Sr. Thecla Merlo and the Test of Illness
Testimony of Fr. Carlo Dragone, her spiritual director
during the last months of her life
Fr. Carlo Dragone, a priest of the Society of St. Paul (1911-1974), entered his Congregation in 1925. From 1957 onward, he was in contact with M. Thecla above all for apostolic reasons. He became her spiritual director when she was hospitalized at the Albano Clinic during the last months of her life.
I had always esteemed and admired M. Thecla from the time I knew her, which was shortly after my entrance into the Pious Society of St. Paul in 1925. I had the chance to speak with her briefly on a number of occasions and our every meeting and every word that she wrote served to confirm and root more deeply in me the esteem and admiration I felt toward her, whom I saw as a prudent, capable and virtuous person. That esteem and veneration increased from 1949 onward, when she would visit Regina Apostolorum Clinic, Albano and I had the chance to meet and speak with her more often and at greater length due to my ministry [as chaplain] there, and above all from 16 June 1963, when she was hospital-ized at the Clinic. I would stop by to visit the more seriously ill patients, above all Prima Maestra Thecla, who welcomed me each time as if I were an angel sent by God. I would visit with her for about 10 or 15 minutes each day.
After the first manifestation of her illness [a brain seizure], she rallied discreetly and was still able to express herself with relative ease, even though from time to time she would stumble over her words. After a brief greeting, she would give me an account of her spiritual work that day and touch on spiritual matters. Our visit invariably end with the sacrament of confession.
A Wise, Strong and Upright Woman
These visits served to reinforce always more my conviction that M. Thecla was truly a soul of God: the wise, strong and upright woman praised by Sacred Scripture, rich in natural and supernatural gifts–the whole array of qualities that Sacred Scripture includes under the term “uprightness,” which in today’s language would be called “holiness.” Everything under the discreet veil of simplicity and humility.
My confrere, Fr. Domenico Spoletini, told me the following story:
“We [he and Primo Maestro] were on a train in Viña del Mar, Chile, on our way to visit the Daughters of St. Paul in Valparaiso. Maestra Thecla, the Superior General of the Daughters of St. Paul, and Sr. Julia Toschi, were seated in the row ahead of us. At a certain point the Founder, Fr. Alberione, motioned in the direction of Sr. Thecla and said to me: “Prima Maestra has given herself completely to God with absolute dedication. There is not a single fiber of her being that is not ordered according to the reasoning of the Spirit.”
During her final illness, Maestra Thecla manifested her faith in all its simplicity and greatness, accepting her malady as a gift of God. She often said to me: “How good the Lord Jesus has been to me to give me a sign of my upcoming death and grant me this slight improvement so that I can prepare myself for the final judgment and for heaven. Please help me to use this time of preparation well. I want to do my whole purgatory here on earth…. I want to use my illness to purify myself and obtain many graces for the sisters, for Primo Maestro, for the Pauline Family, for the Church and for Vatican Council II.”
She renewed these intentions frequently, saying: “I can’t remember things anymore. My brain isn’t functioning the way it used to. Please help me by suggesting what intentions I should pray for today.”
Woman of Faith
If M. Thecla had not had great faith, she would not have followed her vocation. At the beginning, it took truly heroic faith to leave her family and embrace an uncertain future and the delicate, difficult duties entrusted to her by the Founder, who often did not give her any explanation [for his orders]. It was not easy to place herself at the complete disposition of a priest whose audacity bewildered everyone to some degree and whom the more timid and conventionally-minded considered to be a dreamer, a megalomaniac, a fool destined for total failure in his many enterprises, which they thought were very risky.
Those who lived alongside Fr. Alberione in the first years of his foundations remember well how hard it was to follow him always and everywhere. The Founder did not have the will of God written on his forehead; he often gave orders and asked for sacrifices for which he did not and could not always give motivations.
He led his followers along a new and difficult path, sustained by a Providence that only people of faith were able to see. It required heroic faith to follow him and not all his first companions had a sufficient degree of this.
There were hundreds, indeed thousands of faint-hearted people who were unable to follow this intrepid pioneer into the open sea. Instead, Sr. Thecla Merlo never had any doubts or uncertainties. She saw the Founder only and always as a person raised up by God to carry out a new and special mission. Only heroic faith can explain why she not only followed him but also assisted him, defended him and helped him in thousands of ways for nearly 50 years (1915-1964). If she had limited herself to human reasoning, she would not have followed the Founder for even a single day.
Once she confided something to me that amazed me and revealed how intimate, continual and profound her union with God was and how docile she was to the Holy Spirit, who guided her contemplation. “When I make my Visit to the Blessed Sacrament,” she said, “or when I receive Holy Communion, I adore Jesus Master, the Son of God incarnate, in the holy Host. In him I adore the Father and the Holy Spirit. In him, I see the whole Mystical Body. Tell me, am I wrong?” I reassured her that she wasn’t wrong and I continued to follow the movement of the Holy Spirit acting within her almost by divine instinct, as St. Thomas says, favoring this profound nourishment and simplifying and deepening her interior life, focusing it ever more firmly on Eucharistic, Trinitarian and Marian contemplation.
