Beatified: 25-10-1964Canonised: 23-10-2011Liturgical celebration: 24 October
The life of Fr Guanella, like that of Don Bosco, was depicted in a dream he had when he was nine years old, the day of his First Communion: a Lady (whom he described as Our Lady in his account) let him see everything he would have to do on behalf of the poor. Since childhood his life was a long race to be wherever there was a cry for help and aid to offer.
Luigi Guanella was born in Fraciscio, a hamlet of the Campodolcino district in the diocese of Como, on 19 December 1842. He was baptised the following day. His parents, Lorenzo Guanella and Maria Bianchi, were exemplary Catholics, dedicated to their family, working in the fields and looking after their livestock. In the family there was the custom not only of praying the Rosary, but also reading the lives of the saints, an experience that characterised the apostolic activity throughout his life. His father Lorenzo, for 24 years the mayor of Campodolcino first under the Austrian government and later under a unified Italy (1859), was strict and authoritarian, while his mother Maria Bianchi was kind and patient; of the 13 children, almost all of them survived into adulthood.
When he was twelve years old, Luigi won a free place at the Gallio boarding school in Como and then continued his studies at the diocesan seminaries (1854-1866). His cultural and spiritual formation was the one common for seminarians in Lombardy and Veneto, which for a long period was under Austrian control. His theological course lacked in cultural content but was attentive to pastoral and practical aspects: moral theology, rituals, preaching as well as personal formation in piety, holiness and being faithful. Christian and priestly life was nourished by the devotion common among the Christian population. This meant that the young seminarian was very close to the people and in touch with the life they lived. When he returned home for the autumn holidays, he was part of the poverty of the alpine valleys; he looked after the young, elderly and sick in the town, attending to their needs. In spare time he became interested in social matters, collected and studied herbal medicines, and became enthusiastic about reading Church history.
While studying theology at the seminary he became good friends with the bishop of Foggia, Bernardino Frascolla, who had been imprisoned at Como and put under house arrest at the seminary (1864-66). This made him aware of the hostility that dominated relations between the now unified State and the Church. It was this bishop who ordained Fr Guanella as a priest on 26 May 1866. On that occasion Fr Guanella said: “I want to be a sword of fire in this holy ministry.” The new priest entered enthusiastically into pastoral life in Valchiavenna (in Prosto in 1866 and Savogno from 1867-1875). From the outset at a Savogno he revealed his true pastoral interests: the education of the young and adults, the moral, social and religious uplifting of the parishioners, defence of the people against the assaults of liberalism, and his special attention to the poor. He did not shrink from fierce intervention when he was unjustly restrained or contradicted by the civil authorities in his ministry, and was soon marked as a dangerous person ( the Law of suspects), especially after publishing a polemical booklet. Meanwhile, at Savogno he increased his knowledge of Don Bosco and Cottolengo’s work to the point where he invited Don Bosco to open a college in the valley.
Wanting a more radical religious experience, in 1875 he went to Don Bosco in Turin and made his temporary profession in the Salesian Congregation. In his first two years as a Salesian he was the director of the oratory of Saint Aloysius in Borgo San Salvario in Turin, then in November 1876 was asked to open a new oratory at Trinità in Mondovì. In 1877 he was put in charge of adult vocations, a work Don Bosco had called the The Work of the Sons of Mary. His admiration for Don Bosco was also rooted in the fact that they had a similar temperament: both enterprising, apostles of charity, decisive, genuinely fatherly and with a great love for the Eucharist, Our Lady, the Pope. Salesian spirituality and pedagogy were a basic element in the formation and mission of the future founder. At Don Bosco's school he learned a loving and firm approach to young people and the educational desire to prevent rather than cure; and the desire to save his brothers and sisters urged on by great apostolic charity.
The bishop of Como called him back to the diocese, and Fr Guanella returned with the dream of founding an institution that would take in needy young people. He opened a school that he later had to close due to hostility from the civil authorities. “The hour of mercy”, as Fr Guanella called the appropriate moment of divine favour, came in November 1881 when he arrived at Pianello Lario as parish priest, where he found a group of girls dedicated to helping the needy. This group of young women would become the source of a new congregation: the Daughters of Our Lady of Providence. Fr Luigi’s zeal and apostolic charity increased their good work to the point where they were able to expand their activity at the heart of the city of Como itself. They began the activities of the “House of Divine Providence” which then became the mother house of two congregations, one female the other male. As the poor grew, so did the arms and hearts to assist and love them. Alongside the congregation of Sisters, Fr Guanella also brought together a group of priests whom he called the Servants of Charity. “We cannot stop when there are still poor to help”, he would often say on his pilgrimages among the ravages of poverty. Thus his two religious congregations spread throughout various regions of Italy and in the nearby Swiss Confederation, in the Grigioni Ticino Cantons.
In 1904, Luigi Guanella realised his dream to go to the Holy City, Rome, to be alongside the Pope and demonstrate his fidelity to the Church through shining testimony of charity and apostolic ardour. Pope Pius X, who had understood Fr Guanella’s grandeur of soul, respected him and entrusted him with his desire to build a church dedicated to St Joseph. He also gave rise to the Pious Union of St Joseph, an association of prayer for the dying. Saint Pius X wanted to be the first to be enrolled. His missionary zeal took him to North America among Italian migrants there. In December 1912, at seventy years of age, Fr Guanella set out for the United States. The final extraordinary intervention in Fr Guanella’s life happened in January 1915 when he wanted to remain in Rome to help those affected by the earthquake in Abruzzo. Working zealously at his side was the Venerable Aurelio Bacciarini, first parish priest of St Joseph’s, and his successor in governing the Congregation of the Servants of Charity, then later called to the episcopal ministry in the diocese of Lugano in Switzerland. The onset of old age, Italy’s entry into the First World War and the involvement of some of his confreres on the military front threatened Fr Guanella’s health. He left this message in his writings: “Death is like a mother embracing her son ... the angel that leads us home.” This mother, a radiant angel, came to him at 2:15 on Sunday 24 October 1915. That Sunday had no sunset.
Fr Guanella and Don Bosco, both priests and great friends, lived at a time marked by profound transformation and social imbalance; they worked as apostles of charity and spent their entire lives working for the salvation of each and every person, building a better society. The profound bond between the two and Fr Guanella’s devotion to Don Bosco was made famous by a prayer Fr Guanella wrote in the monthly magazine of his work, La Divina Provvidenza, in August 1908: “May the grand soul of John Bosco who so protects the Congregation of his sons, the Salesians, now so numerous they can’t be counted, kindly turn its gaze on the institutes of Divine Providence. May he graciously extend his protection over those who belong to these works and especially to his devoted admirer and student. Fr Luigi Guanella.”
On the occasion of his canonisation, Pope Benedict XVI recalled how “Thanks to the profound and continuing union with Christ, in the contemplation of his love, Don Guanella, led by Divine Providence, became a companion and teacher, comfort and support to the poorest and weakest. The love of God aroused in him the desire for the good of the people who were entrusted to him in the routine of daily life ...He paid caring attention to each one and respected the pace of their development. He cultivated the hope in his heart that every human being, created in the image and likeness of God, by tasting the joy of being loved by him — Father of all — can receive and give to others the best of himself. Today, let us praise and thank the Lord, who gave us a prophet and an apostle of love in St Luigi Guanella ... We can summarise his whole human and spiritual life in his last words on his death-bed: “in caritate Christi”. It is Christ’s love that illumines the life of every person, revealing through the gift of himself to others that nothing is lost but is fully realised for our happiness.”