Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Saints’ Blueprint for Living

Canonization of this October's "magnificent seven"
The year 2000 may have been the Church’s jubilee year, but it was also an election year in the U.S. As a student in Rome, I found out that I could vote absentee at the U.S. Embassy. So the week before Nov. 7, I trekked up via Veneto to discharge my civic duty. (That was before e-mail voting, which I just did last week.) On the way, I noticed a church, Santa Maria della Concezione, and decided to stop on my way back for my hour of Eucharistic adoration.

Whatever memory I may have had about my voting experience was completely wiped out by what followed. I had seen a small sign outside the church that read “Chapel.” So I walked in. There in front of me was a corridor with several galleries of human bones either stacked on shelves, clothed in Franciscan habits, or arranged in hundreds of intricate designs on ceilings and walls. 

It was the most macabre burial ground I had ever seen in my life. The brochure that the Capuchin friar kindly handed me quoted Mark Twain’s comment on his visit there. To the friar then on duty Twain is reputed to have said something like, “I wonder what’s going to happen when the final trumpet blows.” It wasn’t until I left that I realized it I was there on Halloween.

Stop laughing; this is serious. Wikipedia actually has an accurate history and description at

Much more inspiring to me was this year’s canonization, the Sunday before last, of seven fascinating people, including two Americans, Mother Marianne Cope of Molokai, who carried on Fr. Damien’s work with lepers, and our first Native American to be honored, Kateri Tekakwitha. Louise Hunt, who is a Penobscot, a Holy Family Institute member, and the mother of our Sr. Marie James, was there, too, with her family.

Through the kindness of one of our sisters in Rome, I got a green ticket to the event, which put me near the altar in St. Peter’s Square. Tickets are all free; they’re just used for placement and tracking. Yes, I broke my personal rule again and squeezed into the Piazza for a major event. And was it major—100,000 pilgrims major! By a sheer miracle I ran into friends from St. Louis, Dave and son Alex Mueckl. Msgr. Sal Polizzi had promised not to let go of my wrist as we were almost swept in by the crowd at the entrance. Since we managed to get inside without any serious harm to body or soul—ours and everybody else’s—we posed for a championship photo.

The real titleholders, though, were the seven new saints. In his homily for the canonization Mass, Pope Benedict repeated Jesus’ words from the Gospel for that day: “‘The Son of Man came to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (cf. Mk 10:45). He called these words the saints’ own “blueprint for living,” singling out their  “heroic courage…in total consecration to the Lord and in the generous service of their brethren.” They were women and men, clergy, laity, and religious, Asians, Europeans, and Americans. What they had in common was their undaunted love for Christ and for their brothers and sisters in Christ, in the face of challenge and even death. How many live like them today!

When people ask what goes into making a person a saint, they’re often thinking of the canonization process: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally, Saint, with a miracle attributed to the person’s intercession before the last two titles can be given. But that’s at the end of the road. The process looks at what came before: a life of faith, hope, and charity to a heroic degree (not to “perfection,” you’ll notice). That distinction is clear in their lives, and as we’re noticing during this year’s charism course, in the life of our founder, Blessed James Alberione.

In an attempt to legitimize the Pauline Family’s existence, we’ve often lionized Don Alberione. We Americans do this with our founding fathers and mothers and with other great figures in our history. It’s natural. The professors of our charism course, though, want us to know the real Alberione, in so far as we can know someone whose confidants were few, who spoke and wrote sparingly about himself, and who destroyed most of his personal notes, as well as every letter sent to him. Fortunately his secretary, Don Speciale, disobeyed his orders to dispose of many priceless papers, and some of Fr. Alberione’s closest collaborators kept diaries and letters. From them and from other eyewitnesses, documents, photos, and visual and audio recordings, we can piece together a portrait.

That he was a great Christian and a great founder is without question. I wonder how many founders responded to the call of Christ through the signs of the times with as much energy and creativity as he. That he could be unyielding and impatient is also without question. One professor of ours, Don Giancarlo Rocca, a Pauline historian, recounted how Alberione held a particular grudge for years. A Sister Disciple in our class marveled, “And yet he’s a Blessed!” “Yes,” answered Don Rocca, “because he never stopped correcting himself.” Fr. Alberione took seriously the words he heard from Jesus Master, “Have a penitent heart,” or according to a later rendition, “Be sorry for sin,” words that made it to our chapel walls and hopefully into our hearts and lives. People aren’t saints because they’re perfect, but because they never stop saying to God and to others, “I’m sorry” and “Help me to be better tomorrow.” The more sincere they are at this, the more saintly they are.

