On Fire with the Love of God

The following is an article by Anne Tschanz on Venerable Pio Bruno Lantieri, the founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, which first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Religious Life, the official magazine of the Institute on Religious Life.

Two hundred years ago, Western Europe was beset by secularism, heresy, and revolution resulting in a loss of faith among the people and a lack of respect for the Holy Father. It seemed overwhelmingly impossible to stem the tide. Yet, into this void stepped Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri, a man who, armed only with the word of God which is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), even thwarted Napoleon.

Comforted by a Good Mother

Pio Bruno Lanteri was born in 1759 in Cuneo, which was then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. When he was only 4 years old, his mother died. Looking back on this sad event in his life, he said, “I have had scarcely any mother but the Blessed Virgin Mary and I never received anything but comfort from such a good Mother.”

The young Bruno enjoyed a special relationship with his father, Pietro, who gave his inquisitive son the best education possible. Bruno recalled that he “studied with my father even at the table.” The well-respected Pietro was a doctor known as the “father of the poor” for his Christian charity. Guided by his father in faith and intellect, Bruno was interested in only three things: family, school, and church.

Attracted to the monastic life, Bruno applied to join the Carthusians, founded by Saint Bruno, when he was 17 years old, but he left soon after, his frail constitution and weak health not suited to the harsh way of life of the monks. Thus, he decided to become a diocesan priest and was accepted because of his “purity of morals and pious desire to sanctify (himself) in the clerical state.”

Bruno attended the University of Turin where he was influenced by the heresy of Jansenism, which presented God as a severe judge. But grace and study enlightened him and he “recognized the necessity of holding fast to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, in order not to fall into error.”

In Turin at this time was a Jesuit named Fr. Nikolaus von Diessbach, who became Bruno’s spiritual director. Father Diessbach was the founder of the Christian Friendship group whose mission was to distribute authentic Catholic literature as a counter to the unsound beliefs of the day. The members, which included lay people, committed themselves to at least a half hour of spiritual reading and prayer a day, regular reception of the Sacraments, fasting, and a yearly retreat.

An Ardent Apostle and Servant

In Bruno, Father Diessbach found an ardent apostle willing to “undertake, despite his infirmities, very long journeys, even without any money, trusting entirely to Divine Providence” if the glory of God was at stake. During the evenings, the two would look for beggars in the streets, to give them food, assistance, and a spiritual word or two.

On August 15, 1781, Bruno consecrated himself to the Virgin Mary as her “perpetual servant” to serve “as she pleases as my true and absolute mistress.” The following year, he accompanied Father Diessbach to Vienna where the Emperor Joseph II was trying to usurp Pope Pius VI’s authority over bishops and religious communities.

To ensure an enthusiastic welcome for the Holy Father who was planning to meet with the Emperor, Bruno and Father Diessbach went ahead to rally the Catholic faithful through preaching, speaking and the printed word. In this they were successful, though the Emperor remained a problem.

Bruno was ordained and received his doctorate in theology in 1782, quite an accomplishment for a man who had poor eyesight, learning “more by my ears than by my eyes.” As a priest he adhered diligently to a daily routine: meditation, Mass, the Office, spiritual reading, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, six acts of generosity a day, examination of conscience, austere dining, and no wasted thoughts, all for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Sympathetic to Human Weakness

After three more years of study, in keeping with the practice of the day, he was authorized to hear confessions, visiting four churches a week for this important ministry. Always sympathetic to human weakness, he counseled people to “destroy immediately every shortcoming in the fire of love, and repeat continually, and with firm resolve: Nunc coepi (Now I begin).” He desired to show people that God was “filled with goodness, merciful, compassionate, a loving Father who knows our weaknesses, bears with us and forgives us.” With such a heart, he became a renowned spiritual director of souls.

During a retreat, it became clear to him, as a priest attached to no parish, that, “His Divine Majesty wishes . . . in this circumstance, something special from me, a miserable sinner and His unworthy servant.” This would be to work for the sanctification of souls and the transformation of the culture.

Key to this activity, Bruno believed, were the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and popular missions. The Exercises helped individuals to discern the will of God for them and reminded them: “I am created by God for this single purpose, that is, that I may praise and serve Him and, in the end, gain my eternal salvation.” For Father Bruno, the Exercises were “a most potent instrument of divine grace and a certain way for each of us to become a saint, a great saint and quickly.”

