1) Parish Apostolate
2) The Vocationary
3) The Superiorship of the Blessed Mother
4) The Divine Providence
5) Action and Contemplation
The parish apostolate of Fr. Justin centered on three main activities: the banquet of the Word of God, the banquet of the Eucharist and the family apostolate.
In the ministry of the Word of God he was untiring. For years and years the people of Pianura had the opportunity of enjoying his preaching every morning and every evening after the morning Mass – which he always celebrated at 4:30 a.m. – and after the evening devotions. While preaching he would sit on a chair on the Gospel side of the altar and would comment on the divine words of the Old and New Testaments. During his talks to the congregation, which consisted of Vocationist aspirants, sisters and lay people, a lighted candle was kept on the altar to symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit.
He was familiar with the classic and modern schools of spirituality; he used to read and assimilate spiritual books and magazines both in Italian and in French, yet his presentations were so original that those who were listening to him thought he was reading from books invisible to poor mortal beings. He was translating into simple words God’s message of eternal love. He was anti-conformist. His exhortations were made alive not by the rising and lowering of his voice, nor by gestures, nor by the art or the eloquence, but by the Spirit. He disliked thunderous preaching. He used to instruct the Vocationist priests not to accept invitations to preach any panegyric unless it was preceded by at least three days of spiritual preparation. On one occasion, he was really pressured to conclude with the traditional invocations and blessings; he ended the sermon by simply saying, “I bless all that God blesses, and I condemn all that God condemns.”
One evening two Jesuit priests, by chance, stopped in at the church while Fr. Justin was preaching. They listened attentively and at the end they asked, “Is anyone writing this down? You shouldn’t let these treasures go unrecorded.” Several Vocationist students and sisters tried to take notes while he was preaching. Fr. Ugo Fraraccio, S.D.V., for several years took accurate notes of Fr. Justin’s sermons. Fr. Justin himself reviewed many notebooks of Fr. Fraraccio and published them in Spiritus Domini, the ascetical monthly magazine of the Vocationist Fathers. Various volumes of Fr. Justin’s talks have been published, thanks to Fr. Fraraccio’s notes.
Reading his sermons today we can perceive at least the fragments of that unequalled wealth of knowledge and spirituality; Fr. Justin comes out as a star that from a distance of many light years announces its approach to our horizon.
The fact that he was preaching the Word of God so thoroughly and continually did not stop him from inviting other preachers, especially in preparation for Easter. In the first year of his pastorship he invited a Spaniard, Fr. Panadez of the Claretians. On the first day of the priest’s visit the participation of the people were very poor. The next day, at the hour sermon, the pastor, holding a big cross in his hands and escorted by some altar boys with candles and bells, made the rounds of the town; in front of recreation centers and wherever people gathered, he would pause and with a firm and vibrant voice exhort them, “Brothers, come to the sermon! Come. It is the hour of God’s mercy! Take advantage of God’s grace.”
From his childhood to his death, Fr. Justin had the Eucharist as the magnetic center of his life. He was the apostle of daily Communion. Undoubtedly, for thirty or forty years Pianura was the town with the highest percentage of people receiving Holy Communion daily.
Every morning at 4:00 a.m., the first Vocationist Sisters used to make the rounds of the town, knocking at the various doors to gather the children and lead them to church; sometimes they also helped these children by washing them and combing their hair. As they arrived at the parish church they would occupy the whole center aisle first and then the side aisles, forming a bright cross; every child was holding a lighted candle. Amid the signing of Eucharist songs and the rosary like recital of short prayers, the pastor was thrilled to give Jesus to them.
The sisters, naturally, made the greatest sacrifice, especially during winter, walking through those dark streets traveled only by stray dogs; they would be frightened now and then.
As usual happens, when the novelty wore off, some families started to grumble: “Is it possible that we cannot sleep in peace… my child has a cold… this is a real pain now…this is disturbing the peace…” Periods of slack were followed by periods of great participation. The pastor was always vigilant in reacting the enthusiasm of the sisters and of the families as well. It looked like the end of the Mass would signal a waking-up time for the rest of the town because the roads were alive with the sounds of children.
The workers would receive Holy Communion before reporting for their jobs and there were times when a thousand people received Communion in a single morning.
