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After the publication of Gianfranco Maggi’s text, we now come to Andrea Riccardi’s, who in PalaAlba, on 28 November last, recalled the personality of Fr James Alberione in the context of the Church in the 20th century. Riccardi, born in Rome, has taught contemporary history and received several honorary degrees. In 1968, he founded the Community of Sant’Egidio, known for his work in support of peace and dialogue. In 2003, Time magazine included him in its list of thirty-six ‘modern heroes’ of Europe, who have distinguished themselves for their professional courage and humanitarian commitment. He contributes to numerous periodicals and newspapers. He is a scholar of the Church in modern and contemporary times, but also of the religious phenomenon as a whole. In 2011 he published John Paul II. La biografia (Saint Paul) and recently La Chiesa brucia. Winner of the Charlemagne Prize, he was a minister in the Monti government, and since 2015 has been president of the Dante Alighieri Society.

Fr James Alberione is a man of the 20th century. Born on the threshold of the century, in 1884, he lived through the great events of the time in Italy which was now firmly unified.

The belle époque, the two wars, the crisis of the liberal State and the advent of Fascism, the democratic Republic, Communism, the transformation of the countryside and the development of the second post-war period, the economic boom, the Second Vatican Council: all these events affected his life. He died at the age of 87 in 1971 when the world was immersed in the Cold War and no one guessed that the communist bloc might collapse.

 Alberione was a man of the century: not a priest detached from the history of the twentieth century. He came into contact with the great political, economic and anthropological transformations of the time. His vision of the Church is not closed within ecclesiastical institutions or the small old world of Catholics and the Langhe.

He feels the “pushes”, as he says, of history. When the twentieth century opened in Berlin, the great German scholar of religious doctrines, Ernst Troeltsch, a personality of great culture, greeted the time that was opening like this: “My friends, everything is wavering”. And “Everything wavers” was the toast to the twentieth century.

 

  1. The Mission for the new century that was beginning

The night between 31 December 1900 and 1 January 1901 was a special moment for the sixteen-year-old seminarian, Alberione. He spent it in prayer in the ancient cathedral of Alba, at the invitation of Leo XIII. The sixteen-year-old, in the cathedral with his seminary companions, stayed the whole night “wandering with his mind into the future”: it seemed to him that, in the new century, generous souls would hear what he sensed and, in association, would realise what Toniolo repeated: “Unite; the enemy if he finds us alone, will defeat us one by one”. Toniolo’s social thinking inflamed the seminarian. It was the Toniolo of the Programme of Catholics in the face of socialism, of 1894: that programme expressed in the slogan “Workers of the whole world unite in Christ under the banner of the Church!”, contained in the 1900 book, Christian Democracy, for a true application of social Catholicism.

A mission flashed before the boy’s eyes, which echoed Toniolo’s thinking: “Be the apostles of today, using the means exploited by the adversaries”. The field in front of him seemed to him to be the “new century” to be faced with “new means”. This is the basic intuition: an enormous field and new means to work it. It expresses the modernity of his way of seeing and acting. He was not afraid of the contemporary world, which appeared to him to be full of resources, even if it was full of pitfalls. Later, he was not afraid of the market, of money, of machines, of calculated risk. He was not an adventurer, however.

His approach was intransigent in its fidelity to the Church and in its judgement of the ‘pitfalls’, but so open to the men and women of the time, and to the opportunities and means that were opening up. In short, Alberione, as a young dreamer and as an elderly founder, was never a traditionalist.

He writes in his autobiography, using the third person: “He felt deeply obliged to prepare himself to do something for the Lord and for the people of the new century with whom he was to live. Doing for the Lord: this is the religious thought of the seminarian. But also, to do for “the men of the new century with whom he would live”: the men of the new century are not only the faithful but all, because he, his followers and the Church had to live with them. These are the dreams of a boy from the provinces, like many others, which often pass. But in the young man, later priest and theologian, there is a stubbornness in his dream. He felt he was facing a truly new time. "Everything is wavering", said Troeltsch. And the Church had to be equal to this earthquake of history.

 

  1. Open to modernity but secure in the faith

Much seemed to waver in yesterday’s world, even in tiny Alba (it had eleven thousand inhabitants in 1900). Even in Alba, the Church felt challenged by liberals, both moderate and radical and anticlerical.

