Thursday, 14 May 2015
Mother Pierina and the Face of Jesus by Davide Malacaria
The story of a nun who, in Argentina, Milan and Rome, lived the faith as a gaze upon the sweet Face of Jesus.
From the ground floor, which houses the nursery school, rise the cries of children playing. Here, on the upper floor, dwell silence and prayer. And there is some secret harmony linking the children’s games unfolding below to the silence on this floor that houses the cells of the nuns. Like things that intertwine, intersect, refer to each other in this corner of the world in the heart of Rome. Surrounded by greenery, the Institute of the Holy Spirit lies close to Testaccio, a neighborhood that is somewhat the symbol of Roman life itself, and home to the Daughters of the Immaculate Conception of Buenos Aires. Mother Pierina De Micheli, born Giuseppina, beatified on 30 May 2010, belonged to this Congregation. Her things are still here, on the first floor, in what was for years her room: well-arranged, tidy, now displayed like a small exhibition. A nun shows them to us, pointing out a glass case at the side of the front door where objects are kept that recall the many attentions that the blessed received in the course of her life, among which a ceramic figurine depicting the Infant Jesus stands out that, our guide explains, seems to have embraced her. Opposite, another shrine preserves darker memories: her broken crucifix, the remains of a burnt bed cover; objects that were found in her cell and that, the sisters explain, bear witness to the fierce hatred that the devil nurtured against her. A few steps away, as many as suffice to reach the end of the hallway, and the small chapel of the Institute opens up where the body of the blessed reposes, still here, among her sisters. A kneeler is set in front of the sarcophagus for the devotees who come from every corner of Rome to pray. The tomb is in a lateral niche, so that even now that she is dead it seems that the mother obeys the little rule which she complied with in life, that of remaining hidden from the world, with Jesus, beside Jesus.
Giuseppina De Micheli was Roman by adoption, in fact she was born in Milan in 1890, the last of many children of a family that gave the Church two nuns, Theophilus and Louise, and a priest, Don Riccardo. To recount her life, marked already from childhood by an unusual friendship with Jesus, let us refer a letter that she wrote to Pope Pius XII in 1943, during a visit to the throne of Peter. The Blessed wrote: “I was twelve years old, when on Good Friday, as I waited my turn in my parish church to kiss the crucifix, a distinctive voice said: ‘Will nobody give me a kiss of love on my face, to repair the kiss of Judas?’ I believed, in my childish innocence, that the voice was heard by all and felt great pain seeing that the kissing of the wounds continued and that no one thought to kiss him on the face. I’ll give you, Jesus, the kiss of love, be patient and, when the moment came, I printed a firm kiss on His Face with all the ardor of my heart. I was happy, believing that Jesus now happy would have that pain no more”. From then on the Face of Jesus was the object of Giuseppina’s deep devotion. “From that day on”, she further writes in her letter, “the first kiss to the crucifix was to His Holy Face”.
As a girl she liked to teach catechism to children and was quick to follow the priest when he went to administer the last rites to the dying because, she explained to whoever asked, it’s nice to accompany a soul to Heaven. We do not know when the vocation to the consecrated life bloomed in her, perhaps during the taking of the veil of one of her sisters, perhaps earlier. What is certain is that from the time she was a young girl she was somehow attracted and at the same time afraid. Those who asked her received evasive answers. In a letter, Don Riccardo, her brother priest to whom Giuseppina was very closely attached after the death of her parents, ironized about this hesitancy of hers, writing: “For you, the nuns must come from the other world”. Some months passed and the priest came to know some nuns just arrived in Milan: they belonged to the Congregation of the Daughters of the Immaculate Conception and their General House was in Buenos Aires. He only had to tell his sister that the sisters of the other world had finally arrived... Overcoming her last hesitations, Giuseppina entered the Congregation and became Sister Maria Pierina.
After an intense period of training, she was sent to Argentina where she took her perpetual vows. At the end of 1921 she came back to Italy, to the house that the sisters had opened in Milan, where, over time, she became superior. In this period the friendship with Jesus, who appeared to her several times, became more dear and familiar. She writes in her letter to the Pope: “His look was all for me. We looked at each other always and had love competitions. I said to Him: “Jesus, today I looked at You more”, and He: “Prove it to me if you can”. I reminded Him of the many times I looked at him without him noticing, but he always won”.
It was at this time that another important episode in the life of the Blessed occurred – the main reason, in fact, for this article. This is what she says in the letter to Pope Pius XII: “On 31 May 1938 while praying in the chapel of my novitiate, a Beautiful Lady appeared to me: in her hand she held a scapular consisting of two small white pieces of cloth, joined by a cord. One cloth bore the image of the Holy Face of Jesus, the other a Host surrounded by rays. She came closer to me and said, “Listen carefully and tell the father everything exactly. This scapular is a weapon of defense, a shield of fortitude, a token of love and mercy that Jesus wants to give to the world in these times of sensuality and hatred against God and the Church. Diabolical nets are spread to tear the faith from hearts, the evil spreads, the true apostles are few, a divine remedy is needed and that remedy is the Holy Face of Jesus. All those who wear a scapular like this and, if they can, make a visit to the Most Blessed Sacrament every Tuesday to repair the insults which His Holy Face received during His Passion and receives daily in the sacrament of the Eucharist, will be strengthened in the faith, ready to defend it and overcome all the internal and external difficulties, and further will have a peaceful death under the loving gaze of my Divine Son’”.
