November 17, 1998

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


November 17, 1998
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Why so many new saints? Aren't the multiple beatifications and canonizations that take place each year risking making this event commonplace? After twenty years as Pope, John Paul II has already performed 770 beatifications and 280 canonizations.

Quite obviously, the Pope wishes to make these acts one of the aspects of the "new evangelization." He explains himself in the Apostolic Letter on the Threshold of the Third Millennium: "There have been many canonizations and beatifications in recent years. They point out the vitality of local Churches" (November 10, 1994). They show "the all powerful presence of the Redeemer in the fruits of faith, hope and charity among men and women of so many languages and races who have followed Christ in the different forms of Christian vocation." (Ibid.)

A source of renewal

We are all called to sainthood, and the example of so many saints is a powerful encouragement to reach it. "To look on the life of those who have faithfully followed Christ is to be inspired with a new reason for seeking the City which is to come (Heaven), while at the same time we are taught to know a most safe path by which, despite the vicissitudes of the world, and in keeping with the state of life and condition proper to each of us, we will be able to arrive at perfect union with Christ, that is, holiness. God shows to men, in a vivid way, His presence and His face in the lives of those companions of ours in the human condition who are more perfectly transformed into the image of Christ. He speaks to us in them and offers us a sign of this kingdom to which we are powerfully attracted, so great a cloud of witnesses is there given and such a witness to the truth of the Gospel" (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 50). The practice of virtues to an heroic degree, a condition required for each beatification, goes beyond human abilities; it demonstrates the action of the Holy Spirit, and, when it is repeated by a large number of people, it is proof in favor of the divinity of the Church.

It is useful for us to get acquainted with those who already dwell in Heaven, because, "once received into their heavenly Home and being present to the Lord, through Him, with Him and in Him, they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us  So by their brotherly concern is our weakness greatly helped" (Ibid., 49). In addition, "The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church's history" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 828). It is thus very fitting to present these models to the often bewildered people of our troubled times.

To take an example, Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Mary Catherine Troiani on April 14, 1985, saying of her: "Faith and charity shined in her life. She met many of the suffering and the wretched: slavery, hunger, poverty, abandoned newborns, the sick, exploitation and marginalization  Like the Good Samaritan of the Gospel parable, she went to the side of every brother and sister who was suffering in body and mind, reaching out her helping hand with love and paying with her own person  Her charity excluded no one: Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims were welcomed and helped because, in every person touched by suffering, Sister Mary Catherine saw the suffering Face of Christ."

To be the last

Born on January 19, 1813, Constance Troiani lost her mother at the age of six. She then became a boarder with the Poor Clare Oblates of Ferentino, Italy. Intelligent, sensitive and lively in character, she was nevertheless obedient, strove to observe silence and to correct her faults. One day, some members of her family proposed that she return to a secular life, but she refused. Happy in her convent, she wished to remain there to serve God in the total gift of her entire person.

At the age of sixteen, on December 8, 1829, she took the habit under the name of Sister Mary Catherine and one year later pronounced her vows. From this moment on, she felt strongly attracted by the contemplation of Jesus Crucified and by the love of penance. Her particular attraction for the hidden life in which she imitated Jesus living at Nazareth unknown to men caused her to spurn important positions: "I wish always to be the last in the house of God; that is the greatest glory of a religious woman," she wrote.

Nevertheless, because of her qualities, she was given responsibilities, the most important of which was that of being the secretary to the Abbess. Through these different duties Sister Mary Catherine endeavored to live with God, trying to please Him in all things by the faithful accomplishment of her assigned duties. She felt that many faults came from forgetting the presence of the Lord. On the day of her religious Profession she noted: "I will always offer up each action before undertaking it and always live in the presence of God, wishing each day to be better than the day before." In his Rule, Saint Benedict also said: "Man must be persuaded that God is continuously watching him from Heaven at every hour, and that in all places his actions take place under the eyes of the Divinity, and at every moment are reported to God by the Angels" (Chap. 7). Speaking to his young followers, Saint John Bosco suggested that they say to themselves in times of temptation: "How can I be pushed to commit this sin in the presence of God, God the Creator, God the Saviour, this God who can instantly deprive me of life? Am I going to do this in the presence of God, who, while I am offending Him, can send me to the eternal sufferings of Hell?"

Attentive to the presence of God, Sister Mary Catherine frequently spoke with Him. Sometimes she was heard crying out: "O Jesus, give me the fire (of Your love) so that I might consume myself for You!" She liked to say: "Let us penetrate to the interior of the Heart of Jesus; it is there that we are content, and no one can disturb us."

Must we go on?

Joined to her love for the hidden life was a powerful attraction to the missionary apostolate. Divine Providence, to which she had entirely given herself, permitted her to reach the age of 46 before she realized this desire. In 1852, the confessor of the community, returning from travels in Egypt, passed on the concerns of the apostolic delegate of Cairo, Monsignor Cuasco, who lamented the absence of nuns for the Christian education of the young people. The sisters of Ferentino then decided to open a house in Cairo. Seven years later, on August 25, 1859, six sisters, including Sister Troiani, left for Egypt.

