Eucharistic Colloquies I
Eucharistic Colloquies   

Da:  Eucharistic Colloquies, edited by Carmelo Mezzasalma and Alessandro Andreini, translated by Chiara Calabrese, Edizioni Feeria-OCD, Panzano in Chianti (FI) - Roma, 2012, pp. 15-74.

Introduction by Carmelo Mezzasalma
This book is Mother Maria Candida of the Eucharist’s main work because it fully introduces us to the exemplarity of her life as “mystic of the Eucharist”, better than any other, besides containing her interior experience.[1] There are in fact some very significant writings by Mother Maria Candida: her autobiography, written as a general confession in the years preceding her entry into the Ragusa Carmel,[2] the story of her Carmelite vocation written during her novitiate (Salita: primi passi, 1922),[3] Il Canto sulla montagna (1926-1930),[4] written in obedience to her confessor Don Giorgio La Perla when she was prioress of the convent, and finally Perfezione carmelitana (1947),[5] a collection of reflections on Carmelite religious life. Other occasional writings include prayers, novenas and a number of meditations addressed to her sisters on various occasions. An important part in this collection of writings is undoubtedly played by her letters, which cast a special light on her personality and spirituality and which we hope will soon be published allowing us to appreciate more deeply the gift offered by God to the Church and to Carmelite tradition.

Nevertheless, the manuscript on the Eucharist is the one which most clearly reveals the core of Mother Maria Candida’s spiritual and human experience, and the one which explains the uniqueness of this figure who was totally devoted to the adoration of the mystery of the Eucharist. Mother Maria Candida herself mentions the occasion which led to her to write. Her prioress, Mother Maria Teresa of Jesus, deeply touched by her love for the Eucharist, gave her in obedience the task of writing down her reflections and the spiritual itinerary which had led her along the path of this love for the Eucharist. It was the spring of 1933 and Mother Maria Candida, at that time, was novice mistress. This was a wonderful opportunity to focus on the richness of an interior experience so jealously guarded within such a modest and reserved soul, precisely at the time that she was  fulfilling the difficult task of educating young nuns. In reality, her writing on the Eucharist is a true testimony of a life shaped by the mystery of the Eucharist, a fine, clear example of how such a mystery can enter a religious Christian life and completely turn it into a hymn to God’s glory.

There is no doubt that in recent years Teresian-Carmelite spirituality has been going through a period of surprising popularity and not just within the Church. The proclamation of St Thérèse of Lisieux as a Doctor of the Church (1997) has cast a new light on the message of the young Carmelite from Normandy who has deeply marked the spirituality of our century. The canonization of Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1998), of Jewish origin, who became a Discalced Carmelite in Cologne and died as a martyr in Auschwitz, and the fact that she was later proclaimed patron saint of Europe together with St Bridget of Sweden and St Catherine of Siena, have revived the debate around this emblematic figure. As John Paul II emphasized, she sums up the contradictions and spiritual crisis of the 20th century, a century marked by totalitarianism but also by a deep longing for truth and spiritual freedom. In the huge crowd of sons and daughters of the Teresian Carmel identified by the Church as exemplary testimonies of holiness in the century closing the second Christian millennium (among them the young Chilean St Teresa of Jesus of the Andes, the “Little Arab” Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified and the Polish St Rafael Kalinowsky, not to mention all the other saints and blessed souls connected with the Carmelite spirituality), what importance can someone like Mother Maria Candida, who lived in a Sicilian Carmelite convent, have? And who, after all, was Mother Maria Candida? What interest can she arouse at the beginning of this tormented century unsettled by political and cultural anxiety? These are legitimate questions which deserve deep consideration as they will be at the basis of our attempt to discover the originality of Mother Maria Candida of the Eucharist within the panorama of contemporary spirituality.
1. Sicily, an  unknown land?
In contrast with lively France where, despite its anticlericalism, the extraordinary experience of St Thérèse of Lisieux took place at the end of the 19th century, and in contrast with the Germany of the Twenties and Thirties which has permanently marked European culture and where Edith Stein carried out her passionate research from Hebraism to the Christian martyrdom, Sicily does not seem to attract the attention of our contemporaries in the same way. It is in fact only remembered for the bloodshed connected to the Mafia and other violent events deriving from the attempt to preserve a social system which, in the age of global market and mass communication, has become inexplicable. All Italian and foreign visitors to Sicily have an impression of it which, at best, is influenced by commonplaces such as the blue sky, sun and sea. The numerous travel accounts, from Goethe to Maupassant, the many books written about it and cinema productions have not been able to alter the image of a ‘traditional’ Sicily made up of cultural backwardness and extreme passions. Internationally renowned writers like Luigi Pirandello, Salvatore Quasimodo, Leonardo Sciascia and Gesualdo Bufalino, have made us understand that Sicily, more than any other Italian region, can be defined as an “unknown” land. It is unknown even to its own inhabitants, because it is especially for them that this traditional image of the land continues to be a great burden. Torn by the desire to be rid of a heritage that they feel as entirely negative, they struggle to discover the ideal wealth contained in their ancient culture. Gesualdo Bufalino, a writer from Comiso, a few kilometres from Ragusa, and author of the best-seller Diceria dell’untore, wrote in his book L’isola nuda “they say that here, between splendour and squalor, there is no room left for delight, this is no land for idyll. They say…”[6]

