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In a seminary in order to to impart formation

· A conversation with Sr Maria Daniela Cubadda and Sr Paoletta Meloni ·

Unmistakable, they were waiting for me dressed in white at Cagliari Airport; with joyful faces and motherly friendliness. Not by chance it was 22 July: Mary Magdalene. The impact of their expressions, their shabby old car, the temperature and light of the Mediterranean, a brief journey that became an exchange: everything smelled of the Gospel: the atmosphere was certainly the one that Jesus loved. This is how my meeting with Sr Maria Daniela Cubadda and Sr Paoletta Meloni began, a day for listening and recounting. Since 1888, the Daughters of St Joseph of Genoni, a women’s congregation which had the seminary as its mother house, have primarily been protagonists in the formation of priests. Sr Maria Daniela headed the Institute for 24 years.

Cagliari, at the end of the 18th century...

For the new Archbishop Berchialla, it was a matter of rebuilding from the bottom a diocese in need of structures, formation and spiritual dynamism. He asked the superiors of his order, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, for the presence of Fr Felice Prinetti. Prinetti had been in the town since 1881, first as the archbishop’s secretary, then as director of the seminary: a great investment was being prepared in the formation of the clergy. This explains the urgent need to provide for the seminary’s domestic service, which materialized in Pinetti’s project to bring a new religious family into being in the Sardinian Church.

Thus its beginnings were traditional: sisters for the kitchen, for the wardrobe, for the hidden work and for the prayers of intercession.

It is not right to belittle these aspects, considering them anachronistically in terms of subjugation and minority: the sisters immediately turned their tasks into an atmosphere, making the place to which history had seemed to relegate them a starting point. Here emerges in its significance their charism, namely that gift of the Spirit with which the founder transmitted to the community a profile which they were to adopt with naturalness. In particular, Prinetti’s texts indicated to the sisters the centrality of compassion. It was a style with which he reinterpreted the entire salvific economy in the light of the divine disposition to listen while humbling themselves submissively. Hence the sisters were to educate, bringing to the seminary an approach which was to have an effect on the future ministers of divine compassion: the idea of mediation thus acquired the daily outlines of a service carried out with intelligence and warmth. “In your hands everything must be transformed, like the bread and wine in Mass”; they must be women who were to show the candidates to the priesthood with their lives that this is what creates charity.

Frequently what is lacking is not the presence of women but their visibility. In this way great charisms end by speaking to few and change the Church too slowly.

In itself a Christian vocation does not aim for recognition but I take the point. In fact, one passes from demonstrations of recognition – that arrive when you least expect them from ecclesiastics apparently surly and detached – to the far more frequent understanding between seminarians and women religious. The Daughters of St Joseph, first in Cagliari and then in the seminaries of Oristano, Nuoro, Lanusei, Iglesias and Bosa, have been mothers to a great many young men. And a mother, even if she is in the wings, is central and knows it. This means joys and worries, presence, correction and providing a reference for matters of dress, nourishment and health care; she encourages prayer and an orderly lifestyle. In small and medium-sized seminary communities her presence in fact implies educational co-responsibility. It was as though families were entrusting their boys to the sisters. It was they whom families spoke to during their visits to their sons, the womanly eye that accompanied and looked after them.

Have you gone any further? Are there some seminaries in which you have been asked to be legitimate members of the formation team?

In 1996, 10 years before the publication of the document La formazione dei presbiteri nella Chiesa italiana [the formation of priests in the Italian Church] which in paragraph n. 37 inviteslay people too, men and women”, to work alongside priests, “especially in the area of psychological and pedagogical consultancy”, noting that “the feminine charism [...] can be of great help in the formation process”, the Diocesan Seminary of Alghero-Bosa took the initiative of building a new kind of collaboration with the Daughters of St Joseph. The then rector, Antonella Mura, today Bishop of Lanusei, put in black and white in the dialogue with the institute the desire for a new presence of the religious, “invoking a true and proper prophetic gesture” that would make the most of their consecration and permit them to provide an educational service in all fields, destined for the young men in their formation but also as a vocational sign for the city and the diocese. “The sisters are to be free of manual tasks, such as kitchen chores, devoting themselves entirely to enriching community life as true and proper educational companions, from prayer to study, animating the various groups that […] need special attention”.

Sr Paoletta, you played the lead in this new history. How do you remember it?

I was 28 years old when I was asked to enter a seminary in a manner that everyone considered new. I arrived feeling rather scared: I had no clear ideas of what might happen. I myself was on the way towards vocational maturity. Of course the presence of a sister older than me made me feel safe, but everything distanced us from the usual methods. The traditional presence in a seminary required that the sisters have their own spaces and times; here we were entering a different community dimension, continuously among the young men. We were about 15 in all: the seminarians, the rector, and three sisters – two of whom were permanent and one new every year – back from missionary experiences: a large family. There were external confessors and spiritual fathers but in the house the sisters and the rector collaborated side by side. It was a closely-knit educational team which had to make the most of the rare moments of the seminarians’ absence to enjoy the peace and quiet necessary for moments of sharing and verification.

