Ardent with charity, St Anthony Mary Claret responded with humility and greatness to the divine call to be a missionary, facing with confidence the most difficult situations for the good of souls and the glory of God.
Newsdesk (26/10/2020 12:16, Gaudium Press) “José Xifré, Superior of the Missionary Sons of the Heart of Mary, asked me […] for a biography of my insignificant person, I always refused, and even now I would not have decided to write it if he had not ordered me. Only out of obedience do I do it, and out of obedience I will reveal things which I would have preferred to keep unknown” […].
By beginning his Autobiography with these words, St. Anthony Mary Claret made it clear that he would tell of God’s action in his life only because of the need to obey the voice of the Superior General of the order… founded by himself!
Meditating on Eternity: Seed of the Missionary
Born into a family with deep religious roots, the saint says of his early childhood: “Divine Providence has always watched over me in a special way”. It is interesting to note that in recounting his origin he does not write the date of his birth, but only that of his Baptism: December 25 1807.
The first thoughts that he remembers go back to when he was five years old. Having received from his parents the first notions of good and evil, Heaven and hell, he had sleepless nights and began to think of eternity: “always, always, always; he imagined enormous distances, and to these were added others and others, and seeing that he did not reach the end, he shuddered and thought: those who have the misfortune to go to eternity in pain, will they never stop suffering, will they always suffer? Yes, they will always, always have to suffer! And he felt sorry for them from the bottom of his soul.
This thought was the engine, “the spur and the driving force of my zeal for the salvation of souls”, of the apostolate for the “conversion of sinners, in the pulpit, in the confessional, through books, cards, pamphlets, family conversations”. For, “when I see the ease with which people sin, the same ease with which they take a drink of water, for laughs or for fun; when I see the multitude of people who are continually in mortal sin and who are thus walking towards death and hell, I cannot rest, I must run and cry out”. To this concern for the salvation of souls, zeal for God’s glory was soon joined: “If a sin is of infinite malice, to prevent a sin is to prevent an infinite injury to my God, to my good Father”.
Awakening of the Priestly Vocation
As a boy he went to school, where he learned his first letters. Lively and intelligent, he assimilated everything quickly, especially Catechism and Sacred History. At the age of ten he made his First Holy Communion and from then on never ceased to frequent the Sacraments. Soon the priestly vocation was awakened in little Antonio: “With what faith, trust and love I spoke to the Lord, to my good Father! I offered myself a thousand times to his holy service, I desired to become a priest to consecrate myself day and night to His ministry”.
However, the difficulties of the time forced his father to take him to work in his small thread and cloth factory instead of sending him to the seminary.
The Factory or the Priesthood?
His first job was to fill the bobbins on the shuttle looms. Later he became head of the workers, and in this position he learned “how it is true that one gets more out of treating others with gentleness than with harshness and irritation”. However, he considers this phase of his life as a period of distraction, because he threw himself headlong into the world of looms, exchanging his vocation for machines, designs and warps. In 1825 he went to Barcelona, where he perfected the art of weaving. Self-taught, just by analyzing the samples of fabrics coming from Paris or London he could already imagine a way of making them, with identical or better results. For three years these matters occupied his mind to the point that, even during Mass, he had “more machines in his head than there were saints on the altar”.
Until, like a sharp arrow piercing his heart, in the middle of Mass he remembered this passage from the Gospel: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” (Mk 8:36). “Like Saul, I felt on the road to Damascus […]. The fervours of piety and devotion were awakened in me”.
From Carthusian to Jesuit
He decided to become a Carthusian to break from everything, much to the regret of his father who placed the hope of his business in his son’s talent.
On his way to the Carthusian monastery of Monte Alegre, near Barcelona, he fell seriously ill and had to return to Vic. He understood then that the call to the contemplative life was not his path: “The Lord was leading me further away to detach myself from the things of the world and, detached from them all, to fix myself on the clerical state“.
He entered the seminary and, after completing his studies, was ordained a priest on 13 June 1835. Sent to St Mary’s Parish in his hometown, he made a strict rule of life for himself. However, God was urging him to be a missionary. “In many passages of the Holy Bible I felt the Voice of the Lord calling me to preach. The same happened in prayer. So I decided to leave the Curia, go to Rome and present myself to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith to be sent to any part of the world”.
