Before You were Born I Dedicated You (Jer 1,5)
By Fr. Joseph Rinaldo, SdC
Fr. Louis Guanella died on October 24, 1915. When Pope Benedict XV heard of his death, he affirmed: “A saint died.” Almost a century later, Benedict XVI confirmed that prophecy by proclaiming Fr. Louis Guanella a saint before the entire Church.
At the beginning of his ministry, no one believed him. Everyone, including his bishop, thought that he was a failed visionary, intolerant, aggressive and aimless. He fought against the Masonic government and against corruption, giving his life for the protection of the handicapped and the elderly. He also understood that illiteracy was a great problem. The majority of people did not know how to read and write and therefore the authorities took advantage of them. He opened homes for the handicapped, the elderly and schools for children and adults.
He was persecuted, fined, punished and exiled. But he never gave up until his hour came through God’s providence.
Fr. Guanella’s body and soul were shaped by his parents and the mountains where he was born and grew up. The St. James Valley is still lavishly green and surrounded by the snow-covered Alps.
The small Rabbiosa Torrent hops over cliffs and rocks, foaming and churning its way toward the valley. Up, up on the mountainside, patches of velvety edelweiss look down from the precipices.
This spectacular scenery was what Louis saw when he opened his eyes for the first time. However, the valley itself was unrewarding and life dull and difficult: cows to lead to pasture, hay to collect, wood to cut, many children to feed.
And the bread had to be soaked with water because it was hard bread and had to be shared with others.
Louis Guanella was born in the village of Fraciscio, in the heart of the Alps, on December 18, 1842, the same year St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo died. It seemed like the passing of the torch of charity from one saint to another. Pa’ Lorenzo and Maria Guanella already had eight children roaming the house, and Providence would bring four more to the family.
Pa’ Lawrence was the mayor. People loved and followed this wise man. He settled matters more by the law of the heart than by the law of the land. Maria, the mother, was pure sweetness. Her kindness kept unity in the family, and through her care everyone grew generous of soul and healthy in body.
Pa’ Lawrence was a demanding and austere man, but filled with charity. During the long winter evenings, he gathered his family around the fireplace and narrated the adventures of Abraham, Moses, King David, and the wonderful deeds of Jesus feeding the poor, healing the sick, and preaching the Kingdom of God.
“Was Jesus feeding more people than we are here in Fraciscio?”
“More than that, son!”
“Even a number bigger than the people coming for the Feast of St. Rocco?”
“Many more, many more …”
Fr. Guanella often commented: “I remember, that after these stories, my sister Catherine and I would go outside and prepare ‘soup’ with water and dirt for the poor. And we told each other that, when we were grownups, we would prepare many loaves and plenty of soup for the poor.”
Louis did not have to go far to know what poverty was. It was the one thing that abounded in every house in the village. Frequently, when going out of the house, he met people in need, people who were leaving their land and migrating to Switzerland for a piece of bread.
Pa’ Lorenzo sometimes brought poor people that he met on the road to their table, happy to give them some corn-meal, or a bowl of soup. In those harsh times many people were abandoning their villages and migrating to surrounding European countries or to America looking for a better life. On more than one occasion, local emigrants brought a handful of native soil and Mama Maria’s cake with them.
These heartbreaking scenes were indelibly impressed upon the mind of the little boy Louis for the rest of his life.
There were many mouths to feed in the Guanella family, but in other families there were also many children and not enough food. For little Louis, his family became a school of life, a powerful catechesis!
If, sometimes, the polenta voraciously eaten at supper was not enough to make the little ones fall asleep, Pa’ Lawrence helped them with his long litanies of prayers that went on and on in honor of all the Saints venerated in the Valley and beyond. However, no sleeping was allowed during Rosary. More than once, by the second or third Mystery, Louis’s eyes would become heavier and heavier. The Hail Marys were like a rocking chair lulling him to sleep, closing his eyes and dreaming of his mom baking more bread and more pie … The clearing of his dad’s throat was enough to wake him up, to straighten his shoulders, and to get him to respond to the unending list of prayers while his older brothers, who knew better, restrained their smiles.
Before You were Born I Dedicated You (Jer 1,5)