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Piero Gheddo Conference, July 2006
I) Biographies and the causes of saints: a great grace of God
Among the many thanks that God has done me there is also this: after 41 years of missionary journalism (1953-1994), all immersed in current events, he oriented me towards the biographies of missionaries and the causes of saints, the history of Pime and its missions. It was a great grace, which I gradually understood: at first it seemed to me a mistake of the superiors to want to engage in these new fields, while I was living my best period of missionary journalism.
Giovanni Mazzucconi, beatified in February 1984. Pime wanted a biography of him: first they tried with various writers and authors, then p. Giannini commissioned me to this first biography of a saint in the spring of 1983.
Unforgettable experience, which changed my life.
From journalist to biographer of saints! Read Mazzucconi's letters, the testimonies about his holiness, the suffering endured…. it means entering the character, penetrating his thoughts, affections and seeing how God has worked in him by purifying him and orienting him day by day to an increasingly perfect love.
Mazzucconi was already a saint before he was martyred, martyrdom was God's gift for a life already totally consecrated to his love.
As I read his letters as a young missionary (killed at 29!), I was moved, I cried often: they were for me more than a formal meditation, they were a participation in his life, his feelings, his holiness. And I couldn't help but change my life, too.
Marcello Candia died on August 31, 1983 and immediately the Cadia Foundation instructs me to write his biography.
I was thrilled because I had known Candia very well for twenty years. I remember the visit I made to him in 1966 in Macapà, when I was impressed that that rich industrialist I had met in Milan in his beautiful house, servitude, the driver, the industry, the villa by the sea and everything else; and now I saw it in the Amazon (in the Amazon of 1966!) in a suffocating wet heat: he lived in a small room without any of the comforts to which he was accustomed; in the morning he washed himself with pitcher and cat, ate the wretched things of caboclos. he lived all day directing the construction of his hospital and then among lepers, sick, poor of all kinds…. without speaking Portuguese well; the missionaries did not understand it and criticized it; the military who then commanded brazil were spying on him suspecting who knows what secret plots! Marello was still very rich and made that life precisely for the sake of Christ and the poor!
Writing marcello candia's biography was an adventure I did not imagine: searching for letters and his writings in the archives, testimonies and articles about him, interviews with witnesses, etc. With all the material collected in the "diocesan process" we presented to the co-congregation of the saints 14 large format volumes (A4) for about 5,000 pages in total. And then the file of the collected material and the writing of the book "Marcello dei Lebbrosi" printed by De Agostini. It is certainly one of the most beautiful books I have written passionately, I have sold about 50,000 copies!
Candia, like Mazzucconi, marked my life in a spiritual sense. I began to understand many things about the saints, to which I did not think before: I entered a new world that exalted me, excited me, even more than I had happened with Mazzucconi, because Candia had known him well since 1955-56 and then visited several times in the Amazon.
After the publication of the volume I received many letters asking for marcello's beatification. His reputation for holiness was great, in Italy and Brazil and his holiness I was already convinced.
So begins the adventure of the first cause of beatification that I promoted! The diocesan process began on 12 January 1991 in Milan and closed on 8 February 1994.
A lot of resistance, but I went ahead because he supported me card. Martini and the firm belief that Candia was truly a saint!
Third biography Clemente Vismara: died 15 June 1988 and the biography was published in 1991.
The diocesan process began in October 1996 and closed in October 1998 in Agrate Brianza. Here too many difficulties to begin, but fortunately the Bishop of Kengtung, Mons. Abraham Than, wanted this cause, and Agrate's missionary group supported and financed it. We published the bulletin that is successful: at first we had 3,500 addresses, now it's over 7,000. With the offers you pay the bulletin and the cause of canonization and send money to Burma, especially to Kengtung!
In 1991 presented six miracles and one of them is practically approved: the decree on "heroic virtues" is missing….
Then came the other biographies and for some the cause of beatification: Lorenzo Bianchi, Augusto Gianola, Felice Tantardini, Paolo Manna, Carlo Salerio, Alfredo Cremonesi, Cesare Pesce, Leopoldo Pastori, Rosetta Gheddo, Marcello Zago, Rosetta Franzi and Giovanni Gheddo…….
