Carmel in the World Magazine
Carmel in the World
2016. Volume LV, Number 2
- The Reality and a Way Forward
- Carmel Movement – Contemplation and Lay Spirituality
- Amata Cerretelli, Third Order Carmelite (1907-1963) – below
- A Profile of Rico Ponce from the Philippines
- His Name is Mercy: The doctrine of Mercy on Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi
- My Carmelite Journey
- Silencing my Soul
- Poem: Being Open Before God
- A Grateful Heart
- Carmel around the World
Amata Cerretelli, Third Order Carmelite (1907-1963)
Foundress of the Carmelite Lay Movement ‘La Famiglia’, Castellina, Italia
Falco Thuis, O.Carm., is a member of the Dutch Province and a former Prior General of the Order.
In her weakness, she was strong
Amata was sick her whole life. At birth she was so weak that she was hurriedly brought to the church to be baptized before she might die. Though she reached the age of 56, her life seemed always on the brink of death. The long list of illnesses that marked her life made her abandon the idea of getting married: would she not be more of a burden to her spouse than a blessing?
It might be thought that a woman so limited by bad health would mean little to others, either materially or spiritually. Amata Cerretteli was the exception to the rule. Not only did she spend her life serving others worse off than herself, but she managed to leave behind a spiritual family of thousands, united by one desire: to bring unity to a fractured society. Years before the Second Vatican Council, ‘La Famiglia’ tried to take seriously each person’s calling – coming from the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation – and bring Christ into the public domain, particularly where members of ‘La Famiglia’ are found.
‘La Famiglia’ (The Family) is the name of a lay movement that has its centre in the Carmelite monastery of Castellina, one of the villages in the hills that overlook Florence, Italy. It is interesting that this Family’s many branches, each with its own specific field, all express their togetherness in religious, social and sporting gatherings. A number of years ago La Famiglia owned a number of well-known textile factories. These were not only organized according to Catholic principles of social justice as indicated in the social doctrine of the Church, but also fostered a spiritual life: managers and workers came together to celebrate Holy Mass in the chapel of the factory. For those who wanted, opportunity was given to pray the Rosary. There were regular gatherings wherein introductions to Holy Scripture and to Catholic social doctrine were given. After the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist people with their whole household came together for an ‘agape-meal’.
Groups were organized for different kinds of sport. Enthusiastic cyclists received sponsorships, which produced a number of national champions. For many years the president of the Italian Cycling Federation was a member of La Famiglia and legendary cyclist Gino Bartali was a member of the Third Order of Carmel.
Other branches of La Famiglia which must be mentioned are the Third Order of Carmel (six hundred members), the Hunters of St Martin, St Peter’s Fishermen, the parents group Holy Family, St Raphael’s Betrothed, Sunday Mixed Groups, the Swallows (a group of young people who keep contact with those who are estranged from the Church), the Samaritans, who care for the sick, the Mountain Climbers, the Practitioners of the Fine Arts, and Prayer Groups for Vocations.
La Famiglia as a secular community has set a goal for itself and that goal is a recurrent theme in all its branches:
The association wants to bring together people who live in the world, who seek for Christian perfection and for a life wherein the religious dimension is experienced, in order that they are connected with each other in the spirit of Christ, and so help each other to live in the strength and the fire of the first Pentecost. The association also promotes the meeting of members for cultural and sporting events and other healthy uses of relaxation time.
It is amazing that Amata Cerretelli pushed for all these initiatives while she was suffering terribly in many ways: physical, moral, spiritual and financial. Assisted by her spiritual director, Fr Augustino Bartolini, Amata was driven by a desire to do something beautiful for God, and the more she suffered the more she was driven. Instead of being turned inward by her problems, Amata turned to others, full of concern to help them. God’s grace worked miracles in this woman who stumbled from one crisis to another. She invested so much in others that she seemed not to have time to worry about herself.
Amata’s early life predicted little good
Amata was born at 9.00pm on January 11, 1907, in Campi Besenzio, a village just outside Florence which is now part of the city. Her parents, worried about the frailty of their firstborn child, and being strong believers, had her baptized immediately by the parish priest.