In this context, John Paul II’s prophetic journey to Agrigento on 9 May 1993 managed to wipe away this misleading and incomplete image of Sicily. In the Valley of the Temples he raised a painful cry against the Mafia and, at the same time, gave a warm exhortation not to forget Sicily’s cultural and spiritual heritage which goes from ancient Greece straight to the fullness and liveliness of its Christian testimony. “The Sicilian people,” he said, “love life and give life. They can no longer live under the oppression of a negative culture, a culture of death… In the name of Christ, crucified and resurrected, of a Christ who is our path, truth and life, I am addressing those who are responsible for this, convert! One day the justice of God will come!”[7] John Paul II, in other words, marked a true turning point, both spiritual and cultural, which, if welcomed, will undoubtedly determine the future of Sicily and the image of it which persists in the contemporary world. The “unparalleled” island (cf. Quasimodo) is not a film setting for a kind of Italian Wild West, or simply the background to the description of a legacy of passion for “la roba[8] and bad government by the ruling classes. It is as if, in order to attract the attention inside and outside the island, it were necessary always to refer to a Sicily which Tomasi of Lampedusa and Leonardo Sciascia called “unredeemable”. In contrast, Sicily is characterised by the strong presence of a Christian spirituality which has written a different history and shaped a different identity, an identity deeply rooted in the spirit of a people possessing an extraordinary ability to accustom themselves to violence and deceit. This different but real history, was outlined at the beginning of the Christian era by, amongst others, Peter and Paul who stopped there while travelling towards Rome, by the early saintliness of Agatha and Lucy; and, in our own time, by the apostles of charity who include the Blessed Giacomo Cusmano, the Blessed Hannibal Maria of France and the Blessed Mary Schininà plus the strong personality of Giorgio La Pira, mayor of Florence and originally from Pozzallo in the Ragusa province. It is to this history that John Paul II referred in his unforgettable journey to Agrigento and in his paternal cry repeated in front of the solemn remains in the Valley of the Temples.

Obviously we cannot expect canonical observers of culture and sociology to have already embraced the spiritual turning point marked by the prophetic words of the Holy Father as regards the “traditional” image of Sicily. Nevertheless, we are bound to refer to it if we want to understand the significance of Mother Maria Candida of the Eucharist’s human and spiritual adventure, which we intend to restore to general attention through the critical edition of her extraordinary manuscript on the Eucharist.
2. Biographical synopsis
Maria Barba, as Mother Maria Candida was called before entering Carmel, was born on 6 January 1884 in Catanzaro, the city where her family, originally from Palermo, was temporarily residing because of her father’s job, Pietro Barba (1833-1904), a Councillor at the Court of Appeal. Her mother, Giovanna Florena (1848-1914), belonged to a noble family from Santo Stefano di Camastra, near Messina.[9] Lively and passionate, though gifted with an extraordinary interior sensibility, Maria attended elementary school and started teacher training school. Nevertheless, at the age of fourteen, according to the questionable habit of the time, she was forced by her parents to leave school. She was only allowed, for a period of time, to play the piano, as was customary for young women destined to lead a socially active life. The discovery of music in some way completed an education which, as intended by her family, had to conform to a certain standard of normality. Maria showed great talent for the piano, and her teachers suggested that she should attend the Conservatory in Palermo. Once again her family objected as they believed that a young woman attending school would be exposed to various dangers. Notwithstanding this, they truly loved her, and Maria herself, in her autobiographical writings, hints at a serene family life pervaded by strong Christian spirituality. These autobiographical manuscripts were written by Maria when she was twenty-six, and they also demonstrate how Maria was always willing to consider the positive aspects of people and events. Led by a pure affection for her family, therefore, Maria conformed for a period of time to the contemporary model of young woman.