That’s my prayer for you as you celebrate All Saints Day tomorrow and All Souls Day on Friday. Do the same for me!
In solidarity….
In our generalate here in Rome, we’re praying for the 60 million people plus, who are being impacted by Hurricane Sandy. May you feel God’s provident care and comfort in the concern of us all.

And don’t pass up your privilege to vote! Even if you don’t like the candidates and find it almost impossible to choose, pray, inform yourself, and make a decision. Take heart from these words of Fr. Alberione: “Those who do things make mistakes, but those who do nothing make the biggest mistake of all!” Are there propositions or referenda in your state that need your input? Massachusetts does. Question 2 proposes to legalize physician-prescribed suicide. Guess where I stand. How about you?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“Stir into Flame the Gift of God”

FSPs from East Africa join in the celebration.
Lately whenever I’ve come to Rome, I stay as far away from major events at St. Peter’s Basilica as possible. I expect to be jostled in a crowd, but shoved is another matter. There’s just way too much of that for my endurance. I’m happy enough to watch them on TV in the safety of the convent. That’s what I did for the opening of the international Synod of Bishops the Sunday before last. I made an exception, though, to join 40,000 other people in the fiaccolata, or candlelight procession, on Oct. 11, that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II and the beginning of the Year of Faith. I carried a hope that would not disappoint.

That day would have also been my mother’s 88th birthday. When I think of faith formation I think of her. I remember sitting with her as she taught me my Bible stories and catechism in preparation for first Communion, helping me to memorize the prayers I didn’t know yet and to color the pictures in the workbook—which I still have! (I had to go to my father, though, to learn how to draw a beard on St. Joseph.) From Daddy, who picked up a children’s missal for me, I got a jumpstart on the Mass responses and what they meant. So did my sister.

It wasn’t just the transmission of information that shaped us, but how it was communicated—a witness of faith in love. I could never have put it into words then, but the message we got was: “This is so valuable that the most important and loving people in your life are taking time out of their busy day to share it with you.” If anyone questions the enduring value of family catechesis, they didn’t have our parents.

When any of the instructors in our charism course speaks about the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the spectacular impression made by the gathering of 2,400 bishops and other participants, they’re almost at a loss for words. Every one of them ends up exclaiming, “You had to be there!” The rest of us have to take it on…faith.

One of the profs for our course on the Pauline charism is Sr. Filippa Castronovo, FSP. She teaches a series of classes on Paul and Alberione, our founder. We ran into her at the fiaccolata. She took a few minutes to reminisce with some of us about “the Council days.” She was a postulant back then, just beginning her life in community. She had come from a small, culturally homogenous, Italian town, which made even ordinary life in Rome an adventure. Add what seemed to be every bishop from every race in the world, “with their stories and their slides,” and she had memories for a lifetime. Sr. Filippa said that experience alone opened her eyes to a wider world. Paul would have been able to relate.

Fr. Cosimo Semeraro, SDB, a professor at the Salesianum, leads us in a study of the Church’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries, the period of our founders’ lives and of the Pauline Family’s first years. He tied Vatican II to Vatican I, which took place between 1869 and 1870. If you’re like me and you have some familiarity with Church history, you may have seen Vatican I as just a blip on the screen. Yet, it was the first ecumenical council that drew bishops from the Far East and the Americas. During Council sessions these bishops were unable to speak about the situation of the Church in their countries. It didn’t stop them, though, from talking, both before and after the Council, to anyone who would listen. Also because of the press, their accounts and insights were disseminated everywhere. Fr. Semerero didn’t hesitate to assert that the missionary institutes that arose since then are the direct result of this fertilization. He looked around at the seventeen of us from five Pauline institutes in twelve nations, and declared, “Your presence here is a fruit of Vatican I!” He added that even the Salesians, like similar congregations that were not founded specifically to share the Good News with those who’ve never heard it, felt the impetus of the Council and established their first foundations in Latin America shortly afterward.

Antonio & Fernando distribute candles & the SSP's Famiglia Cristiana.
A lot of Paulines were present in St. Peter’s Square the evening of the candlelight procession last week, giving thanks for the gift of Vatican II. Most of us were either too young to remember it, or still only in the mind of God. But we are its heirs. So were the young members of Italian Catholic Action I met, which numbers 400,000 laity strong in parishes throughout the country. I had no idea Catholic Action was still around! It was these laity who organized and led the event, something that, from what I could tell, didn’t happen fifty years ago. With its call to the laity, Vatican II made that possible—a delight and a source of prayer for me that night. As one reader proclaimed a passage from Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, I was moved to plead for a rebirth in the missionary spirit within the laity of North America and all over the world. Sharing the faith is their baptismal right, and it’s our role as their Pauline sisters and brothers to support them.