The Mother thus becomes an active promoter of devotion to the Face of Jesus, which soon spread like wildfire around the Institute. Unfortunately, very soon, she realized that it was not easy to circulate the scapulars. Thus she had the idea of striking a medal that reproduced on its faces what the Madonna required. An idea that soon found divine approval: in a later apparition the Beautiful Lady reassured her that the medals would be accompanied by the same promises made already for the scapulars.
Looking for an image for the medal, Mother Pierina came across a photograph by John Bruner of the Shroud, reproducing the Face of Jesus. An image somewhat known in Milan, since the photographer had made a gift of it to the Archbishop of the city, Blessed Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, who, in turn, had enthroned it with the utmost devotion in a church dedicated to the Holy Face. Unfortunately, the striking of the medal ran into a series of economic and bureaucratic problems that seemed insurmountable to the poor nun. She sought help from her spiritual father, the Jesuit Father Rosi, who told her to trust in Providence. She accepted the suggestion, but was not very comforted.
In the meantime, it was September 1939, she was sent to Rome, with the mandate of regional superior, to the new house the Congregation had opened in the capital thanks, not least, to her tireless supervision. It was here that she met the Abbot Ildebrando Gregori (whose beatification process is underway) of the Congregation of the Silvestrini Benedictine monks. He became her new spiritual Father and sure comfort for the rest of her life. And it was here, finally, that she was able to reproduce the medals that were so dear to her heart. Thanks also to a minor miracle. Thus, in the aforementioned letter to the Pope, Mother Pierina tells the story, “I wrote to the photographer Bruner for permission to use the image of the Holy Face reproduced by him and I received it. I presented the application for permission to the Curia of Milan, which I was granted on 9 August 1940. I engaged Johnson’s firm for the work, which took a long time, because Bruner wanted to check all the proofs. A few days before the delivery of the medals I found an envelope on the small table in my room, I looked at it and saw 11,200 lire. The bill in fact amounted to that exact sum. The medals were all distributed free and the same Providence was repeated several times for other orders; and the medal was circulated and reported graces were worked... The enemy was furious about this and disturbed and disturbs in many ways. Several times during the night he threw down the medals and ripped up pictures in the corridors and stairways, threatening and trampling”.
In this latter part of the letter, the mother mentions the harshest trials suffered at the hands of the devil. Trials that she did not make public in any way, but carefully noted in her diary, in obedience to a specific direction from Abbot Gregori. Labors accepted with joy for the good of souls (“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” Col 1, 24). Extraordinary willpower? More simply and more realistically, the testimony of a singular grace and an equally remarkable abandonment to God. It was not she who fought and won, “Jesus has conquered in me” is the phrase that occurs most often in the pages of the diary. And it was Jesus Himself, she further notes in her journal in February 1942, Who explained to her: “Rest assured that it is I Who have kept your heart pure, without any merit of yours, to make it the subject of my satisfaction”. And in this abandonment, accompanied and comforted by the ‘delights of paradise’, she wrote: “How I feel my nothingness and my misery in the face of so much goodness! It’s so nice to be little ones, incapable of anything...”.
An embrace that was to enable Mother Pierina to shine with faith, hope and charity even in the war years, during which she took the bread from her mouth to feed the hungry and did all she could to distribute the medals depicting the face of Jesus. In this regard, Abbot Gregori, testifying at the process of beatification, recalled how “some of them she even managed to get delivered to people under sentence of death and political opponents on the run and not one of the condemned had the sentence carried out”.
Just after the war, the Mother decided to go to northern Italy to rejoin her sisters, whom the fighting had isolated from Rome. She started out in June of ’45 and, after a brief stay in Milan, she went to the house of Centonara d’Artò, where some novices expected her before taking their vows. And this was where, exhausted by the ordeal of the journey, she became seriously ill. At other times, in the past, she had miraculously recovered from serious illnesses, as was noted by the Abbot Gregori, also following requests to pray for her health. It seemed that this would be a repeat occasion: the abbot, informed of the situation, sent a telegram which read: “By virtue of holy obedience, may you get better in three days”. But, unfortunately, there was a postal delay and the message arrived too late: at 11 o’clock on the night of 27 July Mother Pierina died.
The Church decided to commemorate the Blessed on the day of her birth (and baptism) –11 September – rather than on the day of her death, or dies natalis in canonical language. In the room that houses her things the sisters have set up a plaque written with a phrase of the Blessed: “It is so comforting to repeat: I am nothing, He is everything; I can do nothing, He can do everything”. It is thus that abandonment is easier, as with the children on the floor below who, in their games, participate in the joy of Paradise. Because “if you do not become as little children...”.