St Paola Elisabetta (Costanza Cerioli) (1816-1865)
Costanza Cerioli was born on 28 January 1816 in Soncino, Italy, the last of 16 children born into the noble family of Francesco Cerioli and Francesca Corniani. She was a frail child plagued by a heart condition throughout her life.
Comfort found in God alone
Costanza lived at home until she was 11 years old, when she was sent off to school in Bergamo; here she remained for five years, suffering terribly from the loneliness of being away from home. But this experience helped her grow to depend on God, finding her comfort in him alone.
At age 19, Costanza returned to Soncino where a planned marriage awaited her; 59-year-old Gaetano Busecchi, widow of a countess, was set to be her husband. Seeing it as God's will, she accepted this proposal and was married on 30 April 1835.
Her marriage lasted 19 years and was marked by suffering on all sides: her husband's difficult character and poor health weighed on her, and three of the four children that Costanza gave birth to died prematurely; Carlo, her greatest "consolation", lived to be 16.
Before his death due to serious illness in January 1854, Carlo spoke these prophetic words to his mother: "Mama, do not cry... the Lord will give you other children". At the end of that same year, on 25 December, Gaetano also died.
This marked a dark period for Costanza, causing a profound existential crisis. Never had she found herself so alone and abandoned, her life so seemingly senseless. It was during this time that the words spoken by her son became a constant echo in her soul and sustained her, becoming her "guiding light".
She sought spiritual direction and entrusted her tragedies and entire life into the hands of God, asking constantly for the grace to live her life with eyes of faith.
Costanza continued to feel the need to express her "maternity" and to "give of herself" to others, as she had done with Carlo. She was now 38 years old and, inspired by the Gospel, understood that charity was the only truly meaningful road.
She thus began to visit and assist the sick and share her belongings with the poor and orphans. Looking into the searching and frightened eyes of the orphaned children who begged along the streets inspired her to make even more courageous decisions.
She began to give all her wealth and belongings to the poor and opened her home to welcome orphans. Her family and neighbours would remark: "The anguish that this devout woman passed through must have driven her crazy... she does not realize what she is doing".
The money she received once she sold her jewellry was used to purchase materials for the orphanage. Even before giving away all her goods, she had made the most important decision: to give her entire self to God, making a perpetual vow of chastity on 25 December 1856. And with her confessor's approval, she made vows of poverty and obedience on 8 February 1857.
It was not long before other young women desired to join Costanza and "follow" in her works of charity. God's plan was unfolding before her eyes with greater clarity; in silence, prayer and recollection she began to draw up the Rule for her "work".
Sisters of the Holy Family
On 8 December 1857, Costanza, "mother of many orphans", founded the Institute of the Sisters of the Holy Family in Comonte, Italy. She took the name "Sr Paola Elisabetta", and summarized the charism of the Congregation in this way:
"The humility, simplicity, poverty and love of work found in the Holy Family of Nazareth is what makes up the specific spirituality of this Institute. The Sisters that belong to it must strive to model themselves on this life, full of the recollection, hiddenness and same spirit of humble labour that Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in this blessed home".
From that day, Mother Paola dedicated herself to the growth and development of the religious community. On 4 November 1863, in Villacampagna, a male branch was also founded by her, theReligious of the Holy Family.
Under the protection of St Joseph
With the House of Nazareth as the model of both branches, Mother Paola entrusted her "work" to the special protection of St Joseph and willed that the orphans under their care be known as the "sons and daughters of St Joseph".
She was very attentive to the education of these parentless children and to the problem of poverty. Her motherly spirit was limitless and she understood the importance of carefully and properly forming her religious sons and daughters, so that they would be able to love and educate well the children God placed under their care, these "neglected and lost ones".
Mother Paola Elisabetta died unexpectedly in her home in Comonte on 24 December 1865. She was 49 years old.
She was beatified by Pope Pius XII on 19 March 1950, the Solemnity of St Joseph.
ANONIZATION OF SIX NEW SAINTS
HOMILY OF JOHN PAUL II
Sixth Sunday of Easter, 16 May 2004
1. "Peace I leave with you" (Jn 14: 27). During the Easter season, we frequently hear this promise of Jesus to his disciples. True peace is the fruit of Christ's victory over the power of evil, sin and death. Those who follow him faithfully become witnesses and builders of his peace.
It is in this light that I wish to contemplate the six new Saints, offered to us today by the Church for universal veneration: Luigi Orione, Hannibal Mary Di Francia, José Manyanet y Vives, Nimatullah Kassab Al-Hardini, Paola Elisabetta Cerioli, Gianna Beretta Molla.