Pope Benedict recalled Bl. John XXIII’s “unforgettable words” at the candlelight procession in 1962, when he invited parents to give their children a good-night hug from the pope. Benedict XVI repeated that invitation to the parents who were listening to him anywhere in the world, a world, he reminded us, that is sinful but redeemed, and so, carries the promise of hope. We all need to stir the embers a little—or a lot. When we revive the gift of faith that we have (cf. 2Tm 1:6) we can warm a part of our world and shed the light of our faith-life on whatever darkness lurks in its corners. May other candle bearers do the same for us.

The candlelight procession in 1962

The anniversary procession in 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Backstage Performances

I intended to tramp down to St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday morning with several of our sisters, to participate in the opening of the World Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization. Sr. Antonieta Bruscato, our superior general, is one of the auditors this week and would lead an intercession in Portuguese during the papal Mass. Since I had spent the previous two days in bed, however, I was in no condition to go anywhere. How does anyone get food poisoning in Italy? Fortunately, I wasn’t down for long. Tomorrow I’m heading to St. Peter’s with a group of us for the opening of the Year of Faith. But that’s news for next week.

Actors get all the press, but we all know that if it weren’t for the hands behind the scenes, they wouldn’t get the accolades—and the cash—that they do. So this week, I want to introduce you to two more American Daughters of St. Paul here at the generalate, offering an insight into how their talents and their vocation support the whole show.

The local superior, “Canadian” Sr. Rosalba Conti, spent sixteen years in Toronto’s Pauline Centre, but hasn’t been available for an interview; her time is not her own. Sr. Monica and Sr. Damien, though, happily managed to fit you and me in.

Sr. Monica Mary Baviera

Originally from Bologna, Italy, Sr. Monica can take credit for introducing me to Italian in 1973 when we both lived in Boston. Reminiscing about her 26 years in the States, she teased that I was “a little girl” back then! She never did make a habit of taking credit for much, though, and isn’t about to start now, especially when she hears my errori in Italian instead.

What she really could take satisfaction in is her service in the Segretariato Internazionale di Spiritualità, where she has served the Congregation for the past 24 years. In the 1980’s this office launched the monumental project of compiling, cataloguing, and transcribing everything that Fr. Alberione and M. Thecla Merlo, our co-foundress, said and wrote to the Daughters of St. Paul. What this has evolved into is amazing! It forms part of the “Opera Omnia,” (literally “total work”), of the founders’ output with respect to all ten branches of the Pauline Family. This huge corpus includes volume upon volume of letters, conferences, meditations, and sermons, plus the several books written by Alberione and the thirty notebooks that contain M. Thecla’s notes and examens of conscience. You can see whichever volumes of Fr. Alberione are available so far, plus thousands of photos, at the Opera Omnia Web site. Until now relatively few volumes have been translated into Portuguese, Spanish, and English. We’re working on it.

Sr. Monica is the second person to be assigned to the task, following Sr. Antonietta Martini, who worked there until her death in 2004. Two others then joined Sr. Monica: 89-year-old Sr. Adeodata (sharp as a tack) and the considerably younger Sr. Maria Grazia. Together they conduct a “hermeneutical interpretation” of early transcriptions and other documents. They research records and notes to establish the authenticity of a particular document, and situate it by determining, as best they can, date, place, listeners, and so on. Sr. Monica explains: “You can’t change the text, but you interpret the text in the notes and so, produce a critical edition, using scientific methods and tools that the members back then didn’t have.”

Fr. Alberione drew from many authors and other sources, but rarely referenced them. Sr. Monica specializes in researching his quotes from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church and translates every Latin citation into Italian. She then compiles indexes of them all for each volume and sees to the introductions. Depending on size and complexity, it takes about a year to complete a volume in this way.

What keeps her “dedicated to the Opera Omnia,” as she says, and to its painstaking work? “Fidelity to my duty and love, because I do like it. It gives me a way to understand our history and the charism of the founder in its Christ-centered theology, Mariology, and above all, apostolic spirituality.”

The Secretariat for Formation, where Sr. Germana works, depends a great deal on Sr. Monica’s labor of love. I know I will during this year of our course.

Sr. Mary Damien Vieira

Sr. Damien translates for the central, or “general,” government of the Daughters of St. Paul and for us Anglophones, who depend on her to get the government’s communiqués in a professional and timely way. Whether it’s a letter from the Superior General or a legal document, a sister’s obituary or a study and prayer guide in preparation for congregational meetings, both we and the general government know it’s going to be top-notch. Disagree with me, but I say she heads the list of our translators for written English.

