1) Its Beginning
2) The Foundation
3) The Lights and Shadows
4) The Crisis
5) Toward the Light
6) The New Horizons
7) Fr. Justin’s Charisma
8) Invitation to Holiness
THE SOCIETY OF THE DIVINE VOCATIONS
Once, Fr. Justin was asked: “When did you start to think about the foundation of the Society of Divine Vocations?”
After a short pause he answered, “Well, I think that the idea was born with me.”
During his philosophical and theological studies, Fr. Justin often read and meditated on the appeals of St. Pius X and other ecclesiastical authorities on the vocation crisis that was affecting the church at the beginning of this century. He could very clearly see that the “harvest was plenty, but the laborers were few.” The young seminarian Justin Russolillo must have asked himself many times: “What can I do to bring more laborers into the Lord’s vineyard? Why is it that fewer and fewer young men are eager to serve the Lord?”
He soon came to the conclusion that vocations were not lacking but that promoters of vocations were scare. God had been calling and is still calling! These reflections, plus the fact that twice he came very close to the point of dropping out of the seminary because his parents were unable to pay the tuition, were the real beginning, the seed of the Society of Divine Vocations.
During his vacations, Justin started to organize the young boys of his neighborhood and of his parish for catechetical instructions and recreation. The young boys of Pianura used to flock around Justin and often walked from Pianura to Pozzuoli, about six miles, just to see him.
The morning of September 20, 1913, the day of his priestly ordination, Fr. Justin made a vow to found a religious congregation for the “cultivation, service and apostolate of God’s vocations to faith, to the priesthood and to holiness.”
Fr. Justin was happy to discover the blossoming signs of religious and priestly vocations in many of his boys. Some of them started to pressure him… they wanted to be priests and they had no money!
On April 30, 1914, Fr. Justin gathered a group of twelve boys who wanted to be priests, but who were too poor to pay the seminary tuition. His parents Luigi and Giuseppina, were very happy to welcome these twelve young men into their home, and cared for them as for their own children.
The experiment lasted only fifteen days. The Bishop of Pozzuoli, concerned about Fr. Justin’s poor health and lack of adequate facilities in the Russolillo’s home, ordered Fr. Justin to discontinue his experiment and send these young men back to their homes.
How could he break the news to them? After his meeting with the bishop, Fr. Justin went to see one of his aunts; he opened his heart to her and she gave him a cross of knotty wood. He went back home, served dinner as usual to his boys and then showed them the cross, saying… “We are children of the cross, let us embrace the cross …” Shortly after this attempt, the bishop went to visit the parish of Pianura and offered to accept one of Fr. Justin’s boys into the seminary. Salvatore Polverino was selected and became the first Vocationist to be ordained a priest.
During World War I, Fr. Justin was drafted into the army and had to leave his family and his boys but kept in touch with them by letters and occasional visits. While in the service he developed the plan of founding also the Vocationist Sisters, who, as good mothers, would assist in the formation of the future priests.
In March, 1917, Fr. Justin wrote to Cardinal Gasparri asking his advice on the “project of founding a new religious family dedicated to free education for vocations.” While he was awaiting an answer, he was called by the vicar general of the Diocese, Msgr. Dell’Isola, who jokingly said, “Justin, did you write to Rome saying that you want to found a religious congregation? Do you possess all the extraordinary signs?”
“No,” answered Fr. Justin quickly, “but the ordinary signs are all there!”
“Well,” continued Msgr. Dell’Isola, “if Bishop Zezza is reassigned, consider it as an extraordinary sign.” Bishop Zezza, who at first had not given consideration to Fr. Justin’s ideas, later became Archbishop of Naples and a great friend and supporter of Fr. Justin and his communities.
Bishop Farina, who was a sincere admirer and spiritual counselor of Fr. Justin, valued his project. In July, 1920, he officially invited the founder to realize it in the diocese of Troia. He offered Fr. Justin the direction of the seminary and, for his congregation, an old convent. At the same time, the Diocese of Pozzuoli became vacant and Bishop Ragosta, who was appointed as temporary administrator of the diocese, urged Fr. Justin to accept the pastorship of St. Giorgio’s Church in Pianura. Fr. Justin presented his plan to the bishop, informing him also of the invitation and opportunity offered by Bishop Farina. Bishop Ragosta suggested that he realize in Pianura what he intended to do elsewhere. The bishop felt that the pastorship would be a help rather than a hindrance to the foundation of the religious community.
Fr. Justin was installed as pastor on September 20, 1920, and, with the bishop’s blessing, the Society of Divine Vocations officially opened its doors in the parish house of Pianura on October 18, 1920. A few, but selected, young boys formed the first group of candidates.
While the vocationary was becoming a reality, the first two “boys” that Fr. Justin had sent to the minor seminary were being admitted to the major seminary of Posillipo. In 1921, the Rev. Francesco Sepe, a diocesan priest, joined Fr. Justin, thus becoming the first Vocationist after the founder. Fr. Sepe was a tremendous help both for the parish and for the vocationary which, by this time, already had twenty-eight students. On March 4, 1922, informing the bishop about the progress of the new community, Fr. Justin wrote: “It has been a year since with caution you have allowed us to accept into the community a diocesan priest and those young men we had been training both spiritually and academically. Divine Providence has kept our religious family, which consists of twenty people, from having to make debts and at the same time enabled us to increase the attention and the expenses for the improvement and upkeep of the parish.” He was particularly happy to inform the bishop that several of the young men “after serious reflection and guidance had privately consecrated themselves to religious life and to continue the development and expansion of the pious institution, which was aiming at promoting God’s glory in their sanctification and the sanctification of their neighbors, through a greater cooperation with the works of the church, with the free recruitment and formation of vocations for the diocesan and religious clergy at the service of the bishop in the seminaries, and at the service of religious orders in the apostolic schools.” In the same letter Fr. Justin asked the Bishop’s permission to separate those preparing to become members of the Society of Divine Vocations from those who intended to join a diocese or another religious order. He also included the first rules, which he wrote for future members of his congregation, requesting the bishop’s approval and permission to publish them, since applications for admissions were multiplying and coming from every part of the country. The need for such permission was also prompted by the fact that Fr. Justin had received further offers of buildings and assistance in other dioceses while at the same time Divine Providence was offering the opportunity of “purchasing a building in Pianura for the growth of the foundation.”
