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Sursum corda, Fr Battista!

· The correspondence between the future Paul VI and his mother Giuditta Alghisi ·

The fortieth anniversary of Santa Caterina, the university college for women founded at Pavia in 1973 at Pope Montini’s request, was recently celebrated with the congress “Paul VI, Catherine, women”. The aim was to record the special attention this Pontiff always had for women: an attention which developed in his family and was then constantly nurtured with prophetic sensitivity.

From his early years as a priest he collaborated with the monthly La Madre Cattolica. Montini was called upon several times by the editor Angela Bianchini to provide the readers with guidance on women’s suffrage (it was 1921 and for the time being it was a matter of administrative elections). Writing in the editor’s name, the future Paul VI declared himself to be decidedly in favour of this opportunity – inspired by obvious reasons of justice – providing that it were taken seriously, with a scrupulous preparation for the vote so as to render it useful for the good of all. This conviction was undoubtedly matured by his experience at home.

Giuditta Alghisi with her children in a photograph of 1906 (Giovanni Battista is the first on the left)

Giovanni Battista’s mother, Giuditta Alghisi, was a woman with a good culture, both because of her family (which consented to her being educated by the Marcelline Sisters at the Milanese college in Via Qudronno); and because of her acquired family, where faith and culture blended with each other, strengthening each other and broadening out to include contemporary social and political issues, always seen in the light of Providence.

In the first part of Montini’s correspondence (1914-1923), published in 2012 by the Istituto Paolo VI, and in his letters of 1928-1929 which I have the privilege of having read as a collaborator in the publication of the next volume of his correspondence, we see the importance for Montini of certain female figures and how important they were in the formation of his specific feminism. Amongst all these the letters from and to his mother appear fundamental.

With her Giovanni Battista had a close dialogue, facilitated by the extreme familiarity they both had with the art of letter writing but above all by the special affinity of their sentiments. The mother wrote to her son at regular intervals (preferably on feast day afternoons, particularly about relations with the family and friends), taking care to give him all the family news – from health to travels, to work, and to charitable commitments – and unstinting in recommendations concerning his delicate health. Fr Battista was not as constant in his replies but he never let too much time pass before sending his news and in his letters mostly addressed generically to his relatives (“Carissimi” ‘Dearest ones’ was his affectionate and usual opening), one sees that his direct correspondent was his mother, through whom was filtered information to Rome from Brescia, from Verola, from the Dosso, or from the resorts where the family went on holiday. On 8 December 1929 Fr Battista wrote: “I receive your letters punctually and they always give me pleasure. I thank you affectionately: they double my life, allowing me to participate in things there which are always dear and, given Mamma’s piety, they are all good and comforting”.

Over and above the news, however, from time to time the letters reveal moments of deep anxiety. Fr Battista’s tormented nature, as he faced the uncertainties of the path that gradually unfolded before him, caused him at times to slip into troubles that the faith can indeed contain and explain, but that still require words of human comfort: or even better, of motherly comfort.

For example, on 9 May 1921, Montini wrote to his relatives, with reference to his father’s and brother’s political commitment: “I too am regularly skulking in this battle: will this be so for my whole life?”; on May 13 his mother answered him as follows: “And we… skulking…, with our rosary in hand, with our heart a bit tense, but trusting… will be on the look-out. Oh, my dearest, do not consider yourself lazy: your part, the one the Lord has assigned to you, is holy like a mission and will have its merit, rewarding you the more you progress in accepting it, carrying it out as a mission in a serene and generous spirit. Not everyone has the same task and not everyone can handle the same instrument: this is what Providence has disposed so that with the various and multiple efforts of everyone the harmonious design of the divine edifice may be achieved”.

And again, this time from Warsaw on September 2 1923: “Sometimes I see that my usual lack of strength does not allow me to hope ever to have an occupation that is fixed, organic and simultaneous with that of others, I get the wish to ‘retire to private life’ and I think of this in the case that they should recall me to Italy. I am inept, insufficient and also impatient; my health warns me that, like Penelope’s weaving, humanly my life can have no continuity; and I seem to live in the presumption of being, like the others, capable of some work and some commitment; so that at times it becomes the springboard to every desire for activity. Is this perhaps the vileness of one who has received only one talent? If ever that is so tell it me sincerely (…) and teach me practically what good I can and must do.”

His mother’s reply is dated 9 September: “Your last letter let us glimpse in your spirit the return of those grey moments that are the cause or effect of a little malaise or fatigue… we know them well and we also know how fleeting they are… Thus we hope you will soon have overcome the crisis, that trust and serenity will have returned to your heart and that your strength will have recovered energy and vigour. The Lord who calls for sacrifice and will reward us for it often lets us feel its full weight and bitterness. Then everything gets dark around us, the path before us looks difficult and our steps begin to falter, our work weighs us down as if it were beyond our strength, useless in its ends…. How well I know these moments when everything loses the colour of hope!... But do you know what I do then? I try to get closer to the Lord, in spite of the wretchedness that oppresses me and… I think of you! Of you who pray to him for me, you who are his Minister, who serve him under his direct orders and… it seems to me, have some right to his mercy… Thus the dark hour soon passes and I feel for the Lord, for you, new and heartfelt gratitude. Sursum corda, therefore, always!

Giuditta Alghisi’s deep faith was not to be belittled; this robust motherly figure combined authority and love, energy and compassion: what is necessary to give even more strength to an unmistakable vocation, just as difficult as her son’s. Quality of character, motherly love, but also and above all faith, in addition to a religious and cultural formation, are indispensable to maintain a conversation – which is de facto a spiritual conversation – at these levels. We see that Giuditta had these qualities and continued to develop them with conviction throughout her life. Once again it is the correspondence that reveals this (in references to readings, to participation in social and political life, to formative acquaintances) together with the biographical testimonies that remain.

We therefore find in her all the characteristics of the woman whom Montini saw ready for the vote and able, also through this means, to benefit society. It was probably while thinking of this ideal female figure – who did not give up being a wife and mother but, thanks to the qualities she had acquired through study and reflection, managed to act for the good of all – that Paul VI wished to found a college where young women, applying themselves to their studies without neglecting the demands of the spirit, might develop their talents, not through careerism or what today we would call gender claims, but by virtue of an intellectual charity that can express the best of the feminine genius and use it for others. With the work we do at Santa Caterina, interpreting the changes over time but without allowing fashion to influence us, we are committed to not disappointing expectations.

Maria Pia Sacchi Musini, Rector of the collegio universitario Santa Caterina da Siena, Pavia

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