Antonio Rosmini – Serbati, founder of the Institute of Charity, was born on 24 March 1797 at Rovereto in the Italian Tyrol. His parents were rich and of noble sescint. Antonio was one of three children; he had an elder sister Margarita and a younger brother Giuseppe.
Antonio was brought up in a religious atmosphere and was by nature a serious and bookish child. On one occasion he was found in the library at home reading St. Thomas and received a hefty biff on the head with the tome. His tutor deemed the work quite unsuitable for one so young. He was only eight1 He was a voracious reader and by the age of 11 he made two resolutions; to finish every book he started and always to take notes.
He graduated from school in 1814 at the age of 17. As a preparation for University, has started to study philosophy and mathematics. Antonio had been brought up on the philosophy of Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He soon crossed swords with his teacher who tried to substitute the contemporary German philosopher Kant for the traditional masters. Antonio writes that he ”bodily attached philosophical problems with the daring of youth”.
At the age of 17 Antonio announced to his family that he wanted to become priest. This caused a crisis because he was the eldest son and heir to the family’s rich estate. Every effort was made to dissuade him but to no avail. He decided to study at the University of Padua where he impressed all around him by his goodness and learning.
During four years of study at Padua he collected a great number of books and his letters are full of pleas to his family for money to buy manuscripts and books. When he returned one summer to Rovereto he unpacked two tons of them.
Antonio had an alert, receptive, critical and wide ranging mind. We may conjecture that he had a photographic memory. But his interests were not only academic. He attracted a wide circle of friends. He started a learned docilely at Rovereto where for the first time since the 16th century the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas was studied. With the enthusiasm of youth he conceived an ambitious scheme for Society of Friends who was to spread the Christian religion among their fellow citizens. They would have libraries and printing presses, bring out an encyclopaedia and build laboratories for science. This plan came to nothing but it gives us a glimpse of the energy and vision which drove him.
Institute of Charity
Rosmini was ordained priest in 1821. Meanwhile his sister Margarita had opened an orphanage at Rovereto. She learned of the work of St Maddalena di Canossa, founder of the Canossan Sisters, and sought her advice. Antonio took his sister to see her. The meeting was providential; Margarita herself joined the Canossan Sisters, and St. Maddalena pressed Antonio to start an Institute which would of for boys what she was doing for girls. Rosmini’s ideas were more general, but under her influence he agreed, if the time was ripe, to found an Institute not adapted for any particular work but for all works of charity.
The opportunity arose during 1827. At the house of a mutual friend, Count Mellerio who had property in Domodossola, he met a French missionary priest, Abbe Jean Loewenbruck, a zealous man who expressed ideas similar to his own. They decided to meditate together and pray for God’s guidance. They chose the sanctuary for Monte Calvario, on thespur of the Alps at Domodossola, now the mother house of the Rosminians. The plan was to spend the Lent of 1828 together there.
The house was bitterly cold and damp and scarcely weather-proof. Alpine winters are very severe and Antonio was never strong in health. He took with him two companions, a secretary and a servant who acted as cook. Ominously Lowwenbruck failed to turn up.
During this time of retreat Rosmini wrote the Constitutions of the Institute of Charity, and also his most fundamental work of spirituality, the Maxims of Christian Perfection. Over the next ten years he was to spend most of his time at Monte Calvario. There he composed his New Essay on the Origin of Ideas, Treatise on Moral Conscience, Principles of Moral Science, Supernatural Anthropology and The Five Wounds of the Church.
Eventually one or two companions joined him including Loewenbruck. In November Rosmini left Loewenbruck in charge of the little community and went to Rome to consult his friend Cardinal Cappellari about the embryo Institute whether they should continue and would the Constitutions be approved? He also wanted to publish his first major philosophical work, the New Essay on the Origin of Ideas. This was the first of a flood of philosophical works flowing from his pen during the next 25 years.