What were the most important moments?

A shared daily life – recreation, ping-pong, reading, sports — alternated with the more structured moments of formation. There was also remarkable openness to the outside world and in particular relations with the town were cultivated. The seminarians attended the local schools so that we ourselves often kept in touch with the teachers and kept track of the way their studies were going. In the community, we directed the weekly catechesis, the lectio divina in small groups, the hour of “criticism of conscience” for the purpose of checking on personal and community life. We then had the cultural events. Those were incredibly lively years. The “meetings with writers” in particular brought important figures to the seminary from the worlds of politics, art and civil society. They would have dinner with us, they sometimes participated in our prayers, and then we would begin open dialogues, also for the local people.

So an end to manual work?

On the contrary! Although the kitchen was managed by people taken on expressly for that purpose, all the work of cleaning and of the management of the house was shared by the sisters and the boys. Life in the seminary was deliberately reduced to essentials and in many aspects austere. The innovation, at the educational level, involved the sharing of even the most humble aspects of practical life. No one lived to be served and there were no secondary offices. Plans according to which all the people that counted were either only those who do or only those who think fell apart: it was formative to be side by side in every aspect of life. Thus the conversation between teenagers and sisters was continuous, with and without words. There was a naturalness which in various cases oiled the more hierarchical relations between the seminarian and the rector: the sister was something else, clearly educational, but at the same time a confidante who brought special nuances and sensibilities. A complementarity of attentions was reflected in the educational team when it came to interpreting, each one with his or her own eyes, the progress of each boy, often in order to work out delicate decisions. We felt that certain tasks would be very burdensome to undertake alone, whereas the exchange between sisters and rector generated a security full of reciprocity.

How much of that experience lives on today?

Like many adolescent communities, the Seminary of Bosa suffered such a drastic loss of students in recent years that it had to be closed. Thus our project ended in 2009, 12 years after it began. In any case this was a long enough period for much of what was experienced still to be alive. With regard to my initial trepidation, those years shaped my religious vocation so that today, as novice mistress in my institute, I draw on a patrimony of sensitivities and formative skills gained among the future priests. Moreover, many priests I met when they were boys continue to come here to talk about themselves, they seek out a sister to confide in her, to overcome moments of discouragement or to find enlightenment in the affective and community dynamics in which they are involved: The educational relationship continues and is enriched, with a most original trait of complementarity between male and female.

Sr Paoletta mentioned the affective dimension. Sr Maria Daniela, what do you see from the perspective which grants you the role of mother in an institute so close to priests?

At Bosa the sisters also looked after the development of the seminarians’ emotional life in a manner adapted to their different ages…. However in general, as women and sometimes with the vigour of mothers, we would like to see the young men be whole within themselves and not merely concerned with appearances; clinging to the Lord and not to some aspect or other of life or of the ministry. Seeing them become adults is not the automatic result of a theological formation. In seminary communities it is essential to invest in an integral human formation that overcomes the fragmentation which young people always bear within them, coming from the world, often also from relatives, falling apart. The young man’s relationship with the sisters, also in the more traditional forms of their presence, is intended to encourage this growth in balance which in the future will be expressed in a good closeness to people, in patient listening, in respect, even in daring and prophecy. Of course, if he lacks maturity, this affects his relationship with the world of women. It can be bitter, from top to bottom, lacking in delicacy, or on the contrary it can take the form of a morbid attachment. This is why the women present in seminaries cannot turn away: they affect dimensions pregnant with consequences on the atmosphere that will be breathed in the parishes of the future.

After the Bosa experience, are new such undertakings in progress?

Already 20 years ago, when the experiment began with Fr Antonello Mura, our institute was obliged to evaluate a restructuring of our presences. Nevertheless it gradually became clear that the investment in seminaries, and in general, in the formation of priests was bringing us back to our origins, to our charism and to our founder’s intuition. Today in the Seminary of Cagliari Sr Antonia Deidda, who has a degree in psychology, cares for psychological and affective maturity, intervening in particular in the propedeutic community. Sr Nolly, of Indian origin, took theology lessons with the seminarians for five years, living with the sisters at the seminary but sharing in the journeys, study, and preparation for exams together with the future priests. Today she has obtained a licence in biblical sciences and who knows what new experiences of collaboration or teaching it may lead to. At Oristano in recent years Sr Sandra Calia was Superior of the Daughters of St Joseph at the service of the minor seminary, but at the same time she taught at the senior schools in the town, which were also attended by several seminarians. As may be seen, there is no one direction, but an evolution of the original charism in order to respond to today’s situations. Perhaps, however, the great innovation of this past decade is that in such a fast-moving and complex reality no one any longer believes that they can succeed on their own. This is a real chance for a Church with an evangelical face and also for Christian women within her to express more broadly all the riches of their own originality. Today, more than ever, it is right for there to be a lively awareness of the unique contribution such women make.

For a priest, leaving Cagliari after only a few hours and after such a rich conversation means returning with new eyes to the people with whom he shares his daily mission.

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