Annibale Maria di Francia and Luisa Piccarreta
St. Peter's Basilica
from Ch. 4 of Luisa Piccarreta: A collection of memories of the Servant of God
by Fr. Bernardino Giuseppe Bucci, O.F.M.
Aunt Rosaria would often and willingly speak of Blessed Annibale Maria di Francia, founder of the Rogationist Fathers and the Sisters of Divine Zeal.
She spoke of the blessed as though he were intimately familiar to her, using the name "Fr. Francia". I personally took great interest in this figure and often asked the Rogationist Fathers if by chance there might be anything in their archives about the relations between Luisa and Blessed Annibale. I even went to the Sant’Antonio Institute in Corato, a house which the blessed had wanted personally, in order to move Luisa there to be with the sisters.
My aunt told me that Fr. Annibale had conceived of the project of taking Luisa to the Institute of sisters opened in Trani, but that Luisa had made him see that the Lord wanted her to stay in Corato. Fr. Annibale’s project was implemented in 1928, after his holy death.
Annibale di Francia was the extraordinary confessor of the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta, and it was he who published her works. Blessed Annibale belonged to that array of priests who built up the Church of God with their holiness and their institutions for orphans and abandoned children. The work of these men was of great benefit to Italy and the Church, in a period when anti-clericalism was triumphant.
According to Aunt Rosaria, the blessed enjoyed the great esteem of St. .Pius X who willingly granted him private audiences. It seems that St. Pius X paid great attention to Luisa Piccarreta: our blessed submitted her writings to him before having them printed.
Aunt Rosaria affirmed that after reading some of Luisa’s writings, especially her famous work on the Passion of Our Lord, published under the title L’orologio della Passione, St. Pius X said to him: "Dear father, you must read these writings on your knees, because it is Our Lord Jesus Christ who is speaking in them". And it was the holy Pontiff who urged Fr. Annibale to publish them.1
Annibale called on Luisa regularly, at her house in Via Nazario Sauro, staying with her for several hours, conversing with her on spiritual matters. He often took some Italian or foreign bishop to visit Luisa, and my aunt remembers the visit of a prelate from Hungary. To dispel certain doubts, the blessed father took several theologians to Luisa; having spoken to the Servant of God at length, theywould gather in another room for long discussions of what they had heard.
My aunt recalls that one Hungarian bishop, after talking to Luisa, emerged from her room in deep distress and said the following words in his imperfect Italian: "Pray for my people", for Luisa had informed him of the far from rosy future that awaited his homeland. Aunt Rosaria could not tell me precisely who the bishop was, nor exactly where he came from, she only told me: "a Magyar bishop". I realized that he must have been a Hungarian bishop.
Fr. Annibale did not only visit Luisa to talk to her; he gave lectures to all those who frequented Luisa’s house, especially the young people. These lectures bore abundant fruits. Indeed, many of the girls became sisters, many of the young men were initiated to the priesthood and quite a few were admitted to his new congregation.
Many people went to Luisa’s house to confess to Fr. Annibale. This was confirmed to me by Canon Andrea Bevilacqua who, as a young seminarian, would also go to Luisa’s house to confess to Fr. Annibale, who was also the extraordinary and deeply loved confessor of Archbishop Leo of Trani.
In my earlier publication I did not mention Blessed Annibale di Francia, because I was advised to say nothing, to avoid creating obstacles to his cause of beatification under way.
It would be most interesting to consult the archives of the Rogationists and of the Sisters of Divine Zeal, where there must certainly be traces of the long correspondence between the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta and Blessed Fr. Annibale. My aunt told me that Luisa’s spirituality was impressed upon the institute’s Rule. It would be most interesting to read the institute’s old Rule and Constitutions. I hope, now that Fr. Annibale has been beatified by the Church, that the Rogationists and the Sisters of Divine Zeal will be able to re-evaluate the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta who contributed so much to their development with her prayers, her advice and her writings.
Much still remains to be said about the relations between Blessed Annibale, the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta and St. Pius X, for whom Luisa had great veneration. At that time she already revered him as a saint, and on various occasions said these words: "The Lord has given the Church two great Pontiffs in these times; the first, a beloved son of Our Lady", with reference to Pius IX, "the second, a great defender of the faith and of the Eucharist".
Blessed Annibale di Francia had to overcome enormous obstacles in orderto put into practice his plan to have Luisa taken to one of the houses of his congregation to be with the sisters. He often used to say these words: "The acceptance of Luisa in a house of my Institute will be a blessing of God for the whole Congregation".
Indeed, although there were already two houses of the Congregation of Divine Zeal in Trani, with holy persistence he opened a female house in Corato, close to Luisa’s birthplace. His project was not easy to implement: the holy founder died before the house had been completed.
Two years after his death, Luisa entered the house of the Sisters of Divine Zeal in Via delle Murge.