Pope Pius VIII received him kindly and encouraged him to writ. That was hi vocation, the Pope insisted. He recommended him to start the Institute in a small way. Only after receiving the support of local bishops should he seek approval for the Constitutions in Rome. While Rosmini was there he met the brilliant lawyer, Luigi Gentili, who would later join him and lead the Rosminian mission to England.
Opposition from the Austrians
In 1830 Rosmini had to return to his native Rovereto because at that time the Italian Tyrol was under the control of a very authoritarian Austrian Government, and the authorities were reluctant to let prominent citizens leave their territory. He had to have a passport to go to Rome and even to Piedmont which was then an independent kingdom. His relations with the Austrian Government would plague Rosmin throughout his life. Because he favoured the cause of Italian unity he was a marked man, seen as unreliable and a ”pappalist”.
In 1931 he was asked to open a house in Trent, a city under Austrian control, near Rovereto. The omens were not good. The work would have to be approved by the Austrian Emperor and the local bishop would control the foundation. Rosmini went ahead but ultimately government discouragement was matched by that this work prospered Rosmini was told that his work could not go on unless it was completely under the bishop. He was forced to abandon the project.
He was also asked by the townspeople of Rovereto to be their parish priests. He agreed to undertake the task for a year. The Austrian authorities again interfered. They did not like citizens meeting in the evening and mingling social life with prayer. These meetings were banned and after more aggravation Rosmini gave up and handed in his resignation. The Austrian authorities were hostile to any Institutes that had relations with other houses outside their territories.
Approval of the Institute of Charity.
In 1835 Cardinal Castracane, another of Rosmini’s lifelong friends, suggested it was time to apply for Papal approval of the Constitutions. But there were many difficulties. Antonio sent an agent to Rome to open negotiations with Holy See, The examination went on for two years. One big sticking point was his concept of poverty which was quite new. He wished members of the Institute to be able to own property legally although individuals could not make use of property except under Religious obedience. The Institute as a body would own nothing; everything would be held legally by individuals.
This idea was strongly opposed. Rosmini was aware the accumulation of property by Orders in the past had given reset to great scandals. Individual ownership was also protection against governments which might seek to confiscate property owned by Religious Orders. Another innovation was that the Institute would not have its own school of philosophy or theology but that members should follow courses at Catholic Universities and seminaries. This was, after all, the world they would have to work in.
Opposition among the consulters was finally overcome. In December 1838 the Institute and its Rule were approved exempt from Episcopal jurisdiction. This is contained in the Apostolic Letters dated September 20th 1839. The Constitutions were never approved.
By this time there was a flourishing mission in England sent there in 1835. On 25 March 1839 20 members took vows at Monte Calvario, while members in England made theirs at the hands of the local bishop. Loewenbruck was missing: he had disappeared in France without trace. His departure distressed Rosmini, but he would see him again when Loewenbruck met him in Rome. In later years Loewenbruck stayed in a Rosminian house in France after Rosmin’s death and used to speak of the time when he lived with the ”saint.”
The Institute of Charity
Rosminians see Ash Wednesday 1828 as the birthday of the Institute. Rosmini went to Monte Calvario at the beginning of Lent that year, and during his time of solitude he wrote the first draft of Constitutions of the Institute of Charity. At that time also he wrote the Maxims of Christian Perfection which forms the basis of his ascetical writing.
The Institute takes its name from charity and consists of faithful Christians who wish to fulfil as perfectly as possible the Lord’s own precept to love God above all things and their neighbours as themselves. Many founders of Religious Orders have special inspirations and their Congregations are founded to meet special needs. Rosmini had no such inspiration. Yet the themes of personal sanctification and work for one’s neighbour are common to all Religious foundations. Rosmini drew freely on the asceticism of the great founders.
In particular he admired St Augustine for his fusion of the contemplation and active life; St Ignatius for his power of organisation and his practicality; and St Francis of Sales for his spirit of gentleness, charity and common sense. These, he said, were the real founders of the Institute of Charity.
Charity towards God and neighbour demands that members of the Institute seek to become more holy: or in Rosmini’s term, more ”just”. For this the grace of Jesus Christ is necessary. The Institute relies solely on the Providence of God and not on human means in its service of the Church. The Church is Christ’s instrument of all good. The Institute is the handmaid of the Church and its actions must never conflict with it. Its existence is not necessary for the Church.
