THOUGHT FOR TODAY BY
ST. ANTHONY ZACCARIA
If through perfect humility you will be able to know objec tively yourself, only then will you be.
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Letter 11 - To Mr. Bernardo Omodei and Madonna Laura
- LETTER (AUdio)
- SPIRITUAL-THEOLOGICAL THEMES Of THE LETTER 11
- LETTER 11
- COMMENTARY TO THE LETTER 11
This letter, a reply to a Milanese couple of the Laity of St. Paul, completes a trilogy that began with a letter to an Angelic Sister and her novices (Letter IX) which was followed by one to a Barnabite (Letter X). A remarkable total of 2,200 words penned in the brief space of ten hectic days and less than a month before his death, this trilogy of letters all unwittingly became Anthony Mary’s spiritual testament to his three Families.
Spiritual teaching was always his primary concern, no matter the circumstances. All three were written in Guastalla. One reason that brought Anthony Mary to Guastalla in May 1539 was the sudden controversy that erupted between the Holy See and some notables of Torelli’s former county. With the backing of Roman friends, count Paolo Torelli of Montechiarugolo had secured from the pope the right to levy navigational duties on the Po river. But some notables from Guastallas preferred count Marcantonio Torelli to have that right. Hence, they rejected the papal decision. Rome’s reaction was immediate: the county was laid under interdict, that is, all religious ministrations were discontinued with the exception of preaching and the Sacrament of Penance.
At that time some priests had the privilege of the portable altar whereby they were authorized to celebrate Mass anywhere, including interdicted localities. Anthony Mary enjoyed this privilege. In addition, he had served as Guastalla’s chaplain for a number of years. To him his duty was clear: he must immediately leave Milan to minister to the beleaguered people of Guastalla, which, incidentally, did not belong to any diocese.186
By the time he wrote this letter, Anthony Mary was probably realizing that his days were numbered. Though no reference to his taxing ministry is contained in any of the three letters, in this letter he admits being unable to accept Madonna Laura’s request because of “physical weariness.” Indeed, toward the end of June, he became so ill that he requested to be taken home to his mother in Cremona where he died on July 5.
However, his poor health, made worse by the sultry climate of the lower Po valley, was no obstacle to his zeal and his friendship.
Bernardo and Laura and their family were remarkably close to both Anthony Mary and the Barnabites. Bernardo’s name is the ninth on a list of forty-five early benefactors, or rather de facto affiliates, of the Barnabite Order.187 Madonna Laura was possibly one of the matrons active in the Venetian mission.188 More tellingly, one of their children, sixteen-year old Fabrizio joined the Barnabites on June 29, one week before Anthony Mary’s death, and changed his name to Paolo Maria. In 1570 he became the seventh Superior General and was reelected in 1574. The names of two other children, Giovanni Battista and Paolo Antonio, are recorded in St. Barnabas’ book of benefactors (1562). Fittingly enough, both Bernardo and Laura were buried in the church of St. Barnabas.
In this letter Anthony Mary presented them a way of Christian living as exacting as the one required of his religious men and women. Indeed this last letter is vintage Anthony Mary: stern teaching, tender affection, and personal friendship used as leverage to make his point (see pp. 25, 31, 42). He expects “amiable Bernardo” and “sweet Madonna Laura” not to be “just little saints. No, I greatly desire that you become great saints.” And he adds: “because of my deep and tender love for you, be pleased, I entreat you, to comply with my wishes... For I know the summit of perfection Jesus Christ wants you to reach... See how I long for your perfection. Look into my heart; I lay it open to you. I am ready to shed my blood for you provided you follow my counsels.”
The value of this letter was recognized early on as it was the first, and most frequently, published (1682 in Milan, 1697 in Florence, 1703 in Bologna).
The text is collated with copies kept in the General Archives in Rome.
- Lukewarmness Hinders Spiritual Growth
“You have decided to give yourselves to Christ and I desire that you do not fall victims to lukewarmness, but rather that you grow more and more fervent. For if you let lukewarmness ensnare you, your life in the spirit will be overcome by the flesh, and—to use the proper word—you will be Pharisees rather than Christians and spiritual persons.”
- The Spiritual Person
“Anyone willing to become a spiritual person begins a series of surgical operations in his soul. One day he removes this, another day he removes that, and relentlessly proceeds until he lays aside his old self.”
- Becoming Great Saints
“Do not think that my love for you or the good qualities you are endowed with, may have me desire that you be just little saints. No, I greatly desire that you become great saints, since you are well equipped to reach this goal, if you will it.”
HIGHLY ESTEEMED BROTHER, OR, AS YOU PREFER TO BE CALLED, DEAR SON, MY GREETINGS AND MY VERY SELF TO YOU IN CHRIST.
I have received your letter, and here I am to answer it, or rather, to talk, as it were, with you and your most cordial Madonna Laura.
