Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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May 5, 2004
Month of Mary

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Imagine that we are on the wharves of New York in the last years of the nineteenth century. In search of a better life, between fifty and two hundred thousand Italians arrive every year! Every one of them dreams of making his fortune, but they are relegated to the densely populated neighborhoods of the big cities. In the summer, they work as unskilled workers, longshoremen, masons, miners, or tracklayers. In the winter, they are reduced to unemployment. Not knowing the language of the country, they are widely exploited. To crown it all, these immigrants, who are nearly all Catholic, have very little spiritual support. It was in this situation of distress that a young Italian nun, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, appeared. Invited to send Sisters to serve her émigré compatriots, she took up the challenge and began an extraordinary epic.

Frances Xavier Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850, the last of thirteen children, in Sant'Angelo, a village outside the city of Lodi, not far from Milan, Italy. Her parents were ardent Catholics, and raised their children before God, in an environment of profound charity. At baptism she received the names Maria Francesca, but at home she was called «Cecchina.» Born two months premature, the little girl was quite frail and prone to terrible fevers. She nonetheless had a wonderful smile. At the age of eleven, her confessor allowed her to make a private vow of chastity that she would renew every year until she was nineteen when she consecrated her virginity to Christ forever. During evenings at home, the family prayed and read the annals of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith. On reading these, Maria Francesca felt herself inflamed by the desire to become a missionary in China. On her map of the world, she compared the countries that were already Christian with those that had not yet been evangelized, and dreamed of going in turn to carry the light of Christ to these nations. In the year 1870, her family experienced a difficult trial—both parents died, one after the other.

«Found one yourself!»

One day, the parish priest asked Francesca to go fill in for a sick teacher in a school in Vidardo. She remained there two years, won the hearts of the children, instilled in them love and respect for God, and proved herself an excellent teacher. She obtained from the mayor of the village permission to reinstate religious instruction in the school. However, Francesca, who felt called to consecrate herself to God, asked to be admitted into the community of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, but in vain, for God had other plans. In 1874, the bishop of Lodi, Bishop Gelmini, offered her a slightly unusual religious formation in an orphanage, the House of Providence in Codogno, with an elderly spinster, Signorina Tondini. The prelate hoped that Francesca would become both a novice and reformer, which would earn her much opposition from Miss Tondini. Nevertheless, her work was not in vain—not only did the instruction improve, but the temporal operation of the house felt the effects of her administration. Other young girls were received, and Francesca perceived that they aspired to religious life. After three years, with seven of her companions, she made her vows in the hands of the bishop, who made her Superior of the house. Signorina Tondini refused obedience to Sister Cabrini and made her life impossible, which caused her real anguish. Despite the efforts of the new sisters, the situation at the house was desperate. Six years after Sister Cabrini's arrival, Bishop Gelmini closed the house. «You want to be a missionary,» he told her. «The time has come. I do not know of an institute of missionary sisters, so found one yourself.» Her only response was, «I will look for a house.» She moved into an old Franciscan monastery consecrated to Our Lady of Graces. The building needed to be restored; the poverty was extreme. Nevertheless, on November 14, 1880, a new religious congregation was born, the Institute of Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Bishop Serrati, the provost of Codogno, celebrated the first Mass in the chapel and put an image of the Sacred Heart above the altar, a custom that would be kept in all the institute's foundations. Under the direction of Sister Cabrini and the supervision of Bishop Serrati, the Sisters decided to open an orphanage and a school. Many parents sent their children to this quite impoverished school, confident that they would receive a Christian education there. Indeed, Italy was in the hands of a government that was hostile to the Church, and Catholics made great sacrifices to pass on the faith to their children.

This example takes on great importance for the families of our day, for raising their children as Christians is one of parents' major tasks. «Since parents have given children their life,» teaches the Second Vatican Council, «they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators... Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man, in which the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. Hence the family is the first school of the social virtues that every society needs. [...] The family, which has the primary duty of imparting education, needs the help of the whole community» (Declaration Gravissimum educationis, 3). We must also encourage and support the efforts of all those who put structures in place to promote schools that provide a true Catholic education. The many difficulties in this area must arouse our generosity but also encourage our prayer to Saint Joseph, protector of families.

