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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Bethlehem, PA 18020
Letter 6 - to Mr. Bartolomeo Ferrari
This moving and heartening letter, addressed to a dispirited Bartolomeo Ferrari, was written a little less than a year after Anthony Mary left the Vicenza mission, whose primary purpose was the reform of two convents, the Reformed and the Sylvestrines. 83 Anthony Mary vividly remembered his brief but intense work there. Admittedly, his unabated enthusiastic optimism was wholly faith-filled. In fact, the actual circumstances of the mission were quite depressing.
The toughest of the two convents was that of the Reformed. Its twenty or so members were former prostitutes, who were homeless, penniless, mostly in poor health, and were rejected by thier families and friends. Some of them had shared camp life with soldiers and had lost their feminine traits. They turned defiant, impudent, and quarrelsome.
This convent, or rather, this charitable institution, was founded around 1530 by Maddalena Valmarana, the widow of Giacomo Thiene, a relative of St. Cajetan Thiene. In 1537, when Anthony Mary arrived there, the premises were small and uncomfortable. The church was bare.84
When he returned to Milan toward the end of October, 1537, Anthony Mary sent Bartolomeo Ferrari to take his place, along with a priest postulant, Lorenzo Davidico,85 and Fra Bono.86
To encourage Ferrari, Anthony Mary reminds him of the power of the Crucified and the example of St. Paul; moreover, he offers his steadfast and warmest personal support. There is no reason to feel dejected. After all, Paul was not always Paul: “at the beginning, Paul was not what he became afterwards.”
The Prioress, who replaced Angelic Silvana Vismara,87 was Domenica Battista da Sesto,88 the first Angelic Prioress in Milan. She was a remarkable woman, “beautiful as an angel, quite young in age, yet fully mature in judgment.”89 The Vicar was matron Porzia Negri, sister of Angelic Paola Antonia and of the Barnabite, Fr. Camillo. The Mistress of Novices was Franceschina Conforti Adriani, seemed to be a convert herself, as attested in the letter: “...if you acknowledge that you have derived benefit from evil...”
The other convent was that of the Sylvestrines. The Sylvestrines were a branch of Benedictine Sisters, founded in 1523 by Domitilla Thiene, a relative of St. Cajetan Thiene. She and three other Sisters left their Benedictine St. Peter’s Convent, also in Vicenza, in order to pursue a life of strict observance. They were called Sylvestrines because their convent was located near the church of St. Sylvester. Only 12 years later when Anthony Mary was invited to reform them; they had obviously fallen from their original fervor. Besides becoming vain in dressing silk lace and similar fineries, they also lacked solid catechetical formation and tended to neglect the Sacra-ments of Penance and the Eucharist, and otherwise disregarded a firm daily schedule of convent life.90 However, it seemed that all they needed was the right kind of leadership. Through his inspired zeal and warm personal touch, Anthony Mary quickly turned things around. While in this letter none of the Reformed is addressed with words of endearment, these abound for the Sylvestrines: “my sweet Paolina, my faithful Donna Lucrezia, my Doyenne, my sweet Donna Faustina... you can assure them all that I am theirs and that Jesus Crucified makes me love them very much because they are generous.”
Word of Anthony Mary’s success reached as far as Bologna. Here his life-long friend, Serafino Aceti da Fermo (1496–1540), dedicated a devotional book to the Sylvestrines and congratulated them for their “spiritual progress;” thanks to the guidance of “my and your Father, Anthony Mary, whose presence now adorns heaven as before adorned earth;”91
The intense personal involvement of Anthony Mary in Vicenza at large is shown by all the people he mentions, a year later, with the greatest affection, beginning with Fra Bono and the priest Castellino down to the barber and his wife.
The Vicenza mission was also successful on another plane, that is, in the number and quality of Barnabite vocations it originated. These included several attorneys. In their turn, once they became Barnabites, they invited their friends to join the Order.
The extant autograph of this letter is kept in the General Archives in Rome (N, b, II, 7).
SPIRITUAL-THEOLOGICAL THEMES OF THE LETTER
- The Power of Christ Crucified
- “Don’t you see that He Himself has opened the doors for you with His own hands? Who, then, will hinder you from entering those hearts and from changing them so completely as to renew them and beautify them with holy virtue?”
- Spiritual Progress
- “Do make progress, and help the others make progress as well. And all of you do the same.”
- Christian Service
- “Give yourself totally to serving those people who have already been entrusted to your care, and who will continue to be entrusted to you by Jesus Crucified in the future.”