She was a light-hearted and lively fifteen-year-old girl (1899) when the attraction towards God brought a sudden change in her, in some way mysterious even to us, leading to a clear “conversion” in her soul, deeper and deeper, with no return. Although isolated in this transformation which took place within her, and perhaps misunderstood within her own family, God became her guide especially as regards her attraction towards the mystery of the Eucharist which would become the spiritual centre for the rest of her life. While still a student at the Collegio di Maria in Palermo called the “Giusino”,[10] at that time run by fervent nuns, Maria came to know the life of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, a religious of the Visitation at Paray-le-Monial who received the revelation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She was so struck by this that she initially thought of joining the Visitation Order founded by St Francis of Sales and St Françoise de Chantal. From St Margaret Mary’s autobiography she also acquired the awareness that Jesus Christ is preserved within the Tabernacles. At that time Maria Barba was just eighteen. This, and many more elements, reveals the deep internal conflict experienced by Maria Barba in her adolescence. The conversion opened the way to a completely unknown world towards which her soul was strongly attracted, even though the direction of such research was still not entirely clear to her. On the other hand, in those days, Christian education in Sicilian families did not go beyond the practice of the Sacraments, saying the rosary and general obedience to the precepts of the Church. This was obviously a consequence of the clear-cut separation between clergy and lay people, according to which deep knowledge of religious matters was solely the prerogative of the clergy. During these years, Maria also got to know about St Gemma Galgani, the mystic in Lucca who had received the stigmata and would become a fundamental point of reference in her spiritual life and later in the Carmel. Reading The Imitation of Christ, which she discovered through the novice mistress in the Visitation Order in Palermo, in 1902, directed her towards a more ascetic dimension of Christian life. It is well known that The Imitation of Christ has been a popular book of Christian spirituality (certainly the most read after the Gospels) in monasteries for meditation, in religious and priestly life and as a manual of thorough Christian education for many generations of lay people all over the world. St Thérèse of Lisieux grew through this work which still contains a spiritual tension based on the human journey along the path traced by the historical Jesus, the master, the servant who embraces his passion and death in obedience to the Father (cf. Enzo Bianchi). More specifically, Mother Maria Candida would find a wonderful way to personalize the Holy Communion in Book IV of The Imitation, which deals with the great importance of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the life of a Christian.

Especially after the death of her father (1904), Maria’s family followed her transformation with apprehension and from that time, especially when they discovered her religious vocation, they did all they could to restrain her fervour, secretly convinced that it was just a temporary exaltation. After all, Maria was a woman, and for her brothers, who had gone into the law like their father, her attitude of deep meditation and search in prayer was, to say the least, exaggerated. Initially, Maria had to adapt to the family situation showing a charitable spirit no less surprising than her firmness. Her family had in fact gone through death and misfortune, with the long, painful illness of her father, the death of her brother Paolo (1911) when still a university student, and the poor health of her mother, which had left a deep mark on her. Lacking a spiritual guide who could adequately lead her in her Christian experience, Maria for a period of time suffered from the condition called “scruples” (also well-known to St Thérèse of Lisieux) and thought that mortification of the senses was the soundest method to attain an authentic spiritual life. Eventually she became seriously ill (1905), but in her heart she knew that she would not die before becoming a nun. She therefore asked her confessor if she could take the vow of virginity but was forbidden to do so and was only allowed to make an act of consecration. From that moment on, Maria understood that she needed a true spiritual guide whom she luckily found in Father Antonio Matera of the Palermo Conventuals. Amid various problems and difficulties, God comforted and helped her through special signs. Firstly, she had the opportunity to read The Story of a Soul by St Thérèse of Lisieux which, a few years later, would inspire her Carmelite vocation, and then, in May 1905, she heard the voice of Jesus calling her to the Tabernacle for the first time. Finally she was given permission by her spiritual guide to take Communion daily, a decision which was immediately criticized by her family.

Disputes within the family increased every day, probably because there was still the idea that Maria should find a good match. We should not forget that her mother’s brother, Filippo Florena, was a senator of the Kingdom of Italy. They even said hard words to her such as “mad, possessed woman, liar, hypocrite”. These were very painful years for Maria Barba, still trying to realize her vocation, yet comforted by the constant presence of God. One day she heard an interior voice from the Virgin Mary who told her, “Daughter, Jesus does not simply want you among the saints, He also wants you among the martyrs.”