«Not one, but two»!

The new institute founded by Mother Cabrini drew its life from the Heart of Jesus. Its goal was the glorification and consolation of the Sacred Heart. In this spirit, the Mother taught the young girls who knocked at the door to cultivate a profound interior life, to be simple, humble, mortified in the flesh, and above all, obedient. For her, humility was nothing more than the truth about oneself, perfect abandonment to the will of God, and confidence in His grace for the accomplishment of the tasks entrusted to her. «The true missionary Sister never thinks, 'What office will be given me? Where shall I be sent?' and she should never say, 'I can't carry out this or that; I am incapable.' Whether she be made Superior General, sent to teach a class of infants, or to sweep a staircase, she should carry it out serenely, in holy indifference... That is real love, practical love, stripped of all self-interest; the strong love you ought all to have. You are immolated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; in this complete self-abnegation lies the very essence of sanctity.»

In 1882, the community opened a school in Grumello. Two years later, another was founded in Milan. Vocations poured in—it was necessary to make the novitiate larger. The seven years that followed saw as many foundations come into existence. In order to ensure the future, Mother Cabrini hoped to found a house in Rome and obtain the special approval of the Supreme Pontiff. Others advised her against it, citing her institute's youth and the many religious houses already set up in the Eternal City. Received in audience by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Mother explained to him what she wanted. To her great disappointment, she received this response: «Be obedient and return home. You will return at a more opportune time.» After some time, Cardinal Parocchi called her back and asked her, «So, Mother Cabrini, are you still ready to obey?»—«At once.»—«Very well. Instead of one foundation you shall make two. One is to be a free school at Porta Pia. The other is a children's home at Aspra.» She couldn't believe her ears! On March 12, 1888, the institute's rules were approved in Rome.

«Not to the East, but to the West»!

About this time, she met the bishop of Piacenza, Bishop Scalabrini, who was concerned about the financial difficulties of Italians who had emigrated to the United States. This prelate invited her to go there to help her fellow countrymen. Mother was torn, because she still thought of the dream of her childhood—China! Received in audience by Pope Leo XIII, she lay her doubt before him. «Not to the East,» replied the Holy Father, «but to the West. The institute is still young. Go to the United States! You will find there a great field of labor.» The Pope had spoken, and through him, Christ. Mother Cabrini would no longer hesitate. «In founders and foundresses we see a constant and lively sense of the Church, which they manifest by their full participation in all aspects of the Church's life, and in their ready obedience to the Bishops and especially to the Roman Pontiff. Against this background of love towards Holy Church, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), we readily understand the devotion of Saint Francis of Assisi for 'the Lord Pope,' the daughterly outspokenness of Saint Catherine of Sienna towards the one whom she called 'sweet Christ on earth,' the apostolic obedience and the sentire cum Ecclesia of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and the joyful profession of faith made by Saint Teresa of Avila: 'I am a daughter of the Church.' We can also understand the deep desire of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus: 'In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love.' These testimonies are representative of the full ecclesial communion which the Saints, founders and foundresses, have shared in diverse and often difficult times and circumstances. They are examples which consecrated persons need constantly to recall if they are to resist the particularly strong centrifugal and disruptive forces at work today» (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Vita consecrata, March 25, 1996, no. 46).

