13 Spiritual Themes
St. Anthomy Mary Zaccaria
THEME 2: Virginity and Martyrdom
By Fr. Antonio M.Gentili, CRSP
By Fr. Antonio M.Gentili, CRSP
The great turns in life, although they seem to be sudden, usually are the fruit of a long gestation. Where, then, do we find the origin of that "dedicated himself to spiritual life," which marked the return to Cremona of the young Anthony M. Zaccaria, newly-graduated in Medicine? It involved not only a renewed fervor toward perfection in his own personal life, but also a more direct consecration to the cause of the salvation of souls. And so we see side-by-side the development of his formation to the priesthood, and the germination of the Cenac1e of reform where, at first as a layman among lay people, then as a priest, Anthony M. Zaccaria lavished the treasures of his intuitions.
Since the example of the Saints is enriched by the successive readings which are born inside
the Christian community, we are reminded of a page of the Vatican Council II, where we read:
The Church reminds to the mind of all that culture must be made to bear on the integral perfection of the human person, and on the good of the community and the whole of society. Therefore, the human spirit must be cultivated in such a way that there results a growth in its ability to wander, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgment, and to develop a religious, moral, and social sense (GS, 59).
For Anthony Mary culture had already opened itself to the great ideals of the spirit during the years he had spent studying for his humanistic and scientific formation. At the University of Padua, the young Zaccaria, between the age of 18 and 22, encountered the philosophical thought derived from the texts of Aristotle and the various mediations of old and recent commentaries. From one of these commentaries he took a series of definitions which he organized alphabetically in a note book, which was later used to write his Sermons. The only definition which is not found in the source, and so completely composed by Anthony Mary, and obviously out of place in an inventory of philosophical affirmations reads, "Chastity helps a lot in the acquisition of science. See the Letter E, under the voice Exercise, etc." In the reference the young student notes, going back to the source and not to his own thought: "Exercise offers to man's nature a preparation he did not have before. In an analogous way, it works even the moral virtue, especially chastity."
We could make many observations. First of all the young Zaccaria, about 20, confronts one of the crucial aspects of human maturation. He has an intuition for the strict ties between corporeity and spirituality. He overcomes the contrast between the exuberance of the instinct and the discipline of life, while he discovers a harmonious rapport with reciprocal fecundity. He presents himself at the threshold of adulthood in a unified and integral way, without any decompensation. Especially - and here is where lies the power of his "discovery," yes, not as an absolute, but a secure thing for himself - he has the intuition that chastity is not repression, as it could seem at first sight, and in spite of its etymology (chastity from "chastise"), but a drive, a "capacity," as Pope John Paul II would say, "If chastity at first appears as the capacity to resist against the concupiscence of the flesh, later gradually it reveals itself as a singular capacity to perceive, to love, and to effect those meanings of the spousal language of the body, which stay totally unknown to the same concupiscence ... " (Audience of October 20, 1984). Spousal language of the body manifested especially in the conjugal fecundity which binds it to the spirit: chastity helps science, as St. Thomas himself loves to remind us following Aristotle (cf. Summa Theologiae 2,2,15,3).
Finally, Anthony M. Zaccaria shows to have well-understood the importance of exercise and spiritual exercise, not abstract but corporeal, as we can deduce from his future writings. Man is a bundle of boisterous energies; only with discipline they turn to benefit his integral development. Otherwise, they run him over and rape him. But let us listen to our Saint.
Writing to his first disciples who, the year before in July 1537, had opened a mission in Vicenza, he explains, "As you overcome ignorance going to school, and just as the iron becomes shining with use, so it is with the practice of Christian virtues." And he gives an example; In the beginning Paul was not what he was later. The same can be said for the others" (Letter VI) and about the same for Zaccaria! About ten years before he had said to his Cenacle in Cremona, that man to go to God needed to purify himself, had to take a laxative (he added as a good doctor!) against all the passions, which, he pin points, "are mostly rooted in the body. Hence, they require bodily remedies, bodily guidance and incentives" (Sermon IV). The discipline of sensuality, take in the wildest meaning of the term, as he explains in his letters to the Omodeis, serves more "to increase and add beauty to Chastity" (Letter XI), where beauty and increase are a life program formulated with extremely positive terms, and proposed indifferently to people married or consecrated with vows.
All our very first historians testify to the fact that this was Anthony Mary's perception about the value of virginity, as a good for any state in life, as "a necessity of the souls," as a preamble to everlasting "fecundity" (expressions which today we find in our contemporary lay writers). Father Soresina describes him as "very much averse to any sensuality," "an incredible lover of purity (Attestazioni). On her part the "Anonymous Angelic" in her scented Memoirs exalts "the unique: purity and innocence" of Zaccaria, whom she defines as "an angel on earth," "lover of purity" and gifted with "purity and innocence of mind and body," so that he flew into heaven as "a pure dove." Didn't he write in the Constitutions that a true religious "in so far as it is up to him - desires with joy the true integrity of the body and soul" (Letter III) a text where every word has its specific meaning with a particular efficacy?
At this point allow me to re-read it keeping an eye on the Vatican Council II, which exalts in the Church, linking them together the two "gifts:" "exceptional gift" of martyrdom and the "special gift of virginity" (Lumen Gentium, 42).
"Virginity and freedom," we read in our contemporary writers; and, as we said, Virginity is love without compensation. Consequently we can capture the link uniting this duplex witness in the life of Anthony Mary. We like to consider him as a virgin and as a martyr, not in the sense of a bloody gift of his life, but for sure in the sense of an existence offered as a total sacrifice. He himself is very explicit about it, "Look how I long for and desire your perfection, look at my heart, which is wide open for you. I am ready to shed my blood for you, so long as you do this" (Letter XI).
Virginity and martyrdom recall each other and fecundate each other, and I think it is the truest and most fascinating message that Anthony Mary gives today to all those who invoke him as Father.
(original text in Ecco dei Barnabiti, 1989:2)
All the 13 Spiritual Themes of St Anthony M . Zaccaria were translated from Italian by Fr. Frank Papa, CRSP and edited by Ms. Fran Stahlecker.