Welcoming penitents with the Heart and smile of Jesus

Today, 7 May 2012, is the first feast day of Blessed Francesco Paleari, an Italian priest of the Society of Priests of St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo. He was beatified last year on 17 September 2011 by Pope Benedixt XVI. Of all the good he accomplished with God’s grace throughout his lifetime, his ministry in the confessional was the greatest.

It is most timely to reflect upon the holy life of Blessed Francesco in the light of Pope Benedict’s special audience with clergy in Rome a few weeks ago on the 9th of March. He said, ‘The New Evangelisation…begins in the confessional.’…’Dear priests and dear deacons who are preparing for the priesthood, in the administration of this sacrament you are given, or you will be given, the possibility of being instruments of an ever renewed meeting of people with God. All who turn to you, precisely because of their condition as sinners, will experience within them a profound desire: the desire for change, the desire for mercy and, ultimately, the desire for the encounter with Christ and for Him to embrace them once again. You will therefore be collaborators and protagonists of a great many possible “new beginnings”, as many as the penitents who come to you.’

So let’s see how God worked through Blessed Francesco… He was born at Pogliano Milanese, near Milan in Italy in 1863 into a family poor in temporal things but profoundly rich in spiritual things. Each Sunday when the family went to worship God at Mass, they would live out their gratitude for Holy Communion by inviting a poor person to lunch with them afterwards. With example like this it is not surprising that Francesco developed not only a priestly vocation but also a vocation of service to the poor. The religious order founded by St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo was a perfect fit for him, since they ministered to the poorest of the poor.

Early in his seminary days he had a major struggle with homesickness, but the grace of God overcame that. Despite being short in height and slim in build, Francesco’s heart is big with love. Following his ordination to the priesthood, Francesco began his 53 years of ministry within the Order. Very quickly, Francesco became known as the priest who smiles. Children were the first to sense that he had a very special gift in the confessional. Gradually adults of all ranks learned to seek him out in the Tribunal of Penance and to obtain God’s consolation there. How much easier it is to confess one’s sins if you receive a genuinely warm and gentle welcome from your confessor! As with all Saints, prayer was as important as breathing to him. Joined to this was his ardent love for Jesus in the Eucharist and his deep devotion to Our Lady.

Francesco ministered to the sick, poor, disabled and children with learning difficulties under his care with tenderness and with infinite patience. As more people became aware of the holiness of his life, Francesco was called to take on increasing responsibilities as spiritual director of the local seminary, preacher and confessor to communities of nuns, seminary teacher, and roles of service within the diocese. There are, of course, many who desired someone less peasant-like in these roles, and were rather vocal about it. Francesco wasn’t bothered by this, and kept giving of himself to souls in need in imitation of his divine Master. Despite so many tasks before him, Francesco remained full of the peace that passes human understanding and entrusted himself completely into God’s capable hands. Of all things, what Francesco wanted was a share in God’s wisdom, to have God’s eternal perspective on the value of all things. To this end, his constant prayer was, ‘Lord, teach me to be smart.’

In 1936, three years before his death, the good Lord sent him the most difficult trial for a seeker of souls – a period of inactivity due to heart trouble. This was indeed a martyrdom of the heart for Francesco, yet he increased his trust in the Lord and reminded himself that he was like a ball in the hand of God. The stronger the force with which it hits the ground, the stringer it bounces up again. 

Death came via several days of agony on 7 May 1939. As soon as word reached students, priests, bishops, poor people, businessmen etc of his death, they came out in droves to his funeral, eager to honour this priest through whom they had received the mercy, kindness and direction of Jesus. Many had experienced this smiling priest reading their souls, imparting the healing of Jesus and giving them inspired advice for future decisions within the confessional.

May the good Lord grant that we may soon learn more about this priest who welcomed all comers with the warmth, love and welcome of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. May He grant that we may soon share the joy of the news of his canonisation.

Blessed Francesco Paleari, pray for us.

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