Saint Louis Guanella – the Gospel as the love story of a father for his children

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24 October, the memorial of St Louis Guanella. His spirituality was based on understanding the Gospel as the love story of a father for his children: God takes care of each one, especially the weakest and neediest.

 

Newsroom (25/10/2021 09:51Gaudium Press) Born on 19 December 1842 in the Alpine village of Fraciscio di Campodolcino, Louis was the ninth of thirteen children of a mountain family of solid Christian principles.

Among his siblings, everyone got on well. But Catherine, only a year older, was his favourite. While still children, they talked about the adventures of the saints and learned to see in the poor the figure of Jesus.

Near their house, there was a rock with cavities that looked like pots. There, the innocent children mixed water and earth and stirred the mixture, saying: “When we grow up, we will make soup for the poor like this”.

Early signs of vocation

From a very early age, numerous signs, premonitions, and extraordinary events were pointing out to little Louis the paths traced out for him by Divine Providence.

The first of these occurred when he was only six years old, on the feast of St John the Baptist. He was in the Square of the Parish Church of Campodolcino, together with his uncle and brother-in-law, when the latter gave him a small bag of diavoletti, delicious mint candies, just as the Mass bell was about to ring.

Not wanting to enter the church with the sweets in his hand, he went to hide them in a pile of wood, where they would be safe from the greed of another child. At that moment he heard clapping and saw at the door of the Town Hall an old man staring at him.

The saint describes him in the same Autobiography: “He was thin, with white hair, dark face; he wore short trousers, his stockings were of undyed wool, his kind face seemed to beg for those sweets”. Frightened, he hid the candies and when he turned to look, the man had disappeared?

That image never faded from her mind. It will always return “when meeting other old people, begging for a little good and sweet at the end of life”.

Another remarkable event happened on the day of his First Communion, when he was nine years old. As it was Holy Thursday, there was no feast and, returning home, he was sent to tend the sheep, as on any ordinary day.

Still moved by this grace, he sat down on one of the lawns of Motto hill, like a sofa, where he used to rest while he was tending the flock, and began to pray to our Lady, thanking her for the good fortune of having received Jesus into his heart.

He felt overcome by a gentle sweetness that urged him to make generous good resolutions. However, at a certain moment he fell asleep with his prayer book in his hands, and was awakened by a feminine voice calling his name. Seeing no one around, he thought it was a dream. He went back to reading and fell asleep again.

Once again, the event was repeated. And, as with Samuel (cf. II Sam 3:8), there was a third time, when the voice was heard more loudly and clearly: “Louis, Louis”. At that moment, the saint recounts, “I saw a Lady holding out her right arm as if to indicate something. She said to me: ‘When you grow up, you will do all this for the poor. And, as if on a screen, I saw everything I was supposed to do”.

Forging the temperament

At the age of twelve, Louis received a scholarship and enrolled at the Collège Gallio in Como. For this shepherd boy, accustomed to the freedom of the countryside and the grandiose Alpine panoramas, there was no lack of suffering in adapting to the rigid school discipline. The school seemed to him like a prison. Nevertheless, this helped him to master his energetic, sometimes impulsive and irascible character and to manifest the kind, expansive and affectionate aspects of his temperament inherited from his mother.

Strengthened by his frequency of the sacraments and his ardent devotion to Mary, he cultivated there the seeds of his vocation, remained firm in his principles and unshaken in his great appreciation of the virtues of chastity and modesty, despite the revolutionary and liberal winds blowing in Italy and throughout the world.

After six years of school, he entered the diocesan seminary of St. Abbondio, where his specific vocation, which Providence had given him since childhood, became even more marked. When he returned to his native village during the holidays, he committed himself to helping the poor and the sick in the area, especially the most destitute.

“A sword of fire in holy ministry”

In an atmosphere of resentment and anger, marked by the desecrations of churches carried out in Como by Garibaldi’s followers, Louis was ordained a priest on 26 May 1866 by Monsignor Bernardino Frascolla, Bishop of Foggia.

That day, with his soul overflowing with jubilation, the new priest made a promise to God and to his brothers: “I want to be a sword of fire in holy ministry!” With similar purpose, explains one of his biographers, “the young man had demonstrated the capacity to dream and to ‘long for great things’; to espouse the cause of the poorest, prioritizing love for God and the brothers.”

He celebrated his first Mass in Prosto, where he had served as deacon, on the solemnity of Corpus Christi, and remained there for about a year as vicar.

