I commend my poor and my sick to you...
Letter from the Prior General
FERNANDO MILLÁN ROMERAL
to the Carmelite Family
on the occasion of the beatification
of Father Angelo Paoli
19th March 2010
Solemnity of St. Joseph
Carmel, with all its many groups and branches, is to be found nowadays in all five continents. It lives among many cultures and in many social contexts. Along with the more conventional ministries (parishes, schools, houses of spirituality), quite a number of Carmelites are involved in the work of peace and justice, in social development, and in the assistance of the poor and marginalized. For a number of decades now the Order has an international commission for “Peace, Justice and the Integrity of Creation.” Carmel has become very aware of the prophetic dimension of its charism and identity, which lead us to discover the signs of the presence of God in the poor and the most vulnerable. Since this presence sometimes appears as sub contrario (in oppression, in misery, in the suffering…), we have to approach it with a deep contemplative gaze, enlightened by faith and filled with charity, with the tenderness and trust of those who believe, with the faith of the mystic and with the transformative commitment of the prophet.
I believe this commitment to the most poor and needy members of our modern societies will be given an enormous boost and example by the figure of Venerable Angelo Paoli, who is going to be beatified this coming April 25th at Saint John Lateran, in Rome. His beatification will surely be a source of great joy and pride for all the Carmelite family, which now sees another of its members raised to the glory of the altars.
Lately, we have had the joy of seeing other Carmelites beatified or canonized: Mother Curcio and Mother Scrilli, foundresses of two Italian Carmelite congregations, a group of Spanish Martyrs of the 20th century, Mother Candelaria of San José, foundress of the Venezuelan Carmeite Sisters, and Nuno of Santa Maria. Each one of them highlights some aspect of the Carmelite charism. They provide direction for the living out of our charism. They are both an example and a gift for Carmel in our days.
The witness that this Carmelite gave to the 17th and 18th centuries is very inspiring and thought-provoking. It is of great relevance today, despite the difference in time that separates us. We have already indicated on previous occasions that processes of beatification are not the mere remembrance of a glorious past, nor any kind of “archaeological” activity (as if we were digging up fossils), but a living sign which calls us to be alert, questions us about our present and guides us towards our future.
This is why I invite the whole Order of Carmelites and the Carmelite family in general to approach with joy this solemn beatification. I invite you to give thanks to God for the Church’s official recognition of the sainthood of one of our brothers. I invite you to make a careful study of the saint’s biography and the testimony the new Blessed has left us. It is to him that I commend in a very special way all those Carmelites (religious, lay, groups, etc.) who work with the poor and who help to alleviate the conditions of the most needy. By his intercession may the Lord bless and accompany you in this difficult but necessary work.
1. The availability of a friar
Fr. Angelo Paoli was born on September 1, 1642 in Argigliano, a village in the municipality of Casola in Lunigiana, near Fivizzano. At his baptism he received – almost as a portent - the name of Francis, the poverello of Assisi. Like him, Paoli also would fall in love with Lady Poverty. It is her that he would serve with all his soul. He was a pious and devoted young man. From an early age he showed a disposition for religious life. He decided to join the Carmelites because of its emphasis on Mary.
The first part of the new blessed’s religious life took place in a number of different cities in Tuscany in central Italy. It is noteworthy in the life of the young friar, that he was assigned to many different places and that he was involved in many different ministries in his province. He was, among many other things, novice master in Florence, pastor in Corniola, grammar teacher in Montecatini, sacristan and organist in Corniola, until finally called back to Rome by the Prior General, where he was to be the novice master. He left this position in 1698 to dedicate himself totally to the poor. He has been called justifiably the viandante e girovago dell’ubbedienza (the pilgrim and vagabond of obedience).
This is where we see the first trait of his personality that I would like to stress: Fr. Paoli was an obedient man, open to God’s ways and always available for whatever his superiors might ask of him. Compared to the very structured organization of modern congregations, or compared to congregations that have a specific ministry (education, health, missions), or compared to the stability of the monk or to the intimate relationship of the diocesan priest with a territory, we mendicants are accused frequently of being disorganized, or of improvising, or of lacking a long-range plan, etc. To be honest, many times people may not be wrong. But mendicancy follows a spirituality too. The mendicant is more open to changes, to the concrete necessity which takes him from one place to another. Mendicant Orders, with an itinerant spirit, have preserved this flexibility and capacity of adaptation to the needs of the times and places with simplicity and dedication. It is perhaps in this way, that Venerable Paoli also reminds us today of something that is essential to us: we cannot enclose ourselves in or reduce ourselves to certain forms of apostolate, places, or concrete situations. We mendicants must remain open to the wind of the Spirit, who will lead us to new social and ecclesial realities that require our presence.