Every morning a priest would make the rounds of the town bringing Holy Communion to the sick and shut-ins. On the first Friday of the month, Holy Communion was brought to the sick in the most solemn way: a procession of hundreds of people singing and praying devoutly.
The three sisters who were assigned to making the hosts could not make enough to satisfy the need, so they had to ask for help and buy some in Naples. From accurate accounting it appeared clear that Sunday collection was not sufficient to cover the cost of buying the hosts. Fr. Justin had to buy several large ciboria that could hardly fit into the tabernacle. The more ciboria he would empty the brighter was his face.
Faithful to his mission of searching and cultivating vocations to the priesthood and religious life, from the very beginning Fr. Justin understood that the vocation apostolate had to begin with the family apostolate. Vocations are more easily discovered and followed in a family united by the love of God. One of his first concerns as pastor was that of revalidating several invalid or non-religious marriages. In the aftermath of World War I there were several cases in which poor widows would endanger the salvation of their souls by simply living with another man so as not to lose their pension.
Several evenings, escorted by two young men who were acting as witnesses, Fr. Justin would go to the houses of such couples and would bless their union with the “marriage of conscience.” Often, to avoid any shadow of mortification or embarrassment for the family, he would bring a bottle to toast the newly acquired grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony, and where there were signs of real poverty he used to discreetly give some financial help.
On the night of July 25 and 26, 1930, Pianura was greatly shaken by the rumbling of an earthquake that caused some damage to the parish buildings and shook up all the people in town. Some people asked Fr. Justin if he was afraid during the tremor. Smiling, he answered: “Afraid of what? When I realized that my bed was dancing I prayed: “Lord, grant that my parishioners will take advantage of this lesson.” He was referring in a special way to a sick man who was living in concubinage and who died unrepentant soon after. This was, perhaps, the greatest pain of his priestly life.
One day, Fr. Antonio Chiaro, pastor of Soccavo, asked Fr. Justin, “What do you do in Pianura?”
“I make priests… and what do you do?”
“I am a pastor,” answered Fr. Chiaro. “Well,” continued Fr. Justin, “It is the duty of the pastor to make sure that the young men who show signs and indications of religious vocation should be preserved from the influences of the world.” Fr. Justin was referring to Article 1353 of Canon Law; with great originality he developed this theme at the Eucharistic Congress of Anagni in 1943. The Bishop of Anagni and all the participants in the Congress were so enthused about it, that they had it printed and distributed to everyone free of any charge by the organizers of the Eucharistic Congress.
The lament of St. Pius X had fallen on the soul of Justin as a young seminarian, as a seed falls on fertile soil. Since the seminaries were empty and the monasteries deserted, Fr. Justin created the vocationaries, real nurseries of vocations where bishops and religious orders would be able to get the selected tender plants and transplant them into their seminaries and novitiates.
In preparation for Easter, in 1926 Bishop Petrone addressed a pastoral letter to the faithful of the Diocese of Pozzuoli. In it the bishop lamented the scarcity of priestly and religious vocations: “The problem is very serious, it affects all Catholics…. History teaches us that the absence of priests is the worst punishment that God may inflict on a certain area or people… Let us help religious and priestly vocations in every possible way!”
“It is appropriate here to mention the very beautiful activity created by the exemplary zeal of our Pastor of Pianura. The so-called ‘vocationary’ which houses no less than fifty young men, who with loving care are prepared and directed to the seminary or to religious orders. Oh! How I wish that we had several such holy centers of Christian education and formation!”
Fr. Justin became precursor of the pre-seminary and apostolic schools. The students in the vocationary were familiarized with the holy founders of various religious orders; they were acquainted with their pictures and biographies. Fr. Justin used to explain to them the spirit and the work of the various holy founders. He used to solemnize their feast days and facilitate contact with the various religious orders. Naturally, many young men appreciated the work of Fr. Justin and asked the honor of becoming his cooperators, and consequently, Vocationist Fathers.
Fr. Francesco Sepe was the first priest to join Fr. Justin. Other priests from Pianura and neighboring towns assisted him by volunteering their services as teachers and spiritual directors in the vocationary.
Applications for admission to the vocationary became more numerous every day. The parish hours, notwithstanding the multiple adjustments and enlargements, were inadequate to accommodate all the students. The terrace was transformed first into a wooden dormitory and later into small rooms, the former stable became the kitchen, and the small garden became the dining room. Even the attic was transformed into a dormitory.
