by Maria Angela Verna and Fr. Gennaro Citera, O.S.J.
People of God upset the laws of nature. While the waves of time tend to submerge events and persons, first removing them from sight and then from memory, the presence of those creatures who, marked by God, lived doing good and sowing love, increases with the passage of each day, until they stand out on our horizon as the only truly great people in history.
One such man is Saint Marello, Bishop of Acqui, Founder of the Oblates of St. Joseph.
The Beatification of this meek Pastor of the Church reveals to the Christian world the admirable harmony between his thought and action, the height of the ideal to which he tended and his constancy in achieving it, the depth of his interior life and the tremendous fruitfulness of his apostolate. These are all aspects of a spiritual personality extraordinarily vibrant and modern, even one hundred and fifty years after his birth and a century after his death.
Joseph Marello was born in Turin on December 26, 1844, of Vincenzo Marello and Anna Maria Viale. His father, an honest and upright man, ran a store selling cheese; his mother, whom the neighbors called “the saint” because of her deep piety and her great charity for the poor, dedicated herself to the care of the family.
Joseph was the first of two children of these exemplary parents. The second, about three years younger, was named Vittorio.
According to the custom of Christian families of the time, the parents had their firstborn baptized on the day of his birth. From that moment, they became for him the first witnesses of faith in the serenity of their family life. Thus little Joseph and his brother Vittorio grew up in a very devout atmosphere of faith and love.
But this peaceful scene was soon shattered by the death of their mother, whose passing left an overwhelming void. It was then that their father, relying on the interior strength that comes from faith, took charge of the two children. He decided to move with them to their grandparents in San Martino Alfieri, so that Joseph and Vittorio would not suffer too much from the solitude and the void left by the loss of their mother. Although this deep sorrow remained intimately impressed upon him, Joseph will nevertheless experience within himself the abiding certainty that he is guided by his mother in heaven, who from her deathbed had entrusted him to the Blessed Virgin, Mother of all.
In San Martino Alfieri everyone knew little Joseph, Vincenzo’s son. Everywhere Joseph endeared himself to all. He was an intelligent and lively lad. At the elementary school he attended, he distinguished himself by his scholastic ability and diligence. He attended church and catechism faithfully. He served Mass with such seriousness and composure that all who observed him marveled.
At play he was vivacious like all the children of his age. He had great respect for the elderly and was particularly attentive and compassionate to the poor. He lived the beautiful day of his First Communion in a totally spiritual joy, giving a glimpse of the depth of grace which, in time, God would bring to an uncommon height.
Vincenzo was naturally proud of his son: he adored him and made great plans for his future. He dreamed of having him follow in his trade, not in a little town like San Martino Alfieri, but back in Turin, with a nice store in one of the busiest streets.
For the moment, however, he decided to reward him for his good behavior and his good grades in school by taking him on a journey to Savona. There Joseph saw the sea for the first time and the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy. He will remain fascinated by the sea for the rest of his life: he saw its presence in his family name (mare, which means sea, in Marello) and, when he was made Bishop, he put it at the center of his Episcopal shield.
He entered into a tender friendship with Our Lady of Mercy, which would impel him to return to this Shrine in Savona in the most solemn moments of his life: before being ordained and before dying.
But these events were still far off, and known only to God. Joseph renewed his sentiments of filial love at the feet of Our Lady and returned home peaceful and happy.
Something profound must have happened inside him in that meeting, however, because that summer Joseph made an important decision and asked to enter the seminary in Asti.
On November 9, 1856, according to the custom of the time, Joseph Marello received the cassock and began his life as a seminarian. He felt at ease with boys his own age who shared his same ideals. The professors considered him a model; his companions admired him because he was good, kind, ever joyful and generous towards everyone.
Here again threatening clouds appeared on the horizon. Those were the years that marked a very critical historical period for Italy: the time of new ideologies and technical progress; the fervor of cultural, social and political movements centered on the resurgence of Italy and the rebirth of a national consciousness. Piedmont assumed an important role in the European political panorama.
In the conflict between the latter and Austria in 1859, the seminaries were transformed into hospitals or barracks. The more well-to-do seminarians had to find other accommodations, while the less fortunate had to return home.
Joseph was among the ones who remained in the city, with a good family who offered him lodging.
The life of the Seminary continued, although in a different way: there was a schedule of classes and prayers; the seminarians were graded on their school work, as well as on their spirituality and behavior. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was not the same. The serene peace and recollection of the Seminary had vanished and the distractions had increased; new interests arose. Everywhere they talked of politics, social commitment, reforms to be initiated and brought to fruition.
For an adolescent like Joseph, this gave birth to new perspectives which in some way overshadowed those of the Seminary and shook the certainty of his vocation. In this climate of uncertainty, Joseph reached the decision to leave the Seminary. His father’s desire to have him continue the family business may have had some influence, but there were certainly other and more personal and deeply rooted reasons. At the beginning of the summer vacation of 1862, he wrote to his superiors, advising them of his decision; this struck them with surprise and caused them much regret.
He went to Turin to study. He registered in a course of studies to become a surveyor. Like all the young people of his age, he was enthusiastic about the Risorgimento. He dreamed of becoming active in journalism and politics.