Another unusual thing happened on the day of Amata’s First Communion, Pentecost Sunday, June 16, 1916. Everything went fine until just before the priest was about to give her Communion. Amata ran away crying. Whatever her problem could have been, it was not easy to console her, although finally her parents were able to bring her back to the Communion rail. Now calm, she received very devoutly the Eucharistic Lord, and remained praying after the Mass full of grateful joy. This episode appears symbolic for her whole life, in which joys and much sorrow alternated.
During the nine years that followed, Amata experienced the painful side of life. The physical pain that wracked her body was diagnosed by the doctors as acute rheumatism of the arteries. Medicines appeared rather to worsen her condition than ease it. As often happens, a lowering of morale, which Amata called work of the devil, hit her even more painfully.
Even during brief periods of relief, Amata could walk only with great difficulty. She remained imprisoned in this condition till her eighteenth year. Thankfully, she was supported by Carmen Arini, her lifelong friend, who also wrote the first biography of Amata.
Friends from Amata’s mother’s home town offered to take the girl into their household for a change of environment. During a painful journey by train she felt that her fellow passengers considered her unusual, even out of her mind. She developed a speech difficulty. She moved, bowed down in pain. The local specialist doctor gave up treating her. Finally, it was decided to let her return home. When she was waiting for the train in the station, she fell and incurred a head wound, and thus came home worse than when she had left.
But Amata had courage. Every time she felt a little bit better, she again took on the household chores and helped in her parents’ café. Although the family had financial troubles (they had had to sell half of their property), they were able to give her a small remuneration. With this she made the ideal of charity actual: the little money she earned she gave to anyone who was worse off than she.
When Amata felt well enough, she went daily to Holy Mass and Communion. Her greatest joy surely was her union with Jesus in the Eucharist. This gave her the strength to go on, but also the light to see that she was not as good as others who could do much more than she did.
When Amata was eighteen years old, her condition became critical and she had to stay in bed for six months. At one point the doctor said that she had only a few years of life left. In despair her parents borrowed money and asked a specialist from Florence to come and examine their daughter. He confirmed the diagnosis of his colleagues: ‘You can’t imagine how difficult I find it to tell you this about your only daughter, but she will not make it through the night’. Her mother called the parish priest to anoint her daughter. The priest gave her Communion and went home to get the Holy Oil, but when he came back he found Amata much more peaceful and therefore he did not anoint her.
When Amata continued to feel better, both the family doctor and the specialist said that they could not explain how she still could be alive. She could work a little bit again, on and off, with good and bad days: when her arm was not swollen, she would have a swollen leg; on other days it was her kidney or her spinal cord that caused her terrible pain. In the meantime the family’s finances were utterly depleted. They had to borrow money to stay alive.
Great trouble hits the family
Then catastrophe happened. At 2.00am on February 2, 1922, there was loud knocking on the door of the Cerretelli family: ‘Open the door in the name of the law’. Amata’s father was accused of trafficking in contraband tobacco and arrested, although the police had found nothing as they ransacked the home in the presence of the terribly surprised Amata and her mother.
The next day Amata walked to the prison, where she found her father desperate: they had tortured him to wrest a confession from him. Eleven months of imprisonment followed. Her father lost weight very fast because of the meagre food in the prison. Amata and her mother set aside daily portions of their own more nutritious food to bring him, who was imprisoned with eleven others. He told his daughter:
‘My dear Amata, I cannot eat this while I see the others here with me going hungry. They get nothing else than prison food and that is very little. If mother agrees, bring some food for everybody here, that would be good; otherwise just bring nothing, because the others are from Calabria and so are very far from their families’.
Amata and her mother went so far in self-denial that they fasted daily in order to be able to bring some food for the twelve men each day.
After eleven months the court case against the accused started. The lawyer, a good friend of the family, did everything he could, but to no avail. They were all declared guilty. Amata’s father was sentenced to eleven months, time served, because of lack of evidence, and was released at the end of the court case. But another cross was waiting for him: because he had been sentenced, the authorities revoked his permit to sell tobacco. His business, already weakened by his long imprisonment, now collapsed. He had to borrow money again to re-open.
In the meantime Amata’s health had worsened again. Her doctor told her that her tonsils caused the problems and had to be removed. Amata was hospitalized but the surgeon did not agree with the diagnosis and refused to operate on her. She was sent home, but the family doctor stuck to his opinion. They found a doctor who was willing to perform the surgery, but he did it without anaesthesia, for which she was too fragile. Her health did not improve with this painful operation. The first surgeon repeated his opinion that the tonsils were not the cause of her walking bowed down in pain, but rather the kidneys and the spinal cord.
When Amata was up and about again, she decided that the café/bar was not booming because it was not modern enough. She borrowed money to modernize things, and she put tables and chairs outside near the door. The business improved a little until October, when it started getting colder, and once again there were fewer customers.
At the same time Amata became bedridden again, this time because of a swelling under her foot. The family doctor, aware of the financial difficulties of the family, operated on her in his private practice. After the operation the swelling returned. The doctor was afraid that the tumour was malignant and decided to amputate her foot. Amata’s mother was totally upset. She prayed to St Anthony and her prayers were answered somehow: the tumour disappeared. Incredibly, this misery of the tumour was followed by recurrent problems with her throat, lasting sometimes for ten days, so severe no one could understand Amata when she talked. A doctor operated on her again with negative results. Until her death, Amata continued to have problems speaking clearly.
Things went from bad to worse. Amata and her parents were not even able to pay the interest for the three loans they had taken out. They received a notice that their property would be auctioned. At the last moment there was an amicable settlement whereby the first creditor bought the whole Cerretelli property, giving the family one month to find a new house. With the proceeds, Amata was able to pay off their debts, and also to pay the attorney’s fee. With the remaining money she rented a place for them to stay and started to look for work. She was the only one capable of drawing a salary; her father could barely make it. Someone promised her that she could get a job in a local factory if she would learn to type. She took a crash course in typing from a friend, but when she finally turned up for the job, the director told her that he had needed someone immediately, and therefore had employed two others. A new setback, but again Amata looked for God’s hand in this.
Her friend, Carmen, had financial problems too. Together they found an apartment that would give accommodation to both their families. Amata took on assembly line work in a factory where the all-important factor in the job was speed, and she had to leave the house at 5.00am each day. Because of her constant poor health and lack of proper food, Amata became exhausted, and very soon she collapsed. She was bed-ridden during the whole winter of 1935-36. When, in the spring, she appeared to regain health, another cross came for Amata: her father died on Sunday, May 10, 1936, aged 71.
Her ordeals continue
Her friends were unanimous in urging her to look forward to a marriage. Amata was a beautiful woman and proposals were not lacking. But Amata did not want to hear of marriage, neither from the suitors nor when relatives pointed out that she and her mother would then be taken care of. Some suggested that since, due to her bad health, she could not take care of her family, would she not become a religious sister? She answered: ‘By the sacrament of baptism and confirmation I have received all graces that are needed to be as God wants me to be and to fulfil all the obligations of my state of life’.
Amata found a job in a store where artificial flowers were made and coloured ornamental feathers. She managed to keep this job for two years, even though she had to contend with an unbelievable number of different illnesses. First, she was troubled with two abscesses around her nose which caused her whole face to be inflamed, which confined her to bed with high fever, and made her unable to eat and drink. When she recovered she was hit by a sciatica attack which lasted three months, until Christmas. She could not attend Midnight Mass, which upset her most. This pain was hardly gone when she felt a terrible pain in her left little finger. The doctor discovered an infection under the nail and immediately removed the nail, during which she fainted from the pain. Not long after this another nail had to be removed for the same reason.
The next station on her road of sicknesses was appendicitis: several doctors refused to operate on her because she was too weak and her heart was not strong enough for an operation. Finally, a cardiologist was consulted and he gave permission for her to undergo surgery: the appendix was removed and also much infectious matter from the abdomen. It took a month before she was back on her feet again.
The Second World War brought her only a worsening of her sufferings. Her house was hit by a bomb. Two rooms were spared. Another time when Amata was walking down the street, a bomb fell nearby destroying several buildings in the neighbourhood. Amata was thrown to the ground by the air pressure, but to her surprise she stood up with just a few scratches while everything around her was in ruins. In all the traumas of war, Amata was always more concerned with victims who were worse off than herself.
The eldest niece of the deceased parish priest, lame from birth, suffered cancer in her old age. Amid the terror of the war, which was a constant threat, the niece was left to fend for herself. Amata took care of her: every day she went to wash her, clean the house, and prepare two meals for her. This loving service she gave until the end of the war, when the woman was finally freed from her suffering.