Still it was necessary to find better accommodations. The sisters, as true Vocationists, several times gave up their house to accommodate the new recruits. Fr. Justin would timidly hint to the sisters that he had so many applications from young boys who could become priests someday, and the
sisters would get the message, and without being asked would make the sacrifice of finding new accommodations for themselves. This happened once, twice, three times… things couldn’t continue that way! What was needed was a huge vocationary built for that purpose. Not even the sanctuary of the parish church was large enough to accommodate all the aspirants of the Vocationary. They would crowd around the altar of God as living garland. Mr. Di Fusco, a very devout man who was the faithful administrator of the parish goods and who was used to the blessedness of solitude, joyfully suffered the discomfort of so many boys in prayer. When he died he left everything he owned to the Society of Divine Vocations.
Sr. Clare Loffredo contributed to the solution of the problem by purchasing a large piece of land and donating it to the founder for the construction of the vocationary, which became the Mother House of the Vocationist Fathers.
The site preparation was done in haste, and in placing the first stone the founder had it covered by the rosary beads of all those who were present; he wanted the rosary as the foundation of the new building. The student became construction workers under the guidance of the builders. Many men volunteered a half day’s work every Sunday and holiday.
Every Sunday large groups of young ladies, under the guidance of the sisters, would happily transport the construction material to where it was needed. Their reward was a piece of candy, a medal or a holy card. Even when these rewards were not available, they would faithfully return the following Sunday.
Every day, generous, pious ladies helped the sisters wash the student’s clothes. It can be said that every man and woman of Pianura contributed somehow to the construction of the vocationary, which very appropriately was called “Deus Charitas” (God is Love).
At Fr. Justin’s death, the vocationary was standing tall and solemn as Pianura’s largest and most visible building. It was in this vocationary that Fr. Justin prayed, taught, preached, suffered and governed the Society of Divine Vocations. It is in this vocationary that his mortal remains wait the day of his glorification and future resurrection.
THE SUPERIORSHIP OF THE BLESSED MOTHER
The first five Vocationist Sisters gathered in community life in three rooms rented in the Caleo Building on the evening of October 1, 1921. The night before, the founder had invited them to parish house, and after an inspiring exhortation assigned different tasks to each and every one of them. He gave them an alarm clock and a bell. He blessed them and finally dismissed them with his usual challenge: “Become saints.” The first five Vocationist Sisters moved into an empty house. The very first night there was a power shortage and they didn’t even have a match or a candle, and so the first mortification was that of having to beg.
The first Sisters considered the Blessed Mother their Superior and they used to place her statue at the head of the table. Four of the five sisters were from Pianura. They together asked Fr. Justin to appoint, as their superior, the one who was from another town. The one designated by the sisters to be their superior, however, was and remained alien to the mentality that the founder had patiently instilled in the first sisters. She regarded the austerities of their life as excessive and she considered unacceptable the goal of the order. She used to say, “If you continue to get up at 4:00 a. m. without eating meat and without drinking any wine, you shall die of tuberculosis…. And isn’t it a utopia – the idea of working for vocations when the modest income from our work is not even sufficient to provide for our most elementary necessities?”
The other sisters would answer, “If the Lord has so inspired our founder, it signifies that we can do it. There is no greater honor than to die of tuberculosis for Jesus.”
She would insist: “Let us withdraw before the community is disbanded.”
And others would retort: “Better that we die with the Congregation.”
The day when Fr. Justin made it clear to the sisters his desire that “every sister should support a priestly vocation,” the poor sister superior couldn’t take it any longer and left taking another sister with her. The distress of the remaining sisters was overwhelming. They cried both for the scandal that this would cause in town, as well as for the gossip that this might generate. Their agony was made more acute by the fact that they did not know what Fr. Justin’s reaction would be. Humiliated and confused, they asked the mediation of aunt Michelina. Fr. Justin commented: “The weaker is the man, the stronger is God’s hand,” and immediately he began to comfort his spiritual daughters. “Often the Lord does what we do not understand or dare to… similar happenings have occurred in every religious foundation…” He talked at length on this same line of thought. Up to that day, Fr. Justin had never accepted any drink or food in the sister’s residence, but on that occasion, to ease the tension, he interrupted his talk, saying, “….give me a cup of coffee: I’ve been talking so long…” The sisters smiled and were reassured by the gesture. It was the calm after the storm.
