Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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March 3, 2001
Saint Katharine Drexel

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (Jn. 12: 24). On May 7, 2000, at the Coliseum in Rome, the place of martyrdom of numerous Christians, Pope John Paul II commented on this verse from the Gospel: «Christ is the grain of wheat who by dying has borne fruits of everlasting life. And down the centuries His disciples have followed in the footsteps of the Crucified King, becoming a numberless multitude from every nation, race, people and language… In the twentieth century, and maybe even more than in the first period of Christianity, there has been a vast number of men and women who bore witness to the faith through sufferings that were often heroic… Where hatred seemed to corrupt the whole of life leaving no escape from its logic, [the martyrs] proved that love is stronger than death (cf. Cant. 8: 6). Within terrible systems of oppression which disfigured man…, they loudly proclaimed their loyalty to Christ crucified and risen.»

Among these martyrs are many women who have lost their lives in defense of their dignity and purity. Teresa Bracco, beatified May 24, 1998, on the feast of Mary Help of Christians, is one of these heroic women. «Martyrdom crowned her journey of Christian maturation, developed day after day with the strength she drew from daily Eucharistic Communion and a deep devotion to the Virgin Mother of God» (Homily of the Mass of Beatification).

Where did they go?

Teresa Bracco was born on February 24, 1924, in Santa Giulia (in the Piedmont province, in northern Italy), the sixth child of Giacomo and Angela Bracco. These simple peasants developed their land with untiring labor. The father was severe but just; the mother was gentle and peaceful. Each word which came from their lips was weighed on the balance of the Gospel and measured against the rule of the fear of God, a God who was approached with feelings of respect and love. In the evenings, Giacomo himself presided over the recitation of the Rosary as a family. Teresa received her name in honor of the «little Saint» of Lisieux, beatified in 1923. She was a gentle and good child. In 1927, her two brothers died of typhus. The little girl asked ingenuously where they had gone. «To Heaven!» she was told, which made her hope to go there so as to join them. Another daughter, Anna, was born to the Braccos in 1928. The parents would have preferred a boy, who would have been able to take over the farm. But, in this Christian household, each event was regarded in light of the will of God; therefore was Anna greeted with joy.

In 1930, a young, zealous priest, Don Natale Olivieri, arrived in Santa Giulia. He noticed Teresa's piety, as she regularly attended his catechism classes. The child desired very much to make her First Communion, which grace was granted her in the spring of 1931. She spent her life between her familial home, helping her mother with the domestic chores, the church, the village school, and the fields, where she sometimes led the livestock to pasture. The priest made of her an example: «Be like Teresa! If everyone were like her, I wouldn't have anything to worry about.»

On October 2, 1933, Teresa received the sacrament of Confirmation. She had engraved in her heart the words of Don Natale: «We are here to know, to love, and to serve God, and to see Him in Heaven in the next life. Here on earth we must count on that. If not, we lose everything.» The same year, she was moved reading the life of Saint Dominic Savio (1842-1857), a disciple of Saint John Bosco. The young saint's motto fascinated her: «Better to die than to sin.» Meditation on Saint Alphonsus de Liguori's Eternal Maxims centered on the importance of eternal salvation and man's final ends, anchored in her heart the resolution to avoid all sin. Teresa also loved very much the virgin martyr saints Agnes, Lucy, Cecilia, and the patron of her parish, Saint Julia, who had preferred to be crucified rather than to renounce her faith. Jesus' Passion, brought to life in a writing of St. Vincent Strambi, an 18th-century Passionist, was frequently the subject of her contemplation. Attending weekday Mass and Holy Communion became for her a necessity. She made the nine First Fridays devotion, Communions of reparation to the Sacred Heart, which Our Lord asked of Saint Margaret Mary. Teresa wanted to enter the Society of Children of Mary, but her father did not allow it, because the young women of this group had to make collections from door to door for the parish. Teresa submitted without a word, but she continued to follow all the practices of the interior life recommended to the Children of Mary.