As we talk she marvels, “I’ve been here 30 years! I left the U.S. just a little more than six years after joining the Congregation. The sisters tell me I’m more Italian than American. I don’t think so! It just happens to be the part of the world I know best after Hawaii.” So, which one does she like better? She’s diplomatic: “Each place is different and special in its own way.”

Her odyssey is a work of grace. The office actually opened just before she was assigned to it. Before that, each circumscription (province or delegation) provided for its own translations. But they contained too many errors. When Sr. Maria Cevolani, our superior general in the 80’s, visited one country and discovered that her advice had been translated exactly opposite of how she had intended, she decided it was high time to ensure that the general government maintained some control over what was sent out in its name.

A sister was promptly introduced to the office. During that time Sr. Damien arrived in Rome on her way to East Africa. She was in Kenya only seven months when she became very sick. She returned to Rome to regain her health. Meanwhile, the sister who had been in the translation office moved on, and Sr. Damien’s return was generally regarded as fortuitous. “I thought of it differently!” she laughs. “I protested that I didn’t know Italian. ‘Don’t worry,’ I was assured, ‘the Holy Spirit will provide.’ I’m glad they’ve come to realize it takes more than the Holy Spirit!”

“I always enjoyed languages,” she continues. “In college I had majored in English and English literature. When I was little, I used to read the dictionary for fun, although I never told anyone; I didn’t want anyone laughing at me.

“I learned Italian by listening to how the sisters constructed sentences. Through toil and tears I learned. Then Sr. Monica Mary arrived, and I ran things by her. The sisters in the circumscriptions were not demanding; they were just happy to finally have someone doing the work.”

One of the pluses of her ministry is in the sisters who receive it. “It’s exciting to see the development in the area of the English language. I’ll always translate like an American. We have many legitimate ways, though, of speaking and writing English—though some may quibble about their legitimacy. People have to be patient, knowing it’s always evolving. We have Indian, Australian (which is definitely not British!), Caribbean, and so much more. Our sisters have reached the point of accepting how English comes in many varieties.”

She won’t do simultaneous translation, though, since it takes a whole different skill set that she feels she doesn’t have. That’s OK; we can forgive an expert.

The biggest problem at this point is deadlines, especially when everyone wants her own work done at the same time. They’re supposed to go to the General Secretary to put it in queue, but some—as everywhere else—bypass the process and try to slip in their letterina or whatever. (“-Ina” or “-ino” is an Italian diminutive; it means “little.” It scales down the request, you see.) Sr. Damien just takes it all in stride. Hawaii in her blood, a generation in Italy, and an enviable spirit of faith make for an combination of unflappable cheer.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ciao, Bella Charism!

Ciao! In case you didn’t know, that’s how Italy spells “Hi!” You know—chow. I’m in Rome for an intense course in the Pauline charism—that gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us Paulines. The course covers our history, our identity, the theology of consecrated life, our mission, spirituality, and much more. There are eighteen of us from five Pauline institutes present in twelve countries, plus our coordinator, Fr. Gabriel, who's from Mexico. We just spent several days getting to know each other at the Society of St. Paul’s vacation house by the Tyrrhenian Sea. Tough life.

You can follow our doings on Facebook at Corso Carisma Famiglia Paolina. If you don’t want to slog through the Italian, you can go to my Facebook timeline. I’ll be posting things here and there at Margaret Obrovac Fsp. And of course, starting Oct. 31, I’ll be posting shorter articles every two weeks on Pauline Faithways. Through Oct. 17, I’ll catch up with you in weekly posts. (Thanks to those who took my survey last month, I got some great direction for the upcoming year and probably beyond. Give a round of applause to our Canadian novice, Sr. Cheryl Galema, who redesigned the banner and background! It’s a work in progress, but already more than presentable.)

This week we started our 90-minute classes; so far: an introduction to our founder, Blessed James Alberione, two sessions on the print and digital collection of his works, the Opera Omnia (more on that in my next post), and three sessions so far on the methodology of research. Later this week: hermeneutics and Paul and Alberione. All classes and assignments are in Italian. Our concluding thesis can be in our mother tongue, though. Yes, apparently there is a God.

Even though it’s been great, it is draining, at least until we really get into it. So, I decided to have some fun and introduce you to some of the Americans and Canadians—native-born and adopted—who reside in what we call the generalate community where I’m staying and where the sisters who govern the Daughters of St. Paul worldwide live and work. Two profiles this week and two next week.

