1) His Birth
7) Catechetical Apostolate
8 ) The Ecstatic
10) The Seed of His Charism
On January 18, 1891, Giuseppina Russolillo gave birth to her third child. On that day Pianura woke up under a blanket of snow; there had never been so much snow. It stayed on the ground for twelve to thirteen days. Some old houses collapsed under the weight of the snow. Relatives wanted to
postpone the baptism in order to prepare a fitting celebration. Justin was the third boy and he was so different from the others that midwife, with confidence, holding the newborn baby in her arms, said to the mother, “This son is not like the others; who fathered him?”
“God forgive you, my dear!” said Giuseppina, smiling; she was not offended, having interpreted very well the meaning of the remark. “He is fruit of heaven and not of earth.”
The first impression remained unchanged; wherever he went, with whomever he dealt, Justin was seen and perceived always as a man of God, a heavenly creature living on earth.
The next day, Giuseppina wrapped the newborn baby in a shawl, called her husband, Luigi, and very resolutely said: “The Lord gives us children for His glory and not so that we may have parties. Let us have this baby baptized at once.”
Without hesitation, Luigi Russolillo gathered his family and led them to St. George’s church, shoveling a path for them through the deep snow as the little group moved along.
During the ceremony, the midwife noticed that the child, who had been quiet during the preliminary prayers, smiled beautifully when the holy water was poured on his forehead.
“Listen to what I’m telling, you!” she prophesied to his mother. “This boy will be a priest, and from this moment I expect a Mass for my soul.
him as a future priest. He was very witty. At the age of three, he asked his uncle Giuseppe: “Why do we refer to the dead as the good souls? Does one become good after death?”
According to a popular Neapolitan belief, very intelligent children live a short life; the Russolillo’s neighbors used to say, “He is too intelligent, he cannot live too long.” Half pleased and half resentful the mother would reply: “Why should only the stupid live a long life?”
His grandmother, Giuseppina Scherillo, a very educated lady, quickly put an end to these questions with a golden sentence: “Let me tell you where this child was. He was in the mind of God!”
Justin was full of life. While a neighbor and family friend was artfully handling her spindle, he would quickly grasp and pull it. “Don’t touch, don’t touch” the old lady kept saying to him.
Mockingly, he used to repeat, “Don’t touch, don’t touch.”
Losing her patience, the old lady would add: “Blessed Mother, take him!” The impertinent little boy would reply: “Take her!”
He was quiet only when he was allowed to celebrate or preach to the elderly ladies, who would repay him by teaching him embroidery, crocheting and knitting. Later on, he was an expert in distinguishing and appreciating handmade embroideries. He was welcome in every kitchen of the neighborhood; he visited many families and was not choosy about food – he ate everything.
Maria, Enrichetta and Giovannina, Justin’s paternal aunts, were teachers, and they helped his mother a great deal in raising and educating him. They would take him to class with them, where he acquired his first notions of education while rendering small services. One day, on the way back from school, Justin was walking alongside with his aunt Giovannina carrying under his arm the attendance book and class register; Rachele Marrone, who was walking on the other side, asked him, “Justin, what will you be when you grow up?”
“A priest!” he responded very quickly.
“Then, I will be a sister and I will even come to confess to you, but … I wouldn’t like having big penances.”
“You can relax; I will only give you as penance forty days of fasting on bread and water only, and fifteen decades of the rosary everyday…”
Giovannina kept smiling and wishing him well. The little boy already had a good reputation for his austerity.
When Ciro Varchetta left the little town of Pianura to go to the seminary, his mother and relatives, with tears in their eyes, were saying their good-byes while the young boy was wiping his own tears as he departed on a horse and carriage. Justin, who was present at the scene, commented: “Why do you cry? I wish it could be me going there now!”
Fr. Giorgio Mele, S.D.V., testified that, as boys, he and the first followers of Fr. Justin, while witnessing the acceptance of the seminarians, used to cry, saying, “We will never have such a chance. Will anybody perform a miracle for us so that we can go?” But those seminarians they watched leaving did not become priests! Their place was taken by seventeen young men of Pianura who became priests thanks to Fr. Justin’s work.