Deep down, however, he was not happy. He did not feel at ease in the world: his vision of a political and social commitment capable of meeting the challenge of the times, was confronted by his experience of the cynical and unrestrained ambition of those who took advantage of the situation of misery, or of others’ idealism, solely for their own advancement. He also saw the young abandoned to themselves and attracted by vice; and his upright conscience made him understand the dangers and damages.
Someone close to him who sensed his inner gifts, marvelled that he did not think of consecrating himself to God: “You are not made for the world. Your place is in the Seminary.” To tell the truth, that thought had crossed Joseph’s mind and made him long for it.
Had he made the right decision in choosing to abandon his first vocation and follow this one? Joseph prayed and questioned; he begged Our Lady of Consolation, patroness of Turin, to enlighten him and give him the courage to make a definitive choice.
The answer soon arrived, in the most unpredictable manner. In December 1863, he fell ill with typhoid fever and his condition worsened to the point that they feared for his life. In his feverish delirium he seemed to see a cassock. His father and relatives prayed to Our Lady of Consolation with him to obtain the grace of his cure. Joseph heard something like a voice within him that said: “If you go back to the Seminary you will be cured.” He told this to his father who agreed wholeheartedly: “As long as you are cured!”
A few days later, Joseph was completely cured, and he did not even need the long period of convalescence that this type of fever usually entails. He spoke to his Pastor, contacted the Superiors of the Seminary, and at the beginning of February 1864, at the age of eighteen, he went back to his Seminary in Asti.
The Seminary again became his home; studies, prayer and being with his friends. This was his life and greatest joy. He felt like one who had escaped a great danger: now he wanted to really dedicate himself to his re-found vocation, increase his love for God, and give free rein to his gratitude to his Mother in heaven.
His friends admired his humility when he courageously returned to his former path. The were constantly impressed by the incredible strength of will with which he applied himself to make up for lost time.
On returning to the seminary, Joseph decided to “reform” himself. Enough of half measures. He would serve God and prepare to serve others in the best possible manner, that is, with holiness and skill.
He therefore committed all his energy to improving his character. He broadened the horizons of his learning. He stored up the experiences he had acquired during the two years he had lived among the young people of the world, so that one day he might be able to help them find themselves and God, as he himself had done. All this may seem like idealism, but he knew how to make it become reality: by becoming a holy priest.
In this way he grew in the esteem and respect of his superiors and companions. Some of the latter, in particular, joined him in great bonds of friendship, which brought them, after his example, to give themselves “a rule of life” and to seek to follow it together.
During vacations, when they returned to their families for a well-earned rest, their spiritual contact was uninterrupted. With these more intimate friends, Marello maintained an intense correspondence, which is the most beautiful proof of the sincerity and wealth of his sentiments and at the same time shows his conscious choice to “carry on an apostolate” with every means at his disposal, including the mail.
Marello wrote to one of his friends, seminarian Giuseppe Riccio: “A great and beautiful thing is the mail. It makes us spend sublime hours. It connects our spirit with our dearest friends. It allows us to speak to them the sweet and kind words of friendship. It provides us with the means of transmitting all our feelings, every beat of our heart.
“Oh, let us use often this divine messenger which is the mail, let us use it to tell each other our joys and sorrows, to laugh and weep together, to share our hopes and fears, to confirm each other with mutual encouragement on the arduous path of virtue. But here I feel sorrow at having to say ‘good-bye’, because I have to end this letter to tend to other urgent matters that demand my attention.”
Thus, with his edifying presence in the Seminary and with his ardent letters during vacations, the seminarian Marello is always the “leader”: he is light in dark moments, encouragement in unhappy hours, the meeting point and center for sharing enthusiasm, proposals, hopes and plans to be carried out in the name of the Lord.
From this most special experience of his youth, Marello will draw precious insight for his priestly life. He will always have a particular attention for the material and spiritual needs of the young. He will carry their confidences and confessions in his heart. He will gain their esteem and trust and become their trusted friend and sure guide.
The closer he drew to the goal, the more he fought to be like Jesus, Priest and Pastor. Thus his last year in the seminary showed an even greater progress in all the virtues, especially in prayer. Indeed, he prayed and he prayed much: he turned especially to Mary, the mother of his vocation, that she might render him a worthy servant of God and herself.
What will his first field of apostolate be? That is what the elderly parish priests wonder; they would have been most happy to have him as assistant. That is what he himself wonders, Deacon Marello on the threshold of the priesthood, with that mixture of curiosity and trepidation that always comes with waiting for the first assignment.
At this point Carlo Savio, Bishop of Asti, entered decisively into his life. Bishop Savio was a gifted and holy man: his words, and even more his life, conquered the heart of those who came near him. He was a man with a spiritual life, able to radiate the grace, kindness and goodness that flooded his heart.
From the first moment he got to know the Bishop, Marello was fascinated by him: he loved him as a father and considered him as a living example of holiness. Perhaps he was thinking of him when he wrote in one of his letters: “Find a beautiful soul to imitate, and follow in his footsteps at all costs”.
So we can imagine with what sentiments Marello, on the eve of his ordination, presented himself to his Bishop to receive an assignment. Received with greater kindness than usual, if that is possible, he heard that he would not leave Asti. “You will stay by my side as my secretary” Bishop Savio told him.
