“It is the most widely distributed sign of Heaven in the world after the Cross.” This is how Father Valerio Di Trapani, superior of the provincial house of Vincentian missionaries and of the Leonian Apostolic College in Rome, speaks of the Miraculous Medal with the effigy of the Blessed Virgin that She herself asked to have coined for the novice Catherine Laboure, a saint since 1947, when She appeared to her in 1830 on Rue du Bac in Paris.
The “first encounter,” as Father Valerio likes to call it, between the French nun and the Virgin took place on July 18. It was late in the evening and, what sealed the strong and imperishable bond with the great Vincentian family, it was the eve of what for so long was the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, to which the young novice was particularly devoted. A feast later shifted in the liturgical calendar to September 27, the day of the earthly death of the founding father of the Daughters of Charity, the Church’s largest female religious family, to which St. Catherine belonged. An important July anniversary, then, for consecrated men and women who, 192 years later, continue to spread the message of “Monsieur Vincent,” as their countrymen called Vincent de Paul (born in Gascony in 1581).
“Mary is always with us, she is close to us,” exhorts Father Di Trapani, making himself the interpreter of a message “still valid, today more than ever, in a time full of fear dictated also by circumstances,” which the sons and daughters of St. Vincent have decided to relaunch with an initiative that has the flavor of a mission: Mary Pilgrim. Specifically, a pilgrimage from North to South, throughout Italy, from community to community, from parish to parish, of the statue of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal with the comfort of Vincentians.
“It all stemmed from a meeting with the Holy Father on Nov. 11, 2020,” reconstructs for Mary with You Father Vale- rio Di Trapani, national coordinator of the initiative. “On that occasion, which featured, in addition to myself, the superior general of the mission congregation, Father Tomaž Mavric, and the provincial father, Pope Francis bene- tioned the statue of Our Lady of Rue du Bac that we had brought with us, 190 years after the apparitions to St. Catherine Laboure, and being in the midst of the pandemic he invited us to take it on pilgrimage as a sign of hope. So we did and continue to do, with a novelty: our mission has turned into “Three Days with Mary.”
Father Valerio, can you explain the evolution of this beautiful project?
“After a year of peregrinatio, on November 26, 2021 we returned to the Pope. Only this time there were a thousand of us, no longer three, testifying to the great participation of the whole Vincentian family and people in the project. Which went beyond what we expected, if it is true that to date more than 200 parishes have been visited at their request. An extraordinary participation, which filled the Holy Father with joy, to the point that it was he who urged us to go ahead and expand Mary’s presence in each of the places touched by the pilgrimage.”
Can you confide what Pope Francis said to you on this second, important occasion?
“He encouraged us to continue in our mission under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: ‘In these months of pandemic, your mission has brought hope,’” he told us, “causing many to experience God’s mercy. I am thinking in particular of lonely people, the sick in hospitals, those living in prisons, shelters and existential peripheries.” And then he thanked us “because you have witnessed the style of the outgoing Church that reaches out to everyone, starting with the excluded and marginalized. Continue on this path,” was his exhortation, “and open yourselves more and more to the action of the Holy Spirit, who infuses the strength to proclaim with boldness the newness of the Gospel.” An invitation, that of Pope Francis, which we accepted with great joy, increasing to three days the Marian experience in each individual community and adding, compared to the first phase of the initiative, visits to families “We will certainly go on until 2030, a year that will mark for us Vincentians an important anniversary, the 200th anniversary of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to St. Catherine: the Mother of God chose a daughter of Charity, a “daughter” of St. Vincent de Paul, therefore, to manifest herself, between July and December 1830, in the seminary of Rue du Bac, which is the center of Vincentian spirituality. Our Lady chose Catherine, then a young novice who had already had the gift of seeing the heart of St. Vincent, foretelling her events that would involve and overwhelm France, a second revolution and fratricidal struggles, and above all entrusting her with a great mission. Telling, that is, the world that Mary was there to succor her people. In the same way, we Vincentians, today, feel that we must continue this mission: to bring Mary and her conso- lection to all, especially those who need it most.”
Until when will you take Mary on pilgrimage among the people?
Onward, then, for at least eight more years.
In the meantime, Father Valerio, shall we try to draw a balance, albeit partial, of this mission of yours? Have there been any striking cases of healing of spirit or body during Mary’s pilgrimage?
“Of testimonies we have collected many, but the most significant episodes are three. The first occurred in Puglia at the height of the pandemic: the Vincentian brothers in charge of bringing the statue of Our Lady to a community did not know that area was “red,” so they went to the church that had asked to receive the sacred effigy, found it open and placed the Virgin there. Well, despite the prohibitions imposed by the health emergency, more and more worshippers began to arrive. The church filled up. One person, among them, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, stayed all day praying before the statue of Our Lady. He contacted us, later, to tell us that he had performed new examinations, shortly after his meeting with Mary Pilgrim, and that those examinations had found no evil. No less valuable are the cases of con-version of hearts that have occurred and that we continue to record at each stage. These include the case of a girl in Abruzzo who had not entered a church or gone to confession since before Covid and who had experienced the worst stages of the pandemic as a punishment. I was the one who confessed her myself and am, therefore, a direct witness to her return to a full life of faith in God. Among the many, finally, is the case of a South American girl, in Rome, who on the occasion of our pilgrimage discovered her vocation: she is still on a path flanked by the Vincentian Sisters. Not to mention the grace of being able to share pastoral care with so many priests, who suffered loneliness in the darkest months of the pandemic: one of them, a parish priest in a small town, who cried when we left, has remained impressed in my mind….”
Father Valerio, let’s face it: it takes a not-in-different organization to continue to travel around Italy carrying the message of Mary and the charism of St. Vincent. How do you do it?
“It is as if there is a direction from above and it has been like that from the first moment. Since the meeting with the Pope: everything came about spontaneously, as if there was a bigger plan. Our Lady reaches everyone and goes everywhere, we had and have simply the joy, the grace of being able to con- share her action and facilitate it.”