After Justin completed the first three years of elementary education, aunt Giovannina gave him private classes to further his education. She had been raised with her uncle, Msgr. Scherillo, a humanist and archeologist well known throughout Europe; he greatly influenced the culture and education of his favorite niece. A popular saying at that time was: “In the Scherillo home even the cats are intelligent.” Aunt Giovannina was, therefore, well prepared for the task that she was freely undertaking. Only in Latin did she ask help, turning to Fr.Orazio Guillaro, pastor of St. George’s Parish in Pianura. Justin never missed a lesson. Sometimes, when his aunt was too busy, tired or sick and she tried to skip a class, with good manners he would plead, “Aunt, let us have at least a fifteen-minute class.” He progressed quickly in his studies and soon the time came to send him to the seminary – but who would pay? The Lord, who later blessed the Russolillo family, making them prosperous, wanted Justin to experience financial difficulties, so that he could understand the distress of the children of the poor, who, called to the priesthood, face the obstacle of their poverty.
At the time, the Baron Lorenzo Zampaglione, owner of a larger part of the real estate in town, was known as a charitable man. Every year, on the recommendation of his pastor, he would provide a dowry for many young girls who were contemplating marriage.
Mrs. Russolillo and her son Justin went to his house in Naples and confided their difficulty to him. Justin, with his frail health, could not work in construction as his father did; it would have been a crime to waste such beautiful intelligence. “Let him become a shoemaker!” the Baron answered them abruptly. Red with embarrassment and his eyes filled with tears, Justin remained speechless.
Coming out of the Baron’s house with determination and tenderness, his mother reassured him, saying: “Don’t be afraid. Mother will make you a priest at the cost of her own eyes.” The family agreed with the mother. His father and his uncles accompanied Justin to the minor seminary of Pozzuoli. That very day the seminary faculty was giving a placement test to the candidates for their school. Justin took the test and then waited with his family to see the test scores. Justin scored high and was admitted to the second year of high school. Even years later, in his old age, Msgr. Colonna kept telling everyone about Justin’s alertness and promptness: “There has never been, in my experience, another similar case.”
IN THE SEMINARY
Soon the new seminarian attracted the esteem of the superiors, the admiration of the teachers, and the affection of the other seminarians and of all the seminary employees.
The Bishop used him as his assistant both in Pozzuoli and throughout the diocese.
The great esteem that he enjoyed helped him to overcome the two obstacles to his ascent to the priesthood – his frail health and his poverty. At a certain point, the superiors suspected that Justin might have tuberculosis, yet they did not want to dismiss such a promising young man. They gave him two rooms with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and did their best to hasten his recovery.
Poverty, already understandable in a Christian family that kept growing every year (the Russolillo’s had ten children) became alarming when Mr. Russolillo fell from a scaffold while supervising some repair work at the City Hall of Pianura. The accident left its scars for the rest of his life. The first symptoms of cataracts, which grieved him greatly in the last years of his life, appeared at the same time.
Justin’s mother regularly visited her “special son,” and his brother Vincenzino, whenever possible, accompanied her; a little donkey was their only means of transportation. The good mother kept asking the Lord for the strength needed to walk from Pianura to Pozzuoli, about eight miles of road that was very dusty and sunny during the summer, muddy and deserted during the winter. Once, on her way to the seminary, she fainted and remained a long time in the shadow of some chestnut trees, trying to recover her strength. On that occasion, Giuseppina was unable to hide the distress of her poverty from her son and hinted at the possibility of having to discontinue his studies.
Trusting in God, Justin prayed and cried. He cried so much that the superiors noticed and reported it to the bishop. In a conversation with Mrs. Russolillo, the bishop became aware of their financial situation. The firstborn in the family had interrupted his studies to help the father and the second born, Vincenzino, followed his example. Their aunt Enrichetta, who wholeheartedly helped her nephew, died at a very young age. The bishop was convinced of their real need and pleaded with his friend, the Baron Zampaglione, who this time willingly committed himself to pay the monthly tuition, which he mailed directly to the seminary.
Justin was always the best student in his class, and on every exam he scored very high. He was appointed “prefect” of the younger class both so that he might be sheltered from the roughness of the senior class and, much more, so that he could be entrusted with their formation.