Perhaps there was a moment of sadness in the heart of the future priest: what will happen to his beautiful dreams of the apostolate, cherished and nourished with his classmates? (All of them were assigned to a direct apostolate in the parishes.) But there immediately arose in his well-trained soul the joy of obeying and the happiness of knowing that he would be living close to a saint.
Finally, on September 19, 1868, the dream that he had nourished for so many years and for which he had fought so much became a reality: he was consecrated a priest for the service of God and the Church. Naturally, his happiness was great and shared by all those who knew and loved him: the Bishop who put so much hope in him; his parish priest, Fr. Torchio, who followed with paternal concern all the phases of his spiritual growth; his relatives and friends who flocked to his ordination.
His first Mass was reserved for his hometown, naturally. San Martino Alfieri took on a lively and festive air for the occasion as it did for great events. All vied with each other to express their congratulations and most ardent best wishes to the new priest and to his family.
The elderly, who knew him as a child, remembered with emotion his reverence in serving Mass as an altar boy and compared it to the devotion with which he now celebrated it.
The young, who had appreciated him during the summer months, even as a good player of their team sport of handball, admired him especially for the generous faith choice that shone on his face. Thus, the days that the Bishop allowed him to spend in his town after his ordination went by quickly.
He celebrated his second Mass in the little shrine of Our Lady of Ransom at Vallone of Antignano. He visited his relatives who contributed to the success of the celebration. He did not forget the sick and the elderly who could not see him officiate in church.
Then, filing away the beautiful memories of those days, Father Joseph Marello presented himself to his Bishop to assume the duties of secretary.
By Bishop Savio’s side, Fr. Joseph lived new and important experiences. From him he learned an inexhaustible source of strength to give of himself, serenity to face all kinds of problems and difficulties, and knowledge of how to treat everyone well, especially those who suffer.
Under that paternal eye, Fr. Joseph not only accomplished his duties with dedication and ability, but he also learned to transform them into a new and fruitful apostolate. Indeed, since he was the Bishop’s secretary, his brother priests turned to him for the most varied needs and in the most varied circumstances.
Fr. Joseph was attentive to everyone, discreet, trustworthy, capable of giving friendly advice, which was soon recognized as the advice of an expert, in such a way that all who met him were eventually conquered by his goodness. From where did he draw all this strength? What was his magic fire? What was his secret?
Simply: he was nourished by constant, lively, heart-felt prayer; and his secret was “to be extraordinary in ordinary things.”
His greatest experience was his participation along with his Bishop in the First Vatican Council. Fr. Joseph had always wanted to visit the Eternal City, cradle of the Church and dwelling place of the Pope; and his love for the Pope was well known to everyone. Thus it was with great joy that he accepted Bishop Savio’s invitation to accompany him.
They left for Rome on November 21, 1869, and on December 8, in the presence of 700 Bishops from all over the world, they were both present at the solemn ceremony with which Pius IX officially opened the Council.
In Rome, Fr. Joseph’s duty was to accompany his Bishop to all the sessions of the Council, or to run some errand for him at the ecclesiastical offices of the Eternal City. With the ardor and love of a pilgrim, he used his free time to visit the monuments of ancient Rome, especially the Christian ones, and he filled his soul with the ancient testimonies of the Apostles, the Martyrs and the Saints whose lives or deaths were bound to this city, the center of the Christian world.
At the end of July 1870, after 8 months in Rome, Fr. Joseph returned to Asti. He brought with him a new wealth. Rome and the Council revived his spirit with an injection of enormous confidence in the Church. They broadened his mind and gave him a more Catholic, more apostolic, and a more Roman heart.
Without imagining it, he also left behind a deep impression on the Prelates who had occasion to deal with him. Several years later, one of those Prelates, Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci, who had become Pope Leo XIII, would elevate him to the Episcopal dignity and call him “a gem of a Bishop.”
For the time being, Fr. Joseph went back to his apostolate at his secretary’s desk: he wrote to his friends, exhorted them to prayer, and impelled them to action. He was particularly concerned about the moral and Christian disorientation of young people. In the reports from parish priests, in his contacts with his priest friends working in the parishes, in his personal contacts with several young people to whom he taught catechism for a time, he received a rather desolate picture which obliged him to write to his friend, Fr. Stefano Delaude: “Oh, poor young people, so abandoned and neglected, poor growing generation, left too much on your own and then too easily condemned or at least severely judged in your immaturity and misguided generosity, in that poorly developed need to be active, in emotions poorly directed by which, without any fault of yours, you stray from the right path! Oh, poor young people, we pray and we pray especially for you.”
According to his temperament, his mind races to what he can do to meet so many needs; and he does not cease exhorting his friend: “Work, work for the improvement of the young; even a little is something, and preventing the evil of our day is already a great good.”
We should not think that the Fr. Joseph’s life was without difficulties or trials. However, he accepted them all with generosity, as rungs on the ladder to arrive at that summit of holiness that he had set for himself.
In 1873 he was called to the bedside of his gravely ill father. If at first he had harbored some hope, Fr. Joseph soon realized that God was asking of him a truly heroic act of resignation. He lovingly assisted his father to the end: Vincenzo Marello died on May 17, 1873.
It is difficult to imagine how much Fr. Joseph’s sensitive soul must have suffered, and how terrible it must have been for him to hold in his heart the anguish and pain of those interminable days, in order not to increase the pain of his brother and other relatives. When everything was over, it was only in the intimate refuge of prayer that he could vent his great sorrow and offer it to God, along with his own life.
