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from issue no. 09 - 2003

The wonder at the passing of God

The postulator for the cause of Don Orione tells the story of the miracle that opened the way to the canonization of the founder of the Little Works of Divine Providence

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Don Orione

Don Orione

Pope John XXIII initiated the apostolic process for his beatification in 1963, and in 1978 Paul VI proclaimed his heroic virtues. It was John Paul II who proclaimed Don Luigi Orione blessed on October 26, 1980, “a marvelous and genial expression of Christian charity”. And whoever knows even slightly the figure of this priest founder of The Little Works of Divine Providence (which includes The Children of Divine Providence, the Little Missionary Sisters of Charity, The Blind Sacramentines, The Eremites, the secular institute and the lay movement) will agree to the description.
Don Luigi was born in 1872 in Pontecurone, a large village in the province of Alessandria, between Tortona and Voghera, and died in San Remo on March 12 1940. There was no place that his charity was unable to touch and alleviate poverty both of body and soul, in Italy and in America, both North and South, but also in England and Albania. It is enough to think of how many unfortunates he gathered in his Piccoli Cottolengo. His biography is full of pages which give comfort and shine with humility (“among the graces which the Lord has granted me, I have that of being born poor”).
On 7 July last, in the presence of the Pope, the decree which recognized a miracle that happened through the intercession of Don Luigi Orione, the second, was promulgated. This opens the way to his canonization.
We therefore met don Flavio Peloso, Secretary of the Little Works and Postulator General.