There remained, however, the difficulty of electing a superior, because the first sisters had grown up together more as blood sister than friends, and none of them seemed to possess outstanding or exceptional talents. The number of sisters had grown at that point to twelve, and Fr. Justin insisted that there should be a regular election. Thus, Sister Clara Loffredo was elected superior. Fr. Justin, in accepting the result of the election, stressed the fact that the Blessed Mother should always be considered as the real superior of the Vocationist Community.
On May 30, 1926, Fr. Justin wrote the following to his spiritual director: “The eleventh of May, without any preparation on my part, without any association of ideas that might have led me to it, sweetly, with intimate, unshakable certainty, it was infused into me (allow me this terminology) the firm belief that the Blessed Trinity was assigning the Blessed Virgin, in a very special way, really unique, as our immediate Superior, present and active in our midst, in all our missions, in all our present and future houses, the only and the most sufficient Superior.”
Since that date, every year on the eleventh of May, the Vocationist Fathers and Sisters celebrate the Superiorship of Mary in all their communities; in every house they have a special room, the Room of the Blessed Mother, as a small oratory where they can visit and entertain themselves in conversation with the celestial superior.
As a sign of their belonging to Mary, at the time of the first profession they all add to their names the name of Mary; they used to carry visibly around their neck the rosary of the Virgin Mary with the Miraculous Medal.
To the many beautiful titles of the Blessed Mother, Fr. Justin added this one, “Our Lady of the Divine Vocations.” As all graces come through the Blessed Mother, so all vocations come through Mary, she will assist those who are called in the process of ascertaining and following their vocation. The Bishop of Pozzuoli granted fifty days of indulgence to those who pray with devotion: “Our Lady of the Divine Vocations, pray for us.”
Another title under which Fr. Justin used to inculcate an effective devotion to Mary, while reminding us of the real mission of Mary in our lives: “Our Lady of the perpetual Visitation.” Mary is constantly on the go, visiting her children, bringing Jesus to them.
The special devotion of the Vocationist Fathers and Sisters to the Blessed Mother and her Superiorship of their communities is for them a source of encouragement and pledge of God’s blessing in all their endeavors.
It is often said that in God’s works financial problem are the least important. It may be so, but they are often the most painful.
The first aspirants managed to be self-supporting. They used as their dormitory the large rooms above the vestibule of the church. They were acting as security guards protecting the machinery and the works of the Pious Union; thus, they had the double advantage of justifying the community life which had not been authorized as yet, and at same time receiving a modest compensation. Fr. Justin and other diocesan priests used to teach them in the evening. They would also clean the church and serve as altar boys. In that way they were able to at least buy their own books.
The young ladies of the Pious Union, which later became the Vocationist Sisters, gave their savings and began asking for alms in order to provide for the growing needs of the vocationary and its aspirants. They would go throughout the roads of Pianura dragging the donations they had collected – bundles of wood, containers of vegetables, huge baskets of fruits – without embarrassment, sometimes threatened and often ridiculed.
Mr. Giuseppe Marrone, the father of Sister Rachele, blessing his daughter as she joined the community and anticipating the difficulties they would have to face, told her.
“Don’t ever be discouraged. If the Lord will bless the institution, persevere…otherwise our doors are always open.” Her older brother, however, tried to discourage her to the point of threatening to kill her and labeling her a gypsy, a cheap laborer and a beggar.
It may be impossible for us to measure the sacrifice of these heroic young ladies who, against hope, risked everything for an institution that didn’t have the charism of indefectibility. In the event of failure, they would have fallen with the institution into the abyss of ridicule on the part of the townsfolk.
In her enthusiasm for Fr. Justin’s work, Immacolatina Marrone raffled off her only piece of jewelry – a silver chain, which was in vogue at the time, and she personally handed to Fr. Justin the income of nine lire in an envelope. In thanksgiving she received from Fr. Justin a rusty thimble and a small package of needles. He asked her, “Do you know what this means?” You must always work for vocations without ever getting tired.”