Since the seminary school was not recognized by the state, Msgr. Zezza, who appreciated the ability of Justin, wanted him to pass the state exam for high school and college. In his first state, in 1905, a bitterly anti-clergy professor failed him in French; when Justin took the exam again in September of the same year, he passed with the highest possible score. The second state exam was a real triumph.
Mr. Russolillo did not have the money to pay the fee for the examination, and it was the last possible day. He was owed some money by a gentleman in Pozzuoli, so he went to the creditor to collect it, but the creditor refused to listen to him. Luigi Russolillo appealed again to Baron Zampaglione, who also this time was very happy to help.
The “Umberto Primo College” was renowned for its high standards. Justin went to the exams wearing his clerical attire, which was not a positive recommendation, since at that time the Masonic liberals had absolute control of the Department of Education in Italy. The “little priest” disarmed everyone by responding promptly, accurately and modestly to their questions. One of the professors said, “Young man, get rid of that garb; you may have a brilliant future ahead of you.” The president of the examining faculty was the first one to congratulate Justin. All the professors shook his hand admiring his intelligence and his virtue. For achieving an “A” average in all subjects, he was refunded the student fee paid for the exams. The bishop was very happy and proud of Justin’s outstanding success, which reflected well on the whole seminary, and praised and kissed him. Justin’s pre-theology year followed, then four years of theology. Since the bishop used to exempt all those who scored very high in dogmatic theology from the exams in moral theology, Justin never had to take them.
He completed his last two years of theology, 1911-1913, at the Regional Seminary of St.Pius X in Posillipo, Naples. The seminary was staffed by the Jesuit Fathers. He was one of the first six students there. Since the huge
seminary building was not totally completed, for a while, the seminarians lived in the house of the Jesuits; thus Justin had the first real experience of religious life. As the first prefect of that seminary, Justin harmonized beautifully firmness and sweetness. Later on, Fr. Justin used to say of this first period of seminary life in Posillipo: “It was like a family.” He completed his theological studies, receiving a gold medal award.
Fr. Antonio Stravino, S.J., and rector of the seminary, used to repeat to Fr. Saggiomo, S.D.V.: “Justin is a saint who should be canonized while alive. Holy mother Church should make an exception for him.
Justin was like a pearl who shone better when surrounded by restless children. The little ones gathered around him as butterflies gather around a light that shines in the midnight. He welcomed them with joviality. Using some construction beams, he made benches for his little friends; he would seat them on the improvised benches and teach them catechism. Sometimes the catechism questions took interesting turns. “Who created you?” Justin once asked a young boy.
“Mom and Daddy.”
“Why?” insisted Justin, smiling.
“To cut the grass for my little cow.” Justin’s heart melted and he was motivated to always to do more, seeing such gross ignorance in religious matters. Catechism in all its forms, from the most basic to the most elevated, was his favorite weapon in spiritual battles, for the achievement of spiritual good; the teaching of catechism became his constant passion.
Msgr. Cafiero, Rector of the Seminary of Naples, met Fr. Justin shortly after his ordination and inquired about his daily schedule. When he heard: “In the afternoon, teaching catechism,” Msgr. Cafiero incredulously interrupted him, asking, Every day?”
“Every day!” confirmed Fr. Justin.
“Finally I have found a priest who teaches catechism every day!” exclaimed Msgr.Cafiero.
Even while serving in the army, he kept up his mission of teaching catechism. He wrote to his aunt Giovannina: “Please, I beg you, transmit privately and as secretly as possible a renewed plea to all the teachers of Pianura, asking their cooperation for the teaching of catechism after school. This has seemed to me to be God’s will and as such I am addressing it to you.” (Letter dated August 26, 1918.)
After the foundation of the Vocationary, Fr. Justin directed his students to read every morning the Catechism of Perseverance written by Abbott Gaume.
The sisters on one particular occasion were worried and distressed that, because of the cold temperature, the dough was not rising and that they would not be able to bake the bread on time for dinner. They were apologizing to the founder for the anticipated delay and he answered them, “Call two hundred children into the room, teach them catechism, and the heat of their bodies, and much more of their hearts, which you will light up with the love of God, will make the dough rise.”
