On 2 Holy Priests of the 19th Century

«It Is Not Possible to Exercise Charity Without Living in Christ»

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We are drawing close to the end of the Year for Priests and, on this last Wednesday of April, I would like to speak about two saintly priests who were exemplary in their giving of themselves to God and in their witness of charity — lived in the Church and for the Church — toward their neediest brothers: St. Leonard Murialdo and St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo. Regarding the first, we mark the 110th anniversary of his death and the 40th of his canonization; regarding the second, the celebrations have begun for the second centenary of his priestly ordination.

Murialdo was born in Turin on Oct. 26, 1828: it was the Turin of St. John Bosco, of St. Joseph Cottolengo himself, a land fertilized by so many examples of holiness of the lay faithful and priests. Leonard was the eighth child of a simple family. As a child he entered, together with his brother, the school of the Escolapios Fathers of Savona for elementary, middle and high school; he found prepared educators, in a climate of religiosity founded on serious catecheses, with regular pious practices. During his adolescence, however, he went through a profound existential and spiritual crisis that led him to advance his return to his family and to conclude his studies in Turin, enrolling in the two-year period of philosophy. 

A «return to the light» occurred — as he recounts — after a few months, with the grace of a general confession, in which he rediscovered God’s immense mercy; at 17 the decision matured to become a priest, as a response of love to God who had seized him with his love. He was ordained on Sept. 20, 1851. Precisely in that period, as a catechist of the Guardian Angel Oratory, Don Bosco met and came to esteem him, convincing him to accept the direction of the new Oratory of St. Louis in Porta Nuova, which he did until 1865. There he also came into contact with the grave problems of the poorest classes, he visited their homes, developing a profound social, educational and apostolic sensitivity that led him later to dedicate himself independently to multiple initiatives in favor of youth. Catecheses, school and recreational activities were the foundation of his educational method in the Oratory. Don Bosco wanted him with him on the occasion of the audience granted by Blessed Pius IX in 1858.

In 1873 he founded the Congregation of St. Joseph, whose apostolic objective was, from the beginning, the formation of youth, especially the poorest and most abandoned. The environment of Turin at the time was marked by the intense flourishing of charitable works and activities promoted by Murialdo until his death, which occurred on March 30, 1900.

I wish to underline that the central nucleus of Murialdo’s spirituality was the conviction of the merciful love of God: a Father who is always good, patient and generous, who reveals the greatness and immensity of his mercy with forgiveness. St. Leonard experienced this reality at the existential, not the intellectual level, through a living encounter with the Lord. He always considered himself a man graced by the merciful God: because of this he lived the joyous sense of gratitude to the Lord, the serene awareness of his own limitations, the ardent desire of penance, the constant and generous commitment to conversion. He saw all his existence not only illumined, guided, sustained by this love, but continually immersed in the infinite mercy of God. He wrote in his Spiritual Testament: «Your mercy surrounds me, O Lord … How God is always and everywhere, so he is always and everywhere love, is always and everywhere mercy.» 

Recalling the moment of crisis he had in his youth, he wrote: «See how the good God wanted his goodness and generosity to shine again in an altogether singular way. Not only did he admit me again to his friendship, but he called me to a choice of predilection: he called me to the priesthood, and this only a few months after my return to him.» Because of this, St. Leonard lived his priestly vocation as a free gift of the mercy of God with a sense of gratitude, joy and love. He wrote as well: «God has chosen me! He has called me, has in the end forced me to the honor, to the glory, to the ineffable happiness of being his minister, of being ‘another Christ.’ And where was I when God sought me? At the bottom of the abyss! I was there, and God came there to seek me; there he made me hear his voice.»

Underlining the greatness of the mission of the priest who must «continue the work of redemption, the great work of Jesus Christ, the work of the Savior of the world,» namely, that of «saving souls,» St. Leonard always reminded himself and his confreres of the responsibility of a life consistent with the sacrament received. Love of God and love for God: this was the force of his journey of holiness, the law of his priesthood, the deepest meaning of this apostolate among poor young people and the source of his prayer. St. Leonard Murialdo abandoned himself with confidence to Providence, fulfilling generously the divine will, in contact with God and dedicating himself to poor young people. In this way he joined contemplative silence with the tireless ardor of action, fidelity to the duties of each day with the ingeniousness of initiatives, strength in difficulties with the serenity of the spirit. This was his way of holiness to live the commandment of love, towards God and towards his neighbor.

With the same spirit of charity, 40 years before Murialdo lived St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, founder of the work he himself called «Little Home of Divine Providence» and also called today «Cottolengo.» Next Sunday, in my pastoral visit to Turin, I will be able to venerate the remains of this saint and meet the guests of the «Little Home.»

