Holiness through parish life

Today, 13 Jul 2012, is the memorial of St Clelia Barbieri, (a.k.a. Cloelia) a young single woman through whom many people came closer to God in her hometown of La Budrie, Bologna, Italy. She is a patron Saint for all those who get ridiculed for their piety. Dying young, at age 23, she is a reminder of what can be accomplished if we put God’s interests first.

St Clelia deserves to have proper research done on her life because she is such an example to all of us in running small prayer groups, study groups and local works of mercy at a parish level. Ever since I first learned about St Clelia’s life she has been a source of great encouragement to me. 

St Clelia Barbieri was born in 1847 at Le Budrie (or Budrio), Bologna in central northern Italy. Her parents must have loved each other very much because they overcame a huge gap in social status, he from poverty, she from a wealthy and influential family. In 1850 Clelia’s sister, Ernista was born. Sorrows soon came to the little family during a cholera outbreak in 1855 with the death of Clelia’s father. Now the family was reduced to even greater poverty and had to rely on the generosity of an uncle for a place to live.

To make ends meet mother and daughters worked in the hemp trade, sewing, spinning and weaving it. As they worked they would talk, and often they would speak about God or about matters of faith. In particular Clelia would ask her mother how to become a Saint. Even at a young age Clelia took this advice seriously and strove to put it into practice. Because of her progress in prayer and virtue she was permitted to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation at age 9 and First Holy Communion at age 11.

At her First Holy Communion Clelia was granted a profound mystical experience, being shown by Jesus the agony He went through, the sufferings He endured because of sin and the bitter sorrows of His Mother. From that time onwards the things that mattered to Clelia were the Eucharist, the Passion of Jesus and the sorrows of Our Lady. Because her work contributed to the support of the family, Clelia was able to attend regular school only in small snatches and only learned to read when she was a teenager. 

Gradually young women began to gather around Clelia to work, pray and talk about God. The local priest encouraged her to start teaching children the catechism. This she did, joining in the movement called ‘The Christian Catechism Workers’. Soon enough people recognised special talents in Clelia and appointed her the leader of the local Catechism Workers. Teaching catechism wasn’t enough for Clelia, her love for Jesus also led her to serve those around her who lived in poverty and need. The nucleus of young women gathered around Clelia as their inspirational leader began to feel the desire to dedicate their whole lives to the Eucharist, to teaching catechism and to helping the poor.

They themselves were too poor for any religious order to accept them, but the parish priest and the archbishop of Bologna both blessed the enterprise. Calling themselves the Congregation of Minims of the Sorrowful Mother, (Suore Minime dell’Addolorata) Clelia and three others began community life on 1 May 1868, under the special patronage of Our Lady of Sorrows and St Francis of Paola. At times Clelia experienced ecstatic states and was given the ability by God to read souls. It is never easy starting a new mode of religious life, and for these young women there was no exception.

Most as soon as community life developed a stable rhythm, Clelia’s dormant tuberculosis became active. For seven months she endured all of the suffering that came with this disease, offering it up to Jesus for souls, for the fledgling Congregation and for all of those they ministered to. So successful were her prayers joined to suffering that she obtained from Jesus a precious grace for her congregation, to be permitted to guide and encourage them even after her death. That holy death occurred on 13 July 1870, at the age of 23, and with some frequency Clelia’s voice has been miraculously heard singing and praying with those of her Order.

Papal approval for the Congregation took until 1949 to obtain, and not long after that the Congregation became affiliated with the Servite Order. On 9 April 1989, Blessed Pope John Paul the Great canonised Clelia saying ‘In a life outwardly simple and ordinary Clelia fed a flame of love so intense and deep towards the Divine Bridegroom that even her body felt the heat, collapsing at age 18 consumed by heat.’

St Cloelia Barbieri, pray for us.