On March 31, 1889, Mother Cabrini arrived in New York with six companions. As there was no convent there, the nuns spent their first night in a wretched house in Little Italy, in the heart of Lower Manhattan. The next day, the archbishop, Archbishop Corrigan, received them very coldly. He told them bluntly that the situation was such that there was nothing to do. And he concluded: «I see no better solution of this question, Mother, than that you and your Sisters return to Italy!» In a determined voice, Mother replied briefly: «No, not that, your Excellency! I am here by order of the Holy See, and here I must stay.» Thanks to the charity of well-to-do individuals, Mother Cabrini opened a first orphanage. In a short time, everyone in Little Italy knew Mother Cabrini and her Sisters. This humble woman, often physically worn down by illness, found herself, in her boldness, undertaking humanly impossible works. In fact, during the years that followed, the American continent, from North to South, would see schools, boarding schools, orphanages and hospitals spring up, not counting several European foundations. At the time of Mother's death, her congregation would number 67 foundations! Mother Cabrini was able to accomplish such admirable works thanks to the essential trait of her spirituality: her unshakable confidence in God. She wrote, «During all the years the institute has existed, Jesus and Mary have done everything for me. If sometimes things have gone less successfully, it has been because there was too much of myself mingled therewith. I go forward, tranquil as a child, resting in its mother's arms... Omnia possum in Eo qui me confortat! I can do all things in Him who strengthens me! (Ph. 4:13).» The presence of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and particularly the gift of counsel, was manifest in her life. This gift perfects the virtue of prudence by allowing the individual to decide, quickly and surely, by a sort of supernatural intuition, what must be done, especially in difficult situations. Many saints have enjoyed an almost constant practice of this gift. Saint Joan of Arc, for example, would never have been able to plot battle plans that were admired by the greatest military experts without special inspiration from the Spirit of God. We should consider Mother Cabrini's astonishing accomplishments in this light. If her behavior could disconcert others and appear sometimes to be unaware of human expectations, her docility allowed the Lord to provide through her, in an extraordinary manner, for the needs of many destitute people.

The Pope's oranges

Profoundly faithful to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mother Cabrini achieved the union of hearts among her daughters who so differed from one another in origin, temperament, education, and language. «I will study to maintain the union of holy charity among the Sisters,» she wrote. «I will love them with a true mother's love, yet striving to bear myself as the servant of all... seeing in each one the image of my beloved Bridegroom and of Mary most holy.» Of a very maternal nature, she was interested in each of her daughters, asked them to write to her, and, despite her overwhelming obligations, always wrote back to them. She also looked after their health, and did not hesitate to obtain medication for those who needed it.

In the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Sisters of her institute met an unfortunate woman who had lived for years in sin, and had drawn many girls with her. Anxious to save this soul, they visited her often, entreating her to change her way of life, but in vain. Finally, one of the Sisters said to her, «You will not see us anymore, but remember, every time that you hear our convent bell, that there are nuns who pray and suffer to save the soul that you are determined at all costs to lose!» And each time that the bells rang, these words echoed in the mind of the poor woman. Little by little, grace won out. She was converted and left her house of ill repute to join a convent where she died a short time later.

During her return to Rome in the spring of 1902, Mother Cabrini, who was suffering from a fever and overcome by fatigue, had to take to her bed. The doctors believed that it was the end. Pope Leo XIII sent her oranges picked in the gardens of the Vatican. She had eaten nothing for several days, but she had to eat the oranges from the Holy Father! She tasted one, then sat up in her bed. «Delicious! I've recovered my strength.» Shortly thereafter she made her last visit to the Pope who would die the following year. Very attached to the person of the Pope, vicar of Christ on earth, Mother Cabrini wrote about some Protestants she had met while traveling: «Pray much that all these, our brethren, may thoroughly grasp the supernatural relation between Our Lord and the Pope; that all may be joined to him and, with us, form one family, one same flock under the same Shepherd... The grace of their salvation can come only from the loving Heart of the Chief Shepherd who gathered the Apostles and promised grace and blessing to all their successors who remain faithful in union with him who is the foundation rock, the Pope.» Twenty-five years after the institute was founded, Mother Cabrini requested its final approval, which was granted by Pope Saint Pius X, on July 12, 1907. Her congregation at that time numbered more than 1,000 religious. More than 5,000 children were enrolled in her schools, and about 100,000 patients were being cared for in her hospitals.

