The day Father Justin was born, an unusual and abundant snowfall occurred in Pianura, an area where snow very rarely appears. That same day his parents brought the infant through the snow to the Church for Baptism. Justin was the third of six boys and girls. From this beautiful nest the Lord picked three for himself: Justin became a Priest and Founder of the Society of Divine Vocations; Ciro entered the Congregation later on, and also became a Priest; and Giovanna joined the female branch of the same congregation, eventually becoming its Superior General.
In addition to his parents who included in him the basic principles of christian life, Fr. Justin remembered with deep gratitude the part played in his vocation by his three aunts, all school teachers.
Upon completion of his elementary school, a very serious problem arose. From early on, Fr. Justin had said to everyone that he wanted to be a priest. He strengthened his wish through prayer and reception of the sacraments. In order to satisfy his desire, it was necessary to provide a seminary and the means to pay for tuition. His family was quite large, and the means at their disposal were limited. His parents tried to approach a wealthy man in Pianura and seek his help. When they were turned down, his mother in a mixture of anger and a transport of faith told here son: “Don’t be afraid, Justin, you mother will send you to the seminary even if she has to pawn her eyeballs.”
Sustained by this faith and determination, Justin was sent to the Pozzuoli’s diocesan seminary. During the entrance examination, one of the teachers said: “I have never come across a young man as intelligent as this one.” He was admitted to the first year of high school.
Yet this beautiful and promising vocation was threatened in time by some adverse events. At first his father was severely injured while working and, subsequently, one of his aunts – who was paying for part of his tuition – suddenly died. At this point, it was impossible for Giuseppina to keep her son in the seminary. However, before taking any painful decision, she decided to go to Bishop Giuseppe Zezza who, when he heard the story, immediately offered his help.
Justin continued his studies in the seminary; he finished high school, college, a year of Philosophy and the first two years of Theology. As a result of the updating of seminary curriculum decreed by Pius X, Justin was sent to the newly built Regional Seminary of Posillipo, staffed by the Jesuit Fathers. Since the New accommodations were not all ready for occupation, Justin was given a room in the religious house of the same fathers, which was attached to the new seminary.
Justin’s intelligence, goodness, humility and spirit of prayer were irresistible and contagious. One priest who lived in the same house, Monsignor Nicola Esposito, said, “That little room where Justin lived remained lit up long into the night. We used to peek through the keyhole and see him on his knees praying before a crucifix. It was my distinct impression and that of my peers and superiors that we were in the presence of an angel.”
The Jesuit Fathers, especially Father Antonio Stravino, Giuseppe De Giovanni, and Giuseppe Manzo, very often spoke with enthusiasm about this new seminarian and referred to him as the most intelligent and holy seminarian who ever passed through their theological institute. Father Stravino, in particular, once said, “Justin is a saint who should be canonized during his life; the Church should make an exception for him.” His remarks are much more significant when we learn from other sources that Father Stravino was extremely moderate his praises.
On September 20, 1913, Justin was ordained a priest. The reception in his town was a warm and joyous one, and was marked by two coincidental occurrences that heightened the happiness of everyone in town. An abundant rain fell after many months of drought, and the new aqueduct that brought the city water to the whole are of Pianura was finally opened. People from every walk of life were exceptionally joyful that day. At a certain point, someone from the crowd welcoming the new priest exclaimed: “We want him to be our Pastor!“ Immediately, everyone joined in that thunderous popular outcry.
Father Justin, however, was not to become a pastor as easily as people wished. The bishop of Pozzuoli, the Most Reverend Zezza, called Father Justin to the seminary and put him in charge of the formation of the new seminarians. As soon as he began his first mission, a sizable group of young men started visiting him in Pozzuoli from Pianura every week, covering the distance of six miles between the two on foot. What was happening? From his first years as a seminarian Father Justin had shown his strong inclination to the apostolate among the very young, exercising a very powerful influence over them. In his biography of Fr. Justin, A PRIEST OF YESTERDAY, Fr. O. Anella says, “The daily catechism taught to young people was the first and greatest Apostolate that the servant of God, Father Justin, began in his native town every time he returned there for his vacation. His arrival in town was always a great occasion for celebration on the part of the little ones who met him with joy and gathered around him in the garden of his father’s house. Together with the catechism, he would teach them songs, games, the Bible, and would read with artful skill the lives of the saints. At times, more than two hundred visited, all singing songs that he himself had composed or adapted.”
