Feed your spirit: In the footsteps of our founders

Feed your spirit: In the footsteps of our founders

By Father Joseph Nassal C.PP.S.

A young man contemplates a statue of St. Vincent de Paul,  founder of the Vincentians and, with Louise de Marrilac, the Daughters of Charity.  Photo by Father Lawrence Lew, O.P.

 

IN HIS DIARY for Friday, January 4, 1963, Pope John XXIII wrote about his “unscheduled visit this morning to the church of Santa Maria in Trevi, to honor St. Gaspar del Bufalo, founder of the Fathers of the Most Precious Blood.” Calling this visit to the church near the Trevi Fountain “the happiest note of the day,” good Pope John expresses his admiration of St. Gaspar, the founder of my Congregation: “I love him much, because he was a priest of Rome and canon of St. Mark’s, my parish church when I was living in Rome at Santa Maria in Via Lata. I invited him to be the first of the saints of Rome to lift up his voice for the Vatican Council.”

St. Gaspar founded the Missionaries of the Precious Blood on August 15, 1815. As we celebrate our 200th anniversary this year, this visit of good Pope John to the tomb of my founder to pray for the success of the Second Vatican Council inspires me. Saint Gaspar was a champion of the renewal of the church in his day. Of course, there is no greater champion of the renewal of the church in the last century than Pope St. John XXIII who set in motion Vatican II.

The Second Vatican Council encouraged religious communities to return to their sources and reclaim the core values upon which the congregations were founded. The challenge was to tap the initial inspiration of our founders and apply that spirit to the signs of these times. My founder, St. Gaspar, defined our role as missionaries as two-fold: the renewal of the church through the preaching of the Word and the reconciliation of the world through the Blood of Christ. These key values—renewal and reconciliation—are the lens through which Precious Blood people see the world. When we look through the lens of our charism, the world looks different. The same is true for all those in consecrated life: seeing the world as our founders saw the world changes us.

A good example of how the inspiration of a founder can influence our vision today is reflected in the story of a married couple who became lay associates (Precious Blood Companions) of our community. Steve and Connie and their five children lived down the street from the parish church where I served as a deacon in 1980. We became very good friends, and I often introduced them as two of the most important formation directors I ever had because often at the end of the day I would walk down the street and sit at their kitchen table and break open the stories of the day. Steve and Connie were accomplished practitioners of the art of kitchen table wisdom.

They were married on the feast of St. Gaspar. It was just a coincidence at first, but they began to see it as a holy coincidence. Because our priests have staffed their parish for more than 100 years, they have had a long affiliation with our community and lasting friendships with many of our priests. When they became Precious Blood Companions and started studying more seriously the life of St. Gaspar and the charism and spirituality of the community, they began to see with new eyes.

A turning point came when the buildings and grounds across the highway from the local Catholic high school were sold to the Missouri prison system. All five of Steve and Connie’s children graduated from the high school and several of their grandchildren attended the school. Connie worked as a secretary there for several years. When Steve and Connie heard the news that a minimum-security correctional facility was being planned for the site in such close proximity to the high school, they joined the chorus of concerned parents opposed to the plan.

But as they thought and prayed about their opposition, the stories about St. Gaspar and his work with outlaws and bandits terrorizing towns like Sonnino in the Papal States crossed their minds and took up considerable space in their discernment. They told me they began to look at the issue through the eyes of St. Gaspar. How might Gaspar have reacted? They realized that Gaspar’s charism was about reconciliation and not retribution. The spirituality of the Precious Blood and the charism of Gaspar began to change their minds and hearts toward those who were incarcerated.

Founders continue to inspire

Each one of us in religious life has the gift of a founder to whom we can look for inspiration and guidance. Our way of life is rooted in a charism that flows from the Holy Spirit, through our founders, to each one of us. In our weariness and in our triumphs, our founders accompany us still.

There are many stories about my founder’s life that have influenced and informed the way I view certain issues in the church and the world. For example, in 1808 when Gaspar was a young priest, Napoleon invaded the Papal States and occupied Rome. Refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the emperor, Gaspar was sent into exile and incarcerated. Through the years when I have been called to participate in acts of civil disobedience for a just cause, Gaspar has been my guide.

While he is somewhat known in Rome—as evidenced by good Pope St. John XXIII’s affection for him—Gaspar is not well-known in the United States. When giving a retreat a few years ago, I met a woman religious who grew up in a parish served by members of my community in the early 1950s. She mentioned she had fond memories of the Precious Blood missionaries. “The priests wore cassocks with a large cross with a gold chain and they told us stories of Blessed Casper,” she said. I told her she remembered the cross and chain correctly but Casper was a friendly ghost and our founder’s name was Gaspar.

“Yes, that’s right,” she smiled. “Blessed Gaspar—have they made him a saint yet?”

Gaspar was canonized by Pope Pius XII on June 12, 1954. On the 50th anniversary of his canonization in 2004, I was privileged to offer a retreat at the Monastery of San Felice in Giano in the region of Umbria in Italy. It was here that Gaspar founded the Congregation in 1815. As missionaries from around the world journeyed together in the footsteps of our founder, it was clear how his passion to draw all people near in the blood of Christ continues to be our pulse as we promote the renewal of the church and reconciliation for a wounded world.

 

Father Joseph Nassal, C.PP.S. is the author of eight books, including The Conspiracy of Compassion, Rest Stops for the Soul, Premeditated Mercy, Moments of Truth, and Stations of the Crib. A Missionary of the Precious Blood, he has been engaged in retreat, renewal, and reconciliation ministry since 1988. Ordained in 1982, he has also served in parish ministry, justice and peace ministry, and in formation, vocation, and leadership ministry for his congregation. He presently is provincial director of the Kansas City Province and lives in Liberty, Missouri.



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