While stopping over in Malta, they learned of the death of Monsignor Cuasco. Should the voyage continue? Sister Mary Catherine reassured the small group: "We didn't start this trip to respond to the desires of a prelate, but to the call of God." They arrived in Cairo on September 14. The new Apostolic Vicar gave them a rather cold welcome. But they were soon reassured by the arrival of a little Egyptian girl that a person of means entrusted to them to raise in Catholicism. The foundations of the first school had been laid. Rapidly, students of all languages and religions came to the school. Preference was given to the poorest.

Right from the start, Sister Mary Catherine became the Superior of the nuns. She took great pains to educate and catechize the little girls, presenting God as a very good Father that they should not offend by sin. Any occasion was suitable for her to speak to the children of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and their Guardian Angels. She showed the same good will to non-Catholic students and respected their beliefs inasmuch as they contained a part of the truth (cf. CCC, 2104), but she never failed to enlighten and guide them towards the true faith. She was careful to form the will of the children by gently and firmly requiring obedience of them. Her best teaching consisted of being a model of virtue for all.

"Mamma bianca"

Mother Mary Catherine's zeal did not stop there. Upon the request of two priests who were working to abolish slavery, she founded "The Vine of Saint Joseph," work destined to buy and raise young black slaves. At the same time, she created "The Work of Abandoned Children." Abundant fruits came from these works. The children, touched by the goodness of the one they called "Mamma bianca-White Mother," asked to be instructed in the truths of the faith so that they could receive Baptism. They found a wet nurse for the children in good health, and then they placed them in families in which they could live in dignity. But most of these children were near death and died soon; the Sister obtained the eternal life of Heaven for them by having them baptized, whence the name of "angelic class" which was given to children who had been saved in this manner. The supernatural joy of their entry into Heaven soothed the pain of such a large number of deaths. Sometimes, profound consolation brought joy to the Sisters, such as when little Myriam said from her sickbed: "I must suffer more in order to receive the crown. Just a little more pain and I will taste the joy of God forever!" She died after receiving Holy Communion, her face transfigured: She saw "a beautiful lady, accompanied by equally beautiful souls, come to her and invite her to follow them."

One day, Mother wrote: "A Turk from Constantinople, a shoemaker, obtained seven children for me at a good price. In the past he had brought me three or four others, who were ill, and said: `Baptize them so that they go to Paradise.' He himself wanted to become Christian and he had painted a picture of the Madonna." This man had understood the importance of Baptism. The Lord Jesus himself taught us the necessity of Baptism: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (Jn 3: 5). He also commanded His disciples to preach the Gospel and to baptize all nations: Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28: 19). He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned (Mk 16: 16).

"This pain will not touch my soul"

From the very beginning, the Church has carried out its mission to baptize. It has conferred this sacrament not only on adults, but also on small children. Speaking of certain Christians of his times who denied original sin (Pelagian heresy), Saint Augustine said, in 412 A.D.: "They concede the necessity of Baptism for children, because they cannot go against the practice of the universal Church which was incontestably transmitted by the Lord and the Apostles."

Saint Gregory of Tours (d. 594) reported that about the year 495 the Queen Saint Clotilda had a firstborn son that she had baptized. But the child died soon after Baptism. The King Clovis, who was still a pagan, was upset by this and reproached his spouse: "If the child had been consecrated to my gods, he would be alive, but he was not able to live after being baptized in the name of your God." Strong in her Christian faith, the Queen answered: "I give thanks to the Almighty God, Creator of the universe, who has not judged me unworthy that a child of my flesh should be a part of His Kingdom. And the pain of his death does not touch my soul; for I know that he was called to leave this world in his baptismal clothing to be nourished in the vision of God." Later she gave birth to a second son that she also had baptized and who lived.

Nowadays, Baptism of young children is sometimes seen as an attack on their freedom, because it implies obligations that might be reconsidered when they are adults. We can answer these objections by saying that the upbringing of children is first of all the responsibility of parents. Since parents make necessary choices concerning the life and guidance of their children toward true human values (as, for example, what is taught in school), in the same way they must not deprive them of the essential good of divine life for which they were created. In this way the children will have at their disposal, from the very beginning of the awakening of their conscience, supernatural gifts placed in them by baptismal grace. Far from being a loss of freedom, the entry into Christian life is liberation from sin and the way to the true freedom of the children of God. In addition, every man has obligations of adoration and submission with respect to his Creator. By causing an infant to become a child of God, Baptism permits the full accomplishment of these obligations.