Maria Melissari, a noble character and fervent soul, directed an embroider and tailoring shop, all for the vocations. Later on, she gave up her own house for the growing number of aspirants and she went to live with her sister. Later on she became a Vocationist Sister.
Another group of young ladies established a Sunday Fine Arts Center and Gift Shop. Every penny was given to Fr. Justin for vocations. God’s providence was always present in the new institution. Critical times abounded, but they were always overcome by the industry of the sisters who trusted in the intervention of Divine Providence.
There are many examples of God’s tangible hand at work. On one occasion, the sister in charge of the kitchen had nothing to cook, yet she knew that after school, at 1:00 p.m., the boys would want to eat. At noon she placed the pot on the fire and went out – in God’s name. She walked through Duca D’Aosta Street hoping that some generous person would offer some food, but she did not receive any assistance. On her way back, as she passed by the house of Fortunato Cioce, she noticed that he was at the table with his children. She hesitated for a moment, and after greeting them, she made him aware of the pressing need of the community; immediately he gave her everything needed for the meal.
Almost every day, Fr. Justin used to receive small offerings through the mail, which he passed on to the sisters in the kitchen. One day, he received only ten lire and he remembered that he had promised them to a parishioner for a charity case. Giving the ten lire to the sisters, he said, “I received only ten lire; do the shopping and… bring them back!” In the kitchen the sisters all smiled. One of them went to the usual grocery store to buy the necessary food to prepare the meal.
The owner of the store, seeing the sister, said, “I am really glad to see you, sister. I have to give you these packages – I did not have time to deliver them. I would really appreciate it if you could take them.” There was a full meal… and the ten lire were returned to Fr. Justin!
Another time, the sister had an opportunity to purchase coupons to obtain some dough at a nominal cost. On the last day that the coupons were available, the sisters had no money whatsoever, and so Sr. Concetta called on Fr. Justin personally to interest him in the case. “It would be a sin to lose them,” she said.
“You must not lose them,” he answered.
“But they must be paid in cash.”
“And what did you want? Did you expect to get the dough without paying for it? Pay… and bring the change back to me.”
The poor sister was totally discouraged and once left alone she began to cry. One of the boys from the vocationary saw her crying and, feeling sorry for her, piously informed Fr. Justin, “Tell sister not to be a crybaby. Tell her that tomorrow morning she should go to see Miss Anna Mele and inform her that the Blessed Mother has granted her request.” The good sister went as an ambassador of joy to the pious young lady, who joyfully and gratefully gave her 20,000 lire, with which she paid for the dough and brought 170 lire back to Fr. Justin. Accepting the change that the sister had given him, Fr. Justin admonished her: “The Lord has never abandoned us. Learn to have more faith.”
Sr. Rosa Vassallo, who had spent all her life working in the kitchen, affirmed that they learned to expect a miracle of God’s Providence everyday. All the sisters who worked in the Vocationary had learned how to trust in Divine Providence.
In a letter to the sisters who were working in the kitchen of the Mother House in 1935, Fr. Justin wrote, “I have just learned that the whole community was left without breakfast this morning. This must not happen again. When there is no money, that does not mean that God is condemning us to fasting. It is an indication that the Lord wants to provide for us in other ways; the way of charity through the mediation of our sisters. Please, do not condemn the community to fasting…it is now fourteen years that we have been living in this way and the Lord has always helped us through the good will of our sisters. Strength your faith and increase your bravery through prayer. I do not expect that you keep going from door to door. Appeal to one provider today and to another tomorrow in the name of the pastor, and much more, in the name of God who, in the end, will always pay all debts.”
He often reiterated the same thought both in words and in writing. In a letter of October 31, 1939, he wrote: “As prescribed by the Constitutions, put yourselves in the place of St. Joseph and of the Blessed Mother to foster the growth of the Child Jesus in the chosen ones of the Divine Vocations…So, I beg you to carry yourselves this daily cross without trying from time to time to place it on the shoulder of the priests, who are already carrying the cross of teaching, the discipline of the house, and other crosses which are not readily visible. May Jesus increase His divine love in us.”
