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from issue no. 06/07 - 2004

From the Rome of the Popes to Africa

Saint Gaspare del Bufalo

The text of the lecture given by our editor on 12 June 2004, in the Rome parish of the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood

by Giulio Andreotti

Saint Gaspare del Bufalo

Saint Gaspare del Bufalo

Don’t let it surprise you if, having been invited to speak about your saint on the hundredth anniversary of his beatification and on the fiftieth anniversary of his solemn canonization, I start with a quotation from President Bush, words spoken on the day after the terrible event of 11 September 2001: «Bin Laden», he said « is a traitor to his own religion».
By saying so he averted the unleashing of an anti-Islamic crusade that would have found echo in the concern caused in many countries, including Italy (if with less intensity than in France), by the increasing presence of Moslem immigrants. This concern, presented in an alarming perspective given the fertility and the possible polygamy of the relative populations, compared with the limited birth-rate of the developed western world, is perhaps the central theme which mankind is already called upon to face today, but foreseeably with increasing intensity. Now, while some people are taking up racist and prohibitive positions – of which the more notable expression is, in her books, that of Oriana Fallaci – we must convince ourselves that this is a humanly mistaken attitude that leads nowhere.
Christians must as never before believe in love and feel the duty and missionary appeal of their vocation. Here the message that emerges from the life of Gaspare del Bufalo is relevant and clear, as is that of the Congregation he created, present and at work today in very many countries of the Old and New Worlds.
The saint was born in 1786 in Rome (and without engaging in parochialism it does no harm to mention it) in a particularly turbulent historical moment, with the Holy See at issue with the tumultuous consequences of the bloodthirsty French Revolution. As a boy, he attended the Chiesa del Gesù close to his Palazzo Altieri home. He was particularly attracted by the saintly missionary Francis Xavier and for a time felt drawn to the Jesuits. But that was not the design of Providence. His vocation was for the secular priesthood, but not indeed with any static vision of it.
In the Roman dialect – now no longer current - there was an expression used to describe a person whose life was serene and privileged: “He’s happy as a canon” (sometimes also: “He’s happy as a pope”).
The first decade of the nineteenth century was certainly not a happy time for the Pope nor for canons. Thus the new canon of San Marco, Don Gaspare, found himself faced by the dramatic dilemma of the imposition on the clergy of an oath of fidelity to the emperor that was counter to papal directives. Some of the clergy consented but Canon del Bufalo did not. His reply, in the knowledge that it meant exile, was lapidary: «I must not, I cannot, I will not». The outcome was his forced departure from Rome, first for Imola, then Bologna, and then for seven months in the prison of San Giovanni a Monte and later in Lugo. During the first year of his absence came the news of his mother’s death. He suffered but he did not bend and affirmed his superiority. He stated in a letter: «I write these few lines so as not to disturb whoever presides over reconsideration». The circle drew still tighter. Those who did not take the oath could not remain in the Papal States. So Don Gaspare, via Florence, joined other exiles in Corsica.
During those long years he was able to learn more of his brothers in the priesthood and to shape a model for bringing the clergy up to date that was to become concrete on his return to Rome in the creation of the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood. He renounced his canonship and devoted himself in depth to the work of priestly renewal and the apostolate among ordinary people. The core of priests and co-workers was to spread out in prodigious fashion. They found their first home in the small Umbrian town of Giano in 1815.
The school of domestic economy 
at the Manyoni mission in Tanzania

