St Luigi Versiglia

Bishop, one of the 119 Martyrs of China (entered heaven on February 24th, 1930)

Dear Lu,

If you waffle, you lose.  Happiness, I mean. Waffling in your commitments enervates the soul.  It drains the spiritual vigor you need to experience the happiness God intends for you.  If you stay faithful, on the other hand – to your commitments, to your relationships, to your duties – then your soul will stay in good shape, and the happiness you seek will be yours, no matter where Providence sends you.  That is one of the lessons of today’s martyrs, of whom Bishop Luigi Versiglia is one of the most noble.

The holy bishop fell in love with the idea of becoming a Salesian priest while he was studying at one of the Don Bosco oratories in Turin, northern Italy.  The example of the priests who worked there – their joy, enthusiasm, and devotion – inspired him with a desire to become a missionary himself. He entered the Order and his extraordinary intelligence helped him advance quickly in his studies; by the time he was 22 he already had his Ph.D. and was teaching philosophy at one of the Salesian seminaries.  He received a special dispensation to be ordained before the required age of 23 (you see, we Catholics are not slaves of the law; we’re flexible). After instructing novices for a few years, he was sent to head up the first Salesian missionary venture in China. In the early 1900s the Christian missionary works there were still growing, but slowly. European unrest disrupted them, as did the growing communist influence in China itself.  As St Luigi’s work expanded, he was appointed bishop of a new vicariate on the mainland across from Hong Kong. Although he preferred educating children and taking care of orphans and the poor, he accepted his new post with a conviction that it was God’s will, and he threw himself into his pastorate with joyful determination.

Nothing dramatic happened to him. He traveled throughout his Province, encouraging his priests, instructing the faithful, and building momentum for the various missionary endeavors.  It was an exhausting life of prayer, sacrifice, and constant attention to the needs of others, and he lived it with all the love he could muster. Only in the face of violence, however, did the extent of his love manifest itself.  

He was accompanying one of his priests to visit a distant village where a mission had been started, and they were traveling down the river with some Chinese catechists, teachers, and students, including a few women.  Towards the end of their journey they were stopped by a group of bandits (commonplace back then; they accosted travelers and demanded illegal “tolls” – they could do so with impunity because the government was so weak; it was the end of the Manchu dynasty).  The typical encounter quickly took an ugly, atypical turn when the pirates boarded the boat and found the women hiding underneath the baggage. The bishop and his priest reasoned with the young men, who were not only demanding an exorbitant “toll” but were also threatening to abduct the women in place of monetary payment.  As tensions rose, the bandits started insulting the group of missionaries for their religion. Their insults became curses, and their curses led to blows, as Bishop Versagli and Fr Caravario physically defended their women companions. Finally all the travelers were wrenched from the boat (the two Salesians had been shot and wounded in order to subdue them), bound, and taken into the woods.  The young communists continued to insult the Catholic religion and decided to kill the priests. The bishop pleaded for mercy to be shown to the younger priest and demanded the liberation of the women, but the murderers were not to be abated. Bishop Versagli and his Salesian companion were marched into the brush and shot dead.

It seems so blasé when we look it from the distance of so many years.  And in many ways it was blasé – much less glamorous than the early martyrs who eloquently defended the faith in the face of Roman Emperors and Imperial grandeur.  But beneath the drab outward appearance shines the unquenchable brilliance of the one thing that gives this brief earthly life meaning: fidelity. Fidelity to Christ, to one’s commitments, to the Church, to God’s will.  In your current circumstances, you have a chance to exercise fidelity. And if you do, it will get stronger, which is a good thing, because in today’s world, whether you end up getting married or devoting yourself completely to the Kingdom, fidelity is constantly under attack.  If yours is strong, therefore, your happiness is guaranteed.

Your devoted uncle, Eddy

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