In the past few years it has become popular to investigate one’s ancestry using means such as DNA testing and various internet sites which are dedicated to this pursuit. While I have not chosen to pursue DNA testing, I do know a bit about my Italian lineage, although the trail quickly runs cold concerning both my paternal and maternal ancestors. For example, my paternal grandmother died quite early in life before anyone thought to look into her forebearers. To complicate it further, I have come to realize that her maiden name was probably misspelled at Ellis Island, rendering all but impossible any efforts to find much beyond where in Sicily she was from. Of my maternal ancestors, we know that my grandfather was from a tiny town in Calabria called Acri, and that my grandmother, though born in Brooklyn, had ancestors also from that area. Therefore, the truth is that my familial ancestry is rather murky beyond my grandparents. However, while I may not have a sense of exactly who my ancestral relatives were, I do feel a connection to humble, little Acri through my discovery of a saint who was born and died in that very place. ‘Saintophile’ that I am, (a term I think I just ‘invented’), I felt compelled to investigate his life so as to have a deeper understanding of the rootedness which counts the most: our connection in the Body of Christ. In this saint I have found “a witness to loving mercy”* and an inspiring new friend who can lead us more deeply into the heart of what it means to be Christian.
With all the effort we put into seeking our ancestral roots for a sense of where we come from and ‘who our people might be,’ we can sometimes take for granted our connections spiritually, that is, to God and to the Body of Christ. But unlike the dead ends we can come to in searching out our human ancestry, spiritually we do know where we come from and we do know our roots all the way back to the source: our roots are in God and we are His sons and daughters, heirs to the Kingdom through the saving acts offered on our behalf through Jesus Christ. Additionally, we are rooted to the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who came before us, the martyrs and holy ones who persevered in their faith and who are now in Heaven. As members of the Body of Christ we are made one in the Sacrament of Baptism through love which unites us with the Communion of Saints; we are eternally connected to all the baptized here on earth and with those already in Heaven. Therefore, our spiritual roots are crystal clear as we turn to the Scriptures and to the lives of the many holy men and women who went before us (including our beloved family and friends). They are our spiritual ancestors, special intercessors, and inspirational figures who teach us how to persevere in the Christian life.
The saint I ‘discovered’ is St. Angelo of Acri, admittedly not a household name, but one who is surprisingly well-known and well-documented in southern Italy. In fact, his body is preserved in a church in Acri and miracles have been attributed to his intercession. St. Angelo was born in Acri, Calabria, (1669-1739, feast day October 30) as Luca Antonio Falcone. He was the son of a baker and a goatherd. Because there was no school in Acri a neighbor taught him to read and write, and he learned about his faith from the local church as well as from an uncle who was a priest. When he was 20 years old, Luca decided to enter the Capuchins (Franciscans), but he struggled greatly with the austerity of the life, leaving twice before he was able to choose to stay. It is this struggle which makes him so compelling in that his life did not consist of instant success and religious heroism, but rather he had real-life difficulties through which he was able to persevere only with great effort. It is said that even after he returned the third time, he continued to struggle with all sorts of temptations, but that what enabled his perseverance was when he realized his call required “the effort which love makes easier.” Taking the religious name Fra Angelo Benedetto at his ordination, he embarked on a ministry of preaching and working for the poor, especially to fight injustices done against them. Thus, his love for God enabled him to literally ‘hang in there’ so that he could offer God’s love and mercy through his vocation.
St. Angelo can still speak to us today because the poor are still struggling to survive, people are still victimized through various injustices, and we are still in great need of mercy, healing, and love. Therefore, he can inspire us to continue these works without fear that our attempts might be accompanied by personal struggle. We are well aware that sometimes simply getting through the ‘stuff’ of our lives is difficult enough: daily we hit snags and roadblocks, little things crop up without any warning, and we can feel overwhelmed by it all. And then there are the bigger burdens of illness, financial challenges, difficult people to deal with, and all manner of suffering which can come to us at any time. But saints like Angelo of Acri serve as beacons of hope because they persevered with the help of God upon whom they fiercely and faithfully relied, reminders that we can do the same. St. Angelo was referred to as a ‘witness of loving mercy,’ helping people to experience the love of God through his good works. This is the call of the gospel preached by Jesus, and thus we are all called to offer love and mercy, though in a way unique to our gifts, personalities, and circumstances.