His intention was to fulfill two objectives: first, guide the children of his town in the knowledge of our Religion and second, identify among them those who showed some signs of a call to priesthood or religious life. With his keen intuition, he would pick them put, separate them from others and instruct them with special attention, as Jesus had done with his twelve Apostles. Once he had discerned in them the sure signs of the divine call, he would start displaying before their eyes the beauty of consecrated life.
He called this special group “Faithful One.” These were the young boys who started going to Pozzuoli to visit Father Justin. It seemed that they couldn’t live without him; they needed him, they needed the bread that their spiritual Father had made them taste. Those visits to Father Justin were moving proof of their endurance, and Father Justin himself was touched by their affection. With them, Father Justin prayed often and, with them, dreamed of a future… religious life. He prayed, fasted and did penance and begged the Lord to show him the way.
His prayer and mortifications were heard from above. After a few months of directing the discipline and growth of the seminarians in Pozzuoli, Bishop Zezza became aware of Father Justin’s poor health and decided to send him back to Pianura.
The joy of the “Faithful One” was overwhelming. Father Justin then proceeded to organize them according to his ideals and, on April 30, 1914, in his father’s house, he made the first attempt at common life. Everything was taking place with the consent and understanding of the members of his family and ‘Papa’ Luigi even offered to extend his Justin’s apartment.
It was decided also that Aunt Michelina would take care of the kitchen and Father Justin, donning an apron, volunteered to wait on the table. At night, the boys would go to sleep and he would mend their socks and pants and get everything ready for the following day. It was something new; everyone was apprehensive about the future and wondered what was lurking around the corner.
The idyllic experience lasted only fifteen days. Bishop Zezza, who had gone to Soccavo, a little village near Pianura, for a pastoral visit, sent for Father Justin and in no uncertain terms told him that he had heard about the experiment at common life and he did not like it. The new experience, he said, was to be discontinued immediately.
Needless to say, this order came like a shock to the servant of God, but he accepted the order with resignation and told the bishop that he was ready to obey. Father Justin’s idea was God’s work and as such it had to be tried and put through the crucible.
That day, while still in Soccavo, he decided to go and visit some members of his family who were living there. He tried to open his soul to and share his grief with his Aunt Scherillo but she, instead of comforting him, gave him as a present a cross made of hard wood. The gift was to be a symbolic one.
When he returned to his house in Pianura, he ate with his usual serenity and joviality. Only at the end of the meal did he take our the cross he had received as a gift. With calm and resignation he said, “We are all children of the Cross; let us submit our will to our superiors and be like Jesus who sacrificed His will to His Father’s wishes.” He disbanded the “Faithful Ones” as a community but continued getting together with them in the garden of his father’s house where the formation work went on informally.
This group of twelve girls quickly spread throughout the parish and became like the good yeast among their peers. It was a new group of souls that later on would inspire Father Justin to establish the female branch of the Congregation. As a result of the order received from the Bishop, Father Justin on one hand continued to work among the young with prudence and always under the direction of the local pastor and, on the other hand, he felt compelled to address his plea for a new congregation to Rome. On July, 1915, as a matter of fact, he wrote to the Sacred Congregation for Religious, but he never received an answer. Then his spiritual director advised him to write directly to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Secretary of State of his Holiness, and reveal to him his “plan” to establish a new religious family for the gratuitous care of vocations. The news about his letter went around diocese; one day the Vicar General of the diocese told Father Justin: “Justin, is it true that you wrote to Rome?” “Yes,” was his answer. The Vicar continued: “Do you have extraordinary signs?” “No,” Father Justin replied; then added: “But I have all the ordinary ones.” The Vicar General concluded: “Well if our bishop is transferred from here, it will certainly be an extraordinary sign for all of us.” The extraordinary sign was to come. Bishop Zezza later was transferred to Naples, and before he left he began showing some interest in Father Justin’s plan and had encouraging words for him.
