Category Archives: Italy

Joy and tenderness

There is a proverb that “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

There is the saying attributed to Saint Teresa de Avila that “A sad saint is a sorry saint.”

Even the theologian Karl Rahner noted that “A good laugh is a sign of love.”

Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of joy for the follower of Christ. His Apostolic Exhortation is fittingly entitled The Joy of the Gospel.

Today is the feast of Saint Philip Neri, the sixteenth century apostle of Rome. Born in Florence he studied with the Dominicans at the Convent of San Marco – a house noted for the beautiful frescos that Fra Angelico and his followers painted on the walls of the friars’ cell. But it is also noted as the convent where Girolamo Savonarola lived.

Savonarola is noted for his fierce and severe call for reform in Florence, even setting up a sort of holy republic. For his efforts as well as for his biting critique of the papacy, he was burned at the stake in the center of Florence.

According to Paul Burns in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Philip Neri revered the memory of Savonarola. “He [Philip] aimed for a return to the apostolic simplicity of life, as his early hero Savonarola had, but encouraged people to embrace this without using hell-fire sermons and without deliberately upsetting the church establishment.”

Despite this he got into trouble at least twice – at one point Pope Paul IV prohibited him from preaching.

But what is striking is that he kept up a cheerful spirit in all this. As he said:

Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life; therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.

He also used humor to undercut the efforts to idolize him as a living saint – going around with half his beard shaved, wearing outrageous disguises, and playing practical jokes.

I was reminded of the place of joy and tenderness in our spiritual lives when I read the reflection this morning in Give Us This Day. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn recalled that

In the novel Adam Bede, George Eliot wrote, “When death, the great reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity.”

God wants us to be people of joy. Severity may have its place, but ultimately we are called to nurture tenderness and joy.


Facing barriers to mission

Do justice for the weak and the orphan,
defend the afflicted and the needy.
Rescue the weak and the poor;
set them free from the hand of the wicked.
Psalm 82: 3-4

 Today the church in the US honors the first US citizen – a naturalized citizen in fact – to be canonized, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who died in Chicago on December 22, 1917. She is the patroness of immigrants.

But her life is really an example of God working straight with crooked lines.

She grew up in a town south of Milan, Italy. Orphaned at 20, she became a school teacher. She wanted to join a religious order, but was refused by two different orders because she was considered too frail.

Asked by a bishop to help with an orphanage, she ended up founding a religious order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, whose rule was approved when she was only thirty years old.

Her hope had been to follow in the footsteps of her patron, St. Francis Xavier, and go to China. However, the pope told to go to the west, instead of the east, to respond to the spiritual needs of the Italian immigrants to the US.

She went with several sisters, only to find that the bishop didn’t want sisters. He wanted priests. She firmly but gently told him that they would stay and work among the abandoned Italians in New York and other cities.

The sisters were well received among the Italian immigrants and Mother Cabrini – as she would be called – founded houses for sisters in many US cities.

She also traveled back to Italy for more recruits as well as to several Latin American countries. In Nicaragua she thought that they were making inroads among some indigenous people until she caught yellow fever and they all fled.

That didn’t stop her.

She was asked to take over a hospital but resisted until she had a dream where Mary was nursing people in a hospital. in the dream, Mother Cabrini asked her why. Mary responded. “Because you won’t.“ That, of course, changed things altogether and she helped found Columbus Hospital in New York City.

She died at the age of 67, wrapping candies in Chicago, after a full life given to poor immigrants in the Americas.

This woman who was refused entry into two orders, founded an order that cared for the weak and the afflicted. This woman who was considered too frail for religious life, traveled throughout the US and the Americas for many years to defend the afflicted. Despite rejection by a bishop (who later relented) she and her sisters were welcomed and sustained by poor Italian immigrants.

So God works – making the crooked straight.

This morning I found this quotation from Mother Cabrini in Daily Gospel 2013, that reflects how she could do all this – placing her heart with the Heart of Jesus:

“We must pray without tiring, for the salvation of [hu]mankind does not depend on material success, nor on sciences that cloud the intellect. Neither does it depend on arms and human industries, but Jesus alone.”

The Little Portion

In the valley below the walled town of Assisi there is a huge church. But within this monstrous church there is a small chapel, La Porziuncula, the Little Portion.

It originally belonged to the Benedictines who had an abbey on Mount Subasio above Assisi, but they gave it to Francis and his brothers for a few fish each year.

It is one of the chapels that St. Francis of Assisi rebuilt and it became the center of his fraternity. His companions, the lesser brothers, went out from here to bring the good news to the world. They would come back and gather occasionally.

Several years there were major gatherings of all the brothers for a Pentecost chapter.

Here Francis died – stripped of his habit, lying on the ground.

The chapel is dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels.

The chapel is now adorned with frescos, within and without, but it is a small intimate place, where one might visualize Francis praying. It still preserves the peace and simplicity of the Poor One of Assisi.

I prayed there in February and went to confession to a compassionate Franciscan priest from Bangla Desh.

But I cannot help think about this little chapel, so sacred to Francis, enclosed in a huge basilica. The mystery of simplicity and of the poverty of Jesus and Francis are so often obscured by our desires to be “great” and to show off our treasures – even if the treasure is Our Lady of the Angels.

Our Lady of the Angels, Assisi

Our Lady of the Angels, Assisi

And so today I think of the treasure we have of the poverty of Christ, who became poor for our sake.

May I strip away all that hides that mystery as I seek to live amidst a poor people.

Anthony friend of the poor


Saint Anthony

One of the most loved saints is Saint Anthony of Padua, an early Franciscan friar. He is especially loved here in Honduras. In the parish of Dulce Nombre there are nine churches dedicated to him.

For most people here Saint Anthony is looked upon as the great wonder-worker, especially the saint to go to when you’ve lost or misplaced something. (I’m praying to him more often to help me find my keys or glasses or license in the house.)

He had a great love of the poor, as Franciscans ought to have.

But the story that strikes me today took place in 1222, about a year after he had arrived in Italy.

After his boat to Portugal from Morocco got blown off course to Sicily, he went to the Chapter of Franciscans in Assisi in 1221. After the chapter, he was sent to a remote friary in Montepaolo. He didn’t tell the other friars of his theological training and, among his duties, he washed the community’s dishes.

One day the Franciscans and Dominicans were having an ordination in Forli. But no one was prepared to preach. The Franciscans thought the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, would have designated someone. The Dominicans thought the Franciscan hosts had chosen someone.

Finally, after everyone backed out, the Franciscan guardian asked Anthony to say something simple, thinking he was an uneducated brother. His eloquence surprised them all and Anthony began to preach throughout Italy.

Anthony’s learning did not keep him from doing menial tasks. But, when asked, he agreed to share the wisdom God had given him.

But I marvel at the wisdom of the Franciscan guardian who asked Anthony to speak. He did not despise this supposedly uneducated friar but offered him the chance to share. And all were amazed.

We need more people who give people the opportunity to share the gifts God has given them.

Sometimes I think that one of the worsts sins against the poor is regarding them, with pity, as “those poor people,” failing to see the richness of the lives of the poor and their wisdom, which are so often ignored or despised by others.

And so today, on Anthony’s feast, I’ll be out in the countryside with Padre German for several Masses. I pray I may be open to the wisdom, the rich faith, and the presence of God among the poor campesinos and campesinos I meet.