Part 1 by Fr. David Louch, C.Ss.R.
In February 1977 I participated in the first course on Redemptorist History and Spirituality offered in English in Rome. It was organized and led by Fr Joe Oppitz (Baltimore Province). In the years since then the General Government of the Congregation has established the Centre for Redemptorist Spirituality at our motherhouse in Rome. There has been much ongoing research into our Redemptorist origins and charism since 1977, and for several years the Spirituality Centre has offered in English and in Spanish a 3-week course to share the fruits of that research with confreres from around the world.
Having come to a point in my life where my enthusiasm and zeal for Redemptorist Apostolic Life has begun to wane, I needed to be rejuvenated in my Redemptorist vocation. I thought the spirituality course might provide the needed stimulus, so I asked the Provincial if I could attend this summer. I also suggested that it would be good for Anne Walsh who co-chairs the North American Redemptorist Secretariat for Partnership in Mission to attend with me. Fr Mark agreed to both requests.
So Anne and I were in Italy July 11-31 along with 30 other confreres from 12 units: Baltimore, Lviv, Thailand, St Clement (Germany), Oceania (Sri Lanka, Australia, Samoa), Vietnam Extra Patriam (U.S.), Indonesia, Manila & Cebu (Philippines) and Majella & Bangalore (India). This was the first Redemptorist Spirituality Course to be led by the new Director of the Spirituality Centre – Fr Piotr Chyla (Warwaw Province) – and he did a terrific job! His passion for Redemptorist Apostolic Life and for the Congregation permeated everything in the three weeks we were together. From the start, Peter reminded us that this was not just a course – it was a pilgrimage! Peter was assisted by Fr George Pathenpura (Bangalore Province) – a gentle and humourous confrere and an excellent teacher.
I learned many new things and appreciated all the presentations. My favourite ones were Fr Peter on the Four Founding Personalities of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer and Fr Enrique Lopez (General Consultor from Paraguay) on Moral Theology as a Constitutive Element of the Redemptorist Charism. The four founding personalities, of course, are Alphonsus Liguori, Gennaro Sarnelli, Maria Celeste Crostarosa and Tomasso Falcoia. I had never before considered the important part Sarnelli played in our founding; and, for me, Peter’s presentation was a rehabilitation of Crostarosa. After Enrique’s presentation I told him that if I were 20 years younger I would go for a licentiate in Moral Theology!
Even more important than the input was visiting the places of our beginnings (Scala, Ciorani, Deliceto, Muro Lucano, Materdomini, St Agatha of the Goths, Naples and Pagani). To see and get a feel for the ‘abandoned’ country places and the people. It was a moving experience to walk in the footsteps of St Alphonsus, St Gerard and the first Redemptorists – to feel their presence. That was especially true in Deliceto (St Gerard), at the grotto in Scala where Alphonsus had the vision of Mary, and most profoundly in Pagani at the tomb of St Alphonsus and in the room where he spent the last years of his life and where he died. Normally visitors can only look into that room, but the rector (Fr Luciano) allowed us to actually go into the room (as long as we didn’t touch anything, since it’s all very fragile). As soon as I crossed the threshold tears came to my eyes. It was the first time I have ever felt close to Alphonsus.
Perhaps most important and significant for me was simply being with all those younger confreres. There were only three of us over 60 – Norbert Meinerzhagen of the St Clement Province at 75, myself at 69 and John McKenna of the Baltimore Province at 64. The rest ranged from 28 to 47 (I think), with most in their 30s, and Anne is in her mid 50s. During the last week each of the units represented in the course told the rest of us about Redemptorist life and work in their unit. Seeing and feeling the vigour, joy and energy of the confreres from Asia and Extra Patriam was most uplifting; it gave me renewed hope for the Redemptorist mission – maybe even in Canada. But whatever might happen at home, I have the consolation of knowing that the Congregation is alive and well in the Church and Redemptorist Apostolic Life will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future at least in the southern hemisphere.
So the Redemptorist Spirituality Course 2016 fulfilled my hopes and expectations. I return to my life and work in North America feeling renewed and rejuvenated – and praying for the gift of zeal.