Once there, he found that Cardinal Giacomo Filipo Fransoni, Prefect of the Congregation, was away travelling. Father Claret took advantage of the delay to make with the Jesuits the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola and, when he had finished them, he gave an account of his disposition of soul to the Father Director. The latter invited him to enter the Society of Jesus: “I became a Jesuit overnight.”
…from Novice to Missionary and Founder
He felt very content in the Society of Jesus, but a problem in his leg took him to the infirmary and there was no way to cure it. The superiors saw this as a supernatural sign that he was not where he was called by God and ordered him to return to Spain, encouraging him to enter, in fact, on the mission paths. Like the Apostles, he would proclaim the Gospel with confidence, casting out demons and curing many illnesses.
On his return from an evangelizing trip to the Canary Islands in mid-May 1849, he put into practice a well thought out plan to found a congregation of missionary priests, in which each member was to be “a man who burns with charity and scorches wherever he goes; he desires effectively and tries by every means to kindle in the whole world the fire of Divine Love. Nothing frightens him; he delights in privations; he seeks to work; he embraces sacrifices; he delights in calumnies and rejoices in torments. He thinks only of how he will follow and imitate Jesus Christ in working, suffering and seeking only the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls.
Gathering five other priests at the seminary of Vic, and in possession of the episcopal authorizations, on July 16 of that year he founded the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. “Today we begin a great work”, he affirmed.
Nevertheless, less than a month later the Bishop called him and gave him a letter of appointment as Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba…
In the Archdiocese of Cuba: Loved and Persecuted
Claiming he could not abandon the religious bookshop he was running and his fledgling congregation, he refused. However, on receiving a formal order from his prelate to accept, he entrusted the small community to Mary Most Holy and, having been ordained bishop, left for Barcelona to cross the Atlantic to his archdiocese. It is impossible to recount here the adventures of the voyage, during which every stop was a pretext for preaching, still less everything that happened in the former Pearl of the Caribbean in terms of risks, natural disasters, epidemics, work and missionary adventures. He put everything in order and the force of his word calmed rebellions, moralized customs and obtained mass conversions. “In six years and two months I visited every parish four times,” he wrote.
For all the good done there, Saint Anthony Mary Claret knew at first-hand both the gratitude of those he had benefited as well as hatred and persecution. He had already tasted them in Spain, but in Cuba the latter almost killed him. In early 1856, after a fiery sermon, he left the church and was walking along the busy Calle Mayor in the city of Holguin when he suffered a terrible attack. Pretending to kiss his Episcopal ring, a delinquent approached him, intending to cut his neck with a razor. Since, however, he had his head bowed and was covering his mouth with a handkerchief, the blow struck him on the face, from ear to chin, and on the right arm. “I cannot explain the pleasure, the enjoyment and the joy of my soul on seeing that I had achieved what I so much desired: to shed my blood for love of Jesus and Mary, and to be able to seal with the blood of my veins the evangelical truths,” was the holy Bishop’s reaction.
Some time later he recovered from the deep wound, but his face remained quite disfigured, and he rejoiced to be able to repeat with St Paul: “for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (Gal 6:17).
Appointed confessor to Queen Isabella II, he left Havana for Madrid in March 1857. At last he was able to see the progress of his congregation. He exercised his new function with total integrity, without entering into the intricate political issues of the time; but his beneficial influence on the sovereign and society gave rise to a torrent of calumnies and persecutions, which culminated in his exile in France. “Everyone hates me and says that Father Claret is the worst man who ever lived and that I am the cause of all the evils of Spain,” he even claimed.
Overflowing with Charity
As a reward for so much love of God, he was granted many mystical favours, including the prediction of future events and the permanent presence of the Eucharistic within him: “On August 26, 1861, being in prayer in the Church of the Rosary, in La Granja, at 7 o’clock in the evening, the Lord granted me the great grace of the conservation of the Sacramental Species, of always having, day and night, the Blessed Sacrament within my breast; for this reason, I must always be very recollected and inwardly devout; moreover, I must pray and confront all the evils of Spain, as the Lord told me.”
Elderly, sick and tired, he still had the strength to attend the First Vatican Council and there he moved the assembly with his speech in defence of Papal Infallibility. On October 24th, 1870, on his return to France, burning with charity and fleeing from his persecutors, he gave his soul to God in the Cistercian Monastery of Fontfroide.
Juliane Vasconcelos Almeida Campos, EP
Article extracted with adaptations from the Magazine Arautos do Evangelho n.149. October 2015.
Compiled by Sandra Chisholm