A pious soul of Pianura, who later became Sr. Maria Clara Loffredo, bought a piece of land on the outskirts of town and donated it to Fr. Justin for the construction of the vocationary. Fr. Palmieri happily told his colleagues at the vocationary that while he was on the mountain of Camaldoli Fr. Justin had asked him to look down toward Pianura at the huge vocationary and at the many priests who were praying their breviary. Fr. Palmieri, who was assimilating the simplicity and fervor of his master, kept looking intently but couldn’t see anything. Only later did Fr. Palmieri understand that the creative spirit of the founder was seeing God’s plans for the community.
Simple people joined the students in the material construction of the future Mother House. The generosity of many benefactors provided the financial needs for the purchasing of the building material.
The first group of students moved into the vocationary as soon as the first floor was completed. They were like a big family united by a spirit of prayer and sacrifices and by the great calling they had received.
The large group of young ladies who were aspiring to religious life under the leadership of Rachele Marrone were contributing with their labor and donations to the construction of the vocationary. They were also working for the religious education of all the youngsters of the parish. The “pious union” in 1921 became the first group of Vocationary Sisters.
On Pentecost Sunday in 1923, the Most Reverend Giuseppe Petrone, newly appointed Bishop of Pozzuoli, approved the first by-laws of the Congregation with the following words: “We approve, on an experimental basis, the by-laws of the Society of Divine Vocations, praying and wishing for an ever greater revival of interest and enthusiasm to have good workers in the Lord’s vineyard; there has never been a greater need for vocations than today.” The first blessing and approval was cause of great joy for the founder and for his pupils. Those by-laws, which consisted of twenty-one articles, were further developed to include the complete program of the congregation and with the permission of the same bishop were published in 1924.
The Congregation for the Seminaries, which had been following the foundation of the new religious order and was noticing its growth with the increasing number of candidates and the priestly ordination of Fr. Polverino and Fr. Mele, requested a copy of the bylaws consisted of thirty-three articles; the Congregation for the Religious had words of blessing and approval for the same. The Congregation for the Religious, with a letter dated June 28, 1926, answered the Bishop of Pozzuoli, who had requested canonical approval for the Vocationist community: “The Sacred Congregation, having examined everything, deems it convenient that the institution continue as a simple, pious association. It is not contrary, however, that the members of the two branches of the Vocationist Fathers and Sisters – branches that must be independent from each other – live in a community life with rules and constitutions according to canon law and that they pronounce private vows. Later on as the institution will produce fruits that would prove their consistency and validity, a new edition can be submitted to obtain the permission mentioned in the article 492 of canon law.”
On the feast of the Ascension, 1927, Bishop Petrone approved the first text of the constitutions, consisting of 110 articles. In his document of approval the bishop wrote: “We approve the constitution of the Society of Divine Vocations trusting that the Holy Spirit will fertilize with his grace the small seed thrown with trepidation into the furrows of the church.
It might seem strange that the most reverend bishop had some trepidation in granting the seal of approval to the new religious family. Some of his hesitation might have been caused by malicious slander and false accusations raised against the vocationary. The devil could not leave undisturbed the beginning of something destined to produce great fruits of sanctification. The bishop himself had great admiration for Fr. Justin and great trust in his new institution, and that is why with a formal decree of canonical erection he approved the Society of Divine Vocations on May 26, 1927.
LIGHTS AND SHADOWS
Soon after the canonical erection, the Society of Divine Vocations opened its novitiate in the house at Pianura, which shortly after was transferred to a modest house in Baronissi donated to the community Bishop Farina.
In 1928, the first novices pronounced their religious vows and the small family was blessed with the priestly ordination of Fr. Giuseppe Di Fusco. With the canonical erection’s decree, the bishop appointed Fr. Justin superior general of the congregation.
The fact that the superior general, Fr. Justin, assigned some of his priests to serve outside of the diocese of origin caused some apprehension to the bishop and complicated the relationship between the congregation and its ordinary. As a consequence of the expansion of the community, the bishop discovered that his decree of canonical erection was issued without previous permission from Rome and invited Fr. Justin to transfer the Mother House of the congregation to the jurisdiction of another bishop.
There were moments of trepidation and worry in the small community. Fr. Justin intensified his prayers to Almighty God that there might be new light on his way. On December 6, 1928, he appealed to the Cardinal Archbishop of Naples in whose diocese was located the house of formation for the students of philosophy and theology. Fr. Justin wrote in his diary: “After four days of waiting in the cardinal’s waiting room, I was admitted to have and audience with him. He showed a lot of kind understanding and my petition was accepted. I was directed to make arrangements with the vicar general and thus we passed from the Diocese of Pozzuoli to the Archdiocese of Naples. Two months later, I was called by the vicar general and told on behalf of the cardinal that I should move to another diocese, another bishop.
“On that same day I was welcomed with the community by the Bishop of Vallo, who just happened to be in Naples that day. From that moment he became the ordinary of the congregation, and in his hands, in Vallo, during the Mass celebrated in the bishop’s chapel on January 18, 1928, my thirty-eighth birthday, I pronounced my religious vows.”