In 1910, she went to Rome and was received with her family by Pope Pius X, the Pope who had allowed her daily Communion and who left Maria with an unforgettable memory. During her stay in Rome, apart from seeing its beauties, she visited the Institute of the Sisters of Mary Reparatrix, founded by the Blessed Mary of Jesus (Emile d’Oultremont, 1818-1878), whose biography Mother Maria Candida had read a few years earlier. The Mary of Jesus’ Institute was particularly devoted to the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament and this was such a powerful attraction for Maria that she thought of entering it. A few years later she even tried to run away from Palermo to be received into the Roman Institute. On her return to Palermo, she obtained permission from Father Matera to take a vow of virginity. In 1914 her mother died and, on the outbreak of the First World War, Maria renewed her vow of victim to the love of Jesus, already taken a few years before, following the example of Margaret Mary Alacoque. Facing the tragedy of war, Maria felt she had “a heart as big as the entire world”.

At the age of thirty-five (1919), she finally understood that she could not wait any longer to realize her vocation. Determined to become a Discalced Carmelite she asked the Servant of God Cardinal Alessandro Lualdi, Archbishop of Palermo, for advice and he advised her to stop delaying because of her family. He also advised her not to enter the Palermo Convent of Discalced Carmelites, as it was going through a difficult period which, in a few years time, would eventually bring about its closure, but the one in Ragusa which was new and very poor. On 25 September 1919, after the painful departure from her family (her brothers refused to say goodbye and inexplicably never spoke to her again), Maria entered the Ragusa Carmel. The day before she entered it, some nuns saw a white dove wandering in the novices’ quarters and then flying into the cloister.

Getting used to the Carmelite lifestyle was not easy for Maria who, after all, was accustomed to the comfortable life of the upper middle class. In addition, the Ragusa Carmel was really very poor and located in a rather uncomfortable building. In fact, a few years later, according to the design of Providence, Mother Maria Candida built the new convent which is still located in Via Marsala. Nevertheless, the nuns always remembered the unfading smile and kind disposition of the young postulant who did her best to be helpful in this difficult situation. On 16 April 1920, Maria Barba donned the Carmelite habit and received her new name, Sister Maria Candida of the Eucharist. On that occasion she wrote to her friend Agatina Callari, “If only you could enjoy one day of religious life! I cannot express how it is! What peace and happiness it brings!”[11] On 17 April 1921, Sister Maria Candida made her simple profession and three years later she made her solemn profession on 13 April 1924, St George’s Day, patron saint of Ragusa Ibla. The date had been chosen to pay homage to the convent’s confessor, Father Giorgio la Perla (1874-1953) who, apart from being a noble figure within the Ragusa clergy, deeply felt “more Carmelite than the Carmelites”. This priest had had a primary role in the foundation of the Ragusa Carmel and when he met Sister Maria Candida he became her spiritual director for the rest of her life. Don Giorgio la Perla’s discernment and deep piety were such that Mother Maria Candida relied on his advice and judgement when she became prioress of the convent.[12]

In the meantime, Pope Pius XI proceeded with the beatification of Thérèse of Lisieux on 29 April 1923. On that occasion, Sister Maria Candida wrote the text of a talk entitled Teresa, nostro modello e nostra via (Thérèse, our model and path) which was read to the entire community. Sister Maria Candida’s happiness on account of this beatification was immense. She wrote again to her friend Agatina, referring to the saint of Lisieux, “I owe her (as well as to St Teresa) my choice of Carmel and I have chosen her as protectress for my solemn Profession.”[13] Six months after her solemn profession, on 10 November 1924, Sister Maria Candida of the Eucharist was elected prioress of her convent for the first time. This was a great burden but she accepted it as a sign of obedience to God, and during her first three years as prioress, she was also novice mistress. On the occasion of her election, she certainly remembered how, during the traditional embrace with the other sisters on the day of her simple profession, she had heard the voice of Jesus telling her, “All these sisters will be the instrument of your beatification”. Nevertheless, it was necessary to ask for authorization from the Holy See for the election as prioress of a nun who had made her solemn profession only a few months before.

Mother Maria Candida fulfilled her role as prioress of the convent with great commitment and zeal and this occasionally created problems among the sisters. Mother Maria Candida did not accept the idea of a Carmelite who was not ready to literally plunge herself into religious perfection. The breaking of the Rule was very painful for her. “My dear,” she once said to a nun, “how can you offend Jesus like this? Why do you waste your time in such trifles!”[14] She was especially strict about the “parlour” during the important periods of Advent and Lent. Complaints were even presented in Rome, as the nuns’ relatives resented the restrictions imposed by the prioress. Mother Maria Candida was misunderstood and even humiliated but not overcome by discomfort. One day, the canonical Visitor of the Order rebuked her in the refectory in front of all the nuns, in words which Mother Immaculate Mary of St Joseph, who witnessed the scene, described as being excessive and undeserved. Despite this, Mother Maria Candida did not react in a negative way, and the nuns soon recognized the value of their prioress and she was elected by the community for three more years and, after an interval of three years (1930-1933), during which she was first councillor, she was elected prioress again until 1947, two years before her death. At the diocesan trial of beatification her sisters declared that she was like a “living rule” and that her attitude, always calm and self-controlled, was sufficient to persuade all the other nuns to observe the rule. Her spiritual director and confessor, Don Giorgio La Perla, made a declaration which remains an important testimony: “My intimate relationship with the Servant of God deeply touched and struck me. I was stunned by her great virtue, her constant work of an inner search for a higher perfection. For her, the spiritual life did not simply mean enjoying intimate contact with God but implied a continuous struggle, the incessant work of self-improvement, a daily effort to be able to fully experience the mystery of God.”[15] Don Giorgio La Perla also said that he had never met such a meek and obedient soul.