II) What the biographies of the Saints taught me
The work of biographies and causes for beatification I do with passion, we enthus, often praying and meditating on the events I am discovering and experiencing. I think I've come up with a little different idea of the Saints than I had before and generally have ordinary people.
1) The saints give the image of man according to the plan of God, man fully realized in the fullness of the gifts received. The perfection of man, even humanly speaking, is holiness, that is, the imitation of the model of man-God who is Jesus Christ.
That is why Paul VI and John Paul II have greatly simplified the causes of saints and multiplied blesseds and saints in an unthinkable way. In the 26 years of pontificate, John Paul II beatified and sanctified more saints and blesseds than the Popes did from 1588 (that is, the year of the Decree of Urban VIII on health recognized by the Church) to 1978!
Today, every human expression finds its characteristic manifestation in some saint: father and mother of the family, young and girls, widows and elders, priests and nuns, professionals and peasants, kings and politicians, doctors and industrialists, journalists and lawyers, etc. The Church multiplies the recognitions of holiness precisely in order to offer new models of the Gospel lived today.
Many thought that too many saints and blesseds are made of them! Wrong! They do not understand that every new blessed or holy is a new and different stimulus that evangelizes, stimulates life according to the Gospel. It is a bit like mary's apparitions: there are thousands of them all over the world and each has its own meaning and is important for a given place.
Every new cause of beatification is an act of evangelization, because it
to the distracted men of our time a new model of integral Christian, of the Gospel lived.
2) Saints are great and heroic for faith, charity, etc. but they remain small, poor and sinners and ignorant men like us.
It is wrong to think that saints are perfect as we read in certain biographies; they also have weaknesses, miseries, sins, not easy characters.
Vismara wrote: "Why do I confess often? Because I am aware of my weaknesses and sins and I ask forgiveness. On the other hand, if I had no sins, I would tell a lie when I pray and say to the Lord: "Forgive our sins". If I had no fault, I'd tell a lie."
We have saints an inhuman image, that is, not human, too tall and distant from us! So we get discouraged and think that we cannot strive for holiness because they are too weak and small. Instead, we are all called to holiness.
The path to holiness lasts a lifetime, between ups and downs, between heroism and weakness. We must trust God, ask God to guide our soul towards the perfection of love.
I was amazed, writing the biography of Felice Tantardini and reading the testimonies about him, the fact, for example, that he did not want to read the Bible. He had tried once because the confessor told him that it was his duty to know the Word of God, but he was shocked when he read that David had many wives, when God commanded his people to exterminate all enemies…. He read only booklets of devotion, sometimes the gospel, but his piety was very simple and it was enough for holiness. Marcello Candia: he too did not read Scripture or books of theology, he only had a booklet ("The Handbook of the Good Christian") with some prayers and meditations that he knew by heart.
My grandmother Anna knew some episodes and parables of Jesus, she knew the catechism and prayers, she recited many Rosaries and this was enough for her to be a saint. Of course, these are not models for today: the world has changed and we must deepen our knowledge of the Word of God, theology, Christian mysteries. But it is only to say that even if we have limits of knowledge or other, we can equally aspire to holiness.
3) Saints are different from each other
They are not made in series, each one remains himself and develops his charisms:
Example: contrast between Candia and Blessed Giovanni Calabria: "Do not know your right what your left does" (Calabria) – "See your good works and give glory to the Father" (Candia).
Diversity between Candia and Vismara:
Marcello had a complicated psychology, suffered from scruples and anxiety, was tormented by psychological pains, was led to overdo it to want to do more and better. Don Peppino Orsini, his spiritual father, said that God had taken him at the right time: more would not resist psychological pressure and stress.
Clement was simple, linear, sunny, he did what he could with sacrifice, but without torment, he slept peacefully, he was always relaxed and happy.
Strong personalities: Aristide Pirovano; and more humble and submissive personalities: Felice Tantardini, who everyone would like to be a saint, while for Pirovano there are difficulties, in the memory of his contemporaries. He was a great superior and he overpowered some in the time of the "sixty-eight", but he was able to keep the Pime in a line of obedience to the Holy See and the Pope, who was then in crisis everywhere!