Then there returned to his heart a dream that he had already cherished in the past and that he had never totally abandoned: to leave the world, withdraw to a strict cloister, become a Trappist and live for God alone.
He spoke of it to his Bishop, his intimate confidante. Enlightened by God, Bishop Savio dissuaded him: “It seems to me that the Lord has a plan for you in this world…” He accepted the opinion of his Bishop and returned to his desk, as serene and dedicated to his work as before.
Fidelity is not a one-day virtue. It is built with the renewed will of every morning, with proposals tenaciously repeated at every examination of conscience and in every weekly confession. In these years that unfold as apparently obscure and insignificant, the exterior episodes that come to break the daily monotony are rare, but they are precious for giving us a glimpse of what was happening within him.
In 1874, he asked for and obtained from the Bishop permission to go to the aid of his intimate seminary friend, Fr. Egidio Motta, who had been struck with blindness.
In 1875, he returned to Rome for the Jubilee of that Holy Year and he had the happiness of again meeting Pius IX, the Pope of his youth and priesthood.
Fraternal charity and an ecclesial spirit thus continued to animate his journey toward holiness: holiness understood not as a privilege reserved to a few, but as a grace offered to all, even if sometimes the circumstances of time and place and all the other superstructures created by humans seem to join together to make holiness appear as an impossible undertaking, instead of the vocation of every Christian.
The constant thought of a holiness accessible to all had preoccupied Fr. Joseph Marello for some time, and he sought some means or instrument to give a concrete opportunity to those who were attracted by the ideal of holiness but did not see any possibility of achieving it in their circumstances. He had often meditated on the phrase from the Gospel: “He who does not renounce what he possesses … cannot be my disciple.”
Therefore if someone wants to renounce all and follow the Master, why not show him the way? Why not offer him an adequate means in the form of a “new” religious family, simpler in structure and consequently more sensitive to spiritual needs and open than those of a juridical nature?
Thus was born the idea of his Congregation. It was born under the sign of the great humility of his exemplary model, under the patronage of St. Joseph, the saint of humility. It was born with the evangelical stamp of simplicity: all who want to, can serve God as did St. Joseph, the one who served Jesus by being totally available to protect, nourish and educate him as a son.
He wrote down this first intuition; and this writing became the first draft of the Foundational Rule: “To those who for whatever reason (advanced age, insufficient studies, etc…) cannot aspire to the ecclesiastical or religious state, and nevertheless wish to follow the Divine Master closely by the observance of the Evangelical Counsels, the house of St. Joseph is open. Withdrawing therein with the intention of remaining silently and hiddenly active, in imitation of the great Model of a poor and hidden life, they will have the means for becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ.”
On March 14, 1878, in the chapel of the Michelerio Orphanage in Asti, Fr. Marello launched his religious family with four young volunteers; that family which is known in the Church today as the Congregation of the Oblates of St. Joseph. It was a very courageous undertaking, because nothing promised a triumphal success; but rather everything gave reason to fear a more or less rapid failure, so great was the poverty of means and the simplicity of the first members.
Herein though was the characteristic aspect of the new work: precisely in its birth free from every material entanglement, was the ability to rely with superhuman confidence in the grace of God alone. There was no exterior manifestation, however simple, to celebrate the event: the most absolute poverty reigned sovereign and forbade every “waste.”
That poor Founder and his first disciples made use of one room rented from the Michelerio Institute. A closet and two drapes served to divide the room into a living room on one side and a work room on the other. There were a few wooden chairs and one table on which they worked and took their meals. There was only one adornment on the wall: a poor picture of St. Joseph without a frame.
Indeed, by the will of the Founder, St. Joseph is the Patron, Administrator and Superior of that strange (humanly speaking, even very strange) “society” whose only “capital” is to follow the Divine Master closely.
The only treasure of these first four Oblates is the immense spiritual one that emanates from the heart of their Founder. Marello instructs them every day. He gives them every moment that his numerous commitments permit. He teaches them the spirit of humility and the interior life, as well as the value of working with their hands. They respond in the measure of their ability. They assist the orphans in the Michelerio Institute and also undertake the most humble manual work. They serve as sacristans in the churches that request them; and as soon as Marello judges that they are sufficiently prepared, they dedicate themselves to teaching catechism under his guidance.
Since 1874, there had been a hospice in Asti for abandoned elderly people, initiated by a man by the name of Cerrato. As often happens, the idea had found much acceptance but not matching financial support, so that Cerrato soon found himself unable to improve and enlarge the hospice to adapt it to the growing requests. To tell the truth, he even found himself in the difficult situation of not being able to provide decently for the patients he had and he considered leaving the responsibility of the hospice to others.
Sensitive to every initiative in favor of the poor and unwilling to see a founder’s worthy work of Christian charity come to a miserable end, Canon Marello offered to take over the administration along with the Pastor of the Cathedral, Canon Sardi. There was a good work to be done. It was not his style to stand back and watch.
With the great organizational ability so evident in him, Marello soon transformed the Cerrato Hospice into a jewel of efficiency and order, in spite of the lack of means at his disposal. But there was a difficulty that even he did not seem able to overcome: the premises were small and decaying, and they felt the need for a bigger and more appropriate house.
