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February 24, 2004|
On September 20, 1801, in the former monastery of Saint Claire, in Carignano, in the Piedmont region of Italy, not far from Genoa, workers were excavating tombs under the pavement, hoping to find valuable objects or at least some lead. In a casket, they discovered the completely intact body of a woman. The inscription revealed that it was that of Virginia Centurione, the wife of Gaspare Bracelli, who had died at the age of 65 on December 15, 1651, that is, one hundred fifty years earlier. The civil authority, which was fairly anti-clerical (the Piedmont was under Napoleon's control at that time) made every effort to temper the enthusiasm that this marvelous discovery aroused in the Genoese population. The notary Piaggio was given the job of demonstrating scientifically that the body had been preserved as a result of embalming. But when he found the body supple and flexible, Piaggio abandoned the examination, and informed the Sisters of Bisagno that the remains of their foundress had been identified. This act of sincerity, which was considered an act of treason by the government, resulted in his name's being crossed off the list of notaries. Thus unable to work from then on, he agreed to live in the most abject poverty and devoted all his energies to searching for recollections of the deceased, for her glorification.
Born on April 8, 1587, Virginia Centurione belonged to the wealthy Genoese nobility, both on her mother's and her father's side. Her father had held responsibilities at the battle of Lepanto (1571), then at the Diet of Regensburg (1582). After having served as an ambassador in Madrid in 1599, he became Doge of Venice for 1621 and 1622. A woman extraordinary for her piety, intelligence, and beauty, Virginia wished to consecrate herself to God in religious life, but at the age of fifteen, she was forced to marry another noble, Gaspare Bracelli, who was nineteen years of age. Despite the birth of two daughters, Lelia and Isabella, the household was far from happy. The husband thought only of gambling and pleasure, to the point of becoming the victim of his dissolute life. His doctors sent him to Alessandria (Italy) to be treated in a more favorable climate.
Virginia's father then advised her to separate from her husband, but she refused and joined him. His wife's devotion touched Gaspare's heart; he converted and died a Christian death at the age of twenty-four, leaving behind a twenty-year-old widow. In spite of her family's entreaties, Virginia vigorously refused to remarry. She attended to raising her two daughters. Isabella would have twenty-one children, ten of whom would consecrate themselves to the service of God. Isabella herself would end her days as a contemplative nun. As for Lelia, she died at a relatively early age, and her two daughters entered religious life.
Enjoy ourselves, or save souls?
This intervention by the Most Blessed Virgin on behalf of the poor shows us that her mission as «Servant» of the Lord is not completed. «Taken up to Heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation... By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into the happiness of their true home» (Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 62). The Church expresses its faith in this truth by invoking Mary under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.
«You will stay with me»
However, Virginia's wealth was not inexhaustible. Without hesitating, the noble lady went to beg in the streets, the stores and the palaces in order to feed her protégées. In 1633, when these had grown to more than two hundred in number, she rented from her son-in-law, Lelia's husband, a mansion that had once belonged to her own husband, on the bank of the Bisagno Stream, hence the name «Daughters of Bisagno» given to the young girls who lived there. A third house, later opened in Carignano, became a Mother House of sorts. There the foundress had her little bedroom, furnished with an old wardrobe, a prie-Dieu, two stools, a desk, and, by way of a bed, two trestles supporting a few planks.
With the number of children received soon reaching five hundred, Virginia could not administer this sort of community alone. The Senate of the Republic of Genoa named exceptionally charitable patrons, at first three, then a fourth, Emmanuel Brignole. At this time, in imitation of Saint Catherine of Genoa (1477-1510), Virginia began to send her older girls to care for the sick at Pammatone Hospital. Later on, during an epidemic in 1656-1657, fifty-three of them would die victims of their own charity.
Around 1644, Virginia drew up Constitutions for them. They would observe the Gospel to perfection, and would work for the conversion of sinners by means of prayer, mortification and service to the sick. An enthusiastic admirer of the foundress, Emmanuel Brignole organized the life of work, study, religious education, and domestic needs of the house. He devoted himself with such zeal that the «Sisters of Our Lady of Refuge on Mount Calvary» were called the «Brignolines» by the people.
Retired in the house in Carignano, Virginia Centurione left this earth for Heaven on December 15, 1651, and was interred the next day in the church of the monastery of Saint Claire. Her daughters would continue their charitable apostolate in various hospitals in Genoa or in shelters for the poor. At the beginning of the third millennium, they number almost 200 religious, spread throughout more than 30 homes in Italy, India, Central Africa and Latin America.
The light of a message
Following the example of Blessed Virginia Centurione, let us turn to the Most Blessed Virgin. Pope John Paul II invites us to speak to Mary by saying the Rosary. Even at the beginning of his pontificate, he said, «The Church proposes to us a most simple prayer, the Rosary, which can calmly be spread out to the pace of our days. The Rosary, slowly recited and meditated on as a family, as a community, individually, will make you gradually enter into the feelings of Christ and His Mother, calling to mind all the events that are the key to our salvation. With Mary, you will open your soul to the Holy Spirit, that He might inspire all the great tasks that await you» (May 6, 1980).