At the age of 16, Teresa was assigned to do harder farm chores, because there was no other man in the family but the father. She led the oxen to plowing, she sowed, harvested, and picked fruit, but she never complained of fatigue. She never refused any task, and willingly took the place of her sisters, to the point that Giacomo told them one day, «I'm afraid that you do her wrong, because she is too good.» Her sister Giuseppina described Teresa's character thus: «I don't know where her great strength came from… for the love of God, she accepted weariness and sacrifices… she always looked on the bright side of life… I never saw her angry, or act without thinking… To die rather than to sin was her framework for life.»

A natural bulwark

Given Teresa's fervor, her parents believed her to be called to religious life. But she had not yet made her choice. One of her friends said, «She was always good and modest in her manner of dress.» Her sister Maria added, «She was very subdued and balanced in everything. She didn't wish to impress people. She always wore her hair long, and never wanted to have it cut.» She didn't like to wear makeup, but her natural beauty was noticed in the village, and many young men sought to accompany her on the way out of Mass or on the way back from the fields. Obliging towards them and always disposed to do a favor, the young woman remained reserved, and she had ways of avoiding them, especially those who acted too freely. Teresa found in her modesty the guardian of her chastity, according to these words of Saint Ambrose: Modesty is «the companion of purity, in whose company chastity itself is safer» (De Officiis, I, 20).

«[Modesty], said Pope Pius XII, «is the natural bulwark of chastity. It is its effective rampart, because it moderates acts closely connected with the very object of chastity. Modesty makes man hear its warning, like a forward sentinel, from the moment he acquires the use of reason… It accompanies him throughout his entire life and demands that certain acts, which are good in themselves because they are divinely established, should be protected by a discreet veil of shadow and the reserve of silence, in order to confer on them the respect owed the dignity of their great purpose» (November 8, 1957).

Purity is not protected without battles, as Pius XII again explains to young women of the Catholic Action of Rome: «With the exception of the Blessed Virgin, it is vain to imagine a human life which could be at once pure and lived without vigilance or combat… You do not know the depth of human fragility, nor what corrupted blood runs from the wounds left in human nature by Adam's sin—leaving ignorance in intelligence, malice in the will, greed for pleasure and weakness as regards the difficult accomplishment of the good in the passions of the senses… As long as certain provocative clothes remain the sad privilege of women of questionable reputation and as the sign that makes them known, you will not dare adopt them for yourselves. But the day when these clothes will be worn by individuals above all suspicion, women will no longer hesitate to go with the tide, a tide which may bring about the worst falls» (May 22, 1941). Already, the Blessed Virgin had warned Blessed Jacinta Marto of Fatima that there would come «fashions which will offend Our Lord very much.» This warning spurs on vigilance against the dangers and spiritual downfalls sowed by indecent fashions.

The Pontifical Council for the Family recalled, on December 8, 1995, that, «Even if they are socially acceptable, some habits of speech and dress are not morally correct and represent a way of trivializing sexuality, reducing it to a consumer object. Parents should therefore teach their children the value of Christian modesty, moderate dress, and, when it comes to trends, the necessary autonomy» (Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, no. 97). Fashion is not bad in itself. It comes spontaneously from human sociability, following the impulse which inclines us to place ourselves in harmony with our peers. Yet fashion is not the highest rule of conduct. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that there is a commendable act of virtue in feminine adornment when it conforms to the state of the person and is worn with good intentions (Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah). But he likewise calls to mind that the good of our soul is more important than the good of our body, and that we should prefer to the advantage of our own bodies the good of our neighbor's soul (Summa theologiæ). Therefore, a limit exists which no form of fashion may go beyond, a limit beyond which fashion makes itself the cause of spiritual ruin.

What supreme criteria?