Once again, Divine Providence held out a hand as big as God’s heart. In Asti there was an old Poor Clare monastery, “Santa Chiara”, expropriated from the Church at the time of the laws against religious properties, and then converted into civil dwellings. The owner, a good man who wanted to see it restored to its religious use, was willing to sell it at a good price.
The successor to Bishop Carlo Savio, who had died devoutly on July 1, 1881, was Bishop Joseph Ronco. He asked the Holy See for permission to buy it, along with the ancient church attached to it that then served as a “theater.” As soon as permission arrived from Rome, the buy-back operation began. The Bishop charged four Canons to proceed to the acquisition of Santa Chiara. Among them was Marello.
In that same year of 1883, Marello took over as director. In November, the theater was cleaned and restored. During Lent of 1884, catechism lessons for workers were held within it. In May, the Cerrato hospice moved into the restored house of Santa Chiara.
Other plans were developing in Canon Marello’s mind, but he needed people. He had his Oblates at his disposal, but he did not want to take the first step.
He left the decision up to Providence.
On November 4, 1884, with the consent of the Bishop of Asti, the Oblates moved from the Michelerio to Santa Chiara.
With their collaboration, Marello was thus able to assure a better material and spiritual assistance to the elderly of the hospice, restore the re-consecrated church and even open a school for the poor students of the city and the surrounding area.
It did not take long for these multiple activities, that restored life to the old convent of the Poor Clares, to claim the continuous presence of their director. Canon Marello still had his room in the diocesan seminary, even if he spent less and less time there and only went back at night.
To the great joy of everyone, he moved to Santa Chiara in October of 1885. He remained there, without leaving any of his numerous and important tasks, until the hand of God himself moved him elsewhere.
Canon Marello was humility personified. He even managed to keep hidden for some time that he was the Founder of the Oblates. But not even he, with all his love for the hidden life that he learned from St. Joseph, could hide indefinitely the wealth of his personality as Priest and Father.
In the city, the people call him the “good Canon”; in religious and clerical circles everyone gives him the esteem and admiration that are usually reserved to truly exceptional persons; to the saints.
Is it possible for such a man to pass unobserved in the highest spheres? Could so much efficiency joined to flawless holiness of life not attract the attention of someone … at the top?
Indeed, his name had already been sent to Rome as a possible candidate for the Episcopal dignity; and when Leo XIII, who had never forgotten him since the time of the First Vatican Council, had to choose a Bishop for the Diocese of Acqui, his choice fell on Canon Marello.
The news reached him on November 23, 1888, and left him in consternation for two very clear reasons. First of all, he did not think he was worthy: for him, to be a Bishop is not the coronation of a career, but total consecration to the service of the People of God in a diocese to be led to the holiness of the Christian life. Secondly, what will become of the charitable works of Santa Chiara and of his Oblates, still beginning, still without the official recognition of the Church and without anything of their own?
Without saying anything to anyone, he went to Turin to seek the advice of Cardinal Alimonda, Archbishop of that city: “Your Eminence, what must I do? In my situation, is it possible to refuse without lacking in respect and in obedience to the Holy Father?”
No, of course it is not possible. In this also he has to see the hand of Providence which, while it tests our faith, already has unimaginable plans for us.
A man of profound faith, Canon Marello accepted the will of God in a spirit of generous obedience; but at the moment of announcing it to his spiritual sons, he could not help but weep sad tears.
The news of his Episcopal appointment fell on Santa Chiara like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky. On the one hand, everyone understood that it was the just recognition of their father’s extraordinary qualities and they rejoiced sincerely; but on the other hand, this meant that they would lose him, and they joined him in his tears.
After the initial bewilderment, he regains his characteristic composure and decisiveness. There are too many important things to think of and there is no time to lose. There is the trip to Rome to be prepared and the Episcopal consecration to plan for. There are the official visits and those of courtesy, the preparatory retreat and the necessary vestments to be purchased. Above all there is the problem of entrusting both Santa Chiara and the Oblate family to the hands of worthy leaders.
It is precisely this most troublesome thought, however, that once again reveals to him the providential meaning of certain events of the recent past.
While the Oblates were still at the Michelerio, they had the opportunity to become well acquainted with a young man from the countryside, Giovanni Battista Cortona, who worked as a porter at the orphanage to earn his tuition for the seminary. The friendship that had been created had led the seminarian Cortona to be more closely interested in Marello’s foundation. After his ordination in 1883, he asked to be part of his Congregation. Indeed, his entry led Marello to reflect on the possibility of having some of the Oblates who felt such a vocation prepare for the priesthood.
Very trustworthy, always submissive but able to make wise decisions when necessary, Fr. Cortona in time became Marello’s right arm. He profoundly assimilated his spirit of prayer and work.
Thus, when the appointment as Bishop came, he was the obvious choice to replace him, although Marello continued to direct Santa Chiara and the Congregation effectively, even from Acqui.
On February 17, 1889, in the church of the Immaculate Conception on Via Veneto, in Rome, Marello was consecrated Bishop by Cardinal Raffaele Monaco La Valleta. On the same day he was received in a private audience by Leo XIII, who gave him paternal advice and the apostolic blessing for himself, his Oblates and his new Diocese. Then he awaited ratification of his Episcopal appointment by the civil authorities.
