By Fr. Fernando Fornerod, FDP
Saint Luis Orione (1872-1940) had “a heart which knew no boundaries,” loving everyone everywhere. Indeed, his life contributed to making our world a place with room for all, especially those suffering from neglect. In this article we set the figure of the Founder alongside “Les Miserables,” the famous book written in the nineteenth century by the French novelist Victor Hugo, which was one of the literary expressions of romanticism, and a critique of the bourgeois society of those times.
In the introductory note to one of the Spanish versions, we read “No writer of the century provided a greater service to the cause of social justice than Hugo. Nobody, in any country, acted with greater political independence and selflessness to create a sense of human solidarity’.” and then, “Victor Hugo was involved with all forms of government, the advocate of all the disinherited, all the unfortunate of all nations or oppressed individuals; the infallible impulse by which he either proposed or supported social reforms was always great pity.”
The abandoned of every time
In the plot of “Les Misérables,” you can find fascinating expressions, both in the literary style and the message. But there is a scene in the second book of the novel, which undoubtedly inspired Don Orione to write one of his most beautiful pages on “The Little Cottolengo of Argentina.” This is the scene of the dialogue between Bishop Myriel and the convict Jean Valjean. The latter was seeking refuge after having been released, and he met with only aggression and rejection from the inhabitants of that village.
“Worn out with fatigue, and no longer entertaining any hope, he lay down on a stone bench which stood at the doorway of this printing office. At that moment an old woman came out of the church. She saw the man stretched out in the shadow. “What are you doing there, my friend?” said she.
He answered harshly and angrily: “As you see, my good woman, I am sleeping.” The good woman, who well deserved the description, was in fact the Marquise de R-
“On this bench?” she went on (…)
“I have knocked on all the doors.”
“I have been driven away everywhere.”
The “good woman” touched the man’s arm, and pointed to a small, low house on the other side of the street, beside the Bishop’s palace.
“Have you knocked at that one?”
So he went to the place indicated by the old woman. The bishop, who was at dinner with his sister and his housekeeper, heard somebody knocking on the door of his house and, without asking who was there, gave permission to enter. The women, seeing the figure emerging from the darkness, were as silent and motionless as statues.
The Bishop, with calm eyes, heard from the convict’s lips all the vicissitudes that he had suffered looking for a place to sleep, and ordered a room to be prepared for the newly arrived visitor. Then, turning to his housekeeper, he said:
“Madame Magloire (…) set another place (…). While he was speaking, the Bishop had gone and shut the door, which had remained wide open. Madame Magloire returned, bringing a silver spoon and fork, which she placed on the table.
“Madame Maglorie”, said the Bishop, “place those as near the fire as possible.” And turning to his guest: “The night wind is harsh in the Alps. You must be cold, sir.”
Each time that he uttered the word “sir” in his gently grave and polished voice, the man’s face lighted up. To a convict, to be called “Monsieur” is like a glass of water to one of the shipwrecked of the Medusa. Ignominy thirsts for consideration.
“This lamp gives a very bad light,” said the bishop.
Madame Magliore understood him, and went to get the two silver candlesticks from the chimney-piece in Monseigneur’s bed-chamber, and placed them, lighted, on the table.
“Monsieur le Cure,” said the man, “you are good, you do not despise me. You received me into your house. You lighted your candles for me. Yet I have not concealed from you whence I come and that I am an unfortunate man.”
The Bishop, who was sitting close to him, gently touched his hand. “You did not need to tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is the house of Jesus Christ. This door does not demand of him who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has a grief. You suffer, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And do not thank me; do not say that I received you into my house. No one is at home here, except the man who needs a refuge. I say to you who are passing by that you are much more at home here than I am myself. Everything here is yours. What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me, you had one which I knew.”
The man opened his eyes in astonishment.
“Really? You knew what I was called?”
“Yes,” replied the Bishop,” you are called my brother.”
|Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean|
We can, indeed, see in Victor Hugo’s text the inspiration for Don Orione’s famous passage about the "The Little Cottolengo of Argentina":
“Thanks be to God! Trusting in Divine Providence, in the generous heart of the Argentineans and in every person of good will, we are beginning in Buenos Aires, in the Name of God and with the blessing of the Church, a most humble Work of faith and charity, which is intended to provide shelter, food and comfort to the “desemparados,” those abandoned people who have been unable to find help and shelter with other charitable Institutions.
