To Serve is to Reign

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It is always difficult to describe yourself. I am a passionate woman. I go from the broom to the stove, from the poor brother to the chapel. I am a woman in love with Life and in love with Love. I believe in the beauty, the truth, and the good that God has put in the heart of every man.

I am a simple woman, not sophisticated, who “walks” hours and hours on her knees, but who then runs with the poor, the blind, the deaf, the mute, and the lame. I’m a little like them, too.

I have never thought about learning to read or study in order to teach others how to “do” charity. Charity is my life. It is the gift of myself. It is the gift of my joy to give a more truthful and passionate “yes” to God. I am a woman who is astonished every day, who marvels contemplating God’s works.

It is always a little embarrassing to talk about yourself, giving testimony and telling stories; however, I do it here voluntarily precisely out of gratitude to God! I have no human qualifications to speak or to teach. I am a daughter of poor parents, and I went only as far as third grade. At home I had to serve others. There was no time to study. The mercy of God reached down to me, and today I feel like a witness. Yes, I do! I speak because for years I have been a living witness of the Resurrection of Jesus that is renewed in the lives of the young people of the Community. When I encounter them, they are dead. Then, little by little, I contemplate them rising to new life. Today I have the courage to speak because it is time to evangelize, to give testimony.

First of all, a big “thank you” to God, who wanted my life. I believe that at the moment in which Papa and Mama conceived me, God’s will already existed for something beautiful, great, and fruitful for others. I am happy to live, giving my life for others. I feel that it is enriching, especially for me. I am rich because, from the time I was a child, sacrifice taught me to give myself to others, to serve, to smile, and to overcome difficulty without a “long face,” without saying, “I can’t do it.” I am happy to find myself still in the school of service. Everything that I learned in life, I learned serving.

I come from a large family. We lived during the period after the war of 1940-1945, with all the poverty and discomforts of the time. We were a poor immigrant family from Sora in central Italy, living in Alexandria to be near my father’s work. Because we were a family from the south, they gave us a house that was barely the size of a chicken coop; nobody wanted people from the south because they had too many children. Everywhere we lived, I saw that there were other families, other children like me, who were living another reality, richer materially than mine.

I remember something my mother repeated to me every time she found me with friends who were better off than I was. When we had a piece of bread in our house — and during the war, it wasn’t easy to have bread — or when we had cherries, Mama told me, “Remember, Rita, that all mouths are sisters! You can’t put something in your mouth without giving something to someone else.” Even in the hardship of poverty, she formed us in actions of solidarity that meant “family.”

I am truly a daughter of the poor, but today I am deeply happy. Poverty is beautiful! We are more important than things, more important than riches, and more important than ambitions.

I am happy I was born at a time in history when not everyone had enough food to eat, and we got up from the table still feeling hungry, because this taught us to sacrifice. I understood that material and physical poverty could not destroy the unity in charity of the family. I realized that true peace and well-being are dimensions of the heart. We feel them when we are good and generous. It is when we give to others that we become a universal family who together and in truth can pray, “Our Father.”

When I was still a child, I came to know God who is Father, and immediately I learned to trust Him. I recall that when poverty was most cruel, moments when the Cross was heaviest, I would frequently hear my mother’s lips repeat this prayer: “Holy Cross of God, do not abandon us!” She said it in our dialect. This prayer to God has always touched me so much.

I had a strong, demanding mother. Papa often lost his job because of his weakness and wasn’t always a help to the family. In those moments, my mother didn’t rebelliously say, “My God, what have you done? How will we make it? Get him a job!” Instead, in pain yet with faith, she would repeat, “Holy Cross of God, do not abandon us!” She loved the Cross. She clung to it. She found her strength in the Cross.

Nobody wants to suffer, but thanks to my mother’s words, I came to understand how important it is in life to embrace the Cross. The Cross is our mother, and we must love her in order to live well. We experienced this in our family.

