Weekly General Audience April 28, 2010

During his general audience on April 28, Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his catechesis to two Italian priests, St. Leonard Murialdo and St. Joseph Cottolengo, who were exemplary in their commitment to God and their witness to charity towards those in need.

St. Leonard Murialdo was a disciple of St. John Bosco, yet he independently dedicated himself to initiatives in favor of young people. He founded the Congregation of St. Joseph, whose apostolic goal was the formation of young people. He saw his priestly vocation as a gift of God’s love, to be received with gratitude, joy and love.

St. Joseph Cottolengo lived a generation before St. Leonard Murialdo. He, too, demonstrated great sensitivity towards the poor. He had a dramatic encounter with human suffering, which led him to establish a charitable outreach involving scores of people — priests, religious and laypeople alike.

Pope Benedict XVI prayed that the example of these two great priests would continue to inspire and sustain priests today to generously devote their lives to God and to the service of their brothers and sisters.

Dear brothers and sisters,

As we approach the end of the Year for Priests on this last Wednesday of April, I would like to speak to you about St. Leonard Murialdo and St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, two holy priests who were exemplary in their self-offering to God and in their witness of charity towards their brothers and sisters in greatest need — a witness they lived within the Church and for the Church. This year we are observing the 110th anniversary of St. Leonard Murialdo’s death and the 40th anniversary of his canonization. We have also begun the celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of St. Joseph Cottolengo’s ordination to the priesthood.

St. Leonard Murialdo

St. Leonard Murialdo was born in Turin on Oct. 26, 1828. It was the Turin of both St. John Bosco and St. Joseph Cottolengo, a land made fertile by the holy example of many laypeople and priests.

Leonard was the eighth child in a very simple family. As children, he and his brother entered the Piarist Fathers’ school in Savona for elementary, middle and high school. There, he encountered competent educators, an atmosphere of deep faith based on serious catechesis, and regular devotional practices. During his adolescence, however, he went through a profound existential and spiritual crisis that led him to return prematurely to his family and conclude his studies in Turin, where he enrolled in a two-year course of philosophy.

After a few months, as he himself recounts, a “return to the light” occurred, with the grace of a general confession in which he rediscovered God’s immense mercy. At the age of 17, he decided to become a priest — a response in love to God, who had seized him with his love. He was ordained on Sept. 20, 1851.

It was in that period that Don Bosco met St. Leonard Murialdo, then a catechist at the Guardian Angel Oratory, and came to esteem him, convincing him to become the director of the new Oratory of St. Louis in Porta Nuova, a position he held until 1865.

His Encounter With the Poor

There, he came into contact with the serious problems that plagued the poorer classes. He visited their homes, developing a profound social, educational and apostolic sensitivity that later led him to dedicate himself independently to numerous initiatives providing support for young people.

Catechesis, teaching and recreational activities were the foundation of his educational method at the oratory. Don Bosco asked St. Leonard Murialdo to accompany him to the audience granted to him by Blessed Pius IX in 1858.

In 1873, he founded the Congregation of St. Joseph, which, from its beginning, had as its apostolic goal the formation of young people, especially the poor and the abandoned. The charitable works and activities that St. Leonard Murialdo promoted left their mark on Turin society and flourished up to the time of his death on March 30, 1900.

His Charism

I would like to emphasize the fact that the core of Leonard Murialdo’s spirituality was his certainty of the merciful love of God, a Father who is always good, patient and generous, who reveals the greatness and immensity of his mercy through forgiveness.

St. Leonard experienced this at the personal and not the intellectual level through a living encounter with the Lord. He always considered himself a man blessed by a merciful God. Because of this, he experienced the joyfulness of gratitude to the Lord, a peaceful awareness of his own limitations, an ardent desire for penance, and an ongoing and generous commitment to conversion.

He saw his life not only illuminated and guided and sustained by this love, but also continually immersed in God’s infinite mercy. As he wrote in his Spiritual Testament, “Your mercy surrounds me, O Lord. ... As God is eternal and everywhere, so he is eternally and everywhere love; he is eternally and everywhere mercy.”

Recalling the crisis he had experienced in his youth, he wrote: “See how the good God wanted his goodness and generosity to shine in an altogether singular way. Not only did he admit me once again to his friendship, but he called me to a very special choice: He called me to the priesthood, and did so only a few months after my return to him.”

Because of this, St. Leonard lived out his priestly vocation with a sense of gratitude, joy and love, as a gratuitous gift of God’s mercy. “God has chosen me!” he wrote. “He has called me. He has even led me to the honor, glory and ineffable happiness of being his minister, of being ‘another Christ.’ … And where was I when you sought me, my God? At the bottom of the abyss! I was there, and there came God to seek me; there he made me hear his voice.”

Driving Force

Highlighting the greatness of the mission of priests, who must “continue the work of redemption, Jesus Christ’s greatest work, the work of the Savior of the world,” namely that of “saving souls,” St. Leonard always recalled, both to himself and to his colleagues, the responsibility of living a life that was consistent with the sacrament they had received.