You have decided to give yourselves to Christ, and I desire that you do not fall victims to lukewarmness, but rather that you grow more and more fervent. For if you let lukewarmness ensnare you, your life in the spirit will be overcome by the flesh, and—to use the proper word—you will be Pharisees rather than Christians and spiritual persons.
Now, here is how the lukewarm—the Pharisee—behaves. Having left his old ways, he does not commit big sins any longer but takes pleasure in little ones; and does not feel remorse for them. For instance, he stops blaspheming and insulting his neighbor, but he attaches no importance to getting somewhat upset and to insisting on his own opinion rather than to giving in to his opponent. Speaking evil of others is no longer a bad habit of his, but indulging quite often in vain and useless chatting during the day is not much of a sin to him. He got rid of eating too much and drinking excessively, as drunkards do, but he enjoys snacking here and there, between meals, without necessity. The vicious habits of the flesh are a thing of the past for him, but he takes delight in conversations and entertainments that are not so clean. He loves to spend hours in prayer, but during the rest of the day his spirit wanders aimlessly. He no longer seeks honors, but if they are given him, he gloats over them.
I have given some examples; you can multiply them. Be sure to conclude that the Pharisee or lukewarm person works at getting rid of serious sins but allows himself to commit little ones. He eliminates all illicit things but desires everything that is considered licit. He refrains from sensual actions but takes pleasure in visual sensualities. He wants to do good but only within certain limits. He controls himself but not totally. I am not saying that he should accomplish all this in the twinkling of an eye and in a short time, but neither should he by fits and starts and over a long time.
On the contrary, anyone willing to become a spiritual person begins a series of surgical operations in his soul. One day he removes this, another day he removes that, and relentlessly proceeds until he lays aside his old self. Let me explain. First of all, he eliminates offensive words, then useless ones, and finally speaks of nothing else but of edifying things. He eradicates angry words and gestures and finally adopts meek and humble manners. He shuns honors and, when they are given to him, not only is he not interiorly pleased, but he also welcomes insults and humiliations, and even rejoices in them. He not only knows how to abstain from the marital act, but, aiming at increasing in himself the beauty and merits of chastity, he also renounces anything smacking of sensuality. He is not content to spend one or two hours in prayer but loves to raise his mind to Christ frequently. Now, share your thoughts with one another on other subjects, just as I have done so far.
Amiable Madonna Laura and you, dear Mr. Bernardo, accept my words and reflect on them with the same affection as I have told them to you. I do not say, of course, that you should accomplish everything in one day. What I do say is: I would like you to be intent on doing more every day and on eliminating every day even licit sensual inclinations. All this is, indeed, for the sake of willing to grow in perfection, of diminishing imperfections, and of avoiding the danger of falling prey to lukewarmness.
Do not think that my love for you or the good qualities you are endowed with, may have me desire that you be just little saints. No, I greatly desire that you become great saints, since you are well equipped to reach this goal, if you will it. All that is required is that you really mean to develop and give back to Jesus Crucified, in a more refined form, the good qualities and graces He has given you.
Because of my deep and tender love for you, be pleased, I entreat you, to comply with my wishes in this matter. For I know the summit of perfection Jesus Crucified wants you to reach; the abundant graces He wishes to give you; the fruits He wants to gather in you; and the peak of holiness to which He wants to lead you.
Good Madonna Laura and amiable Mr. Bernardo, disregard the person who makes these exhortations; consider instead his love for you. See how I long for your perfection. Look into my heart; I lay it open to you. I am ready to shed my blood for you provided you follow my counsels.
Let it be known to you that I would be hurt to the marrow of my soul were I not sure that you not only ought to do this—but also to accomplish any of the greatest deeds performed by any male or female saint.
Fully convinced of your desire to be faithful to Jesus Crucified, I have written this letter to you, not with pen, but with my heart. And I entreat you to value it and read it often—even every week if it suits you. I promise that if you heed it, in the absence of any other book, it will become such a book as to help you reach great perfection if you read it along with the book that records the sweet memory of the cross of Christ.
I have not written one word without some special meaning in it. If you discover it, it will be, I think, most useful and gainful for you.
As I cannot write to you as often as I would like, it will please me if you care enough not to lose this letter. In fact, I hope that, by Christ’s power, anytime you read it, it will be for you like a new letter, and moreover, by means of it, you will be able, as it were, to write a new one by yourselves.
Cordial Madonna Laura, you will excuse me if, because of my physical weariness, I am unable to answer all your requests, as I would like to. I entrust to your care both your perfection and Mr. Bernardo’s; likewise, Mr. Bernardo, I recommend to you your own perfection and your wife’s.
I am indebted to both of you,189 and, as far as I am concerned, I want never to be free of the debt.
Remember me to your dear sons and daughters.
Christ bless you.
From Guastalla, June 20, 1539.
Yours in Christ.
Brother and part of you,
Anthony Mary, Priest
When we do not strive to make progress in Christian perfection and gradually surrender to spiritual lukewarmness we risk returning to a worldly way of life and becoming like the Pharisees who regarded themselves to be upright but were not really so.