The First World War was already raging all over Europe. In 1915, Italy entered the conflict. As a result, Father Justin was called to into service in spite of the fact that in the medical inspection he had undergone at the age of twenty, he was declared temporarily unfit, and soon after had been dismissed as permanently unfit. However, now that war had broken out, he was called again for a review of fitness. The head of the committee, who reviewed his physical condition, was a ferocious anti-clerical; in spite of the fact that Father Justin appeared very frail and weak, he declared him fit for service.The day Father Justin left for the front, a captain looked at him and felt so sorry for the man who was succumbing under the weight of his knapsack that he asked a young boy to help him fasten it. For two years Father Justin dragged himself among the soldiers and tried to assist as many as possible as a paramedic.
Meanwhile, his health did not improve. One day a medical officer felt so moved by this “walking skeleton” that he decided to send him home with a recommendation for permanent discharge. Father Justin went home, but final discharge never came. His family then decided to address their plea to Queen Helen and beg her to intervene on behalf of Father Justin. He was called for an additional review of his fitness. This time his condition was recognized and a final discharge was quickly granted.
His military duties had not discontinued the communication between him and his young groups in Pianura. Both from the barracks and front line, he continued reaching them with circular letters that his boys at home literally devoured.
One day during his military service, he met the sisters of Saint Bartholomea Capitanio in Mestre (Venice) and, observing the tremendous work they carried on in the hospitals, he was confirmed in the idea of a female branch of his Congregation and in his plan of enlisting his sister Giovanna’s help in this new endeavor.
Now that he was free of military service, he would have liked to dedicate himself to the building of his two congregations, but he felt paralyzed by the order that he had received from the Bishop of Pozzuoli. In order to break the manacles that had been snapped around his vocation plan, he decided to appeal to the Bishop of Troia (Foggia), the Most Reverend Fortunato Farina, and ask permission to establish in his Diocese a Congregation for Vocations. Bishop Farina, on July 8, 1920, offered Father Justin the administration of the seminary and a convent for his Religious, who would be allowed to attend the school at the diocesan seminary.
It was at this time that his Excellency, Pasquale Ragosta, Bishop of Ischia and Apostolic Administrator of Pozzuoli, invited Father Justin to enter the canonical process for the pastorship of the parish of St. George Martyr in Pianura, which had suddenly become vacant.The servant of God, with much clarity and humility, told the Most Reverend Bishop Ragosta both of his intention of founding a Congregation exclusively for vocations and of the difficulty he had encountered with Bishop Zezza, former Bishop of Pozzuoli. He concluded that if he would enter the canonical procedure for the pastorship of the Parish of St. George Martyr; however, if there were any difficulty in obtaining such permission, there would be no alternative but to accept the invitation from the Bishop of Troia to join his Diocese and do there the work God had called him to do in Pianura.
Bishop Ragosta acceded to his request and Father Justin, as a result, entered the pastorship process. On September 20, 1920, he officially became the pastor of his home town.
On October, 18, 1920, in the Rectory of St. George Martyr, with the blessing of Bishop Ragosta, still the temporary Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Pozzuoli, the Society of opened its door to all those young men who wished to dedicate their lives to the service of vocations.
It was the beginning of the Society of the Divine Vocations. As the number of the candidates who flocked to Father Justin started to grow, the necessity of establishing a Mother House became compelling. Once Bishop Ragosta gave permission to acquire a building site, the erection of a Vocationary, with the help of generous benefactors, soon became a reality. This was the first Vocationary which was named “Deus Charitas”, “God is Love.”
For a better and more complete development of the Congregation, Father Justin designed a female branch of the Congregation – “The Sisters of the Divine Vocations – Vocationist Sisters.” With the authorization of the same Bishop Pasquale Ragosta on October 1, 1921, in an apartment at Villa Caleo Corso D’Aosta, in Pianura Naples, Father Justin invited a large group of young girls that he had previously formed spiritually and organized under the name of “Pious Union” and with them planned and established the Society of Divine Vocations for women.
God’s work seemed to be spreading very fast and the Holy Spirit appeared to be filling the sails of the ship. On May 26, 1927, the Society of Divine Vocations for Men received the first Diocesan decree of approval from the new Bishop of Pozzuoli, the Most Reverend Giuseppe Petrone. It was followed by the approval of the Sisters. This divine blessing caused many Bishops to invite the Servant of God to work in their Dioceses. After a few years, the center and south of Italy were dotted with his Religious houses, both for men and women. God’s work seemed to be spreading very fast and the Holy Spirit appeared to be filling the sails of the ship.
The work begun by Father Justin was spreading througout Italy and both congregations were becoming very active and efficient in their catechetical work in parishes and in their service to vocations to priesthood and religious life. It seemed that the future would be very promising as the sailing for the little boat of the Society of Divine Vocations was very smooth; yet menacing clouds all of a sudden began gathering and threatening the very existence of the Society. Rumors about the poor maintenance and support of the young boys in the Vocationary and about the alleged irregularity of studies of the Vocationist candidates started affecting the work that had been painfully started.At a certain point, even the approval of the Congregation on a Diocesan level was called into question because said approval supposedly had been issued without a previous consent from Rome. When Father Justin realized that his Congregation was in danger, he decided to make an attempt at extending his work and ideals to more dioceses. He requested Cardinal Ascalesi of Naples permission to open, in his Archdiocese, a House of Studies both for philosophy and theology students. His request was granted with a request from the Cardinal that he also try to contact other Dioceses. Father Justin willingly accepted that charge and was pleasantly surprised to be informed by Bishop Cammarota of Capaccio Valla and Bishop Cuccarollo of Bovino and Bishop dell’Isola of Cava dei Tirreni that they were willing to accept the help of his religious with open arms in their Dioceses. Meanwhile, the accusations against the Congregation continued and oudn their way to Rome. This caused much distress to Father Justin and partially paralyzed the work of the Vocationist.
Bishop Petrone of Pozzuoli made every effort to answer these accusations, rectifying or denying the accusations point by point and by firmly stating that the performance of the Vocationary in Pianura was excellent. In his report, he spoke highly of “goodness and docility of Pastor Russolillo” and he added: “That he himself had received in his seminary many good young men who had orginally been in the Vocationary. Bishop Petrone concluded his report stating: “The good Pastor Russolillo is well known for his honesty, piety and uncommon zeal”. The undaunted support of Bishop Petrone worked wonders. As a matter of fact, on June 2, 1931, the Diocesan decree of approval that had prevously been questioned as to its validity, was officially endorsed by the Vatican. This new step was hailed wiht renewed hope and some fears and as well by both Congregations. As a matter of fact, everyone realized that the new action taken by Rome had brought both Congregations under the direct scrutiny of Vatican.Bishop Petrone, on January 18, 1933, encouraged by the recent news and heeding a plea from Father Justin, decided to make a formal application to Rome for the final decree of approval of the Society in these terms, “The Society of Divine Vocations would like to see its effort crowned by a pontifical approval… It is my firm conviction that the Vocationist Congregation…will bring the Church many blessings as it has already done to my own Diocese and many other Dioceses which have accepted in their Seminaries hundreds of young men had been originally educated in the Vocationary.”
At this point, Father Oreste Anella in his biography of Father Justin, A PRIEST OF YESTERDAY , with a tinge of irony writes: Father Justin was only guilty of taking article 1353 of the Canon Law too literally.” The canon says: “All priests, but especially pastors, will try to remove from the allurement of the world all those young men who show signs of vocation to priesthood and shall teach them piety and knowledge while cultivating in them the seed of vocation.”
The Vocationist Fathers were all waiting for the approval from the Congregation for Religious because they believed the petition of Bishop Petrone could not possibly remain unanswered. The Lord however, had decided otherwise. In order to purify the two Congregations and establish them on more unshakable ground, special visitors were to be appointed by the Vatican. It was their task to pu the Congregations in a crucible and hammer out of final image that it would finally present to the Church and to the world. As a matter of fact, Bishop Castaldo who, in the meantime, had replaced Bishop Petrone in the Diocese of Pozzuoli on August 3, 1934 received word from the congregation for Religious that the petition of Bishop Petrone on behalf of the Society of Divine Vocations had been denied. In addition, to make things even worse, Bishop Castaldo confirmed some vague accusations launched aginst the Congregation by some elements that had been expelled by from the Society. As a result of all this, dispositions came from Rome that were so restrictive that the existence of the Vocationist Society was threatened. Father Justin, in answer to this attack, wrote a “Memorandum” to Rome in defense of his Congregation and entrusted it to Bishop Castaldo with a request to forward it to the Congregation for Religious.
Father Domenico Mondrone S.J. in a profile of Father Justin thus comments on this particular incident in Father Justin’s life: “Evidently, the bearer that Father Justin had chosen with so much faith and with so much promise of submission to the orders of the superior, in all honesty was not the best one”. However, Bishop Castaldo still was the Ordinary of the Diocese…and had to be obeyed. For a long time, a large volume of correspondence between Rome and Pianura via Pozzuoli went on; then, in spite of a series of remedies administered and changes effected by Father Justin in his Congregation, Rome with a decree of July 21, 1941, sent an Apostolic visitor to the Vocationist Fathers in the person of Father Raffaele M. Baldini of the Servants of Mary. This was the first station of a “via cucis” that submitted Father Justin to painful experiences which at the end revealed the evidence of his holiness and the strength of his faith in the work that he had begun.The Apostolic Visitor, Fr. Raffaele M. Baldini, was a gentleman and a religious with profound faith and refined spirituality. When he first met Father Justin, he immediately detected his holiness and good intentions and became his ally and friend.
The first thing that he reported to the Congregation for Religious was the opposing viewpoints existing between Bishop Castaldo and Father Justin. In a letter written to the Congregation for Religious he said: “The Bishop of Pozzuoli in his fixed idea that the Vocationists are not to be religious cannot objectively evaluate those little defects that are very common among religious.” Then he concluded: “This way of thinking of the Bishop certainly does not contribute to a dispassionate evaluation of the Society.”
At a later date, Father Baldini said: “It is my opinion, I confess, that the way the Bishop views the Congregation has not helped my work.” In another report, Father Baldini pointed out that “as for the accusations that had been leveled against them, they were caused…by some of their bad Oblates and by anonymous letters addressed both to the Bishop, to the sacred Congregation for Religious and to the Pope himself. “It is to be noted,” he concluded, “that some of these letters have been sent by someone who had been recommended to the care of the Vocationists by the Archbishop of Naples.”
Father Baldini did not hide the defects and gaps existing in the Society, yet he emphasized a lot of good in the Congregation and expressed no doubt about the hopes for the Congregation in the future.
Meanwhile, he noticed that in Rome “A Plan to remove the Servant of God, Father Justin, from the government of his Congregation was afoot and gaining momentum.” On September 22, 1944 he wrote Rome expressing his strong opposition to such plan. The following month, when Father Justin himself found out about the plan of action being nurtured in Rome, he wrote to Father Baldini: “Father, if you think that I am an impediment to the well-being of my Congregation, please put me aside in any corner; I will deem it a special blessing as long as I remain a religious and serve the Lord God in this Congregation. Where and how I live does not matter.” This letter convinced Father Baldini even more that Father Justin “was the only person who could govern the Society of Divine Vocations.” Knowing that the one who was sponsoring this movement was Monsignor Pasetto, undersecretary of the Congregation for Religious, Fr. Baldini wrote to him,… “It does not seem opportune, rather it seems very dangerous to me to remove the pious Founder from the direction of his Society.”
Unfortunately, this firm and impassioned appeal from Father Baldini remained unanswered. Monsignor Pasetto, who by now had become the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Religious, on April 23, 1945, deemed it prudent to have Father Serafino Cuomo, a Franciscan, appointed Superior General of the Vocationists both for the male and female branch of the Congregation.