Next to the ailments of neighbours, and her own, Amata’s mother, too, needed her care and attention. In the course of the years she became ever more dependent on her daughter. Asthmatic and fragile for lack of proper food, the mother was rarely out of bed or off the sofa. One day, while she was taking care of her mother, Amata herself became sick. The doctor was puzzled about this new and frequent vomiting, which weakened her so much that she could not walk without support. At the same time a cyst had developed on her left eyelid, making it immobile, and requiring further surgery.
After these setbacks she found it difficult to recover her strength. A friendly family from another village took her in, hoping that a change of place would help Amata recover again. She made a visit to the famous local sanctuary of St Valentine but that did not bring a solution to her recurrent fever, coughing and anaemia. She asked to be allowed to return home. A doctor diagnosed tuberculosis and told her that she had to be confined in a sanatorium. But her relatives took pity on her, brought her to their home and cared for her till she recovered. Amata was very grateful for this.
Meeting Father Augustin Bartolini, O.Carm.
The Scarlinis, good friends of Amata and her family, had come into contact with Augustin Bartolini, a young priest in the Carmine Maggiore in Florence. The couple wanted to share that fruitful experience with Amata by bringing her into contact with the young Carmelite. But Amata, having been disappointed already so many times, refused it. She was already strongly committed to continuing her way of the cross, and to see her illnesses as God’s will for her, and as an invitation to participate in Christ’s suffering for the salvation of the world. But, because of her friends’ insistence, she went with her friend Carmen to Florence to visit Fr Augustin on January 1, 1948.
This day marked a new phase in Amata’s life. Fr Augustin became her spiritual guide. He wanted to help her grow in Christian perfection precisely in and through her suffering. The first meeting did not go well: Amata received a blessing from the priest but she found him rather strict. As she started to feel better physically and spiritually, she had the courage to see him again three weeks later.
After years of Carmelite guidance, Amata and ten other people in her prayer group asked if they could become members of the Third Order of Carmel, and on February 10, 1957, they became members of the Carmelite family.
The rest of Amata’s life revolved around three forms of dedication: to her beloved Lord Jesus, her Redeemer: to La Famiglia which she founded together with Fr Augustin; and to a number of people whom she cared for in different ways.
For Amata, the spiritual world was just as real as the physical world and the people around her. She spoke of Jesus Christ, of Our Lady, but also of the devil, as being very close to her. She had a special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Often she found alleviation in her suffering when she thanked the Lord for his personal presence in the Eucharist. For many years Amata had known real hunger, but she hungered even more for the spiritual food of the Eucharist and she felt the worst pain if, because of sickness, she could not participate in the Eucharist. If she had time she could spend hours before the Blessed Sacrament, in a deep dialogue with him who was the Love of her life.
She did not marry because Jesus had become her all. That is why, when she became a tertiary of the Order of Carmel, she wanted to be called ‘Amata of Jesus,’ the name that appears on her tombstone. Often she sensed that Jesus talked to her directly, with the urgent request to bring him to others and make known his Good News, to be a peacemaker, to be a partner in his suffering and death. In Jesus one finds the meaning of the cross. And in communion with the suffering Lord, Amata realized she had the privilege to go the same way he went, for the redemption of the world. Most people who are afflicted by as much suffering as Amata can’t do anything else other than remain stuck in their situation. Amata became an apostle, a peacemaker, an embodiment of Christian love, because she had been so united with her Lord Jesus in his terrible suffering.
During her life Amata had experiences of the devil’s presence. In accordance with Catholic doctrine evil for her was not so much a ‘something’ but rather a ‘someone’. Evil was embodied in the fallen angel, and this one tried to make use of Amata’s sickness and her weakened condition to intrude into her life. But she was not unexpectedly assaulted. Even when her physical pain was at its worst, she recognized the prince of deceit and defended herself as energetically as possible. She continued the struggle that Jesus had started against the evil one and against all this one stands for.
Amata also had a great devotion for the souls in Purgatory. From her youth she had this loving orientation. She did not limit her love of neighbour only to those around her, but, as with so many other Catholic faithful, she wanted her love also to go to those who have come near their eternal reward, but still need a necessary purification and healing.
