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Magdalene, spiritual manager

· The saint of the month told by Gianpaolo Romanato ·

The French Revolution entailed a radical change in the role of women within the Church. In the pre-revolutionary world, there existed only one figure of the consecrated woman: the nun who renounced the world and isolated herself within the walls of the monastery. Think of the nun of Monza of Alessandro Manzoni, who is not only a great literary creation, but a concrete example of the legal status of women of the time. Instead, the post-revolutionary world, wiping out many monasteries, suppressing the public value of the vows and restoring religious women to the rule of common law, confronted the religious themselves with the need to rethink their role in terms not of isolation but rather of social utility.

It was from this rethinking that the new, previously inexistent figure was born, of the sister, that is the consecrated woman, who does not separate herself from the world but immerses herself in it, especially where the need is most acute: kindergartens, schools, hospitals, prisons, disability, marginalization, missions in distant countries. The Church ceased to be a comfortable social niche and became an instrument in the service of the interior elevation of most humble.

At the origin of this change, we find an aristocratic woman, of high social standing, a descendant of one of the most glorious noble Italian families: Mary Magdalene of Canossa. She was born in 1774 in Verona, a city completely caught up in the revolutionary events, for some time divided into two: the right of the Adige taken over by the French, to the left the Austrians. Verona became in this way, to borrow a penetrating observation of Cornelio Fabro, the geographical point of greatest friction between the old and the new.

Perhaps it is precisely for this reason that it was exactly Verona that saw the birth in great abundance during the nineteenth century, particularly in the first half of the century, of new religious congregations of active and not contemplative life: from the Stigmatines (to which Fabro belonged) to the Mazza Institute, from the Comboni sisters of Mercy of Carlo Steeb, up to the Antonio Provolo institute, dedicated to the recovery of the deaf and dumb. Caught between ever increasing social needs and far more rapid than previous transfers of wealth, in Verona there were, probably more frequently than elsewhere, those crises of conscience that shook the lives of people and their way of relating to God.

The Marchesa Magdalene of Canossa was one of them. She tried the road of the cloistered life among the Carmelites, but her vocation was to seek God in her neighbour, not in solitude. Like all creators of great charitable initiatives, she did not have an easy life either in her family or in the Church of Verona. However, her tenacity was stronger than the resistance, and between 1808 and her death, which occurred in 1835, her homes were born and flourished, starting with the first, which began in the district of San Zeno, the poorest and most derelict in the city.

In less than thirty years, the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor - this is the canonical name of the Canossian sisters - experienced a rapid spread that brought them to various cities of Veneto and Lombardy, having obtained within a few years, civil and religious approval, including pontifical recognition, which arrived in 1828. Then, from the middle of the century onwards, the spread abroad, which has made it today a sort of multinational charity present in all five continents.

The source of this extraordinary growth, which involved girls of humble origin but also women of the highest social standing of the time - the sister of Antonio Rosmini, Daisy, entered the Canossian Institute in 1828 and founded their house in Trento - was definitely the spiritual influence of Mary Magdalene, but there was also an attitude of leadership, a managerial ability, we would say today, which was always to be part of the genius of her family.

It had arrived at the shores of the Adige in the fifteenth century and in the following century it settled in the residence - precisely Canossa Palace, designed by Sanmicheli and frescoed by Tiepolo (today these paintings are lost) - which became the most important building in the city. In 1822 this was the building that housed the representatives of the great powers that came together for the Congress of Verona, called to restore order to the continent. And two grandchildren Magdalene dominated the city for much of the nineteenth century: Cardinal Luigi was its bishop for forty years, while the Marquis Ottavio was at the head of the City under the Austrians, remaining afterwards one of its most important citizens.

From this powerful family, accustomed to lead, with influence and relationships extended everywhere, Magdalene - her mother was a Hungarian noblewoman - received not only a refined education, but also the ability to design and manage successful enterprises. To all this she added her personal charisma: folding up a great deal of good fortune on earth, putting it at the service not of worldly glory but of an enormous work of charity.

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