach, and his wife.
When Reinach fell in Flanders in November 1917, Edith went to Göttingen to visit his widow. The Reinachs had converted to Protestantism. Edith felt uneasy about meeting the young widow at first, but was surprised when she actually met with a woman of faith. “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it … it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me – Christ in the mystery of the Cross.”
Later, she wrote: “Things were in God’s plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that – from God’s point of view – there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God’s divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God’s all-seeing eyes.”
In Autumn 1918 Edith Stein gave up her job as Husserl’s teaching assistant. She wanted to work independently. It was not until 1930 that she saw Husserl again after her conversion, and she shared with him about her faith, as she would have liked him to become a Christian, too. Then she wrote down the amazing words: “Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust.”
Edith Stein wanted to obtain a professorship, a goal that was impossible for a woman at the time. Husserl wrote the following reference: “Should academic careers be opened up to ladies, then I can recommend her whole-heartedly and as my first choice for admission to a professorship.” Later, she was refused a professorship on account of her Jewishness.
Back in Breslau, Edith Stein began to write articles about the philosophical foundation of psychology. However, she also read the New Testament, Kierkegaard and Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. She felt that one could not just read a book like that, but had to put it into practice.
In the summer of 1921. she spent several weeks in Bergzabern (in the Palatinate) on the country estate of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another pupil of Husserl’s. Hedwig had converted to Protestantism with her husband. One evening Edith picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila and read this book all night. “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth.” Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: “My longing for truth was a single prayer.”
On 1 January 1922 Edith Stein was baptized. It was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, when Jesus entered into the covenant of Abraham. Edith Stein stood by the baptismal font, wearing Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ white wedding cloak. Hedwig washer godmother. “I had given up practising my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God.” From this moment on she was continually aware that she belonged to Christ not only spiritually, but also through her blood. At the Feast of the Purification of Mary – another day with an Old Testament reference – she was confirmed by the Bishop of Speyer in his private chapel.
After her conversion she went straight to Breslau: “Mother,” she said, “I am a Catholic.” The two women cried. Hedwig Conrad Martius wrote: “Behold, two Israelites indeed, in whom is no deceit!” (cf. John 1:47).
Immediately after her conversion she wanted to join a Carmelite convent. However, her spiritual mentors, Vicar-General Schwind of Speyer, and Erich Przywara SJ, stopped her from doing so. Until Easter 1931 she held a position teaching German and history at the Dominican Sisters’ school and teacher training college of St. Magdalen’s Convent in Speyer. At the same time she was encouraged by Arch-Abbot Raphael Walzer of Beuron Abbey to accept extensive speaking engagements, mainly on women’s issues. “During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion I … thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one’s mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world… I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to `get beyond himself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”
She worked enormously hard, translating the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman from his pre-Catholic period as well as Thomas Aquinas’ Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate. The latter was a very free translation, for the sake of dialogue with modern philosophy. Erich Przywara also encouraged her to write her own philosophical works. She learnt that it was possible to “pursue scholarship as a service to God… It was not until I had understood this that I seriously began to approach academic work again.” To gain strength for her life and work, she frequently went to the Benedictine Monastery of Beuron, to celebrate the great festivals of the Church year.
In 1931 Edith Stein left the convent school in Speyer and devoted herself to working for a professorship again, this time in Breslau and Freiburg, though her endeavours were in vain. It was then that she wrote Potency and Act, a study of the central concepts developed by Thomas Aquinas. Later, at the Carmelite Convent in Cologne, she rewrote this study to produce her main philosophical and theological oeuvre, Finite and Eternal Being. By then, however, it was no longer possible to print the book.
In 1932 she accepted a lectureship position at the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster, where she developed her anthropology. She successfully combined scholarship and faith in her work and her teaching, seeking to be a “tool of the Lord” in everything she taught. “If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him.”