Rosaria Bucci’s memories
Blessed Annibale Maria di Francia paid frequent visits to the Servant of God, with whom he had long conversations, staying for hours in Luisa’s little room, where he also often celebrated Holy Mass.
This is what I remember of what Aunt Rosaria told me.
In 1910, a priest arrived at Luisa’s house and asked to speak to her. This was the first of the many encounters between the two "saints". That day, it was Aunt Rosaria who opened the door to him, then a young girl who had become familiar with Luisa’s milieu, who had been visiting her for four years and so collaborated with Angelina in the household affairs. Moreover, since Aunt Rosaria had mastered lace-making, she was acting as teacher for the other girls, who were apprentices; she was also called by Luisa to set right her own work that was often defective, for the Servant of God was unable to pull the knots tight enough because of the stigmata, hidden beneath her skin and a source of pain.2
Aunt Rosaria, on many occasions, prepared a little bed in a room in Luisa’s house on which Blessed Annibale would sometimes rest, especially when he was a guest of the Piccarreta family for more than a day.
The blessed’s stays in Luisa’s house were dictated by the fact that before giving her writings to Annibale, she had to read through them all and provide explanations on doubtful or incomprehensible points.
It was my aunt herself who gave Blessed Annibale the manuscript of the famous book on meditation of the Passion. Blessed Annibale had it printed with the name L’orologio dell Passione, a title about which Luisa was not at first enthusiastic. The publication, with a long preface by the Blessed, went into several editions, four to be precise.
Aunt Rosaria remembered that Blessed Annibale once urged all the girls and Luisa’s regular visitors to read and meditate upon the work. In giving it to them, the blessed said: "Before having the manuscript printed, I was received in audience by His Holiness Pius X, to whom I gave a copy. Several days later, having returned to see the Holy Father for matters concerning my new Congregation, he said these words: ‘Have Luisa Piccarreta’s L’orologio della Passione printed immediately. Read it on your knees, because it is Our Lord who is speaking in it".
Since we have no other documents available, we cannot but trust the testimony of Rosaria Bucci.
Blessed Annibale and the Capuchin Friars of the Monastic
Province of Puglia
It seems that the Franciscan fathers, and particularly the Capuchins, suggested to Blessed Annibale that he place his works under the protection of St. Anthony of Padua. It is certain that there was a deep reciprocal esteem between Blessed Annibale and the Capuchins.
I personally heard a lot about Blessed Annibale Maria di Francia from our older fathers.
Fr. Annibale published Luisa’s writings, many of which were given to our friars, whom he warmly commended not to disclose the author’s name to anyone since the devout writer wished to remain anonymous.
The Capuchin friar who had the most to say about this was Fr. Isaia from Triggiano, who was simple and humble, the figure of an authentic priest. This father had a deep veneration for Luisa Piccarreta and jealously preserved her writings and a few objects that had belonged to the Servant of God. Among these was a holy card with a picture on which a prayer had been written by Luisa in her own hand.
Fr. Isaia often used to say: "Luisa is a great saint and Fr. Annibale another great saint, because he enabled us to know her. Saints understand one another. It is God who brings them together".
In far off 1917, Fr. Isaia from Triggiano was a Capuchin student at our friary in Francavilla Fontana, where on several occasions the friars gave hospitality to Fr. Annibale Maria di Francia, who was establishing one of his works in nearby Oria.
These are Fr. Isaia’s impressions of Fr. Annibale: "He was a priest who truly belonged to God, and at the sight of him, we students would gather round him with great sympathy. We all went to him for confession. He had an unusual appearance, as well as an unusual manner of speech and gestures, always moderate and with a reserve that did not command fear but filial trust. He constantly spoke to us of God’s Will and exhorted us to bear with hardships and contradictions. He told us that a soul who was consecrated entirely to God was suffering and praying for us all".
"This soul", Blessed Annibale said to Fr. Isaia, "is a daughter of your region, and this is a sign that the Lord is blessing the people of Bari". To comfort him in his doubts and sufferings, he gave him L’orologio della Passione, which he himself had had printed. Fra Isaia, a Capuchin student at the time, asked him where this holy soul lived and who she was, but Fr. Annibale answered: "just think about preparing yourself properly for the priesthood and always doing God’s Will, and in due course you will discover who this soul is".
Fr. Isaia, who had become a priest, went to see Luisa Piccarreta, from whom he sought advice and – not infrequently – comfort in his apostolate, threatened by malicious gossip.
At that time the Monastic Province of Puglia was passing through a difficult period because of various disagreements between the two Provinces of Bari and Lecce, united in a single Monastic Province. Certain fathers headed a reform that was blocked by St. Pius X.
The majority submitted, but others resisted and ended by being expelled from the Order and excommunicated. One of these was Fr. Gerardo, superior and director of the studentate of Francavilla.
