God loves to send. Besides being holy, wise, just, and loving, He is a sending God. He acts in and through the agency of man, the crown of His creation. You have only to go through the historical, poetic, and prophetic books of the Bible to confirm it. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ To this, Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me!” (Isa 6:8).
Like everyone who sends, God does not act without knowing the one sent. Often, the mission precedes the birth of the one to be sent. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jer 1:5). Enthralling also is His criterion of selection. Man limits himself to the exterior, to the wealth of knowledge that a person may possess, and the robust physique one may have, whereas God focuses specifically on the heart. He looks past the physical to the interior (heart): “…man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart” (1Sam 16:7). God chooses those who seemingly look unqualified from the human scale of assessment to act as his legate. This is glaring in the nomination of David as king of Israel, the 12 apostles, and a host of other examples in scripture. He exercises his authority mightily that none of his creatures can fully comprehend.
This reality, in its lucidity, confirms that indeed His thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways not our ways (cfr. Isa 55:8). For if it was, Father Alberione perhaps would not have been the elected vessel through whom the 20th century and beyond will be evangelized and ten institutes founded. Like the prophet Jeremiah, Father Alberione’s essence as an apostle of the media preceded his existence. From a human angle of scrutiny, it could be said that he was not capable of such a task. Literature written about his life agree that he was born frail and infirm, that he was not from a moneyed family, that his parents Michael Alberione and Teresa Rose Allocco were farmers who even had to move 20 months after his birth to Montecapriolo di Cherasco in search of greener pastures, that he attended not the prestigious school of his time but a local school three kilometres away from his home, that he did not excel in intelligence, and that his brothers had to quit school to help in the farm.
By human analysis, therefore, we could say he was a nobody and not from a pedigree to expect that God would use him. Regardless of these human constraints, God found him suitable, thus the great moment of inspiration and commissioning in front of the Blessed Sacrament on the night that separated 31 December 1900 and 1 January 1901.
Looking back to the years he toiled to begin the congregation, we must appreciate his industry and doggedness, to have done what everyone was against but which was distinctly God’s directive. Except for the sender, everyone misunderstood the mission. Despite that, Father Alberione persisted, remained faithful, and certain that he was accomplishing God’s work. As it exists even today, misunderstandings, such as the belief that priests are not supposed to work in unconventional places like a printing press or a book centre, is quite understandable. Absurd as it seemed, God knew that the same inducing instrument — the press — could tackle the very issues caused by the bad press. Beyond human senses, through the aide of the Holy Spirit, Father Alberione foresaw the rein and dominance of the press and its ripple effects in evangelisation.
This year marks the 108th year of the foundation of the Society of St Paul and, thanks be to God, we are still here as His unalloyed fidelity and protection remain. Indeed, God is and will always be faithful. As nourishers, 108 years certify that we are not completely off the track of the responsibility handed over to us, though some lukewarmness is seen in some members today. As educators, 108 years of existence is nothing less than a vestige of God’s blessing, a testament that we are as relevant as we have ever been, and are still the conduit of God’s supernatural blessing.
As we mark this great day, perhaps wine and dine in celebration of what God, through Father Alberione, has accomplished, we spare some time to think over our future in this aura of celebration. We have come a long way, with more success stories than failures. Despite of these, the situation today requires a critical appraisal as the shortage of vocation casts a dark shadow over the congregation. Our numerical depletion should not be taken lightly. Some circumscriptions lack members to continue the apostolate passed on from the time of Primo Maestro. They are in a period of vocational sterility. The recent hemorrhage of young priests from the congregation is an issue for another day. It is right that we celebrate this day, for reaching 108 years is a grace we do not deserve. But even as we celebrate, we must also be worried. We may not survive another century if nothing concrete is done to calibrate our programs that aim to invite and to inspire labourers for the apostolate. The harvest of rescuing, educating and nourishing is still very plentiful, but the labourers are sadly getting fewer and fewer.
The 2nd International Seminar on the Pauline Formation for the Mission was held on 4-8 November 2019. Confreres from across the globe assembled in Ariccia to converse on Pauline formation for mission at a time when many circumscriptions had scarcely candidates to be formed for the Pauline mission. It was a wonderful initiative that lasted for four days. Excellent paper presentations from the delegates on diverse topics surrounding the formation of Paulines for the mission. At the end of it, a thick book was published for the archives and posterity to access. As much as I appreciate such seminars, they have, in my opinion, minimal effects on encouraging vocations. I submit that members can reverse the vocation shortage if we decide to rekindle the enthusiasm of the congregation’s spirit. At present, how the apostolate is carried out lacks the fire that could ignite the flames of interest among the young. The young should see in us a reality that proclaims the message of Jesus.
Granted that success in the promotion of vocations depends in large part on the free action of God, Pope Benedict XVI notes in his message on the 47th World Day of Prayer for Vocations that “the quality and depth of the personal and communal witness of those who have already answered the Lord’s call to the ministerial priesthood, to the consecrated life” also helps to bear fruits, “for their witness is then able to awaken in others a desire to respond generously to Christ’s call.” Citing some examples, the pontiff highlighted the roles of John the Baptist, Andrew and Philip who, in bearing witness to God, made disciples of others including Andrew’s brother Peter and Bartholomew. This continues to be true in the contemporary Church. The Lord makes use of the witness of consecrated men and women who are faithful to their mission to awaken new priestly and religious vocations for the service of the People of God. “Personal witness, in the form of concrete existential choices, will encourage young people for their part to make demanding decisions affecting their future” (Benedict XVI, 47th World Day of Prayer for Vocations).
Let us celebrate this day in a solemn fashion and resolve to intensify our supplication to the Lord of the vineyard to send good workers into his vineyard. I am not so sure how much voluntary sacrifice is offered up for this cause, though our Manual of Prayers is not remiss in reminding us to constantly pray for more vocations. If we intensify our prayers and multiply our penances generously, I am confident that the Holy Spirit will guide us all to have a healthy and vibrant community in which more and more young men will be attracted to take up the challenge, or rather opt for a long-term commitment to serve the Lord as priests or brothers.