September 24, 1997

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


September 24, 1997
Our Lady of Ransom

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

The Daughters of Saint Joseph are spread out all over the world in more than 30 religious houses; each year they prepare millions of hosts, press wagons full of grapes and wash tons of liturgical linens. Saint Peter's Basilica makes use of their services, but so do poor mission chapels. Their entire life is oriented towards the altar on which is celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and towards the tabernacle. They show to the world how much the Church loves the Eucharist.

Spiritual pleasure

"The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the Blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself, our Pasch" (Cathechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1324). Upon what foundation does the Church base her teaching on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar? "That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and His true Blood is something that `cannot be apprehended by the senses,' says Saint Thomas, `but only by faith which relies on divine authority.' For this reason, in a commentary on Luke 22: 19 (This is my Body which is given for you), Saint Cyril says: `Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Saviour in faith, for since He is the truth, He cannot lie' " (CCC, 1381).

The Daughters of Saint Joseph, who dedicate their religious life to honoring Jesus in the Eucharist, were founded by Clement Marchisio, beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 30, 1984. During the beatification ceremony, the Holy Father said of him: "A man of prayer, as every priest should be, he was conscious of his duty of praying to God, Lord of the universe and of his own life, but he was also conscious of the fact that true adoration which is worthy of the infinite holiness of God, is realized above all in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. That is why he showed such great zeal by pious celebration of the Eucharistic Mystery, by assiduous adoration and by the care he took in displaying liturgical pomp. Indeed, he was convinced that the Church is built especially around the Eucharist and that the members of the Christian community are, by participation in this Sacrament, mystically identified with Christ and become one being with each other."

"I want to become provost"

Clement Marchisio was born on March 1, 1833, in the town of Raconnigi, close to Turin, Italy, where his family was esteemed for its faith and its zeal for work. The father, a modest cobbler, had but one dream: that little Clement, eldest born of his family which would count five children, would one day assist him in his trade. But, when he was still quite young, the boy declared: "I want to become provost," that is, a priest. His mother, a truly holy woman, was able to persuade her husband: "Let's let him become a priest." Thanks to the help of a charitable priest, Don Sacco, the adolescent was able to follow through with his secondary studies and then begin philosophy.

At sixteen years of age, Clement Marchisio was invested with clerical garb, to which he would always be faithful. He was ordained a priest on September 21, 1856. In the ardor of his youth, he had not fully measured the responsabilities of a priest. Fortunately, after his ordination, he spent two years in the boarding school founded by Saint Joseph Cafasso destined to complete the training of young priests. Don Cafasso told him: "Being a priest is the surest way for going to Paradise and for leading others there as well." When he left the school, Clement Marchisio observed: "When I entered, I was a big kid, heedless of what it meant to be a priest. I left totally different, having fully understood the dignity of the priesthood."

Don Marchisio's program

Don Marchisio's beginnings in parish ministry went along peacefully in a small town full of fervent Christians. Each day at Mass, he gave Holy Communion to almost 400 people. But this easy apostolate did not last. In 1860, he was named pastor of Rivalba Torinese, a violently anti-clerical district, which was called "the devil's den." Just like Jesus Christ, he wanted to be a "good shepherd" for his sheep. His deep wish was to save them, and in so doing, to save himself. In his inaugural speech to his parishioners, he revealed his eminently priestly program: "I owe you a good example, instruction, my service and all that I am," he said. "I must even sacrifice myself for your souls, if necessary. My first duty is good example. As pastor, I must be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, which obliges me to practice all virtues... I must give honor to my ministry through a holy and irreproachable life, and you must honor, respect and imitate my ministry. This honor and respect are not due to my person, but to my ministry: I have in my hand powers that neither the angels in Heaven nor the kings of the earth will ever have. I can reconcile you with God, forgive your sins, open to you the fountain of graces and the gate of Heaven, consecrate the Eucharist and make Jesus, our Saviour to come in your midst. You must consider me as sent by God to lead you to Heaven... My second duty is to instruct you: teach your children catechism, instruct the ignorant, including those who do not come to church, advise mothers and fathers, exhort the young. And if there is some vice to be found, I will have to raise my voice. What a disgrace for me if I do not speak the truth clearly... Thirdly, I must be entirely yours, like Jesus who said: The Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a redemption for many (Mt 20: 28). I must dedicate to you my night watches, my cares, my fatigues, at every moment of day and night, in spite of distance, heat, cold-all in order to bring you aid... To my service I will add my prayer: that is how Saint Paul converted so many souls..."