Her creative dedication to ‘La Famiglia’
By her apostolate of prayer, her advice and spiritual guidance of people, by her encouragement of every form that the La Famiglia adopted, and by her practical help, Amata guided this apostolic movement which she and Fr Bartolini had started in the aftermath of the attempt on the life of Togliatti, the communist leader. Feelings in Italy were at boiling point and the contrasts among the people were deep and bitter. Italian society experienced deep disunity, and the two founders of the movement wanted to work for an alternative in a Christian context. Their goal was bringing people together, even from different socio-economic levels. They were convinced that Jesus and his Church with its admirable social doctrine were the answer to the tormenting problems of post-war Italy. In Jesus Christ, the great Unifier, the Italian society didn’t have to fall apart.
La Famiglia has wanted ever since to be a witness of this: many successful happenings in post-war Italy are owed to La Famiglia and similar movements. For Amata and the other members of La Famiglia, the wearing of the Carmelite habit (with a white veil for women) at solemn occasions and public manifestations was not a romantic nostalgia for the past, but a loud cry that there existed an alternative to prejudice, distrust, hate, dishonesty, manipulation – and that alternative was to be found in Jesus the Lord, with a Carmelite accent on spirituality.
Amata, who was her whole life short of money, rented living space with a friendly family. She had a natural empathy for people in need, for the poor, for outcasts and for people at the margins of society. She knew what suffering could do to people and, as a follower of Jesus, she could not do better than continue to care for the spiritually and materially poor. Jesus often gave loving attention to those whom society had excluded: the adulterous woman, the sinner, the leper. For her part, Amata did not have to learn anymore what suffering is; she was a Carmelite in heart and soul and knew how to bend her heart positively so as to help others in need and in trouble as much as possible. This is part of the precious heritage that Amata left behind to La Famiglia.
An inner voice accompanied Amata until the end of her life, saying: ‘Enter the houses. Bring my peace there, my love. Make me better known, make me more loved’. That is exactly what she wanted to do, until she could no more. Exhausted by her continual suffering, she went on, purely out of willpower. As she expressed it, ‘I’m not good anymore for anything; the only thing I know is how to suffer’. The love of God pushed her to people who needed a helping hand, a listening ear. Love pushed her to the sick and to quarrelling families. Through her pain she brought, with a smile, Jesus’ love and peace to people.
The call home
She had celebrated Christmas 1962 more intensely than usual. Most of her time she spent with the hospitable Gelli family. Once a week she spent a day in her own house to clean and put things in order. This is what she did in the beginning of January of the New Year, but because it was very cold, she came back with a cold. Her friends celebrated her birthday on January 11. Because she did not feel well she asked them not to organize anything. Although they honoured her request, they gave her a golden medal. Her cold progressed into a high fever and cramps that shook her whole body. Her head felt as if a heavy weight had battered it. All she could take was water and a little orange juice. She felt as if her body was on fire. Amata asked for the last sacraments. The parish priest was not in, so they called a Franciscan priest. He was touched by her surrender to God’s will. She lingered for a few days in this situation. There was always one of La Famiglia with her. At the end she became comatose. She died at 10.00am on January 26, 1963. Present were her friend, Carmen Arini, and Edo Gelli, in whose house she died, poor in terms of earthly goods, but rich through her pure witness of Christian faith as her heritage, which became fruitful in La Famiglia in many ways.
One of the sons of Edo Gelli was called to Carmel and was ordained a priest. Together with the older Augustin Bartolini he dedicated himself to La Famiglia. To taste something of Amata’s heritage, one just needs to be present at a gathering of her Famiglia on a Sunday in Castellina. The spirit of Amata lives on there in a very lively manner. Through her, Jesus is more known and loved, and peace and love are still brought into many homes. La Famiglia is the best ‘monument’ to this sickly woman who exhausted herself in doing good, suffering in solidarity with her Lord to give life. In her the cross has triumphed again.
Redemptus Valabek, O.Carm.: Profiles in Holiness II, Roma: Edizioni Carmelitane, 1990. pp. 234-258.
Joan Carroll Cruz: ‘Amata Cerretelli’ in Saintly Women in Modern Times. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division: Huntington, 2004. pp. 19-25.