200th Anniversary of the Birth of St Anthony Mary Claret

200th Anniversary of the Birth of St Anthony Mary Claret

Antonio Bellella Cardiel, C.M.F.

Following Christ, committed to the Lord and others

Today, 23 December 2007, is 200 years since the birth of St Anthony Mary Claret; the 25th is the bicentennial of his baptism. For some months now the entire Claretian family is living this event as an opportunity to deepen Claret's charismatic gift and making it known to the Church. This past 21 October, in Sallent (Spain), the Claretian Jubilee Year was inaugurated with a solemn Eucharist. This commemoration will be extended throughout the world and will be concluded in Tanzania in August 2008. The theme of this bicentennial, Born to evangelize, is not only a good overview of who St Anthony Mary Claret was and what he desired, hut also evokes both births of the saint: to life and to grace. The expressions "born to evangelize" and "live to evangelize" offer two good characteristics by which to reread, from the history of Claret, the meaning of the jubilee.

Born to live

On the eveof the French invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, in December 1807, Antoni Claret i Clará was born in Salient (Spain). He was the fifth in a family of 11 children. These were not easy times; his earliest memories were marked by war. Nor was he born into a wealthy family. His parents had no other income other than their entrepreneurial ability and their constant work in the textile workshop which occupied the ground floor of the family house. At home he learned to pray and to work. As a child of the 19th century, he was just as affected by the social revolution as by that of industry. Indeed, in his native Salient he would establish the first textile industries which over time would make Catalonia the most industrialized area in Spain.

His education and formation were also affected by the whims of a troubled era. His early schooling, received in the school of Salient, was followed in Barcelona with specific preparation aimed at improving the family business. Claret learned, worked and studied, faced life, savoured success, experienced the disappointment and embraced ambitious projects; but moved by Scripture, he discovered a new horizon and just before completing 22 years of age entered the seminary. From then on he lived for God, and in a long and intense process of discernment, would uncover God's will. Curiously, he would never forget his technical textile studies; he no longer worked the loom but soon he began to weave with the thread of the Gospel.

Living to evangelize

Ordained a priest in 1835 he was assigned to his hometown. That same year was very hard for the Church and Spanish society: there was civil war. Together with the social structures, the structures of evangelization also suffered. Claret lived these transformations alongside his people: attentive to the needs of his brothers and sisters and to the promptings of the Spirit, he soon perceived that God was calling him to an evangelization without borders.

In 1839, with the permission of his Bishop, he travelled to Rome: he wanted to offer himself to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith so as to become an Apostolic Missionary: to evangelize like the Apostles, to build up the Church where it was most needed. The society of Jesus opened its doors and he entered the novitiate, but after six months he had to leave because of an illness. He returned to his diocese of origin, where nothing was the same. On the one hand, the desire to be an Apostolic Missionary would soon be enhanced through an official appointment by the Holy See; on the other hand, six months with the Jesuits opened his eyes and mind to the universality of the Church. Now he knew that God wanted him to be a missionary: he repeated with the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me and sends me" (Is 61:1).

After this process of discernment, Claret preached tirelessly for eight years, touring his Homeland. His dream to go to other lands would be realized in 1848, when he was sent to the Canary Islands. The activity of these years was not confined to preaching, but was enriched with the apostolate of the written word — he began Religious Publications — the creation of associations, the dissemination of religious literature; he spent many hours in the confessional and in spiritual direction, retreats, etc.... Claret reached two conclusions: the people are hungry for God's Word and the harvest is plentiful, the field is huge and the workers are few, and thus he began looking for collaborators who felt emboldened by the same spirit. He founded, in July 1849, the Congregation of Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Claretians).

All his projects seemed frustrated when, shortly after founding the Congregation, he was named Archbishop of Santiago, Cuba. Even so, he accepted the appointment under obedience and with a clear determination to be a missionary Archbishop. He turned the six years he spent in Cuba into a major campaign of evangelization. Everything he had learned so far he applied to his missionary task. He was concerned for the moral, Christian and catechetical formation as well as that of education — he collaborated with Antonia Paris in the founding of the Religious Sisters of Mary Immaculate (Claretian Missionary Sisters)  —, social empowerment and human dignity of the faithful of the diocese. Like all great personalities, he had eminent colleagues and also a harvest of enemies. In 1856, in Holguin, Cuba, he suffered an attack that almost ended his life. He was called by Queen Isabella II to be her confessor, and in 1857 Claret left Cuba and returned to Spain.

The 11 harshest and challenging years of his life happened in Madrid, as confessor of the young queen and, while evangelizing the court, the city and all of Spain; he had to accompany the sovereign in her official travels. He felt that the Royal Palace was a golden cage, but with pastoral wisdom he took every opportunity to evangelize. In collaboration with the Nuncio, he used his position for the reform of the whole Church, engaging in the sensitive issue of the appointment of Bishops. If in Cuba he suffered persecution, in Madrid the storm increased: not everyone understood his pastoral work and some considered him a difficult character and repeatedly attacked his reputation, his honour and his life. He prayed, worked and suffered. If silence was imposed upon him, he wrote, if he could not preach in churches, he preached in convents and confessed that if he could not take action, he got others to do it for him: he organized and promoted associations where the laity were increasingly more active; he discreetly supported his missionaries to expand their evangelizing. He lived poorly and was everything but a courtier.

In 1868 he left Spain, exiled with the Queen in Paris, and despite his ailments, he helped in the pastoral care of the vast Latin American colony living in the French capital. Severely weakened in health, he participated in Vatican I. He died on 24 October 1870 at the Cistercian Abbey of Fontfroide in the south of France.

200 years later: That they may have life (Jn 10:10)

Fr Josep Maria Abella, Superior General of the Claretian Missionaries, invited the Order in a Circular Letter written on the occasion of this bicentennial, to remember the life of the Founder and to a commitment to everything that was important for him: following Christ and commitment to the Church and to the brothers.

How can we live today what was essential for Claret? In summary, it was discovered that he lived during a difficult time but knew how to enlighten it with his faith; he was sensitive to his world but maintained a critical relationship with it; he worked tirelessly but knew how to combine activity with a deep spiritual life; he encountered strenuous challenges but he never lost his bearings; he was a man with limits but also one convinced that he could do something; he had weaknesses but he always had hope in the principles passed on to him and in the practice of the virtues; temptation was present in his life but he knew how to oppose it with strength and grace. He was a man who, like the Master, desired that everyone have life, who was of a particular era, but whose spirit has the force to inspire men and women of every time and place.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 January 2008, page 12

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