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from issue no. 04 - 2004

SAINTS. Annibale Maria Di Francia and Luigi Orione

The Saint of the earthquake

Annibale Maria Di Francia was a life-giving radiance against the background of one of the most devastating tragedies, the earthquake and tidal wave of Messina in 1908. A speech by our director at the meeting held in the Lateran University, Rome, on 6 May

Giulio Andreotti

Annibale Maria Di Francia

Annibale Maria Di Francia

I am grateful to the Rogationist Fathers for having given me the occasion to deepen my knowledge, very shallow beforehand, of the great founder and of the two religious families promoted by him: Don Annibale Di Francia.
Sometimes one comes across tones of surprise in relation to the increased activity of the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints under the pontificate of the current Pope. But I believe that one must see in it an extremely positive double message. On the one hand an invitation to consider the modernity, better still, the present relevance of many of these figures whose virtue has been recognized in heroic degree. On the other hand we feel many of the saints of John Paul II so very “close” to us. Of all ages, cultural and social situations, geographical origins. They are so many reasons for contemplation and of contrast to the characteristics of a distressing concept of progress in disorder that gives the world no peace.
But there is more. In devotional traditions – so to speak – sanctity was mostly attributed to the martyrs of the early centuries or, in any case, to figures from the distant past. And if young people were offered, apart from little Saint Tarcisius (evoked always at first communions), other models such as the three Jesuits novices Luigi Gonzaga, Stanislaus Kostka and Johann Berchmans, undoubtedly devotion was stirred, but in a past context. It was not easy – I am speaking in general obviously – to grasp, for example, why Pius XI proclaimed little Sister Teresa, cloistered in her convent of Lisieux, patron saint of the missions, whereas it was easy to share in the joy at seeing Don John Bosco raised to the altars.
The saint we are here to celebrate today seems to me to have three features. First: he belongs deeply to the history and the counter-history of the Italian nation. Second: he was a life-giving radiance against the background of a devastating tragedy, the earthquake and tidal wave of Messina in 1908. Last: it is quite singular that our saint was friend to another saint – Don Orione – and a devout pilgrim to a third saint, Padre Pio, on the journey Father Annibale made to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1919. He was born into a family of aristocrats but he admonishes us when he writes with simplicity that: «Being born noble, rich or poor is not essential to sanctity; but it is true that the blaze of virtue is still more admirable when it is joined to that of nobility». But there is, perhaps, in the contrast of social status – between his origins and the object of his apostolate - a key to understanding the originality and the depth of the person; who felt he was not called to a bureaucratic post, let us say, in the diocesan clergy but to soar with creative initiatives.
Messina destroyed by the earthquake on 28 December 1908

Messina destroyed by the earthquake on 28 December 1908

His father’s noble Sicilian origins lead one to think that, without a particular call from God, even with a priestly vocation he might have turned into a fashionable ecclesiastic such as Don Pirrone in The Leopard. The encounter between the young deacon with the poor man from the Avignone district of Messina marks instead, not only for him but for society and for the Church, an exceptional creative shift in two directions: the care of orphans and the propagation of prayers for religious vocations. I shan’t venture on to the difficult terrain of his possible literary success had he devoted himself chiefly to the poetry. I’m not a critic and I wouldn’t risk expressing judgments on the excerpts from his poems read in the biographies. There are, however, in the maxims collected by Father Sapienza some points that are truly fascinating. The definition of time, for example: «Everything passes, everything comes to an end, time flies swiftly. Today you are boys, tomorrow you will be young people, after tomorrow you will be old and then eternity». His inspiring idea was that of gathering up orphans – first girls and then boys - to give them a chance in life. He himself said: «Consider that rescuing an orphan from a fateful future and giving him prosperity in the spiritual and temporal life is a good of real redemption».
Like many founders he faced enormous difficulties not only (and maybe not so much) from the expressions of a civil society rife with militant anticlericalism, augmented also by the tormented events of the Italian Risorgimento and the legacy of the question of temporal power.
The incomprehension and the obstacles put in his way by part of the Catholic world itself, at all levels, were hard to bear. The description of the “apostolic visit” from the Auditor of the Rota Monsignor Parrillo is spine-chilling, even if the moment of clarification came almost immediately. The analogy with the inspections of Padre Pio by Father Gemelli and Monsignor Maccari comes spontaneously.
The mention of Padre Pio brings me to a consideration that I hope you won’t consider irreverent. The spread worldwide of prayer groups and the success of the television biopic on Padre Pio have cut into the age-long popularity of Anthony of Padua, symbol of love for the poor as well as Doctor of the Church.
Father Annibale followed the example of Saint Anthony in his charitable creation, entrusting his sons with a characteristic inspiration that will never become thin.
While the State was concentrating on authoritative inquiries on Sicily, such as the Depretis Commission in 1875, the Bonfadini Report of 1876 and immediately afterwards the Sonnino-Franchetti extra-parliamentary Report, Father Annibale and other churchmen did not make enquiries but undertook in the name of Jesus concrete initiatives to assist orphans and the sick.
I was struck when reading the history of your saint by the name of an archbishop of Messina, Monsignor Angelo Paino, whom I met after the war when he came to President De Gasperi to forcefully plead the case of the people of Messina, stricken this time by the bombing. Strange cycles of destruction for a people: the cholera in 1854, the earthquake in 1908 and the bombs in the ’forties.
Orphans in the printing house