This dedicated program out of love for souls should stimulate us in accomplishing our duties of state. In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius invites us all to work together with Our Lord in order to conquer the whole world, following Him in fatigue in order to follow Him in glory (no. 95). But this peaceful conquest cannot be accomplished without the cross.

The truth is not always pleasant

Don Marchisio began his work by teaching catechism to the children, who readily listened to the priest's clear, simple, living word. In the pulpit, however, in imitation of the holy Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney, he preached strongly against blasphemy, disrespect for Sundays, corrupt morals: "Know this once and for all," he told them; "I have not come here to please you, but to tell you the truth and convert you." However, it is not always pleasant to hear the truth. So, the parishioners who were shocked by his vigorous sermons tried to silence their pastor by making his life impossible. As soon as the reading of the Gospel was finished, the men made a quick sign of the cross and left the church. "For the good of peace," their wives followed. The boys and girls were quick to do the same. Thus, the preacher found himself before an auditorium consisting of a few old, deaf ladies and children. Then the attack became more serious: a donkey, braying at the top of his voice, was introduced into the door of the church. The young pastor hid his head in his hands for a few seconds, and then, calmly continued his homily with fervor and persuasion.

Still other turns were played on him: noise in the church, whistling, provoking songs succeeded each other without interruption. The least move, look on his face, anything was good enough to bring suspicion on the priest, and that suspicion was then amplified and transformed into calumny. One day, an awkward aggressor attacked him with a stick. The skillful priest grabbed the stick, then gave it back, saying: "Take it and do with me what you will. I am ready to die. The only regret I have is that you will be discovered and you will fall into the hands of justice." Such charity left the adversary unarmed.

On the cross

After having for a long time sustained in silence, Clement Marchisio ended up by getting afraid and asked to be transferred to another parish. His bishop answered that he should courageously remain on the cross. Clement obeyed, abandonning himself to the Heart of Jesus, the Most Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph. "In order to love Jesus, not only with fiery words, but in very deed, one must be hated, denied," he said. "One must suffer, be tired out and humiliated for Him. The greatest good is accomplished on the cross." These words are like an echo to those pronounced by Jesus: Blessed shall you be when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake. Be glad in that day and rejoice; for behold, your reward is great in Heaven (Lk 6: 22-23).

It is from the celebration of Mass and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament that Blessed Clement Marchisio drew the strength necessary to follow Jesus to Calvary. "The spirituality of every priest is bound to the Eucharist. There they receive the necessary strength to offer their life together with Jesus, High Priest and Victim of Salvation... From the Cross, Our Lord speaks to all His priests and invites them to be, with Him, signs of contradiction for the world. The contradiction of Jesus has become part of the apostolic tradition: Be not conformed to this world (Rm 12: 2)" (John Paul II, September 9, 1983).

Each day, Don Marchisio spent a long while in preparation for celebrating Mass, which he said without slowness, but in a deep spirit of recollectedness. He also recommended that his parishioners make a careful preparation for Holy Communion: "There is no use in sowing good seed if you do not prepare the ground to receive it; the same is true for this food of the soul which is Holy Communion. Whoever wants to receive the fruit of union with God, preserve the life of the soul and increase its strength, must be properly disposed."

Strengh for conversion

He also found delight in remaining for a long time before the Blessed Sacrament, especially when the cross of misunderstanding, calumny and debts was heavy. He confessed to an afflicted woman: "You see, I too find myself sometimes overwhelmed by the weight of trials; but after five minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament, which is our all, I feel entirely invigorated. Do the same when you are depressed and discouraged." We too can draw from the inexhaustible fountain of the Eucharist the waters of grace which will strengthen us in the trials of life. Without a word, Jesus in the Eucharist will make things look different, for our own heart first of all, then sometimes for others as well, and the cross will seem lighter to carry, easier to endure.

The persecution launched against Clement Marchisio lasted ten years. After having for a long time searched the deeds and gestures of their pastor, several parishioners noticed his fidelity to his committments. "Never did we see him commit the least imperfection in the observation of the commandments of God or the Church," one of them said. Moved and edified, many converted. The wind was turning, and his fiercest adversaries ended up by coming back to God. But at what a price! How many prayers, private conversations, moments of abandonment and solitude, acts of patience, did it take for him to obtain from God the salvation of these souls! "He is an angel in the confessional," people used to say; fine, delicate, merciful-in a word: heartful-such was his style. Yet, even if the parishioners did come back to God, nevertheless, they had not yet weeded out all their bad habits, and many still remained poor sinners: "What breaks my heart," said the priest, "what keeps me from having peace, is when I see so many sins committed with indifference, as if it were nothing to commit a sin, whereas sin is the greatest evil in the world. Sin not only brings ruin for eternity, but already in this life, it is a sort of Hell. Ah! What happiness to be in God's grace...! O Lord, grant that my voice may have the strength to penetrate into hearts and such powerful vigor to root up and destroy vice!"