In this context, we should not forget what a difficult and delicate task it is to be prioress of a closed convent like the Carmelite one. It does not simply require the ability to handle communal and daily life, with all its small and big problems. It also requires the ability to maintain, with equal control, the relationship with the world outside the convent. Furthermore, according to the rule of St Teresa of Avila, the prioress must be a guide for her sisters, a sort of spiritual mother. It is a truly difficult task, undoubtedly problematic. And yet, on the Ragusa Carmel – which existed for little more than ten years – Mother Maria Candida of the Eucharist will leave an everlasting mark.

In the meantime, a new and bigger problem weighed on the Ragusa Carmel. The city had grown much bigger and now basically surrounded the convent. In these conditions, it was no longer possible to continue a contemplative life and it was necessary to build a convent in a more secluded place. Mother Maria Candida, re-elected prioress in 1933, had to deal with this difficult task, all the more difficult considering that the community lacked the financial means to face the problem. Nevertheless, with her faith in God, she agreed to face it and started the building of the new convent in Via Marsala (where it still is). The construction brought many worries and anxieties, including the fact that for the nuns the idea of leaving the convent in Corso Italia was incredibly painful, as it had witnessed so many spiritual experiences connected to the rebirth of Carmel in Sicily! Despite this, on 14 October 1937, on the eve of St Teresa of Avila’s feast, the community of Discalced Carmelites moved into the new convent and on 9 July 1939 the Archbishop of Siracusa-Ragusa, Monsignor Ettore Baranzini, consecrated the new church, dedicating it to St Teresa of Avila. “Now, sweet Jesus,” he wrote to Mother Maria Candida, “your spouse, our humble church, is complete. In it, You will be loved, glorified and Your love will be returned.” The troubles and efforts that Mother Maria Candida faced during those years were so intense that she had to bear the consequences for the rest of her life. The Ragusa convent undoubtedly made a major contribution to the rebirth of the Teresian Carmel in Sicily, along with the incessant work of Mother Immaculate Mary of St Joseph,[16] which would bring about the foundation of the Chiaromonte Gulfi, Enna, Catania and Vizzini Carmels. In 1947, Mother Maria Candida herself was chosen as foundress of the Siracusa Carmel but, due to the illness which led to her death, she was unable to fully accomplish her task.

