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posted Sep 16, 2014, 8:40 PM by Vidal Martinez

A Sign of Grace 

Nepi is a small, ancient town in the Tuscia area of Viterbo about 30 miles north of Rome. Sleepy and provincial, it was once predominantly agricultural. Cecilia came to live here from Monte Romano, a town close by where she was born on February 17, 1910 the youngest of 11 children. Her widowed mother and maternal uncle set up home just over a mile from Nepi, in a farm known as “La Massa” in the Lante della Rovere dukedom where Cecilia’s uncle worked as a bailiff. Sensitive and full of life, Cecilia grew up in a particularly loving household. She had a special relationship with her uncle to whose care her father entrusted her on his deathbed. Like other children of her social class, Cecilia was sent to school at the age of six at Nepi’s Cistercian convent which also provided board and lodging for orphans of war. Such was Cecilia’s sensitivity and absorption of all she was taught that the nuns had high hopes of having her in the convent one day as a sister. But it was not convent life that attracted Cecilia. Near the convent, stood the parish church of San Tolomeo, run by the Servants of Mary with a seminary attached which was then packed with aspiring missionary priests. All the local young people gravitated to the parish of San Tolomeo, and Cecilia, having finished elementary school, also passed her time here. It was here that her vocation would rapidly develop and with surprising clarity. Thus, at the tender age of 12, she and some older girls asked to join the Order of the Servants of Mary as a tertiary. The following year, despite her young age and her family’s attempts to dissuade her, she obtained a dispensation from the bishop to become a postulant of the Servants of Mary. She would go to Rome to study, then to Pistoia further north and then to Zara. But she was never to realize her ambition to be a missionary. In October 1926, she was stricken by the disease which would bring about her death two years later and so she was forced to return to Nepi. 

This is the sum of her story. Cecilia herself speaks of all the circumstances that made up her life in her autobiography Story of a Clown – a humorous title reflecting what she thought of herself – “a little clown”. She wrote her story at the request of Father Gabriele Roschini, her confessor, and she consigned it to him in June 1927 in the form of an old school exercise book. “Father, forgive me for being so untidy ... sorry about the title”, she told him, laughing, “but I could think of nothing better for the story of my life”. The request that she keep a diary had come from none other than Cardinal Alessio Lepicier of the Order of the Servants of Mary who had occasion to meet the attractive clear-eyed girl on his visits to Nepi. This is what Fr. Roschini told the beatification process: “One day, His Eminence received me in audience. I informed him of Cecilia’s return to Nepi owing to illness and His Eminence said: ‘That young girl is a sign of the grace of God. She is a chosen soul. Father, you would do well to ask the girl to keep a diary. I am sure we would benefit from it’”. The simple clown’s story thus began as obedience to the will of her superiors, even though it was an effort for her because of her illness. “ ... I am happy to fulfill this task, knowing that I am doing something pleasing to Jesus, first of all by obeying and then by manifesting His infinite mercy to me, small and weak little flower that I am”.

Like Saint Theresa of Lisieux 

The diary dwells on her childhood. Cecilia’s style is charged with tender, child-like images and paragons that make for a moving, highly detailed story. Cecilia seems to have an extraordinary memory of the objects and emotions that were part of her early life. She has a perception of her own fragility and an equally clear awareness from the start of being loved in a special way, without any special merit on her own part. She makes the reader smile at times at her dialectical, ingenuous turns of phrase which seem to contrast with the wisdom underlying her reflections. Readers of this story may marvel at the child-like and confidential way in which Cecilia speaks of her bond of belonging to Jesus: “Yes, I love Jesus very much ... but where are all the works, the works demonstrating this love? I have none ... Father. But I am not bothered. I will fly to Him on the wings of my great desires or, better, I will try to be a small child, so that I may always be held in His arms. What kind of works can children be expected to do? To show their affection, all children need are caresses, kisses. All they offer are tiny, humble flowers of the field because they can gather as many of those as they like”. But Cecilia’s whole wisdom lies in this child-like state, of self-abandonment to the grace of God – like Saint Theresa of Lisieux. As she herself says: “I will reach Jesus by a little pathway, a short, very short one, that has been paved for me by little Theresa”. It was in reading The Story of a Soul that the desire to embrace the religious life was born in Cecilia even as a child. “Even as a child, I was concerned about the toil of missionaries. The good fathers told of distant lands, of conversions and baptisms. The greatest aspirations filled my heart and I too hoped to go far where no one would know me so that I could make Jesus known and loved as I loved him. I desired the salvation of the souls of the poor unbelievers and I would have sealed my faith with blood. The nuns told us of the lives of the saints. One day, I happened to read the story of Theresa of Lisieux. I read it all in one go and it moved me to tears ... I really did not understand much of it ... but I did grasp one thing immediately: that holiness does not consist in the greatness of mortifications, in the greatness and extraordinary nature of works and deeds ... not everyone can aspire to that kind of holiness ... and I felt in my heart that this was the road I ought to travel”. When Cecilia read The Story of a Soul, she was not yet ten years old and Theresa of Lisieux had still to be declared “Venerable”. Later she would say: “It had never entered my head to call her sister even though I was aware that, between my soul and hers, there was a great similarity, not because of any correspondence of grace, but because of the gifts of grace that Jesus granted us”. 