The Church was challenged, on a political and social level, by the socialist movement which, in 1895, had taken on the name of the Italian Socialist Party in Parma (in 1921, at the Livorno congress, with the maximalist split, it would give rise to the Communist Party of Italy).

These political forces were the expression of that political and social self-redemption of the proletariat that would occupy the stage in the 20th century, as an alternative to the Church. Marxism, in its Leninist version, was the ideology that would be exported from Europe to the world.

The Church was challenged by a political world that had secularised and politicised redemption. But not only that. It was also challenged internally, in terms of theological thought and doctrine, by the historical-critical culture that questioned its teaching. It was modernism, as defined by its adversaries and condemned by Pius X with the encyclical Pascendi of 1907: these were the positions of Catholics as we read in the Programme of the Modernists (written anonymously by the Roman priest and Christian scholar, Ernesto Buonaiuti), “living in harmony with the spirit of their times”, who intended to adapt religion to “all the conquests of the modern age in the domain of culture and social progress”.

Faced with the achievements of critical thinking and science, the Church’s big question was: to adapt or not to adapt? Emile Poulat, the great French historian, has been saying this for several decades. When “everything wavers”, should the Church adopt or oppose it? But, did opposing mean locking oneself up in temples or sacristies, in the old world, in the perenniality of Latin rites? Through his life and work, Alberione traced out for himself and his followers a delicate and constructive line in response to this question: it is necessary to be intransigent on the faith (he was intransigent on the modernist question), on ideologies (he was intransigent with liberals and leftists), but it is necessary to adapt to the century, not only in the reception of new instruments but also in the proximity to the reality of women and men who were changing.

Alberione spoke of ‘adaptation’ and a ‘spirit of understanding’. Intransigence and modernity. Alberione spent the night between the two centuries, praying with the ancient faith transmitted to him by his farming family, and which he was now deepening in the Seminary of Alba (an institution with a strict tradition of studies, even if provincial, where personalities such as Canon Chiesa weighed heavily, and where priests such as Fr Bussi and Monsignor Rossano would emerge).

He was the popes’ man of faith. Alberione, during his life, was a papal Catholic, not only because he needed the pope (we see this in the first difficulties with the bishop of Alba when he evaded him and went to Rome), but because the popes were, for him, the prophets on the horizon of the century. In November 1900, he was struck by Leo XIII’s encyclical, Tametsi futura, in which the Pope noted the distance of many from the faith, but asked himself: “Is not the complete return of society to the Christian spirit and the ancient virtues the greatest need of the times?

The young man was struck by the text (which to my mind is not even one of Leo XIII’s most incisive, but you know how often a word touches a predisposed state of mind).

 

  1. Priest and publisher

Another Pope, Paul VI (who visited him on the eve of his death), drew a profile of Alberione at the end of his life, in 1969, when he received the Chapter members of the Paulines: “We owe to your founder, here present, dear and venerable Fr James Alberione, the construction of your monumental institute. In the name of Christ, we thank him and bless him. Here he is: humble, silent, tireless, always vigilant, always absorbed in his thoughts, which run from prayer to work... always intent on scrutinizing the “signs of the times”, that is, the most ingenious ways of reaching souls, our Fr Alberione has given the Church new instruments to express itself, new means to give vigour and breadth to its apostolate, new capacity and a new awareness of the validity and the possibility of its mission in the modern world and with modern means”.

I have quoted Paul VI at length, not only because of the effective portrait of the founder but because it explains Alberione’s method as a theology of the signs of the times, which stems from the conciliar season. But he had practised it in advance and with an evangelical instinct. He was moved by the challenge of the “new century”, which he faced with the use of “new means”, not church ones. Here lies the intuition that he developed for a lifetime, which made him - as the title of our meetings says - an “entrepreneur of God”. An Entrepreneur is a new figure, belonging to the world of the second industrial revolution. An entrepreneur on a global level, because he develops his action in the world and travels, even at a time when general superiors did not travel much (and consider that his apparent fragility was accompanied by permanent physical suffering, due to a problem linked to the spinal column).

