Saint's Secret: To Pray and Suffer

Author Tells Story of Luigi Guanella, to Be Canonized Oct. 23

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, OCT. 13, 2011 ( The founder of the Servants of Charity and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence created a religious family modeled on the family of Nazareth, and called to follow a simple two-part program for sanctity: to pray and suffer.

Father Luigi Guanella (1842-1915) will be canonized Oct. 23, the day before his memorial.

His religious family is today spread through 15 countries.

ZENIT spoke with Cristina Siccardi who co-authored with Sister Michela Carrozzino a book about the saint.

ZENIT: How did he hear his call to the priesthood?

Siccardi: His parents had instilled in him the habit of the family rosary every afternoon and he had the example of three cousin priests who helped him to form a strongly religious spirituality. No doubt he cultivated his priestly vocation when he was a child, especially on the Motto del Vento hill in the paternal home of Fraciscio di Campodolcino, Sondrio, where he went often to recollect himself in prayer and meditation.

ZENIT: And how did he hear the call to found the community of the Servants of Charity and of the Daughters of Holy Mary of Divine Providence?

Siccardi; A vision marked Guanella’s life and it happened on the day of his First Communion. A lady — as he described the Virgin when he spoke of this event — made him see all that he should have done for the poor. In 1907 Father Constantino Guanella recounted to his nephew: «It is as if you had seen in a movie thater all that you should have done.»

This dream at nine years of age was determinant for all his other options. This mystical encounter marked him profoundly. Our Lady also appeared to St. John Bosco when he was nine years old to show him his land of mission: young people.

ZENIT: Speaking of St. John Bosco, Luigi Guanella had several meetings with him. How did these two saints meet?

Siccardi: Father Guanella heard talk of the «young people’s priest» and wished to meet him. In 1870 he visited the Turin oratory, where the Salesian mission began, and so he traveled several times to see Don John Bosco, who received him warmly. They spoke several times. Thus it was that on returning to Savongo, where Don Luigi lived then, he felt a strong need to understand and to get to know the works of that Piedmont priest.

His admiration for Don Bosco had a raison d’etre, as both had a similar temperament: enterprising, apostles of charity, determined, fathers with authority, with a great love for the Eucharist, the Virgin and the Pope. He asked Don Bosco in 1872 if he could print his first work: «Saggio di ammonimenti famigliari» (Essay on Familial Admonishments), which talked about how Masons and liberals followed peasants seeking to suffocate and corrupt their Catholic principles.

Guanella also met St. Joseph Cottolengo and was fascinated by him. In him he saw an original synthesis of holiness. Methods and charitable ends between Joseph Benedict Cottolengo and John Bosco, both esteemed and loved.

ZENIT: Did these meetings give him a greater sensitivity to youth?

Siccardi: Indeed. It was for this reason that he dedicated himself as much to the instruction of young people as to the material and spiritual needs of the humble and forgotten. Thus he gave life in 1881 to the initial seeds of the feminine Congregation of the Daughters of Holy Mary of Divine Providence.

The motherhouse of the Guanellian works was opened in 1886 and was approved by the Holy See in 1908. That same year, together with 10 brother priests, Don Luigi pronounced the first official religious vows of the Servants of Charity; while in 1913 from the Vicariate of Rome, Don Guanella obtained recognition of the Pious Union of Transit of St. Joseph for the dying, an association of priests and faithful in union of prayer for the dying: St. Pius X was the first to enroll and the following year he raised the association to a union for the whole of Christianity.

ZENIT: His pastoral work took place in the context of the Italian unification movement. How did this historic event influence his apostolate and life?

Siccardi: Don Luigi Guanella was born in 1842, at the time of the Risorgimento and he died in 1915, during World War I. He was a fighter priest, known, in fact as an intense priest, with whom it was advisable to tread lightly. He was a courageous priest and knew no political compromises. He gave speeches and wrote articles and books against the liberal authorities that were trying to demolish the Church with ideas and expropriations.

Don Luigi never hid and, proud of priesthood, he always defended the Pope, Pius IX, who at the time was the victim of so much envy, with a very heavy press campaign. He also suffered dramatic persecutions by the civil and government authorities.

The period of the Risorgimento having ended, Guanella remained faithful to the Supreme Pontiff. Saint Pius X esteemed him a lot. At that time, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Socialist and Marxist ideas gained ground in the urban and industrialized society.

The anti-clerical ideas of Masonic Liberalism, of the upper bourgeoisie, were the support of the revolutionary ideas of the labor movement. Together with the demographic transformations given the increase of the population, due to the drastic diminution of infant mortality, a territorial transformation took place: People migrated from the countryside to the city. Between 1861, the year of national unity, and 1901, the population grew by 30%, whereas that of the principal cities increased by 60%.

Don Luigi remained anchored in traditional values and principles and was an enemy of secularizing and de-Christianizing ideologies. Moreover, he designed a map of sustenance and help, always keeping in mind that charity is not lay solidarity but the true face of Christ in the neediest.

ZENIT: After his meetings with Don Bosco, how did Salesian spirituality influence his life?

Siccardi: This was a basic element in his formation as an educator. He was between two holy priests: Don Bosco did not hesitate to trust him. Thus it was that Don Luigi entered almost as a family member in the Salesian house, to send to the Salesians and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians young vocations from his land. In the years 1870-1875 he even supported the opening of a Salesian institution in the Diocese of Como.

Luigi shared in everything and for everything the Salesian pedagogy: the loving and firm approach with young people and the educational will to prevent, rather than cure, moral problems. Like St. John Bosco, Luigi also wanted to bring salvation to young people through education and formation, because both founders placed eternal salvation above all, considering it as the only really important thing.

ZENIT: What is the charism of his community?

Siccardi: Don Luigi asked his priests to be «angelic men, martyrs of virtues and charity,» and he called his sisters «little Marthas,» to highlight the agility of their works. Also «martirelle,» that is, little martyrs invited by the Lord to sacrifice and suffering. He sought to immolate himself to the highest degree possible, to become a victim for the redeeming work of God and for his glory.

The pillars of the Guanellian charism are: great piety, assiduous prayer and extreme faith in Divine Providence.

ZENIT: What legacy do his teachings have?

Siccardi: The sons and daughters of Luigi Guanella continue working along the lines of their founder, as instruments of Providence: sensitivity in looking out for, understanding and helping one’s neighbor who, in the image of Christ and as the saint are called to evangelize the poor, revealing the love of the Father in whom it is always necessary to hope.

The apostolate is geared especially to the most tried in body and spirit, deprived of human support: the care of young people, the elderly, the sick, and great commitment to the poor. The sp
iritual legacy left by the founder can be summarized in the Family of Nazareth: simplicity, confidence and complete availability to the plan of the Father. Luigi Guanella left in the «preventive method» a way that leads, in imitation of God’s goodness, to surrounding with love and care one’s littlest brothers. «To pray and suffer» is the Guanellian program, two fundamental conditions for sanctity and the efficacy of his congregations.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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