A magnificent gift

In fact, "Baptism is the most beautiful and magnificent of the gifts of God" (Saint Gregory Nazianzen). Its two principal effects are the purification from sin and the new birth in the Holy Spirit. Through Baptism, all sins are forgiven, starting with original sin. Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death, "cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the `death of the soul.' Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin" (CCC, 403). Equally forgiven are all of the personal sins and the punishments due to them of persons who have been baptized as adults. Beyond that, Baptism makes the neophyte an adoptive son of God, the co-heir of Heaven with Christ, and a Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Most Blessed Trinity gives the baptized person sanctifying grace and the theological virtues, which permit him to believe in God, to hope in Him and to love Him. Thus he can lead a holy life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But the grace received at Baptism is called upon to grow. Saint Paul asked the Ephesians to behave according to the greatness of received gifts: I exhort you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you were called (Eph 4: 1). During his trip to France in 1996, Pope John Paul II recalled that "the entire spiritual life follows directly from the sacrament of Holy Baptism." Through this sacrament we have promised to renounce Satan and his seductions forever, and to give ourselves to Jesus Christ, to carry our cross in His footsteps all the days of our lives. It is a demanding call to holiness commensurate with the graces received.

In order to carry out this program, the newly baptized is not alone. Baptism brings together all of the children of God and incorporates them into the Church, the Body of Christ: For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free (1 Cor 12: 13). Members of the Body of Christ, the baptized take part in the priesthood of Christ, which is to say, in His mission: to profess the faith before all men and to take part in the apostolic activity of the Church (cf. CCC, 1268; 1270).

"Distrust ourselves and trust in God"

In order to fulfill her missionary role, Mother Mary Catherine found it urgently necessary to enlarge the old house to which the little girls came. She sought an audience with the viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pacha. With calm frankness she asked him for a roof and bread and obtained from him land as well as an annual allowance for food. After that, the viceroy, who was usually difficult to see, always quickly provided audiences to Mother with the greatest friendship, always wanting to know of the needs of the Institute and to provide for them "like a father." The servant of God likewise did not hesitate to seek the generosity of the rich and powerful so that abundant well-prepared food was given to the children.

Mother Mary Catherine most often had recourse to Divine Providence and to Saint Joseph. One day she shouted victoriously, "I obtain everything I ask of Saint Joseph!" One evening, the Superior was informed that there really was nothing for the next day, neither food nor money. Mother gave the order of the day: "Courage! Distrust ourselves and trust in God, and everything will be fine!" She herself spent the night in prayer in the chapel. The next day what a surprise for the sacristan who caught sight of a fat purse of money hanging over Saint Joseph's neck! Mother's faith was capable of moving mountains.

A thousand terrors

In 1863, Mother Mary Catherine was elected Abbess of her community. The development of her work required that other sisters come to reinforce the original ones. But, in spite of Mother's prayers, the monastery of Ferentino was not interested in the work in Egypt. The Superior thus found it necessary to found an autonomous religious family. On July 5, 1868, the Holy See erected the Institute of "Missionary Franciscan Sisters of Egypt." Vocations came in great number, allowing the foundation of new houses. Thus, between 1868 and 1874, two orphanages and four schools were opened.

In 1882, while plans were being made for three new foundations, the Anglo-Turkish war broke out. Since he could not ensure their safety, the Italian consul asked the Sisters of Cairo to prepare to leave. After having placed some children in friendly families, the foundress, the Sisters and the rest of the girls left Cairo. They departed on a freight train and, after a thousand terrors, they embarked for Jerusalem, Marseilles, Naples and finally Rome. On the boat they could not even find anything to eat. In order to encourage her girls, Mother said to them with kindness: "They refused a drop of water to Jesus crucified. So do you think we should get everything we want?"

Once things settled down in Egypt, Mother Mary Catherine sent three of her Sisters to Cairo to assess the state of the house: it was still in one piece, thanks to Saint Joseph! The return of the Sisters was organized. Barely arrived, they were set upon by their former pupils who returned to their desks at school. In 1883, cholera claimed innumerable victims. The community knew anguish again. A Sister asked the Superior, "Mother, doesn't our misery frighten you?" She answered, "My dear, only a lack of faith frightens me." She continued, "We should never be discouraged, because what the Lord does not send right away, He will send at a more favorable time  God arranges everything for our best even if, at first glance, it doesn't seem so. All contradictions must be seen as spiritual advantages. To suffer is the true richness of the brides of Christ."

"What better hope than Paradise?"

On April 10, 1887, Easter evening, Mother Troiani was exhausted and had to take to her bed. There was no hope for a cure; her body was used "up to the last drop." On May 6, having received the Holy Eucharist for the last time, she peacefully bowed her head and expired. She had written, "We have two lives, the present and the future. The first consists of struggles, the second is the outcome, the reward and the crown. The first is a navigation, the second is the port; the first only lasts for a moment, the other knows neither old age nor death." She had also often suggested to her girls: "Do your duty well; we hope one day to go `upstairs,' in joy, in Paradise. After putting up with so much fatigue and suffering, what better hope than Paradise? To live as a true nun, it is necessary to conduct each day as if it were the first of our consecrated life and the last of our earthly life." On May 7, her funeral services took place in triumph: Christians and Muslims were present to give final homage to this apostle of charity.

Let us ask Blessed Mary Catherine Troiani to guide us in the accomplishment of our duty of everyday life which is the road to eternal happiness. We pray to Saint Joseph for all of your intentions, and especially for your families, living and departed.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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