Many think they imitate the Saints by doing like them. no! I met nuns on missions that said to me, "How I would like to be as holy as Mother Teresa!". I say: no, she must sanctify herself in the way god wants for her, in the place where God put her, not as Mother Teresa. Do not imprint Mother Teresa in the things she did, but in the spirit that animated her.
Holiness, even humanly, is the best to express one's personality: authentic personalities come out of every saint.
God does not change the nature of man, nor his psychological tendencies and human preferences: he changes and purifies man, but God's grace enhances his natural qualities.
So every saint has his personality, his character, tendencies, his humanity, but ennobled and purified by the Grace of God. The personality comes out more beautiful and clean, stronger and more characteristic, more amiable.
Each saint develops his personality, according to the inspiration of the Spirit, that is why they are different from each other.
4) There are many saints, but only a few are recognized as such by the Church: the "charism of holiness".
There have been many philanthropists and benefactors of the poor, but only Marcello Candia will become blessed and holy.
Vismara is invoked The Patriarch of Burma and Saint of Children. Many other missionaries were like him, they spent a lifetime in Burma, but they are neither invoked nor remembered: yet they were holy missionaries. It is the mystery of what is called "the charism of holiness".
It is not easy to explain the "charisma of holiness". It means that authentic sanitization judges only God. The church merely glorifies a believer who is recognized and remembered and prayed as a saint. This is "the fame of holiness", indispensable to ire the cause of beatification.
I am convinced that in the Christian (and even non-Christian) world there are many authentic saints and martyrs, but only some are recognized and glorified by the Church. Because? Precisely because of the "charism of holiness": their life moves, arouses prayers and requests for graces.
When I began the cause of Clement Vismara, several missionaries from Burma wrote to me and said: "If you make him holy, we too are saints who have made the same life". And they weren't all wrong.
We made the same objection to Mons. Than, when he manifested his will to beatify Vismara. He was answering. "It is true in Kengtung that there are many missionaries of the Holy Pime, starting with Bishop Mons. Bonetta. But only for Father Vismara does this fact occur: that his tomb is always plain of flowers, that many pray to him, even Buddhists and Muslims, to obtain thanks".
Why clement yes and others not? Not because Clement was more holy than others before God! Only God sees this. But because for Clement this "charism of holiness" manifested itself.
III) What is it that unites all the Saints?
Despite the great differences between saint and saint, many elements unite them all. This is the beauty of the models of holiness that the Church continues to multiply.
It is not possible to say everything that could be said on this subject, but we can mark some characteristics common to all the saints I have studied, on whom we must reflect and examine ourselves.
1) First of all a great faith: to put God first in our lives.
On mission, if there is no strong faith, one cannot resist, especially today when the difficulties are very strong and the difference in height between life on mission and in Italy is … abysmal.
Episode of Candia. I used to take him in the evening by car to Piacenza for a conference and he had a heart ache, he held his chest with his hands. I wanted him to say the Rosary with me, but he was too tired and suffering. He said, "I repeat only the jaculatory that my mother taught me: Lord increases my faith!".
I said to him, "But you have so much faith! You left everything to go and live among the poorest in the Amazon, spend your life and your money on others!".
He replied: "Piero, remember that faith is never enough!". And he was right: faith can be like the flame of a candle that goes out with a breath or like sunlight!
What does it mean to live in faith? Living in the supernatural world as we live in the natural world. That is, to have the mind and heart in God, to put God first in our lives, while everything brings us down, in daily difficulties and problems, dragging us away from God. Mother Rosetta said, "The important thing is always to be god's will."
Modern life is overwhelming for everyone, there is little time to reflect, we are bombarded with a thousand news, problems. Faith is no longer supported by the social, cultural, work, school, friendship and often even the family environment. So it is a gift from God, an conquest that must be asked as Grace that makes us remain faithful to Baptism and that leads to joy, to the serenity of life.
Faith means trust, trust in God, in Providence. To truly believe that if I do good with right intention, God helps me. Vismara who kept 200-250 orphans and orphans, and many other poor people, in a country where it was difficult even to find rice! Providence always came in time to help him. The confreres told him that he should not have so many orphans and poor to keep, he replied that they were not his but of God and that God thought of him!