When we had some money, my father would spend it drinking. My father, Antonio, liked to drink too much wine. When I was a child, this upset me and made me feel ashamed, especially when he came drunk to pick me up at school in front of my classmates who made fun of me. I recall how he would come to meet me with his bicycle, staggering, and the children would mock me, saying, “Look, Rita, your father is drunk again!” I felt humiliated, because I understood that alcoholism wasn’t something good. However, those situations taught me what sacrifice means, what humility means. Reflecting now, I understand that my father, in spite of his fragility, at least came to get me at school. Back then, many fathers didn’t go to pick up their children, and today they never go.

My father didn’t hesitate to wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me, “Rita, go buy me cigarettes!” I remember very well. . . . I had to walk a long way on a dark street. I tried to run fast, singing to conquer my fear. At night the sprawling tree branches seemed like long, threatening arms. When I arrived at the tobacconist, I would knock, and the shopkeeper would get up grumbling and give me some cigarettes. I would dash home to make my father happy.

When I encountered God, all this suffering in our family was transformed and enlightened. Today I can say that my father was for me the university that taught me how to love and to serve everyone with dignity. He was the first poor, broken person that I had to welcome, love, and serve.

I relate these things in order to give glory to God for giving me a father who was not afraid to be who he was. I don’t want to justify my father’s mistakes, but we need to remember that no one is born a parent. We learn little by little. Most assuredly the Holy Spirit was using him, thinking of the mission God had prepared for me. My father’s fragility was my first school of life. It formed and shaped me.

Today, in light of my story, I teach the young men and women to love, respect, and forgive their fathers and mothers, as I have done. This is possible only if they encounter their heavenly Father, who comes first before their earthly fathers and mothers.

A father like mine must have suffered deeply in his childhood. We must show so much mercy toward others, as others have shown us. I loved my father. I served him faithfully. For this reason, I am not ashamed to talk about him. When you love, you are not ashamed.

Today, and each day more and more, I am happy to be alive, to have been born, and even happier because the Lord has always put me in a position not to be able to worry about myself. I’ve never had much time in my life to think about myself, how I was feeling, if I was happy or sad, good or bad. I always had to take care of others and serve them. I’m convinced that there is no kingdom more fascinating, greater, more amazing, or richer than the heart of man. To serve is truly to experience the privilege of reigning!

I often think, “How good the Lord has been to me!” He has loved, followed, and molded me since I was a child. When I was seventeen years old, I was in a serious relationship with a young man, who loved me very much. In my time, we spoke of love — we did not “make” love. We had already decided to have many children . . . and then something happened inside me. At a certain moment I began to ask myself, “All my life with him? Only with him? Only for him? No, I couldn’t ever. This is not my path.” It felt too limiting to me. There was another spouse knocking at the door of my heart, who opened it wide. It was Jesus, Son of the carpenter of Nazareth, who by profession was also a carpenter. It was He who would me a make me a happy spouse.

At nineteen, I left my family. It caused so much suffering, especially for my mother, who had to work to sustain the family. She counted on me to take care of my siblings, so I was the anchor for the home. None of my brothers or sisters supported my decision. My decision to become a nun made no sense to them.

In spite of all this, the call was strong. It was stronger than human affections, stronger than blood, stronger than the flesh, stronger than the problems at home, stronger than the objections of others, stronger than my own understanding.

It was March 8, 1956, the day young women entered the convent. I got up early in the morning and, with a small cardboard box, I departed in silence. At the station, while I was getting on the train, I heard the unmistakable sound of my mother’s wooden clogs. Wrapped in a shawl, she had been following me. She understood that there was something moving inside me, that I was preparing myself for a journey, and that I was leaving for good. Our eyes met. In her eyes there were so many questions: “Rita, what are you doing? Are you leaving us? Are you really going? How will we make it?” I looked at her . . . and I got on the train.

Later I always blamed myself for that moment, because it seemed to me that I had not understood my mother’s pain, until one day a young man, listening to this story, said to me: “Elvira, thank God you got on that train. Otherwise, all of us would still be desperate and waiting! All of us were on that train with you!”

It’s true! Today I realize that so many others were leaving with me on that train. I thank God that He didn’t let me turn back. If I had done so, I would be much poorer. I wouldn’t have seen all the beautiful things that God has worked through my poor story. That trip continues, and today I am much richer in life, in goodness, in light, in peace, and in joy.