The preferred state of members of the Institute is one of prayer and contemplation. Only when the Lord calls through providential signs will the Institute embark on works of charity. Such signs are the manifest needs of others and the will of the Church expressed through bishops and especially through the Pope. Then the Institute must respond if it has the appropriate personnel and resources. So long as these continue, a work begun will not be relinquished.
Rosmini envisaged the Institute as being of great service to the Church. The scope of its charity is universal. No work of charity, corporal, intellectual or pastoral is excluded. In general terms the Institute is ready for anything, but once the nature of the work is made manifest it concentrates on equipping its members for that particular work.
For those members in the Institute bound by vows the professed members this universal charity is directed by universal obedience. This means being ready, at least as far as their intention is concerned, to undertake any task asked of them by their superior. Rosmini adopted St Ignatius’ term indifference, which means being ready without preferences to obey any call that may come form the Providence of God. This indifference extends even to the priesthood.
Those seeking to enter the Institute are asked whether they desire to become indifferent in this sense. Are thy willing to accept a position without prestige, a difficult or arduous apostolate, ill-health or a shortened life; will they accept a job which is hard and unattractive if that is what God wants of them? This does not preclude dialogue or discernment between the Religious and the Superior, who is obliged to consider the dispositions and talents of those entrusted to his care. Nevertheless the final decision for placing a Religious is in the hands of those who govern him or her.
The basis of the charisma of the Sisters of Providence is also universal charity and therefore they can accept any kind of work for the people of God. But their main apostolate has always been in education. They are also engaged in the parish apostolate, prison work, work with the homeless, with the blind and work in hospices.
A person seeking to become a Rosminian is first admitted to a period of postulancy: seeking to become a disciple of Jesus Christ according to the spirit of Rosmini. Meanwhile the Institute assesses the faith and psychological maturity of the postulant whether God is truly calling this person to the Institute. Postulancy lasts not less than three months and not more than two years.
The postulants enter the novitiate. This is a period of more demanding prayer, self – denial, reading and mediation on the Scriptures, being prepared for the worship of God in the sacred liturgy and formed for the demands of a life consecrated to God. They are taught about the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, and the spirit and life of the Institute. The novitiate normally lasts for two years. During the first year the novice is not employed in study or work which has no direct bearing n formation.
On completing the novitiate the Religious takes temporary vows. These are for three years and may be renewed annually for another three. There is a time of special preparation before asking final vows, when the Religious deepen their understanding of what it means to be Disciples of Christ and intensify their daily commitment to follow him in the Institute of Charity.
By taking perpetual vows Religious become coadjutors of the Institute. They will normally be members of a Rosminian community, but some may live outside religious houses so as to be freer in the exercise of charity, but in dependence on the superiors of the Institute. Some priests are chosen by the General of the Institute to take a fourth vow of special obedience to the Pope. They bind themselves to accept any mission in the service of the Church: these are called presbyters.
The society is not confined to professed members in vows. It includes also those who wish to be part of it through a spiritual bond sharing in its life.These are called Ascribed Members. They have their rules, and Rosmini envisages a postulancy for them too. Ascribed Members are true members of the Institute: they are not simply associates.
Some who would be disposed to take vows but for some reason are unable to do so, may become Adoptive Sons and Daughters of the Institute.
GROWTH OF THE INSTITUTE
The mother house of the Institute is Monte Calvario at Domodossola, situated at the foot of the Alps on the border of Italy and Switzerland. Monte Calcario is now a novitiate and a centre for spirituality. There is also a college at Domodossola, the Collegio Mellerio Rosmini. This was built in 1873, taking the place of a school handed over to the Institute by Count Mellerio in 1837.
Another college, Collegio Rosmini, is situated at nearby Strasa on Lago Maggiore. Here also is Casa Bolongaro, a large house left to Rosmini by the Countess Bolongaro and used by him in his last years. This house has not always been in Rominian hands, and since 1966 it has been the International Centre of Rosminian Studies.