Dad John often said, "We are always in god's hands."
2) The virtue of holy humility
A common feature in the saints I studied is humility, the low concept they had of themselves: this is the strong sign of a person who is aware of his smallness and weakness, therefore ready to apologize, ready to review his positions, not to condemn and indeed to excuse others.
Humility makes a person nice, authentic: he is a truly human virtue because he brings man back to his true nature as a creature who is not self-sufficient but needs others and therefore, as they say, does not mount in pride. Pride makes you disliked, humility nice.
The low self-concept means thanking the Lord for the graces and gifts received, committing himself with sacrifice to do all his duty and even more than duty, above all to consider others better than himself. Of Mother Rosetta, sister Emma said: "He never spoke ill of anyone, indeed he tried to excuse others, when someone criticized them".
The model of this humility is Felice Tantardini, the beloved and well-liked brother in all the dioceses of Burma where he had worked. He called himself "the servant of fathers and nuns", Bishop Mons. Hunchback said: "Happy was not only obedient, but immediately adhered to the simple desire of the superior. I had to be careful when talking to him, not to express my desire or aspiration, because Felice worked to satisfy me".
He died at the age of 93 in 1991 and throughout his life has worked hard as a blacksmith, carpenter, ortholan, farmer, cook, sacristic, master master, etc. He did everything they asked him to do. Work for him was everything, he couldn't help but work.
Yet, over the age of eighty, he kept working in his blacksmith's workshop and because he didn't see us well, he sometimes hammered his fingers. The bishop told him: "Happy, now it is enough to work. Your job now is to pray for all of us." Felice takes these words of the bishop seriously: since then his time passed him in church, he said one rosary after another!
That would be an exaggerated humility. It is true, Felice was a simple, he had done only the first elementary, then the blacksmith and the great world war, when he enters pime he leaves almost immediately for missions without other studies. He was a man of another time and carried on his life in the only way he knew and they had taught him: to work, to pray, to serve others without asking himself problems that he did not have. He was an intelligent man, in fact he easily learned languages, he wrote by order of the bishop his autobiography "the blacksmith of God" and hundreds of letters (we collected about 600): ungrammatical, but lively, spiritually profound texts; Felice was witty, knew how to tell episodes of his life and kept the community happy.
Of course, today such humility is no longer possible or advisable, it is right that everyone should study at least until the age of 15-16, but Felice remains a model, the saint of humility.
Humility also means obedience to superiors.
In 1956 Clemente has been in Monglin for 26 years: starting from scratch ("To see another baptized I have to look in the mirror", he wrote in one of his first letters), he founded the mission and a Christian citadel and then two other missionary residences and parishes. At sixty years old it could also stop and enjoy some of the location you bought. Instead Bishop Guercilena sends him to Mong Ping, where it is almost to start all over again.
It seemed impossible to the confreres for Vismara to accept that destination. Instead he tells the bishop that he is available and if he wants to leave immediately for the new destination. In a letter he then writes: "I obeyed because I understand that if I do my own mistake". This is humility and faith in a situation that is not easy!
3) Saints are exemplary in many virtues, for example, love for the poor, for the little ones. They really saw Jesus Christ in the last.
Marcello Candia knelt before the sick, the lepers. It was not a pose, but an intimate conviction and a strong need that he felt. He, a rich and important man, who wasted time with the poorest and smallest to listen to them, interrogate them, feel their pains and desires.
I remember the example of my father Giovanni who, returning home with us three children from the "Big Mass" on Sunday, sees a poor man sitting in a chair in the courtyard of our house, outside the kitchen door, holding an empty plate: he was waiting for his grandmother to bring him food.
Dad invites him in, takes him into the house and tells the three women at home (mom and two sisters): "Today Jesus came to us for lunch. Let's make room for him at our table." These are examples that we his children still remember with emotion at 70 and over and have educated us more than a thousand speeches about charity!
Clemente Vismara welcomed everyone in his mission, fed everyone, his boast was that "no one who comes to my house suffers hunger".
One evening, a family of five to six, father, mother and children, enter the mission courtyard, fatigued and torn apart. Clement welcomes them and asks if they ate. They say no. He takes them to the nuns but it was already after eight o'clock in the evening and there you eat at six and go to bed at nine. The nuns say there's nothing left to eat. Clement: "Come on, quick, nuns, boil the rice, because if they don't eat, I can't sleep tonight."