In 1933 darkness broke out over Germany. “I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on His people, and that the destiny of these people would also be mine.” The Aryan Law of the Nazis made it impossible for Edith Stein to continue teaching. “If I can’t go on here, then there are no longer any opportunities for me in Germany,” she wrote; “I had become a stranger in the world.”
The Arch-Abbot of Beuron, Walzer, now no longer stopped her from entering a Carmelite convent. While in Speyer, she had already taken a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. In 1933 she met with the prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne. “Human activities cannot help us, but only the suffering of Christ. It is my desire to share in it.”
Edith Stein went to Breslau for the last time, to say good-bye to her mother and her family. Her last day at home was her birthday, 12 October, which was also the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Edith went to the synagogue with her mother. It was a hard day for the two women. “Why did you get to know it [Christianity]?” her mother asked, “I don’t want to say anything against him. He may have been a very good person. But why did he make himself God?” Edith’s mother cried. The following day Edith was on the train to Cologne. “I did not feel any passionate joy. What I had just experienced was too terrible. But I felt a profound peace – in the safe haven of God’s will.” From now on she wrote to her mother every week, though she never received any replies. Instead, her sister Rosa sent her news from Breslau.
Edith joined the Carmelite Convent of Cologne on 14 October, and her investiture took place on 15 April, 1934. The mass was celebrated by the Arch-Abbot of Beuron. Edith Stein was now known as Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce – Teresa, Blessed of the Cross. In 1938 she wrote: “I understood the cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery.” On 21 April 1935 she took her temporary vows. On 14 September 1936, the renewal of her vows coincided with her mother’s death in Breslau. “My mother held on to her faith to the last moment. But as her faith and her firm trust in her God … were the last thing that was still alive in the throes of her death, I am confident that she will have met a very merciful judge and that she is now my most faithful helper, so that I can reach the goal as well.”
When she made her eternal profession on 21 April 1938, she had the words of St. John of the Cross printed on her devotional picture: “Henceforth my only vocation is to love.” Her final work was to be devoted to this author.
Edith Stein’s entry into the Carmelite Order was not escapism. “Those who join the Carmelite Order are not lost to their near and dear ones, but have been won for them, because it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone.” In particular, she interceded to God for her people: “I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is great comfort.” (31 October 1938)
On 9 November 1938 the anti-Semitism of the Nazis became apparent to the whole world.
Synagogues were burnt, and the Jewish people were subjected to terror. The prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne did her utmost to take Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce abroad. On New Year’s Eve 1938 she was smuggled across the border into the Netherlands, to the Carmelite Convent in Echt in the Province of Limburg. This is where she wrote her will on 9 June 1939: “Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death … so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world.”
While in the Cologne convent, Edith Stein had been given permission to start her academic studies again. Among other things, she wrote about “The Life of a Jewish Family” (that is, her own family): “I simply want to report what I experienced as part of Jewish humanity,” she said, pointing out that “we who grew up in Judaism have a duty to bear witness … to the young generation who are brought up in racial hatred from early childhood.”
In Echt, Edith Stein hurriedly completed her study of “The Church’s Teacher of Mysticism and the Father of the Carmelites, John of the Cross, on the Occasion of the 400th Anniversary of His Birth, 1542-1942.” In 1941 she wrote to a friend, who was also a member of her order: “One can only gain a scientia crucis (knowledge of the cross) if one has thoroughly experienced the cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: ‘Ave, Crux, Spes unica’ (I welcome you, Cross, our only hope).” Her study on St. John of the Cross is entitled: “Kreuzeswissenschaft” (The Science of the Cross).
Edith Stein was arrested by the Gestapo on 2 August 1942, while she was in the chapel with the other sisters. She was to report within five minutes, together with her sister Rosa, who had also converted and was serving at the Echt Convent. Her last words to be heard in Echt were addressed to Rosa: “Come, we are going for our people.”
