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from issue no. 05 - 2003

“I began to love the Virgin Mary...

...even before knowing her... in the evening close to the hearth by my mothers knee, listening to her recite the Rosary...». So Albino Luciani, pope for thirty-three days between 26 August and 28 September 1978, spoke of his devotion to Our Lady. His sister Antonia speaks about him today...

by Stefania Falasca

Above, Albino Luciani, the Patriarch of Venice, in Lourdes

Above, Albino Luciani, the Patriarch of Venice, in Lourdes

She’s ready even now to go to her appointment. Punctual as always. Here, on these May evenings in Rome, at the Basilica of the Saints Cosmas and Damian. She goes into the church as if going back to her childhood, and she feels she is there. There in Canale. On those faraway evenings. When in the dusk the Piazza della Pieve is all ashriek with swallows and kids playing soccer before the peal of the small bell calls them all inside. Albino is there amongst them, chasing after the ball. The old women grumble about the careless kicking. The little bell rings out, and everybody hurries inside. The men coming back from work quicken their pace as do the women with children in their arms. Nina rushes to take her place on the steps of the altar of Mary Immaculate, on her knees with the other small children. As Don Filippo has decided: the children in front, all the others behind, first the men, then the women. «That’s how the hour of the Rosary began», and the images flash before her eyes clear as photographs. «It’s like I was really there... the church full, the prayers recited with such devotion, the hymns... we always began with the hymns to Our Lady. What lovely hymns! Sweetest of names, O my goodly hope, Look down on thy people... I remember them all, I’ve never forgotten them. And hearing them now I feel such consolation. In those days the Rosary was all in Latin,” she goes on, “and after the litanies Don Filippo ended with “the little flowers”, telling us short episodes from the life of Mary or of the saints’ devotion to the Virgin. One year he told us all about Lourdes. It was the first time I heard tell of it...».
Those evenings of May Nina remembers them all. One after another, like the beads she’s clasping in the pocket of her coat. She remembers where her mother knelt in church, Berto’s and Albino’s place, the flowers she went to pick “beautify” the altar of Our Lady, the first “forget-me-nots” sprung up after the snow, and how happy she was with that job Don Filippo had reserved for the girls. She even remembers that May when the statues of Saint Agnes and of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus, then recently canonized, were set up next to that of Mary. It was 1927. Nina was little but she clearly recalls that procession of girls in white coming down from the small hamlet of Celat to the church of Canale with the statues of the two saints on their shoulders. Albino more than once told her details from the life of little Saint Teresa who thus became particularly dear to her. «In our place,» she recounts, «we said the Rosary at home all the year round. And the supplication to Our Lady of Pompei. On winter evenings we’d go with mammy to her parents’ house and we’d all say the Rosary there together. I have lovely memories of those evenings... they made our life, our feelings. Only in May and October, the months dedicated to Our Lady, we went to church to recite the Rosary and those who couldn’t because of the time or because they lived a long way off, said it in front of an atriòl, one of the little wayside shrines. There’s a lot of them in Canale, in our valleys. Devotion to Our Lady», say Nina, «was very much felt amongst us.» One of the these small shrines stands in the Luciani’s own street, the atriòl de Rividela, an ancient image of Mary that once upon a time marked a stage in the procession called de Sain Cros. It was done on 3 May, the feastday of the Holy Cross. On that day there was no recital of the Rosary in church. «The procession headed by the parish priest», she recalls, «set off at half five in the morning and went through all the hamlets in the valley. When they got to the atriòl by our house, they read a piece from the Gospel, then then went into the church for high mass. I remember that procession with all the litanies as if it were yesterday. There’s one thing, though, that I’ll never forget. It was a year in which Easter had come late and just that day Albino was going back to the seminary after the holidays. I remember that when the procession was up the hill, in the hamlet of Carfon over Canale, I turned to look down at the square and I saw the bus leaving for Belluno and taking Albino away. I can still see it...I burst into tears... realizing I wouldn’t have my brother at home any more that evening... And it was like that in October as well, when towards the middle of the month he went back to the seminary. In those evenings of October we always went to church together. He led me by the hand. It’s as if I could see him still. When he went away I’d burst into tears... they were the first hurts of my life...».
«That was how», Nina says, «the months of Mary went by in my childhood. If there’s one thing Albino always told me it was to keep steady with prayer, particularly the Rosary. The times we went to see him in Venice he always said that, to my daughter Lina as well.»