As her illness progressed, especially after her second seizure, it became harder and harder for M. Thecla to concentrate, reflect and remember things, and therefore to continue to carry out the practices of piety according to the method used by the Pauline Family.
At first, it cost her a lot to adapt to her new situation because she was afraid it was due to a lack of fervor. More than once she confided to me: “I am no longer able to pray like I did before!” and two tears ran down her cheeks. I reassured her, saying: “Instead, you should be thinking about how to accept your malady. You shouldn’t expect to act as you did when you were healthy. What counts is to do the will of God and to carry one’s cross. Say yes to this new and sorrowful condition and the Lord will be as pleased with you as when you were praying according to the Way, Truth, Life method.”
Thecla not only resigned herself to her new situation but even rejoiced to be able to offer God this fresh sacrifice. When she would begin to say something and then stumble over her words, two tears would roll down her cheeks but she would smile and say: “Fiat voluntas Tua,” or: “Deo gratias!” or else: “Patience!” But her most frequent exclamation was: “Heaven! Heaven! If this is what pleases the Lord, then it pleases me too. I am content!”
One evening she confided to me: “I can’t pray for long periods of time anymore and they [her nurses] do not let me go to the chapel to pray, make my Visit or my meditation. I sit on the balcony outside this room and look at the sky. I look at everything the Lord made–all his works–and I think about him. In this way, I feel united to him.” This is how she prepared for death.
Many times M. Thecla begged me with candor and simplicity to help her prepare to die. She expressed her faith by means of continual, simple, loving and filial prayer. Every day she went to confession and received Communion. In chapel, or else seated in a chair in her room or lying in bed, she made a half-hour meditation and an hour-long Visit to Jesus in the Eucharist, the examination of conscience, her daily prayers and then rosaries, rosaries, rosaries.
Her sole suffering: “I begin the rosary and then I get lost–I don’t remember the mysteries! During my Visit and meditation, I am not able to reflect. During the examination [of conscience], I can’t remember things.” “This is your cross,” I told her. “Carry it with patience and joy, clinging firmly to the will of God, trying to live and die as Jesus wants, living in the presence of God.” And she candidly divulged that she thought especially about Jesus in the Tabernacle and in him she adored all the Persons of the Blessed Trinity.
When she had her first brain seizure, one episode in particular showed me how much M. Thecla loved and esteemed the sacred Liturgy and took an active part in it. At 11:00 p.m. on 16 June 1963, while at the Clinic, I received a phone call asking me to hurry to the bedside of Prima Maestra. She had suffered a brain seizure and had lost consciousness.
In the presence of all the sisters of the General Council and of her Vicar, M. Ignazia Balla, I gave absolution to M. Thecla and administered the Anointing of the Sick, giving her the apostolic blessing with the plenary indulgence in articulo mortis. The other sisters in the room and I recited the prayers for a good death and placed M. Thecla’s soul in the hands of the Lord.
At about 3:00 a.m., she regained consciousness. When I went to see her that afternoon, she said: “I would like to ask you for a big favor and a great grace.” “What is it?” I asked. “I want to receive the anointing of the sick because I am sick. It is a sacrament that helps to sanctify illness and suffering and prepare a person to die well. But I would like you to administer the sacrament without saying anything to anyone, except the superior of the house, so as not to frighten the sisters.” When I told her that during the night she had received not only the sacrament of the sick but also the apostolic blessing and that her soul had been recommended to God, she was exceedingly satisfied even though she remembered absolutely nothing about it. The next day, I think, she received viaticum.
During her illness, she wanted to go to confession every evening because she felt the sacrament of penance to be the most effective means for achieving the purification she considered necessary to prepare for the beatific vision in heaven. She would spend part of the day diligently preparing herself for her evening confession and after receiving the sacrament she would express her joy and gratitude.
On different occasions, she told me: “I have always esteemed the priesthood, but I appreciate it above all now that I am experiencing the effects of your ministry. What would we do without priests? How could we live without them? The priest is Jesus!” I cannot think of anyone who had greater trust, respect, docility and simplicity than that which M. Thecla had for priests.
How many prayers and rosaries [she recited] during her illness. Every evening, I found her seated [in a chair] or in bed with her rosary in hand, intent on reciting the rosary to the Queen of Apostles, to whom, I believe, she offered every day, not just one complete rosary as she had always done throughout her life, but many complete rosaries. For M. Thecla, the rosary was one of the simplest and most effective means of raising oneself [to God] through contemplation of the Christological and Marian mysteries of salvation.