Once appointed parish priest of Savogno, he took advantage of his diploma to open a school there, which soon filled up with pupils. He then devoted himself with great enthusiasm to the apostolate with the poorest for eight years.

He gave religious formation to people of all ages, inviting them to unite themselves to the Holy Father and warning them about the new doctrines of the time, hostile to the Church. For this, and above all for publishing a booklet entitled Saggio di ammonimenti, containing such teachings, he was branded by the civil authorities as a “dangerous element”.

His school was closed and he was forced to leave the diocese.

Three years of “learning” with Don Bosco

Attracted by the person of St John Bosco, he chose to go to Turin. There he spent three years (1875-1878) in “apprenticeship”, as he would later say, following in the footsteps of the founder of the Salesians on the journey to holiness and collaborating with his pedagogical work for youth.

However, he had many doubts and worries. Was he following the path to which he felt called? Where was the fulfilment of all that he had seen on the day of his First Communion? The voice of Providence continued to sound in his heart, urging him to found his own institution.

Summoned by his bishop, he returned to the diocese of Como. Leaving Turin, being separated from the Salesians and especially from Don Bosco, was very painful for him.

First House of Divine Providence

In the parish of Traona, to which he was sent in 1878 with the mission of helping the sick parish priest, he tried to transform an old convent into a school for poor young men aspiring to the priesthood, in the Salesian style. However, he was still considered a “priest under suspicion” and did not obtain the necessary authorization from the civil authorities.

The Bishop transferred him in 1881 to Olmo, a parish confined between high mountains, where perhaps he could be free of the suspicion of exercising “dangerous influences” against the government. There he felt exiled and abandoned by God, seeing it impossible for his call to be fulfilled.

A few months later he was ordered to go to Pianello, where these trials would end. There he found an orphanage and a hospice founded by his recently deceased predecessor, Fr. Carlo Coppini, and placed under the care of some young women aspiring to religious life.

It was from this enterprise that his first foundation, the Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence, originated in 1886, counting on the valuable collaboration of Mother Marcelina Bosatta and her sister, Blessed Clare Bosatta.

The first House of Divine Providence – the same name used by St. Joseph de Cottolengo – was finally opened in Como with the aim of caring for the poor and needy. The institution began to grow and there was no lack of generous benefactors and souls willing to dedicate themselves to this work of charity.

On a trip to Turin he asked Don Bosco for advice about his desire to found an institute for boys too. The Archbishop of Milan, Blessed Andrea Carlo Ferrari – who until 1874 had been Bishop of Como – was responsible for the Congregation of the Servants of Charity.

Guanella and a small group of priests made their perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before the tabernacle.

Called to belong to the divine family

The spirituality of the holy founder was based on an understanding of the Gospel as the love story of a parent towards his children: God is Father of all, and Provident Father, who cares for each one, especially the weakest and most needy.

Through Jesus Christ, all are called to be part of the divine family. In this family, the most needy deserve special help, such as the abandoned elderly, orphans, the terminally ill and the physically and mentally handicapped.

In this family, the indispensable figure of the Mother stands out, who leads all to Christ. He spent hours before the image of Our Lady of Divine Providence. He never doubted the intercession of the One who had shown him in his childhood the magnitude of his work: “Stay close to Mary and act confidently,” he recommended to his disciples.

 

More necessary is to die well…

After numerous vicissitudes and trials, at the end of his life Bishop Guanella saw his work spread to four continents. Convinced that men and women are mere instruments, since “è Dio che fa” – it is God who does it – the Founder encouraged the missionary zeal of his sons and daughters by telling them: “Your homeland is the world”. He himself accompanied the foundation of new houses in other countries, such as that of the United States in 1912.

In the midst of so many activities, he still found time to write numerous works of Christian formation, in addition to more than three thousand letters in which his virtues, his prophetic sense and his particular love for the poor and abandoned shine through.

One of his last ventures, and perhaps the most popular, was the Pious Union of the Transit of St Joseph, erected in 1913 for the assistance of the dying. “There is a need to live well,” he used to say, “but more necessary is to die well. A good death is everything, especially at the present time, when people think only of material things and of having fun, rejecting eternity.”

Crowning a holy life, that good death also came for Bishop Guanella, on 24 October 1915, at the age of 73. May his elevation to the honour of the altars reveal to today’s world, so confident in itself, the secret of his holiness as a model to be followed: abandoning himself into the hands of Divine Providence, certain that, no matter what men do, “è Dio che fa”!

Text taken, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 118, October 2011.

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