Sr. Concetta, thinking that an electric dough mixer would be beneficial and financially advantageous, wanted to buy one. Fr. Justin admonished her, “Buy it without making any debts; look, I cannot give you any money… and please don’t talk about it to anyone.” The sister informed the community benefactors and with help of their generosity she was able to purchase the machinery. When the director of the vocationary saw the truck delivering the huge box he asked, “What is that? A piece of furniture?” The mixer devoured 250 pounds of dough every night and the sisters happily shaped the dough, baked the bread and distributed it.
ACTION AND CONTEMPLATION
“Contemplation for action and action for contemplation,” This was Fr. Justin’s rule of life; he practiced it and taught it to his followers. No one could look at him without perceiving in him a man immersed in contemplation. Many a priest who saw or heard him remember the aura of spirituality and contemplation emanating from that frail, almost transparent figure wrapped in a large mantle, which seemed to hide his body.
The Mother House, the Vocationary Deus Charitas (God is Love), was the center of his spiritual and apostolic life. His bedroom was located on the third floor, a very simple, small room that was both bedroom and study. His bed was a folding cot; he used to fold it every morning so that it looked like a piece of furniture. Close to his room was located the “room of the Crucifix” in which he used to meet on a rotating basis with the various groups of the community for recreation, spiritual reading and often to distribute candies or other goodies. Nearby were the library, the “room of the Blessed Mother,” and the chapel. The physical surroundings fostered a sense of silence and sacredness.
He used to get up at 4:00 a.m. every morning; he divided his day between ministry and prayer. He never let a day go by without two hours of meditation, one hour of predication, one hour of religious study and one hour of spiritual reading. He wanted the Vocationist Fathers and Sisters to follow this pattern in their spiritual life.
His ministry consisted mostly in preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. He never tired of giving lectures and retreats to priests and sisters. Spiritual direction was a very important activity; several bishops, priests, brothers, sisters, politicians and ordinary lay people sought him as their spiritual guide. He believed in universal sanctification, and spiritual direction was the most effective way of leading people up the ladder of Christian perfection.
He wrote that every Vocationist should have three items: a watch to sanctify time, a suitcase to remind us that we are always ready to move at the command of the superiors, and a pen to write down divine inspirations. Among the most precious treasures Fr. Justin left to us are his “agendas” or spiritual diaries. Every day, often several times a day, he wrote in his diary inspirations or comments. He wrote several books of spirituality, titled Ascension, Spiritus Orationis, the Offertories, the Devotionals, the Book of Religious principles, The book of Religious Practices, The Piety of the Seminary, Heaven of Heavens, and Constitutions. For many years he was the director and almost only writer of the periodical of the congregation, Spiritus Domini. Precious volumes may come out when and if all his letters can be gathered together.
Most of Fr. Justin’s writings are in the form of prayers; prayers that contain his theology and philosophy of life. They are a true dialogue that express his total and constant immersion in the mystery of the Trinity in his ascensional journey toward the divine union. His writings in numbered paragraphs, and the alternating choral reading of his prayers, help us to better experience conversation with the Lord. His writings, his prayers, cannot just be read, they need to be studied and meditated on; at times they may seem repetitious, but they all contain a beautiful, musical rhythm, poetic expression, vivid imagery and, most of all, vehemence of feeling. A profound analysis of his writings can give us the best picture of the depth, height, universality and seraphicity of the Servant of God.
The Eucharist was the real center of his life. Even his bed and his desk were situated in such a way that he would be always looking at the nearest tabernacle. Jesus in the Eucharist was his best friend and confidant. How many times a day did he visit the Eucharist? The first and last activity of the day was a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. He wouldn’t leave the house nor enter his room, coming back, without first stopping to visit the Blessed Sacrament. Many nights during the years 1954 and 1955 I personally saw him in the chapel on the third floor of the vocationary. I started going to the chapel there – when I expected the chapel to be empty – helped me greatly appreciate the importance of the Eucharist in my life, and to capture some of his spirit.
He was untiring. He had taken the wow of never wasting time, and I am sure that he kept it as he kept the vow of charity, the vow of servitude and the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In Spiritus Orationis he prayed thus:
“Since life must be consumed – and with the passing of time all creatures must corrode – I want to consume it in your sacred fire, in the Holy Family and in the church, at the service of God and of the souls.”
“With your grace I want, I must, I can be proportionately always more active and consecrate myself to laboriousness with all my being at all time.”
“I consecrate myself to the most intense and continuous manual work, teaching, preaching, writing and ministry, organization and direction and – above all – to holy meditation.”
