“The words that did me the most good was when I told him that I feared some day I would do something silly by running away. And he answered: 'I would come and get you.'” This immediate and affectionate reply from Fr Paul Albera, the rector of the Salesian House at Sampierdarena in Genoa, to twenty-one-year-old Philip Rinaldi who was at the college to discern his vocation, contains a real strategy (one that Don Bosco had already used) for a spiritual circumstance, one we could describe this way: not feeling called on the one hand, but on the other, being constantly called.
Born in Lu Monferrato (Alessandria) on 28 May 1856, the eighth of nine children, Philip came to know Don Bosco for the first time when he was five years old during one of the many walks that the saintly priest organised with his boys. His temperament as a young person was not what one might expect of a saint but Don Bosco was able to see good material in him too for making a good educator. When he was ten he went to the Salesian House at Mirabello for school. Then he saw Don Bosco twice, and immediately felt he was his friend. Later, after some mistreatment, he immediately returned home but then Don Bosco sent him letters inviting him to come back: “Don Bosco's houses are always open to you.” Philip would later confide: “I had no intention of becoming a priest.” Don Bosco, however, thought differently. He went looking for him in 1876. By now Philip was twenty years of age and preparing for marriage. Don Bosco ultimately won him over to his cause. Later Fr Rinaldi would confess: “My choice fell on Don Bosco ... He had answered all my objections.” He delayed a further year, remaining at home, worried about further studies because of headaches and poor eyesight in his left eye. “Come!” was Don Bosco's patient invitation, “The headaches will pass and you will have good enough eyesight for your studies.” Thinking back over all the opposition he had put up, one day he would say: “Our Lord and Our Lady had seen that since I had resisted grace so much in the past I would no longer do so in the future.” At twenty-one years of age, Philip Rinaldi undertook the course for adult vocations at Sampierdarena. In 1880, following his novitiate he professed perpetual vows before Don Bosco himself. On the day of his ordination on 23 December 1882, he heard Don Bosco ask him, pretty much at the end of this long period of vocational discernment: “And now are you happy?” and moved as a son would be he had answered: “Yes, if you keep me with you!”
During his 49 years of priesthood, the first twenty would see him as the rector at Mathi Torinese, a boarding establishment for adult vocations, then in Turin at St John the Evangelist's, then in Sarriá, Barcelona, in Spain. A few days before Don Bosco died, Fr Rinaldi wanted him to hear his confession, and before giving him absolution, by now lacking much strength, Don Bosco gave him just one word: “Meditation”. In 1889 Fr Michael Rua, Don Bosco's first successor, appointed him as the rector at Sarriá, a suburb of Barcelona in Spain, telling him: “You will need to deal with some very delicate matters.” Over three years, through prayer, meekness and his fatherly and lively approach among the young and in the Salesian community, he resolved problems with this work. He was then appointed provincial of Spain and Portugal, contributing in a surprising way to the development of the Salesian Family on the Iberian Peninsula. In just nine years, also thanks to financial help from the Venerable Dorothy Chopitea, an aristocrat, Fr Rinaldi founded sixteen new houses. Following a visit Fr Rua was very impressed, and in 1901 appointed him as Prefect General of the Congregation. Fr Rinaldi continued working zealously in this new role without ever renouncing his own priestly ministry. He carried out his governing role prudently, charitably and intelligently for twenty years. Following the death of Blessed Fr Rua in 1910, Philip Rinaldi was re-elected as Prefect and Vicar of Fr Paul Albera, the new Rector Major. In what was to all intents and purposes a bureaucratic role, he still left his mark. Above all he became an expert spiritual director: he would rise very early in the morning, and after celebrating Mass, at five in the morning he would hear confessions for two hours.
The final nine years would see him as the supreme leader of the Congregation: he would succeed Fr Paul Albera on 24 April 1922. The first time he had been appointed rector he wrote to Fr Giulio Barberis: “Me, a rector? Don't they know this means the ruin of the poor boys? I am amazed just thinking about it.” When he was elected Rector Major he would say: “I can assure you that for me it is a huge mortification; ask the Lord that we do not ruin what Don Bosco and his successors have done.”
He adapted the spirit of Don Bosco to the new times and in his role as Rector Major he showed his gifts as a father even more and his wealth of initiative: seeing to vocations, setting up spiritual and welfare centres for young workers, being the guide and support of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians at a particular moment in their history. He gave great impetus to the Salesian Cooperators; he set up world Federations of the two branches (male and female) of Past Pupils giving them a strong push in organisational terms. He used say that “the Past Pupils are the fruit of our labours. We do not work in houses just so the young people are good only while we are with them but to make good Christians out of them. Therefore, the work of the Past Pupils is a work of perseverance. We have sacrificed ourselves for them and our sacrifice must not go to waste.” Working among the Zealots of Mary Help of Christians (as they were then known), he understood and followed a direction that led to a new form of consecrated life in the world that would then flourish as Secular Institute, the Volunteers of Don Bosco.
His time as Rector Major was as fruitful as it had ever been. The Salesian Congregation developed in a prodigious manner: from 4,788 members in 404 houses, it grew to 8,836 in 644 houses in a climate that “breathed more of the affection of a father than the authority of a superior.” The impetus he gave the Salesian missions was enormous: he founded missionary institutes, magazines and associations, and while he was Rector Major more than 1,800 Salesians left for the missions, fulfilling Don Bosco's prophecy who, after asking to go to the missions as a young priest, heard the answer: “You will stay here. But you will send others to the missions.” He undertook any number of journeys throughout Italy and Europe. He displayed admirable zeal and fatherliness, stressing that the true character of the Salesian Work lay not in its outward successes but in a profound, serene and calm life of intimacy. He translated this dynamic concept of his spirituality and work into a socially effective approach, asking Pius XI to grant the indulgence of sanctified work. A master of spiritual life, he re-animated the interior life of the Salesians, always demonstrating absolute confidence in God and unlimited trust in Mary our Help.
His successor, Fr Peter Ricaldone said: “It is true that he often had poor health, but he succeeded in doing an extraordinary amount of good. He took a keen interest in formation of personnel through meetings, visits, writings that made everyone appreciate and love him.” He was a tireless worker. In so many ways and throughout his life, without sparing any effort, he strove to increase the number and kinds of workers' associations and credit unions, leading to a growth in Christian unionism and providence societies. He recommended assistance to migrants to all Salesians, regardless of their nationality, stressing the highest form of universal charity.
Among all the Salesian saints, what characterised Fr Rinaldi was his fatherliness. As a rector with 33 years of experience his own resolution was: “Charity and meekness with the confreres, putting up with whatever might happen.” As provincial he would say: “I will be a father. I will avoid harshness. When they come to talk to me I will not let them see that I am tired or am in a hurry.” Fr Francesia, a Salesian of the first generation would say of Fr Rinaldi: “All he was lacking was Don Bosco's voice. He had everything else.” Before his death, one event filled him with extraordinary joy: Don Bosco's beatification which took place on 2 June 1929. He would lead a crowd of 15,000 people to Rome. He was just about to begin the fiftieth year of his priesthood when he died serenely on 5 December 1931, just as he was about to read the life of Fr Rua. His remains lie in the crypt of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin.