Apostle of Devotion to His Most Precious Blood: St. Gaspar del Bufalo
No! the chastisements of God are not yet at an end; still more sorrowful times are ahead; and divine justice will be placated by the devotion to the Blood of Jesus Christ.
The world can still set itself right and always will be able to, because the voice and blood of Christ cry out for pity and mercy . . . Devotion to the Precious Blood is the devotion of our time . . . It is a devotion for all souls, for the whole world.
These quotations are so homogeneous in thought and spirit that one may well be pardoned for thinking that they were spoken by the same person, perhaps even on the same occasion. Actually they were uttered more than a century apart by two different men, each aflame with love for the Precious Blood. The first quotation is from a sermon of St. Gaspar del Bufalo, hailed by Pope John XXIII in his closing address to the Roman Synod of 1960 as "the world's greatest apostle of the devotion to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus." The latter is from Pope John, who has evidenced his great interest in and his zealous promotion of the devotion by approving the new Precious Blood Litany, by inserting the invocation "Blessed Be His Most Precious Blood" in the Divine Praises, and by publishing his Apostolic Letter Inde a Primis in honor of the Redeeming Blood.
Pope John's role in promoting devotion to the Precious Blood is as familiar to most as the marvels of the space age. But who is this St. Gaspar who in his love for the Precious Blood anticipated Pope John by some hundred years? What part did he play in fostering the devotion? What was his personal attitude to the devotion and to its place in Catholic life?
The day of St. Gaspar's ordination to the priesthood, July 31, 1808 he was then twenty-two years old marked the beginning of an unrelenting crusade to spread devotion to the Precious Blood which would extend to his dying day. Now he himself could offer the "chalice of salvation"; now he could serve as one of the "stewards of the mysteries" of the mysterium fidei. In this crusade he was greatly encouraged and assisted in the early years by Canon Francisco Albertini, a saintly priest assigned to the Basilica of St. Nicola in Carcere in Rome. For Albertini also was a devotee of the Precious Blood. By centering the attention of the people on a relic of the Precious Blood preserved in the Basilica a cloth stained with the Blood he hoped to stir them up to a greater love for God and to a desire for their own salvation. As a vehicle for furthering these ends, he and Gaspar founded the Confraternity of the Most Precious Blood, an organization of the faithful dedicated to the sanctification of its members and to the spread of devotion to the Precious Blood. To Gaspar, not yet ordained a year, Albertini assigned the joyous task of preaching the festive sermon on the occasion of the Confraternity's opening.
Years of Exile
But the crusade so auspiciously begun was to be hobbled for several years. About this time Napoleon, riding the crest of his glory, was bent on expanding his empire. On June 10, 1809, he annexed the Papal States and Rome itself to his empire. Retribution, in the form of a papal bull of excommunication, followed swiftly. But instead of bringing about the amendment of the tyrant, the bull served only to galvanize his hatred against the Church. Having forcibly seized the Pope, Napoleon next turned his attention to the clergy, from whom he attempted to extract an oath of loyalty to himself. In June of 1810, Gaspar was one of those cited before the civil usurpers. His uncompromising refusal to kowtow before the threats of this new Caesar ("I would rather die or suffer any evil than take such an oath. I cannot, I will not, I must not.") recalls to mind the heroic stand of a Mindszenty or a Wyszynski.
The inevitable result of Gaspar's holy intransigence was banishment from Rome to Piacenza, a city about two hundred and fifty miles to the north. There the damp and harsh climate, the rigors of exile from Rome, the vestiges of previous illnesses (Gaspar had never been known for his robust health) all conspired to bring him to the brink of death. Apprised of his physicians' verdict that they could not help him, Gaspar, solaced by the reception of Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction, resigned himself to death.
But the verdicts of men's councils do not bind God. As Gaspar awaited the final summons, Father Albertini, his fellow-exile and spiritual director, revealed to him a prophecy he had received from a certain Sister Mary Agnes of the Incarnate Word, a nun renowned for her sanctity. She had spoken of a "young man, zealous for the glory of God, who in evil times should be under his [Albertini's] spiritual direction. He is destined to become an apostolic missionary; he will found a new congregation of missionary priests under the title of the Divine Blood, for the reform of morals and the salvation of souls. He will draw the people from indifference and unbelief and attract all to a love for Christ crucified. In an evil day he will be the trumpet of the Precious Blood and will vanquish sinners and sectaries." To the amazement of all, Gaspar slowly regained his health. It was to be several years, however, before the prophecy would be fulfilled.
With the coming of September, 1812, the civil authorities made another attempt to get all the exiled priests (those who had refused to cooperate in 1810) to pawn their souls to Napoleon. However, despite every effort to sway him through the promises of a position of honor, through blandishments, and even through threats of death, Gaspar remained adamant. The result was condemnation to prison, where he was subjected to cramped and filthy quarters, insufficient and unappetizing food, constant surveillance and harassment by the prison authorities.
In the meantime the star of Napoleon was waning; his hold on Italy was all but broken. Finally in the early days of 1814, all the exiled and imprisoned priests were set free.
Return to Rome
Once back in Rome, Gaspar took up again the round of apostolic works which he had had to abandon when expelled four years earlier. In a short time his brilliance as a preacher and his contagious zeal catapulted him before the eyes of the papal curia. Cardinal Fontana offered him a position in the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, a position which ordinarily would open the way to diplomatic service in the Church. Even bishoprics were offered to him. But all these he avoided, never being one to seek position or honor.
There is no way of knowing precisely, but it may have been these insistent offers of ecclesiastical plums which induced Gaspar to seek entrance at this time into the Society of Jesus, recently permitted to renew its work. At any rate, he and a friend, Father Carlo Odescalchi, were accepted by the Jesuit superior in Rome. What was their amazement when, before they had the opportunity to enter the novitiate, Pius VII summoned both of them. He had other plans for them. Father Odescalchi was to be made a prelate, and Gaspar was to do home missionary work.
Convinced that the directive of the Holy Father was but the vehicle of God's will, Gaspar took up his new assignment with his customary zeal. With the assurance of a small annual income from the Holy Father, he set up his headquarters in the town of Giano some distance from Rome. Now that he was again in the thick of priestly ministrations, the desire to promote devotion to the Precious Blood expressed itself in the determination to found a missionary group devoted to furthering this devotion. Having secured the placet of the local bishop and of the Holy Father, he gathered together the nucleus of his fledgling institute in Giano's church of St. Felix on the feast of Mary's Assumption, 1815.
Early Trials of the Society
The works of God and the men of God are tempered in the fire of opposition and persecution. Gaspar and his newly founded society were no exception. The greater Gaspar's success in converting sinners, the more violent the antagonism to his work. This was particularly the case in his work among the banditti (the gangsters of the day) of the Papal States. As one of his biographers states: "The conversion of the bandit region not only awakened the bitter opposition of the unregenerate for whom the good is the bitterest reproach, but it robbed many a private citizen and many an official of the drippings of graft and corruption."
By June, 1822, official Rome was resounding to the howls of calumnies against Gaspar and his followers. Cardinal Consalvi, Papal Secretary of State, received the following letter from Msgr. Carlo Pedicini, secretary of the Propaganda:
There is supposed to be an organization bearing the name and title "Most Precious Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ," whose members are said to go from diocese to diocese acting as if they were empowered to work for the needs of the Propaganda and to find new members for it. Throughout, they refuse to depend on the local Ordinaries and adduce as a reason for this independence the faculties they have received from the Propaganda. To what disorder this leads and what annoyance it causes the Ordinaries is not for us to say. But it is my duty to declare that they have not at all received from the Propaganda the missionary rights and much less have they received the right to concern themselves with the needs of the Propaganda and to pick those who are to work for it. It is likewise my duty to state that in the faculties sent to the missionaries by the aforesaid Congregation of the Propaganda there is always enjoined the dependence on the local Ordinaries; in consequence, the priests of the Most Precious Blood would be obliged to submit to them even if the mission, of which they falsely boast, were actually genuine.
When questioned about this report, those who were cited as its instigators, priests of the locality, indignantly denied it and attributed it to the work of the devil.
A year later, the death of Pope Pius VII (under whose patronage Gaspar had established the congregation) heralded the advent of further trials for the founder. Slanders against the saint and his followers continued to bombard the ears of the new pope, Leo XII. Taken in by these false reports, the Pope ordered some of them passed on to Gaspar. Among these were the accusations that the missionaries were "timid like mute dogs, not attached to authority, not living up to the principal motive of their foundation: the extirpation of brigandage." There was little Gaspar could do but bear the rebuffs in the spirit of faith, convinced, as he was to say later, that "it is not new in the Church that in the beginning a work of God be rejected, which on later examination must be recognized as from God."
Perhaps the greatest blow which Gaspar suffered during the pontificate of Leo XII, one which touched upon his beloved foundation more than upon himself, was the Holy Father's displeasure at the title "Congregation of the Most Precious Blood." It was occasioned by the following incident. Canon Betti, a member of Gaspar's group, secured the Pontiff's permission to dedicate his booklet The Director Directed to him. But when the Pope saw on the title page the words "Congregation of the Most Precious Blood," he ordered them struck out and the words "Most Holy Savior" substituted. Gaspar was heartsick. This was patently an official disavowal of his efforts to foster devotion to the Precious Blood. His only hope of redress was to plead personally his cause before the Pope.
Triumph and More Trials
The audience with Leo XII, obtained through the good offices of Cardinal Cristaldi, Gaspar's staunch friend in the Roman Curia, was not only a personal triumph for the founder, but also a complete vindication of his congregation and its beloved title. After listening to Gaspar answer the calumnies against himself and his institute and defend the title "Most Precious Blood," Leo XII asked to see the rule of the congregation.
"If, Your Holiness," replied Gaspar, handing him the rule, "command me to close all the houses of the Institute, I am ready to obey."
"And the missionaries," said the Pope, "will they obey?"
"Holy Father," came the reply, "at a word from you all are willing to fall at your feet."
The upshot of the whole audience was that Leo arose and embraced Gaspar, saying, "I understand why you have many enemies; but do not be alarmed; Leo XII is for you." When Gaspar was gone, the Pope remarked, "Canon del Bufalo is an angel."
But the respite was short lived. Trouble flared once again under Pius VIII, Leo XII's successor. The Pope, hoodwinked like his predecessors by the venomous tongues of detractors, withdrew the subsidy which the congregation was to receive as its means of support. This time Gaspar's meeting with the Holy Father only added salt to the wound. With the charity and understanding of a De Sales, he replied to a friend who had asked him the outcome of the audience: "The Pope did not receive me so well and reproached me sharply because evil charges were made against our community; we must sympathize with him; he was somewhat agitated because of the state of his health." Somewhat later the Pope, after reading a memorandum drawn up by Gaspar explaining the privileges received from Pius VII, relented and restored the subsidy.
As yet Gaspar had not succeeded in getting formal approval for the rule he had drawn up for the new community. Eager to do all according to the traditions and will of the Church, he appealed through Cardinal Odescalchi to Pope Gregory XVI, the successor of Pius VIII. The reply of the Cardinal was one of the greatest heartaches of Gaspar's life:
A week ago I spoke to the Holy Father about your institute and to my displeasure, I must inform you that things turned out badly . . . If Pius VII treated the matter jokingly, Gregory XVI was very much opposed to it. He is the third pontiff unfavorable to the project. This would demean the work in my eyes, were it mine. He [the Pope] is opposed to the very basis of the institute; he thinks the members comprising it are ignorant, and considers the conduct of one or the other reprehensible. He does not wish to hear anything at present about a rule.
Four years later Gaspar died, seemingly foiled in his project of establishing a religious institute dedicated to the Precious Blood, never for a moment surmising that this same Pope, who had so roundly damned the project, would one day approve the rule.
Gaspar's Devotion to the Precious Blood
As devotion to the Precious Blood was the dynamo energizing all his apostolic endeavors, so was it the heartbeat of his spiritual life. He saw all the mysteries of Christianity in some way or other tinged with the crimson of the Blood of Christ. In one of his manuscripts he penned the following words:
All the mysteries are focused in the infinite Price of our Redemption like the radii of a circle converging in the center. In this devotion all the truths of faith are summed up. For this reason we say in the consecration of our chalice: the "Mystery of Faith."
In a letter to Pope Leo XII he wrote:
The other devotions are all aids to Catholic piety, but this devotion is its foundation, support, and essence.
Devotion to Mary, in particular, took on a special hue as he beheld it irradiated by the Precious Blood. He considered the Precious Blood the source of Mary's singular privileges: her Immaculate Conception, her Divine Motherhood, her Assumption, her Queenship; while, on the other hand, he looked upon Mary as the fount of the Price of Redemption as well as the dispenser of its infinite merits.
Not only the mysteries of the Church, but also its glories bore a special affinity to the Precious Blood. They flowed forth from it as a torrent of water from a spring. "Oh fount of every mercy, grant that my tongue, purpled with His Blood in the daily celebration of the Mass, may bless you now and forever!" "The Divine Blood is the Price of our Redemption, healing balm for our souls, tender consolation in our labors; . . . it is the source of all the good we possess. Let us be bold and let us place our confidence in the merits of the Precious Blood."
Along the "Ways"
In his favorite devotion Gaspar found a unifying theme for the story of all mankind. Promised in the Garden of Eden, prefigured throughout the Old Testament, consummated in the New Testament, the Precious Blood runs like a unifying golden thread through the tapestry of mankind's relations with God. "Other devotions," said the Saint, "which are products of various times have holy and praiseworthy beginnings, but they go back only so far; this devotion is so ancient that it goes back to the moment when Adam sinned, for which reason Jesus was called, 'the Lamb who has been slain from the foundation of the world.'"
Since adoration of the Precious Blood was the bloodstream of Gaspar's own personal spiritual life, he quite naturally considered it a sure and attractive way of salvation for others also. In a treatise entitled The Most Precious Blood, Fount of All Spiritual Riches, he describes how the devotion is able to lead a soul from the foothills of the purgative way to the mountain heights of the unitive way. While in the purgative way, the soul, through meditation on the Price of Redemption, is led to abjure its past sins, to do penance for them, and to begin in earnest the practice of virtue. As the soul grows in the knowledge and love of the Divine Blood and advances to the illuminative way, it yearns to imitate the virtues manifested in the bloodsheddings of Christ: obedience, humility, resignation to God's will, abiding love for God and neighbor. Progressing still further under the sanctifying influence of the Eucharistic Drink, the soul gradually attains to that sacrificial love for God characteristic of a Theresa: Aut pati, aut mori. It is led to cry out in the words of Gaspar, "Jesus has given us His Blood even to the last drop. What is there left to do? Jesus is a victim. Behold I am ready, O my God, to be a victim of love!"
Devotion for all Souls
Prior to Gaspar's time, devotion to the Precious Blood had been restricted to a select few. Many Catholics, including some members of the hierarchy, shuddered to think of the sacred term being bandied about on the lips of all; rather they thought it should receive the extreme reverence reserved for the name of God in the Old Testament. Gaspar, however, longed to make the devotion "one that was broad and social enough to challenge all mankind." He wrote:
In every era the Lord has inspired certain devotions to stem the tide of iniquity. We also see that in times past the Church was attacked in this or that doctrine. Today the war is being waged against religion as such and against Christ Crucified. We need, therefore, to reemphasize the glories of the Cross and of our Crucified Redeemer, to reopen the fountains of mercy just when the devil would make us the victim of wrath. Now, more than ever, it is opportune to tell people at what price our souls were redeemed. We must let it be known how the Blood of Christ cleanses the souls and sanctifies them, particularly by means of the sacraments. We must arouse them from their insensibility by reminding them that His Blood is offered up every morning upon the altars and that instead of blasphemy and insult, we should give it adoration and praise.
© 1962 Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.
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