5 Centuries of Revealing God's Fatherhood to Youth

Somascans Mark Anniversary of Founder's Conversion

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By H. Sergio Mora

ROME, MAY 3, 2012 (Zenit.org).- In the church of Saints Boniface and Alessio (Saint Alessio of the Aventine) on one of Rome’s seven hills, a jubilee will begin Friday to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the conversion of St. Jerome Emiliani.

The saint founded the Somascan Fathers (CRS), who work with  young people in difficulties. The congregation has schools, family homes and structures to help orphans, youth drug addicts, and those carrying out alternative sentences to imprisonment. They work with youngsters in 20 different countries, in several of which they have homes for street children.

Spanish Father José Antonio Nieto Sepulveda, the vicar-general of the order, told ZENIT that their founder "was named universal patron of orphans and abandoned youth. We continue with this work and our homes are especially for orphans, young people in difficulty, drug addicts. We are concerned primarily with formation."

The commemoration will include various initiatives, such as a philatelic and numismatic exhibition on religious themes, a concert, a theater play, as well as a conference from Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and a Mass with Cardinal Agostino Vallini. “Beyond the celebrations, on the occasion of the fifth centenary we are opening two new centers, one in Haiti and a school in Nigeria,” said Father Sepulveda.

“The order’s charism is to show God’s paternity among young people. To make them see that there is Someone who is concerned about them,” said the vicar, recalling that St. Jerome said: “I want to live and die in their midst.” 

“That is," Father Sepulveda continued, "what today the science of education calls empathy. Hence it is necessary to discover the reality and richness of those children, who have a name. Children who were wounded terribly because they were rejected or because no one ever loved them.”

“We are an element of help, but those who intervene in the process of healing are the therapists, professionals, psychologists, doctors, etc.,” he added.

Apostolate

The Somascan Fathers have around 500 lay members and priests. The vicar-general explained: “We are lay brothers and priests, not monks, of active life with the obligation of community life.”

He said that in Italy they take care of some 3,000 students, in addition to some 200 drug addicts and some 400 young people serving alternative sentences to prison.

He added that young people are entrusted to them by judges or social centers and looked after by specialists. As opposed to other family homes, in which every eight hours the specialists or assistant take turns, in those of the Somascans, after the specialists leave, for the rest of the day a priest stays. He becomes a point of reference, very much helping the recovery of the young people.

In regard to financing, the vicar specified that in some countries, such as the United States, they are part of the teaching body, and thus receive a salary. In other countries, such as Nigeria, these young people live thanks to the donations of cooperators from Spain and other places.

“In Latin America: in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador, we have large centers of professional formation working with these youngsters," Father Sepulveda added.

History

The name of the religious order stems from the city of Somasca, in northern Italy, where one of their first centers arose and where their founder died. St. Jerome Emiliani was a noble layman and military man who fought for the Republic of Venice, and after being captured, reported that he was miraculously liberated by the intercession of the Virgin Mary. After this, he began his journey of conversion in the historical period called the Counter-Reformation.

He returned to his palace life for 11 years, with a spiritual director who would be the future Pope Paul IV and began to read the Scriptures. He decided to leave everything and sell it. After tasting defeat, St. Jerome turned to the education and schooling of street children, opening the world of work and culture to them to restore them to the society that marginalized them.

The Polish historian Bronisaw Bremek singles out Jerome Emiliani as the inventor of the professional schools of Europe, and of the regulation of apprenticeship in workshops with a regular notary’s contract, thus anticipating by three centuries the contracts of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries.