Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Servant of God Rev. Fr Caesar Sportelli, C.SS.R. (1702-1750)

by Rev. Fr Joseph Lande, C.SS.R.

The first of our fathers who passed from our house at Nocera into the heavenly country was D. Caesar Sportelli, who was one of the oldest members of the congregation. He was born at Mola in the Bari, on the 29th March, 1702; But his parents belonged to Putignano on the sea coast, which is on the borders of la Pouille, in the kingdom of Naples, where they occupied an honourable rank in society. His mother was celebrated for her great sanctity, and as she died at Naples her body is carefully preserved there. D. Caesar also went through his studies and became an advocate in that town, and his talents and science caused him to be a shining ornament to his profession. Whilst he was thus engaged he became acquainted with Mgr. Falcoja, who then belonged to the Congregation of Pious Workmen; he chose him for his confessor, and placed himself under his direction, and he also joined the Congregation of Doctors, directed by the same father. When he heard that a new congregation of missionaries had just been founded in the town of Scala, by Father D. Alphonso de Liguori, a Neapolitan chevalier, who was celebrated for his holiness and for his knowledge, God inspired him with a great love for this congregation, and with an ardent desire to become a member of it; however, what made him finally determine to enter it was a dream, in which he saw Jesus Christ in the act of judging the universe; and this made such an impression on him that he at once resolved to leave the world.

Mgr. Falcoja was well aware of D. Caesar’s excellence and of his great talents; no sooner then had he ascertained that his vocation was really from God, then he joyfully told him to place himself under the direction of Father D. Alphonso de Liguori, who at that time had no one with him but Father Vitus Curzius, and who was much consoled by his arrival. D. Caesar was still clad in the garb of a secular, and was nearly thirty-three years of age when he repaired to Scala. As Alphonso felt great expectations in his regard from seeing how great were his talents and virtue, he lost no time in sending him to Rome, that he might be ordained priest, and in this he was seconded by Mgr. Falcoja, and not by the bishop of his diocese, who threw many obstacles in the way. As he possessed the requisite age and attainments, D. Caesar soon received priestly orders, and became one of the first fathers of the new Institute.

Father D. Caesar immediately devoted himself to a life of mortification and excessive labour, as the congregation was very destitute of missionaries at the time. He did immense good by his sermons and catechisings, for God gave him a large measure of grace to aid him in these labours of the ministry. I have often heard him, and knew him well, and I can safely assert that he truly excelled in these duties, and that he was loved and admired by all.

After some little time he went to exercise his ministry in a great many large towns, such as Salerno, where he gave a retreat to all the clergy, in presence of Mgr. Rossi, the archbishop; he also gave one to the religious at Monte Vergine, and to many other communities, to their great satisfaction, and to the great profit of the souls of those who heard him. Besides the duties in the pulpit and the confessional, in which he was constantly engaged, a great many of his penitents wrote to consult him from all parts.

When he gave the spiritual exercises in a convent, he made such an impression on the religious that they could never forget either his sermons or his counsels. He was often superior in a great many of our houses, and he was held in the highest esteem on account of his wisdom and prudence wherever he went; he was especially distinguished by the way in which he established the foundation of our house at Caposele, of which he took possession, and was the first superior. God alone knows all he had to endure there! When he first entered this hermitage, he did not even find forks for dinner, nor food to eat, and he and his first companion, Father Gaspar Corsino, were obliged to find their only sustenance in a little fruit. He entered this house in the beginning of December in the year 1747; as he had preached to the inhabitants of this place during the preceding Lent with much fruit, they felt the greatest affection for him, and were quite delighted that he was the one selected to be its founder.

This foundation began in the very greatest poverty; on the first evening indeed when he was in the house called Mater Domini, he and Father Gaspar had positively nothing to eat. But when some of his penitents heard of this state of things, they rendered him some assistance. It is true that he had at first received an alms of thirty ducats, but he spent the whole sum in buying the materials required for building the house; the work was carried on by means of further alms received from the poor of the neighbourhood, who felt such great love for Father Caesar, that the very sound of his name was enough to make them eagerly bring him stones, wood, and all other needful materials. Their exertions were also animated by the example of this father, who did the most wonderful things, and spared no personal labour.

There was one of his penitents, named Sister Mary Santorelli, at Caposele at this time, who was confined to bed by an affection on the nerves and other serious infirmities; Father D. Caesar went to visit her, for before we were established in this house, she had often been in it and always felt the greatest interest in it. He asked her how many communions she had lost during her illness. “Five,” she replied. “What,” exclaimed the father, “five communions lost without my leave!” She then added, that it was to her own great sorrow. “No, No,” continued D. Caesar, “you must not miss any more.” Sister Mary then saw that he had given her a command to leave her bed, and so in truth it was, for when she got up the next morning she found that she was perfectly well, and was able to receive holy communion. The same sister has related other marvelous things in the life of this father, and said that he had a special and wonderful power in calming troubled consciences.

I will not dwell on the great labours he had again to go through in building our house of Nocera de Pagani, in which undertaking he placed all his trust in Divine Providence, who sent him frequent assistance through friends and benefactors. He had such a wonderful power of gaining over hearts that his demands were always well received, and no one was able to refuse what he asked. Our congregation was really infinitely indebted to him for the aid he thus obtained.

His mortification of sight afforded a perfect model of modesty. Once when he was on a visit with Mgr. Falcoja at Rome, in the house of some nobleman where there were also several young ladies of rank, he never even looked at them or conversed with them, although his stay was by no means a short one. We heard this from the present abbess of the convent of Bauco, who was an eye-witness of what she related.

Amongst his other resolutions he determined never to ask for anything, and never to refuse anything, according to the advice of St. Francis of Sales. Now to test his virtue the superior once forbade anyone to give him snuff, which was a very great privation to him; but God sent an angel to him under the semblance of a young man, who carried a large box full of it, with which he replenished his snuff-box, and then instantly disappeared.

D. Caesar had also a great love for prayer, especially for vocal prayers and pious ejaculations, and he was so much in the habit of making use of them that he uttered pious aspirations to God even during his sleep. He was full of charity towards his neighbour. When he was but a secular at Naples, he recommended a young man who was in distress to one in authority; as he found that he had fallen into vicious habits, he unhesitatingly warned him of the evil of his ways. On receiving this reproof and finding himself thus unmasked, the young man had the baseness to try to shoot him one evening; D. Caesar was not offended at this; but after again succeeding in bringing him back to the paths of virtue, he continued to protect and assist him as before.

After many very great and painful labours, to which he unceasingly devoted himself in the work of the ministry, and after a multitude of cares and obstacles which he had to experience in the government of our rising congregation, he at length sunk under a weight of infirmities and maladies which caused him to come to a premature end. He was first attacked by a violent apoplectic stroke, which left a trembling in all his limbs and nearly deprived him of speech. In consequence of this fatal blow he became incapable of all occupation. This infirmity lasted more than a year, during which he never once complained of the decrees regarding him, on the contrary he always manifested the greatest conformity to the will of God. He was submissive to all, attached faith to what he was told, and acted in all and towards all with the simplicity of a child; at length, after he had consumed his life in labour and trial, God deigned to reward him by taking him out of this world to the mansions of eternal bliss.

Before he expired he intoned that glorious hymn of triumph, “In exitu Israel de Egypto,” and then resigned his soul into the arms of his creator. He had several times foretold the day and hour of his death. On the day on which it really took place, he spoke of and would hear of nothing but heaven, and he caused several hymns on the happiness of the saints to be sung to him, and he died in this state of holy joy on the 19th April, 1750, surrounded by all his fathers. He had from the first been consultor-general of the congregation, and although he was suffering from the disease of which we have spoken, he was confirmed in this office by the first chapter which was held after our rules were approved at Rome; which was done as much because of the esteem and respect which was felt for him on account of his virtue and science, as because he was one of the first fathers of the congregation.

It would be difficult to express what a general sensation was caused by the tidings of his death, so great was his reputation for sanctity. I must however confess before God that we had not such an exalted opinion of his virtue while he was alive as we entertained after his death; for he was a man of simple manners who accommodated himself to everyone; and he had also a way of concealing his virtues and mortifications.

On one occasion however he could not hide the singular favours which God conferred on him. He was going to preach at Caposele, where the exercises were being given, and when the lay-brother went to his cell to call him, he found him suspended several inches in the air, and the whole room was filled with a dazzling brightness. His sermon on that day produced the most extraordinary fruit.

When we witnessed the general eagerness to procure something of which he had made use, which took place after his passage to a better life, above all when we heard of the innumerable prodigies and miracles which God everywhere affected through the medium of his relics and images, we were filled with astonishment. Until a more detailed Life of this great servant of God is published, it will be impossible to form a just idea of his merit in the sight of God and of his favour with Heaven.

For my part, I will confine myself to relating a great prodigy which I myself witnessed. As we had not a vault at Nocera at the time of his death, our fathers caused a grave to be made in which he was laid dressed in all his sacerdotal vestments. At the expiration of three years and seven months, we thought it right to take his body out of the damp low grave in which it was at first placed, to put it with the others in the vault which had been constructed for this purpose. It was therefore disinterred, and carried to our chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows: and as the miracles which were wrought by him were talked of in all directions, we were anxious to see whether he would work some fresh miracle in our presence, and in what state his body was after the three years and seven months which had elapsed since his death. For this purpose, and by the order of that learned and pious prelate, D. Gerard Volpe, the bishop of Nocera, the keeper of the register, a canon of the cathedral, as well as D. Thomas Cortora, the Abbot of Angri, were sent for, and the coffin was opened in their presence. How great was the astonishment of all when we saw that although all his garments were decayed and almost consumed, yet his body was as entire, flexible, and beautiful, as on the day of his death, and that it also exhaled a sweet fragrance.

Our surprise was greatly increased when we saw that his intestines had not become corrupt, and that his stomach had preserved its elasticity. He was bled, and for the further glory of His servant, God permitted bright blood to gush forth after the incision. At this sight we could do nothing but offer up a thousand thanksgivings to Him from whom every good and perfect gift proceeds. The body was then clad in new vestments, and replaced in the coffin; the seals were duly affixed, and all the public records were drawn up according to the requisite forms, so that the cause of the canonization might be commenced at the time appointed by God, and that the state of his body might be duly authenticated.

Two engravings of the portrait of the servant of God were immediately prepared, to gratify the devotion of the people by distributing pictures of him amongst them. Our Father Alphonso even went the length of petitioning the Holy See to allow his cause to be introduced; but the storms which have agitated the little bark of our congregation from its very commencement, have prevented his being able to follow up this matter. †

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