1) The Mother
2) Aunt Michelina
3) Sr. Maria Giovanna
4) Fr. Ciro
In trying to introduce Fr. Justin’s family, the first place naturally goes to his mother. Giuseppina never tried to hide her preference for Justin. The other children did not resent this; they knew he deserved it. Fr. Justin, on several occasions, admitted that he had taken after his mother. In his early childhood Justin did not spend much time in his home. He was constantly visiting his uncles and aunts, who were always happy to welcome him, and that is why when he was home he was particularly welcomed and spoiled. One day Giovannina, who was a little jealous of the attention her brother was receiving, said to her mother, “Why do you make all this fuss over this stranger?”
Her mother corrected her, saying, “No, daughter, Justin is my child like you are. He is your brother and you must love him.”
His very precarious health caused serious concerns to the good mother. She kept multiplying her efforts to do anything within her power to strengthen the health of her precious son. The following episode could be an indication of the fact that her preference for Justin was not only a natural instinct but the result of supernatural esteem. When Justin was about five years old, his mother feared losing him, and so entrusted him to St. Vincent Ferreri and made him wear a tiny religious habit in honor of the saint. Justin was miraculously healed; the mother kept the habit and used it as a guarantee of God’s blessings in the most difficult situations not only for herself but also for others. When things were too complicated and there was little hope, people would send for Giuseppina, saying, “Please come, you always bring good luck.” Many of the people never knew that the happy mother was hiding the little habit of her son under her own clothes and by touching it everything seemed to run smoothly.
His love for his mother clearly appeared when he had to go to war. At the front Justin felt homesick for his mother. He had made his last will and testament in case he should die and he had appointed his sister Giovannina as the executrix. From Giovannina he asked for a picture of his mother, writing, “I have never said ‘I want’, but this time I say it.” He instructed her to pay for the picture with the little money he had left and, as a more convincing argument, he enclosed his own picture. He was unrecognizable, especially since he was no wearing his eyeglasses; Giovannina fainted from emotion when she saw the pictures. In order to please her favorite son, the mother overcame her natural reluctance and for the first time in her life had her picture taken.
For the occasion of Fr. Justin’s ordination, his brothers remodeled his apartment completely. His mother and sister were eager for the honor of taking care of his room. Inevitably, every morning they would find in a corner one of two mattresses. His mother’s appeals were unable to convince him to sleep on both mattresses. Finally, she got her way when, getting smarter, she made one mattress out of the two. He used to warn his brothers and sisters, “We shouldn’t cause any disappointment to mother; she has so many worries already.” Whenever, in her absence, something broke, he would make sure to have it fixed before she came back.
Giuseppina followed with motherly care the beginning and the growth of Fr. Justin’s religious family; she would have been very happy to offer all her children to the Lord. She used to call Fr. Justin’s boys “my children” and she treated them like her own children.
After very trip Fr. Justin would visit his mother. “Should we go to visit mother?” he would ask the local superior or the priest who was accompanying him; he was doing so in order to be faithful to the ascetic practice of depending always on someone else’s direction.
After the death of his father, he gave his mother a piece of cloth to make her mourning clothes. Every Sunday he sent someone to pick her up by car and take care her for Mass to the Vocationary where she could reach the chapel without having to climb any steps.
The Lord called her to her heavenly home on February 10, 1951. The saintly woman, from her bed of agony, kept looking at her son, who remained in the corner of the room. At a certain point, as if he were afraid of distracting her from the attention owed to God and to eternity, he changed his place; his mother’s eyes followed him and then he cried and walked out. His older brother, who was rough but very affectionate, knowing that Fr. Justin used to eat his meal at11:00 a.m., asked him to go home. Obedient as ever, he did go home, but before leaving, he announced, “Mother will go to heaven at noon.” As a matter of fact, as the bell was ringing for the noon Angelus his mother expired. They ran to inform him; he opened the door, and before they could talk, he himself murmured these words: “My mother has passed away.” He withdrew to his room to pray and cry.
The previous year, on January 11, 1950, he had been able to receive the visits of confreres and friends who were expressing their sympathy for the death of his father; now he could not receive any visitors. On June 6, 1955, writing to a confrere who had lost his mother, he expressed himself thus: “…expert of such a pain wholeheartedly I unite myself to your sorrow and to your prayers. We are sure that our mothers will continue from heaven their most loving care and they will assist us in loving more our common mother Mary Most Holy. Courage in the Lord.”
On his father’s side, Fr. Justin had six uncles and aunts. Michelina was like the Cinderella of the house and chose not to get married. We could summarize the influence of his father’s family in this way: the grandmother educated him to holiness, Giovannina initiated him to the studies and aunt Michelina assisted him in the apostolate.
Michelina received the ribbon of the Pious Union as an “Effective” member and honored it with her very devout life. She became a happy intermediary and the faithful messenger of her nephew. Her house became a cenacle of meetings, conferences and lectures. Even after her death her house was used as a training center for young girls, a meeting place and a nursery school.