During World War II (1943-1944), the war front reached Sicily and the Ragusa convent went through serious problems which Mother Maria Candida faced with extraordinary courage. The Institute of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of the Blessed Mary Schininà also greatly helped the Ragusa Carmel which would not have been able to survive these dreadful conditions, especially as it was a closed convent. The nuns of the Blessed Schininà provided for the daily needs of the Discalced Carmelites and allowed them to survive. Following the design of Providence, these two Institutes were constantly united in a truly evangelical spirit of charity as they went through these difficult times. In addition, Mother Maria Candida’s family was dramatically affected by the war. On 5 March 1943 her sister Luisa died, scared to death by the devastating Allied bombings of Palermo and her daughter Giuseppina died on the following day. The Barba family was decimated as one member after another died at an incredible pace. The following year, Mother Maria Candida’s sister Giuseppina died and later, so did her sister-in-law Rosa, wife of her brother Stefano. Despite all this, at the end of the war, Mother Maria Candida could rejoice at the return of the Discalced Carmelite Fathers from the Veneto. On 28 September 1946 Mother Maria Candida offered them hospitality in the guest quarters of the convent until their building, located near the ancient Chiesa del Carmine, was completed. In 1947, Mother Maria Candida, despite the desire of the community to re-elect her, definitively stepped down from the position of prioress of the convent and dedicated herself entirely to the foundation of the Siracusa Carmel. It was in this period that, once again in obedience to the prioress of the time, Mother Ines of Jesus, she wrote some meditations concerning the most significant events of Carmelite religious life, which would be published posthumously with the title Perfezione carmelitana (Carmelite Perfection). Shortly after, she was diagnosed as having liver cancer. Due to this illness, her last months were dreadful, but Mother Maria Candida had asked the Lord not to spare her, and He did not. Even the doctor who treated her was impressed by the strength and serenity with which she underwent her suffering. On 12 June 1949, while the bell of the convent was tolling for the Angelus, Mother Maria Candida, surrounded by her sisters, went to the house of the Father whispering, “Mary, Mary help me”. At the news of her death, an endless procession of people came to pay homage and her body remained on view and visible through the gratings for three days. The fame of her sanctity spread at once and the diocesan trial for the beatification was opened in Ragusa seven years after her death and closed in 1962. After the diocesan approval of the “miracle”, the Positio super vita et virtutibus was submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome in 1992. On 18 December 2000 Pope John Paul II signed the decree of the Heroism of the Virtues of Mother Maria Candida of the Eucharist and, a little more than two years later, on 12 April 2003, he signed the decree approving the miracle.
3. Mother Maria Candida and her times
Given this biographical synopsis, which is intense enough to fill an entire life, we wonder how Mother Maria Candida of the Eucharist could lead such an intense spiritual life to be defined a “mystic of the Eucharist”. How could her life within the family and her life as prioress at the Ragusa Carmel allow her to cultivate a contemplative life which undoubtedly required an incredible amount of energy and dedication? This question acquires a particular significance especially when we consider the particular social and historical context of her time, which allows us to understand how difficult it is in some situations to undertake an evangelical journey with strong determination. Mother Maria Candida in fact went through her human experience between the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, a period of serious social and political changes in which, as a member of the Italian upper middle class, she found herself partly involved. In other words, the twenty years she had to wait before entering Carmel must be interpreted by taking the actual historical situation into account.

Historians have stressed that the years between 1882 and 1898 were crucial to the development of the Italian society which came into being with unification of the country. An analysis of this period of Italian history is therefore fundamental in understanding the future developments which would culminate in the advent of Fascism and the outbreak of World War II. Three different political perspectives gradually emerged in these years. There was the view held by Francesco Crispi, which we might define as the bourgeoisie’s “counterattack” and then a kind of conservative reformism, represented by Antonio di Rudinì and Sidney Sonnino. Finally there was a kind of liberal renovation, whose main exponent was Giovanni Giolitti, based on the abandonment of transformism and on a new trend of social policy, implementation of which necessitated radical reorganisation of the system of parliamentary alliances. These three perspectives slowly appeared in the last decade of the 19th century, due to the emergence of new forces which were alien to the traditional “liberal” world. The victory of the progressive perspective determined a fundamental change in the political and social history of the country, the inversion of a general trend which had found its strongest manifestation in the repression of the Sicilian fasces and in the reactions of 1898.

At the end of the century, the Italian bourgeoisie became dramatically conscious of the political and social danger of a clash between “blacks” and “reds”. These two forces were seen as ghosts come to threaten the existence of a unified state or, at least, the survival of the system created by the political leaders of the Risorgimento. In this situation, the fin de siècle bourgeoisie was appalled and could neither accept nor understand the abstentionism of the Catholics after Pius IX’s Syllabus. Widespread secularization, the exaltation of progress over religious obscurantism, the indictments of and measures taken against the clerical organisations, in reality simply concealed the bourgeoisie’s fear of the true danger represented by the emerging working class. It is not surprising, therefore, that the best political culture of these years (that of Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto) was marked by a strong antisocialism which fitted perfectly with the neo-idealistic position of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. The actual aim was to permanently legitimate the bourgeois hegemony. In this sense, Croce and Gentile’s criticism of Marxism was inspired by a radical negation of the cultural justification of the working class rebellion. But because socialism considered religion as something connected with free individual conscience, it equally represented a threat to the political clericalism which basically supported the social preservation of the bourgeoisie  and constantly propounded an ethics of renunciation.[17]

