Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Saint Didacus, Confessor; Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, Virgin

A humble lay brother, Didacus of St. Nicholas is welcomed today by his father St. Francis into the company of Bernardine of Siena and John Capistran, who preceded him by a few years to heaven. The two latter left Italy and the whole of Europe still echoing with their voices, the one making peace between cities in the name of the Lord Jesus, the other urging on the Christian hosts to battle with the victorious Crescent. The age which they contributed so powerfully to save from the results of the great schism and to restore to its Christian destinies knew little of Didacus but his unbounded charity. It was the year of the great Jubilee, 1450. Rome having become once more, practically as well as theoretically, the holy city in the eyes of the nations, not even the most terrible scourges could keep her children at a distance. From every quarter of the globe, crowds, urged by the evils of the tie, flocked to the sources of salvation; and Satan’s work of ruin was retarded by seventy years.

Men doubtless attributed but a very small share of such results to the humble brother, who was spending himself in the Ara-Cœli, in the service of the plague-stricken; especially if they compared him with his brethren, the great Franciscan apostles. And yet the Church pays to Didacus today the very same honors as we have seen her pay to Bernardine and John Capistran. What is this but asserting that before God heroic acts of hidden virtue are not inferior to the noble deeds that dazzle the world if, proceeding from the same ardent love, they produce in the soul the same increase of divine charity.

The Pontificate of Nicholas V, which witnessed the imposing concourse of people to the tombs of the Apostles in 1450, was also, and still is, justly admired for the new impetus given to the culture of letters and the arts in Rome; for it belongs to the Church to adorn herself, for the honor of her Spouse, with all that men rightly deem great and beautiful. Nevertheless, who is there now of all the humanists, as the learned men of that age were called, who would not prefer the glory of the poor, unlettered Friar Minor, to that which vainly held out to them the hope of immortality? In the fifteenth century, as at all other times, God chose the foolish and the weak to confound the wise and the strong. The Gospel is always in the right.

Let us read the luminous life of this unlearned man, as given in the book of holy Church.

Didacus Hispanus, ex oppido sancti Nicolai de Portu diœcesis Hispalensis, ab inuente ætate pii sub sacerdotis disciplina, sanctioris vitæ solitaria in ecclesia, tyrocinium exercuit. Deinde ut firmius Deo se conjungeret, in conventu de Arizzafa fratrum Minorum (quos Observantes vocant) sancti Francisci regulam in statu laicali professus est. Magna ibi alacritate humilis obedientiæ et regularis observantiæ jugum subiens, contemplationi in primis deditus, mira Dei luce perfundebatur, adeo ut de rebus cœlestibus, litterarum expers, mirandum in modum et plane divinitus loqueretur.

Didacus (a Latin form of the Spanish Diego, or James) was a Spaniard, born at the little town of St. Nicholas de Porto in the diocese of Seville. From his early youth he began the practice of a perfect life, under the guidance of a pious priest in a solitary church. Then, in order to bind himself more closely to God, he made profession of the rule of St. Francis, in the convent of the Observantine Friars Minor at Arizzafa. There he bore the yoke of humble obedience and regular observance with great alacrity; and devoted himself especially to contemplation, in which he received wonderful lights from God, so that, illiterate as he was, he spoke of heavenly things in an admirable manner, evidently by a divine gift.

Canariis in insulis, ubi fratribus sui Ordinis præfuit, multa perpessus, martyrii æstuans desiderio, plures infideles verbo et exemplo ad Christi fidem convertit. Romam veniens anno jubilæi, Nicolao quinto Pontifice, ægrotorum curæ in vonventu Aræ Cœli destinatus, eo caritatis affectu munus hoc exercuit, ut Urbe annoniæ inopia laborante, ægrotis tamen, quorum aliquando ulcera etiam lambendo abstergebat, nihil penitus necessarium defecerit. Eximia quoque fides et gratia curationum in eo eluxit, cum lampadis, quæ collucebat ante imaginem beatissimæ Dei Genitricis, quam summa devotione colebat, oleo ægros inungens, signo crucis impresso, multorum morbos mirabiliter sanaverit.

He was sent to the Canary Isles to govern the brethren of his Order; and there he had much to suffer. He was burning with the desire of martyrdom; and by his words and example, he converted many infidels to the faith of Christ. Coming to Rome in the Jubilee year, in the pontificate of Nicholas V, he was entrusted with the care of the sick in the convent of Ara Cœli. With such loving charity did he acquit himself of this duty, that the sick wanted for nothing even during the famine in the city; he also sometimes cleansed their ulcers by sucking them. He was remarkable for his great faith and his gift of healing; for by signing the cross upon the sick with oil from a lamp burning before an image of the Mother of God, to whom he had the greatest devotion, he miraculously cured many of them.

Demum Compluti finem sibi vitæ adesse intelligens, lacera et obsoleta indutus tunica, conjectis in crucem oculis, singulari devotione illis verbis ex sacro hymno pronuntiatis: Dulce lignum, dulces clavos, dulcia ferens pondera, quæ fuisti digna portare Regem cœlorum et Dominum, animam Deo reddidit, pridie idus novembris, anno Domini supra millesimum quadringentesimo sexagesimo tertio. Ejus corpus cum menses non paucos (ut pio confluentium desiderio fieret satis) insepultum mansisset, quasi jam incorruptionem induerit, odorem suavissimum efflavit. Illum multis et illustribus miraculis clarum Sixtus quintus Pontifex Maximus Sanctorum numero adscripsit.