The Work draws life and spirit from the love of Christ, and its name from St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, who was an Apostle and Father of the poorest of the poor.
At the door of the Little Cottolengo no-one asks the names of those wishing to enter, but only whether they are suffering.
“Charitas Christi urged nos” [We are driven by Christ’s love. 2nd Corinthians 4]. How greatly the generous souls who assist us in relieving the sufferings and lessening the misery of those wretched people treated as outcasts by society will be blessed by God and our beloved poor!”
|Little Cottolengo of Argentina|
There are other testimonies that tell us that Don Orione had read “Les Misérables,” but that he also admired some of the expressions in the French novel. He wrote a letter, of which only the draft was kept, possibly addressed to a mother who was concerned about the situation of her son, who was causing her suffering, encouraging her to stand firm in faith and recognize God's comfort. Immediately afterwards, he made an analogy between her circumstances and those described by the French writer in the book:
“I have always been struck by the venerable figure of the bishop, portrayed by Victor Hugo in the first two books of “Les Misérables.” He knew how to draw from the abyss, and bring comfort and salvation to the convict Jean Valjean, careful to avoid preaching at him with any word which might sound reproachful or tinged with morality or advice.
How sublime is the divine love of Jesus Christ!
And how great is the church in that Bishop!”
But elsewhere Don Orione went a step further: in the episode of Bishop Myriel’s meeting with Jean Valjean in that house, our Founder identifies the bishop with the one who made his "Little House" everyone’s:
“In “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo, in the scene about the convict, who was refused entry by every single inn, who saw every door slammed in his face, who was threatened with a gun when he begged for a glass of water, and who even had a dog kennel thrown at him. In the end, however, on the advice of an old woman who was leaving the church, he knocked at Monsignor Myriel’s door and heard the words: "Come in!"And the Bishop, who greeted and hugged him, welcomed him as a brother, offering him the kindest hospitality. "But I did not tell you my name” – cried the convict – “my name which terrifies everyone. And you do not drive me away?” – And Mgsr. Myriel replied –“ This house does not belong to me, but to Jesus Christ, and that door does not ask the one who enters if he has a name, but if he is suffering.”
“Les Misérables” was published in 1866, but the door it speaks of was to be found in Torino 35 years before that.
Victor Hugo had described it as an ideal, a dream, but it had actually come true, because at the Cottolengo, nobody is asked if they have a name, but only if they are suffering.
And at that door Victor Hugo would surely have repeated the convict’s remark: "What a wonderful thing a good priest is!"
And Blessed [Joseph Benedict] Cottolengo was a good priest!”
|St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo|
Ever since he was young, Don Orione had admired the figure and work of Joseph Benedict (1786-1842). In fact, while he was still at the Salesian Oratory in Valdocco, he used to pass by the "Little House" of Turin, a place that held a special attraction for him.
The Cottolengo: a Home for the Abandoned
In October 1934, Don Orione sailed from Genoa to Buenos Aires, staying in Latin America until August 1937. During that long period of time, he launched some very decisive activities in favor of the abandoned and the outcast, among which the most outstanding was the foundation of “The Little Cottolengo of Argentina" in Buenos Aires in April 1935. These are his thoughts:
"O Jesus, to this world you really were treated as refuse, and thus our dear poor of the Little Cottolengo resemble you in a way. O Jesus, your first people rejected you and refused to welcome you! You became the great Rejected One. You had but a cave, open to the winds: You are the First among the poor of the Cottolengo”
Therefore, the "Little Cottolengo" and its "refuse" are a metaphor for God’s comprehensive love, embracing the whole of history, touching and transforming all humankind, and converting a mass of individuals into his very own people: the People of God.
“Belonging to the Cottolengo” is a parable for the state of suffering in which a person lives, but which, in Christ, is radically transformed into a source of life.
And the church has become an instrument of God's Providence, standing close to all those who suffer, a mission which it must never forsake.
Don Orione, especially in the years he spent in Latin America, had a deep understanding of this, so that he did not hesitate to give his life to it. For him, anyone who wants to participate in the construction of a new humanity, not only has to serve Jesus in the poor, but must want to live as his Lord did, sharing the fate of the "abandoned and the outcast."
The providential face of God is like that "good woman" who, as she left the church, saw the man lying in the shadow, rejected by all, and pointed out the house of the bishop as a safe place.
Providence is the one which will point out to us the doors that we have to open to let into our lives the way of paternal and maternal love, which will truly lead to a homeland for all.