Those were providential months, because he still had to prepare his sons for the separation, and to study with Fr. Cortona the solution to many pending problems.
They were also months of anxious waiting. The Diocese of Acqui was expecting him, after a year without a Pastor, and he did not know when he would be able to take possession of his Church. The Royal permission finally arrived at the end of May 1889.
He immediately wrote his first pastoral letter to the diocese, on the topic of peace. On June 16 he left Santa Chiara and made his solemn entry into Acqui.
The reputation of his virtue, especially his great charity for the poor had preceded him. Nevertheless, what the people of Acqui experienced that day, when he arrived at the station square, went beyond all their expectations. Before even saying a word or moving a foot, he looked upon them with such love and raised his hand in blessing. That was enough. Everyone was moved to say: “He looks like an angel!”
Acqui venerates the holy Bishop St. Guido of the Counts of Acquesana, as its Patron and Protector. He governed the diocese from 1034 to 1070, illuminating it with his gigantic figure as Pastor and Father of the poor.
When the new Bishop, Bishop Marello, took possession, St. Guido’s diocese had 143 parishes spread out over 676 square miles. It had 280 diocesan priests and a flourishing seminary. The population was over 180,000 and on the whole was profoundly attached to the Church, even if in the areas where the first industries had cropped up there were worrisome signs of anticlericalism and religious indifference.
In his six years of intense ministry, Bishop Marello visited all the parishes of his Diocese: he wanted to know first hand the souls that were entrusted to him, hear their needs and console them with his fatherly presence. Everywhere he brought peace, strengthened the faith, revived the enthusiasm of the young, and left a lasting memory of true holiness. “It was a pleasure to visit him…. He made people feel at ease when he came…. His presence alone was worth more than a long sermon….”
To this wonderful personal apostolate, Bishop Marello joined that of the pen. He was always an excellent writer, as the writings of his youth especially testify. Now, however, he wrote to fulfill his duty as Father and Pastor. He wrote often to his people in Santa Chiara in Asti; through Fr. Cortona he was kept abreast of everything and found solutions to all the problems of the House and the growing Institute. Once a year he wrote a Pastoral Letter to the faithful of his Diocese.
To the first Letter on Peace with which he had presented himself, he added six others that illustrate the great Christian themes dear to his heart as a Pastor: the Holy Pastoral Visit, the usefulness of transforming the difficulties and sorrows of life into Penance; the Christian education of children by their parents; the courage to openly profess the Faith and avoid all human respect; the Catechism understood as a force for the moral and civil improvement of Society; everyone’s missionary commitment, by prayer and concrete help for missionaries and their works.
Seeing him joyful and welcoming, diligent and careful in his duties, always ready to run where his presence was needed, people never imagined that the Bishop of Acqui carefully hid the increasingly evident symptoms of an illness that caused him great suffering and quickly weakened his constitution. Since it was impossible to hide it from his closest associates, he forbade them to mention it to others. Bishop Marello offered his suffering to God in silence.
He offered it for his Clergy, that they might grow in number and holiness, and for his seminarians, that they might persevere in their vocation and become holy priests. (He had the joy of ordaining 45 in the six years of his episcopate.) He offered it for his Congregation and for his Oblates burdened by a grave danger: someone wanted to expel them from Santa Chiara, which would mean their end. Precisely now, thought Marello sorrowfully, when several Oblates have become priests and serve the Diocese of Asti with disinterested love in the poorest chapels and churches; precisely now when the School promises to bear numerous fruits of religious and priestly vocations and opens new hopes for the future….
“If the grain of wheat does not die, it does not bear fruit” (John 12:24). Bishop Marello had meditated on it, in his prayer and in his life, when he was a bold youth full of life and health. He did so even more when the first signs of the his illness appeared: frequent migraines and exhausting hemorrhages which he sought to hide under an ever present smile.
In spite of the illness that consumed him, he continued to spend himself for others unsparingly. He could not say no to anyone. He felt that time was pressing and he wanted to make of himself a pure offering on the altar of love.
At the end of May 1895, the Piarist Fathers were waiting for him in Savona; he had promised them that he would preside over the festivities of the third centenary of St. Philip Neri, the great apostle of youth.
To tell the truth, the condition of his health would have advised against the journey and the inevitable fatigue; but it was too late to find another Bishop to replace him, and he would not hear of disappointing the good Piarist Fathers.
So, on Saturday, May 25, early in the morning, accompanied by his personal secretary, Fr. Peloso and his servant Battista, he courageously took the train for Savona. He arrived exhausted after many long hours of travel. He did not sleep during the night.
On the morning of Sunday, May 26, after Mass, he had a fainting spell. Back in the sacristy, he seemed a little better. On Monday, May 27, he could have returned to Acqui, but he wanted to wait for the return of Bishop Boraggini of Savona whom he had substituted. In his great courtesy, he did not want to leave without having greeted him personally.
He took the occasion to go a little outside the city to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy, of which he had fond childhood memories. He celebrated Mass and remained a long time in prayer. Coming out of the Shrine he admitted to his secretary that he felt his head very heavy, as if he had on a hat made of lead.