2. "Men who have risked their lives for the sake of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 15: 26). These words taken from the Acts of the Apostles can be well-applied to St Luigi Orione, a man who gave himself entirely for the cause of Christ and his Kingdom. Physical and moral sufferings, fatigue, difficulty, misunderstandings and all kinds of obstacles characterized his apostolic ministry."Christ, the Church, souls", he would say, "are loved and served on the cross and through crucifixion or they are not loved and served at all" (Writings, 68, 81).
The heart of this strategy of charity was "without limits because it was opened wide by the charity of Christ" (ibid., 102, 32). Passion for Christ was the soul of his bold life, the interior thrust of an altruism without reservations, the always fresh source of an indestructible hope.
This humble son of a man who repaired roads proclaimed that "only charity will save the world"(ibid., 62, 13), and to everyone he would often say that "perfect joy can only be found in perfect dedication of oneself to God and man, and to all mankind" (ibid.).
3. "Whoever loves me will keep my word" (Jn 14: 23). In these words of the Gospel we see illustrated the spiritual profile of Hannibal Mary Di Francia, whose love for the Lord moved him to dedicate his entire life to the spiritual well-being of others. In this perspective, he felt above all the urgency to carry out the Gospel command: "Rogate ergo... Pray then to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest!" (Mt 9: 38).
He left to the Rogationist Fathers and the Daughters of Divine Zeal the task to do their utmost with all their strength so that prayer for vocations would be "unceasing and universal". This same call of Fr Hannibal Mary Di Francia is directed to the young people of our times, summed up in his usual exhortation: "Fall in love with Jesus Christ".
From this providential intuition, a great movement of prayer for vocations rose up within the Church. I hope with all my heart that the example of Fr Hannibal Mary Di Francia will guide and sustain such pastoral work even in our times.
4. "The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you" (Jn 14: 26). From the beginning, the Holy Spirit has brought forth men and women who have remembered and spread the truth revealed by Jesus. One of these was St José Manyanet, a true apostle of the family. Inspired by the school of Nazareth, he carried out his plan of personal sanctity and heroically devoted himself to the mission that the Spirit entrusted to him. He founded two religious congregations. A visible symbol of his apostolic zeal is also the temple of the Holy Family of Barcelona.
May St José Manyanet bless all families and help them follow the example of the Holy Family in their homes!
5. A man of prayer, in love with the Eucharist which he adored for long periods, St Nimatullah Kassab Al-Hardini is an example for the monks of the Order of Lebanese Maronites as he is for his Lebanese brothers and sisters and all Christians of the world. He gave himself completely to the Lord in a life full of great sacrifices, showing that God's love is the only true source of joy and happiness for man. He committed himself to searching for and following Christ, his Master and Lord.
Welcoming his brothers, he reassured and healed many wounds in the hearts of his contemporaries, witnessing to God's mercy. May his example enlighten our journey and bring forth, especially in young people, a true desire for God and for holiness to proclaim to our world the light of the Gospel!
6. "The Angel... showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven" (Rv 21: 10). This marvellous image in the Apocalypse of John exalts the beauty and spiritual fruitfulness of the Church, the new Jerusalem. A unique witness to this spiritual fruitfulness is Paola Elisabetta Cerioli, whose life was full of good fruits.
Contemplating the Holy Family, Paola Elisabetta understood that families remain strong when the bonds among their members are sustained and kept together by sharing the values of faith and a Christian way of life. To spread these values, the new Saint founded the Institute of the Holy Family. She was convinced that in order for children to grow up sure of themselves and strong, they needed a family that was healthy and united, generous and stable. May God help Christian families to welcome and witness in every situation to the love of the merciful God.
7. Gianna Beretta Molla was a simple, but more than ever, significant messenger of divine love. In a letter to her future husband a few days before their marriage, she wrote: "Love is the most beautiful sentiment the Lord has put into the soul of men and women".
Following the example of Christ, who "having loved his own... loved them to the end" (Jn 13: 1), this holy mother of a family remained heroically faithful to the commitment she made on the day of her marriage. The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfil themselves.
Through the example of Gianna Beretta Molla, may our age rediscover the pure, chaste and fruitful beauty of conjugal love, lived as a response to the divine call!
8. "Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid" (Jn 14: 28). The earthly events of these six new Saints spur us to persevere on our own journey, confiding in the help of God and the maternal protection of Mary. From Heaven, may they now watch over us and support us with their powerful intercession.