“I consecrate myself to intense laboriousness, as the first and greatest penance that you yourself, O Infinite wisdom and goodness, taught humanity after original sin.”
“I consecrate myself to laboriousness in order to better imitate your Holy Family, better assimilate the life of the church and better cooperate with the life of your grace within me.”
How could Fr. Justin be at the same time founder and general director, teacher, preacher, spiritual director, pastor, catechist, and writer, and a fully contemplative man? His union with God was the secret of his almost limitless activity; the closer one is to God, the more he sees with God and the more he operates with God, for nothing is impossible with God.
Fr. Justin’s soul was like a garden full of beautiful, marvelous flowers emanating a sweet fragrance of holiness. When Fr. Justin was three years old, a teacher-friend of his aunt Enrichetta raised him in her hands and kissed him. Squirming and twisting to get out of her arms, he cried aloud. His aunt had to plead with the friend to please put him down or otherwise the little boy would get sick. From that day on, every time this lady would get near him, he would run and hide behind his aunt, holding on to her. As a grown-up he would categorically affirm: “Many need to do violence to themselves in order to stay away from women, I need to do violence to myself to get close to them.”
Penance was the armed guard that kept watch over his purity. Mr. Simeoli, only a few years younger than Fr. Justin, revealed that one day while he and some of his friends were praying into his desk they discovered a very strange penitential instrument – a hair shirt; they did not quite understand what it was but they were appalled at the sight of it and quickly placed it back. Even his brother Ciro, before entering the vocationary, had discovered some chains (another instrument of penance) in his desk. Ciro had no idea what they were used for and thought that he could use them to play cops and robbers. When Fr. Justin became aware of the fact, he quietly took them back. More than once while preaching, these chains would break loose from his arm. He would let them slowly and discreetly fall into his hand and then hide them in his pocket. Only the most attentive listener would notice some of these movements. The first aspirants of the Vocationary practiced many of these penances. They learned how to make and use some of these penitential instruments.
He never insisted on corporal mortifications. The greater mortification for the Vocationist must consist in liturgical modesty and continuous work. “The Vocationist,” he used to say, “Should never have time to think of himself.” He wanted a vocationary attached to every parish so that, in addition to the parish ministry, the pastor could dedicate himself to the work of teaching and of assisting the young candidates, without any possibility of idleness.
When he was asked for a very short and practical guide in the life of mortification, he suggested, “Avoid any unnecessary glance, any unnecessary word, any unnecessary thought.”
Prayer is our first greatest occupation. Fr. Justin wanted the Vocationist to pray all the time and everywhere; entering and leaving the house, going up and down the stairs, inside and outside the house. He wanted endless, complete rosaries, offering of the Most Precious Blood and acts of love; he wanted the entire day to be filled with the thousands and thousands of short prayers – all these in preparation to higher forms of mental prayer and contemplation.
He was used to an hour of meditation every morning; when he heard from Fr. Piccirelli that the need to prolong meditation is the measure of one’s spirituality, he decided to have a second hour of meditation in the afternoon. Often, he was seen standing with open arms absorbed in contemplation before the crucifix. At times he was overheard pleading, “My Jesus, it is enough, it is enough. Have mercy!” Many times he was seen coming out of his meditation room with his eyes filled with tears.
His life of prayer was fostered and made easier by his humility, a humility that was edifying and discerning at the same time. It was common opinion that it was sufficient to look at him and discover his humility; by listening to him, people had the certainty of his virtue. Why didn’t he ever react to those who were causing him pain or persecuting him? Why didn’t he try to conquer them to his side through the irradiation of his supernatural strength? He had chosen for himself the motto of the prophet Isaiah: “In silence and hope shall be your strength.” Those who lived with Fr. Justin were so aware of his humility that they failed to ask any questions or take any notes that might interfere with this pearl of virtue.
A lady who had heard of his reputation of holiness and wisdom went to Pianura to consult him. She did not know him. She met him in the church and said to him, “I would like to see the saint.”
“Do you want to see our saint? Come with me” he answered, and he escorted her to the statue of St. George, Pianura’s patron Saint.