While the congregation was enjoying the blessings and kindness of the Bishop of Vallo, incorrect information about the Vocationist and their activities was being sent to Rome. On February 20, 1929, the Congregation for the Religious wrote to the Bishop of Pozzuoli asking information about the Vocationists. Bishop Petrone, answering with charity and truthfulness, stated, “The vocationary is a blessed institution that could be called a nursery for the first preparation of young boys to the seminary or religious orders. I have received many young boys in my seminary coming from the vocationary and they are all well trained and on their way to the priesthood. For the opening of similar vocationaries in other dioceses – and many bishops are insistently requesting to have them in their dioceses – are needed priests who could serve as superiors and as teachers. From here the real need for the pious Society for the Divine Vocations, which is in a stage of formation, depends on the approval of the Holy See. I have given all my support for the vocationary and for the pious society; before any official approval I had requested the constitutions, which were forwarded by me with relative documents to the Sacred Congregation for the Religious. I have examined, trimmed and reduced them and I have returned them to Pastor Russolillo, who wanted to have them reviewed also by other bishops who show interest in his work.” Of the Vocationist Sisters, Bishop Petrone said, “They are groups of pious women who, with prayers and work, help the vocationary.” After giving a report of the excellent functioning of the vocationary in Pianura, he assured the Holy See of “the goodness and docility of Pastor Russolillo, who would blindly obey whatever will be ordered him by the Holy See and by the Archbishop of Naples, where he was transferred with the main center of his activity, and where can remain the Mother House of the pious society, if and until it please Divine Providence.”
Concerning the accusations against the vocationary – that people dismissed from other seminaries were being accepted without the consent of the superior authority – the Bishop of Pozzuoli explicitly affirmed that as far as he knew there had been no such abuses and stated: “There are no elements expelled from seminaries or in any way accepted against the opinion of the proper ecclesiastical authority.” He added: “I have ordered, however, to be always more prudent and strict on this point… as far as I am concerned I am thankful for some excellent young men that have joined the diocese and are now in the major seminary. I also already have some priests in the diocese who without that first assistance received in the vocationary might never have made it.” Again he insisted concluding his letter to the Congregation for the Religious: “The good Father Russolillo deserves the greatest trust on account of his exceptional uprightness, piety and zeal.”
The Most Reverent Bishop of Vallo was extremely helpful in that delicate situation. On August 29, 1930, he wrote to the Sacred Congregation for the Religious: “I am expressing in all truthfulness my opinion on Fr. Justin Russolillo and on his institution, the Society of Divine Vocations and Vocationists. Fr. Justin Russolillo lives an exemplary life and is filled with great zeal for the glory of God and for the well being of the church. He was born in a middle-class pious and honest family; the family is constantly helping him in all the good works that he plans and realizes. One of his brothers has joined him in the priestly life and one of his sisters has become a Vocationist Sister; his parents receive Holy Communion every day.
“Fr. Justin Russolillo” realizing that in our dioceses there is an insufficient number of sacred ministers and that many who want to become priests cannot do so for lack of financial means, has conceived and given life to the above – mentioned institution, which offers great hope currently the institution has approximately one hundred fifteen students in its vocationaries.”
“He receives the candidates that show manifest signs of vocation in the service of the Lord, he trains them for three years of junior high, leaving them free to embrace that state of life to which each one is more inclined: as religious in any community, as diocesan priests or as good citizens.”
“To obviate the great difficulty of lack of spiritual directors for minor and major seminaries, the pious founder hopes to prepare his candidates for this important and delicate task. At present he and his priests, whenever requested by bishops, are always willing to assist with periods of spiritual retreats for our seminaries.”
“Charity is the means of support for so many people. He already has seven houses and various pieces of land; I myself have given him a beautiful house with a large yard and garden and a second house completely furnished. Many bishops keep requesting the privilege of having the providential institution in their dioceses; the founder hopes to be able to please them all. In his houses are formed young boys from all these dioceses of southern Italy, especially from the religious provinces of Campania and Salerno.”
“On my part, for having welcomed them in my diocese, I hope with God’s help a great booming of many good ministers of the Lord, in the footsteps of the priests that are presently members of the institute; they are endowed with untiring zeal and spirit of sacrifice.”
The support of the Bishop of Vallo was the necessary spiritual reward that the Lord was granting to the Vocationists in the first moments of trial so that it might appear always more clearly that the institution was a work of God and that these trials were only God’s seal of approval.
While Fr. Justin and his community were growing under the patronage of the Bishop of Vallo, the Archdioceses of Naples granted permission for the opening of the house of formation for the students of theology, near the pontifical seminary of Posillipo. The Bishop of Bovino entrusted to the Vocationist Fathers the shrine of Our Lady of Hope with the attached monastery, and the Bishop of Cava dei Tirreni offered to the Vocationists the parish of the Annunciation with the attached monastery, which later became house of novitiate. In 1930 in Pianura, the Vocationist Fathers had their first general chapter assembly in the church of the cemetery. The constitutions were revised and explained and the superior general and his council were elected.
Fr. Justin instructed his religious to “never excuse themselves unless explicitly ordered to do so.” He practiced this himself and this practice of humility and mortification might have contributed to some of the agony and pain that affected the founder and his foundation. While the founder and the community grew in love and service of the Lord, humbly and silently suffering on account of false or exaggerated accusations, the Abbot Fausto Mezza, OSB, intervened in favor of the Vocationists with the Bishop of Pozzuoli. He may be considered a real savior for the community; he pointed out to the Most Reverend Bishop how the devil was using people and circumstances in a relentless effort to destroy this great instrument of salvation. With unbiased objectivity and eloquence, the good abbot defended the innocence of the congregation.
Fr. Justin, meanwhile, for the third time asked the bishop to accept his resignation as Pastor of St. Giorgio’s Church both on account of his poor health and of his many obligation as superior general of the Society of Divine Vocations. He wanted to establish his residence in the house of novitiate in Cava dei Tirreni or in the house of formation in Posillipo. Fr. Justin also asked the bishop to appoint as his vicar in the administration of the parish Fr. Mele, if by any chance the bishop could not accept his resignation.
The bishop was convinced that he and nobody else could assign or reassign the Vocationist Fathers. In his conviction that his faulty decree of approval invalidated the same, the bishop proceeded to assign the Vocationist priests of Pianura where and how he deemed most convenient for the needs of the diocese.
On September 23, 1930, Fr. Justin went personally to Rome and he humbly presented a written request to the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Religious and was assured of the validity of the decree of approval and erection given by the Bishop of Pozzuoli without permission from Rome; he was assured that as superior general he had the right of assigning the religious priests wherever he deemed appropriate. The Congregation for the Religious, however, did not give a written reply to Fr. Justin and the good father, as usual, entrusted the whole affair into the hands of God with the certainty that time and the intervention of good people would dissipate any shadow of darkness.
