I had been due to arrive in Milan around lunchtime but, thanks to the world’s self-appointed “favourite” airline, I didn’t reach there until evening. By the time I had transferred to Milan Central station and the train had wound northward through the countryside for nearly two hours, I didn’t arrive arrived at Domodossola station until after 11pm.
I rang for a taxi and managed to raise a driver who said he was about to knock off, but as he had a night-shift worker to drop at a point vaguely in that direction, and if I wouldn’t mind sharing, he would take me to the Sanctuary.
So we set off out of town, criss-crossing the railway tracks as we went deeper into the unknown. The driver pointed out a lighted cross apparently high in the sky in the distance. “That’s the Sanctuary,” he reassured me. We seemed to speed further and further away till finally we turned into a huge railway marshalling yard where my fellow passenger disembarked. The driver explained that as the town was so close to the Swiss border, it had grown up around railways and freight. As he did so the lighted crucifix came back into view and I could see the silhouette of the mountain behind it. We climbed steeply up a single-track road and eventually my journey ended at Monte Sacro Calvario.
It was not until I opened my shutters the following morning that I had any real sense of what I had come to. My window looked out across the Italian Alps, the distant peaks still snow-capped but the nearer ones lush and green. There was that dazzling light you get in the mountains and the intoxicating air. Below was a large complex of terraces and gardens and buildings in stone and stucco.
Monte Sacro Calvario is a shrine dedicated to the Passion. It contains the last in a series of 15 small chapels tracing a via crucis up the mountain, and the pilgrim arrives finally at a larger than life-size and vividly realistic tableau of the Crucifixion in painted terracotta in the sanctuary church.
Though founded in the late 17th century by the Capuchins, the shrine is famous as the place where Blessed Antonio Rosmini founded the Institute of Charity, or Rosminians, in 1828.
It struck me as interesting that a place that seems to owe a great deal to popular piety was the crucible in which this prolific philosopher and campaigner for Italian unification forged his most enduring legacy. It gave me a new interest in discovering more about a man whose writings were only finally declared free from error in 2001 and who was beatified in 2007. In the main house is the modest cell where Blessed Antonio wrote the constitutions of his new order, containing his desk, a reliquary, his biretta and some manuscripts in the tiniest, neatest writing.
Within just four years of their foundation the Rosminians had spread to England and opened parishes and schools. That their influence was considerable is evidenced less by any familiarity with their founder’s rather dense writings on voluntarism and more from a list of familiar customs which a Vatican biography of Rosmini attributes to their ministry, to whit: the Roman collar and the wearing of the cassock or habit in public, the spread of May Devotions, the Forty Hours, devotion to the brown scapula, public processions and the blessing of throats through St Blaise’s intercession.
I am here to direct a canonical pre-ordination retreat. Canon law requires everyone preparing for priesthood to make a final retreat. This is not so much a “last-chance saloon” of discernment, more an opportunity to prepare and dispose the heart as fully as possible to receive the graces of ordination.
Inevitably it puts me in mind of my own pre-ordination retreat 19 years ago. This coincided with the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, and the Scriptures for that feast seem to sum up perfectly the mysterious gratuity of the call and the required humility. “Do not say I am a child”: in other words, do not let your own inadequacy or sense of awe at what is being asked make you listen to your ego’s need for control. Were you a million times more competent and suitable it would not be enough. It cannot be undertaken by ordinary human strength or meriting. It is the call which signifies: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you … I will be with you.”