Besides, his example – it must be said – serves as a warning to all Carmelites of the 21st century to avoid setting up any kind of excessive bourgeoisie, or becoming installed in a lack of willingness to serve our Order and the Church. It is a challenge to renew our religious consecration.
May the example of the Blessed Angelo illumine our pastoral projects. May he help us to deepen our vocation as mendicants. May he call us to live with availability, openness and generosity.
2. Devotion to the cross and love for the crucified
The mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord is the central mystery of our faith and the axel on which the history of our salvation revolves. The cross is at one and the same time a question and an answer, darkness and light, a symbol of death and torture, and a symbol of life for the believer. The mystery of the cross penetrates our life in an intense and special way through the mystery of the crucified: the victims of sin in its many forms, the victims of evil, of violence and injustice. Carmel down through the centuries has had a deep and intimate devotion to the Cross. We only need to remember, among others: Saint John of the Cross, who reminds us of the Little shepherd-lover, Christ, “in a tree where he spread his lovely arms” (P 10); Saint Teresa of Jesus, who, intrepidly called the cross the “welcome one” (P 7), invites us to fix our eyes on the crucified so that everything “might become nothing to us” (7M 4,8); John of Saint-Samson and Saint Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi who have revealed that the cross is the best vantage point from which to contemplate heaven; Francisco de la Cruz, a Castilian Carmelite from the 16th and 17th centuries and a pilgrim to Jerusalem, carried a heavy wooden cross; Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face burned with desire to go to a missionary land and plant there a “glorious cross” (Ms B, IX, 3rº); Saint Edith Stein, who is submerged in the unfathomable Science of the Cross, or Blessed Titus Brandsma standing on a dirty box while he preached on Good Friday in 1942, in the concentration camp in Amersfoort, and writing not long before that in a jail in Scheveningen, his famous poem Before a picture of Jesus in my cell. There he confesses that, “the cross is my joy, not my sorrow.” To this list must be added, without doubt, the figure of the poor friar Angelo Paoli, another lover of the Cross of Christ.
Blessed Angelo Paoli lived profoundly this devotion and promoted it throughout his life in all that he did. Early on, when he spent time with a group of shepherds while convalescing, he talked to them about it and encouraged them to place crosses on the tops of the mountains, and his preaching was always warm and engaging. Later on, when he was the parish priest in Corniola, he also preached this devotion. It is well known that when he got to Rome he erected crosses in the city’s most notorious places, such as Monte Testaccio or the Coliseum. Taking advantage of the fact that our house at San Martino ai Monti was so close to the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, he would visit that church regularly and on his way back he would spend time with the sick in the hospital of San Giovanni in Laterano, bringing them food, and taking care of their most basic needs and doing all kinds of things to entertain them including spontaneous plays and lots of music. Fr. Angelo died kissing the crucifix. Iconography has tended to make a point of showing this.
Today Carmel finds in the witness of this new Blessed a beautiful source of inspiration and a moving invitation. Our contemplative vocation leads us farther into the depths of the most painful and bloody dark nights of our present times where we encounter the mysterious presence of the Lord of Life. Moreover, this disciple knew all through his life how to recognise new forms of poverty: forms of poverty hidden or ignored to which the society of the times paid little heed. Fr. Angelo had enough sensitivity to recognise the pain of the young women, who having no money, were condemned to remain unmarried which at that time meant a life of misery; and the suffering of people who left hospital needing to convalesce or who were physically recovered but with no money to support themselves; the pain of families whose homes had been destroyed by the flooding of the Tiber; the pain of those who were cured of their illness but who were afflicted by loneliness, sadness or abandonment. We have a record of wonderful examples of dedication to all these groups in the biography of this Carmelite. Hence, his testimony makes us open the eyes of our heart, to listen to the murmurs of our time, and to respond generously and in solidarity to the new forms of poverty and marginalization that our society generates.
During these last decades, the Church’s theology and praxis have underlined the importance of the poor. The poor are even considered as a “theological locus.” At a first stage, the poor were considered fundamentally and almost exclusively as the “economically poor” using merely sociological and economic criteria. Later on, liberation theologies gradually expanded their conception of the poor and took cognisance of other forms of poverty, equally bloody and painful (poverty of culture, of affectivity, of respect, of dignity, of horizons, of health…). Perhaps in our days, the danger is to stray in the opposite way, that is, to over spiritualize the concept of poverty. Despite the existence of other forms of poverty, we should not forget that economic poverty remains the most harrowing. Material destitution in many instances is what generates all other forms of poverty. This is why economic poverty is usually accompanied by a terrible entourage of sufferings, shortages, misery and so on.