Fr. Justin used her services to ascertain the vocation of the first disciples without embarrassing them. On one occasion Fr. Justin had causally asked them, “Do you want to become priests?”
“No” they answered in chorus. Fr. Justin was greatly disappointed and asked his aunt to find out the reasons for their “no.” It had been a misunderstanding; Salvatore Polverino cleared it for the group, saying, “If you follow Fr. Justin, someday you will wear the stole.”
At the time of their first attempt at community life in 1914, she joyfully used all her provisions for the Vocationary where she was a cook, counselor and, at times, defender. Shortly after Fr. Justin had been appointed pastor, on October 18,1920, the community life officially started again in the parish house. Aunt Michelina became the housekeeper. She enlisted the help of the boys with a weekly assistant and a daily helper. The elder boys were fulfilling the function of corporals. The younger ones were the daily helpers. The corporals assisted in the preparation of the meals, while the daily helpers served at the table. The work was often alleviated by good benefactors who would send in pre-cooked meals. From time to time some of the helpers would help themselves, or make little transgressions for which she would patiently correct them and then she would murmur, “Poor me, among so many bosses and under-bosses. How could I, a poor old lady, count for anything?”
Every morning, before starting her service, she would go to Mass and receive Holy Communion. She used to spend many hours in prayer. Often she knelt up to three hours meditating on the agony of our Savior.
She shortened her life for the Vocationary, artfully hiding her sufferings. Only when Michelina was on her deathbed did Fr. Justin’s mother discover a physical condition that had afflicted her for many years. She had suffered in silence, offering her pains for vocations and for universal sanctification.
When Fr. Justin visited her for the last time, she lamented, “I am tired. I feel the pangs of death.”
“Courage,” answered Fr. Justin, “a little more and then….paradise.”
At about noon she said to all those who were around her, “I would like to thank all of you for the charity that you have had toward me and now I want to say good-bye to all of you before leaving for eternity,” She died at the first toll of the noon Angelus. Fr. Justin and the aspirants of the Vocationary cried visibly when she died. She had been like a second mother to Fr. Justin and all the aspirants.
SR. MARIA GIOVANNA RUSSOLILLO
Fr. Justin had five brothers and four sisters. Giuseppina, the second sister, seemed to be more inclined toward religious life. Fr. Justin seemed to cultivate for a while the secret desire of enlisting her in his project of founding the religious community of sisters, but God had chosen Giovanna for that task.
Giovanna took care of decorating his apartment before the ordination; Fr. Justin appreciated her good taste and expressed his gratitude to his sister; his room remained as she had set it, with the exception of the mirror, which Fr. Justin wanted it to be removed from his room. There was an implied understanding between the two that he would not enter his room while she was cleaning it and that she would not enter at any other any other time. Only once, when he noticed the meticulous attention of his sister in making his bed and smoothing the sheets and covers, he intervened and ruffled up the bed, saying, “Hey, how much time you waste!”
Giovanna used to help her mother in taking care of the house and also assisted her brother in the Pious Union. Religious life, however, did not enter her mind at all. Fr. Justin, however, was preparing her for the future mission of the co-founder of the Vocationist Sisters. Every morning, for example, Fr. Justin used to get up very early and he would tap at her door to invite her to meditation. If she was not present at his conferences, he would wait for her; at times, he would ask his father if Giovanna was coming to his lectures. If his father would say that she was busy helping her mother, he would plead, “Let her come at least for fifteen minutes.” Mr. Russsolillo, who always granted his son’s wishes, would let her free.
The brothers were not as cooperative as the father. Since the older sister Maria had passed away and Josephine had gone to the United States, Giovanna became indispensable in the house and they kept discouraging her from following Fr. Justin. Michael, for example, once said to Giovanna, “Don’t go with Justin. He is capable of boiling a big pot of potatoes and feeding you with them six days per week.”
When late at night they would hear some specific noises in his room, they would invite her to listen by the door, saying, “Do you hear how he scourges himself? You will have your share, too.”
In 1922, she felt clearly her religious calling, generous and docile, humble and patient. At age twenty-seven, she went back to school to finish her basic education and to pursue her studies in early childhood education.
God’s Providence granted a special gift to the Congregation of the Vocationist Sisters by placing at the side of the founder as future Mother General Fr. Justin’s own sister; thus he was able with greater freedom and frequency to deal with the sisters, to guide and correct them. On October 3, 1930, with thirteen other sisters, Giovanna pronounced her religious vows. Soon after the community received diocesan approval, Giovanna was appointed Superior General by the Bishop of Pozzuoli, and she was reelected Superior General by the sisters after the apostolic visitation which had lasted from August 1945 to November 1946. She remained in that office until her death on May 5, 1969. When Fr. Justin died, the Vocationist Sisters had over fifty houses in Italy, France and Brazil, with over five hundred sisters.