He was a priest and an entrepreneur: isn’t that a contradiction? Just as it is not a contradiction that his priests’ followers stay in the printing shop or that nuns go from house to house with Famiglia cristiana or other publications? It is not only a question of a daring work in the educational, charitable and missionary fields, but here Alberione entered the world of production, the market. In 1923, for example, the Società San Paolo anonima per azioni, established in 1923, was duly notified on the stock exchange and provided that, in the distribution of profits, 70% should go to the shareholders (we have the folders with the dividends). This cannot cause any perplexity in ecclesiastical circles. A limited company for religious work?

Yet it was the world of the century. In 1900, the Exposition universal was held in Paris, of which the Eiffel Tower was the most famous expression, and which also contained a Galerie de machines: for the fifty million people who visited it, it was an exaltation of the works of progress, of machines, of human ingenuity, of discoveries, of the taste for enterprise, which made them dream of a whole new twentieth century, produced by human development. What happened to Alba in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

[Foto 9]

It was a predominantly agricultural town with little industrialisation, where socialists themselves had found limited space. But, in Alba, faced with a century that took pride in development, in the time of the belle époque, Alberione conceived a dream that was at the origin of many other dreams: to use modern and secular means, because their use did not secularise the Christian message, but multiplied it. He had experienced this in the management of the newspaper, Gazzetta d’Alba: printing, newspapers, books, cinema, radio and other things came from this intuition. In the same years, I was struck by the story of Father Kolbe, a Franciscan, known for his martyrdom in 1941 in Auschwitz. He, in independent Poland, faced the same problem as Alberione (he was ten years younger than him because he was born in 1894).

Kolbe placed the use of the press at the centre of the printing of his newspapers, such as Il cavaliere dell’Immacolata which, from 5,000 copies in 1922, reached one million in 1938. He transformed a very large convent, not far from Warsaw, with seven hundred brothers working around the presses and the printing presses, into a very large printing and distribution centre, in which - as Cardinal Wojtyla said - he made “the machines sing to the glory of God”: he wanted to address, continues the future Pope, “the poor, who hunger for the word of the Lord as for bread”. It is significant that in the same years the same objections were addressed to Kolbe in Poland as to Alberione in Italy. A sign of a Catholic mentality. They objected to the Polish friar that his publishing enterprise was contrary to the Franciscan spirit of poverty. So he replied: “Is that reason enough to remain in the 13th century as if in an armchair, closing the doors to technical progress? Anyone who wants to imitate St Francis to the letter should not even take the train or read newspapers, and never, never smoke cigarettes! ... We must not fear progress, we must sanctify it.

Kolbe converted a number of his Franciscan brothers to his enterprise which, as Wojtyla noted, was aimed at a poor section of the population.

 

  1. The founder of institutes

Alberione, in order to accomplish this mission, dreamed of and created a movement of men and women who would dedicate themselves totally to it. He wrote: “The need for a new cohort of apostles became so fixed in his mind and heart that it always dominated his thoughts, prayer, interior work, and aspirations. He felt obliged to serve the Church, the people of the new century and work with others... From then on these thoughts dominated his study, prayer, all his formation: and the idea, at first very confused, became clearer and with the passing of the years also became concrete”.

Here is the dimension of the founder of the community which developed until his death in 1971, with the creation of various branches of the Pauline Family, so luxuriant in congregations, institutes, lay co-operators that once, years ago, when I was called to speak to the Paulines, I called it ‘the Pauline jungle’. I am not going to make a history of it: the founder is not only at the beginning of the Society of Saint Paul but of the Daughters of Saint Paul, of the Pious Disciples, of the Pastorelle, of the Apostoline Sisters, of the aggregated secular institutes, of the lay cooperators. To these leafy branches, it proposes unity and cooperation in the image of the Family of Saint Paul. The Holy See, especially the Congregation for Religious, the Vatican department that deals with this sector, is not always in favour of the unitary construction of this Family.

I would like to point out that while later the distinctions became more pronounced, Alberione was soon interested in the laity (from 1909 he thought of consecrated laity), than in women also associated with priests, and also in cooperators as a third order. Many initiatives and foundations were born from his experience of the “century”, which is the secularity of the time, which requires new apostles, as he says, and priests who do not stay in the church. The dream dominated everything: to enter into a space, largely precluded to the Church. He is therefore a trainer of dream workers, to whom he continually speaks and communicates spirituality and enthusiasm. He is a missionary and an entrepreneur: in this way, he throws himself into the market of the time, of life, of people’s choices.