Bruno also was a revered member of the Priestly Friendship group, an association of clerics who supported each other in their pursuit of holiness and in their apostolic works. The poor formation of priests was of great concern to Bruno, and so he became a paternal guide for young priests, even founding a house for them in Turin.

One priest commented that Bruno’s “vision and his intentions are too pure not to draw down on him the graces and blessings of the Lord.” Another said that “it was not hard for us to recognize that the grace of God has borne fruit in him.”

Presenting the Truths of the Faith

For the laity, Bruno believed that the press could be used effectively to present the truth about the Faith. He published tracts and books, distributed pastoral letters from bishops, and disseminated the writings of the Holy Father.

After Napoleon occupied the Piedmont and closed retreat houses, Bruno opened one of his own called La Grangia where people could do the Exercises under his own supervision. A government agent came to spy on the proceedings and ended up being converted himself. Another time, he exchanged books with a friendly Protestant. The Protestant became a Catholic.

In 1809, Napoleon annexed the Papal States and arrested the Holy Father, placing him under house arrest, fortuitously near Bruno. The Pope, who had refused any money from his jailers, relied on secret Catholic assistance. Bruno sprang into action and raised large sums of money for the Holy Father’s welfare and used his network of friends to keep information flowing to and from the premises.

The officials were determined to break this network, which worked even faster than official government channels, and had their eye on Bruno, who ultimately was kept in isolation at La Grangia. This was a blessing for him for he recuperated from his ill health and enjoyed his prayerful solitude in company with the Blessed Sacrament in his chapel. Especially devoted to the works of Saint Bonaventure, he “found such delight and enlightenment in them that he said that he had never known God so well.”

In 1814, the defeated Napoleon went into exile and the Pope returned to Rome. Eager to restore the priesthood which had been battered by the turmoil, Bruno renewed his efforts to help train young priests as holy and capable servants of the Lord. The following year, a priest visited Bruno to discuss the plans that the priest and others had for a ministry of preaching, hearing confessions, teaching in schools and attention to the poor. Bruno advised them to use the Spiritual Exercises and parish missions as the best means of conversion.

After prayerful consideration, it soon became obvious that Bruno was the one to lead them. Granted diocesan approval, the Congregation of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary was formed in 1816.

Strength in Silence and Hope

Response to the preaching of the Exercises by the Oblates was “immediate and immense.” Bruno believed that the Oblates were called to work beyond the confines of a diocese but the Archbishop did not agree. Bruno told his confreres, “Your strength will be in silence and hope!” However, in the face of this steadfast resistance and other attacks, Bruno felt that he had no choice but to dissolve the congregation in 1820.

The Oblates carried on with their retreats and missions and during the next four years conducted over 130 retreats. Witnesses to the Exercises as conducted by Bruno said that “he began the Exercises where others ended them.” Without spiritual transformation, he said, “we will never do anything, there must be fire, fire, fire, an intense and heroic love of God, but the spirit of God is order and calm.” He was following the words of Jesus who said, “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!”

In 1825, after doing the Exercises himself to determine if he should become a Jesuit, Bruno discerned that God was calling him to re-found the Oblates. “The congregation is the work of the Madonna. She will be mindful of it.”

In 1826, the Bishop of Pinerolo asked Bruno to supply priests for a mission to revive the Catholic faith in his diocese. The grateful crowds filled the cathedral and the confessionals. It was here, Bruno believed, that the congregation should be resurrected. Armed with the Bishop’s enthusiastic support, the congregation received pontifical approval in 1826 from Pope Leo XII who said, “Your institute is very close to my heart.”

During the next few years, he felt the “lamp going out.” His weakening health ultimately left him bedridden. A small window was carved out of a wall so he could see the tabernacle from his room. He was not worried about the Oblates for he said that the Blessed Virgin “will continue to govern it as she always has.” His last words to the Oblates were, “Love one another profoundly, and always remain one at heart, whatever it may cost you.”

May the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, who came to the United States in 1976, continue to set the world afire with the truth, love, and mercy of Jesus Christ.

Most quotes are taken from A Cross for Napoleon: The Life of Father Bruno Lanteri, by Leon Cristiani, the only biography available in English. To learn more about the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, please visit www.omvusa.org.

Leave a Reply