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The Special Circumstance of Suffering

St.Joseph's Catholic Hospital Brothers of St. John of God Monrovia

Chiara Santomiero - published on 05/10/13

On Msgr. Luigi Novarese, Apostle of the Sick

“If we take away the possibility of acting spiritually from those who suffer, what meaning will their lives have? Society cannot expect physical work from us, but it has every right to expect our spiritual contribution, which is a real activity so needed in our day.”

This sums up the message of Msgr. Luigi Novarese, founder of the Silent Workers of the Cross and the Apostolate of the Suffering (CVS), who will be beatified on May 11 in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.

Msgr. Novarese’s insight came not from theoretical speculation but rather from his own experience of suffering. Born in Casale Monferrato (AI) on July 29, 1914, from age 9 to 17 he experienced an illness that acquainted him intimately, in his own flesh, with both the limitations and the inner resources of his condition. “The isolation of your room, that silent witness of so many sighs and bitter and burning tears,” he wrote in September 1973 in L’Ancora, the magazine published by the Apostolate of Suffering, “is only a symbol of the distance that exists between you and your former way of life: the frenzy of business and ambition; the frenzy, perhaps, of the passions; the whirlwind of politics. Now you are alone, pinned in the corner of suffering that has taken hold of you, and you see in the distance the flow of so-called ‘life’ to which you, too, once belonged, and still belong, and you seem to be excluded.”

However, there is another way to interpret the experience of suffering: “If you reflect deeply on your suffering,” Novarese wrote in the same article, “it may not truly be a forced isolation, but rather a special circumstance in your life that has detached you from appearances and placed you solidly in the realities that uniquely affect all men of good will, whether or not they enjoy good health.”

Novarese continues, “If suffering had not taken hold of you and forced you to consider the world of the spirit unfolding wide before you, which opens and expands your heart to joy and hope in proportion to your faith, you would not have this maturity today – this new vision which arises out of your new situation, which daily transforms you from a specialist in the world of work into a specialist, a producer, a technician of the achievements of the spirit.”

In 1931, after being miraculously healed through the intercession of Mary, Help of Christians and of St. John Bosco, Novarese chose as his life’s mission helping the sick and disabled to give meaning to their suffering so that it might be transformed from a source of despair into an instrument for good, through the consolation and hope that comes from God.

“The problem of the purpose of suffering and the way it may be used,” Novarese wrote in April 1950, in the first issue of L’Ancora, “is among the most urgent. The peace of nations may depend on this suffering borne with peaceful docility to the divine good pleasure. By this suffering, we can save many souls.”  Just as “we are all called to contribute to the rebuilding of society (the Second World War had just ended and the rebuilding of nations had begun), as indeed, everyone has the duty to work,” so “our work is to suffer.” For Novarese, “it is therefore necessary to bear suffering with a Christian mindset, otherwise we will suffer uselessly, or we may not fulfill our duty as good members of society; in other words, we would be defectors from the post that the Lord has assigned us.”

Thus, in 1947, the Apostolate of Suffering was born. It was a movement formed of diocesan associations (united in an international Confederation under the guidance of the Silent Workers of the Cross) in which people who suffer commit themselves to following Christ in their suffering, and so become actively involved in the apostolate and the evangelization of others who suffer.

“In the face of social isolation and concern over what the future holds,” Novarese wrote in a December issue of L’Ancora, “there are those who understand [these realities] and adapt, and there are those who, exaggerating their own position, meet with a sense of rebellion against God and men. Lastly, there is the sick person who, understanding by his good religious education that, on the spiritual plane, an illness can be a vocation like that of the doctor who is treating him, finds it normal to serenely accept his illness. He understands that, in the end, he is neither useless nor a burden to society.”

Msgr. Novarese died at Rocca Priora (Rome) on July 20, 1984. For 15 years, he also directed the Pastoral Office of the Italian Bishops’ Conference for Health Care, following in particular the formulation and application of the law for religious hospitals. The diocesan process carried out by the Curia of Frascati concluded on December 17, 2003.

On March 27, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed his heroic virtue, and on December 19, 2011 he signed the Decree recognizing the miracle obtained through the intercession of Ven. Luigi Novarese, opening the doors to the beatification of the priest whom Pope John Paul II named “the Apostle of the Sick.”

The priesthood and the recognition of the value of Christian suffering: these are the two pillars of Msgr. Novarese’s witness. “We need the sick as we need the air that we breathe,” he wrote in L’Ancora in November 1965. “We need suffering sanctified by grace just as we need priests. The sick strengthen the spiritual capital of God’s ministers in order that they may be more effective in their pastoral activity.”

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