The Most Reverend Fausto Mezza, OSB, seems to have been the angel sent by God to defend and protect Fr. Justin. Writing to the Bishop of Pozzuoli after having stated that he had attentively studied Canon Law concerning the foundation of new religious communities, Abbott Mezza stated “(1) The foundation of Fr. Justin was a true religious congregation of diocesan right. As a matter of fact: (a) It was your Excellency who gave the approval that rendered Fr. Justin’s foundation a religious congregation of diocesan right. A lack or previous authorization from Rome does not invalidate the approval of the ordinary. In the worst case only a validation would be needed from Rome, validation which would be easily granted since the society has already applied for the Canonical approval from the Apostolic See; (b) the Congregation for the Religious, in a letter of last July to Fr. Justin, while suggesting the opportunity of waiting a little more for the Pontifical approval in order to allow for the development of the society, declared that it would reexamine the request when the society would be further expanded to other dioceses. This means that Rome already acknowledges that the society is a religious institution of diocesan right. (2) A religious congregation of diocesan right according to Canon Law is not to be taken in its strict interpretation, as for example the Oblates of St. Charles for the Diocese of Milano or the rural missionaries of the Diocese of Genova (they are an ecclesiastical association indissolubly attached to the diocese of origin). The diocesan approval is the first canonical recognition giving the new congregation the right to expand to other dioceses. (3) Your Excellency, in approving the Society of Divine Vocations, did not attach any clause limiting the activity of the same society to within the boundary of the Diocese of Pozzuoli; it was also expressly stated that until the society would be ready to proceed to a canonical election, Fr. Justin would remain its superior general. No one can deny to a superior general of a community – even if it is only of diocesan right – the freedom to dispose of its subjects to provide for the needs and the growth of the same congregation. The authority of the bishop in this case – if he had understood it properly – is a kind of protective authority in order to supervise and foster the growth of the newly formed congregation, to make sure that it would fulfill its apostolate and grow in compliance with Canon Law. (4) Article 492, paragraph 2 Canon Law states that a congregation of diocesan right will remain of diocesan right until it receives the Pontifical approval. Such a congregation remains totally subject to the jurisdiction of the ordinaries. Then, not only of the ordinary of the diocese of origin in which it is started, but “Ordinarium,” that is, of the individual ordinaries in whose diocese the congregation has expanded; each ordinary for the houses which have been opened in his diocese. (5) Article 495, paragraph 1, states that a religious congregation of diocesan right in order to establish houses in other dioceses needs the consent of both the ordinary of the diocese in which a new residence is established as well as from the ordinary of the diocese of origin; the consent of the ordinary of the diocese of origin “sine gravi causa ne deneget” (should not be denied without a serious reason). From this article it clearly appears that in order to open a new houses in other dioceses is needed the consent of the bishop of origin; the assignment of the subject is not the duty of the bishop but of the Superior General of the congregation. (6) Finally, it is worth noticing that for the greater good of the Society of Divine Vocations, your Excellency transferred the patronage of the same to the Bishop of Vallo, As a matter of fact, a house opened in our diocese was opened precisely with the consent of the Bishop of Vallo, who presently is acting as the ordinary of origin. Now why in order to move the subjects form one house to the other should a different procedures, be followed? (7) Allow me to call to your attention, my dear bishop, the fact that the Society of Divine Vocations – regardless of its immediate or distant future – cannot be judged by its first steps, which are shaky and limited, as has happened for all religious orders that today are spread throughout the world. The goals the society hopes to achieve cannot be imprisoned in these painful happenings of its beginning. Presently, it seems that the society is not giving its contribution, or better that it does not contribute in the way you would like to the Diocese of Pozzuoli; but now the society must guarantee it s existence and spread its roots: Primum esse, deinde Philosohari. Someday, God willing, this congregation will bear to the church a much larger contribution. It will always be known that it was born in the Diocese of Pozzuoli and that you were its first and most beloved father.”
Most of the misunderstandings were then cleared between the Bishop of Pozzuoli and Fr. Justin in a meeting held in the fall of 1930. On June 2, 1931, the congregation for the Religious, upon request from the Bishop of Vallo, granted the validation of the decree of canonical erection granted by the Bishop of Pozzuoli and soon after, the congregation, which had always retained its Mother House in Pianura as the main center of its activities, was returning with the blessings of the Bishop of Vallo under the patronage of the Bishop of Pozzuoli.
In the same year the congregation received the special blessing of the priestly ordination of nine new Vocationist priests. With these priestly ordinations the congregation was able to accept the college of St. Pietro and the following year the congregation accepted the parish of St. Michael in the diocese of Anagni. On June 21, 1932, the founder was granted a private audience with the Holy Father, Pius XI.
With a sense of deep gratitude and faith, Fr. Justin asked the Holy Father to bless the two religious congregations of the Vocationist Fathers and Sisters and their work for vocations and for the rehabilitations of those who have betrayed their calling. The Holy Father asked Fr. Justin if he had heard of Msgr. Scherillo, and Fr. Justin was pleased to inform him that he was the monsignor’s nephew; the Holy Father continued by saying that he knew very well the dear monsignor and, pointing to a book by Fr. Justin, Spiritus Orationis, a copy of which had been sent to him previously, the Holy Father said that the title Spiritus Gratiae et Praecum might have been more appropriate. The blessing of the Holy Father came really abundantly on Fr. Justin’s foundations and on all those who were following with interest their progressive development.
In 1933, the Second General Chapter assembly was held and with letters of commendation from twenty bishops it initiated the process for Pontifical approval. The request for approval addressed to the Holy Father was signed by the entire general council and was completed by the approval and recommendation of Bishop Petrone.