Father Baldini, who in the meantime had learned to love the Vocationists, felt very deeply wounded by these harsh measures and in saying good bye to Father Justin thus wrote to him: “It is with deep regret my dear and Reverend Father that I part from you. Please, forgive me if I have not succeeded in doing my work better and for being unsuccessful in dispelling a another trial. I have done what I could; I cannot do anything any longer. As of now, I have not received the official communication yet from the Vatican…about my dismissal…and this seems very strange to me; I am sure however, that this measure has already been taken…Let’s raise our minds, my dear Father Justin, to supernatural thoughts and reflection and let’s offer to God our respective mortification for the good of our soul and the salvation of your religious family.
At this point, the bad news spread and reached all the friends of the Vocationist Fathers. Father Mazzei, Spiritual Director of Father Justin, deeply affected by the sad events that were taking place in the Vocationist Society, decided to write to Pius XII and, among other things, said, “Most Holy Father, the Institute of the Vocationists is a new one and is making its way into the Church through the assiduous and loving work of its Founder. He has a great soul favored by God and guided by Him in his foundation work… His presence is necessary among his religious so they may mature and their religious family may develop in full… Most Holy Father I put this petition of mine in your hands…forgive me if I dare to ask your Holiness to leave Father Justin, man of God, in his place and leave at the same time as Apostolic visitor, Father Baldini, who for many years has helped the growing of the Vocationist family”. Fr. Mazzei wrote to no avail.
Father Justin was removed as Superior General and Father Baldini was replaced by Father Cuomo. In the meanwhile, a very unpleasant incident had taken place to make things even worse. During the Second World War, when Father Justin and his Congregation were kept separated from Rome for a long time, a certain layman, Mr. Omnis who had been dismissed by the Vocationists and had been granted only temporary hospitality in their religious house of Anagni, succeeded with false documentation, in being ordained Sub-deacon by the local Bishop.As soon as military operation permitted, Father Giorgio Saggiomo, Vicar General of the Vocationist Fathers, traveled to Rome with a stop in Anagni. There, once acquainted with Omnis’ fraudulent ordination, he informed Father Baldini who still was the Apostolic Visitor, in an attempt to mitigate the adverse impact of that regrettable event.
It was too late. The news reached Rome immediately and wrought havoc in the Congregation.This incident certainly contributed to the confirmation of the original plan of appointing Father Cuomo as Superior General of the Fathers and Sisters.
Father Cuomo started governing the Congregation with preconceived ideas. Father Mazzei, Father Justin’s spiritual director, in a letter to Pius XII, thus described the situation that had soon materialized between Father Justin and the new Apostolic Visitor and Superior General: (The Apostolic visitor) “…tries to separate his religious from their Father…he would like to remove Father Justin from Pianura but he is unable to do so only because he is a pastor there…shortly, Father Cuomo will come to Rome and report to you about this matter.”
How did Father Justin react to the storm that had enveloped him and the Religious Society? A letter that he wrote to his sister, Giovanna, who also had been deposed as a Superior General of the Sisters, best describes his humble acceptance of God’s will. In this letter he indicates the main spiritual advantages that might be derived from the measures taken against him and his Congregation:
If we think of these measures as human instruments we may suffer; yet, if we look at the Divine Mind that uses them for our own good we shall rejoice. The real reasons for these measures are not those in the heads of people who caused them or imposed them. The real reasons are to be found in God…and they are a mystery of predilection for our persons and our congregations.With these measures, according to the world we fall down but according to the Lord, we really rise up.
With this purification, we receive a very sure sign that the Lord wants to admit us to His Divine Union and partake in the holiness of the Saints.
This is the real gift that the Divine Trinity has entrusted to us and only in Heaven we will understand its incomparable value”.
Then he concluded: “Let’s ask the Lord to grant us, through all these events, the blessedness of the Beatitudes and the enjoyment of all the fruits of the Holy Spirit.” As it was to be expected, the change in the government of the Congregation and the privation of the daily spiritual sustenance of the religious from the Founder, caused dispersion and disorientation. Father Justin became very worried and decided to write to the Apostolic Visitor and Superior General about this painful situation, which was putting the Congregation in a very serious danger.