Do religious people really have to be needed for this mission? In 1922, the Congregation of Religious, led by the Piedmontese and noble Cardinal Valfré di Bonzo, pointed out that, despite the “very noble end”, no religious were needed. Can a congregation only deal with the press? It would take five years for diocesan recognition under Pius XI. In the meantime, La Domenica, the weekly liturgical magazine, and Vita pastorale for the clergy became widespread in the parishes. In short, Alberione’s intuition and work imposed themselves on the people and the bishops. Pius XI concluded the affair with a clear sentence, which also expressed the modernity of his thinking: “We want a religious congregation for the good press”.

It is debated whether Alberione was the bearer of one or more charisms, but I am interested in emphasising that he was the realiser of a dream. Even into old age, he continued to dream. A constructive dream. Every foundation, in the history of the Church, contains a critical reading of the ecclesial reality, of the gaps, shortcomings and inertia. This reading does not so much develop a critical thought, entrusted to books or public interventions. But it gives rise to a utopia that makes a founder say: “What the Church does not do, I will try to do with new companions”. This perspective finds difficulties with ecclesiastical institutions, as Alberione experienced, but it is typical of Catholicism which is, at the same time, a very institutional Church, but also capable of free charismatic initiatives. This is the genius of the Catholic Church, which allows its vitality and guarantees  freedom of initiative that leads a simple priest from Alba to be at the head of eight congregations, many works, newspapers, and initiatives in the field of communication while remaining a small priest. Alberione was a critical thinker. In his votum for Vatican II, he advocated the possibility of using the televised Mass for certain categories and the use of the vernacular language in some liturgical actions. After the Council, he affirmed his critical thinking: “This continuous de-Christianisation of life, art, thought, etc. is due to the lack of liturgical-biblical oxygen in which we for centuries have made people live. From the phenomenon of centuries of separation between liturgy and the Bible, painful consequences result: the great people who did not understand the Mass, the sacraments, the services... Preaching detached from the Bible was not heard as the word of God, but rather as man’s reasoning.

  1. From Alba to Rome, on the road to the world

Where did this critical thinking about the Church that drove Alberione to his work come from? Paul VI says: from reading the “signs of the times”, that is, the needs of history.

Because he thought of the Church in history and not in an abstract way. In Abundantes divitiae, an autobiographical text he was asked to write when he was sixty-nine years old and in Rome, he writes: “Everything was a school for him”. A very beautiful phrase: his firm faith did not prevent him from learning from everything and everyone. While learning, Alberione could not fail to see the critical situations in the Church.

Renato Perino, who was Superior General of San Paolo, told me that when as a young man he accompanied Alberione from home to the Council and then back, he confided in him about the problems he saw in the Church with criticality and participation.

The humble priest, almost too much in appearance, appears to us severely dressed in his cassock, with his head bowed (as we saw him from the earliest days walking through the streets of Alba, almost as if he were concentrated in himself or in another world), was not only  concrete and active man, but he loved being in history and knew how to read it.

He was a lover of history. Fr Bosco, a figure Alberione looks up to, also loved history. As a young man, Fr James had read Rohrbacher’s Universal History of the Church, Hergenroter’s and Cesare Cantù’s 35-volume Universal History.

Reading history was almost a discipline for Alberione, so much so that for ten years he read the first two works mentioned and for eight years the many volumes of Cantù. It is not by chance - he says so himself - that he was interested in the book by Enrico Swoboda, La cura d’anime nelle grandi città (The care of souls in large cities), which he considered his great master.

I will not go into the history of Alberione, which is well known to most. There is also a sense in the geography of his life, which has two poles: Alba and Rome. Alba is always in the heart of the Piedmontese achiever and landowner that he is: here, among these concrete people, is his world. Alba is always the heart of the movement he founded.