March 30, 1934, was the first occasion of a Vocationist priest leaving this earth to begin the Vocationist family in heaven. Fr. Antonio Palmieri, who was director of the Seminary of Orte, died suddenly. The entire community and the City of Orte suffered a tremendous loss. Naturally, the founder felt the loss more than anybody else. Fr. Justin had been his teacher and was his spiritual director. Fr. Justin himself said that Fr. Palmieri, with his permission, had taken the vow of the third degree of charity, that is, he had committed himself by vow to avoid even the voluntary imperfections. With the guidance and example of Fr. Justin, Fr. Palmieri had also taken a vow of never wasting time.
The founders of religious orders usually have a heart bigger than the ocean and unlimited charity and sweetness and an exceptional empathy for those who are in trouble. Fr. Justin, who preferred always to work in humility and in silence, at times may have given the impression of superficiality and satisfaction with any type of behavior. The reality was that the vocationary came into being after the war and even more than the average institution was suffering the consequence of worldwide depression. As Fr. Justin himself expressed it: “The vocationary was like a boat caught in a big storm at the same time faces also the unlucky situation of being in the midst of an endless number of shipwrecked who, in desperation, are concerned only about their salvation, try to hold on to it, rendering the situation even more precarious.”
In his zeal for vocations among the poor, the underprivileged and the troubled, and his particular interest in saving or rehabilitating those vocations that had been betrayed, Fr. Justin kept opening his heart and his houses to all those who were appealing to him. Since he did not have enough cooperators and adequate housing for this delicate work of rehabilitation, he was ordered by the Holy See to halt its entire operation.
Holy Mother Church certainly approved and rejoiced for the apostolic zeal of the good father, but in order to prevent the possible abuses or scandals came to the tragic conclusion of prohibiting further admission to the novitiate, to the vows and to the ordinations. Deeply troubled by the arrest of progress that this injunction might have caused among the members of the community, and even more, afflicted for having been cause of involuntary disappointment to the higher authorities, Fr. Justin offered and asked the confreres to offer everything to the Blessed Trinity and immediately started to repair the broken net. He began by reordering and straightening the discipline in every house and then pleaded to the most reverend bishops to take under their protection the religious family and become the advocates of the Vocationist family before God and before Mother Church.
After consultation with and the approval of Bishop Castaldo, who had been appointed Bishop of Pozzuoli, the founder sent the following plea to the Congregation for the Religious and for the Seminary: “It is now over one hundred days that all of us Vocationists, priests, clerics, professed and novices are living in the most serious affliction that may hit a religious family. We are in constant pain for having been involuntary cause of disappointment to the highest ecclesiastical superiors and for having exposed the congregation to a condemnation of slow death.” He continued reassuring the cardinal that the community was continuing to work in the various fields of apostolate entrusted to them by the various bishops and that the community was intensifying its “life of prayer, of action and sacrifice to obtain mercy and forgiveness from the Lord and from his representatives.” He then humbly submitted to the cardinal the report concerning the Society of Divine Vocations as a tribute of devotion to Holy Mother Church. At the same time, the founder assured the superior authorities that their dispositions had been accepted “with complete obedience of mind and heart” and that the Vocationists “wanted only the most perfect fulfillment of the Divine Will manifested to them through the sacred pastors.”
In the same letter, Fr. Justin continued: “We have the impression that several accusations have been made against the community by some members who have been expelled. These young men who were asked to leave certainly were not willing to blame themselves and admit honestly that they were out because they did not have the academic qualities or because they did not have enough will power or even worse had been guilty of some serious infraction. It is easy for them to slander the institution of which they have benefited.”
Fr. Justin lamented the reality that lack of adequate housing had not permitted a clear separation among the various groups – the members of the congregation, the aggregates, and those who were in the rehabilitation program – this had contributed to the mentality that the Congregation was a mixture of undesirables.
“The reality is that we (the Vocationist) profess a true devotion to every divine vocation, and because of this we have tried to rehabilitate some priests or brothers who had been expelled from other religious institutions and did not intend to abandon their call. They are guests in our houses for the time needed to find an honest way of sustenance and proper housing. In the meantime, we do our best to give peace to their minds and to their spirits, which are naturally troubled, and we dispose them to humbly recognize and follow the Divine Will.” This apostolate for the rehabilitation of vocations that have not been followed or that have been betrayed is a real apostolate and real Christian charity. The saintly founder often took the risk of helping troubled priests and religious “in order to give them a chance to find an honest systematization in the world and not to help them to reach the priesthood through unconventional ways,” as unfortunately some had gratuitously asserted. In the same letter the pious founder also stated that “many, seeing the large number of children provenient from poor families in our vocationaries, think that we elevate them all to the priesthood en masse, and they are afraid that someday there will be too many priests coming from among the poor, who, on account of severe poverty in their families, may be a hindrance rather than a help in the service of souls.” Naturally, they were unaware that “the specific goal of the vocationaries is to educate the youth to an intense Christian piety and make them religious of God according to Jesus, regardless of the state of life they will embrace.” After clearing other aspects concerning the general discipline of our schools and the government of the Congregation, Fr. Justin concluded: “It seemed to be our duty to humbly present these considerations of ours in order to receive proper encouragement and counsel. We acknowledge our deficiencies, which ordinarily are due to the inevitable hardships of the beginning of all good institutions. We will always consider as a special divine favor the dispositions of the ecclesiastical authority, because they tend only to purify and strengthen this Congregation, which is still so imperfect; this effect cannot be obtained without the obedience of every law of the church.”
From December of 1934 to November of 1941, the Congregation was in a state of purification that was mortifying and vivifying at the same time. The students of philosophy, with great difficulty, to please the Bishop of Pozzuoli, began to attend classes at the Diocesan College in Pozzuoli. First, they were going by bikes and later by public transportation. The students of theology transferred from the house of Possilipo to Anagni; morning and evening they had to walk over two miles from the seminary to our religious residence. This going back and forth of our students was causing unnecessary stress, distractions and waste of time. On June 27, 1939, the founder pleaded to the Holy Father, Pius XII, “for the grace to reopen the admission to the novitiate and to the vows so that we may not have to witness the agony and death of the Congregation and its activities. Since it has seemed to us that the remote cause of the punishment inflicted upon us five years ago was connected to our ‘unattainable vastity of program,’ we propose to reduce our activities to parishes, vocationaries and missions, if it so please your Holiness.” On July 2, 1941, the Congregation for the Religious appointed Fr. Baldini of the Servants of Mary as apostolic visitor for the Congregation. This appointment was like a dawn of hope.
