Chapter 6

New difficulties for the congregation’s entering into studies. Msgr. Bertagna, vicar general of Asti. His opinion of the congregation and the post entrusted him by the bishop. Various factors obliging us to separate from the Michelerio Institute.

As we already said, our founder had concluded it was the will of God that the brothers study in order to be zealous priests one day. That I was accepted was a clear sign of this. But new difficulties arose in the execution of his plans: from the bishop on the one hand and from Canon Cerruti on the other.

God, however, had called to the bishop’s side a defender to overcome every obstacle. This was Monsignor Bertagna. Msgr. John Baptist Bertagna had in 1860 succeeded the Venerable Father Cafasso as head of the morals lectures in the St. Francis of Assisi Religious Boarding School of Turin and had become quite famous as an effective moral theologian. An expert in pure probabilism, he espoused the teaching of St. Alphonsus in its full beauty, illuminating it and deducing from it the practical conclusions necessary for a priest in his noble ministry. Because of this, a certain part of the clergy in Turin, still imbued with Jansenism, persecuted him as a teacher of watered down doctrine, and managed to get him out of favor with Archbishop Gastaldi, who was a warm defender of Rosminian ideas. Despite the protest of orthodox priests and pastors of the diocese, he was relieved of his teaching post. Bertagna accepted God’s will and retired to Castelnuovo of Asti, his hometown. There, in the two years from 1876 to 1878, he spent his time in study, prayer, and recollection.

That year, Bishop Savio, who had immense love and respect for him, invited him to Asti to become professor of moral theology in his seminary there. Bertagna accepted, and in a short time his reputation as a brilliant teacher was higher than ever. Bishop Ronco, Savio’s successor, respected him no less, and made him his advisor and assistant in the government of the diocese, appointing him vicar general. Msgr. Bertagna held this office until 1884, when Cardinal Alimonda, at the suggestion of Venerable Fr. Bosco and others, called him to Turin as auxiliary bishop.

Meantime, Msgr. Bertagna was living in the seminary along with Canon Marello; he got close enough to him to become acquainted with his merits and his rare virtue, and to have a clear idea of the nature of the congregation. He always admired it warmly. “I believe,” he would say, “that it is destined to be not only a chapel, but a cathedral.” He meant that, because it was so suited to the needs of the times, it was destined to grow.

It was from Bertagna as vicar general that we had to request to enter the clerical studies we were so eager for. “Make a written request,” he told us, “clearly expressing what you want; then let me take care of it. I think I can obtain what you wish.” Canon Marello complied happily and gave permission to make the request, recommending that the outcome be left in the hands of St. Joseph.

Because of the responsibility he had entrusted to his vicar general, Bishop Ronco received the request favorably. “If Canon Penitentiary Cerruti agrees, I have no objection.” Remember now that the Bishop had never read the brief Marello had presented him reporting on the congregation, and therefore did not even know who was the founder. Judging from Canon Cerruti’s free hand at commanding the brothers to do whatever he pleased, and from the fact that it was he who accepted new members, Ronco thought Cerruti was the founder. This fact should make anyone admire the prudence and humility of our dear father who was so unwilling to expose himself to the admiration of others.

But Bishop Ronco had some suspicion that Canon Marello might be the real founder of the congregation. So one day when he happened to find Brother Medico in the chancery talking to our father, who was chancellor, he asked him, “Tell me, who is your superior, the canon penitentiary or Canon Marello?” Brother Medico thought for a second, looking at our father who had his eyes lowered expecting who knows what for an answer. Then Medico said humbly: “Our first superior is your excellency; then comes Canon Marello.” “Fine,” the bishop continued, “that clearly means it must be Canon Marello.”

The second difficulty was more serious than the first, and arose from the conditions surrounding our brothers at the Michelerio Institute, conditions that had gotten worse due to my entrance into the congregation. In fact, I had scarcely entered the congregation when somewhat unkind rumors about me started, giving me the less than honorific title of traitor, because I had abandoned my benefactor and deserted to another institute. The brothers too were called traitors for having accepted me. All this as if I had not earned my keep by my work for the house, or as if the brothers did nothing for it. The falsity of the accusations was obvious, for our father had always paid room and board for the brothers, while on top of that they practically lived in the workshops; canon penitentiary had several times praised them from the pulpit for having made the institute prosper and for annually bringing in a profit of from five to six thousand liras.

It was therefore necessary to separate interests and living quarters, and after mature deliberation it was settled. The brothers would supply their own upkeep, while those assigned to the workshops would continue unpaid; but the Michelerio Institute would not charge rent for the rooms then in use and would give them another slightly larger room on the ground floor. This could be divided in two, to serve as kitchen and dining room.

This was the first step taken towards autonomy. Because of this agreement the congregation could now freely assign at least some, though not all, of the brothers to study for the priesthood. It was also free to accept aspirants independently of the superiors of the institute. So it was that some of the brothers began studying Latin, and others who already knew it well enough, began sacred theology. This was in Lent of 1884.