the Desire to be a Woman Camillian in the World
(From her Correspondence with Father Mario Vanti MI,
Born in Cagliari (Italy) on 25 May 1914, Germana Sommaruga ‘met’ St. Camillus de Lellis during her university studies in Milan. She was fascinated by him and decided to follow his spirituality which she transfused later into the foun-dation of the ‘Missionaries of the Infirm – Christ the Hope’ Institute on 6 January 1936.
I had an opportunity to meet Germana on a number of occasions in Verona (while at school at S. Giuliano and at the spiritual exercises at Bosco Chiesanuova), as well as at Capriate during her period at the old people’s home. I always received comfort and encouragement from her words which reflected a positive sense of life as a gift and serv-ice to the sick following the example of our Founder, of whom she always spoke with knowl-edge but above all else with a heart full of joy. She died at our community of ‘O. Cerruti’ in Capriate (Bergamo, Italy), on 4 October 1995, at 4.30.
The Letters and their Contents
Archival work, it is known, always lends itself to surprises. This also happened to myself when, checking the cataloguing of the series called after Fr. Mario Vanti, a historian of the Camillian Order, I came across a number of letters belonging to the correspondence between Germana and Fr. Mario himself, whom she always called ‘Padre Maestro’ (‘Father Teacher’). These letters are five in number but they are all long and dense: four of them are in typescript (in single space) with a careful use of the sheets and spaces (few in number) which re-main. Some of these letters have handwritten in-formation on them and a fifth letter is completely in manuscript. The underlining that Germana uses in her texts are also important (and these are faithful-ly reproduced in my reproduction of them). The pe-riod of this correspondence goes from 4 January 1937 to 23 March 1937 (the last was finished on 27 March, at 11.30, at her university, as was written down by Germana herself).
All of these letters begin with the acronym that was used at that time in the letters of the Order, that is to say the initials in Latin of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Camillus. At the end of the letters is always to be found the handwritten signature of Germana with the acronym of the Order, that is to day ‘M.I.’, which she held very dear, as she herself wrote in the first of these letters to Fr. Vanti himself.1
A Young Character between Enthusiasms and … Uncertainties
The first letter was written in three stages (4, 5 and 10 January 1937). The observation should be made immediately: the initial text is rather happy, sincere, and from certain points of view sweet-ly…written. This is a ‘poem’ which the author at-tributes to the enthusiasm provoked by the publi-cation of a number of songs in the review Il Conforto which ‘have regenerated/inside my heart/lyrical music…and a good mood!/O Say it/that I am immodest;/but…if only you had heard/the great laughter/that came out of me without pity…’. At the end, however, she ex-pressed a certain certainty about what she had written: ‘So? Forward/without fear/for that mat-ter…there awaits me/a failure!’ (4 January).
She then informs Fr. Vanti of her studies on the poetry of Fr. Giovanni Ferrante Palma MI († 1649) 2. Lastly, there is a reference to Fr. Rubini of whom she writes: ‘Well done good Father Gen-eral/his circular letter is really written by a teacher, a Father, and somewhat a mummy as well. It is better that way’, but she goes on: ‘it has also been useful for the woman novice of this world, who has to stand up and keep up on her own, and … fall down and get up on her own!’. Lastly, ‘his blessings, good wishes, and greetings do me good … They have been a push to want to go forward at any price!’, and she adds ‘also in the letter on the ‘hundred years’ at St. John in the Lateran it is vibrantly felt! So much is Camillus in
him’ (5 January). The character of Germana emerges in a very clear way because she herself speaks about her character in the second letter: ‘Be very patient Fr. Teacher, because I have so many things to tell you; and make sure that you understand everything, even those enthusiasms that seemed to you out of place’, and she goes on ‘thank you for what you tell me in your last letter; I will truly try to rein myself in, to be less impulsive, and more self-controlled; and do not spare me your observations and rebukes, if not, it is not worthwhile being very direct and perhaps impulsive with you’ (11 February).