The example of Blessed Angelo leads us to flee from the kind of sentimental piety of the cross that does not translate spontaneously into an attitude of service and respect, of love and sensitivity, of responsible commitment to the crucified men and women of our time. A disincarnated and spiritualistic spirituality, that systematically ignores the suffering of men and women of our time, is not a true Christian spirituality and does not belong to the Carmelite charism and tradition.
May the testimony of the new Blessed lead us to be true worshipers and friends of the cross of Christ making us more sensitive to the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, more committed to the transformation of our world, more human and more close to all.
3. The poor are the brothers and sisters of Jesus
As we have pointed out, Fr. Angelo Paoli was characterized by the concern and charity with which he attended to the needy of his time. Charity and helping the poor have been essential features of the Church since her beginnings, even to the point where alms-giving, charity, and the generous giving of one self to the poor and sick have been considered the distinctive features of Christianity.
In the time of Angelo Paoli too, the Church had a multitude of organisations, associations and individuals dedicated to the care of the homeless. Fr. Angelo stood out heroically in this service, to which he gave himself totally. Nonetheless, there are, perhaps, certain features of his ministry that suggest something new, or at least help to define the particular nature of his life. We will highlight just a few.
First of all, Fr. Angelo dedicated himself to the poor with true passion. Even though he engaged in many other ministerial activities within and outside the convent –as we have pointed out before -, the assistance to those in need was what really filled him with enthusiasm. Perhaps, at the root of his passion for the poor we might find the his deep and courageous spirituality. Paoli was a man of deep and continuous prayer, a friar of constant and authentic piety, a mystic who sought silence and mortification. Paoli does not approach the poor as a politician, or an ideologist, or a philanthropist. For him, the poor are not a metaphor, a topic for discussion, or a mere statistic. He approached the poor as a contemplative who saw in them the real Christ, the suffering Christ, poor and crucified for whom he had so much devotion. From this he drew his infamous phrase which he repeated with humility: “Whoever loves God must look for him among the poor.”
The spiritual attitude of our friar brother was translated straightaway into other attitudes that adorn his story: a happiness that he maintained even in the most difficult of times and which he shared with the sick and homeless; an unwavering hope in God, the tenderness and care with which he dealt with the needy so that they never felt humiliated in their sad condition … They are – in the words of our new Blessed – “the brothers of Jesus”, so they must be treated “as if they were the same person as Jesus.” Because he put all his trust in God, despite the apparent activism that flowed from him, he never lost his calm or his smile and he used to say: “Io ho una dispensa dove non manca mai nulla …” (“I have a pantry in which nothing is ever lacking”). Thus in some miraculous way, he kept welcoming all those who came to his door asking for help.
In order to do all this, Angelo knew how to approach the powerful people of his time. It is well-known that the poor friar, whom his prior had to have words with to get him to put on a new habit, and who was a friend of the poorest and shabbiest in baroque Rome, had many and good friends among the most powerful people of his time. Nobles, high dignitaries, ambassadors, and cardinals called on the Carmelite friar’s door to ask for advice or to offer him assistance in his charitable work. Even though he mentioned once that his relationship with the nobles and the rich was his biggest cross, he knew – as every great person would - how to treat everyone with the same dignity, respect, and affection: with no servile affectation towards the rich and no haughtiness or spitefulness towards the poor. Angelo Paoli could also discover the poverty that sometimes hides behind economic wealth.
Here too his example is a lesson for all of us today, Carmelites of the 21st century, to detect these forms of poverty not just in the countries of the incorrectly named “third world;” but also in western societies, in which there is a widespread presence of Carmelites and in which, in spite of the economical wellbeing, other kinds of acute poverty are hidden.
The Venerable Angelo always showed the same humble, sober, dignified, sincere and amiable attitude to the poor and destitute as he did to the rich and noble in the city. Even more, without judging anyone, he gained the respect of the rich and got them to support his social project. He called them in ways that were truly prophetic, to gently be converted to the ways of charity in a world of luxury and ostentation so much in contrast to the scandalous misery of the poor.
He also had friendship with some Popes, especially with Clement XI, who was deeply affected by the death of Angelo. During his illness the Pope sent his own personal physician. It was this Pope who insisted that “father of the poor,” a name given to him since his youth, be engraved on his tomb.
4. Integral service of the poor
A last feature of the new Blessed’s personality, in reference to his work for the poor, grabs our attention very powerfully because of how relevant it is today. Fr. Angelo understood way back in the beginning of the 18th century that what we do for the poor has to be integral and not limited to assistentialism, or providing just the bare necessities. When our brother friar approached the poor, he did not only bring food, clothing, or the basic things for survival, but he also offered catechetical instruction and what we today would call psychological support, especially to the sick, to whom Fr. Angelo brought music, little improvised plays and, in real terms, happiness and hope.