Later on the bishop of Pozzuoli asked him to write the diocesan by-laws for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Many member of the hierarchy, religious and lay people were greatly impressed and moved by his splendid presentation at the Catechetical Convention of the Archdiocese of Naples and by his lecture at the diocesan synod of Teggiano. Maybe someday a special book should be written on Fr. Justin as the apostle of catechism. He taught catechism with such dedication and ability that his audience kept growing every day. Everyone who attended his classes, would proselytize others, saying: “Do you want to come to Fr. Justin?” He used to alternate the teaching of catechism with songs; with a well-attuned voice he used to teach simple tunes, and then he would recognize games and competitions in which he himself would take part. With great and fascinating ability, he used to read passages from the Bible or from the lives of the saints. Often he organized outings. It was like a well-disciplined small army. He had up to two hundred children who would march in perfect order, singing some songs that he himself had written. One song went like this:
“Jubilant brethren – with angels and saints
With the heavens and the stars – let us sing to the Lord
Our most beautiful songs – that come from the heart
Glory and love to God our Redeemer
Who in His great heart – embraced us all
And in His sorrow – saved us all.”
His little friends gathered around him the way a flock of pigeons gather around those who feed them. The more children flocked around him, the happiest was Justin, and he kept giving of himself to them.
In the church he used to concentrate on his prayers and he used to pray for
many hours every day. Mr. Vincenzo Bavarella, who often saw him immersed in prayer and meditation, said: “A good day is pre-determined by its morning; here is one who wants to achieve the best success.”
Some elderly ladies of Pianura had scruples about having missed some Masses, because while in church they were contemplating Justin in prayer!
One day, when he was entertaining himself with the Lord longer than usual, a group of restless children entered the empty church and caught him suspended in mid-air. At such a sight, the children, astonished, started screaming out of surprise and fear; hearing them, Fr. Salvatore Di Fusco came out of the sacristy and saw his beloved godchild in ecstasy. He quietly led the children out of the church; then, full of fear and awe, he hid himself. Justin slowly descended; as soon as he came back to his senses, he sweetly calmed the impertinent children and strongly recommended that they not talk about what they had seen. The news, however, spread around quickly; the low credibility usually enjoyed by children and the modesty of the young ecstatic contributed to quieting down the curiosity of the people. Fr. Justin, growing in age and in virtue, hid with impregnable humility his talents and charismas, eluding the curiosity of those people who consider these external manifestations to be the essence of Christian holiness.
As time went by, the anticipation for the priestly ordination of Justin kept growing. On September 3, 1913, writing to his aunt Michelina from Sorrento, he expressed his thoughts: “You should ask all those good people who teach catechism to the children in their homes, and if possible, to all the grammar school teachers, to bring all those boys and girls to Holy Communion on the day of my first Mass…. this is the most beautiful gift that could be given to me, all the rest means nothing.”
On September 11, he started a spiritual retreat in preparation for his ordination. He had received the minor orders or “ministries” as they are called today, on September 22, 1906. He became sub-deacon on July 28, 1912, and finally was ordained a deacon on March 22, 1913, in the chapel of the seminary of Pozzuoli, the same chapel in which St. Francis De Gironimo, the Apostle of Naples, had been ordained.
On all these occasions he had always asked for the prayers of his relatives and friends; for his priestly ordination. A providential rain, the night before his ordination, was interpreted as a sign from heaven. A persistent drought for over three months had rendered the unpaved roads of Pianura impassable. The procession escorting the newly ordained would have been moving in a dense cloud of dust! Around midnight a heavy rain restored fields, beasts and people alike. The Russolillo’s were still awake then, making last-minutes arrangements for the following day. “Tomorrow will be a very happy day,” said the jubilant mother.
On September 20, 1913, in the Cathedral of Pozzuoli, through the laying of the hands by the Most Reverend Michael Zezza, Justin was ordained priest. That morning, before the ordination, Fr. Justin, with the permission and approval of his spiritual director, made a vow of charity through which he committed himself to the foundation of the religious family of the “Servants of the Saint”, which was later established as “Society of Divine Vocations.”
