One late night a young Italian seminarian was kneeling in adoration before the Eucharist when “a special light came from the Host, a greater understanding of the invitation extended by Jesus: ‘Come to me, all of you….’” He immediately understood that he was being led into a very special vocation.
That seminarian was James Alberione, and he went on to become a priest, an apostle, and a communicator of Christ. But he never forgot the invitation extended to him that night, and he founded nine institutes—along with the Association of Pauline Cooperators—known to us today as the Pauline family, women and men whose mission is to use media to spread God’s Word.
In 1915, Alberione was introduced to Teresa Merlo, a young woman who had confided to her brother, a seminarian, about her desire to become a nun. He arranged for the meeting between his sister and Father Alberione, who immediately saw the future in this young woman. Alberione had already been gathering a group of young women together in the hope that they could become a community of sisters dedicated to the same aims as the male congregation he had already founded—the aim of reaching the world through the press and the media.
Teresa said yes.
Three years later the small congregation of women moved to the city of Susa where they were tasked with producing the diocesan newspaper, an endeavor that required them to learn every step of the publication process: direction, composition, printing. They named their workshop “St. Paul Typography” and placed it under the patronage of that great apostle.
And four years after that, finally, the first nine members of the community took their permanent religious vows as professed Daughters of St. Paul. Teresa, then 28, was among them. She took the name Thecla and was appointed Superior General of the new community.
The women encountered resistance from the start. Media was a new field of evangelization, and it was unheard of for women to run a publishing company. The Church itself was skeptical about women carrying out this new apostolate. Yet the community flourished. In 1928 they were given permission to wear a religious habit, and they opened branch houses in three more towns. Mother Thecla provided both inspiration and leadership and, extraordinarily, she was able to open 25 communities in Italy and foundations in three foreign countries, Argentina, Brazil, and the United States… in a mere four years.
Mother Thecla remained Mother General until her death in 1964. During her lifetime she traveled around the world several times, and under her direction the Daughters of St. Paul established themselves in every continent. She courageously led the Daughters of St. Paul to the forefront of evangelization with each new form of media as it was developed. Embracing the press, radio, film, and TV, she wrote: “Our congregation will always be young, because it will make use of every new means to do good.” The first sisters embraced the apostolate of evangelization using the means of social communication with intelligence and an intuition that preceded the Vatican II Decree on Social Communications by almost forty years.
However, Mother Thecla’s private letters indicate that she lived with a sense of inadequacy regarding the call entrusted to her. In spite of that, her zeal for the sisters’ vocation was undiminished and she entrusted all her concerns to Jesus. “Our Master dwells in the Tabernacle,” she wrote. “From there he preaches to our mind and heart by means of the Gospel… We must always live united to Jesus. The Holy Trinity dwells in those persons who are united to Jesus.”
Mother Thecla further wrote notes outlining the three main characteristics of her spiritual life, and they are still relevant to us living in the new century.
- Listening: A simple and life-oriented meditation of the Word of God.
- Imitation: Ongoing contemplation of Jesus the Master, encouraged by the biblical phrase: “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29). Her resolution was “to ask myself: What would Jesus do? Jesus Christ is my model. I must fix my gaze on him so as to see how he prayed, spoke, acted, dealt with people; how he willingly suffered for us…”
- To live the Master: Imitation of the Divine Master leads us to a deeper level of spiritual life. For Thecla this meant “sharing” the Master’s life, immersing herself in Him, and conforming herself to Him.
Mother Thecla’s gift to the world was in her steady leadership of a congregation of women religious that has endured to this day and still leads the Daughters of St. Paul as they work with books, in film, on the radio and television, and online in over fifty countries. Her gift to the world is a way of communicating Jesus to everyone, everywhere that the media can reach. Her gift to the world is, ultimately, the most powerful evangelization that the world has seen.
“To do good, to help souls, and to contribute to their salvation,” is how Mother Thecla defined her mission, and it encapsulates a commitment that we can all make, no matter what walk of life is our own vocation.
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