The Rosary that makes us children
«It’s impossible to conceive our life, the life of the Church, without the Rosary, the feast of Mary, the sanctuaries of Mary and the images of Our Lady», Albino Luciani wrote as Patriarch of Venice. And with how much veneration full of the tenderness and gratitude he addressed Our Lady and had the practice of the Rosary very much at heart, is witnessed not just by the constant reference in so many of his speeches and sermons, but by his whole life. Speaking once in Verona on one of Mary’s feasts, he said of the Rosary: «Some people today think this form of prayer out of date, not suited to our times, that demand, they say, a Church all spirit and charisma. “Love”, said De Foucauld, “one expresses in few words, always the same and that one always repeats”. Repeating aloud and with the heart the Hail Mary we speak as children to our mother. The Rosary, a humble, simple and easy prayer, helps abandonment to God, to be children». In 1975, invited by the diocese of the Sata Maria, in south Brazil, on the occasion of the Marian pilgrimage and the centenary of the immigration of the Venetians to the country, he was asked to bring them a copy of Our Lady Health, very much venerated in Venice. Luciani, who was not fond of travelling, that time couldn’t say no. When he arrived he found himself in front of 200,000 people. A banner said: «When you return to Italy, tell the Venetian that we remain faithful to devotion to Our Lady». They’d even build close-by a monument to the Emigrant: a man with expatriate’ bundle on his shoulder and to his right his wife, wearing typical Venetian clothing, carrying a child and with an apron out a set of Rosary beads is hanging. Luciani remembered a letter written by an emigrant to Brazil that his parish priest had read out in church was he was a boy. He remembered with how much feeling he had listened, as a boy, to words that spoke of how sad Christmas had been there without a church, without a priest to say mass, just a little chapel without even an image of Our Lady. And he began his sermon saying: «he who loves currit, volat, laetatur. Love means running with the heart towards the beloved object. I began to love the Virgin Mary even before knowing her... in the evening close to the hearth by my mothers knee, listening to her recite the Rosary...». And with the statue of the woman emigrant with her Rosary beads still before him, he said: «Let me now say a couple of words about Mary mother and sister. Mother of the Lord. One sees her also at the marriage feast of Cana; she revealed a motherly heart to the bride and groom who were in danger of being shown up. It was she who snatched the miracle! It almost looks as if Jesus had made a rule for himself: “I do the miracle, but She has to ask!” So as mother we must beseech Her, have great trust in Her, venerate Her very much! Saint Francis de Sales even calls her with tenderness “our grandmother” so as to get the consolation of the acting the grandson who throws himself in full trust into her lap. But Paul VI, who has proclaimed Mary Mother of the Church, often also calls her sister», Luciani continued; «Mary, though privileged, though mother of God, is also our sister. Soror enim nostra est, says Saint Ambrose. She really is our sister! She lived a life like our own. She too had to emigrate to Egypt. She too had need to be helped. She washed plates and clothes, prepared meals, swept the floor. She did these usual things but not in a usual way because “she”, say the Council, “while she lived on earth a life common to all, full of family concerns and work, she was always inwardly united to her Son”. Hence Our Lady inspires our trust not just because she is so merciful, but also becase she lived the same life as us, she went through many of our difficulties and we must follow and imitate her especially in faith».
Luciani as a cardinal

Luciani as a cardinal

Nina recalls that during Mary’s months they also made pilgrimages from Canale. «One», she says, «was made in 1923 at the time of the diocesan Euchararistic Congress to the santuary of the Holy Mary of Grace in the Cordevole valley. I remember it because, after all those years, the old women still wore the badge. But we never went very far, it wasn’t possible for us to go away for days. With mammy as kids we often went on foot to Our Lady of Health in Caviola. The church of Father Cappello’s childhood. It was a little church in danger of falling down; but such was the devotion that when at the end of the ‘forties they decided to close it for restoration, the women went to the parish priest to protest, they didn’t want it closed for any reason. I remember that Albino once took me to Our Lady of the Snow in Garès. “Let’s go and take this candle”, he said. I was very young and I went along on the promise of a bottle of pop. On the way, however, he had to pick me up and he got there with me on his shoulders.» Albino, though, made other pilgrimages. «Don Filippo took him», she says. «Berto will surely remember the pilgrimage Albino made to Our Lady of Pietralba, because coming back after three days», she says laughing, «he went in to wake him up at the dead of night to show him the present he’d brought him. Albino will have been thirteen, fourteen. He told Berto he’d covered a lot of road, that during a rest at a priest friend of Don Filippo, hearing the two priests chatting away, he’d fallen asleep on the chair and that then they’d even lost their way... That was the first time my brother went to Pietralba». The Marian sanctuary of Pietralba in Alto Adige became particularly dear to Luciani. He went there in summertime when he was Bishop of Vittorio Veneto and then as Patriarch of Venice. He spent most of the time there in the confessional. But many Marian sanctuaries saw the pilgrim Albino Luciani. On several occasions he went on diocesan pilgrimages to Lourdes, to Loreto and to Fatima. So much so that in a sermon given in the church of Holy Mary of the Grace in Venice he said: «Preparing myself to speak in this Marian sanctuary I glanced back over my life as bishop. To my surprise I discovered that I’d performed part of my pastoral ministry in sanctuaries». Invited once by the superior of the convent of Our Lady of Miracles in Motta di Livenza, he replied: «I’ll come willingly. When I was small I heard about Our Lady of Motta, but I’ve never had the chance to satisfy my desire». And precisely on that occasion he said during his sermon: «A lot is written and spoken about Our Lady, but let it be done so everybody understands and hearts are touched. Something that won’t happen unless we ourselves have our hearts touched: Saint Alphonse, who was a great man, a theologian, but induced himself to stammer so as to be understood by the little people, had when he wrote hymns for his illiterate flock, hymns sung for more than a hundred years all over Italy, especially during missions and the months of May. Don Bosco had his boys sing them. One example begins: “O my goodly hope / my sweet love Mary / you are my life/ you are my peace”. The person writing that felt close to Mary, opened his own heart to her in trust. Not only did he speak of Mary, but he spoke to Mary in little tender prayers dropped in at all moments. Sterile and passing feeling is no good, sentimentalism, but it is good that the heart, as well as the mind and will, be involved in the exercice of the cult of Mary. “May the lovely name of Mary never forsake your lips”, wrote Saint Bernard, “never forsake your heart”». On 29 June 1978, three months exactly before his death, Luciani went back to Canale for the last time. The parish priest remembers the last sight he had of him: going into the church he came on him in the dimness with his Rosary beads in his hand, praying in front of the altar of Immaculate Mary, where his mother used to kneel.

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