Cremona, October 8, 1538
MY DEAR BROTHER IN CHRIST,
Why do you entertain any doubt? Haven’t you experienced in this undertaking that you never lacked the necessary means to help those in need? Nothing is more certain and reliable than experience. Those who love you do not possess the wealth either of a Paul or of a Magdalene; they do, however, trust in the One who enriched them both. Thus, as a result of both your faith and theirs, God will provide for any person under your care.
You can be sure that, before you speak and in the very moment of speaking, Jesus Crucified will anticipate and accompany, not only every word of yours, but your every holy intention. St. Paul said that he would push forward but stay within the limits of the work that Christ had set for him.92 As for you, Jesus Crucified has also set a limit when he promised that you would get enough strength to pierce to their marrow the hearts of people.93 Don’t you see that He Himself has opened the doors for you with His own hands? Who, then, will hinder you from entering those hearts and from changing them so completely as to renew them and beautify them with holy virtues? Nobody, of course—neither the devil nor any other creature.94
And don’t let any weakening that you may experience in your preaching and in your pastoral work stop you; for just as through constant school exercises, ignorance is dispelled and iron is kept shiny the more it is used, so it is with Christian asceticism. At the beginning, Paul was not what he became afterward. So it is with everybody else. You can be assured then that on the foundation of Paul, you are going to build not structures made of hay or wood but of gold and precious stones;95 and the heavens with their treasures will be opened to you and to the souls entrusted to you.96
Sweet hearts of my heart, I embrace you, as I am certain you will grow perfect according to your interior dispositions. Oh! Were you only here with me, nothing in the world could prevent me from embracing and covering you with endless signs of affection. But You, dear Jesus, embrace them on my behalf.
Dear saintly son, the project in which you are now engaged is also my responsibility, as you probably have noticed. I could not help but be with you, for nowhere else is my heart than with yours. Therefore, may the ample freedom, which I have always given you, be for you a sure guarantee that your undertakings will conclude happily with profit to all.
Good Mother Prioress, don’t waste your time in personal trifles. Even if you might consider yourself a devil, worthy of being submerged not only in muddy water but also in a cesspool, and you were utterly convinced of it, don’t worry about it. Instead, give yourself totally to serving those people who have already been entrusted to your care, and who will continue to be entrusted to you by Jesus Crucified in the future.
Oh, you who are the very mirror of my life, remember that you are generous and that Jesus Crucified has always been abundantly generous with you; how then can they who love you as they love themselves fail to be at your side to help you?
And you, Franceschina,97 if you acknowledge that you have derived benefit from evil—not, of course, through your own efforts but through the efforts of those who strive to give you life in Christ—be convinced that you owe them, in sheer gratitude, what you are already giving them: I mean your diligence in pleasing them by undertaking the works which they have entrusted to you. Do make progress, and help the others make progress as well.
And all of you do the same.
I do not recommend our Sylvestrines to you because they are indeed very much recommended as they are already yours. Please, tell them on my behalf, when and how you think it convenient, generally and in particular, whatever you wish.
As to those who are outside our community, if you think it fit to write something to them on my behalf, it is up to you, for you know better than I do what is to be said to them. Besides, overburdened as I am with other cares, I am quite limited; so much so that I am unable to respond to the needs of those to whom I am bound to attend and for whom indeed I feel obligated.
Now I would like to write to my sweet Paolina,98 but I do not find the time. Likewise, it would be a pleasure to write to my faithful Donna Lucrezia,99 but I can’t. Please, tell her that I would like her to be like me by trying not only to progress in her own life—a small achievement after all—but also to help the others on the same road.
Again, tell my Doyenne100 that I think of her and her sister as well. Tell my sweet Donna Faustina101 that I do not forget her—how could I?—and that she can count on my promise.
Finally, you can assure them all that I am theirs, and that Jesus Crucified makes me love them very much indeed, because they are generous.
To our amiable Fra Bono102 and Master Castellino,103 priest, lots of greetings in Christ; kiss them for me. To them too, I would have liked to write, but as I really can’t, present them with my apology. Particularly let our worthy Father Abbot104 be assured that he is among brothers, and that it is a temptation from the evil one to have him withdraw from them. The devil is afraid lest what he dislikes should come true, and, in fact, he knows by experience that our friend’s simplicity has always borne fruit, and that every time he has cast the net, he has always caught large and good fish.
As for my saintly priest Castellino, I wish to see him, and I would like him not to deprive me of his presence, for I am about to begin negotiations for St. Barnabas,105 and I do not want him to miss the inaugural benediction. I would never do this without his presence. Besides, I want you to send him as your delegate to the conclusion of the transaction. I know that you will miss his presence, but, as I am aware of your being always ready to satisfy the wishes of others before your own, I beg you to endure his absence and to send him to me. Be so kind as to remember me to him and entreat him to come soon, so that we may be together for this enterprise.