Father Cuomo, who by now had started changing his mind about Father Justin, listened to him after a long reflection came to the decision of returning the spiritual direction of both Congregations to Father Justin.
Father Cuomo had understood that the Congregation did not reflect the description presented to him by the secretary of the Congregation for Religious, and realized that Father Justin was not the disobedient priest that some people had described. Moreover, Father Cuomo slowly observed that this new opinion about Father Justin was being strengthened and shared by many Bishops.
However, the incomprehension, slanders and malicious gossips that had accumulated against Father Justin and his work were just too many to disappear as by magic.
The agony had to go on for many more years and Father Justin had to remain in the crucible so that his virtues one day could shine brightly.
It seems almost unbelievable that while he was being mistreated and misunderstood, once, in writing to his superiors, he would state, “I am very sorry for being the involuntary cause of displeasure to my ecclesiastical superiors and for exposing my Congregation to destruction.” This kind of humility could not remain without reward. Father Cuomo remained as Superior General of both Congregations for fifteen months. During this time, many transfers were effected, new houses were founded and many situations and wounds were healed. Before the Visitor completed his job he planned to have an election in the Congregation and to exclude Father Justin as a candidate for Superior General. This election never took place and, upon Father Cuomo’s departure from the Congregation, the Holy Seed deemed it prudent to appoint the Vicar General, Father Giorgio Saggiomo, as acting Superior General of the Fathers. He remained in this position for six months only.At the end of this period Cardinal Lavitrano, the new Perfect of the Congregation for Religious, presided over the Chapter of the Vocationist Fathers and announced the election of Father Justin as Superior General of the Congregation. It was April 10, 1947. That date will never be forgotten by the Vocationists and all their friends.
The Vocationist Congregation of the Sisters and Fathers became Congregations of Pontifical Rights respectively on May 24, and January 3, 1948.
This was a time in which everyone started breathing more easily and Father Justin began thinking of sending his Religious overseas. In April of 1950, at the request of the Cardinal of Bahia (Brazil), a little group of Religious headed by Father Ugo Fraraccio crossed the ocean and established the first Vocationanist mission in that land. In November of the same year, eight theology sutdents and a vocationist priest headed for Salvador (Bahia) to join the other Religious.Now, the Congregation had to ascend just one final step and obtain the Decretum Laudis. In order to facilitate this work, the Vocationists requested the Holy See to appoint an Assistant. It was granted in the person of the Jesuit Father Gisuseppe Manzo.
When the sailing seemed to be smooth and everything seemed to prosper and grow with the acquisition of a house on Via Cortina d’ Ampezzo, Rome, a new and unforeseen storm beset the Congregation and threatened to shake its very foundations. A dreadful financial crisis had developed and the Congregation found itself engulfed in and almost drowned by debts.
This painful situation had been caused by some administrative mistakes made by the Treasurer General, Father Giorgio Saggiomo, who was a saintly man but certainly not an expert in finances. It was the last odyssey Father Justin had to face. He suffered under the weight of debts for many years. During this time he prayed in humility and resignation.Finally, a loan from Pope Pius XII and the sale of some properties of the Congregation provided the light at the end of the tunnel…and the Congregation could finally breathe again. Unfortunately, Father Justin did not see his dream materialize. His health was quickly deteriorating.His body had been submitted to penance and had endured numerous sickness; his mind had been disturbed by fear of a financial debacle…The end seemed to be near.On July 21, 1955, he wrote to Father Oreste Anella that he wished to leave for the Cilento region to recuperate. He left, but returned immediately.
He went to bed never to rise again. On August 2, 1955, surrounded by his Religious, he returned his soul to the Lord. He was only 64; certainly he was not an old man but he was ready for Heaven. On the day of his ordination he had offered his life for the success of the Society of Divine Vocations.Evidently God had granted his wish and accepted his offer.When he died, the Congregation of the Vocationist Fathers had 110 priests and 70 professed members, 20 novices, and 500 aspirants. The Vocationist Sisters numbered 340 Professed Members, 30 Novices, 13 Postulates, and 200 Aspirants.