Fortified by the sacraments, Teresa was a model of joyful modesty. Her exemplary life manifested a profound love of God and neighbor, a love which forgot itself, according to Jesus' words to His disciples: If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow me (Mt. 16: 24). Whoever loves his life loses it, while whoever hates his life in this world preserves it to life eternal (Jn. 12: 25). As Pope John Paul II explains, «[These words] contain a truth which today's world often scorns and rejects, making love of self the supreme criterion of life. But the witnesses to the faith, who also this evening speak to us by their example, did not consider their own advantage, their own well-being, their own physical survival as greater values than fidelity to the Gospel» (May 7, 2000). Teresa's faithfulness to the will of God in the little events of everyday life prepared her for the supreme battle of martyrdom.

With the approach of war, Pope Pius XII called all Christians to pray for peace. Teresa increased her prayers. At the religious offices, she was very recollected, her eyes focused on the altar where the Blessed Sacrament was placed. During Lent 1940, two Passionist Fathers came to preach a mission to the people of Santa Giulia. At the beginning of each conference, the missionaries repeated these powerful sentences: «Life is short, death is certain; the hour of death is not certain; I have but one soul; if I lose it, what will I be left with? Everything passes, everything will soon end, but eternity will never end.» Teresa meditated on these truths and understood the urgent necessity of working for the Reign of God, according to Jesus' words: Remember, I am coming soon! I bring with me the reward that will be given to everyone for what he has done (Rev. 22: 12).

Tense situation

September 1943: two months after Mussolini's deposition, an armistice was signed between Italy and the Allies. In reprisal, and in order to prevent the invasion of its territory, the German Third Reich decided to occupy the Italian peninsula. Armed resistance movements were organized against the occupants, and these partisans were particularly active in the Piedmont province. The Germans, exasperated by their Italian allies' «treason,» mounted a counterattack to the partisans' guerrilla operations by means of severe repression. The diocese of Acqui, to which Santa Giulia belonged, was submitted to a painful ordeal. At the risk of his life, diocesan Bishop Dell'Omo, defended the rebels and the cause of civilian groups.

In the Bracco home, this troubled period saw the death after illness of the father, Giacomo, on May 13, 1944. The six women remaining at home had to support themselves. Teresa was twenty years old. Far from being weakened and destabilized by her father's death, the young woman became stronger and more courageous, as if she had been bequeathed her father's virtues. On July 24, a bloody confrontation not far from Santa Giulia brought a German detachment against a resisting group. After killing several soldiers, the partisans hid in the village. The following day, the Germans returned with reinforcements and engaged in the destruction of the area. Five farms were destroyed. The rumor spread that some soldiers had raped women and girls.

A fearless young woman

On August 27, there was another confrontation. The partisans fled. The morning of the 28th, Teresa attended the 7 o'clock Mass. She then went to work in the fields, accompanied by her sisters, Adele and Anna. All of a sudden, the three young women heard gunshots. Around 9 o'clock, the partisans on the run warned them not to return to Santa Giulia, because the Germans were there. Despite her natural timidity, Teresa didn't listen to them. «What more can they do than kill me?» she asked a neighbor. She wanted to help her mother and assist her in hiding the most precious family possessions, among which was the photograph of her father. With her sisters, she headed back to the village and reached the location of the chestnut grove, where her mother was among the fleeing villagers. A friend of Teresa's recalled, «I told her about the soldiers' barbarity and of their little respect for women. She told me decisively, 'I would rather die than be defiled.' » Mrs. Bracco urged all those present to recite the Rosary.

At 3 o'clock, the Germans approached, along with the partisans who had been captured. Angela and Teresa hid in the cavity of a rock. Suddenly, the soldiers discovered the presence of the two sisters and ordered them to follow the column of prisoners. Later on, they met with a woman with her baby—Enrichetta Ferrera, a cousin of Teresa's. Taken away with the group, she exclaimed, «My other children are still in the woods!» She was allowed to go back there. Enrichetta gave her infant to Teresa, but he began to cry, requiring the mother to take him back. A soldier then ordered Teresa to go along with her cousin.

