“James!” A farm woman in the field called to her little boy who, small and frail, was lagging behind the rest with the lantern. “James, bring the light!” He hurried to bring that one essential source of light to his family as fast as his little feet would carry him.
It was a simple memory, but later it would come to punctuate James’ entire experience as he navigated an unprecedented calling in the midst of a suffering humanity.
James Alberione was born April 4, 1884, the fifth son of a farming family in the Piedmont region of Italy. He was such a tiny baby that his parents feared he wouldn’t survive, rushing to have him baptized just 24 hours after his birth. While little James held on tenaciously to life, he would continue to struggle with frail health the rest of his days.
Little James stood out in school, not for any great skill, but because he was both unusually mature and rather spontaneous. When he was in first grade, his teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up, and he surprised everyone by answering confidently “I will become a priest.” It was a dream he would soon pursue by entering the seminary at Bra, a town he knew well from frequent visits to its Marian shrine. In the seminary, James was a decent student with a keen interest in the missions and a deep love for the Eucharist. But soon he became distracted, reading far too many books unrelated to his studies, and his marks plummeted. He was asked to leave the seminary.
It was an earth-shattering experience for the young James, who then faced an uncertain future. It was only when a local priest vouched for him to a seminary in Alba that James was able to continue his studies towards the priesthood. James applied himself with true dedication to his vocation, and fell even more deeply in love with Jesus in the Word and in the Eucharist. It was in Adoration on New Year’s Eve 1900, ‘the night between the centuries,’ that the seminarian heard Jesus speaking to him the first inspirations to bring His love to all of humanity in the new century… it was that night the seed of the Pauline family was planted.
James Alberione was ordained a priest June 29, 1907. After some time at a parish, Fr. Alberione was appointed spiritual director of the seminary in Alba. A small young man with a higher voice, Fr. Alberione had to work to be taken seriously by his peers, but was immediately recognized by the students as a priest keenly in tune with both lived reality and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Several of the seminarians chose to follow him when he began the process of founding his first religious order, dedicated to reaching out to all of humanity with the light of God’s Word using the modern means of communication. That fledgling group would become the Society of St. Paul, soon followed by a community of religious women – the Daughters of St. Paul. The founding of these two communities did not come easy, however. Although Fr. Alberione was convicted that Christ was asking him to reach out to all humanity through these orders, he faced setbacks, the scrutiny of those suspicious of a priest working with media, and a nearly fatal illness. During this time when everything seemed to be going wrong, Fr. Alberione had a dream in which heard from the tabernacle the words now written on the wall of every Pauline chapel in the world: “Do not be afraid. I am with you. From here I will cast light. Live with a penitent heart.”
Throughout his life, Fr. Alberione would found a total of 10 communities, including communities for families and lay people. In the midst of all the difficulties he faced, two flames burned in Fr. Alberione’s heart – one for God and one for souls. Those two deep desires kept him going strong with all the maturity and spontaneity of his youth. He sent out missionaries all over the world to share God’s love and mercy with the people of other countries, and traveled from India to America to ensure that they truly were bringing the light to all humanity.
Fr. Alberione passed away November 26, 1971, at the age of 87. In honour of his deep passion for sharing the Word of God with all humanity, a Bible was placed beneath his head in lieu of a pillow.
Fr. Alberione was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 27, 2003.