The school of domestic economy at the Manyoni mission in Tanzania

Crucifix in hand, the missionaries of the Most Precious Blood organized days of contemplation, dialogue, confessions in individual localities. Four years later came the house of Pieve Torina, near Camerino. In 1821 it was the turn of Albano, that was to become a pivot for the Congregation. From there they spread into Romagna, but especially into the difficult Ciociaria area, then known as ‘di Marittima’ and’ Campagna’, infested with outlaws.
More than a century later, canvassing the grass-roots in all the communes of the lower Lazio, I found in many local traditions traces of those organized awakenings of religious life: from Terracina to Sonnino, from Sermoneta to Vallecorsa with its connection to saintly De Mattias. Also in Segni, the home town of my parents, they showed me archive documents recording protests because the town officials had cut the small contribution necessary for the organizing of a new mission. Here one should speak of the uneasy coexistence between religious powers and the powers of the earthly representatives, let us say, of the popes. It was to take a lot of time and much water had to flow under the bridges of the Tiber before we were to hear (as we heard from Cardinal Montini) that the temporal power was a burden of which the Church was finally rid.
At that time the diarchy of bishops and pontifical legates still continued, marred by misunderstandings and distress.
There was criticism and even calumny (but which founder hasn’t had that sort of trouble?).
The backbiters unfortunately found a hearing even where they shouldn’t have. Thus in an exchange of letters between figures in the Curia one finds the accusation made against the priests of the Congregation of not observing the Friday fast, worse, of having contacts with outlaws. It was easy for Don Gaspare to rebut the first charge, and then explain that without being in contact with them it would have been difficult to perform their task of bringing the malefactors back onto the right road.
Outlaws at water trough

Outlaws at water trough

About the outlaws themselves, the saint writes in a letter of November 1823: «Three favors then I request of you with the present. The first to use your good office with Our Lord for the indulgence of the few outlaws left, while it is ascertained, and God be praised, that since the establishment of the mission houses the Province shows a remarkable change». On a page from 1824 he says: «On banditry, given that it was not thought to give some benign arrangement at the beginning of the present pontificate: 1. Let the system of the refuge in the churches and ecclesiastical sanctuary be reassumed, saying, for example: this also serves for those who find themselves outcast, and so per indirectum would have the effect of reducing the number or of getting rid of the outlaws themselves; 2. Let the groves, called sacred, equally of sanctuary be set up. The best is otherwise contrary to the good; 3. Uncorroborated reports are mainly not to be listened to. I keep silent on other things, because it’s enough for me to preach and hear confession».
And perhaps the very austerity of life in the houses of the Congregation created an uneasy contrast for a certain comfortable way of living prevalent around.
But precisely in Frosinone there was a long and difficult episode of misunderstanding, with the entangling of landed interests and the exclusiveness of a cloistered community.
The call to austerity made by the missionaries and their success in inducing the burning of bad books, the handing in of forbidden weapons, the doing of public penance disturbed the routine habits of some clergy who were in places very much more numerous than necessary and sometimes lazy and without initiative.
Let me read some passages from the acts of the canonical process: «Scorn for the clergy was always a painful thing for the Servant of God, but it could not disguise the great needs of the Church. More than once he deplored the miserable state in which we find ourselves and spoke about the need for reform, that had to begin from the sacred. “Let us pray”, he said, “and pray a great deal for the reform of the times”».
With great humility, but with no less firmness, he wrote: «It would be a very godly act to inform His Holiness so as to get rid of any idea of special commission... nor would that harm the reputation of anyone at all... And also to point out that it is not right that churchmen be superintended by police... Such intervention belongs to the bishops». On 20 June 1825 he writes: «A great soul... tells me through his director that the Holy Father should be told that if the reform does not begin and begin from the sacred, we are close to new scourges. I have ready some pages entitled: Those living the cloister life, Clergy, Nobles... Apart from the other papers sent on other occasions».
And further on: «The Roman Pontiff should issue an encyclical to the bishops so that they take hold of the nub of ecclesiastical discipline and insist on synodal laws to be altered at need. This encyclical should speak about the necessary remedy to the obscenities of painting, brasses and other similar objects. Additionally, they should be recommended to be vigilant on the clothing of women and in short on the most interesting points of the reform».
«Another encyclical is necessary to all princes letting them know in loving fashion that, piety, good upbringing, dependence on the Church having fallen away, their thrones were in jeopardy».
The Queen of the Most Precious Blood, the image that Saint Gaspare took on the missions

The Queen of the Most Precious Blood, the image that Saint Gaspare took on the missions