Part 2 By Anne Walsh
In 1992, at the very beginning of my first six-week experience as a team member for S.E.R.V.E., I had an experience that I now realize was life-altering and definitive. I was blest to meet Fr. Juan Lasso de la Vega, and for four nights he sat me in the old library at Gerard House and spun the globe, telling me stories of the Redemptorists who lived wherever he stopped the spinning of the globe with his finger. I heard of Redemptorists in Burkina Faso and Niger, Siberia and Thailand, and I was fascinated. More than the stories, I was captivated by the spirit of this man, and the affinity that he had for St. Alphonsus. When he told me, at the end of that week, “You are Redemptorist, too,” I longed to believe him, but I dared not. The following year, Fr. Mike Brehl adopted me into the novitiate on Lyndhurst Avenue in Toronto, and I gamely read Rey-Mermet’s biography of St. Alphonsus, and began to be inspired by the man, long after meeting his sons. I recognized in St. Alphonsus and the Redemptorists an echo of my own calling to walk with the most abandoned. In the 25 years since then, my walk with the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer has taken me into many places (from Rome to Ireland to so many places in Canada and the U.S. that it’s impossible to name them all), and into encounters and experiences that have been a constant experience of conversion and growth – and hopefully not just for me! But I’ve always felt a kind of inadequacy; I have always felt that I lacked that formal and systematic experience of immersion that vowed Redemptorists receive in novitiate. I’ve always wanted to know more, to walk where Alphonsus and Gerard and Gennaro Sarnelli walked, and to soak in their spirit and their drive, to gain some insight into what motivated them, what made them “tick.”
So, imagine my gratitude and delight when David Louch and Mike Brehl suggested the idea – wholeheartedly supported by Mark Miller – that David Louch and I together take part in the three-week Course in Redemptorist Spirituality offered in Italy in July 2016!
From July 9 through July 31, David and I got to walk in the footsteps of St. Alphonsus and the early Redemptorists, and to explore them, their world and their drive to evangelize the poor and be evangelized by the poor. I call it a course, but for me it was also a retreat and a rediscovery and a graced opportunity to touch into my own connection to these men and their sons, and our shared vocation to follow Christ the Redeemer, who made a preferential option for the poor.
With 30 other participants from India (Bangalore and Majella Provinces), Thailand, Indonesia and Samoa region, Oceania, Vietnam, Baltimore, St. Clement, Cebu and Manila, we were under the inspiring guidance of Fr. Piotr Chyla, CSsR (Director of the Institute for Redemptorist Spirituality) and Fr. George Puthenpora, CSsR, and the speakers and sites to which they introduced us and through which they guided us. We began with three days of foundational talks in Rome, at the Redemptorist House on Via Merulana, and with a Mass at the Catacomb of St. Callistus. Thus, we/I gained a new appreciation for the courage and faith of our ancestors in faith. It was inexpressibly moving.
Fr. Antonio Marrazzo, CSsR gave us a talk on the design of the early Redemptorist houses at Scala, Ciorani and Pagani, highlighting how Alphonsus deliberately designed these with no chapel, but easy access to the parish church, in order that the people and the Redemptorist community might pray together! These were not monasteries, but houses, designed in order that Redemptorists might live close to and among the people.
This set the stage for our pilgrimage through the sites in Rome associated with St. Alphonsus and the early Redemptorists, and then we began to travel further afield, first to St. Agatha of the Goths. It was wonderful to walk where he walked, and to meet people who held his memory in high esteem, as if he were still among them, in some ways! Our guide, named Alfonso, told us that, in his assessment, Alphonsus is remembered because he taught the poor that they had dignity. What a wonderful way to be remembered!
Next we journeyed to Materdomini, where St. Gerard Majella died and is buried, and where his shrine is located. On the Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer, our group celebrated Mass at the tomb of St. Gerard, and it was a moving experience to celebrate the feast at the tomb of one of our great role models and guide in faith, simplicity and fidelity. We stayed for seven days at Materdomini, and from there journeyed to Muro Lucano, the birthplace of St. Gerard, where he spent his early years and learned his trade as a tailor, before taking part in a Redemptorist mission in 1749 and being moved to join the young Congregation. It really moved me that, as with Alphonsus at St. Agatha, in Muro the people still think of Gerard as very much one of them. The two women who were our guides, and Michael, a wonderful young local man who walked with us and helped us make our way through the town, talked about him with great familiarity, almost as if they were speaking of a neighbour.