This father had extraordinary ideas about running the students’ community with a draconian discipline; he frequently left the students fasting, because they had to mortify themselves and resemble the crucified Christ. The worst thingwas that he did not even allow them to study. Their studying was to consist of the crucifix and penance; he consequently placed in the students’ rooms a large crucifix and a scourge. It is easy to grasp the state of mind of all the students, many of whom fell ill. Fr. Annibale di Francia, on one of his visits, called Fr. Gerardo and made him understand that young men who were still growing could not be treated with such a regime. And he himself set the example, by taking a great many provisions to the friary and begging them to eat their fill, at least sometimes. Fr. Annibale was very sensitive to the young students’ health, and would often say to them: "This is not God’s Will".
It seems that Fr. Gerardo was not totally unmoved by the exhortations of Fr. Annibale, who could speak with such conviction and love that he had an impact on even the hardest of hearts. In fact, the results were immediately noticed: books were bought for the priestly formation of the young men, and slightly larger portions of bread and soup began to appear.
Shortly afterwards Fr. Gerardo left the Order and was excommunicated for his bizarre ideas and his rebellion against the Church. The Venerable Annibale’s words came true. Indeed, when the despairing students knelt at his feet for confession, he would often say: "Continue to live God’s Will intensely, because in a little while everything will change. Courage!".
Many fathers were in contact with Fr. Annibale and through him became acquainted with Luisa. How is it possible to forget Fr. Daniel from Triggiano, a splendid figure of a Capuchin, a man who was a true little flower of St. Francis. Still today, his simplicity, his words and his acts live on throughout our Monastic Province.
Fr. Daniele spoke of Luisa Piccarreta as though she were a heavenly creature and when, asa young seminarian, I went to his room for confession, he always said this to me:
"Are you Bucci from Corato? Did you know Luisa? You should know that she is a great saint and you should never stop praying to her if you want to be a priest".
Fr. Daniele was the historian of Triggiano and also published several devotional manuals, drawing heavily from Luisa Piccarreta’s books. The way he spoke of Luisa suggests that he was in direct contact with the Servant of God and with Venerable Annibale.
I also heard the following fathers talk a lot about the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta. Fr. Giovanni De Bellis, who was frequently invited to Corato to preach, went to Luisa’s house on these occasions. Fr. Giovanni, my confrere in the community of the Friary of Trinitapoli when I was superior and parish priest, often spoke to me of Luisa Piccarreta and Blessed Annibale Maria di Francia, whom he had known personally. I had the good fortune to be present at Fr. Giovanni’s last moments. This father died while he was completely immersed in prayer, ‘his hands joined, the beads of the rosary between them. His last words were: "May God’s Will be done". It was 1982.
Fr. Terenzio from Campi Salentina also deeply venerated the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta and would talk of her every time he met me. It was he who told me that the beatification cause of Fr. Annibale, Luisa’s confessor, had been initiated. When I was a young novice at the Friary of Alessandro, Fr. Terenzio was superior. One day he offered me this testimony: "There was a period when I was going through a crisis in my faith, and one day I went to Luisa, who listened to me kindly. She clarified all my doubts, and gave me such clear and profound theological explanations that they were a revelation to me. All the doubts that my theological studies had not clarified were dispelled by Luisa. There is no doubt that Luisa had the gift of infused knowledge".
Fr. Guglielmo from Barletta, one of the most distinguished priests of the Province who had several times been Minster Provincial and was rector of our theology center for students, spoke one day, during a lesson on ascetics, of Venerable Fr. Annibale and his works. He spoke at length of L’orologio della Passione and of the book Maria nel Regno della Divina Voluntà. Referring to Luisa Piccarreta, he said: "She is a great and marvelous soul. We are not even worthy to be her finger-nail". Fr. Giuglielmo did not tell me whether he had known Luisa personally.
Almost all our older fathers had direct or indirect contact with the Venerable Annibale and Luisa Piccarreta. Among them those to be remembered are: Fr. Zaccaria from Triggiano, several times Provincial; Fr. Fedele from Montescaglioso; Fr. Giuseppe from Francavilla Fontana; Fr. Tobia from Trigiano; Fr. Antonio from Stigliano, who left some writings on the Servant of God; Fr. Dionisio from Barletta; Fr. Arcangelo from Barletta, also Provincial; Fr. Pio from Triggiano, Provincial; Fr. Gabriele from Corato; Fr. Timoteo from Aquarica, a great friend of Luisa’s last confessor, Fr. Benedetto Calvi, in whose parish he often preached (he also assisted at the translation of Luisa’s body from the cemetery to the church, and concelebrated at the Mass in the main church for the opening of the beatification cause of the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta); Fr. Salvatore from Corato, of whom I shall speak in a separate chapter. Many lay brothers who went to Corato to beg for alms never failed to visit Luisa: Fra Ignazio, Fra Abele, Fra Rosario, Fra Vito and Fra Crispino, who often spoke to me enthusiastically of
Luisa, whom they greatly revered.