I arrived at a convent of the Sisters of Charity in Borgaro, Turin, which is still flourishing today. This convent was founded by St. Giovanna Antida, a great French foundress, who gave her life in service of the poor, excluding no one. I, Rita Agnese Petrozzi, became Sister Elvira in this community, where I remained for about twenty-eight years. I served in different ways, but especially as the cook for many years. Serving others was always a great joy for me.

Later on, within me, a fire was lit. A strong desire grew within me to commit myself to young people, especially those who were searching for meaning in their lives. I saw them wandering aimlessly on the streets and in the public squares. It seemed to me that they were crying out their need for life and for truth. They screamed out by taking drugs, numbing themselves, despairing, and letting themselves die day by day. They wanted to know if love exists, if there is truly hope, if it is possible to have interior peace, if their story could be reborn. I read this in their eyes and in their bad choices.

I saw them like “sheep without a shepherd,” without direction, although financially secure with money in their pockets, a car, an education, and everything they could want materially, yet their hearts filled with sadness and death.

In prayer, kneeling before the Eucharist, I intensely felt that I could perceive — almost physically — their cry of pain, their need for help. I felt within me a push that wasn’t my own, that I could not suppress, that grew more and more. It wasn’t an idea. Even I didn’t know what was happening, but I felt that I must give those young people something that God had placed inside me for them.

I asked my superiors again and again to allow me to do something for them, but rightly so, they said that I would be venturing into the unknown, that I was unprepared, that I hadn’t studied and didn’t know anything about the problems of youth, so I really wouldn’t be able to make it. All these valid reasons made me wait, suffer, and pray. The fire never went out.

For me, it was like living in agony, waiting to see how the Holy Spirit would develop what was churning inside me. I suffered so much because it seemed as if I was wasting time. In reality, it was God’s time, and I had to wait for His moment, the hour in which I could finally dedicate myself to the young people in order to protect them, form them, and love them. I had so many tempting thoughts: “Why don’t they trust me?” But then I said to myself, “Why should they trust me? I’m just a poor creature who wants to ‘fly.’ ”

Some people said, “Elvira, why don’t you leave your religious order? That way you can do what you want!” But I didn’t intend to “do what I wanted.” What was happening to me was very different from that. I wanted to have the certainty that what I had within me wasn’t something of mine, but of God. I was certain this would come through obedience. With so much trust and hope, I waited . . . praying, suffering, loving, and continuing to ask for many years until one day my superiors trusted me and said, “Okay!”

Now, at seventy years of age, I reason a little more, and I understand that all this was a blessing. These were the labor pains. Today I am very close to those who were my superiors. We are friends, and many of the sisters are as amazed as I am at what happened. They know me, so they really understand that this comes from God, certainly not from me. For many years now, the sisters of St. Giovanna Antida Thouret have had a Cenacolo house for twenty young men in Borgaro, Turin, where I was welcomed as a novice. Our presence there has always been a great joy and blessing for me, a sign of our close friendship in the Lord and in the service of the poor, a bond stronger than the difficulties we had on the journey.

In fact, in the next few years, as Cenacolo grew, we needed to take further steps for the new work of God and its unexpected expansion. With great suffering for me and for them, I had to leave my religious order. Today I still ask myself the reason for this sacrifice, this “cut” that made me bleed, but throughout these years, the words of so many friends comforted me: “Elvira, God wanted something new to be born!”

Today I remember the past as a blessing. Recalling my childhood and everything I experienced, I can say that it was a beautiful story, precisely because it was mingled with so many shadows. God’s grace was abundant in the midst of so much human poverty. It’s evident that, in the midst of all the chaos of the war and the uncertainty we experienced in the family, the Holy Spirit was forming me in charity, compassion, and service, preparing me to help those who were suffering more than I was. First my parents and then my superiors were already, in a certain sense, inspired and guided by the hand of the Holy Spirit, who was preparing me for what I am living today.

God does great things with people who know they are small. The smaller and poorer we feel, the more the Lord will do great things through the Community. (from the Rule of Life of Comunità Cenacolo)

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This article is adapted from a chapter in The Embrace of God’s Mercy by Mother Alvira, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on Mother Alvira and the Rise of Community Cenacolo: Cover and featured image used with permission.

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