TOWARD THE LIGHT
Fr. Baldini visited the main residences of the Congregation and was very happy to report to Rome about the spirit of prayer, sacrifice and industry of the Vocationist Fathers. He had been edified by their humility and total obedience to the painful dispositions that the church had inflicted upon them. As a consequence of this first visit and initial report, the Holy See authorized the reopening of the novitiate, the admission to the vows and to the sacred ordinations. At the time of this visit of Fr. Baldini, the community and the world were suffering the painful interruption of World War II.
In 1943, Naples was constantly being threatened by air raids and communication among the houses of the community was becoming more and more difficult. Thus, Fr. Justin wrote to the apostolic visitors: “We are in serious apprehension for this house of Pianura, which stands out in town. Up until now we have been sustained by a special strength coming from the Lord. Now I find myself deeply concerned and suffering for these young men for whom I am responsible. I don’t know where to find a secure place for them. Should I find the possibility of housing them in a secure place, and should I find a way to transport them. I think I can assume your authorization even for the novitiate. Naturally, I will keep you informed of everything. I trust in Divine Providence that I might not be forced to take such a step.”
In November, 1943, Italy was a theatre of war, and Pianura – including the vocationary – was real military camp for the Allied forces. The air raids from the Allied forces were now replaced by the air raids of the Germans. It was impossible to continue any form of religious life in that atmosphere. The Allied command had occupied the Vocationary and established in it their temporary headquarters. Helped by the ingenuity of Fr. Ciro, who improvised a means of transportation, Fr. Justin and part of the community moved from Pianura to Mercato Cilento. In Mercato, Fr. Justin continued to take care of the formation of the novices and took advantage of the forced exile to rewrite the Constitutions in two volumes. Informing the apostolic visitor of his action and his work about the Constitutions, he stated: “The fear of death has greatly helped me to complete the writing of the rules and Constitutions according to the wish and command that you have expressed several times.” An unpleasant episode that took place during the war darkened the precious visit of Fr. Baldini. A brother who had come to the Vocationist Fathers from another religious order and who, after a short stay with us, had been dismissed and succeeded in being ordained by the Bishop of Anagni with false documents. Considering also the frail health of the apostolate visitor, the Holy See tried to provide a better assistance for our community and appointed Fr. Cuomo, OFM, as apostolic visitor and Superior General of the Vocationist Fathers and Vocationist Sisters. Undoubtedly, Holy Mother Church wanted to assist and strengthen the young community. The assignment, however, of an outsider as superior general caused much more harm than good. At the completion of Fr. Cuomo’s term, the Holy See appointed the vicar general, Fr. Giorgio Saggiomo, as an interim superior general. Fr. Saggiomo established a school of theology in the vocationary of Pianura and opened the first residence of the Vocationist Fathers in Rome. Fr. Saggiomo, following the desire of the Congregation for the Religious, prepared the community for the regular election of the superior general and his council. A general chapter was celebrated in the house of Possilipo on April 8, 9 and 10, 1947. Cardinal Lavitrano presided and proclaimed the reelection of Fr. Justin to the position of superior general. On January 3, 1948, the Society of Divine Vocations became a religious order of pontifical right and was entrusted to the patronage of Cardinal Lavitrano.
THE NEW HORIZONS
Under the direct guidance of Rome, the Vocationist communities treasured the wise guidance they were receiving, trying to be always more deserving of all the special favors granted to them. In 1949, the congregation purchased a new house in the city of Rome, the capital of Catholicism, and once again the community started the procedure to obtain the Decretum Laudis or final approval. Fr. Justin received the precious assistance of Fr. Manzo, S. J., who helped to give new impulse to the theological studies and to the reorganization of the novitiate house in Pianura.
During the Holy Year of 1950, Fr. Justin was received in private audience by his Holiness Pope Pius XII and once again implored the Holy Father’s guidance and blessings for the growth of his religious families.
The opening of the new house in Rome, which had been a cause of great rejoicing, became a real thorn in the life of Fr. Justin and certainly might have contributed to the acceleration of his death. During the Holy Year, the house was used to house the pilgrims coming to Rome from all over the world. In 1951, it became a house of formation for the students of theology who were commuting to the Pontifical Gregorian University.
In the exuberance of this new vitality in Rome, Fr. Saggiomo, in his capacity as general treasurer, began a long, painful series of unfortunate mistakes. He started with the enlargement of the house and then began the construction of a beautiful new building. Fr. Saggiomo failed to inform Fr. Justin of the debts he was undertaking for the new construction. He was taken advantage of by many unscrupulous investors who gave him the impression of being real benefactors of the community. In his desperation to make payments for promissory notes he had signed, he arrived at the scandalous procedure of borrowing money at forty, eighty and ninety-six percent interest. It resulted in financial collapse! The community found itself in debt for over $1,000,000.
Holy Mother Church tried to help first by assigning Fr. Poli as a new apostolic visitor and then by appointing a special pontifical commission to handle the financial disaster, in order to prevent bankruptcy.
Even though the founder had been unaware of the accumulation and multiplication of these debts he had not authorized, he was nonetheless held accountable for them. When the general elections were held in 1954, Rome definitely wanted someone else in Fr. Justin’s place in the office of superior general. It was the apostolic visitor who aware of the affection and loyalty of all the Vocationist Fathers to their founder, sure that Fr. Justin would be reelected, suggested that they leave to the founder the title of superior general but that the vicar general should really have all authority to administer the congregation.
Fr. Justin was reelected superior general, receiving the totality of votes, and Fr. Ugo Fraraccio was appointed vicar general with all rights and duties of the superior general. The founder agonized painfully for his religious family
and his agony was further aggravated by the fact that the love and charity of his confreres were trying to hide from him the fact that the vicar general was really in charge of the community. Having no other recourse, Fr. Justin offered himself as a victim for the salvation of the community.