They called a doctor; it seemed to be a passing illness, but it was judged wiser to delay his return journey for a few days. On Tuesday, May 28, two doctors visited him; they found him well enough and assured him that, with another two days of rest, he could return in all tranquillity to his Diocese. Instead, from early in the morning of Thursday, May 30, contrary to expectations, it became evident that he was getting rapidly worse.
They sent a telegram to the Vicar General, Msgr. Pagella, who took the first train from Acqui. As soon as he arrived, Msgr. Pagella became aware with dismay that his Bishop was dying; he could hardly speak and expressed himself with difficulty in signs. He made Msgr. Pagella come near, and with a very kind gaze he entrusted the Diocese to him, and with even more urgency the Congregation in crisis. Then he entered into his last pangs. They administered the Anointing of the Sick, and shortly afterward, he died.
It was six o’clock in the evening, the hour of the Angelus, and Joseph Marello, Bishop and Founder of a religious Congregation, died with all the tones of a true sacrifice: almost suddenly, away from his Diocese and in someone else’s house, at the age of only fifty years and five months.
The news spread through Savona with lightning speed. Until a few days previously, Marello had been a perfect stranger to the people of Savona. During the celebration of St. Philip Neri, they had admired him for his uncommon devotion and had re-christened him “the Saintly Bishop.” When they heard of his death, they came in droves to venerate his remains and to weep over his passing, as they would have over the loss of a Father. We can imagine the consternation and sorrow of the people of Acqui and Asti who were so deeply attached to Marello.
Needless to say, however, the sorrow was even more cruel and wrenching among his Oblates. Gathered around Fr. Cortona, after the evening Benediction, they listened to the painful words of the telegram that had just arrived: “Our beloved Bishop is no more,” and they could not restrain their tears of grief.
What will become of this family of Consecrated people left without a Founder, and without official recognition, and whose very residence was even threatened? In the Mass of suffrage, which he celebrated, on May 31 at dawn, before leaving for Savona, Fr. Cortona raised the Host, in tears, and did what he had learned from his Father: he put everything in the hands of St. Joseph and Divine Providence.
Death reveals the intimate and real greatness of the Saints. Marello’s natural reluctance to call attention to himself, which was both a gift received from God and humility acquired with long effort, had managed somehow to hide his interior wealth and to keep his evident virtues in silence.
Now death removed every veil and allowed what could not be revealed earlier to be said aloud. As soon as the news of his death spread, everyone spoke openly of his holiness. Simple faithful, seminarians, priests, religious men and women, prelates of every rank (including two Popes who had known him) proclaimed, at various times and in different circumstances, but with equal conviction: “He lived as a saint. He died a martyr.”
The Church is reluctant to give official recognition of sanctity to those who are still living. It is her rule to pronounce herself only a certain time after the death of the person in question, after having ascertained that the reputation of holiness persists. Time is a formidable corrosive of all vanity and false human grandeur. The Church uses it, in the case of the candidates to sainthood, because she knows that with them time acts as a highlighter on the written page: it adds emphasis without erasing.
Besides the proof of time, the Church also requires proof from God. Holiness is not our work; it is a divine gift. It is proper therefore that Heaven be the one to ratify its existence and degree, in conformity with its plan to make of a Saint an example and model for all, or a flower that blossoms for God alone.
Marello’s reputation for holiness not only resisted the passage of time, but it increased and was corroborated by ever new proofs. Starting in 1924, witnesses were called to make depositions in the “Informative Proceedings.” They were people of every age and social condition who swore under oath that they had known and admired his holiness in the most diverse circumstances of his life: the day of their Confirmation, or during a pastoral visit to their parish, or during long years of spiritual direction by him.
Once these testimonies were gathered, the Cause for his Beatification was begun, and in 1948 it passed into the hands of the Congregation of Rites in Rome. New and more thorough “Proceedings” were begun this time “on the virtues of the Servant of God, Bishop Joseph Marello,” to ascertain whether he practiced them “in a heroic manner.”
For years, therefore, with a studied carefulness justified by the purpose that the Church establishes, there are sifted all the episodes of his life that can illustrate his virtues or call them into question. This laborious phase was also concluded positively: On June 12, 1978, Pope Paul VI issued a Decree “on the heroism of his virtues.” Marello became “Venerable”: the Church had officially recognized his holiness.
This is not yet Beatification. To enter the ranks of the Blessed, it takes a new and more rigorous process, and especially a miracle. The “File of the graces obtained through the intercession of the Venerable Joseph Marello” grows with the passage of time and documents wonderful favors received after having invoked his name. A miracle, however, is something entirely different. In the case of a cure, for example, it must be proven that:
- it was a very serious illness;
- the patient was cured in a manner that present medical knowledge cannot explain;
- the cure occurred after the Servant of God was invoked in faith.
In the “File of Graces” attributed to Marello, there is the cure of clerical student of his Congregation, Aldo Falconetti, which occurred in Armeno, Novara, in 1944, at the height of the war. After a first Process in Asti in 1991, the fact is minutely re-examined in Rome, first by a Medical Commission, then by a Theological Commission, and finally by the Bishops and Cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
At last, the long awaited verdict: “It is a fact that cannot be explained by present medical knowledge”; “there are all the requirements for it to be recognized as a miracle” (1992-1993).