During his life simple people, religious, bishops and cardinals seemed to detect in his personality something supernatural and felt attracted by his pious manners. Everyone in the are where Father Justin lived wanted to see and talk to him and receive a word of encouragement.
Parishoners, priests, politicians, men of culture, professionals, prodigal sons, each day formed a long line to see Father Justin. He welcomed everyone with a smile that opened hearts and minds to faith and hope.In his spiritual life, his fixed goal was Divine Union with God. This was the ascetical program that he practiced. This was the aim that he inculcated in every soul and to its achievement he dedicated his whole life.
Father Louis Caputo in the first English biography of Father Justin, A SERVANT OF THE DIVINE VOCATIONS, remarks: “His ministry consisted mostly in preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. He never tired of giving lectures and retreats to priests and sisters… he believed in universal sanctification, and indicated spiritual direction as the most effective means of leading people up the ladder of christian perfection.” The transcendent world was his passion and the following spiritual writings all talk about its beauty:
“Spiritus Orations,”Offertories of the Most Precious Blood,” “Ascension,” “Heaven of Heavens,” “The Piety of the Seminary,” “Evangelization of the Divine Union,” “I am the vine and you are the branches,” “Remain in my love,” etc. They are hymns of praise and love to the Lord of the Universe. However, we should not believe that he was a man who only lived in the world of the spiritual.
Father Justin also knew how to be very human and to use his keen intelligence to savor the humanistic culture. He read the Bible every day and enjoyed it greatly, but very frequently he read Latin and Greek texts and displayed a deep knowledge of classical literature. He was good poet also, “…who gave up writing poetry – as we read in the preface to “Spiritus Orationis” – so that he might write more beautiful verses in Heaven.”
One day an intellectual from Paris asked a friend who had been at Ars to visit John Vianney: “What did you see at Ars?” “I have seen God in a man,” was the answer.
Anyone who came back from seeing the humble priest from Pianura would have answered the same. Father Justin was a man absorbed in God in whom he had found all the reasons for his being.
Fr. Justin’s life was motivated by an exceptional spirit of penance and mortification of the senses. In January, 1935, he wrote in his diary: ;”Physical penance is must and should include our early rising everyday.” He wanted his religious to keep themselves always well occupied to avoid any occasion of sin. “The Vocationist” – he said – “should not have time to think of himself and should avoid any useless thought, work or deed.”His day was spent in prayer and union with God giving always first priority to the morning mediation. Patience and humility found their natural habitat in his privileged soul. With unusual sweetness, he received and talked both to holy and sinful people and for both he had an encouraging word and a benevolent smile.
His heroic spirit was continually tested and his soul refined in the fire of adversities and contradictions. Unlimited faith in the Divine Providence sustained him in the dark hours of his Congregation. He used to say frequently: “Divine Providence will never let us down; let’s make sure that we don’t let it down.”
In his diary of June 23, 1931, he jotted down: “Heoric actions are not only those which require extraordinary efforts of patience, humility and charity but, also those simple ones we perform every day in a spirit of humility and love.” Thus, he concluded “even a genuflection may be an heroic deed.”
Special love flowed from his heart for those who worked with him for divine vocations. “O, faithful Vocationists,” he exclaimed, ” I would like to hug you… you are the souls I would like to lead to a total union with God.” Fr. Oreste Anella S.D.V., in one of his conference on Fr. Justin, thus said about Fr. Justin’s sensitivity: “Especially nature in bloom gave him the opportunity for long mediations. Many times he was seeen squeezing between his fingers the corolla of a spring flower and questioning it tenderly…other times he was seen crying in the presence of an almond tree in full bloom.” From his sensitive heart came those sublime expression used in his “Prayer of Thanksgiving for Natural Gifts”: “I give you thanks, O Lord, for the caress of dawn and the kisses of flowers, for the warmth of fire and refreshment of water, for the sweetness of every taste and the fragrance of every perfume, for the voice of my conscience and the energy of my will.” With his Trinity centered soul, he conceived and tried to inculcate in others the idea that every human being is called to holiness and all creation is striving to eventually form a circle of love around our God.