Perhaps at this point it would be good to mention his reputation as a miracle worker. Indeed, from the process of beatification we learn that he had this reputation - something that he did not seek and tried all his life to hide. It is in this area that we have to be very careful when dealing with baroque hagiography. Rather than concentrating on the historicity of this or that detail in his biography, we, Carmelites of the 21st century, might do well to let his testimony inspire us to assume ourselves, the meaning of his miracle-working, i.e. to help the sick, bandage the wounded, heal difficult situations, dry tears, ease poverty and misery, open windows to new horizons; in a word, perform our own little miracles with the help of God.
Many other aspects could be highlighted in this profile of our new Blessed. We will only mention his austerity and his coherence of life (it is enough to see the reproduction of his cell at San Martino ai Monti); the prudence and common sense which he showed in the most difficult situations; his interest in forming young Carmelites also in caring for the poor (a huge challenge mentioned in a number of places in our Ratio Institutionis Vitae Carmelitanae – for our formation processes); his perseverance and constancy in the service of the poor, without giving in to discouragement or tiredness, even when faced with incomprehension and cynicism (a true “warning for the fly-by-nights” or the lovers of “weekend solidarity,” that is so much in fashion today); the fact that he could combine charity and assistance with a deep sense of justice (well ahead of his time in terms of the thinking of the Church today).
Hopefully the Order of Carmel may maintain that same attitude of blind trust in divine providence and that enthusiasm and creativity in serving the poor of this World. Hopefully our pantry may always be filled with faith, hope and charity. May we our commitment in solidarity and our compassion towards all who suffer never waver.
5. The Carmelite
Fr. Angelo also lived with intensity his Carmelite vocation. In fact, his was a well meditated and discerned vocation because he entered the convent after he received tonsure and after having thought about other forms of religious life. According to his biographers, it could have been devotion to Mary that oriented him towards Carmel, the Marian Order. Ever since his youth he had a deep devotion to Mary. We know that he used to visit the hermitages of the Blessed Mother in the nearby fields, where he spent long periods in prayer.
Later in life he took on and made his own the Carmelite way of being devoted to Mary, especially through the Scapular. During his free time, he made scapulars which became “famous.” There are records that when he founded the hospital for the convalescents in Rome, the notary and the employees who helped to arrange his contracts books, did not want to charge him money, but only requested scapulars made by him. Fr. Paoli intuited the strength of this simple symbol so beloved and so appreciated by the Carmelite family.
As befitted the Carmelite piety of the time, Fr. Angelo was zealous about the conventual life and the other signs that serve to express love for the Carmelite Order, its spirituality and traditions. He loved to wear his habit. For him it was a symbol of poverty, rather than a mark of distinction). He was faithful to religious observance, despite his multiple occupations; obedient to the superiors; fraternal and close to the brothers in community … Fr. Angelo was an exemplary Carmelite, a man who found in his Carmelite vocation, not an impediment or a burden, but an incentive and a source of inspiration for his work with the poor.
His biography turns out to be exceptional and sobering (even prescinding from its baroque hagiographic exaggerations). On more than one occasion, people have pointed out some similarities with St. Phillip Neri. The scene of Fr. Angelo’s last hours is truly moving: he lay agonising, surrounded by his community, totally aware and accepting of his death, with a true spirit of faith and devotion. Outside in the small square in front of the house, there was a gathering of the poor and the needy, the beggars, the dishevelled and the sick, to say a last goodbye to the one who had been truly their father on this earth. Brother Charity, or the Father of the Poor, the title he had from when he was still young, was dying.
He was dying, but leaving behind a marvelous testimony right there in the city of the martyrs celebrated by the Christian poets (purpurata pretioso sanguine). Fr. Angelo, had great regard for the martyrs ever since his arrival in Rome: now he also was dying as a martyr, as a witness, as a prophet of hope, as a true sign of God’s tenderness towards the least in this world.
Today his voice seems to resound for all of us, trembling and tired, as he it was during that last unforgettable conversation with his friend Prince Girolamo Altieri, who asked him to commend his family to the Lord… A dying Fr. Angelo replied with great humanity and a certain sense of humour: “… and I commend to you my poor and my convalescents.” May his words (which we adapted as the title for this letter) be heard with interest all over the Carmelite Order and family: “I commend my poor and my convalescents to you.” If we are faithful to this message his beatification will be without doubt a fruitful moment of reflection, excitement, and new energy in our service to the poor of our time.
Fernando Millán Romeral, O.Carm.