Let me live happily

From January Traces: “Any type of humanity, in any moment of life, can be seized by Christ.” The testimony of the Fraternity of Saint Joseph, which is comprised of women and men called to virginity in the conditions in which they find themselves.
Paola Bergamini

Giovanni pulls on his gloves, grabs his broom, and as on every morning, feels a surge of rebellion. A college graduate, he certainly had not expected to work as a street sweeper. But, as he does every morning, he begins with a Hail Mary and says, “Everything is for You; I offer you everything.” Only after this does his day truly begin. His prayers continue as he sweeps up litter and empties trash cans. At the end of his shift he is happy and thinks to himself, “I’ve cleaned a piece of Your kingdom, and so I’ve done something important. Looking at the clean city makes me think of You, O God, who wanted it so.” Where does this awareness come from? Giovanni, who has lived a life full of troubles and defeats, explained it this way at the Advent Retreat of the Fraternity of Saint Joseph. “The vocation to virginity is the relationship with Him! It enables you to be more attracted by things. It pushes you to see beyond the things themselves.” It is fullness of life even in the midst of trash. “The Saint Joseph” is only this, a fraternity that welcomes and supports women and men whom the Lord has called to virginity at a certain point in their lives, to a radical relationship with Him as a vocation within the circumstances of life.

This was the original intuition of Fr. Giussani. In fact, in the mid-1980s some people told him about their desire to dedicate themselves totally to Christ, but because of family or work situations, or other reasons, did not enter the Memores Domini. Fr. Giussani indicated as fundamental for the identity of the Saint Joseph “a certain choice of prayer and pleasure in it; a commitment to mutual assistance; faithfulness to the recognition of the presence of the Lord. This choice makes one perceive life in its toil and pain as a witness to Christ in the world, or in other words, as the missionary exaltation of the meaning of life. It is the content of baptism pushed to its extreme conclusion.”

In the last 30 years, a small group has slowly grown and today there are about 600 members who, remaining in their own personal and work situations, consecrate their life to Christ according to the evangelical councils of poverty, chastity, and obedience. “The living wellspring for it is the movement of CL,” explains Fr. Michele Berchi, who has been the leader of the Saint Joseph since 2009. “For this reason, the ultimate authority recognized as essential for one’s vocation is today Fr. Julián Carrón, as previously it was Fr. Giussani. In its content... there is no ‘form.’”

Each story is a testimony about how every type of humanity in any moment of life “can be seized by Christ, seized all the way to one’s innermost depths. This is why it is very beautiful to see it in the Gospel and to see it in you,” as Fr. Carrón said at the most recent retreat (you can read the full text on clonline.org). Many times, precisely when one hits bottom, when there is only failure, desperation, or resignation, the Lord calls us in a simple, clear, and unequivocal way. This is exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman at the well and to Zacchaeus, and it reminds us of St. Joseph, who silently protected and cherished Our Lady. Each member remains within his or her condition of widow or widower, separated or divorced, or simply living alone.

At the age of 19, after the death of her father, Laura left the church and began a series of relationships, including some with married men. She lived dissolutely in search for something that could fill her emotionally. When she was 26 she got married at the courthouse and worked as a nurse in a hospital. Her nephew, a member of Memores Domini, said to her one day, I’ve seen how you relate with the sick. It’s not just a job for you. Why don’t you try spending time with the CL community in your city?” In the end, she yielded; she started to attend meetings and resumed going to Mass. She asked the Lord, “Let me be happy. I want to return to the church and get back on my feet again.” When Benedict XVI stepped aside from the papacy, she sensed that “I want to be free like him.”

Shortly after that, her life took a different direction. Laura separated from her husband and thought that the most appropriate road was that of a cloistered monastery, because “with walls around me, I won’t wreak any more havoc.” Before departing, she met with Fr. Carrón, who asked her, “What makes you happy?” “Being with the sick.” “Good. Verify whether you feel the same happiness in the monastery that you feel when you are in the hospital.” Two months later, she understood that life behind convent walls was not for her. She went back to Carrón and began a journey of verification in the Saint Joseph. During those months, an atheist colleague who had always judged Laura’s faith cynically became gravely ill. For three months, Laura assisted her day and night. Shortly before dying, the woman whispered to her, “You are my hope. Call a priest. I want to confess.”

During that period, Laura “forgot” the Saint Joseph. “I guess I don’t need it,” she thought. She spoke about it to Fr. Michele, who told her, “Stay until the Lent retreat.” That period was an unexpected turning point, where she understood that the Saint Joseph was her road. “It was like for Nicodemus: I was reborn as an old woman. The Lord took me back, overcoming the perception I had of my own sins, which still kept me tied down. I wagered on myself and respected my desire to live alone.” Today Laura helps in a hospice and where possible prepares patients for their encounter with Jesus. “I have a virginal relationship with them: they belong to me, but I don’t possess them.” Exactly the opposite of what her previous life had been.