In fact, just as children imitate what their parents do, as they learn their language by hearing them speak, so do those who recite the Rosary and consider seriously and with devotion the virtues of Jesus Christ in the mysteries of His life, begin to resemble this divine Master, with the help of grace and through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. «For We are convinced that the Rosary, if devoutly used, is bound to benefit not only the individual but society at large» affirmed Pope Leo XIII (Encyclical Lætitiæ sanctæ, no. 3, September 8, 1893). The same Supreme Pontiff clarified the benefits that flow from meditating on the joyful mysteries: «These are precious examples of goodness, of modesty, of humility, of hard-working endurance, of kindness to others, of diligence in the small duties of daily life, and of other virtues [of the Holy Family of Nazareth], and once they have made their influence felt they gradually take root in the soul, and in course of time fail not to bring about a happy change of mind and conduct» (Ibid., no. 6).
Bearing witness to the Beatitudes
Of the sorrowful mysteries, Pope Leo XIII said, «Witnessing these examples of fortitude [of Jesus and Mary during the Passion], not with sight but by faith, who is there who will not feel his heart grow warm with the desire of imitating them?... But by this patience, We do not mean that empty stoicism in the enduring of pain... but rather do We mean that patience which is learned from the example of Him, who having joy set before Him, endured the Cross, despising the shame (Heb. 12:2)» (Lætitiæ, 8, 9).
As for the glorious mysteries, he added, «From them we learn that death is not an annihilation which ends all things, but merely a migration and passage from life to life. By them we are taught that the path to Heaven lies open to all men, and as we behold Christ ascending thither, we recall the sweet words of His promise, I go to prepare a place for you (John 14:2). By them we are reminded that a time will come when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and that neither mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow, shall be any more, and that we shall be always with the Lord, and like to the Lord, for we shall see Him as He is, and drink of the torrent of His delights, as fellow-citizens of the saints, in the blessed companionship of our glorious Queen and Mother. Dwelling upon such a prospect... then, too, shall we feel the solace of the assurance that which is at present momentary and slight tribulation works for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:17) Here alone we discover the true relation between time and eternity, between our life on earth and our life in Heaven; and it is thus alone that are formed strong and noble characters» (Ibid., 14-15).
Thus, by contemplating the mysteries, the Rosary develops faith in us. Pope Leo XIII wrote, «The Rosary offers an easy way to present the chief mysteries of the Christian religion and to impress them upon the mind... But the Christian is kept so busy by the various affairs of life and wanders so easily into matters of little importance, that unless he be helped with frequent reminders, the truths which are of first importance and necessity are little by little forgotten; and then faith begins to grow weak and may even perish... In the Rosary, along with the most beautiful and efficacious prayer arranged in an orderly pattern, the chief mysteries of our religion follow one another, as they are brought before our mind for contemplation... It will not, then, seem too much to say that in places, families, and nations in which the Rosary of Mary retains its ancient honor, the loss of faith through ignorance and vicious error need not be feared» (Encyclical Magnæ Dei Matris, September 8, 1892, nos. 14-16, 18).
Regenerating the nations
But it is not enough to express our requests through the Rosary. It is also proper to pray it with great attentiveness, because God hears the voice of the heart rather than that of the mouth. To pray to God with «voluntary» distractions would be, in fact, a great irreverence. To tell the truth, it is hardly possible to say the Rosary without having some «involuntary» distractionsit is even difficult to say just one Hail Mary without our imagination removing something from our attention. «As there is no prayer more commendable to the soul and more glorious to Jesus and Mary than a well-said Rosary,» affirms Saint Louis-Marie, «there is likewise no prayer more difficult to say well and in which it is more difficult to persevere, particularly owing to the distractions that come naturally in such frequent repetition of the same prayer» (The Secret of the Rosary). Let us observe that the habit of watching the stream of images poured out by the television and media makes one waste much time, increases distractions and is an impediment to recitation of the Rosary.
Without seeing or feeling anything
The Rosary can be prayed while performing manual labor, because manual labor is not always contrary to vocal prayer. If you are unable to find enough time to pray an entire Rosary all at once, you can pray a decade here, a decade there, such that, in spite of all the things you have to do, at least you can finish an entire Rosary before going to bed. But saying the Rosary together as a family or with others is even better.
Praying the Rosary requires humility, faith and a great deal of confidence, according to the words of Jesus Christ: If you believe that you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer, it shall be done for you (Mk. 11:24). The greatest desire that the eternal Father has for us is to pass on to us the salutary waters of His grace and mercy. It pleases Jesus Christ when we ask Him for His graces, and if we do not, He lovingly complains about it: Until now you have not asked for anything in My name... Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened to you (Jn. 16:24 Mt. 7:7). What is more, to give us greater confidence in praying to Him, He has given us His word, affirming that the eternal Father would grant us whatever we ask Him for in His name (Jn. 16:23).
But to our confidence let us add perseverance in prayer. Only he who perseveres in asking, seeking, and knocking will receive, find, and enter (cf. Mt. 24:13). It is not enough to ask God for a few graces for a month, a year, ten years, twenty yearswe must not grow weary, but ask until our death. God sometimes makes us look and ask a long time for the graces He wishes to grant us, so as to increase them even more. In this way the person who receives them holds them in high regard, and keeps himself from losing them after having received them, for what is obtained quickly and at little cost is held in little esteem.
Let us ask Blessed Virginia Centurione to help us pray to the Blessed Virgin through the Rosary, and to surrender ourselves to God, according to her own expression: «Committing myself in everything and for everything to the hands of Him who created me, of Him who will help me more than I can imagine.»