«As for prelates, alas! What one sees nowadays, speaking in general. Joining in sparkling conversations, dances, late nights... and how so? And in what way compatible with ecclesiastical reserve and with the fulfilment of the sacred canons? And with what heart can one get rid in the laity of so many things, the cause of effeminacy and similar things, if they give the example of the prelate, the one constituted in dignity, and sometimes the detail of entertainments is even printed in the broadsheets and the people who attended named in them to the real vilification of the dignity to which they are unfitted? The Delegations, in particular, are to be entrusted to the most mature people».
«The clergy, alas! what need there is in it for both knowledge and holiness! And what a concern it is to direct our Missions Houses and Spiritual Exercises to rouse from inertia, to gain people’s trust for churchmen, to detach them from the love of relatives, from possessions and from idleness. Parish priests and canons removed, the other clergy in monasteries, so celebrated in the early days of the Church, and from whom all good branches out to their respective dioceses; and oh how many workers they would also send to the foreign missions of Propaganda! But to this great good, that is the apple of God’s eye, it is well to unite the boarding school of young men who, come out of the seminaries, need to train for the parishes, for the ministries, for working in the vineyard of Jesus Christ».
«The reform has still not shown its true principles. Orabimus igitur coram Domino, a quo omne bonum... All the papers I wrote in various periods, you will surely have given to the Holy Father. I fear for some great chastisement, because the bases of the reform have not yet been seen. Oremus ergo provoluti coram Domino... Do you know why I have said that the reform has not begun? Because it must begin from the sacred... It’s being done, but not with that impressiveness of principles, of encyclicals... Let us say the most in the Wounds of the Lord. Our sins hold back graces, light, mercies».

Holy Mass in the parish of Chibumagwa 
in Tanzania

Holy Mass in the parish of Chibumagwa in Tanzania

Let me read another passage again from the act of the canonical process: «I say that the whole picture of things, while to many it seems in order, could not be more woeful in the sacred aspect. I have no other task than to pray, keep silent and suffer. For example, the episcopacy of Pontecorvo is at the mercy of political affairs and the Bishop has nowhere to go. And we are in the Papal States. How many other godly places reduced to this method of uniting both regulars and military. Has there ever been an arrangement in detail of this relation, keeping quiet on others? And God has not had enough of us».
Certainly it’s impossible to interpret these reference and these heartfelt comments faithfully without putting them in the framework of the turbulent events of the papacy in those years, including civic encroachment, humiliation, attempts at conciliation often disappointed, the impossibility even of routine administration of the Church and State.
During Saint Gaspare’s relatively brief life (1786-1837) as many as five popes followed one another: Pius VI, Pius VII, Leo XII, Pius VIII and Gregory XVI; the history of all five was almost always dramatic and often disheartening.
The complaints because Don Gaspare and his priests were disturbing their superiors with the missions was a source of bitterness for the saint, but they didn’t divert him from a precise vocation to reform. And indeed the Archbishop of Camerino, who had gone to visit the infirm Pope Leo XII, heard, in the presence of other bishops, his judgment: «Canon del Bufalo is an angel, a saint and a scholar».

A priest administering the sacrament  of baptism

A priest administering the sacrament of baptism

In the material I received to bring me up to date on the work of your Congregation a moving report was included on the work you are doing in Tanzania, with a note on the founding role played by my friend Don Joseph Quattrino from Segni. It is said nowadays, and it’s true, that Africa is the forgotten continent and that the end of the Cold War also saw an end to much of the aid provided for political reasons by Russians, Americans and even Chinese. At the last G8 meeting the matter was spoken of and some promises made. Let’s hope. I see with joy your specific, intact, indeed increasing, missionary activity, that has never had any other purpose – in Africa and everywhere else – than that of making Jesus known and of helping the poor and the sick.
I believe that this is the way to look to the future, not with the anxiety of being overwhelmed by opposing ideologies, but as a field of action open to great possibilities of human and Christian development, seeing on the horizon the ecumenicalism of charity, that perhaps will turn out to have more effect than the difficult dialogue between religions.

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