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Chronicler of holiness

· A conversation with Angelo Montonati, writer and journalist who has just turned 80 ·

“Making them known and making them likeable is an important professional undertaking because it withstands the challenges of our times and passing fashions”

The Secret of Sister Nothing was one of the very first, followed by The Hands that Healed the City , The Captain’s Testament , Lelia and Ulysses , Fire in the City , Never Tired for God and many others, nearing almost fifty. Enjoyable and never monotonous biographies of men and women saints and founders of our time. All written by journalist Angelo Montonati, who celebrated his 80th birthday on October 25th.  A scrupulous chronicler from Varese, Italy, who worked in his youth for La Prealpina and Vatican Radio , as a correspondent for Famiglia Cristiana , was director of Ordine of Como and chief editor of Jesus . He is currently preparing a new biography of Fr. Kolbe.

A hagiographic production, almost prodigious in the last five years, with many re-printings and some translations. To make the saints known and make them likeable, is an important professional undertaking because it withstands the challenges of our times and passing fashions. The saint lives the moment, trusts in God, to speak of them is like recounting the Gospels through the positive experience of humanity. These are some of the guiding convictions of Montonati, certainly one of the most expert living hagiographers.

Your narrative repertory includes saints from the past and contemporary ones, of every type: lay, ecclesiastic, religious, young, old, martyrs, confessors. What has struck you the most and what do you find in common between saints of the past and those today?

I am always amazed by the life of a saint, as if it were the first and only one. I find they have one thing in common: in each of their lives, there is always a moment in which the Lord asks you for something. They call it illumination, vocation, but there is always an episode which marks a turning point. Those who understand it and are faithful to the call, act. It goes for everyone. At nine years of age, Don Bosco had a dream which gave direction to his life; Mother Cabrini, one of the great foundresses, wanted to become a missionary but she wasn’t having any success with it and so she prayed. At a certain moment, the Bishop of Lodi tells her to establish an institute because there wasn’t one for women immigrants. This is the turning point  in the life of saints. It goes for us too, only that many times, we don’t respond and pretend not to notice. The saint has the sensitivity to grasp the moment; they dive in, they achieve something by sacrificing themselves, because certain things have a cost.

In your books on the saints, are you more careful to narrate marvelous facts or rather the ordinary stories of life ?

Usually, I am careful with the marvelous. I don’t search for the extraordinary at any cost. If it is there, I will report it. Before, there was a tendency to see everything in a marvelous light. I’ll give you a concrete example. I spoke a few years ago on Radio Maria about St. Clelia Barbieri. She died young but said, “I will always be with you and when you need me, you will hear me.” Well, on the first anniversary of her death, her successor Orsola Donati, did not know what to do about the new students that were arriving. They were praying in the private chapel and everyone heard a beautiful and strong voice: it was the voice of Clelia. So they went to the parish and there, too, the people heard the voice. Even today, in some of the houses of the Sisters of the Addolorata, the voice is heard. The signs are there and it is not necessary to go and look for them. I stick with the facts and the facts arrive with the saints. Recently, at the press club in Milan, a dear colleague said to me, “What a bore to always talk about saints!” “And you,” I said, “aren’t you ashamed to have spent the last 22 years only talking about soccer?” “You’re right,” he responded, “I agree with you. Keep going.” Every first Sunday of the month from 2:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon, I have a show on Radio Maria called “ I sempre giovani ” (“The forever young”) which I have been doing for 15 years. We have 15 minutes of phone calls during the show and I receive hundreds of letters. If told well, the stories of saints draw attention because they are examples of how ordinary people, even those who are not well-educated, despite the difficulties of life, can achieve something and become whole.

Who are the new saints today?

The new saints are the saints of our times. Let’s say that what is new are the ways, the environment in which they are raised, the social conditions in which they live are diverse, but the root is always the same. What is holiness? It is establishing an interior rapport with the Lord so that the rest becomes less important. To have passion for the Lord and your neighbor. The Pope says that we are in a world which increasingly attempts to detach from God, where power, pleasure and having things count more than the rest. Holiness is the contrary: to follow the Gospel, follow it with the maximum of faithfulness possible, even where it means sacrifice. The Gospel of love for God and neighbor always remains the basic code. The people are new and the contexts in which the saints mature are new. Pier Giorgio Frassati: who would have thought that such a brilliant university student would become a saint? Amongst others, I had the good fortune of knowing a lay person like Giuseppe Lazzati. Only to see him praying in the chapel of the Sacred Heart in Milan and one immediately understood that there was something different in his way of being Christian.

Was Benedict XVI’s reform of the process of beatification and canonization necessary ?

Yes, because it streamlined the process. Before, everything was done in Rome, now it is beginning to be done in the diocese, which gives more responsibility to the diocese and religious congregations. Which means a more serious and reliable canonical iter from the first phases.

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