Together with many other Jewish Christians, the two women were taken to a transit camp in Amersfoort and then to Westerbork. This was an act of retaliation against the letter of protest written by the Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops against the pogroms and deportations of Jews. Edith commented, “I never knew that people could be like this, neither did I know that my brothers and sisters would have to suffer like this. … I pray for them every hour. Will God hear my prayers? He will certainly hear them in their distress.” Prof. Jan Nota, who was greatly attached to her, wrote later: “She is a witness to God’s presence in a world where God is absent.”
On 7 August, early in the morning, 987 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. It was probably on 9 August that Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, her sister and many other of her people were gassed.
When Edith Stein was beatified in Cologne on 1 May 1987, the Church honoured “a daughter of Israel”, as Pope John Paul II put it, who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.”
Religious of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Christ
Bruna Aldina Maria Pellesi was born on 11 November 1917 at Prignano sulla Secchia, Italy, the last of nine children. Good humour and sweetness, joy and peace marked her early years as well as a later courtship that seemed to pave the way for the earthly “happily ever after”.
But the lasting courtship to which she gave her heart was tinged with a pre-sentiment of suffering.
During Bruna’s late teens two of her sisters-in-law died, leaving six children, all under 4 years of age. Without hesitation, she assumed her share of responsibility for their growth and development.
Leaving these nieces and nephews to enter the convent was a heart-rending experience. Only by responding to a higher love could she make such a choice.
On 27 August 1940, at age 22, she joined the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Christ, at that time known as the Franciscan Sisters of Sant’Onofrio. She was in religious formation from 1940 to 1942, cultivating the interior life in the hope of a future harvest.
On 25 September 1942, Sr Maria Rosa of Jesus made her first vows in Rimini, and was then transferred to Sassuolo to teach in an elementary school.
She thus spent the war years of 1942 to 1945 working in the education apostolate, while also fighting her own ego; she did the latter by toiling without sparing herself. If her fellow Sisters showed their concern for her non-stop efforts, she would respond: “Do not worry. I come from the country; I am used to it”.
After this three-year assignment, Sr Maria Rosa was transferred in May 1945 to Ferrara to work in the parish elementary school. In July of that year she opened a nursery school, but by 5 September 1945 she had to be admitted to the local hospital for tuberculosis.
She remained hospitalized until 15 November, when she was transferred to the “Pineta” sanatorium in Gaiato which, unknown to her, would be her next “three-year assignment”.
In December of 1948 she left the “Pineta” sanatorium only to enter another one in Bologna, this time definitively.
She thus spent 22 years at home, two years in religious formation and three years in pastoral service in her religious community. The second half of her life was spent in a sanatorium.
That meant passing 27 years living in a few square meters: in front of the same window, the same view, the same mountain to close the horizon. She battled each day with her own health, which was continually slipping away, with lungs that would not breathe, a heart that tired easily and aches that tiredness paralyzed. Add to this the ongoing suffering and painful treatments that increased her trials but never solved the problems. This was her life.
As the years passed her clinical situation worsened. For relief it was necessary to continuously extract the pleural fluid from that “inexhaustible font” she carried within herself. Once, the needle broke and after useless attempts to extract it, it remained splintered within her from that day, 28 October 1955, for the next 17 years to the end of her life.
Her extraordinarily prolonged “Way of the Cross”, although marked by solitude and suffering, became her canticle of divine mercy through her union with the One for whom she had left everything. Her broad smile was constant, natural and sincere, the result of the divine life within her. Regarding her failing health she would say, “In recompense, my heart sings and I am very happy”.
Between the operations and treatments that marked her long illness, Sr Maria Rosa made three pilgrimages to Lourdes and two solemn acts of consecration of herself to the Mother of God, the latter on 16 July 1946 and 8 December 1961.
She celebrated her 25th anniversary of religious life on 4 October 1967 as well as her 25th anniversary of marriage to the Cross on 1 September 1970, after a quarter of a century in the sanatorium.
On 6 November 1972 she was transferred to the community of her first assignment in Sassuolo. She died there on 1 December 1972.