Orphans in the printing house

Permit me to say here incidentally that overall legislation for the South and a special statute for Sicily were only to come in the mid 20th century, precisely through the efforts of President De Gasperi.
The attitude of the civilian authorities toward the Antonian orphanages and toward their founder was irrational and unjust. Instead of expressing gratitude to men and women who were taking orphans out of poverty and giving them a roof and job training, they went in for tax controls and sometimes genuine persecution, even penal. The State, for that matter, thought it could solve the problem of the poor by prohibiting so-called begging, even making a penal offence of it.
It should, however, be said that that mentality is waning, but has not disappeared. Enough to condider the arguments over Catholic schooling that requires only the parity - even if not total – allowed for by the fundamental law of theState.
Aldo Moro found himself faced with a government crisis for having proposed small subsidies for the infant schools run by the nuns. Perhaps we should be more actively responsive and demand recognition for what the Catholic schools – but the point is even more valid for charity work – have given to the education of the Italians, without any, or at most very little, public funding.
The difficulties and the obstacles never put a stop to the plans of our saint. One of his maxims – that I read in the collection put together by Father Sapienza with the same effective method he used for Paul VI – runs: «When all our plans turn upside-down the only remaining consolation is resignation to the divine will, that does everything well, albeit we don’t understand it».
In youth, not least because of a consular post given to his father by the Papal States, Father Annibale followed events at the end of Pius IX’s life. It doesn’t come out personally, but his family milieu can hardly have felt sympathy for Garibaldi who demolished the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, or for Piedmont that had occupied Rome. Whereas his relations were direct with Pius X, who began his pontificate when Father Annibale was twenty-seven.
Dramatic indeed are the pages that depict the anguish of our saint when he heard the news of the earthquake as, on the day after Christmas, he arrived in Rome to be received precisely by Pius X. The newspaper criers announced 8,000 dead.
Father Annibale left again immediately but had to wait all day at Terminus station for a train to Naples; from there passage on the ferry gained almost miraculously (because of a passenger who gave up his place), the impossibility for the boat to berth and the agonizing sight from aboard of Messina destroyed, arrival finally in Catania and news from the evacuated Franciscans that his orphans were alive but unfortunately thirteen nuns had died under the rubble.
The Avignone district in Messina in a late nineteenth-century photo

The Avignone district in Messina in a late nineteenth-century photo

The report to the Senate of the Kingdom - dated 1909 – on the Messina earthquake is spine-chilling: «An instant of the power of the elements has scourged two noble provinces – noble and dear – demolishing many centuries of construction and civilization. It is not only a misfortune for the Italian people; it is a misfortune for mankind, hence the compassionate cry burst forth on either side of the Alps and of the seas, melting and blending together, in a competition of sacrifice and of brotherhood, every person, every class, every nationality. It is the compassion of the living that attempts the resurgence of mankind over the violence of the earth. Perhaps the terrible picture is not yet full in our minds, nor precise the conception of the great misfortune, nor are we yet able to sound the depths of the abyss, from whose dreadful bottom we wish to arise. We know that the damage is immense, and that great and immediate provision is necessary».
The state allocated thirty million lire there and then, instituting an extra levy on the taxes paid by all contributors. In the official documents no mention is made of the private contributions of people and institutions without which any reconstruction program would not have managed. Naturally the official documents do not mention Father Annibale.
The earthquake damage opened the way for the Daughters of Divine Zeal and to the Rogationists of the Heart of Jesus to an enforced exodus which led to settlements in Apulia where – though not without some difficulty – the welcome was warm and the implantation rooted solidly. However Messina always remained the spiritual center of the two communities even when, as was just and logical, they were to come and enrich the religious and civil features of Rome.
Father Annibale went to see Pius X shortly after the first audience cancelled on the terrible 28 December. He was received warmly and the Pope approved, all be it with limitations, the insertion of the prayers for religious vocations among the invocations in the litanies of the saints. The statutory concern of your Congregation for this matter may fail to be understood at first sight.
Annibale Maria Di Francia with his first collaborators in Messina in 1897

Annibale Maria Di Francia with his first collaborators in Messina in 1897

If the religious vocation is a call from God - as we hear repeated at every priestly ordination, including the last conducted by the Holy Father in the evocative setting of the Vatican Basilica, when he reminded the ordinands of «Non vos me elegistis, sed ego elegi vos» - to address an ad hoc prayer might seem superfluous or plain meddling. With very gracious simplicity Father Annibale replies with his: «God wants to be begged».
The heartening map of the spread over the various continents of your two religious families matches up to a dual necessity that is not destined indeed to fade. Both the religious and civil education of young people, and prayer less the Lord lack laborers in his vineyard, will never wane.
Allow me to add a personal note. I was considerably moved by the biography of Father Annibale and by a reading of the canonical process. I, too, lost my father when I was two years old; and I feel lively gratitude towards another religious Congregation: the Somaschi Fathers of Saint Girolamo Emiliani. They took my brother into their Roman orphanage and my mother and I received essential help from the neighboring parish of Santa Maria in Aquiro. But there is more. Reading that the miracle for canonization concerns the recovery of little Nicole who was sick suffering from meningitis, I think with tenderness of my young only sister who was cut down by that terrible malady. Perhaps if we have known of and prayed to Father Annibale, who had died eight years earlier, it would have gone otherwise, and even speeded his beatification.

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