His death happened in the midst of this serious financial crisis and certainly his prayers and his offering of himself had a lot to do with the happy solution to the problem. The discouragement and confusion that followed the death of the founder were soon overcome with the help of his powerful intercession in heaven. The financial crisis was brought to a happy ending. The community grew, especially in Sicily, Brazil and the United States. On January 18, 1968, the Vocationists received the final pontifical approval and rededicated themselves to the founder’s original goal of humbly and assiduously working in the search and formation of every vocation to life, faith and holiness and to the priesthood and religious life, especially among the poor and the underprivileged.
FR. JUSTIN’S CHARISMA
On Saturday, July 9, 1983, Pope John Paul II, in his address to the participants in the General Chapter of the Vocationist Fathers, summarized the charisma of Fr. Justin and of his Congregation in these words: “… an important reason for my satisfaction is the consideration of the relevance and the great usefulness of your charisma in the church; the research and promotion of vocations to the priesthood in particular and to the religious state in general; of preference among the humble classes of people, not only and not so much for your institute, as for the Dioceses and for every other religious institute, with generous intent, besides, to obtain from God, in a spirit of love and reparation, the rehabilitation and the return of those who, after putting their hand to the plough, may have turned back.”
“I need not speak at length to emphasize how much consolation and hope your holy intentions give to my heart as Universal Pastor of the Church. I want only to exhort you to continue in it with the commitment of all your strength, in the certainty of the Church’s full support and the powerful assistance of the Holy Spirit, who during the course of history always knows how to stir up, for those who want to listen to him, the necessary initiatives to meet the spiritual needs of the moment.”
“The central point of your spiritual strength must always be, as for every religious family, the original inspiration of your founder; the soul, heart, the intentions of Don Giustino Russolillo; his great and very fervent love for the principal mystery of Christianity, the Trinitarian mystery, the contemplation of which came to be a mystical experience which, for its authenticity and intensity, was the source in him of the most fervent and fruitful charitable action, which led him to be totally consumed in the holy ideal of the promotion and education of holy vocations…”
“In assessing the needs of mankind, Fr. Justin established this progression: More than anything else the church needs saints for universal sanctification; in the present plan of salvation the clergy is needed; in order to have clergy there must be vocations; for the formation of vocations there must be seminaries… for the service of every soul in everything, there is the small Society of Divine Vocations with its vocationaries. I could summarize the charisma of Fr. Justin and of the Vocationist Fathers in the simple words, vocation service.”
From the very beginning in preparing the “general idea of the Society of Divine Vocations,” Fr. Justin declared that “it is established for the cultivation, service and apostolate of God’s vocation to faith, to the priesthood, to holiness.” During the month of April, the Vocationists offer the Most Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Trinity in order to obtain “internal and external perfection of the work of the divine vocations to faith, priesthood and holiness.
In 1927, starting the publication of Spiritus Domini, the periodical of the Society of Divine Vocations, Fr. Justin began a study of vocations, saying: “Everything is divine vocation in the world: vocation to life, vocation to faith, vocation to holiness.” Then he continued: “Every being and every status worthy of being corresponds to divine vocation… in general sense when we say, ‘divine vocation,’ we intend vocation to faith and to holiness, and in a more particular sense, we intend vocation to religious life and to the priesthood.”
The Constitutions revised and approved by the Holy See in 1948, simply state: “The special goal is the search, especially among the humble classes, of priestly and religious vocations and their formation in the vocationaries that constitute the characteristic work of the Congregation and the special field of its activity.” The Second Vatican Council justifies and stresses the importance of the various religious communities, stating that each one of them has its own function, mission and charisma. The various religious orders differ from each other on account of their various goal or vocation in the Church.
Again, in the book of Religious Observances, Fr. Justin wrote: “Since the greatest need of the souls, and consequently the greatest service that can be rendered to them, is the good religious and the saintly priest, the Vocationist will always consider as his central and main activity and apostolate, the research, cultivation and the service of the divine vocations to religious life and to the priesthood, this is our vocation!”
In order for the work of the Vocationist Fathers to be effective and unique, it is necessary that it be rendered in the spirit and attitude of service. In an elevation to the holy founders, Fr. Justin prayed thus: “I would like to belong totally to each and every one of you, O holy founders. I would like to dedicate myself completely to each and every activity and religious family in order to embrace all the good done in the church and render to the Blessed Trinity all the adoration rendered by every religious order… O holy founders, I cannot be a child of each one of you… but please accept me as your servant. May the Lord, through his intercession, grant that I may render humble service to each one of you in your religious families and enterprises.”
Fr. Justin expressed the same feeling in his presentation of Spiritus Domini: “One can be a son only in one religious family; the servant and worker, however, can renders service to more families and thus, in a certain way, he can belong a little to everyone rendering this service with our blood, with our spirit, with our life.” That is why in the General Idea Fr. Justin declared: “With a sacred allegiance, the Society of Divine Vocations considers itself essentially and positively, places itself at the service of the clergy and religious orders, committing itself especially and freely to the local Church to search out, prepare and present to them good candidates.” It recognizes all priest and religious as its good masters.
In the book of Religious Observance Fr. Justin stated: “Every director general, in the first year of his term, will renew his spiritual allegiance of unilateral service with all religious orders of pontifical right. The provincial director will do the same but only with the orders having residence within the province.”
In a prayer of consecration to the Blessed Trinity, Fr. Justin said: “I think with devotion and veneration to the holy Church in which I live, and in order to enrich myself always more and better with the goodness of the church… I constitute myself as perpetual servant of the holy church and I swear servitude to the church and its representatives, the sacred pastors… servitude of faithful and caring cooperation to all parochial, diocesan and pontifical activities.”