FLAVIO PELOSO: I was given the office of Postulator General by our congregation in 1998. In the autumn of that year I met a married woman, Gabriella Penacca, who mentioned to me the case of her father, a friend to our religious work. The event had happened eight years previously , and had remained hidden since then. From the seriousness of the person and the nature of the story, it seemed to me that the event was worthy of attention. So I stopped to listen ( and the family doctor whom I subsequently met confirmed the version).
In October 1990 this old man, Pierino Penacca, resident in Monperone, in the diocese of Tortona, began coughing up blood, and after tests at the hospital of Alexandria, suspected lung cancer was diagnosed. The family took him to Milan to get a second opinion, hoping for a better diagnosis, but the man’s health deteriorated rapidly and at the end of November he had to be admitted for treatment to the hospital of San Raffaele in Milan. The new tests confirmed the suspected cancer, which was pronounced certain on December 31. The doctors decided that Penacca should be dismissed from hospital after a short period, because he was old, and in a state of general health that wouldn’t be able to tolerate chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and because in any case the lung tumor was not yet discernible by X-ray. They also advised that the patient, an inveterate smoker, be allowed to smoke his last cigarettes in peace in order not to inflict needless suffering, and that any form of severe therapy should be avoided. «Contact instead a medical expert in pain therapy, from now till the end», they said.
All of this was communicated orally to Penacca’s daughter, Gabriella, on the afternoon of December 31, at San Raffaele.
What did your source recount at this point?
PELOSO: We can imagine her distress. But she kept it to herself. And when some moments afterwards her father began dozing, she went down to the hospital chapel, for a moment of prayer, of intimacy with the Lord. There was a mixture of despair and confidence. It was the most intense moment of her conversation with the Lord and with Don Orione that the daughter remembers, and with which she associates all that happened afterwards. She had a small container with a relic of Don Orione with her, she entrusted the cause to him and to the Lord and left the small church with the inner certainty of having been heard.
Science stopped there, that afternoon at year’s end in San Raffaele, but the prayers had already begun: those of the other two children, Isaura and Fiorenzo, of the handicapped patients of Seregno and of some priest friends. Other family members also prayed and the handicapped patients of the Piccolo Cottolengo of Serengo, because this man was one of their benefactors. And Penacca himself certainly prayed.
On January 11 Penacca was dismissed from the hospital without having undergone any therapy. From that day however his complexion gave signs of improvement, so much so that on January 15, as every year, he went to the sea at San Bartolomeo in Liguria, to get a breath of fresh air, great smoker that he was.
But it was thought in the family that these were his last days, in any case.
PELOSO: But Penacca then got well. The “pain doctor” that the family had already contacted, when questioned, told me that he hadn’t really taken account of the event, but that there was never any need for him. Pennaca’s children immediately began to look at each other, “Papa is well …” (he had to redo analyses, CAT, cytological exams, and not a trace of the illness remained), and from then on they began to have the suspicion and the silent certitude that it was a grace from Don Orione. Signor Pierino had never known anything of all this; they had always hidden the truth of his condition from him so as not to upset and grieve him.
But you immediately believed the story?
PELOSO: At the stage of diocesan inquiry, as postulator, I gathered all the evidence, the medical accounts, the reports, in meticulous way. And a reasonable conviction grew in me that the first account of the daughter Gabriella about the intercession of Don Orione could have a basis. The papers then passed, as is usual, to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. A first medical consultation requested more documents, and afterwards the attention and discussions of the doctors focused on the examination of the blood. In the end, on January 16 of this year, the medical board unanimously declared that Penacca had indeed been affected by a cancer, regression of which was inconceivable. The only medicine Pennaca had taken in the meanwhile were those for the heart and spray for asthma, so the commission could unanimously say that the regression of the illness “was not explicable in medical terms”.
On this basis, the theological panel analyzed the chronological sequence between the diagnosis of the illness, the prayers of intercession and the cure; it assessed the scientific judgment of “non explicability”; it verified whether the invocation was indeed connected to the inexplicable event and to whom it was actually directed. The theological panel voted, also unanimously, to maintain that it had to do with a miracle. The ordinary session of cardinals and bishops, on June 3 last, having reexamined everything, replied, unanimously, to the question as to whether there had been a miracle through the intercession of Don Orione, “adfirmative”, affirmatively.
Officially the case is clarified. But specifically, what did your first witness say?
PELOSO: The daughter Gabriella told me of her desperation when she became aware that her father would die, and that in those moments she had discovered what the presence of a father meant. She was not a child, when this happened she was over fifty years old. She asked God to demonstrate to her His fatherhood and to allow her elderly parent to live. She asked the grace of Don Orione: “You were always one of the family, and you already saved papa during the war, grant us this favor”. And she trusted with all her heart. She told me that she experienced a sense of peace, «I’ll take care of papa». And then after this assurance in the chapel of San Raffaele – how long did it last? Twenty minutes, half an hour? – she went back up to the ward – it was New Year’s eve – and in agreement with the nurses put on a mask, and did the round of the beds to wish every one a happy New Year and to give them little cakes and sparkling wine, so very relieved and happy did she feel.
Why turn to Don Orione in particular?
The ceremony for the beatification of Don Luigi Orione October 26 1980