Remember me to our beloved ones: Mr. Lodovico,106 Mr. Antonio,107 my faithful Franceschi’s,108 my host Mr. Andrea,109 and all the others. A kiss to all from me.
Greetings also to Count Brunoro,110 Giulio,111 the barber and his wife, the Reverend Fathers Alessandro, Luigi, and Antonio.112 I would like everyone to know the self-sacrificing devotion of our Fra Bono113 because then the Forty Hours Devotion and the other apostolic works would indeed make progress. Suggest to Madonna Maddalena114 that she get acquainted with him. Remember me to her. If you dismiss Donna Giovanna,115 let me know.
As for Gerolamo,116 I really do not know what to say; it is not my concern.
My dearly beloved one, if I have left out anyone or anything, since I am quite tired, you take care of it. May Christ bless you one by one in the depth of your hearts, and give you His own Spirit.
From Cremona, October 8, 1538.
If Madonna117 has not yet taken care of your brother,118 have no misgiving because today or tomorrow I will be going to Guastalla, and I will take care of the matter, along with Paola Antonia119 who has already written to her about it.
May Christ make you holy.
Yours in Christ,
Father Anthony Mary, Priest
and Mother A[ngelic] P[aola] A[ntonia Negri]120
If you like the letters which I had Mr. Camillo [Negri]121 write, give them to the addressees.
- Christ crucified provides for all the needs of his disciples, even before they ask, anticipating their intentions.
- Christ crucified invigorates our feeble energies so that we can reach out to the hearts of those who are entrusted to us. Therefore, we should not let our inadequacies discourage us.
- Not even unreasonable scruples should stop us from doing good to our neighbor.
- We must be grateful to those who help us in our weakness with hard work and sacrifice.
- Have I so much familiarity with Jesus that I can talk to him as if he were visibly present, fully confident that he listens to me and will take care of me at the proper time?
- Have I ever tried with confidence to entrust others to God, certain that he will do more than I, a poor fellow, can do?
- Do I know that perfectionism, an exaggerated analysis of my behavior, and consequently rejection of my human and spiritual giftedness can hinder me from doing the good that I can do?
- Do I already get into the habit of thanking those who help me in my difficulties?
Guastalla, November 3, 1538
This letter is addressed to the house located "by St. Ambrose," which had belonged to the Countess and to her companions, and where now the Sons of Paul have moved from the poor and small house of St. Catherine, already in good part sold to the Nuns of the near-by convent of St. Bernardine (February 9, 1537).
Their number has increased (18 after the return from if Vicenza), and so also were the opinions! Something is disturbing the quiet and the peace of the religious Community, and it has reached the ears of the Saint, so he writes.
He writes from his little room in Guastalla, and with a renewed fervor having put himself in front of Christ Crucified "to learn from him..."! He writes with a tender and paternal tone, peculiar to him:
My sweet children...it seems that the devil is tempting me to be judgmental". I do not want to believe such a thing, but I want to tell you how I feel about it. Do not think that it is a habit of mine, since it seems that I am doing nothing else but send you rude letters... my great love makes me worry about you... It seems .that among you there are some who have become sluggish about fulfilling the intentions of the one who is your leader."
Perhaps they were complaining because he had not given them yet definitive written guidelines as the Breves of Clement VII and Paul III were requiring. He had been thinking about it and had even been taking some notes, but he believed that rules had to be the fruit of experience, rather than vice versa.
Perhaps there were some who were taking advantage of the trust given them by the elders. Many young men had been accepted for postulancy during a period when none of the most influential men of the Congregation were present: Fr. Zaccaria was in Guastalla, Fr. Ferrari was in Vicenza, and Fr. Morigia was busy with the direction of the Angelics who were now numbering about forty (Fr. Morigia was substituting Fr. Zaccaria).
At the beginning of the letter Anthony Mary is timid, almost hiding under sweet titles the pain which had provoked the letter. Then all of a sudden he becomes sharp, almost offensive, to suddenly quiet down in contemplation of the supernatural certainty (the work of the "sons of Paul" is assured by "different promises made by the Crucified Lord and various Saints": private revelations) and begging them not "to make themselves less than what they are called to be by their vocation," to be heirs and legitimate sons of our Holy Father and of great Saints.
This could be considered the first Circular letter of the Congregation.
Together with Anthony Mary’s signature there is also the signature of the Angelic Paola Antonia Negri.