For her studies on the history of the Order, as well as the presence of the Camillians in Milan,3 she was sent to Dr. Bascapè to help a number of students ‘if not anything else’, Germana wrote, ‘with my great love for St. Camillus, generating a little enthusiasm for him in them as well!’ But she does not forget her interior life, for at the end she writes: ‘And spiritually? Quite good: that is to say with great serenity; I repeated to our good Father [Camillus] my ‘Nunc coepi’ on 2 February; I asked him to help me to really convert, to be humble and good so as to be a woman Camillian. Sometimes I still turn in on myself, rebuking myself for being a wrong note…I should not think about it, may I al-low the Lord to do things, may I be content mo-ment by moment with offering everything, tribula-tions and enthusiasms and crosses, for the Order; Jesus will look after that’ (11 February).
In the fourth letter Germana immediately begins in decisive tones: ‘This time allow me to write with all my impulsiveness; if you knew how many fine things I have to tell you, Father my Teacher! But listen to all of them, and so bless me, and forgive me if I am too noisy and exuberant! (but let’s be clear, read in different stages, with calm; anyway there is no great hurry)’ (20 February).
Difficulties: her Family, her Confessor … and Others
This letter continues with references to her fam-ily which was strongly opposed to her intentions, and for her this was a source of suffering. Indeed, she wrote: ‘Pray for me; the struggle goes on in my home, every day: once again a little time ago mummy asked me what I intended to do. She said that they would perhaps agree to see me in a con-vent, but not as a woman Camillian, not that, either in a convent or in the world. They try everything: they only harm me. They strengthen me even more because I am more aware of my vocation’, but, she added, ‘they hurt me so much, often: it seems at times impossible for me to be able to re-act, for how many years to come?’ (10 January).
Her difficulties with her family were always her ‘torment’ even though ‘my spirit is serene’, but she felt ‘a little overly cowardly, allowing myself to be disheartened at times when thinking about the future; a soul that is truly Camillian is not like that’, and she confides ‘I ask the Lord to give me what he wants but to support me so that I am not alone’. The reason for this is clear enough: ‘To belong to the good God I must spend day after day thinking of those who are dear to me; I must choose: either my family or a woman Camillian! It would be easi-er to fuse both of them, to be a woman Camillian in my home…they do not want that; let things take their course!’ (23 January).
Her future prospects were not of the best. After receiving one sentence from her father (‘If you again attempt to do something against my will, even though you are of age we will say that you are mad and we will place you under protection’), she wrote ‘I know that I can do it…you help me with prayer…at times it seems to me truly the height of humiliation, to be seen as being mad, and having not to defend myself because obedience imposes upon me accepting everything in si-lence…I will go forward with the help of God, for-ward with confidence, preferring as you say the loneliness of the heart so as to give all of myself to everyone’ (23 January).
Difficulties also came from her confessor, but once again let us allow her to speak: ‘There are hours of tiredness when at the least I need to be supported: instead my confessor is increasingly contrary: I keep quiet with him as well, but on those very rare occasions when I replied to one of his questions clearly, he always ended up by postpon-ing absolution saying that I am attached to my opinions, that I want to be a woman Camillian whereas in fact I am nothing, I do not seek the will of God but my own because God does not want me to be a woman Camillian, otherwise He would not have left me in the convent! Thus I also keep quiet with him’ (10 January).
On the same date Germana wrote about this again: ‘to return to your letter, thanks for your hope that I will be a ‘ray of the sun’ and the exhor-tation to expel from my spirit the too many bad feelings. You are right Father. I have thought about this in recent days: I was wrong to allow myself to become arid in this way through bitter-ness. I have been weak…There were moments over recent days when this trial appeared to me to be unbearable: time (a year ago indeed) has
not attenuated it: every day I have had a new cross, a new betrayal (yesterday as well!) from everyone!’ (10 January).
A year had already passed since she had the idea of being a woman Camillian in the world, but to achieve this she had to have contacts with the Superior General, even though a Camillian Father ‘says that he immediately supports the idea of the Superiors of becoming a woman Camillian: that for the moment I have to wait, preparing myself spiri-tually and culturally, without easy enthusiasms, serenely, with poise, humbly…without being in a hurry because time alone will have the last word. ‘If you are humble’, it ends, ‘you will be for our Order!’ I will be humble, then, in the name of God and St. Camillus. But may they help me, at least those blessed ones’ (10 January).