How many times today have you encountered some form of media? We not only have TV, radio, and websites, but also touchscreens for making purchases, magazines at the checkout line, videos at the gas pump, billboards, and (of course) social media such as Facebook and Instagram.
A century ago, when “new media” meant motion pictures, clergymen tended to dwell less on the pastoral opportunity movies offered than on the risk they posed to impressionable youth, who might see amorous or vicious acts played out onscreen. In rural Italy, however, one young priest was looking for a way to evangelize with “the fastest and most efficacious means that progress provides and the conditions require.”
That priest, Giacomo (James) Alberione, was the leader of a growing spiritual family dedicated to “the Good Press.” The Young Men and Women of St. Paul, as they called themselves, would not limit themselves to printing: Alberione told them that every new form of communication could become a pulpit of evangelization. “Insofar as it depends on us, let no one lack divine light!” Alberione exhorted.
Born in a stable in nineteenth-century Italy, James Alberione was the most unlikely of media apostles. Frail, bony, and barely five feet tall, he certainly didn’t look the part, and his high-pitched voice had little to recommend it to radio. But the passion both in his gaze and in his words ignited the hearts of those who listened.
A New Way to Evangelize. Alberione’s passion could be traced back to one night of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Following the provisions of Pope Leo XIII, the first hours of the twentieth century began for many Catholics with High Mass followed by Eucharistic Adoration until daybreak. Sixteen-year-old Alberione, who had only recently been accepted into the seminary, remained in his local cathedral for four hours, immersed in Christ’s presence on the altar. Decades later, writing in the third person, he described that night:
A special light came from the Host, a greater understanding of Jesus’ “Come to me, all of you. . . .” [Alberione] seemed to comprehend the heart of the great Pope, the appeals made by the Church, the true mission of the priest . . . , the duty of being modern apostles. . . . He felt deeply obliged to prepare himself to do something for God and for the people of the new century with whom he would live.
That “night of light” would illumine his next seventy years.
Accompanied by his wise and learned spiritual director, Venerable Francesco Chiesa, James grew “in wisdom, age, and grace” (see Luke 2:52). In time, he came to recognize Christ present in the word of God to such a degree that he saw those who spread the gospel through any form of media as “preachers” exercising a “priestly” apostolate. For Alberione, catechetical publishing was “like raising the Chalice, like placing the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance on the altar for adoration.”
Committed to Ongoing Intellectual Growth. After his ordination in 1907, Alberione spent one year serving a parish before he was appointed seminary professor and spiritual director. He was also named seminary librarian, which prompted him to commit to two daily study periods. He read the leading Catholic periodicals and hundreds of volumes of encyclopedias covering topics as diverse as Church history, war, music, and the law. Alberione took the classical virtue of studiositas (the commitment to ongoing intellectual development) and turned it into an opportunity for the sanctification of the mind.
Now and again, the bishop would assign extra responsibilities to Fr. Alberione: visiting parishes to present Pope Pius X’s vision for Catholic participation in Italian social life, creating a new diocesan catechetical text, and serving as chaplain for the local Dominican convent. He threw himself into each added responsibility. He also took it upon himself to identify ways that the faltering diocesan paper, the Gazzetta d’Alba, could better serve the farming community. And so, with the bishop’s nod, he added this publication to his overflowing list of jobs.
Alberione’s study of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans during this time opened his eyes to the figure of this great Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul’s universal vision and boundless zeal caught hold of Alberione in a personal way during a visit to the apostle’s tomb. In addition to feeling called by Christ, Alberione now found himself chosen and called by St. Paul as well. He saw in Paul a spiritual father whose heart embraced the world and who wanted nothing more for his children than that Christ should be formed in them. Alberione knew that this spiritual transformation had to be total, involving the mind, the will, and the heart. This, he said, is “living Christ as St. Paul . . . lived him.”
Come to Me, All of You. The message Alberione received at the turn of the century had clearly given him the sense of a missionary vocation: he believed that when Jesus said, “Come to me,” he was speaking to everyone, everywhere, from every time and place: all of us. That “all” became one of the hallmarks of Alberione’s life. No person, group, area of society, pastoral situation, human need, or means of communication could be neglected in the great work of evangelization. Similarly, Alberione was concerned about the whole human person. To him, evangelization meant bringing the whole Christ to the whole person: to the mind through the gospel and the catechism; to the will by means of the examples of virtue and the Beatitudes; and to the heart by drawing people to prayer and to a sacramental life.
Fr. Alberione’s concern for the “whole,” for “all,” included his vision for his vocation. Throughout his ministry, he worked tirelessly to establish communities for priests, brothers, sisters, laypeople, and parish priests who did not live in community but were associated with the mission. What became known as the Pauline Family originated in Alba in 1914 when Alberione founded The Small Worker’s Typographic School, which eventually became the Society of St. Paul. Growing to include many religious congregations and institutes, the Pauline Family now includes four congregations of sisters representing Alberione’s desire to present the whole Christ to the whole human person:
- The Daughters of St. Paul represent Christ the Truth, drawing people to him through the media.
- The Sister Disciples of the Divine Master represent Christ the Life, with their service to priests and their work in the liturgical arts.
- The Sisters of Jesus the Good Shepherd represent Christ the Way, through their parish apostolate.
- The Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, follow the example of Mary: just as she trained Christ for his mission, their vocational ministry guides young people to discern their vocation in life.
Born of the Eucharist. Having first been entrusted with his special mission during a night of Adoration, Fr. Alberione often told members of his religious communities, “You were born of the Eucharist.” Without the daily hour of Adoration, he said, “you would rightly complain,” for it would be like having to work without adequate nourishment.
Ever the media apostle, however, Fr. Alberione constantly united the Eucharist and the Bible. He saw Jesus as the Master who teaches, gives the example of his teaching, and communicates the divine life that his teaching embodies. It was his lifelong dream to be able to place a Bible, or at least the Gospels, in every home. But neither the method nor the message could ever be simply one-dimensional. He wanted to see “a gospel full of catechism and liturgy (that is, a Bible with catechetical and liturgical notes); a catechism full of gospel and liturgy; and liturgy (a missalette, perhaps) full of gospel and catechism.”
To Imbue All Knowledge with the Gospel. As the superior general of a men’s religious community, Fr. Alberione was present for every session of the Second Vatican Council. He rejoiced especially in the Council’s Decree on the Media of Social Communications (Inter Mirifica). The farmer’s son who had harvested crops with the same tools his ancestors had used for centuries had become a priest who combed the newspapers for developments in communications technology. There were no limits to his enthusiasm—or his imagination. Like his hero St. Paul, he wanted to help believers “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5): “Imbue all thought and human knowledge with the Gospel,” he said. “Do not speak only of religion but speak of everything in a Christian way.”
By November 1971, Fr. James Alberione had become so ill and frail that he could no longer even celebrate Mass. On November 26, Pope St. Paul VI came to his room and, with a heartbroken expression, blessed the priest just an hour before he died. A few years prior, he had bestowed on Alberione the medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (For the Church and the Pope). At that time, Pope Paul said, “Our dear Fr. Alberione has given the Church new ways to express herself.” But of himself, Alberione said only, “Here is a half-blind man who is led, and as he goes along, is enlightened from time to time. . . . God is the Light.”
James Alberione was beatified on April 27, 2003.
Sr. Anne Flanagan, FSP, is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, a community of women religious founded by Blessed James Alberione in 1915 for the media apostolate.