Perhaps what St. Angelo said about perseverance is something upon which we can reflect: he referred to “the effort which love makes easier.” He understood that at the heart of the message of Jesus is love, giving twofold meaning to this statement. First, God’s love for us is the source of grace, fueling our hearts and enabling all that we do. And second, our love offered to God in return makes all of our labors easier because we do what we do for the One we love. To better understand this, we can think of the martyrs, men like Saints Peter and Paul and women like Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who died cruelly, yet with the joy which had its origin in their immense love for Jesus. Love did make it easier. (Notice that St. Angelo said easier, not easy!) We can also think of the efforts of so many throughout history who fought for the good, the holy, and the just; their passion for these things and for service of God made it easier. And in our own lives there are numerous examples, such as when parents continually make sacrifices for their children, sacrifices made easier because of love. Our passion for what we do and for the people we serve drives the effort and thus it becomes easier.
In choosing to be disciples of Jesus, we have chosen to live as witnesses to His loving mercy. Our world needs people to witness in this way, not only to offer blessing, peace, and healing to one another, but to show people the way to the source of this love, Jesus Christ. It does not require a contrived eloquence, as St. Angelo discovered,** but rather it requires the “effort which love makes easier.” It means that we take the time for prayer in order to better know, love, and serve God; that we experience God’s love firsthand through prayer and the Sacraments; that we offer service to others by visiting the elderly, the sick, and the imprisoned, giving food, drink, and clothing to the poor, by working for justice for the oppressed and marginalized; and that we offer kindness and blessing whenever we can. It does take effort, but Love makes it so much easier. As we continue to ponder our lives as missionaries, perhaps we can carefully read a gospel, look to a particular saint, and then pray for the inspiration and grace to live as Jesus taught, keeping in mind that whatever we do, the effort is made easier through love.
May we turn to the saints and holy ones for inspiration that we may persevere in our call as missionaries of love and mercy! May we find grace through the Holy Spirit to live out our call as disciples of Jesus! May we grow in our understanding of the importance of applying the effort which love makes easier! May the love of God give joy to our hearts, inspiring us to make a return of love by drawing others to Him though our own efforts at love and mercy! May we seek and find through prayer and study a deeper sense of connection to the Body of Christ! And may we always be at home in God, from whom we come and to whom we return at the end of our lives! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* This is how St. Angelo of Acri was described at his canonization. You can find more at the following link. https://www.ofmcap.org/en/notizie/altre-notizie/item/1765-angelo-of-acri-witness-to-loving-mercy-finally-canonized
** One of the stories of St. Angelo is about how his first attempt at preaching went awry: he had memorized a flowery sermon, which was the custom of the day, only to totally forget it as he entered the pulpit. It was a disaster, but he learned from it to simply be himself.... and he became an eloquent, effective, sought-after preacher as a result.
1. My photo, Bisaquino, Sicily, Italy: Of course Acri is in Calabria, in the 'foot of the boot' of Italy, and this photo is of a town in Sicily. But Acri is a small town such as this; I have never been to Acri so this will have to do.
2. Painting, Cloud of Witnesses by Guisto de' Menabuoi: This seemed fitting given that I used the verse from the Letter to the Hebrews which must have been the inspiration for the painting. This painting adorns the Baptistry in Padua, Italy.
3. Painting, St. Angelo of Acri: This painting is of unknown origin, but it gives an idea of what he looked like.
4. My photo, Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico: I chose this photo because it is clearly a very poor community and so it represents the work needed in ministry to the poor.
5. Icon, The Galilean Jesus, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I think this icon captures the love and mercy of Jesus. It seemed fitting as a reminder of the One whose love makes all things easier. You can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-galilean-jesus-266-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. Painting, Corporal Works of Mercy: This painting is of unknown origin, but I had come across it a few years ago on a site which was discussing the corporal works of mercy (described in Matthew 25). It seemed fitting to place a painting here which depicted the loving and merciful efforts of those who work with the sick.
7. Icon, Mary Mother of Mercy - Dedicated to Pope Francis in the Year of Mercy, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: It seemed fitting to end this entry with a lovely icon which is about the love and mercy which are the center of Mary's role as both our Mother and intercessor. She is indeed the Mother of Mercy and of Love. And of course, Jesus is the source of All Love as Son of God and Son of Mary. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mary-mother-of-mercy-dedicated-to-pope-francis-in-this-year-of-mercy-289-william-hart-mcnichols.html
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart