Homily at the Rite for the Beatification of the Servant of God Giuseppina Nicoli, by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, 3 February 2008
The First Reading is taken from the Prophet Zephaniah, in which one sees a flaming torch of hope advancing for the humble and the poor. The rise of the city of the just is announced, the city of those who choose the Word of God as a guide for their life and their hope.
In the Second Reading we listened to Saint Paul repeating forcefully to the Corinthians an idea that recurs throughout the Bible, namely: God’s choices are “special” since they do not single out successful people. He chooses the “least”, such as Isaac, Jacob, David; the speech-impaired such as Moses and Jeremiah, peasants like Amos, fishermen like the Apostles, the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner are those he protects. In his battle against evil he does not arm himself like warriors or nobles and the powerful; rather, he chooses the weak or those who are despised and sometimes trampled upon by others.
The famous passage of the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel, proclaimed just now and which opens the Sermon on the Mount, is addressed first of all to the “poor in spirit”, a biblical expression that refers to those who have a free heart and free hands.
The Gospel category, so to speak, of the poor in spirit does not refer merely to the needy, since it is possible to possess nothing and yet be selfish, clinging to the only coin in one’s possession. On the contrary, this category denotes those who detach themselves from concrete and private things, who do not base their security and trust on goods, success, pride or the cold idols of gold and power but are rather open to God and to their brethren. Although disdain of history may also seem a defeat, in reality, this is what God is concerned with in order to build a different world. The Beatitudes are full of theological significance with a Christological impact.
Jesus, in other words, is not only a teacher of morals who teaches people principles of behaviour in conformity with their dignity and vocation; he is first of all the herald of the Good News of salvation given by God.
Jesus does not limit himself to proclaiming this Good News with words but expresses it in his behaviour to the lowly, to the poor, to every kind of disadvantaged person. These are Beatitudes or Parables. Jesus’ words are inseparable from his actions, whose meaning and importance they explain. Jesus’ mission does not consist merely in proclaiming the coming of his Kingdom.
The entire ministry of Jesus is first an epiphany of the Kingdom of God, who already gives human beings a glimpse of the true nature of his sovereignty: a sovereignty that does not seek to dominate but rather to save and, through pure grace, primarily to save the unhappiest: men, women and children.
The beautiful personality of the new Blessed, Sister Giuseppina Nicoli, fully conforms to this context. Indeed, she stands out with exquisitely evangelical features. Starting from this point we see the result of the sap of divine grace that nourished her whole existence as if it were rising from a plant’s roots. Thus, Sister Giuseppina expressed her greatest aspiration: “I want to belong wholly to the Lord!”. We may perhaps find the key to Sister Giuseppina Nicoli’s spiritual life and holiness in this aspiration, expressed since her youth and to which she remained faithful all her life.
Making room for God within herself and thus considering herself an instrument and manifestation of God’s love: in this way Giuseppina was able to live the virtue of Christian humility, which is not the sterile belittling or annihilation of the self but recognizition that God alone acts and is holy, indeed, “magnificus in sanctitate” – as we recite in the Psalter (Saturday, First Week, Morning Prayer) -, yet he desires to come into the world and history through us.
Giuseppina Nicoli has shown us that living for God and in God means being truly free: a message we may need, especially in a world that all too often identifies freedom as individual self-affirmation and closure to others and those in need.
She truly dedicated herself to the Lord without reserve: convinced that “love of neighbour is the measure of God’s love”, as she liked to repeat, bearing witness to Christ’s love for the poor, the illiterate, the needy, whose suffering she alleviated while she led them on the paths of the Lord.
What was striking in Sister Nicoli was how she readily accepted and responded to the new social challenges of the time; Gospel hope, which did not let her hesitate in the face of misunderstandings and difficulties; the depth of her communion with Christ in the Eucharist, which supported her in all her charitable enterprises; as well as the constant effort she made to evangelize.
Those who lived beside her said that charity was “the rule of all her thoughts, all her words and all her actions”. She trod a path of humility, with which she sought to hide from the flattery and acclaim of the world in order to “disappear” in Christ’s love. She also experienced the mystery of love for the poor as an act of love for the Lord.
Blessed Giuseppina’s happiness at belonging wholly to the Lord was one of the features that distinguished her exercise of the virtues such as chastity, poverty and obedience, which she never experienced as a mere deprivation or mortification but instead as the joyous, authentic, fruitful and complete gift of herself and a sign of infinite love for God, hence, also for her neighbour.
Sister Giuseppina’s life was not marked by resounding events or occurrences but by ever-increasing openness to grace and convinced faithfulness to her specific vocation as a Daughter of Charity.
The example Blessed Nicoli offers us in her simplicity and vocational consistency can be an incentive for the growth of that “”creativity’ in charity”, described by John Paul II as essential to ensure that the proclamation of the Gospel does not risk “being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications. The charity of works ensures an unmistakable efficacy to the charity of words” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 50).
In short, we find ourselves not only before a truly exceptional social assistant but also a great benefactress: Sister Giuseppina, faithful to the teaching of the Founders of her Religious Institute, Saint Vincent and Saint Louise, was also able to unify and give meaning to the multiplicity of her action through the experience of the Mystery of God’s love. It was not by chance that she was called “a mystic of Love”.
In imitation of Saint Vincent it can be said that she loved God with the sweat of her brow and manual labour, leaving an indelible memory wherever she went and worked. At every opportunity she would give herself to all: and the testimonies are unanimous in recording that she never refused anyone what they asked of her, whether it was material or spiritual.
Archbishop Ernesto Piovella of Cagliari, esteemed as holy by the people of Cagliari and whose apostolic and charitable dynamism closely resembled Sister Nicoli’s, remembered her in one of his letters: “I admired her, never weary of doing good”.
Many found her smile an important trait of her holiness: “She was always smiling”. Sister Nicoli’s smile was not something marginal or fleeting, but rather the expression of a profound inner value. Thus, she revealed the human and beautiful aspect of the spiritual life and of holiness.
Sister Nicoli’s love of neighbour, we might say, was expressed in all directions and was boundless. Nonetheless, we must necessarily note that she was not without one special preference: in fact, she fully lived that “preferential option” for the poor with its clear Gospel stamp.
Siser Nicoli was an authentic teacher of life: her lesson is still timely in our age and society where mobility and consumerism, life’s frenetic pace, the siege of the mass media and the loss of absolute values, threaten above all to bewilder and alienate our young people.
The model of life Sister Nicoli proposed is important for today’s young people, who all too frequently are attracted by the ephemeral, with no valid prospects, incapable of committing themselves to an ideal for which it is worth spending one’s entire life with courage and without second thoughts: Sister Giuseppina seems to incarnate the message of being and of making oneself a “gift” to others. “In the saints”, Benedict XVI says in Deus Caritas Est, “one thing becomes clear: those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them” (n. 42).
For this reason today’s Beatification is an important, invaluable gift of Providence to the Church in Cagliari, especially in the context of the City Mission by which, thanks to the inspired zeal of Archbishop Giuseppe Mani, your Pastor, the Gospel is returning to walk on your streets and enter your homes. The Saints are the Gospel lived, proclaimed, indeed “sung” to our contemporaries.
Blessed Nicoli comes to tell the 375 missionaries who are involved in this impassioned apostolic undertaking and to all the faithful – because every Christian, as we know, is to some extent a missionary – that time spent for Christ is time well spent.
May God grant that we be capable of understanding it as she did. Amen.