As we can see, there was a very tense socio-political atmosphere whose problematic aspects are still under analysis. In this context, the Church clearly demonstrated that it was behind the times so we should not be surprised that, at the time when Leon XIII became Pope (1878-1903), inaugurating an era in which the Church would partly catch up with the times, the Catholic world went through a period described by Paul Claudel as “the sad 1880s”. The general atmosphere was not simply more and more indifferent, it was also often actually hostile to the Catholic conception of the world. There was a widespread belief that science would be able to replace the dogma of Christian faith with a wider culture and a civilization possessing stronger means than those of a Christian society with its beginnings in the Graeco-Latin world. In 1890, Ernest Renan, author of the famous The Life of Jesus which had a strong impact on the Christian world at the end of the 19th century, published The Future of Science (which he had written forty years before), and which became the manifesto of the intellectuals of those years. To those Catholics who, conscious of the dramatic consequences brought about by the modern world, hid behind condemnation, Renan would reply, “We believe in the modern world, in its sanctity, in its future, and you condemn it. We believe in reason, and you insult it; we believe in mankind, in its divine destiny, in its everlasting future and you make fun of it.” Fear and a feeling of loss when confronting the modern world, so clearly summarised by Renan’s rich prose, seemed to spread in the Church. In 1881, a well-known Dominican preacher, Father Didon, chose the theme of “The reconciliation of the Church with modern society” for his Lent sermons, but the Archbishop of Paris objected that the theme was too sensitive and suggested that he talk about the Virgin Mary. The reaction of Cardinal Guilbert reflected the attitude of the majority of Church people, from priests working within their parishes, to bishops and people in charge of Roman Congregations, up to the Pope himself.[18]

In a rather complex context like this, believers can nourish their life of faith primarily through devotional practices and through the birth of new initiatives. In fact the last decades of the 19th century and the first two of the twentieth marked, in the field of piety, almost a rebirth of all the “springs of the heart” which are the essential elements of Catholic piety and in particular of popular piety. This development of devotional practices was a reaction to what was called the “Catholic Enlightenment” which, while trying to cleanse piety and worship of superstition, had in reality re-introduced a kind of Jansenism. Encouraged and promoted by the spirit of St Alfonso Maria de Liguori – in terms of a return to God’s mercy, the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary – this development brought missions, people and a consolidation of demonstrative actions (such as new liturgical festivities, acts of consecration, pilgrimages) which played a fundamental part in the spiritual journey of Mother Maria Candida. The devotional development of those years had two major characteristics: a conservative consciousness in defence of a faith more and more exposed to dangers and derision; and a subjectivism, pertaining to the Romantic current, which gradually personalised religion, turning it into nourishment for the feelings of believers. It was in this general climate that devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary greatly developed. At the turn of the century on 31 December 1899, Leon XIII committed mankind to the Sacred Heart, an act which Pius IX had cautiously refused to do though urged by at least five hundred bishops. Moreover, in no fewer than nine encyclicals and apostolic letters, Leon XIII warmly recommended saying the rosary. Marian devotion thus became the starting point for a widespread sentimentalism in prayers and chants, nourished by a general need of maternal protection, which unfortunately led believers somewhat astray from reality. Devotion to the Eucharist retained a subjective character for a long time, despite collective demonstrations such as Visits to the Most Holy Sacrament, the Forty Hours Solemn Eucharistic Devotion and the Corpus Christi Procession. At the same time, Eucharistic Congresses came into existence through Marie Marthe Tamisier and Monsignor Gaston de Ségur, aimed at promoting the encounter between the souls and the Eucharist, in contrast with the Jansenist rigour which still dominated the Church. But this was bound to be a long, difficult struggle. Only Pius X achieved this aim when, on 20 December 1905, he promulgated the decree on daily Communion according to which two basic conditions were sufficient in order to be able to receive the Eucharist, namely, a state of grace and good intention. It was an exhortation to believers to receive the Most Holy Sacrament frequently and, if possible, daily. We can easily understand the admiration of Mother Maria Candida for this Pope when, as we have seen, she was blessed with the opportunity to be privately received by him with her family.

In this context, we cannot help mentioning the truly Christian example of St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), the young Carmelite from Lisieux, who was brought up in a middle-class family so profoundly Christian that four daughters were allowed to enter a Carmelite convent, while the parents, Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin, are now Venerables of the Church – an extraordinary example. The Story of a Soul, published in France one year after the death of Thérèse, had an incredible, lasting success, and by the beginning of the 20th century it could be read in Italy as well. The attitude towards faith, cultivated by the spirituality of the time, was radically changed by Thérèse, a prophet of God’s merciful Love. Thérèse invited all the “little souls” to have complete trust in Jesus’ infinite mercy. Hence the insistence, typical of her renowned “little way”, on trust in mercy as a key to justification and sanctification. In the last months of her life, tormented by the “night” of the trial of faith, a consequence of her lack of faith at that time, Thérèse offered this experience to all souls, sinners and unbelievers. Since the age of fourteen she had felt like a “fisher of souls” and “consumed by the thirst for souls”, and had in fact entered Carmel to save the souls and pray for the priests. In 1896, she understood that the perfect place for her was “the heart of the Church”, the mother to whom she gave all her love in order carry on the work of the apostles. Thérèse, therefore, reminds Christians of all times that faith is a light in the night and the faith in God is an effective remedy against the anxiety of life. Thérèse teaches us how to express our love for God through “the little practical things of our daily life”, these “mere nothings” which become “flowers” and are capable of giving our life a missionary and apostolic significance. The extraordinary posthumous spread of her spirituality, demonstrates how beneficial her message has been from the end of the 19th century up to the present day. John Paul II proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church on 19 October 1997.[19] Mother Maria Candida herself was conquered by little Thérèse, as well as by Mother Marie Ange of the Infant Jesus, the only modern Carmelite nun mentioned in the manuscript on the Eucharist.