But Rome is decisive. Here, from 1933, Alberione moved skilfully, also because of the canonical visit of the bishop in Alba, who was worried that the accounts did not add up. Rome means more. He spoke of ‘Romanity’: ‘The Pope is the great beacon lit by Jesus for humanity,’ he said. The popes are the interlocutors and inspirers of the Primo Maestro, as the entrepreneur of God is called. From Rome, he received recognition as a pontifical congregation in 1941. Rome is the way to the whole world.

If Alba and Rome remain two decisive references, where the founder wants his temples to be built (for that matter, in Rome, without much impact on the religious fabric of the city, also because of the presence of so many churches of much greater tradition), the geography of his congregations is measured by the world: his foundations are not only Italian or European but in Brazil, Argentina, the United States, China, the Philippines and Japan. I do not trace the geography of the propagation of the work. There is a connection between Romanity and universality. According to the founder, universality means: “Carrying all peoples in our hearts; making the presence of the Church felt in every problem; a spirit of adaptation and understanding for all public and private needs”. And it was not by chance that he kept a globe on his work table.

The founder, so Piedmontese, began to move around the world. His first trip was in February 1939, when he left Italy for the first time and went to Czestochowa to visit the small Pauline community, which was having problems. In 1945, with Mother Tecla Merlo, co-founder of the Daughters of St Paul, she left for the United States, from where she went to Argentina and Brazil. Then came Asia. In 1957 he went to Africa. Alberione, Provincial of Alba, arrived in Rome, more than 60 years old, knew the world and gave to the Paulines, so Italian, a universalistic directive: “Discover what is true, good and healthy in the cult... It is not a question of bringing customs, language, nationalism... It is not a question of making colonies from a religious point of view, but of making citizens of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. This is the thinking of the Church of Rome on missionary action, which is not  religious colonisation: this is testified to in Rome, at Propaganda fide, in the Congregation for the Missions, by Monsignor Celso Costantini, its secretary.

 

  1. Bringing the word of God into the hands of the people

We need to reach everyone: in Italy and in the world. Alberione told Paul VI in a simple and effective way his concern: “The four pious women who take communion every morning, the four young people who gather around the parish priest every evening, they are not the whole country, they are not the whole people”. The founder looks to the people, but the people of the twentieth century are not those of the great processions or those who gather in the rites of the parish. The people are outside the precincts of the Church. Yet Alberione continued to speak of the people and was not satisfied.

The Church had reacted in the nineteenth century with the idea of popular missions that were supposed to bring the people back to church. Then the Catholic movement, first of all, Catholic Action, expressed a less clerical Church, which through the laity lived in the environments, creating new figures and spirituality, such as the life and commitment of the Catholic militant.

Alberione had a simple and basic intuition: to bring the Gospel to all. He wrote: “At that time the Gospel was rarely read and only read by a few people, just as Communion was rarely taken. There was also a kind of persuasion that the people could not be given the Gospel, much less the Bible. The reading of the Gospel was almost exclusively for non-Catholics”. Instead, the Gospel had to go to everyone and into the homes: “Let the Gospel be worshipped... preaching must be much more reported and modelled on it”. Between 1960 and 1961, he launched the 1,000 lire Bible, a very low price (and an economically risky venture) that allowed the sacred text to go everywhere, preparing the biblical conscience of Vatican II.

The Council in fact wanted to put the word of God back into the hands of the people. In five years, in the Sixties, almost one and a half million Bibles were sold in Italy. Alberione wrote: “The Bible should be read with simplicity: when your father writes a letter you don’t look at the grammar or the syntax: you want to understand what news he gives”. Behind these words, there is not a simple-minded thought, but Gregory the Great who says: “What else is Scripture if not the letter of Almighty God to his creature? Read it therefore with ardent love”. The Bible, for him, must be read in the family, at school and in church, where one must render true worship to the Scriptures. He had studied the various spiritualities, but at the bottom, he said, is “always Jesus Christ”. This is a thesis affirmed by Cardinal Martini himself, who insisted on the biblical trait of unifying the different spiritual schools.

Faith was not something individual but had to permeate life and the environment, becoming culture, not in the academic sense. For Alberione, it was necessary to create a culture of the people, inspired by faith. This did not only mean printing religious or theological texts (after the Council, San Paolo had a great role in making known in Italy the texts of the great European theologians, such as Rahner or Congar, in the beautiful bound and coloured volumes of the “Library of Religious Culture”). The people do not exist without a shared culture. A popular culture had to be created.

The most successful work in this sense is Famiglia cristiana, born in 1931 with the contribution of the Pauline sisters, from the evening of Christmas Eve. Alberione gave the magazine the task of creating a culture of the people: “Famiglia cristiana should not speak about the Christian religion, but about everything Christian”. First, it is addressed to women and mothers. The press is not only at the service of doctrine. In 1982 John Paul II stated something very lucid in this sense: “A faith that does not become culture is a faith that is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived”. A dimension of people lives in  culture. And culture needs intellectuals, but it also needs workers of enterprise, of disseminators.

Alberione affirms: “Today, more than in the past, organisation, especially international organisation, is important in every sector. The modernity of this entrepreneur of God lies in understanding how, in today’s world, we must not be afraid to do great things. And such things are possible with the organisation. Technology, organisation, entrepreneurial spirit and evangelical enthusiasm form a human mixture from which Alberione’s work was born. In 1951, the founder affirmed that “the Word is not a prisoner”, as Saint Paul teaches, “human progress provides the ever more perfect and effective means”. He was fascinated by the phrase of Ketteler, Archbishop of Mainz: “If Saint Paul returned to the world, he would be a journalist”. The problem is “to be Saint Paul alive today”: it may seem like an overweening ambition to want to incarnate and equal the Apostle of the Gentiles, who left his mark on such a significant part of the New Testament, who made a decisive transition of Christianity from the Jewish world to the Gentiles. It was personal and, above all, collective ambition (for his religious family) that Fr Alberione nurtured with determination. Amidst the small ambitions and many fears of the ecclesiastical world, this great apostolic, entrepreneurial, cultural and human, and above all missionary, the design stands out, with the tenacity to fight to realise it and to organise a world of collaborators with modern instruments.

The spiritual and practical ambition of the founder is very great and reminds me of a great father of the Church, John Chrysostom, who preached on the Apostle Paul: “Since God so honoured the human race that he considered one man (Paul) worthy of doing such great deeds, let us emulate him, imitate him, let us strive to become like him too and not think that this is impossible”.

The story of this entrepreneur of God, at a time of great fears such as ours and of small ambitions, both in society and in the Church, seems to me to recall the creative and mobilising value of the dream: a dream not of greatness, but of passion for the Gospel and for what he continues to call the people and which he wants to be a truly great people.

Agenda Paolina

July 22, 2024

Festa di S. Maria Maddalena (bianco)
Ct 3,1-4a oppure 2Cor 5,14-17; Sal 62; Gv 20,1-2.11-18

July 22, 2024

* FSP: 1922 ad Alba, Teresa Merlo con altre 8 giovani emette la professione religiosa nelle mani di Don Giacomo Alberione assumendo il nome di Tecla.

July 22, 2024SSP: Fr. Pietro Gazzano (1998) - D. Aristide Marson (2007) - Fr. Élbio Juvenal Rodrigues Dias (2011) • FSP: Sr. M. Giuseppina Muddolon (1981) - Sr. M. Eugenia Cecchinato (2010) • SJBP: Sr. M. Elisabetta Franchi (1961) - Sr. Mary Edward Parcero (2019) • IMSA: Vita Rotunno (2014) • ISF: Giovanni Marongiu (2004).

Thoughts

July 22, 2024

La vita religiosa è una vita di amore... Quando non vive più l’io... allora si ama Iddio con tutto il cuore, non con una parte; con tutta la mente, non con una parte; con tutta la volontà, tutte le forze, non con una parte. Ecco la persona veramente di Dio, cioè religiosa (APD56, 469).

July 22, 2024

La vida religiosa es una vida de amor... Cuando se deja de vivir el ego... entonces se ama a Dios con todo el corazón, no con una parte; con toda la mente, no con una parte; con toda la voluntad, con todas las fuerzas, no con una parte. He aquí la persona que es verdaderamente de Dios, es decir, religiosa (APD56, 469).

July 22, 2024

Religious life is a life of love... When the self no longer lives... then one loves God with all one’s heart, not with one part; with the whole mind, not with one part; with all the will, all the strength, not with one part. Here is the person truly of God, that is, the religious (APD56, 469).