Two charities

These words of Don Marchisio were pronounced out of spiritual charity, for the eternal salvation of his faithful, but their material needs were also the object of his charitable solicitude. No one left his house without having received assistance. He even gave away his bedding, sheets and covers to the poor who had to seek refuge in a stable. Between 1871 and 1876, he built an asylum for children, as well as a weaving workshop in order to furnish young girls with a job and salary. Goodwilled ladies helped him to achieve these charitable tasks. Later, he united them in a community called "the Daughters of Saint Joseph."

Don Marchisio's example invites us to practice works of mercy, that is to say, "charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God" (CCC, 2447).

Don Marchisio's charity was especially attentive to the manner in which Jesus Himself is treated in the Sacrament of the Altar. His soul was deeply wounded when he heard of Eucharistic profanations. The sight of uncared-for liturgical vestments, dirty altar cloths and linens afflicted him profoundly. So, after having prayed for a long time and asked advice of his superiors, he confided to the Daughters of Saint Joseph another charge, entirely different from that for which he had grouped them together. The special duty of the sisters would be to prepare with great respect, according to Church rules, the matter (bread and wine) for the Eucharistic sacrifice, to make Mass vestments and altar cloths, and to look after the decency and honor due to the Eucharist. They would also teach catechism to children in preparation for First Communion, and give liturgical education to altar boys and the other faithful. The Sisters, and especially the co-foundress, Sister Rosalia Sismonda, received with unanimous enthusiasm this new objective for their institute.

After having defined the Congregation's goal, Don Marchisio kept it carefully under the protection of Saint Joseph: "Let us put things in Saint Joseph's hands, " he said. "He is our good foster-father, and he will not let us remain in need of anything... Pray, knock at the door of Divine Providence and hope all from God through the intercession of Saint Joseph." He also encouraged confidence in Mary. "Let us always go to Mary," he used to repeat, "and she will not fail to assist us. Let us think of her purity, her humility, her union with God, the conformity of her will with God's, and let us strive to make her shine in us in order to resemble her... Keep Mary in your heart... The Madonna knows that we are her children. She is the Mother of our eternal salvation. Let us have courage: one day, we will see our good Mother in Heaven. Have you ever thought of how fortunate one is to have a mother?"

Climbing to the summit

Sustained by the maternal hand of Mary, Don Marchisio did not cease to make progress on the path to holiness. Five years before his death, he announced that he would die at 70 years of age; but he first had to go through a very dark night: "Poor me!" he growned. "Never before has the devil tormented me so! What pains has he not made me go through? How he has freed me from deception by making my life seem so useless! What temptations, even that of destroying my religious institute!" Relying on the help of the Blessed Virgin, he came out victorious from this trial.

On the morning of December 15, 1903, he was going to celebrate Mass and visit the co-foundress, Sister Rosalia Sismonda, who was dying, and who would give up her soul just two hours before him. But he became indisposed: "If only I could celebrate one more Mass!... Today, maybe I won't be able to recite my breviary!" He soon began to agonize, uttering now and then ejaculations, such as: "My God, have mercy on me!... Create in me a pure heart!... Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" Those were his last words.

That is how the holy priest passed from this world to the next, he who had written: "The things of this world are nothing. Heaven and eternity are waiting for me. What will happen to me, to us? A million years after my death, I will still be at the beginning of eternity. We are just passing through the earth as travelers. Life is a fleeting moment like water in a torrent."

In the Spring of 1891, Don Marchisio had met the Bishop of Mantua, Giuseppe Sarto, the future Pope Saint Pius X. The latter later declared to the Daughters of Saint Joseph: "Do you know that your pastor of Rivalba is a saint? Yes, your founder. You must take into serious account his words, advice and memories." May Blessed Clement's example avail us in order to practice mercy, to grow day by day in devotion towards the Blessed Eucharist and attain to our heavenly homeland with him. Such is the grace that we request for you, as well as for all those who are dear to you, living and deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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