Mother Clelia Merloni, a 20th-century Italian religious sister and founder of the women’s institute of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was beatified in Rome on Saturday.
With her beatification at the Basilica of St. John Lateran Nov. 3, “the Church is recognizing this great woman, a woman of faith, a woman of courage and humility, and especially a woman of pardon,” Sr. Anne Walsh, vicar general of the Apostles, told CNA.
“How can I become holy?” Mother Clelia once wrote. “By doing as best as I can everything that will be asked of me each day.”
“Mother Clelia looked at her own suffering in her life and the suffering in the lives of so many around the world… and she was able to unite that with Christ’s suffering,” Fr. Geoffrey Brooke explained.
A devotee of Mother Clelia and a friend of her congregation, Brooke said Mother Clelia also played a role in his process of discernment to enter seminary and become a priest.
Clelia recognized, he told CNA, that from the unity of Christ’s suffering with one’s own suffering, comes the notion of “reparation;” that then one is motivated to use their suffering as reparation for “the wounds of the heart of Christ.”
“I think what Mother Clelia teaches me as a priest,” he said, “is a particular way of understanding and sharing the love of Christ.”
“Every Christian is called to share the love of Christ, but how we understand what that means and what that looks like – for me I’m able to do that better through a lens of reparation, particularly as explained by Mother Clelia.”
Brooke said he believes everyone can learn from Mother Clelia’s willingness to unite her suffering to Christ, instead of trying to run from it.
Her life was not easy, beginning with the death of her mother in 1864, when Clelia was just three years old.
Her father, who came from humble beginnings as a servant to a count and countess, later experienced a financial turnaround, and become a wealthy industrialist and a Freemason. He remarried a few years after the death of Clelia’s mother and the girl’s stepmother cared for her as if she was her own daughter, teaching her the faith.
But when Clelia was just 22 years old, her stepmother died, shortly after she was driven from their home amid a dispute with husband’s mistress. Clelia’s maternal grandmother, who had helped to raise her, had also been sent away after a dispute with Clelia’s father.
Clelia was devastated to have lost the three women who had taught her about God and she continued to pray for the conversion of her father.
Soon after her stepmother’s death, Clelia entered the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Snows in Savona. Five years later, a severe earthquake destroyed the convent. Though Clelia had escaped unharmed, she soon became ill and her father took her home.
In 1892, she entered the Little House of Divine Providence in Como, where she was given care of the orphans. There she protracted tuberculosis, and doctors believed she would not be cured.
“In the face of her physical suffering she chose to dedicate herself to Christ and to the heart of Christ,” Brooke said.
Clelia had begun to sense a calling to establish a religious congregation dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and confided this to her confessor, who advised her to pray a novena to the Immaculate Heart of Mary for healing and to know God’s will. At the end of the novena, she was miraculously healed.
At the age of 33, Mother Clelia founded the Congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Viareggio, Italy. The next year, her many prayers and sacrifices were rewarded, when her father had a conversion and asked to receive the sacraments, just five months before his death.
Mother Clelia was his only heir and received from him the entirety of his sizeable fortune, which she used to fund her community’s charitable works.
Just three years into the life of the congregation, the priest who was responsible for administering her father’s estate lost the entire fortune through risky financial dealings and fled to France. Mother Clelia was beset by creditors; lies and threats quickly spread as she tried to save her community from ruin.
Eventually, at Mother Clelia’s request, Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of Piacenza took the community under his ecclesial protection, assisting them with their financial situation.
But after the bishop died unexpectedly, conflict within the congregation led to three Apostolic Visitations by the Holy See, instigated by a sister who accused Mother Clelia of moral, disciplinary, and economic disorder. As a result, Clelia was removed as Mother General of the order, though none of the apostolic visitors had ever spoken with her directly.
During this time, Mother Clelia was forbidden from having any contact with the community, and many of the sisters who supported her were sent home or to other communities.
A few years later, Mother Clelia asked for a dispensation from her religious vows in order to leave the congregation for a period of time. “She felt for the good of the congregation, she should leave it for a period,” Sr. Anne Walsh said.
Called her “exile,” Mother Clelia was separated from her community and her sisters for the next 12 years. In 1927, Mother Clelia was readmitted to the congregation. She lived in a separate room, with a window overlooking the chapel, where she “would spend hours and hours in prayer,” Sr. Anne said, until her death, November 21, 1930.
After everything that had taken place, she was “especially a woman of pardon,” Sr. Anne said.
The Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus received a decree of approval from the Holy See the following year.
Mother Clelia’s response to the suffering she faced throughout her life, “teaches us all a good lesson,” Fr. Brooke said.
“How many families in our world today, in our society today, are broken and struggle with relations with each other, the same way she struggled with relationships with some of her sisters early on,” he said.
“That she was eventually able to find reconciliation and reparation and healing in those relationships before she died is a good example for a lot of families today which are so broken and split apart.”
Brooke said he believes the timing of her beatification is providential, considering the “ways in which there is so much fracturing and woundedness, even in the Body of Christ, even in the Church.”
To have Mother Clelia raised up as an example at this time gives the whole Church a witness of what it is to seek “healing and reparation within the Church,” he said.
Sr. Elizabeth Doyle, a temporary professed sister of the Apostles, told CNA that today what strikes her the most about Mother Clelia’s life is her faith: “She really threw herself into the darkness and trusted that is where God wanted her,” she said.
“And there were a lot of very human reasons for her to say, ‘I don’t think this is working out and maybe it’s not what God wants for my life.’ There were a lot of material or external kinds of failures, but she was really convinced that God had a plan for her life, and she stuck with that despite the suffering and misunderstandings and hardships that came with that,” Sr. Elizabeth said.
“That really challenges me to look at my life of faith and say, ‘Do I trust God that much?’”
Sr. Elizabeth added “that God meets us in our brokenness and we meet God in his brokenness.”
“That’s where God invites us in,” she said, “is through his wounded heart and that’s how God really penetrates into our own lives: through our own wounded hearts.”
“That has drawn me closer to God, knowing that is where I can find him the most – in the brokenness of the wounded parts of my life – and that’s really where I can help other people draw closer to God too.”
The miracle that led to Mother Clelia’s beatification took place in the 1950s in Brazil. Dr. Pedro de Oliveira Filho had contracted Landry-Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a severe neurological condition, which can be fatal.
The doctor became totally paralyzed, and his family was told by doctors he would not survive the night. They began to pray for healing through the intercession of Mother Clelia. Also present was a sister of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who had brought with her a small piece of Mother Clelia’s habit.
That same evening, the sister took a thread from the relic and put it in a tiny amount of water, giving it to the paralyzed man to drink. To everyone’s surprise, he was able to drink the water, so the sister continued to give him larger and larger sips, eventually feeding him some custard. By the morning, he was completely healed.
The Congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus now consists of around 1,000 sisters in 15 different countries around the world. They are involved in education, healthcare, parish and diocesan ministry, social work, immigrant outreach, and care to trafficked women.
Sr. Anne said that Mother Clelia taught their community, “where there is brokenness, to pour on the love of Jesus so we can bring love and healing to the world. And that’s what we try to do as Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is to carry on that charism that’s been entrusted to us.”