After the ordination, while relatives and friends were getting organized to escort the new priest to Pianura, Fr. Justin’s parents went to thank the bishop. The mother said, “…. we hope to thank you again in the near future also for the ordination of our son Michael.”
“Oh, no! Michael is not Justin!” remarked the bishop. Relatives and friends had already noticed and expressed similar feeling comparing the behavior of the two brothers at the parish liturgies. Michael was very intelligent, a bundle of nerves and fire. He later became a well known-surgeon and taught at the University of Naples.
Twenty-two floats, in addition to the horses and carriages, escorted the newly ordained Justin. The festive and jubilant procession attracted the attention and admiration of the people from Pozzuoli to Pianura. As the fireworks started in Pianura, the people crowded the roads and enthusiastically welcomed the new priest.
The procession was starting its entrance into the church when all of a sudden crowds of people were seen running toward Naples Street. “What happened? An accident? A fight?” asked Justin’s family. It would have been pitiful on such a joyful day. But there was nothing wrong. Running potable water had finally arrived in town and the fountain was pouring out its first water. It was a new sight and new experience for the people of Pianura, who up to that date had had to use only water drawn out of wells.
Was it a mere chance? It might have been; however, there is not better symbol of the spiritual water that for many years Fr. Justin would provide to thirsty-souls: the clear, pure and fertile water of the Word of God.
THE SEED OF HIS CHARISMA
Since 1910, Justin’s activities had begun to be eminently Vocationist. One day, years afterwards, Fr. Giacomo Vaccaro, S.D.V., asked Fr. Justin what to answer to people inquiring about the origins of the Vocationaries. Fr. Justin suggested: “Answer this way: It started from a priest who taught catechism
every day.” Then he added, “While teaching catechism you will encounter young men, and discovering vocations, you will start to cultivate them.” A similar answer was given by Fr. Justin to Don Arsenio, a Brazilian bishop who retired to live the hermitic life at the Camaldoli. “How did the idea come to you?” asked the bishop. “It has come to me through the teaching of catechism, continuous teaching of catechism,” replied Fr. Justin.
In 1910, Justin organized a group of the “fedelissimi” (the most faithful). He initiated them into the study of Latin and love for religious life. Fr. Gillet had an expression: “Our relatives are the friends that God has given to us; our friends are the relatives that we choose for ourselves.” Throughout the school year, with permission of the superiors, Justin received the visits of these acquired relatives. Many admiring seminarians would go with him to the visiting room, some out of mere curiosity, others to offer candies or cookies (one of them offered several copies of the Bible) and others to be edified. Some of the seminarians promised to consecrate themselves to the future foundation. They, however, never kept their commitment.
The group of “fedelissimi” did not miss any of Fr. Justin’s ordinations. For his first Mass they rented a horse and carriage exclusively for themselves and they were third in line in the procession, right after the immediate family. The priestly ordination of Fr. Justin should have opened for them the opportunity for community life, and indispensable prelude to religious life; by now these generous young boys knew everything about novitiate, vows, studies and activities. They were disappointed when Bishop Zezza assigned Justin to the seminary. In the month of October 1913, the pious pilgrimages of the “fedelissimi” started again from Pianura to Pozzuoli. The formalities were slightly different, but the purpose of the visits remained the same, to become priests in the future religious community.
To alleviate the hardship of the ten-mile walk, often they used the services of Mr. Basil Polverino’s donkey, a patient beast that on good days moved quickly from Pianura to Pozzuoli; on bad days it would stubbornly park itself on the ground, expecting to be lifted up by the boys. On account of its bad humor, this poor beast died more from the beatings it used to get than from old age; this donkey had some successors who were named after it: “Uncle Basil’s donkey.” To spare his children the hardship of going back and forth and consequently wasting time, Fr. Justin started some efforts to have them live close by with the Capuchin Fathers; the problem, however, was solved by Divine Providence: a few months later, due to his poor health, Fr. Justin was reassigned to his home town.
Caputo, Fr. Louis, SDV. A Servant of the Divine Vocations: Fr. Justin Russolillo. Copyright 1998. U.S.A. Pg. 2 – 22.