Teacher of Hope
During the eight months of her illness, M. Thecla was a teacher of Christian hope, just as she was a teacher of faith and love toward God and one’s neighbor. Whenever we spoke about the great eternal virtues, as we did every evening, she would listen to what I said with rapture. She loved to listen more than to speak and I admired this attentive and simple listening all the more when I reflected on the fact that I should have been the disciple and she the teacher.
As soon as she realized that she would not be healed without a miracle, she concentrated all her energy on preparing to meet her heavenly Spouse. In her, the thought of heaven was more or less continual.
When she and I spoke about our participation in the Paschal Mystery in action and in passion, in death and in resurrection, in grace and in glory, her always clear gaze would become luminous and her whole attitude revealed how much she relished the revealed truth.
She was no longer able to speak smoothly: she would begin a sentence and almost immediately stumble over her words. She would search for a word to express a thought and not be able to find it. All this caused her great suffering. She still had a lot of things to say and do, to start and finish. Her speech impairment cost her a lot but she promptly and generously accepted this sacrifice and offered it to God. How many times she had to interrupt her end of the conversation because she could not remember what she was saying and could not express herself without stumbling over her words. But immediately afterward, she would say: “Patience! Heaven! Heaven!”
When we spoke about eternal life I could see from her smile, her gaze and the intensity with which she listened that her whole life had been a preparation for heaven and that she felt this goal was now near, in fact, imminent. It was precisely in view of heaven that she accepted her illness, death and all her sufferings, wanting them to serve as her purgatory so that after her death her entrance into the glory of the blessed would not be delayed for even an instant.
In Prima Maestra, during her invalidity, I admired a true teacher of detachment from herself and from everything. Surprised by illness in the midst of her intense activities as Superior General of an Institute that at that point had spread to all the continents, with thousands of members and hundreds of communities, she still had an infinite number of things to start and finish, to continue and change. But without regret she gave up everything, placing her trust in her vicar, whom I heard her praise repeatedly, contenting herself with being informed about only the things she [her vicar] deemed well to call to her attention–things that were compatible with her infirmity.
I never heard a single word nor saw the slightest sign that might indicate that Prima Maestra was afraid or displeased at having to leave the governance of the Institute to others more and more. Nor did she ever express the desire to recuperate enough time and health to be able to deal with the most urgent and important matters. Even here, her favorite words were always, “May God’s will be done. Deo gratias. Patience.”
I admired her complete detachment from her role as Superior General. [On one occasion] she asked for my advice, saying: “I would like to resign…. It would be better for someone else to take my place so as to do what is necessary for the good of the Congregation.” I advised her to express this desire to her legitimate superiors, first of all the Founder, and then to do what she was told. And so she did. She was told to remain in office and to let her vicar do what she could not do herself. She accepted this with simplicity and without objections, and that was the last time she brought up the subject of her resignation.
Complete Adherence to the Will of God
During her illness, M. Thecla carried out a true and magnificent teaching of love. “There is no greater love than this: to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” Throughout her life, Prima Maestra Thecla put into practice her love for God and for her neighbor.
For 49 years (1915-1964), she faithfully collaborated with Fr. Alberione in initiating and guiding the Daughters of St. Paul. Time, health, natural gifts, supernatural virtues and charisms–all were spent for the benefit of the Daughters of St. Paul in the first place and then for the whole Pauline Family, especially the Society of St. Paul and the Pious Disciples of the Divine Master. In a letter to her daughters for Christmas, she wrote: “I want you all to become holy! For this I have offered my life.”
While ill, she often renewed her offering for the Daughters of St. Paul, for the Founder, for the Pauline Family and its apostolate, for Vatican Council II, for the Pope, for the Church, for the glory of God. She would have liked to multiply and remember more often the intentions of her self-offering, her prayer and her sufferings, but she was not able to call them to mind and at first this caused her profound pain.
She manifested joy and gratitude each time I invited her to renew her intentions and to pray and suffer for new ones. She accepted and bore her illness serenely and courageously, preparing for death like a spouse heading toward the house of her Bridegroom.
I am profoundly convinced that M. Thecla’s greatest title of merit and glory was her docility to the will of God. For the whole time that I knew her and had the good fortune to visit her, speak with her and get to know the state of her soul, I never noticed a single word, sign or gesture that was not in conformity to the will of God.
This conformity to the will of God was especially noticeable when she was not able to express herself as she wished. She would invariably smile, even as she furtively wiped away a tear, and would always say: “Whatever pleases Jesus! Whatever the Lord wants! God’s will be done. Patience. Deo gratias.” She never lost her habitual serenity and peace. She could say with Dante: “In his will is our peace.”
I don’t think I am mistaken in saying that M. Thecla’s most radiant example was her constant, serene and prompt adherence to the will of God.