The ceremony for the beatification of Don Luigi Orione October 26 1980

PELOSO: In those parts of Alessandrino and Pavese, Don Orione is a personage in the hearts of the people. Penacca had known him and remembered when in the ’thirties don Orione visited his town for the celebrated collection of old copper pans, to be melted down to erect the statue of the Madonna of the Watch, which now shines out, 14 meters high, from the tower of the sanctuary.
The episode which marked his devotion to Don Orione is linked to the Second World War, in 1940. Penacca, was born in 1912 and, like all the conscripts of his year, was called up. He was stunned because his family situation was very precarious, a sick wife, two elderly parents, with three children to maintain along with the four of a brother who had died young. If he left, what would become of his family? Don Orione had died in March of that year, and Pennaca immediately thought of turning to him to ask for a favor. And he went to pray there where he was buried, at the sanctuary of the Madonna of the Watch in Tortona. The fact is that, without Penacca ever asking, the local military head picked him out of the draft, putting him in charge of the anti-aircraft defense of Tortona, so that he didn’t have to leave anymore! The other local men were all sent to the Russian front, and nobody from Tortona returned. After a while, in the anti-aircraft division they realized that Pierino knew how to play wind instruments and made him the trumpeter. Thus “in the end I didn’t even fire a rifle”, he recalled, and when necessary he was free to run into the village to look after the needs of his family. Penacca had considered all of this a grace, and from then on carried in his wallet a small picture of Don Orione. When his family, worried about his health, scolded him for smoking too much, he allowed them to talk a little, then, gently, he took from his wallet and showed them the picture of Don Orione, as if to say «stop it, because I’ve got him!». So Pierino did the same in 1990, seeing that he wasn’t feeling well: «but then I got better». Up to his last admission to hospital and his death, which occurred in February 2001 – for reasons completely extraneous to the tumor – Penacca did not spend one more day in hospital.
His wife had also known don Orione. She came from the farmstead area of Tortona and worked as a hand. On feast days Don Orione used to go and visit the factories and thus she met him, and told her children about it afterwards.
You alluded previously to the prayers of the handicapped.
PELOSO: The unfortunates of the Piccolo Cottolengo of Seregno were also praying to Don Orione, the “good children”. For some time Pierino had brought cases of early fruits and vegetables, and other charitable offerings, to the home. There was a brotherly link with one of the assistants at the institute in particular, Ennio, a person of great faith and generosity. Being a trusted friend and close to the Penacca family, Ennio was one of the first to know about the blood-spitting which Pierino had hidden for some time; he was immediately aware of the seriousness of the symptom and persuaded him to speak up so it could be treated. When the first medical confirmation came about the tumor, he didn’t hesitate to ask help from Don Orione through the prayers of the “good children”: «We had relics of Don Orione with which we prayed. We prayed a lot, also with the handicapped children of the Piccolo Cottolengo. And then I had a certainty: be calm, everything will be alright». They were mentally disabled, mostly adults, but not incapable of faith, of understanding certain things.
What does a postulator do?
PELOSO: I studied the life of Don Orione a great deal, I wrote about it, I spread word of it because it’s of benefit to everyone… and I felt surprised and gratified to have the luck to help in the recognition of the miracle. I felt a joyous passion in all this and also a certain fear of not doing enough to reveal a marvel which, after the first inquiries, I understood had to do with a miracle. My last doubts about the authenticity of the miracle dissolved during the investigation at the diocesan stage. At the beginning I was the most critical. I didn’t want to make a bad impression or to waste the time and money of my congregation. When that moment was over, I went ahead.
Now, if I look back at all the investigations, the documents, and all the detailed explanations, I see more clearly the moment emerge at which science stopped – the doctors had said to Penacca’s family:«Take him home, it’s not worth attempting anything or trying any therapy» – and yet Pierino’s life took up again. At that moment – I’m convinced after many objective checks – there was the passing of God, whose benevolence was moved, in this case clearly by Don Orione. It seems incredible to say so. But this is something I’ll never be able to forget.
To be present at, to experience the passing of God in life is always a reason for great wonder and it also causes a sense of unworthiness, but then one has to say “it’s true, it is definitely true”, at the risk of appearing naive. Our mind unconsciously rebels and doesn’t want to admit that that which always happens is not happening; that there are no natural explanations for an event counter to the laws of nature.
The Church continues to want that, in some cases, miracles be studied and acknowledged. It’s a practice challenged by some people today. Also when I struggled to carry forward the inquiry into the miracle – I would have preferred not to, because I considered Don Orione a saint in any case – I was nevertheless convinced that it was worthwhile, to achieve the purpose of presenting a sign from God that went beyond nature. That strengthens faith.
The Church welcomes and guards with care every sign from God. In our case here, it considers the miracle a confirmation from God of the human judgment about the sanctity of Don Orione. We must in any case offer our faith to God, looking to the dead and resurrected Jesus Christ. Every now and then, however, some sign like this helps our weakness.

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