Newly Beatified: a Soul Fastened to Humility, Simplicity
Historian Tells of 19th Century Nun Celebrated Today in Italy
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By Carmen Elena Villa
IVREA, Italy, OCT. 2, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea are celebrating the beatification of their founder, Mother Antonia Maria Verna (1773–1838).
ZENIT interviewed Cristina Siccardi, an expert in Church history who specializes in Piedmontese saints and blesseds, especially those like Mother Antonia Maria Verna who lived in the 19th century.
ZENIT: What are her principal virtues?
Siccardi: Mother Antonia Maria Verna lived all of the cardinal and theological virtues in a heroic way. All of the testimonies collected in the "positio" for her canonization underscore in particular her profoundly humble soul, which loved complete hiddenness. We can point to humility, simplicity and charity as her three strengths, her mottoes which became the vital roots of the institute she founded. Mother Verna fastened her soul to humility and simplicity: this is the secret of her sanctity.
ZENIT: Why did Antonia Maria want to make a vow of perpetual virginity?
Siccardi: She made the promise when she was about 15 in the secrecy of her heart. From the time that she was a child, nourished by a profound faith, she desired to achieve perfection following three principles: poverty, obedience and charity. It is not precisely known where and when she made the vow, perhaps in her village church or before the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Providence. This choice, made with her confessor's consent, was not well received by her family: Although they were firmly rooted in their faith, the renunciation of marriage was the source of great concern, even an economic concern, given that the land was not generous to peasant life. Her uncle, in his will, among other things, had written that 50 lira were to go to Antonia "only" at the moment of her marriage "and not otherwise." So, the pressures were many to dissuade her from that project which would become the choice of a life consecrated to Christ.
ZENIT: Why did she decide to move to Rivarolo?
Siccardi: To distance herself from reiterated insistence on marriage and to leave behind the suffocating climate that was created around her due to her decision for virginity, which was not supported by her family nor by the other families of the little village of Pasquaro di Rivarolo Canavese (in the province of Turin), who were interested in Antonia: She would have been a great daughter-in-law both because of her capacity for work (being the first daughter she had to care for her siblings and she did the job with much selflessness) and her dowry.
ZENIT: Antonia Maria was born in 1773. How did the French Revolution influence her life?
Siccardi: The inauspicious currents of a violent secularizing ideology, enemy of the Church, which developed within the French Revolution blunted the religious sense even in the lands south of the Alps, bringing immorality into its social world. The invasive revolutionary spirit was composed of naturalism and rationalism: The goddess reason was installed on the throne and every sphere was contaminated with positivism. Voltarian and Jacobin thought, which violently proclaimed the "rights of man," had acrimoniously dismissed the supernatural. Protestantism, Enlightenment, atheistic and Masonic philosophy easily penetrated European civilization. In this context Antonia Maria, intelligent and farseeing, understood that it was the moment to respond and oppose the evil.
She was only 17 or 18 years old but she fought for the faith and worked for the education of the new generations, teaching them in a Christian manner. As her first biographer wrote: "Here there arose in her the generous desire to oppose herself to the ruinous torrent, to raise up a levee against rampant vice, to disperse the darkness of ignorance, to instruct young people in virtue and, lead back to God those who had strayed.
ZENIT: How did the foundation of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea come about?
Siccardi: Antonia Maria had begun to feel that Pasquaro was already too small for mission work. So she decided to go to Rivarolo, between 1796 and 1800, precisely when the Napoleonic campaigns were sowing hatred of religion and the Church, but also poverty and delinquency. Antonia Maria's house was small, functioning simultaneously as "temple, cathedral and cloister"; here she is teacher and catechist. But she wanted to do more, helping the infirm who were confined to their homes, all for the love of Christ. The work increased so much that it became unmanageable. Between 1800 and 1802 some young women joined her, and in this way the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception came into existence.
ZENIT: When was this community canonically recognized?
Siccardi: In 1818 Mother Verna received the royal patent for the institute, thus being permitted to don religious garb, and on Nov. 17, 1835, the hoped-for ecclesiastical approval was received.
ZENIT: What work did she do in her apostolate in Rivarolo Canavese?
Siccardi: In Rivarolo, Antonia Maria taught children (the first experiments in early childhood education) and cared for the sick with maternal love. On July 17, 1837, a nursery school was started, which was the fruit of the dedicated work that had been engaged in up to that point. The secret of the success of the nursery school in Rivarolo can be found in Madre Verna's spirit of sacrifice and charity. Ferrante Aporti, the priest who was the pioneer of nursery schools in Italy would write: "I write also to the Sisters of Rivarolo, congratulating them, because to the care of the infirm of body they add other supremely meritorious works […], protecting the poor innocents from spiritual infirmity, giving them shelter and educating them in the kingdom of God in their school for children."
ZENIT: What is the charism of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea?
Siccardi: The congregation founded by Mother Verna takes its inspiration from the mystery of Mary Immaculate, who gives herself without calculation. Charity is wedded to the apostolate and gratuity is a dominant characteristic both of Mother Antonia's spirituality and the institute. Her daughters are called to assist and help children, young people, the sick, and persons who are alone or abandoned, with humility, simplicity and sobriety. The poor have priority. The ardor of charity and love for the Church led them to be a missionaries; beyond Italy the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception are in fact present also in countries in the Near East, in Africa and in America.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]