A lukewarm person is one who does not curse or insult but strongly imposes his ideas, who does not slander but gossips about others, who does not get drunk but enjoys good meals, who does not act unchastely but takes pleasure in shady jokes or suggestive talks, who prays but then allows his mind to be unfocussed all day, who seeks no titles but loves to be praised and esteemed.
Typically, a lukewarm person avoids serious sins but takes pleasure in little ones.
A spiritual person, on the contrary, removes every obstacle from the road to Christian perfection. He shakes off every idle and useless word or thought; he expresses himself in a gentle and humble manner; he accepts humiliations patiently; he tries to live chastely and strives to be always aware of God’s presence.
Christian perfection cannot be attained in an instant; it is a long journey to be taken every day, and step by step with constancy.
We should not settle for mediocre holiness but rather aim at attaining the highest perfection willed for us by the Lord.
Do I realize that failure to go forward in spiritual life slowly produces a going backward?
Do I have the courage to examine myself thoroughly to find out how imperfect I am and how much I still have to do to correct myself?
Am I aware that small defects or venial sins are like physical illnesses that may not be deadly but lessen my credibility?
Do I hold in my heart a strong desire to grow ever more in perfection by a greater commitment to prayer, charity toward others, clarity of conduct, purity of heart and mind, or a humble acceptance of adversities?
Do I have the patience to move slowly toward holiness, allowing no difficulty, weariness, or defeat caused by weakness to stop me? Am I always ready to start again with the help of God?
Do Jesus’ words, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” urge me to aim at the highest possible goal, that is, the sublime holiness which we are all called to achieve?
Guastalla, June 20, 1539
This third of the three testament-letters of St. Anthony M. Zaccaria, addressed to an excellent couple of the Milanese nobility, for sure members of the Congregation of the "Married," is the one which has been printed more than any other, often translated in very liberal Italian, from the also liberal Latin version by Fr. Secco (Synopsis, pp. 172-175, Milan, 1682): it was published for the first time in Florence, in 1697.
Shortly after (1703), in Bologna, Fr. Francis Louis Barelli included this letter in the volume I of his "Memorie" (pp. 147-149), although in a Florentine translation. He was followed by the major biographers of the Saint.
Bugati too made sure to quote it in the "Apostolic Trial" (Volume H, pp. 1054-1055), while Fr. Premoli printed it in its entirety in his "Storia" (pp. 50-51).
The letter deserves all this attention, because truly it is "a small treatise on spiritual life for people of the world" (Cardinal Graniello). It seems that even Fr. Lawrence Scupoli, Theatine, kept it in mind for the chapter 12 of his famous "Spiritual battle," where he talks about the mortification of the senses, even about licit things (Ungarelli, "Bibliotheca Scriptorum...," p. 11).
We can say that among the three letters this one is the most precious and dear to us, both because written only 15 days before his death, when he was "already victim of the first horror: of that fever which was to be bearer of death" (Bugati, 1054 v), and also because it is the warmest, rich with human and, at the same time, highly spiritual friendship., written "not with the pen, but with the heart," a friendship which is reciprocated by that "magnificent Brother" who prefers to be called "son." The letter summarizes and seals the Saint’s theme which runs throughout all of his letters, and that "longing desire," which had consumed him in his fight against lukewarmness, while Crushing like crazy toward "the summit of perfection."
The letter seems to be the faithful bearer of the warmth "of that flame, close to be extinguished, which was radiating vivid sparkles of the divine fire burning in his heart, because ofthe strong desire he had to leave behind spiritual children similar to himself" (Fr. Barelli, "Memorie," I, Bologna, 1703, 149).
With good reasons then he himself recommends to carefully save it, to read it often like the last writing of a beloved person, because "without any other book it will be your book," "every time you will read it, it will be like a new letter for you."
The addressees are two married persons in Milan, Bernard Omodei and Laura Rossi, members of the Congregation of the "Married," founded by Anthony M. Zaccaria. Probably toward 1550, Laura Rossi joined other ladies who shared apostolic activities with the Angelics (we know of the great good she did in the Vicenza Mission: Premoli, "Storia," I, 101 & 553), until death joined her again to her husband Bernard, who had been buried in St. Barnabas’ church.
When the letter reached Lady Laura and the Magnificent Brother Bernard Omodei, one of their children, Fabrizio, 16 years of age, eleven days before had been accepted in our Community. He will receive the habit on November 1, from Fr. Morigia, changing his name to Paul Mary. He celebrated his First Mass on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1548, in St. Barnabas, and later he became Master of student in Milan and in Pavia. In 1570 he was elected to be the 7th Superior General, after St. Alexander Sauli became bishop. He died in St. Barnabas on February 11, 1594, rich in merit, and with great sorrow by all, especially St. Charles Borromeo.
Two other children, John Battista and Paul Anthony are listed with honor in the first Registry of the benefactors of the Order (Premoli, "Storia," I, 539, note 7).