Humility is not weakness, it is not giving up. The superior must first be a physician and then a surgeon. Amputation is an extreme remedy. He knew how to cure with limitless patience, but whenever he realized that there was incorrigibility, he did not hesitate to cut. Once he dismissed a student from the vocationary, escorted him to the gate and soon after rang the community bell and called the community together to sing a hymn of thanksgiving.
He saw God in his neighbor. In a short note to the superior of the vocationary he wrote: “Please do me the charity – but do it soon – fix at my expense the window of the room in which the blind Rosina suffers. With this cold the poor lady may die! Have it fixed right away. Thank you.” In a similar note he wrote: “Please distribute alms to the poor for me – 3,300 lire to 33 poor, 100 lire each. Do so every Wednesday in honor of St. Joseph.”
Well aware of the evangelical teaching, “Give and it shall be given to you,” he was very generous with the poor. On one occasion, his sister Mother Giovanna had just come back from collecting offerings for the needs of the vocationary. She had collected 10,000 lire; without even touching the money, Fr. Justin gave orders to Fr. Vaccaro, who just happened to be present, to give 7,000 to the sisters in the kitchen and 3,000 to the poor.
At times his generosity toward the poor led some of the Vocationist into the temptation of complaining. One Wednesday, the superior of the sisters of the vocationary felt victim to such a temptation. She complained, “He thinks of others and doesn’t realize that we have nothing.”
That same day, a farmer came in with a truck and unloaded an extraordinary abundance of provisions. Fr. Justin was informed of this, and against his custom, went personally to escort the benefactor to the sister, who met the founder with joyful reverence. “Next time do not complain,” he admonished them sternly. The poor superior was so embarrassed that she would have loved to disappear!
Many times when Fr. Justin had no money, he would ask the superior or the treasurer of the house to give alms to the needy. One day, he asked Fr. Esposito, who was accompanying him: “How much did you give him?”
“And what can the poor man do with fifty lire?”
Fr. Esposito said, “I didn’t have anything else”; he shook his head murmuring, “That is not good; that is not good.”
“Our poverty must not be considered a hindrance to he practice of the corporal works of mercy,” Fr. Justin often said. What about the sick? “To cure them,” he used to say, “sell even the ciboriums, if necessary.
What about sinners? If virtue had not restrained his tongue, he would have been an outstanding humorist. The whip of satire in his hand would have skinned a person and turned his flesh into pieces. He was very quick to grasp the funny side of the people, things and situations, but he used to remain silent. A sad smile or an extra candy was often the proof of his unbending aversion toward sin but not toward the sinner. He once briskly ended his speech by saying, “If we do not have love for our neighbor, the rigors of divine justice will fall upon us.” He said it with such strength that his listeners were astounded.
His profound sense of recollection did not render him dull. His soul was vibrating with the presence of good and beautiful things. Spontaneously he used to elevate himself from the natural to the supernatural; every person, place or situation could become a practical inspiration for ascetic exhortations. He was always serene and happy; during recreation, he always enjoyed any good joke. When he was home as a seminarian, often while in his garden, the little chickens would climb all over him. Remaining immobile, he would left them climb up on his shoulders and, at times, they pecked at his teeth. As a priest he had a special predilection for doves. At 11:00 o’ clock, with meek gestures of his hands, he would invite them so that he could feed them; the doves would fly all over him and often would take food from his hand.
He was very sensitive to nature and loved flowers. He personally cared for some plants and flowers on the balconies of the chapel and on the terrace of the vocationary. One day, as he was passing by his sister’s house, he called her aloud. It was a strange novelty to hear him call someone loudly, so his sister and her daughter ran breathlessly to see what the problem was. He showed them some gladioluses thrown out with trash. “Can’t you see that they are still alive?” he said. “They are like living creatures. Please, remove the dead flowers and place the others in water.” To an aspirant of the vocationary, who every morning, when cleaning his room, kept moving a plant of begonias without paying attention to its position, Fr. Justin said: “How cruel you are! Can’t you see that this plant needs the sun? If you keep leaving it there, you will make it die!” He was often seen admiring flower beds and talking with the flowers about the beauty of God; he was uniting himself with the flowers in exalting and praising the beauty of Creator.
Caputo, Fr. Louis, SDV. A Servant of the Divine Vocations: Fr. Justin Russolillo. Copyright 1998. U.S.A. Pg. 52 – 82.