Roberta was abandoned by her husband when their fifth daughter was born. She asked Fr. Michele, “Even if I’m separated, my vocation remains marriage. But I live as if the Lord offered me something more in this condition. Does this have something to do with the Saint Joseph?” He responded, “Yes, because the Fraternity does not gill a void. It is more. The Lord calls you to consecrate your life to Him as a way of living matrimony as a separated spouse.”

The Lord surprises people also when their lives, including their relationships, seem to be going well. Walter was widowed when he was 40. He had a son, directed a community for recovering drug addicts, and was a leader of the movement in his city. “I thought I didn’t need anything else.” Through his work, he met some people with whom he felt in sync and at home. Later, he discovered they belonged to the Saint Joseph. All his thoughts that everything was okay dissolved in front of the possibility to which the Lord was calling him. “The day I went to Fr. Michele to ask to begin the verification, I had the same experience as when I told Maria, my wife, that I loved her.” His worries about work, which used to keep him awake at night, no longer do so. “Being magnetized by Him creates a peace that is not the fruit of my own capacity. It is a grace that fills you.”

Daily Mass, an hour of silence, prayer, meetings with one’s group, and annual gatherings are the simple gestures that help members recognize the presence of Jesus and live the memory of Him. Nothing else. “The flesh of Christ to which you consign yourself is the circumstance,” explains Fr. Michele. “First comes the vocation to virginity, then the Saint Joseph. The verification is first of all in this. We understood it better with Solange.” Solange, a Brazilian actress who was continually on tour worldwide, could never participate in gatherings or in her group. “In front of this situation, we went to Carrón to ask him what the ‘minimum’ requirements were for membership in the Saint Joseph.” He turned the question around, asking, “Can the San Giuseppe support the vocation of a woman whose work involves those conditions?”

“Precisely this humanity of ours, which often displeases us because of our many limitations, because the sums do not add up, is actually the one thing able to be seized by Christ,” Carrón said at the Saint Joseph Advent Retreat. Chiara, a physician specializing in nutrition, had come to the point of detesting herself because she still had not succeeded in having a definitive love relationship. However, she shared very strongly the sentiment of Peter’s question, “If I leave You, where can I go?” And yet neither the movement, nor her friends, nor the School of Community provided a complete answer. “It was a battle. I understood that I could not do without my relationship with Christ. He wanted me. Let’s say that He courted me assiduously.” One morning in 2013, she called the secretariat of the Saint Joseph. “When I heard Fr. Michele speak, I thought that he was telling my story. The Saint Joseph corresponded to me because it saves all my personal characteristics. I am myself.” Now the patients at the nutrition center she directs are always telling her, “You are different.” The psychiatrist she crosses paths with in the hallway said to her, “Your ward is another universe.”

In the beginning, Fr. Giussani had imagined that “if these groups multiplied (...) they could invade Italy even without the purpose of invading Italy.” He was wrong. It is not just Italy, but the whole world that has been “invaded.” In Africa, priests, sisters, and also Memores are accepted because they are easily identifiable, while the experience of Saint Joseph is inconceivable.

In 2002, Marta went for the first time to the vacation of the community of Yaounde, Cameroon. She was particularly struck by a woman, Alice, and asked the friend who had invited her, “Why is she the way she is? Attentive, calm, maternal, kind....” Her friend responded, “She made a choice of life: she isn’t married and has no children. She is a member of the Saint Joseph Fraternity.” “Well, I would like to be like her!” Marta exclaimed. Two years later, when Marta was in Italy for the International Assembly of Leaders, she was introduced to some members of the Saint Joseph, among them Adele, who said, “I’ve been told about you, about your desire. So then, do you want to be with us?” Marta did not hesitate. “Right away!” She began her verification period the next day. When she returned home, she told her family about her decision, but they responded coldly–her choice was incomprehensible. “With the studies you’ve done... to reduce yourself this way!” From that moment on, she no longer existed for her parents. Now Marta is an educator in a social center for young people having difficulties. “In my relationship with these young people I ask, ‘What do You want from me in this moment?’”

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Being present “in the context of daily life” means subverting a mind-set. In Kenya, after the retreat, Fr. Michele was asked to throw a big party for a woman who had entered the Saint Joseph. “We have always said no to this kind of request out of discretion,” he explains. But the person who wanted the party insisted. Shortly before Mass, in the sacristy, he spoke about it with Pietro Tiboni, who knows the African mind-set well. The Combonian missionary had no hesitation in saying that “in Africa, virginity lived like this, as a layperson, is a challenge. For this reason, I say don’t do the party. Not because of the party in and of itself, but because there is no need to formalize this gesture. It is about the person, with his faith and vocation to virginity.”

“I am always surprised at how Christ fills the life of these people with affectionate relationships,” says Fr. Michele. “He reaches them in the accent of their particular situation. In the Saint Joseph, they discover an unexpected familiarity, an unthinkable friendship. What did Our Lady do after the annunciation of the angel? She went to Elisabeth, to share what had happened to her.” The words of Romano Guardini are appropriate here: “In the experience of a great love, everything that happens becomes an event in its sphere.”