“The importance of reading the lives of the saints, especially of the French saint, is incalculable in Cecilia’s life as a human being”, said Tito Sartori. “The autobiographical story and her diary are testimonies to this. They are patent proof. Cecilia clearly manifests her dependence on Theresa both in terms of concepts and of the motions of the spirit: the decanting of the Lord’s mercy, the awareness of her own weakness, her feeling attracted by Jesus. But they have other things in common, too: their embrace of the religious life at a young age, their consciousness of being preserved from mortal sin, the event of their own conversion, their difficulty in reading spiritual texts, the desire, not for suffering but for self-abandonment only, that they both had two missionaries as spiritual brothers to accompany with prayer, their experiences of spiritual crisis, their premature deaths of the same disease”.

Jesus’ “Little Nothing” 

On October 23, 1926 Cecilia returned to Nepi to live out her last brief and painful period of her life as the TB became fully manifest and progressively more acute. It was a time made even more painful by the loneliness caused by what she calls her “exile at La Massa”, an anguished exile because she knew that she would never be able to take her vows in that she was far from Nepi and becoming the victim of calumny on the part of the landowners. Her one comfort was her filial devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows whom she calls her “heart” and to the Eucharist, her “treasure” which Fr. Roschini brought to her punctually twice a week in all weathers. Her exile was also relieved by the frequent visits of farmworkers, by members of Catholic Action and by the seminarians accompanied by their priests who were wont to ask this sick, young and poorly educated girl for advice on their homilies. In those last years, Cecilia was to develop a more than lucid consciousness of the “little way”: “Humility, abandonment, love”. She writes: “Abandonment – how dear is this virtue! Oh, if only everyone understood it, the world would be transformed into the waiting room for Paradise! It lets us rest serenely in Jesus’ lap, lets us sleep laying our head on His heart, lets us live happily because we have abandoned ourselves to such a friend and we are certain of our fate. Like the child who has to cross a dark forest at night with his mother. He holds on to her skirt certain that his mother will lead him home. Thus is the soul that abandons itself to Jesus”. Her simplicity and cheerfulness were never to leave her even on her deathbed. She died singing the prayers to Mary she had learned as a child. It was October 1, 1928 and even this date seems to mark another coincidence. Theresa had died a day earlier in 1897, on September 30. And on October 1 1927, the year Pius XI proclaimed Theresa patron of the missions, Theresa had appeared to Cecilia in a dream, heralding her death on that date, as the diary tells us. 

“When she died”, recalls an elderly farmer who knew her, “some people said that a saint had died. But others claimed that she was just good, a good girl who had suffered, and they criticized these others for insisting on making a saint of her. However, her funeral was a feast day. It was like going to a wedding. The Servants of Mary gave a dinner in her honor and on that same day, benefactors from a long way away, sent them a considerable sum of money used to set the seminary back on a sound financial footing. This was the wish Cecilia had expressed”. Cecilia had asked to be laid to eternal rest in the Church of San Tolomeo, at the foot of the Altar of Our Lady of Sorrows, where her “heart” was. This desire was also fulfilled. During the war, the monks decided to transfer her remains inside the Church for fear of bombs. On that occasion, her body had to be officially recognized on exhumation and all who were present were amazed to see that it was intact – and still is – “and her skin was so soft”, recalls Father Pietro, San Tolomeo’s present parish priest, “she seemed to be sleeping ... In dressing her, we had noticed that she had an open wound on her back but, imagine our amazement when we saw that there was no sign at all of the devastating effects of the TB”.

“The sum of it all”, Cecilia had written at the start of her Story of a Clown, “is recognizing one’s nothingness ... I am sure that if Jesus had granted the same grace to some other soul as He granted to me, the halo of holiness would not have been long in circling that head, but it pleases Jesus, Who likes to joke with His creatures, to steep in grace the least probable, people who might not be worthy, the ones who seem to Him to be the most wretched, in order to make His mercy shine forth all the more, and he takes pleasure in their confusion and wonder”.