[1] There is a first printing of the manuscript on the Eucharist (Palermo 1979), edited by the Discalced Carmelites of Ragusa.
[2] It was Father Antonio Matera of the Conventuals of Palermo who requested a written general confession, partly published with the title Nella stanza del mio cuore. Scritti autobiografici, edited by the Discalced Carmelites of Siracusa-Belvedere, with an introduction by Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero OCD and, in an appendix, the wonderful essay by Marie Therese Huber on Mother Maria Candida’s mystic language, L’affettività in madre Maria Candida dell’Eucaristia (Torino 1989).
[3] Edited by the Discalced Carmelites of Ragusa (Palermo 1980).
[4] Edited by the Discalced Carmelites of Ragusa (Palermo 1980).
[5] Edited by the Discalced Carmelites of Ragusa (Palermo 1949).
[6] Cf. the beautiful book by Matteo Collura, Sicilia sconosciuta. Itinerari insoliti e curiosi, with photographs by Giovanni Leone, Rizzoli, Milano 1997, and the equally significant book Cento Sicilie edited by Gesualdo Bufalino and Nunzio Zago, La Nuova Italia, Firenze 1993.
[7] Quoted in, and translated from, L. Accattoli, Karol Wojtyla. L’uomo di fine millennio, San Paolo, Cisinello Baslamo 1998, p.198.
[8] Literally “the stuff”, i.e. material things, cf. Giovanni Verga (translator’s note).
[9] Apart from Maria, Giovanna and Pietro Barba had eleven other children, five of whom did not survive the first months of life. The others were Luisa (1870-1943), Stefano (1874-1949), cardiologist, professor at the University of Palermo, Cristoforo (1876-1929), Councillor at the Court of Appeal, Giuseppina (1880-1944), Antonietta (1887-1968) and Paolo Francesco (1890-1911), law student. As we will see, Stefano and Cristoforo, the eldest brothers, were the strongest opponents to Maria’s religious vocation.
[10] The Collegio di Maria “Giusino” still exists and includes an elementary and a high school. Located near Palermo Cathedral, the college was founded by Donna Giuseppa Tetamo Giusino in 1787, with the intention of helping the poor. The nuns conform to the Constitutions of Cardinal Pietro Marcellino Corradini which can be summed up as  “prayer and teaching”.
[11] Letter of 31 March 1920, in Scritti della Serva di Dio madre Maria Candida dell’Eucaristia. Vol. VIII Lettere dirette a Sacerdoti e secolari, Documents typed for the Ordinary Beatification Trial, pp. 76-78.
[12] Don Giorgio La Perla often accompanied the nuns to the foundation of the convents of Chiaromonte Gulfi, Enna, Vizzini and Siracusa. His mortal remains rest directly opposite those of Mother Maria Candida of the Eucharist, in the church of the Ragusa Carmel, where they were brought in 1971. The idea of starting a beatification trial for him has often been suggested (cf. Un prete nelle braccia di Dio, biography edited by the Discalced Carmelites of Siracusa, Siracusa 1971).
[13] Letter of 22 August 1923, in Scritti della Serva di Dio madre Maria Candida dell’Eucaristia. Vol. VIII. Lettere dirette a Sacerdoti e a secolari, cit., pp. 90-91.
[14] Quoted in C. Mezzasalma, Nel roveto ardente. Madre Maria Candida dell’Eucaristia, Cultura Nuova, Firenze 1993, p. 74.
[15] Cf. ibidem p.74.
[16] Mother Immaculate Mary of St Joseph (Naples 1880- Enna 1968)
[17] Cf. F. Gaeta, La crisi di fine secolo e l’età giolittiana, Ed TEA Milano 1982, pp. 3-40.
[18] Cf. R. Aubert, I cattolici alla morte di Pio IX, in A. Fliche – V. Martin, Storia della Chiesa. Vol. XXII/1. La Chiesa e la società industriale, p 56 ff.
[19] Cf. “Teresa di Gesù Bambino” by C. De Meester in Dizionario di mistica, LEV, Roma 1998, pp. 1212-1213.


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