The last word, however, belonged to the Pope. On April 2, 1993, at 12 noon, he approved the “Decree on the miracle attributed to Ven. Joseph Marello, Bishop of Acqui and Founder of the Congregation of the Oblates of St. Joseph.”
In the long journey towards Beatification, we have arrived at the finish line.
According to a long standing tradition, the usual place for Beatifications is the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. However, every so often, for pastoral reasons, the Pope celebrates this solemn rite outside of Rome: in those places where holiness has appeared and flourished. The Pope, already having scheduled a pastoral visit to the diocese of Asti for the month of September 1993, would make the Beatification of Joseph Marello there its fitting culmination.
Immediate preparations for that day are begun. The people of Asti and its neighboring areas set to work under the combined spiritual guidance of the diocesan clergy and the Oblates founded by Marello. Their goal is to propose to everyone the possibility and reality of Christian holiness, based upon the concrete example of a fellow citizen raised to the honors of the altar.
The Pope arrives in Asti on September 25 and is welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd. In the early evening, after having visited with members of the various forms of consecrated life in the Collegial Church of St. Secondo, and meeting with the members of the diocesan Mission for the Family in the Cathedral, the Pope goes to honor the tomb of the new Blessed in the nearby Shrine of St. Joseph, where he is awaited by numerous Sons of Marello: priests, brothers and lay people from every continent.
The next day, Sunday September 26, an immense crowd gathers around the platform erected for the Beatification in the historic “Piazza del Palio.” Many Cardinals are present, along with all the Bishops of Piedmont and other Bishops even from far away, with hundreds of religious and diocesan priests, Lay Cooperators from every Oblate Province and Delegation in the world, representatives from the Catholic Associations and Movements in neighboring dioceses, a large group from the town of San Martino Alfieri headed by its Mayor and its Pastor, and many other faithful come to honor a fellow citizen, a Pastor of long ago but never forgotten, a new “saint.”
In an atmosphere of extraordinary enthusiasm, at the supreme moment of the sacred rite, the Pope pronounced these solemn words of Beatification:
“Embracing the desire of our brother Severino Poletto, Bishop of Asti, and of many other fellow bishops, of the religious family of the Oblates of St. Joseph and of many of the faithful; after the favorable judgement of the Congregation of the Saints, we with our apostolic authority grant that the Venerable servant of God, Joseph Marello, Bishop and Founder of the Oblates of St. Joseph, from this moment on, be called BLESSED, and that his Feast day be celebrated, in the places and according to the norms established by Law, every year on May 30, the day of his birth into heaven…”
At that moment, accompanied by the hymn to the new Blessed sung by a choir of six hundred voices, the drape covering the portrait of Marello is allowed to fall, revealing in all its gentle majesty the face of the “Father”, MARELLO. Many cannot hold back their tears…
Then the most wonderful news of all! On Sunday, November 25, 2001, the Solemnity of Christ the King, at 9:30 a.m., the Pope celebrated Mass in the Vatican Basilica during which he canonized Giuseppe Marello (1844-1895), bishop, founder of the Congregation of the Oblates of St. Joseph, along with: Paula Montal Fornes de San Jose de Calasanz (1799-1889), virgin, foundress of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary, religious of the Pious Schools; Leonie Francoise de Sales Aviat (1844-1914), virgin, foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters Oblates of St. Francis de Sales; and Maria Crescentia Hoss (1682-1744), virgin, nun of the Third Order of St. Francis. Saint Joseph Marello is now presented to the entire Church as a model of sanctity and an intercessor in Heaven.
Everyone instinctively seeks to bequeath his own name to someone or something, but only the Saints truly succeed. They die, but they do not vanish. On the contrary, they leave behind a blossoming of life which is the most evident sign of their enduring life.
The father lives in his children: Saint Marello lives especially in his Oblates. A century ago they walked the dusty roads of the countryside of Asti, sent by him to be the servants of the pastoral needs of the most abandoned, attentive to the signs of Divine Providence.
In a little more than one hundred years, the same charism of service and the same openness to the signs of Divine Providence have taken the Oblates to five continents in 10 different countries. On the Andes of Perú and Bolivia; in the cities and countryside of the Philippines, Brazil and Mexico; in the outskirts of Bombay and Kerala, India, or Lagos, Nigeria; in Italy, Poland and the United States, they live and sow the heritage of their Father: love for youth, attention to the poor, humble and disinterested service to the local Church, and missionary zeal.
They are few and humanly powerless before the immense needs of the Church and the world. Like their Founder, they trust in the protection of St. Joseph and Divine Providence. And they launch an appeal:
You, young people or adults, is there nothing you can do to help them? They have their seminaries in every part of the world, which await those called by God to repeat the miracle of a life spent for others, in imitation of Saint Marello. There are the groups of Lay Josephite Collaborators, the “Family of St. Joseph”, who in every latitude, comprise those who see in Saint Marello and in the imitation of St. Joseph proposed by him, their own ideal of interior and apostolic life alongside the Oblates.
Finally, there are the unknown friends and admirers: the suffering who find in the example of Saint Marello the strength to offer themselves to God as victims of love; workers and housewives who invoke him in the tribulations of life to obtain relief or courage; young boys and girls in search of an ideal, who after the example of the young Marello, rediscover the profound Christian values of their youth and the call to live them as a vocation.
You too, please join us in the way that God suggests to you, in the Family of Marello.