Wordsworth’s expression that “the child is father of the man” is the guiding principle of this section of our study of Mazenodian spirituality. In order to understand the spirituality that has come to us through Saint Eugene, it is necessary to understand its seeds in his early development.
After his time at the College of Nobles in Turin, the 11 year-old Eugene and his family had to flee to Venice, losing many of their possessions in the process. The three and a half years he spent in Venice were to produce significant formative moments in his growth and spiritual development.
The pastor of the parish, realizing that the family could not afford to send Eugene to school, and aware of the dangers that boredom could lead to in the energetic adolescent, arranged a “chance meeting” with a young priest who lived opposite the de Mazenod’s. Father (”Don” in Italian) Bartolo Zinelli. Eugene tells us the story:
One day I was amusing myself at the window that gave on to the house of the Zinelli family opposite. Don Bartolo appeared on his side, and addressing me said: “Master Eugene, aren’t you afraid of wasting your time in idleness in this way at the window?” – “Alas, sir, I replied, it is indeed a pity, but what can I do? You know I am a foreigner, and I haven’t any books at my disposition.” That was the opening he wanted: “That’s no problem, my dear child, you see me here actually in my library, where there are many books in Latin, Italian, French even, if you want them.”
“There is nothing I would like better”, I answered. Immediately D. Bartolo undid the bar that held the shutters of the window, and placing on it a book, passed it over to me across the little street that separated us. The book was soon read, for I was always an avid reader, and next day my father advised me to go and take it back and thank D. Bartolo. This was all planned.Bartolo received me with the greatest kindness; he gave me the run of his library, and from there I had access to the study where he studied around a large table with his brother, D. Pietro, who was still only a deacon. “All our books are at your disposition”, D. Bartolo told me. Then he added: “This is where my brother and I study: you see over there the place that was occupied by one of my brothers whom God in his goodness has called to himself. If you would like to take his place, you have only to say the word, it will be a real pleasure for us to have you continue with your studies, which clearly you have not yet finished.” You can imagine my surprise and joy. “I shall be overjoyed, sir, and my father will happily give his consent.” – “Very well, come from tomorrow, and we will make a beginning.” … From this time on, every day over a period of four years, I went after Mass to be with these most benevolent teachers
Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI
Father Bartolo was to be one of the most important formators in Eugene’s life.
As we look at Eugene, it is not with the eye of a storyteller, but with the question of how God worked through the events and people in his life – and to allow ourselves to be questioned by this in our own lives. For me the invitation is to recall some of the significant moments with people who made a difference in my early life – and to reflect on how God acted through them for me, and to give thanks.
“Just as the child is father to the man, so the impressions of one’s youth remain the most vivid in manhood.” Gustav Stresemann