Love of God and love for God: This was the driving force of his path to holiness, the guiding precept for his priesthood, the deepest meaning of his apostolate among poor young people and the source of his prayer.

St. Leonard Murialdo gave himself over with confidence to God’s providence by generously carrying out God’s will in his contact with God and in dedicating himself to poor young people.

By doing so, he united the silence of contemplation and the tireless ardor of action; faithfulness in daily duties and brilliance in developing initiatives; strength amid difficulties and inner peace. This was his way of holiness in living out the commandment of love towards God and towards his neighbor.

St. Joseph Cottolengo

St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, founder of the work he himself called the “Little House of Divine Providence” and also called today “Cottolengo,” lived out this same spirit of charity 40 years before St. Leonard Murialdo. [On May 2], during my pastoral visit to Turin, I will venerate the remains of this saint and meet the residents of the “Little House.”

Joseph Benedict Cottolengo was born in Bra, a town in the province of Cuneo, on May 3, 1786. The first of 12 children, six of whom died at an early age, he showed great sensitivity towards the poor from an early age. He embarked on the path to the priesthood, a path that two of his brothers also chose. The years of his youth were also the years of Napoleon’s great gamble and the ensuing hardships for religious and social life.

St. Joseph Cottolengo became a good priest, sought after by many penitents, as well as a preacher of spiritual exercises and retreats for university students in Turin, earning notable success.

At the age of 32, he was appointed canon of the Most Holy Trinity, a congregation of priests whose responsibility it was to officiate at the Church of Corpus Domini and to lend decorum to the religious ceremonies in the city. However, he felt ill at ease in that position. God was preparing him for a special mission. In fact, an unexpected and decisive meeting helped him to discover his future destiny in exercising his ministry.

A Dramatic Encounter

The Lord always places signs on our path, guiding us according to his will to what is truly good for us. For St. Joseph Cottolengo, this happened in a dramatic way on Sunday morning, Sept. 2, 1827. A stagecoach arrived in Turin from Milan, jammed with people.

Crammed in the stagecoach was a French family in which the wife, the mother of five children, was in the advanced stages of pregnancy with a high fever. After having wandered from one hospital to another, the family found lodgings in a public shelter. But the woman’s situation continued to worsen, and some bystanders sought a priest.

By some mysterious design, they came across St. Joseph Cottolengo. With a heavy heart, he would be the one who would accompany this young mother to her death, as the entire family stood by in agony.

After having carried out this painful task, with deep suffering in his heart, he went before the Blessed Sacrament and prayed: “My God, why? Why did you want me to be a witness? What do you want from me? Something must be done!”

Rising, he arranged for all the bells to be rung and the candles lit. He welcomed the people who arrived at the church drawn by curiosity with the words “The grace has been given! The grace has been given!” From that moment on, St. Joseph Cottolengo was transformed. All of his abilities, especially his economic and organizational skills, were used to further initiatives to support the neediest.

Outreach to the Poor

He was able to get dozens and dozens of collaborators and volunteers involved in his endeavor. Moving to the outskirts of Turin so he could expand his work, he created a sort of village in which he gave a meaningful name to every building he was able to construct, such as “house of faith,” “house of hope” and “house of charity.”

He introduced a “family” touch by establishing true communities of people — men and women volunteers, religious and laity — united in their efforts to face and overcome difficulties together.

Each person in that “Little House of Divine Providence” had a specific task: some worked; some prayed; some served; some taught; some carried out the administration. The healthy and the sick all shared the same daily burden.

Religious life was also organized over time in accordance to particular needs and requirements. He even thought of his own seminary for the special formation of priests for the work. He was always ready to follow and serve divine Providence, never to question it. He said: “I’m good for nothing, and I don’t even know what I’m doing. However, divine Providence certainly knows what it’s after. It is for me only to assent. Forward … in Domino!” For the poor and needy, he always described himself as “the laborer of divine Providence.”

Next to these small towns, he founded five convents of contemplative sisters and a monastery of hermits. He regarded these works among his most important accomplishments — a “heart” beating for his entire work. He died on April 30, 1842, as he pronounced these words: “Misericordia, Domine; Misericordia, Domine. Good and holy Providence ... holy Virgin, now it is up to you!” His whole life, as a newspaper of the time wrote, had been “an intense day of love.”

Models for Priests

Dear friends, these two saintly priests, of whom I have presented a few characteristics, lived their ministry by giving their lives totally to the poorest, to the neediest, to the least. The deep roots and the inexhaustible source of their activity was always their relationship with God, drawing from his love in the profound conviction that it is not possible to exercise charity except by living in Christ and in the Church.

May their intercession and example continue to enlighten the ministry of the many priests who offer themselves generously to God and for the flock entrusted to them, and may they help everyone to give themselves joyfully and generously to God and to others!

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