3) In the saints we must above all imitate the spirit of prayer.
Holiness comes from God, it is a gift from God, not our conquest.
That's why we have to pray a lot. It seems to me that the Saints harbored a deep spirit of prayer, which made them live in the constant presence of God.
We live our day on two floors:
– the sensitive plan, let's say material, with all the daily and pressing problems, work, meetings, duties, emergencies, chatter, distractions, news, eating, sleeping, health, getting angry, having fun, etc…
– and then there is the supernatural, spiritual plan, which is that of God, the presence of God, god's help, God's commandments, God's grace…
The spirit of prayer means daily individual and community prayer, but also a mentality oriented throughout the spiritual and supernatural plan to receive God's help, orientation from God, the Grace of God, to address prayers to God, etc.
In the "Tales of a Russian Pilgrim" (Paulines) there are beautiful pages on "continuous prayer" during the day, travel, works, which educates you to have your mind and heart fixed in God. It is a basic attitude of the person who is gradually conquered. Leopoldo Pastori had reached this goal. It results from all his letters and testimonies collected about him.
4) From this fixed mentality in God comes then the joy of living, patience in enduring sufferings and difficulties, authenticity and transparency of life, sincerity even with oneself, thinking more about others than to oneself.
Cardinal Montini once said in Milan (1): "The Christian always has a lamp lit above him: joy. Everything must take place in the climate of a simple but serene peace, which starts from the grace of God and which consoles souls and makes them happy. I would like to ask you: have you ever met a saint?And if you met him, tell me: what is the characteristic note that you found in that soul? It will be a joy, a joy so composed, so profound, but so true".
Paul VI himself published in 1975, in turbulent years that took away the peace of the heart to many believers, the apostolic exhortation "Gaudete in Domino", where he says that the best witness that a Christian can give in our time, when the dominant feeling is fear and sadness, is the joy of the heart, the smile, hope and optimism for the future.
Behold, this I have seen in the blessed and saints that I have studied. It's the unifying tone in very different characters from each other. Vismara's smile at 86! That of Candia in the most difficult and painful situations in the Amazon; Tantardini is smiling in all photographs. Even my dad and mom, the relatives said they were always happy! Smile was the fundamental attitude of their personalities.
Especially in Marcello Candia he struck all this fact: he was an important man, cultured (three degrees), who handled billions, received international awards and awards (in 1975 he was called "the best man in Brazil" by the great illustrated weekly "O Manchete" and in 1983 he received the Feltrinelli Prize from President Pertini):…
Well, there was no complacency of himself in him, he was always available for the joke, the joke, he let himself be teased. He was a simple man who rejoiced in small things with a naturalness that moved. So they also saw him in his family, which also opposed his missionary vocation. His older sister, Linda, said to me: "When he came back to Italy from the Amazon and came to visit us, it was a party for us and for our children. He brought joy. Even when their children were children, Uncle Marcello liked everyone because he played with them, made them talk about their problems, what they had learned at school…".
I conclude with a quotation from Paul VI(2),which explains why the Church promotes so many causes of beatification and canonization:
"A generation pervaded by the spirit of holiness should characterize our time. The Christian who does not fulfil the duties of his elevation to the son of God and brother of Christ, as a member of the Church, should disappear. Mediocrity, infidelity, inconsistency and hypocrisy should be removed from the typology of the modern believer. Not only will we go in search of the singular and exceptional saint, but we will have to promote a holiness of the people, just as, from the very first dawn of Christianity, St. Peter wanted, writing the famous words: "You are an elected lineage, a royal priesthood, a holy people, a redeemed people… You who were not once people, but are now the people of God.
Each of us must aspire to holiness, to union with God. We must always have great aspirations in our lives. It is a duty of Christian life: then God will see how far we have come, but we must propose to reach the top, to the union of love and imitation with Jesus and Mary.
1 Patrice Maheiu, "Paolo VI, Maestro spirituale", Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004, p. 178.
2 ) Words spoken at the general audience of 3 July 1968, in the book quoted on p. 188.