A sad adventure

Enrichetta's husband recounted, «I saw my wife arrive carrying the child, along with Teresa, who told me, 'They sent me to help you to take the children.' » Then four soldiers arrived, who ordered the Ferrera family to go home, but detained Teresa and two of her young companions. Teresa was sequestered by an officer who ordered two soldiers to lead the two others away. These young women were raped a few minutes later. When they rejoined their families in custody that evening and told their sad adventure in the presence of Mrs. Bracco, Teresa's mother felt her heart sink: «My daughter would never come home again, if something like that happened to her,» she thought. «While the group of women and children had made their way towards Sanvarezzo, then were locked up in a parlor in my home,» said one of the residents of this hamlet, «the young women, who included Teresa, were forced by the soldiers to follow them in various directions. I heard repeated cries and calls for help; one of my neighbors, named Baldo Giovanni, already up in years, encountered the soldier who had abducted Teresa; he was gripping her by the neck and dragging her.»

Soon after the German army had left, Don Natale went to the scene of the tragedy, accompanied by Venanzio Ferrari and the mother of the victim, as well as her sister. He found the body in a place called «the Plane of Cherries.» Teresa was lying on her back, her hands crossed over her chest, in an attitude of defense against an aggressor. A bullet had gone through one of her hands and was lodged in her chest. On her throat could be seen a pale mark. Her face bore bruises; on her chest and arms there were horrible traces of bites. On her skull was a depression of eight centimeters, most probably caused by a blow given by a hobnailed boot. With great sorrow, the priest hurried to have the body covered with a shroud, without letting anyone touch it. Then a physician, Dr. Scorza, came to confirm the death and examine the corpse. «Nothing happened to compromise the young woman's integrity,» he affirmed. «She struggled until the soldier strangled her and killed her in a fit of rage at not having made her yield.»

«To obey God who asked her to defend the temple of her body (cf. I Cor. 3: 16),» wrote in 1998 Bishop Livio Maritano of Acqui Terme, «Teresa disobeyed the man who would have raped her, but would have let her live. Her attitude was not one of silent resignation when faced by a brute ready for anything, but a positive refusal to allow her virginal beauty to be tarnished. Teresa was not an anachronistic person; she is close to the youth of today by her desire for authenticity and consistency between what she was convinced of—her Catholic faith—and her way of living. Teresa Bracco was truly «in love with God,» and it was for this reason that she decided to sacrifice her life. She preferred to lose her life here on earth in order to find it again, forever, in the infinite Love.»

On August 31, a very unassuming religious burial took place. But the occupying force was frightened by the excesses of its own soldiers, and reprisals ended in the area; Teresa's sacrifice thus began to bear fruit. The local Bishop sent the German general a letter of protest for the outrages perpetrated against women, leading the general to recognize that arbitrary acts of violence had been committed, for which two German soldiers were indicted before military tribunals.

A beacon for youth

Each year since 1945, the residents of Santa Giulia have observed the custom of gathering on August 28 to commemorate Teresa's death. Many people from the diocese join them; many go to confession and receive Communion, especially youth. During Teresa's beatification ceremony, Pope John Paul II remarked, «What a significant Gospel witness for the young generations who are approaching the third millennium! What a message of hope for those who are striving to run counter to the spirit of the world! To young people in particular, I hold up this young woman whom the Church is proclaiming blessed today so that they may learn from her clear faith, witnessed to in daily commitment, moral consistency without compromises and the courage of sacrificing even life if necessary, in order not to betray the values that give it meaning.»

Let us be grateful to the Holy Father for proposing to us as a model the example of the martyrs, who teach us to place our conduct in harmony with our faith. By faith, «we believe in God and believe all that He has said and revealed to us, and that the Holy Church proposes for our belief, because He is Truth itself» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1814). But faith «is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of His commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word, in any event, is not truly received until it passes into action, until it is put into practice… It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as He lived (cf. Gal. 2: 20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters… Through the moral life, faith becomes 'confession,' not only before God but also before men; it becomes witness. You are the light of the world, said Jesus… Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Mt. 5: 14-16)» (John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 88-89).

May Saint Joseph and Blessed Teresa obtain for us the grace of absolute consistency between our life and our Catholic faith, the source of innumerable benefits for us and for all those whom we entrust to our Lord in prayer!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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