Joseph Benedict Cottolengo was born in Bra, a town in the province of Cuneo, on May 3, 1786. The first born of 12 children, six of whom died at an early age, he showed from his boyhood great sensitivity toward the poor. He embraced the path of priesthood, imitated also by two brothers. The years of his youth were those of the Napoleonic venture and of the consequent hardships in the religious and social realm. Cottolengo became a good priest, sought after by many penitents and, in the Turin of that time, a preacher of spiritual exercises and conferences for university students, where he earned notable success. At the age of 32, he was appointed canon of the Most Holy Trinity, a congregation of priests that had the task of officiating in the Church of Corpus Domini and of giving decorum to the religious ceremonies of the city, but he felt ill at ease in that post. God was preparing him for a particular mission and, in fact, with an unexpected and decisive meeting, made him understand what his future destiny would be in the exercise of the ministry.

The Lord always puts signs on our way to guide us according to his will to our real good. For Cottolengo this happened, in a dramatic way, on Sunday morning of Sept. 2, 1827. Arriving in Turin from Milan was a stage coach crowded as never before, where a whole French family was crammed in which the wife, with five children, was in an advanced state of pregnancy with high fever. After having wandered through several hospitals, that family found lodgings in a public dormitory, but the woman’s situation got worse and some started to look for a priest. By a mysterious design they came across Cottolengo, and it was in fact he who, with a heavy and oppressed heart, was to accompany the death of this young mother, amid the torment of the whole family. 

After having performed this painful task, with a suffering heart, he went before the Most Blessed Sacrament and prayed: «My God, why? Why did you want me to be a witness? What do you want from me? Something must be done!» Rising, he had all the b
ells rung, lighted the candles and welcoming the curious in the church, he said: «Grace has done it! Grace has done it!» From that moment Cottolengo was transformed: all his capabilities, especially his economic and organizational abilities, were used to give life to initiatives in support of the neediest.

He was able to involve in his enterprise dozens and dozens of collaborators and volunteers. Moving to the outskirts of Turin to expand his work, he created a sort of village. Every building he succeeded in constructing he gave a significant name: «house of faith,» «house of hope,» «house of charity.» He activated the style of «families,» establishing true and proper communities of persons, volunteers, men and women, religious and laity, united to address and overcome together the difficulties that presented themselves. Every one in that Little Home of Divine Providence had a specific task: those who worked, prayed, served, instructed, administrated. The healthy and the sick all shared the same daily burden. The religious life was also defined in time, according to the particular needs and exigencies. He even thought of his own seminary, for the specific formation of priests for the Work. He was always ready to follow and serve Divine Providence, never to question it. He said: «I am a good for nothing and I don’t even know what I am doing. However, Divine Providence knows what it wants. And it is for me only to second it. Forward in Domino.» For his poor and neediest he described himself always as «the laborer of Divine Providence.»

Next to the small towns he also wished to found five convents of contemplative sisters and a monastery of hermits, and he regarded it as among the most important accomplishments: a sort of «heart» that had to beat for the whole Work. He died on April 30, 1842, saying these words: «Misericordia, Domine; Misericordia, Domine. Good and Holy Providence … Holy Virgin, now it is up to You.» His whole life, as a newspaper of the time wrote, had been «an intense day of love.»

Dear friends, these two priests, of whom I have presented some traits, lived their ministry in the total gift of their lives to the poorest, to the neediest, to the last, always finding the profound root, the inexhaustible source of their action in the relationship with God, drinking from his love, in the profound conviction that it is not possible to exercise charity without living in Christ and in the Church. May their intercession and example continue to enlighten the ministry of so many priests who spend themselves with generosity for God and for the flock entrusted to them, and may they help each one to give himself with joy and generosity to God and to his neighbor.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

As the Year for Priests draws to its close, I would like to devote today’s catechesis to the example of two remarkable priests of the nineteenth century associated with the Italian city of Turin. Saint Leonard Murialdo, the founder of the Congregation of Saint Joseph, devoted his life to the education and pastoral care of disadvantaged young people. He saw his priestly vocation as a gracious gift of God’s love, to be received with gratitude, joy and love. Imbued with a powerful sense of the Lord’s mercy, he encouraged his confreres to unite contemplation and apostolic zeal, and to confirm their preaching by the example of their lives. Saint Joseph Cottolengo, who lived a generation before Saint Leonard, was another outstanding apostle of charity. Early in his priesthood, after a dramatic encounter with human suffering, he founded the «Little Home of Divine Providence,» involving scores of people — priests, religious and laity alike — in a great charitable outreach which continues today. May the example of these two great priests, outstanding for their love of God and their devotion to Christ and the Church, continue to inspire and sustain the many priests today who generously devote their lives to God and to the service of our brothers and sisters in need.

I offer a most cordial welcome to the ecumenical delegations from the Lutheran Church of Norway and from the Church of England. My warm greeting also goes to the group of Jewish leaders visiting the Vatican with the Pave the Way Foundation. Upon all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present at today’s Audience, especially those from England, Scotland, Norway, Indonesia and the United States of America I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!

©Copyright 2010 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he added:]

With great warmth I finally turn to you, young people, the sick and newlyweds. May the Risen Lord fill with his love the heart of each one of you, dear young people, so that you will be ready to follow him with the enthusiasm and the freshness of your age; may he sustain you, dear sick, in accepting with serenity the daily burden of suffering and the cross; may he guide you, dear newlyweds, to found, in faithful mutual donation, families permeated by the perfume of evangelical sanctity.

[Translation by ZENIT] 

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