A hair-shirt within everyone's reach

Mother Cabrini did not prescribe great mortifications of the flesh, but required her religious to mortify themselves in everything and destroy the idol of self-love. She did not tolerate the least bit of grumbling. One day while traveling, one of the Sisters complained about the heat. She was immediately reprimanded by Mother who added that the weather is always the Lord's weather. The foundress asked her daughters to accept everything that happened in silence, with patience, and even joy. «Contradictions, there is the real, sharp hair-shirt! If you love penance, there is a penance that has made saints and which all can practice, even with the weakest health. It is a hair shirt that you can wear not for an hour but all day long.» In this, Mother Cabrini joins another great soul in love with the Sacred Heart, Madame Royer (1841-1924), who said: «Devotion to the Sacred Heart is not a pious practice that you add to other pious practices. It's a life completely embraced by divine love. Make Our Lord loved first; penance will come later. Penance does not consist in striving in search of sacrifices or extraordinary ways, but in saying 'amen' to all the occasions to mortify oneself that life offers us incessantly. It's accepting the cross that God continually rests on our shoulders.» Mother Cabrini practiced what she preached. Throughout her life, she suffered chronic illnesses, but made every effort not to let it show. This spirit of mortification cannot exist without a life of prayer. «Pray, pray always, and ask unceasingly for the spirit of prayer,» she wrote... «What is the spirit of prayer? It means praying according to the Spirit of Jesus... in Jesus and with Jesus. The spirit of prayer means praying in accordance with the divine good pleasure, willing only what God wills... It means that we have our minds fixed on prayer at all times, in all places, working, walking, eating, speaking, suffering; habitually and always.»

Towards the end of 1917, Mother Cabrini returned to Chicago, where, in spite of her state of fatigue, she attended to the needs of the two hospitals founded in that city. Shortly before Christmas, having learned that the local priest was unable to distribute the usual sweets to the children, she exclaimed, «What! No sweets for those little ones? Christmas would not be Christmas! We shall provide everything as usual.» And December 21st found her supervising with satisfaction the preparation of little packages. But the 22nd, she could not get out of bed to attend Mass. Around noon, she was found collapsed in her chair, her clothes stained with blood. There was just enough time to call the priest who administered Extreme Unction to her. After heaving two sighs, the foundress rendered her soul to God, at the age of 67.

To form one family

On July 7, 1946, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini became the first American citizen to be canonized a saint by the Catholic Church, and in 1950, she was declared patroness of all immigrants. Today, her congregation continues to serve the Church in the areas of education, medical care, and pastoral work, in North and South America, Europe, Australia, the Philippines, and Africa. During her canonization, Pope Pius XII had drawn this always current lesson: «May the nations learn from her, who loved her homeland with an ardent love and who spread to other countries the treasures of her charity and her works, that they are called to form one family. This family must never spread unrest and rivalries, nor the enmities eternally engaged in seeking revenge for old insults. This family must be united in that fraternal love whose source is found in Christ's commandment and His divine example.» The men and women of the various nations of the earth will be able to see themselves as brothers and sisters and as children of the same Father of Heaven in the degree that each makes himself or herself an architect of peace, first within his or her own family. When husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters come to agreement in order to bring about peace between them, the work of making peace among nations is already underway. This work can be brought about only by the grace of God which comes down to earth through prayer, particularly by reciting the Holy Rosary. «The Rosary is by its nature a prayer for peace, since it consists in the contemplation of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the One who is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Anyone who assimilates the mystery of Christ – and this is clearly the goal of the Rosary – learns the secret of peace and makes it his life's project. Moreover, by virtue of its meditative character, with the tranquil succession of Hail Marys, the Rosary has a peaceful effect on those who pray it, disposing them to receive and experience in their innermost depths, and to spread around them, that true peace which is the special gift of the Risen Lord... Confidently take up the Rosary once again... May this appeal of mine not go unheard!» (John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, October 16, 2002, nos. 40, 43).

Let us ask Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini for the gift of prayer to Mary, so as to obtain for all families and all nations the peace that comes from Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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