FR. CIRO RUSSOLILLO
Fr. Ciro was the opposite of his brother. He was a husky, nontalkative, hard worker and very much talented in mechanics. Francesco, the oldest brother, saw Ciro as an ideal engineer, while Justin saw him as the ideal missionary; while Francesco was putting pressure on him on account of his authority in the family as firstborn, Fr. Justin was praying silently. For a while Ciro tried to appease both of them by combining his studies with a trade as a plumber.
One day, Fr. Justin invited Ciro to repair the metal doors of the church. At 1:00 p.m. he ate with the aspirants of the Vocationary and afterward stayed with them to listen to the spiritual reading done by his brother. Ciro was fascinated. The following day he continued his work and continued also his experience of religious life. A thought came to his mind; it disturbed him and then conquered him – he wanted to remain forever. He confided his thought to his brother. To make sure that his judgment wouldn’t be influenced by his family ties, Fr. Justin referred Ciro to his spiritual director, Fr. De Francesco, S. J., for the testing of his vocation. In his letter of request to Fr. De Francesco, Fr. Justin purposely neglected to identify the young man at length. The vocation exam lasted three hours and its conclusion the good priest assured the young man that he was really being called by God and encouraged him to pursue his vocation. At the end, Fr. De Francesco asked him his name. When Ciro identified himself, the priest asked if he were related to Fr. Justin. “I am his brother,” Ciro said.
“You could have told me from the beginning. He himself could have written it to me,” remarked the examiner.
Ciro continued, “My brother has preferred not to influence your judgment.”
On the evening of January 2, 1921, Fr. Justin read the written reply and evaluation of Fr. De Francesco, and without showing excessive enthusiasm; he told Ciro that he needed his father’s consent. Ciro went home and patiently waited to remain alone with his father; his sistOrazio was already studying for the priesthood but he later left the seminary to become a lawyer. If Ciro did leave home, his father would remain without help in his construction business.
After a moment of reflection, Mr. Russolillo said, “Go where God calls you!”
Carmela promptly intervened, saying, “Dad, don’t pay any attention to him; Ciro doesn’t like to work; he is only trying to avoid work.”
The following morning Ciro got up a half hour before anyone else, as was his custom. He got out the family horse and harnessed it to the wagon. When his father and brothers were ready to leave, he gave then the reins and the whip, wishing them a good trip as they started off toward Naples; everything was as usual but then, instead of following them on foot as he usually did, he went to the Vocationary.
Fr. Justin submitted Ciro to a second vocation exam with Fr. Arsenio, a Camaldoleses monk, and to a third one by Msgr. Causa. Justin was very happy and felt reassured by their positive evaluation and immediately initiated Ciro into the study of Latin. On the evening of January 3, coming back from Naples, the older brothers inquired as to why Ciro had not joined them; when they heard about his decision to become a priest, they threatened to remove him from the Vocationary, by force if necessary. Their father intervened, saying, “Leave him alone. I gave him permission.”
Ciro brought up to his new life the fervor of a neophyte. Rigorous fasting and excessive penances weakened his good health; he wore the habit of an old beggar and he fixed up a dark room for himself by the entrance to the rectory. The brothers blamed Justin for Ciro’s behavior and labeled him an eccentric.
In 1923, he was drafted and had to serve in the army through 1924; for him that was like walking on a bed of hot coals. He served in Libya and there, for the first time, he came in touch with non-Christians; his stay in Libya strengthened his priestly ideal and developed in him the consciousness of his missionary vocation. He used to send every last penny to Fr. Justin for vocations (many other Vocationists did the same during their military service). At the end of his military service he continued his studies with renewed enthusiasm.
Once ordained a priest, Ciro took on the mission of rebuilding old and decayed monasteries; Mercato Cilento is his most outstanding success. The abandoned and decayed Carmelite monastery, after many years of hard work and heroic efforts, became once again center of study, prayer and apostolate. Pianura, Altavilla, Anagni, Marsiconuovo, Monte Tabuno, and Montesardo have all seen this priest working as mason, carpenter and mechanic at the same time. It was a normal everyday thing to see this priest drawing designs, climbing scaffolds, and handling easily the mason’s spatula and level, and at other times stretching himself under trucks and cars, repairing mechanical problems.
In 1953, he finally left Italy to go as a missionary to Brazil. The Bishop of Amargosa entrusted to him two large parishes; to visit them, he needed three months travel on horseback. In 1954, he came to the United States, trying to study the feasibility of establishing a religious house. After Fr. Justin’s death, he returned to Italy to continue his favorite mission of rebuilding abandoned or decayed monasteries and churches.
Caputo, Fr. Louis, SDV. A Servant of the Divine Vocations: Fr. Justin Russolillo. Copyright 1998. U.S.A. Pg. 40 – 52.