At length, when at Alcala, he understood that the end of his life was at hand. Clad in an old torn tunic, with his eyes fixed on the cross, he devoutly pronounced these words of the sacred hymn: O sweet wood, sweet are thy nails, and sweet thy burden; thou wast worthy to bear the King and Lord of heaven! He then gave up his soul to God, on the day before the Ides of November, in the year of our Lord 1463. His body was left unburied for several months, in order to satisfy the pious devotion of the numbers who came to see it; and, as though already clothed with immortality, it exhaled a sweet odor. He was renowned for many striking miracles, and was enrolled among the Saints by Pope Sixtus V.

“O Almighty, everlasting God, who by an admirable order dost choose the weak things of the world, that thou mayest confound whatever is strong; mercifully grant to our lowliness, that by the pious prayers of blessed Didacus, thy Confessor, we may be made worthy to be exalted to everlasting glory in heaven.” Such is the prayer addressed to God by the Church at all the liturgical Hours on this thy feast, O Didacus. Second her supplications; for thou art in high favor with him whom thou didst follow so lovingly along the way of humility and voluntary poverty. A royal road indeed, since it brought thee to a throne which far outshines all earthly thrones. Even here below, thou dost far surpass in renown many of they contemporaries, who are now as forgotten as they were once illustrious. Sanctity alone merits crowns that endure through all ages of time and for all eternity; for God is the final awarder, as he is the supreme reason of all glory, just as in him lies the principle of all true happiness both for this world and for the next. May we all, after thine example and by thine assistance, learn this by our own blessed experience!

Physically small (under five feet tall) and always frail in health, Francesca took her naming after Francis Xavier seriously, living a life of missionary zeal that equalled his. Born near Pavia in northern Italy, she qualified as a primary school teacher and at the age of twenty-two was in charge of a school in a nearby village. Newly united Italy was experiencing a wave of anti-clericalism, and it was forbidden to teach religion in schools, but she obtained permission to teach doctrine after school hours.

She applied to join two religious Orders, but both rejected her. Her parish priest placed her in charge of an orphanage, and she gathered a team to help her, but the scheme collapsed for lack of funds. Her aim was to follow literally in her patron’s footsteps and be a missionary in China. With seven companions she founded a house devoted to foreign missions, but she met with resistance in the Church to the idea of women being missionaries. She persevered, and the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were approved in 1880, with a Rule balancing hard work and spirituality, but they were not able to work outside Italy, where they soon had several houses and a growing reputation. She went to Rome in 1887 and, after some initial resistance, was able to start a house there. The Italian houses were to be training bases for her work on the missions—when she could start that.

The chance came through a meeting with Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini, who was deeply concerned with the plight of Italian migrants to the United States. Unable to make a living in Italy in the economic depression of the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of thousands were leaving each year in the hope of a better life in the New World. In the United States they gathered in “Little Italies,” ghettos in the cities of the eastern seaboard, generally exploited by employers, and bereft of priests, teachers, and any sort of social care. Scalabrini, looking for “good priests” to go to New York in response to an appeal from Archbishop Michael Corrigan, saw a role for the Missionary Sisters there as well. Mother Cabrini, as she was by then known, had an audience with Pope Leo XIII, who was aware of the plight of Italians in the United States, and he told her their mission was to be “not to the east but to the west.”

So she went, with six other Sisters, on a stormy voyage from Le Havre, to a non-existent reception in New York, where they had to find a slum tenement in which to live and to beg for everything. Somehow they won through and began teaching and looking after the sick and orphans. The archbishop did not approve of women and at first gave them no assistance, but it seems that a sharp letter from Bishop Scalabrini convinced him that the orphanage at least merited support. The work just grew and grew: as Italians began to lift themselves out of the direst poverty they gave the Sisters what they could; wealthy American donors came forward with offers of houses. Mother Cabrini travelled to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Saint Louis, Missouri, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle—where she took up a pick and showed her Sisters how to clear a building site.

She was then asked to start a hospital in New York. At first she refused, saying she was a teacher and not a nurse, but then she had a dream in which the Virgin Mary was nursing the sick—telling her she had to because she, Francesca Cabrini, would not. So, with a few mattresses and bottles of medicine in an empty building, she started a hospital. Again, begging for help brought results: doctors and clinicians offered their services, and she soon had a well-organized hospital with a medical board in charge. She called it the Columbus Hospital, as it was founded in 1892, the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World—and she wanted everyone to know that he came from Genoa, not from Spain as the Hispanics thought.

And on she went: to Nicaragua, where she thought she was having success converting the Indians until she caught yellow fever and they all vanished; to Panama and down the Pacific coast to Valparaíso, then across the Andes to Argentina and Brazil, both experiencing huge waves of Italian immigration. She set up new schools and orphanages as she went. In Rio de Janeiro there happened to be a smallpox epidemic, she she stayed to nurse the sick. She returned to Italy nine times to gather new recruits, and established houses France and Spain, conscious that Italian Sisters alone could not be effective where other languages were spoken. She extended the work in the United States to care for prisoners, including those on death row.

In 1907 she became a naturalized citizen of the USA in order to have legal claim under American corporation law to all the properties her Order had there. In 1916 she finally awarded herself six months of spiritual retreat. The following year, back at work, she suddenly collapsed when wrapping sweets to give children for Christmas. She died the next day. She was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946 and proclaimed “Patroness of immigrants.” In the United States she is known as the “first citizen saint,” and she features in the Immigration Museum at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.


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