She was extremely faithful to her resolution to overlook the shortcomings of her sisters. I never heard her express a single word or make even a veiled allusion to sisters or other people who had caused her suffering or created problems for her, who perhaps had opposed her or caused her distress. There was certainly no shortage of people like that in her 42 years of governing service and 49 years of religious life. She not only forgave these people but seemed to completely banish the unfortunate situations from her memory.
One evening, shortly after her first brain seizure, she had on her desk a big pile of letters from her daughters all over the world, who had written to her in response to the news that she was sick and that her situation was life-threatening. Gesturing toward the letters, she said: “Look at how good my daughters are. I must confess that this illness has been more helpful to me than a course of spiritual exercises. How many prayers and sacrifices they are offering for me to obtain my healing from the Lord! I do not deserve their love. They love me because they are good.”
Prima Maestra Thecla was unconditionally admired by everyone for the prudence with which she governed the Institute. Her wise and discreet style of governing was based on a rare balance between masculine fortitude and feminine sweetness: her sweetness drew affection and her fortitude obtained a collaboration that was obedient, responsible, joyful and generous.
I noticed and admired her love for divine worship on her visits to the Albano Clinic and later when she was a patient there. At that time, the Clinic’s chapel was under construction and M. Thecla wanted it to be suitably big and beautiful, adorned with fine marble. She spared no expense for the construction of the edifice, its furnishings, the tabernacle, and the altars, which she wanted to be as worthy as possible for the divine Guest and comfortable for the sisters.
Her physical and moral sufferings intensified during the last stage of her illness but as far as I know her habitual serenity was never shaken or dimmed. Even in the most trying moments, she smiled and encouraged the other patients. Her daily visits to the bedridden sisters–as long as she was able to do this–were especially appreciated.
For each sister she had a maternal smile, a good word, prudent advice and encouragement to sanctify their sufferings. All this–and even just the simple, consoling gift of her presence–was always welcomed with joy by the patients because it was a tangible sign of her motherly heart, which made no distinctions among them. And if here or there M. Thecla did display a preference, it was for the patients from other Institutes, to whom she often gave precedence over the Daughters of St. Paul because she was convinced–and said–that guests had a right to precedence and preference. I remember her reiterating what the Founder often said, namely: “The more we take care of the sick from other Institutes, the less sick members we will have of our own.”
In the 8 months of her invalidity, I noted that her mood was always the same: serene, recollected and peaceful. I never saw her profound inner peace shaken, disturbed, dimmed or diminished. M. Thecla was in full control of herself, her actions, reactions and passions. Her balanced external behavior revealed her complete interior balance. I was very edified by the fact that M. Thecla never spoke about herself–what she had done, seen, suffered, heard or said–and she could have said a lot of things, having traveled far and wide across all the world’s continents.
Whenever I stopped by to see her when her health was up to receiving visitors, I always found her recollected in prayer, or answering the mountain of letters she had received, or else busy with knitting, sewing or embroidery work. I also heard that she often went to help the sisters in the kitchen or sewing room.
Her room at the Clinic contained no “extras”: it was furnished just like the rooms of all the other patients. There was nothing in it that might seem to be in keeping with her dignity as Superior General and Co-Foundress of the Institute. Approaching M. Thecla during her illness, one felt immediately enveloped by the virginal charm of her limpid gaze, her innocent and open smile, her discretion and–I would also add–the sweet scent of her spirit, which seemed to emanate from her entire being. It was like being in the presence of not a woman but an angel in human form. Her external aspect was a clear and unmistakable manifestation of her virginal heart.
Her balance between unaffected simplicity and virginal reserve was truly remarkable and wonderful.
Her Style of Governing: Strong and Maternal, Effective and Exemplary
Thecla’s obedience to the Founder and trust in him were anything but easy and often required real heroism. Not a few others (from both the masculine and feminine branches of the Family), entrusted with duties, responsibilities and commitments less elevated than those of M. Thecla, were not able to collaborate with Fr. Alberione for very long. Instead, M. Thecla did this for 49 years, without hesitation and without even a day’s break.
It is therefore very important to consider her under the aspect of faithful collaborator of the Founder: a diligent executor of his directives, an intelligent intermediary agent between him and the sisters.
It was not hard to notice how M. Thecla lived and worked in the light and with the strength of the Holy Spirit. Even though she did not possess extraordinary learning or scholarship, she possessed outstanding wisdom when it came to governing: she was both sweet and strong, exigent and humane, balanced and enlightened. Everyone remembers with gratitude and admiration how enlightened and wise her advice, directives, decisions and commands were.
She possessed to an eminent degree a knowledge of the spiritual life, the religious life, the Pauline life; the knowledge of the saints and of God. The Holy Spirit poured out on her supernaturally the light of faith, apostolic wisdom and practical fortitude, enabling her to govern in a strong and maternal, effective and exemplary way.