Sr. Germana Santos (U.S.)

Twenty years ago our U.S. superior sent Sr. Germana to Rome where she received her licentiate in psychology from the Gregorian University, after a four-year program designed especially for formation directors of seminarians and religious. Last year Italy decided to let her back in the country; we’re still waiting on a casting call for the national sequel to Analyze That. Picture that!

Actually, Sr. Antonieta Bruscato, our superior general asked her—again—to serve in the International Secretariat for Formation and Studies. I don’t know if Sr. Germana answered in English, Italian, or Portuguese (She’s originally from the Azores), but she said yes. I only half-jokingly call her “Chrysologus”—the “Golden Word.”

She has served in formation or government almost all her religious life. The provincial superior finally let her out of her cage a couple of years ago to spend some time in Charleston, working in outreach with our community there. A breast cancer survivor, her contact with people was therapeutic. “I’d go back tomorrow,” she sighs.

So, besides obedience, what keeps her here today? The young Daughters of St. Paul she’s privileged to accompany as they prepare for perpetual vows. “They come from all around the world,” says Sr. Germana. “It’s an extremely enriching experience to see the Pauline charism become part of different cultures. Yet we all speak of the same charismatic reality. I get to share the riches of our spirituality with the young. At the same time, I get to see their enthusiasm in creating new methods of reaching out to people with Christ’s truth and love.”

Last year’s program was especially moving for her. “There were 27 of us from eleven nations living in one large convent. We were so united, because Christ was the center of our house. There was peace among us, even with our differences. This is truly a gift of the Holy Spirit.” Unity like this is not the preserve of sisters. When members of families root their conversations, prayer, meals, games, work, and disagreements in Christ, trying to think, live, and love in the spirit of the Gospel, they’re much more likely to enjoy the same kind of peace. Sr. Germana puts it this way: “We let Jesus live in us and we take on his characteristics. It is Christ who thinks, loves, forgives, and suffers in me.” Part of authentic religious life is its testimony that human community can happen—anywhere!

People say to me, “Living in Rome—that must be so wonderful!” The romanticism wears off pretty fast. You can visit only so many churches and eat only so much pasta. Besides hunting for the goodness in everything, Sr. Germana has a secret for surviving as an American: laugh at the crazy daily occurrences, your “Seinfeld moments.” Like the instructor who told her to stop driving “like the Germans. Just go!” Native or immigrant, you summon your innate openness to what’s different and jump into the adventure. You have to admit, we can be good at that.

Sr. Cecilia Ventura (Canada)

“Rome! A city filled with history, art, beauty, and spirituality. A place visited without let-up by tourists, the curious, vacationers, pilgrims, and men and women in search of their Christian roots, as they follow in the steps of the first Apostles and of countless martyrs. Rome is at the same time a paradox of chaos and charm, of noise and silence, engaged in hectic activity, yet always snarled and slowed by protests and marches of every kind—political, religious, and humanitarian. Because of this—and so much more—Rome is really ‘special.’”
So begins Sr. Cecilia Ventura, an adopted Canadian, since she spent fifteen years in Montreal and Toronto. She and I talk about this place that will be my own home for the next eight months. I may be here for study, but Sr. Cecilia is here for something different. At a very young 68, she’s definitely Canadian, but also very Italian.
“It is here that, a year-and-a-half ago, I returned to live as a Daughter of St. Paul to begin a new phase in my life, immersed in a new aspect of the apostolate that Blessed James Alberione entrusted to his innumerable sons and daughters: to allow oneself to be inhabited and transformed by Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as St. Paul lived him and give him to others. In this city, where the suns almost always reigns supreme, I came to learn a new language, a new alphabet to communicate the Gospel: graphic design.”
Sr. Cecilia clearly loves the 56-plus sisters under this roof where, on any given day, you can find members of our general government, a number of Italians, including several senior members, as well as younger sisters from all over the world. They work together at the service of both the general government and our communities worldwide.
“Here we receive the requests of our sisters dispersed in mission territories. In real time, the world is brought to us via Skype or Internet. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I’m involved in this intra-planetary exchange that frees the hearts of those who receive Gospel. This reminds me of my greatest challenge in this apostolic work: to become a book, poster, CD, DVD, color, form, sound, or light myself, utilizing the graphic design of the heart! How? By trusting in Love, who transforms every one of my limitations. Every one of my limitations becomes the very place where, in his Son, God the Father can make my experience of the Resurrection real. Jesus tells us that his Father and ours works without pause within us, because he never stops loving us as his children!”
Next week: Sr. Monica Mary Baviera and Sr. Mary Damien Veira