Several early foundations had to be closed in Rosminian’s lifetime because of the political situation with Austria. They were the foundation at Trent in 1830, the parish of San Zeno in Verona, closed in 1849, and the parish of San Marco in Rovereto abandoned in 1835. The Institute still retains the Palazzo Rosmini in Rovereto, where Rosmini was born, and there is also a school.
In 1836 Charles Albert, king of Piedmont, offered Rosmini San Michele della Chusa, a vast deserted XI century monastery with a rich history, situated on a mountain peak 2000 feet above the valley floor between Turin and Susa. King Charles Albert wished t restore this sanctuary as a burial place for members of the Royar Family. It was agreed that the Holy See be asked to make over the monastery to Rosmini and his successors. It became first a novitiate and later a headquarters for missionary priests, but eventually the property of the monastery was sequestrated. A small community still lives there. It is designated a national monument by the State.
A school in Turin the Istituto Rosmini, completes the schools in Italy. There are also parishes in Milan, Trapan in Sicily, in Calabria, and in and about Rome. San Carlo al Corso, church of the Lombard community in Rome, was accepted y the Rosminias in 1906. San Giovanni A Porta Latina, one of the ancient Roman basilicas, was built in the 5th century and completely rebuilt in the 12th. The Rosminians took charge of it in 1937. Adjoining is the Collegio Missionario Antonio Rosmini, an international house of studies. It also houses the Generalitial Curia and is thus the centtral house of the Rosminian order.
In many of the apostolate in Italy the Sisters of Providence work alongside the brethren. The mother house of the Sisters is at Borgomanero. This house was opened in 1856. In addition they have several schools. There are active groups of Ascribed Members associated with many of the house.
England was the first recipient of Italian missionaries. The story of the English mission is inseparable form the story of Luigi Gentili. When Rosmini was in Rome in 1828 he met this young Roman lawyer, aged 28 a tall, dark and handsome man who was a great social success in Rome. He had a degree in both civil and canon law. Gentili had fallen in love with a Miss Mendoza, ward of Bishop Baines, coadjutor to the Vicar Apostolic of the Western District in England. Alas, the young lady was removed from his company and he was disappointed and humiliated.
So he turned his back on the world towards a more spiritual life, and was accepted by the Jesuits. III health prevented him form joining them. He went to see Rosmini and asked if he could become a Rosminian.
Rominian arranged that Gentili should study for priesthood at the Irish College in Rome. He was ordained in 1830 and by this time had received many offers for his services, including one from Bishop Baines in England. First Gentili went to Monte Calvario, zealously entering into the novitiate life there. He developed a profound respect for Rosmini, and imbibed is work and asceticism with intelligence and conviction. He also had a priceless asset he could preach with flair and assurance. And he was a good cool! This talented Religious became the spearhead of the English mission.
From various requests Rosmini accepted Bishop Baines. Rosmini saw these invitations as signs of Providence and he himself was favourably disposed towards the English nation. Bishop Baines was an awkward character. At first he was delighted with the obedient, willing Rosminians. Gentili was put in charge of the college at Prior Park, near Bathe in southern England. When however two of Bishop Baine’s best young men asked to be admitted into the Institute of Charity, this was too much for Baines who removed Gentili from is post.
Rosmini then sent Gentili to Grace Dieu in Leicensteshire in the English midlands. Gentili was present at Grace Dieu for two years 1840-2 as chaplain to the landowner, Ambrose Philips. He gained several hundred converts in the surrounding countryside, saw to the building of Ratcliffe College (1842), destined first to be a novitiate, He also established the Sisters of Providence. The Sisters came to England in 1843.
He began to preach public missions in 1843, and innovation in England which was just emerging from three centuries of persecution of Catholicism. He went to Ireland several times and ended his labours during a mission in Dublin dying of ‘famine fever’ in 1848. He wore himself out in innumerable missions and became better known than any other Catholic figure save Wiseman and Newman