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St John Calabria
Priest, Founder of the Congregation of the Poor Servants and the Poor Women Servants of Divine Providence (entered heaven this day in 1954)
I keep thinking of you, though I haven’t heard from you in a long time. You must be extremely busy – classes, plus Compass, plus gearing up for tryouts for the national ski team. I didn’t realize you had advanced so quickly in your athletic prowess until your brother sent me a note asking me to pray for you. He had in mind, of course, your success in sport, but he was also worried about your waning prayer life and sporadic attendance at the Compass events. Are your gold medal prospects crowding out Christ? He seems to think so, but I doubt it. Just in case, however, you may want to take a gander at today’s saint.
Pope Pius XII, who knew him well, sent a consolatory message the day after his death to the religious congregation founded by St John. In it he called the saint a “campione di evangelica caritá”, i.e. “champion of gospel charity.” And that, if I may venture to enhance a papal proclamation, was an understatement. His family was dirt poor. When his dad passed away, he had to drop out of fourth grade to find a job and help support his six brothers and sisters and his mother. Even so, the parish priest saw how gifted he was, and made sure to prepare him for the entrance exam of seminary high school, which the future saint passed. The succeeding studies too were interrupted, this time by compulsory military service. It was in the army that he began to discern his vocation. He was a tireless apostle of Christ among his fellow soldiers, offering himself to take on the most humiliating or dangerous tasks, and thus winning the hearts of officers and soldiers alike, and bringing many of them back to the practice of their faith.
After leaving the army, he continued his studies, but even before receiving priestly ordination he had begun to create houses for abandoned and runaway children. Once he could exercise the priestly ministry, he dedicated himself to hearing confessions and increased his activity developing charitable works of every kind, even founding a religious congregation to make his efforts more effective. He started schools, poor houses, hospices, homes for the elderly – wherever people suffered, St John and his “poor servants” came to the rescue. He also organized houses of formation for young men who felt an inkling to become priests, but couldn’t afford to pay for their preliminary education.
No one knows how many souls he touched, but in the examination of his case for canonization letters streamed in from thousands of faithful – lay people, clergy, bishops, even Protestants and Jews (he kept up a correspondence – in Latin – with the great Protestant apologist C.S. Lewis, and one Jewish woman testified that she had survived the Nazi persecution being allowed to disguise herself as a nun in one of St John’s Institutes). As one prelate put it, “He was a lighthouse in the Church of God.”
So you can see why Pope Pius XII called him a “champion of gospel charity.” Now, if you had to choose between a gold medal in the giant slalom and a championship in Gospel charity, which would you pick?… The good thing is, of course, that you don’t have to choose. You can strive for both, seeing your teammates as the souls God has entrusted to your care. Just don’t let earthly gold blind you to the glory that lasts forever. Rather, be, as St John Calabria used to say, “a living version of the Gospel.” Write soon.
Your devoted uncle,