From Muro, we made our way to Deliceto, one of the earliest houses of the Redemptorists. I was not prepared for what I would experience and feel there. The house ceased to be a Redemptorist foundation in 1866. St. Alphonsus loved Deliceto, and it became the novitiate and student house for the fledgling Congregation. There, he taught moral theology, geography and astronomy. There, St. Gerard spent most of his years as an active Redemptorist. What I was not prepared for was the feeling of the place. It was easy to feel the presence of St. Alphonsus, Gerard and the others of that founding generation. We celebrated Mass in the chapel.
At supper that night, we were different. There was a lightness and a camaraderie that had not been there before – almost as if we had all caught a bit of the lightness of Gerard’s spirit on the pilgrimage! Imagine the consternation (and delight) of the other guests in the hotel restaurant as we sang after supper! I did not know before that some of our confreres from Bangalore Province like country music, and that John Denver is a favourite of our confreres in Cebu! I guess Gerard and Alphonsus are still alive and well, after all!
Next we moved on to make Ciorani our base, and to spend nine days there. St. Alphonsus lived there from 1736 to 1751. From Ciorani, we moved out to spend a day at Scala, and it was as marvelous as I’d always hoped. We got to visit and spend some time in prayer at the grotto where St. Alphonsus prayed as he prepared for the foundation of the Congregation. It was peaceful, and it was like Alphonsus was there, welcoming me to his special place. I really don’t have words for how the place touched me. But I do think that this place somehow captures and holds the heart of Alphonsus, at once mystical and at the same time firmly grounded in mission, but not in time or place. The grotto doesn’t feel like Italy – it feels like us, as if we belong to it and it to the Redemptorist family.
From Ciorani, we also travelled to Naples. We visited Marianella, the birthplace of St. Alphonsus, and the church where he was baptized. What a moving experience it was to see the Baptismal register, with the section around September 27, 1696 chock full of notices— Confirmation, ordination, Beatification, Canonization, being named a Doctor of the Church (did you know that his title is “Most Zealous Doctor?”). We walked the streets he walked; our guide, Father Lello, even guided us on his usual path from home to the law courts! We visited some of the places he prayed. For me, as a catechist, the most special place was a stop at one of the porticos where the “Evening Chapels” were held, where Alphonsus’ earliest efforts in partnership with lay people in proclaiming plentiful redemption took place. I thought of Bernardino the cowherd, Leonardo, who sold chestnuts on the streets, and all those who remain nameless, but whom Alphonsus drew into the circle of redeeming love. And then, we had pizza in a Neapolitan pizzeria (It’s only fitting!)
Our last pilgrimage, before the final day of retreat and synthesis, was spent at Pagani. We celebrated Mass in the chapel where the relics of St. Alphonsus are venerated. I wasn’t prepared for this experience. As much as I’ve seen pictures and felt connected with St. Alphonsus for a very long time, a sense of overflowing gratitude flooded through me as I sat before his tomb. I have experienced so much good in my life because of and through this man and the community he founded… the Church has experienced so much good because he lived and was faithful, using his gifts so generously in service of the most abandoned. So, I gave thanks there for all the Redemptorists who have enriched my life and taught me so much.
The rector of the community gave us a great tour, which included a visit to the infirmary, and the chance to meet a number of the senior Redemptorists, and then a visit to the museum in which many items belonging to or associated with St. Alphonsus are held – his paintings, some clothing, his wheelchair and his harpsichord. His room is preserved, and for some reason what really struck me were the slippers still placed at the side of the bed, as if he would still jump out of bed and go into action – I guess that’s left to us now!
I obviously have enough food for reflection to last me through a lifetime! Perhaps what is more important, though, is the awareness that I left Italy feeling that I had somehow touched into the spirit of St. Alphonsus and the founding generations, and gained renewed energy and courage for proclaiming Good News to the most abandoned…with my brothers, that is!