The first name given by Fr. Justin to the Vocationist Fathers was “Servants of the saints.” The supreme rule of the religious is to “follow Christ.” Fr. Justin took very seriously these words of Jesus: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” Jesus Himself is the servant of God, the suffering servant! The idea of serving God and His people is something very sublime, glorious and happy. In considering ourselves as servants of God, we see that by first becoming servants we will later be children, brothers, parents and spouses of God. In order to understand the idea of service we think of the Blessed Mother, who declared herself the “servant of the Lord” at the very moment she was elevated to the supreme dignity of Mother of God, as if she were saying: “Now that I am the Mother of God I must – with Him and like Him – guide all people to the promised land with my service.” We think of Jesus, God from God, but also “servant of God” as He is called in the Scriptures through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. St. Paul said that Jesus took the form of a servant and emptied himself to death on the cross. In Ascension, Fr. Justin stressed that Vocationist should make his own all the characteristics of the servant as they are found in the Old and New Testament.
On August 21, 1924, Fr. Justin wrote in his agenda: “I made a vow of chastity, poverty, obedience and servitude.” This fourth vow became a characteristic note of the Vocationist. On July 16, 1917, Fr. Justin wrote in his spiritual diary: “Servant of Saints! Not only in my words, but in my thoughts, in my feelings and desires, a real servant! The least, little, humble, vigilant, hard-working, sacrificed servant of the saints, that is, of everyone, servant in your own eyes and in the eyes of the people and in the eyes of God!” In Religious Observances Fr. Justin further developed the idea of servanthood: “The holy Church, the sacred family, the divine Trinity are the triple-unique center and axis of the interior life and apostolic action of their triple-unique mission as servants of vocations, servants of the Church and servants of Divine Union.”
We can be sure that Fr. Justin was consumed by his ardent desire of serving vocations. All the problems, agonies and martyrdoms that he suffered in his earthly life were caused by his limitless dedication to assist, help and save vocations. We have already seen that Fr. Justin took the word “vocation” first in its general meaning of vocation to life, to faith, to holiness, and then in its special meaning of vocation to the priesthood and religious life. His global vision of everything being a vocation made it practically impossible for Fr. Justin to restrict his activities.
Many outsiders, as well as apostolic visitors, tried in vain to curtail the vast field of activities of the Vocationist Fathers. It may be good to conclude these pages by trying to understand what a vocation really is. Fr. Justin stated: “This calling of God – is it an invitation, a suggestion, an order? Oh, how necessary it is to know it in order to regulate oneself properly with the Lord. The divine vocation is not an invitation, is not a suggestion, is not an order; it is simply a calling through which the Lord attracts my attention and wants me to turn toward Him in order to listen to Him. The first thing is to turn, to listen, to be interested in the suggestion, order, mission…
“If a friend or a superior should call me (and has become aware of the fact that I have heard him!) and I do not even turn toward him, he would certainly be offended, since my attitude could not be attributed to anything else but disregard for the friend or insubordination to the superior, and ordinarily this may be the beginning of a break in the relationship, the beginning of hostility. Listening to God’s voice always requires a commitment; for this reason, at times, we prefer not to listen…
“Those who have felt the divine vocation (in whatever way, shape, form or time) can never excuse themselves from answering with the false pretext that they actually do not feel it any longer.”
“Again, when you answer yes and do so because you were attracted by its beauty, you saw the convenience, it seemed a real necessity for your own realization, for the good of the church, for the glory of God… why now should you say no?”
“St. Paul assumed us, God does not change His mind about whom He chooses and blesses. The Lord does not have second thoughts. In the act of the first religious oblation the Vocationist says: You have called me to be all yours in a perfect way and on a sublime level and that is why I leave the world, my country, my family and its interests, I leave myself and every form of egotism in order to follow and imitate, serve and love in all my life, my Lord Jesus Christ, in this His family of the Divine Vocations to the divine ascension for the union with you, O Blessed Trinity.”
“You have not called me specifically to life of greater spiritual activity in prayer, in penance, in good works nor wanted to specifically separate me from the world, from my family, from my own self. Instead, you have specifically called me to you, to be with you, to follow you and love you, to unite myself to you and become one with you.”
“That my life with you is a life of prayer, penance, and universal separation is a more or less direct consequence of your calling to live with you.”
“Why all this? In order to become soul-daughter-mother-spouse of the Blessed Trinity.
“I think with veneration of this religious society which you have established, gathered, transformed, that you have wanted in the church so that souls may find that special cultivation of the relationship of your spouses. Consequently, I unite myself to this religious family of yours and I swear fidelity to my vocation and my mission in it. I want to persevere in it and bear fruit in it both in time and in eternity because you have called me to it, because in it you want to grant me your Divine Union.”
“In order to reach the relationship of spouse of the Blessed Trinity, I must reach it in this religious family, I must become a part of that galaxy, I must form a group of outstanding and well- determined stars.”
I would like to conclude with Fr. Justin’s words contained in the Consecation of the Society of Divine Vocations to the Adorable Trinity: “May your Divine blessing and protection, O Adorable Trinity, make this Society of Divine Vocations, to the divine ascension for the Divine Union worthy of your predilections and complacencies as your tabernacle in the Militant Church, as your throne in the Triumphant Church, and as one of your instruments in the work of universal sanctification.”
INVITATION TO HOLINESS
What is your calling in life? Regardless of your vocation, status or profession, your most important, your highest calling is your vocation to holiness. Jesus tells you:
“Come follow me”;
“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”;
“Live on in my love”;
“Live on in me as I do in you”;
“What good is it to gain the whole world if in the process you lose your soul?”
God made us for Himself in His own image and likeness, to live with Him, to be with Him in this life and throughout eternity.
Our success and real, lasting happiness depends on our level of union with Him. “No more than branch can bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, can you bear fruit apart from Me.”
Will you ever be a saint? God wants you to be a saint, the church and the world need you to be a saint, but only you can make it happen by accepting God’s love and cooperating with the action of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, who are with you, in you.
Make it happen. Become a saint. This is Fr. Justin’s wish and prayer for you. This is God’s calling to you. This is the very reason of your existence.
Be a saint!
Caputo, Fr. Louis, SDV. A Servant of the Divine Vocations: Fr. Justin Russolillo. Copyright 1998. U.S.A. Pg. 125 – 165.