I became acquainted with the Daughters of St. Paul when I was 14 years old. They came to our house (I think at the suggestion of my pastor) to invite us to attend a retreat in their community in Brescia. I was intrigued by these sisters who were so new and different from the nuns I knew, and I “fell in love” with them. But they were not interested in me. They were interested in my older sister and our two cousins, who were in their early twenties. They were the ones that were invited to the retreat and my sister and cousins accepted. But little by little, these “older ones” made other choices. My sister got engaged and my cousins entered other religious institutes. The following year, when I was 15, I asked to take part in one of those FSP retreats and on that occasion I met Fr. Gabriel Amorth, a Pauline priest. We got to know each other and established a cordial relationship based on mutual respect.
I clearly remember going to talk to him after Mass one day and telling him that I did not agree with what he had said in his homily, namely, that he could have made choices other than the priesthood. I discovered that I was strongly convinced that if God calls and chooses you for something, he does it to make you happy; it is his will for you. So why would a priest want to be something else, since that would only lead to unhappiness? I didn’t understand. I said that if I knew what God wanted me to do, I would do it wholeheartedly so as to be happy–something I was aiming for because I did not feel fulfilled in the environment in which I lived and with the people with whom I socialized, even though I was active in the parish and very involved in helping my mother in our big family (I was the eighth of nine children).
Fr. Amorth looked me straight in the eye and said to me point-blank: “You have a vocation!” I replied: “But what is it?” I still feel moved when I think back to that moment when God revealed himself to me in such an unexpected and powerful way. It makes me think of the passage of Scripture in which the prophet Samuel is commissioned by God to choose a king for Israel and he winds up consecrating David, the youngest son of Jesse, who was out in the fields tending his father’s flock.
Let me stop here a minute to provide a little background. After I finished elementary school, my teacher went to see my mother and asked her to let me continue my studies because I was a good student. I still remember my mother’s triumphant smile when she said: “I am keeping this daughter for myself; she will help me at home.” I was 11 years old at the time and I remember thinking spontaneously: “You don’t know what you are saying. I don’t want to remain at home or even in this village.” But of course I didn’t voice my feelings aloud. I kept them to myself. My mother sent me to an aunt to learn how to sew and I spent most of my teenage years between my home and parish–more often in the parish than at home.
I wanted to recount this episode because it is linked to the feeling I had when I saw the Daughters of St. Paul for the first time. On that occasion, I said to myself: “I would like to be one of them.” I aspired to things bigger than myself without a clue as to what those “bigger things” were. Nevertheless, I was convinced that I would spend my life elsewhere and that it would be a different, beautiful life. I continued to attend the FSP retreats and when I was 16 years old I asked my mother if I could make a course of spiritual exercises in Alba. She gave me her permission.
In that red-brick house trimmed with white gratings, which I found awe-inspiring, I fell in love anew with those nuns, their life and their mission. I yearned to live with them because I had I finally found the breathing space that was missing in my home environment, in which I felt cramped and suffocated. Fr. Amorth continued to keep an eye on me from afar in a very discreet but effective way. I trusted him. One day, after I had returned home from Alba, I told my family that I wanted to become a nun. Everyone looked at me in astonishment because I was certainly not a model of obedience and sweetness…. My mother, more incredulous than anyone else, said accusingly: “Who put that thought in your head? You couldn’t have come up with it on your own!” I replied: “Do you want to talk to the priest I confide in?” She did, so we went to Brescia to see Fr. Amorth.
My mother went in to talk to him and when she came out her head was bowed. Looking mortified and resigned, she said to me: “He told me that he has no say about your vocation; that it is between you and Lord. And I don’t want to put any obstacles between you and God. Go where you feel you have to go.”
My mother’s great faith and trust in God, as well as her trust in me, filled me with deep and unforgettable emotion. In those days (the 1960’s), the FSP vocationists were very direct in their approach to young women who felt called to the religious life. In fact, Sr. Emmanuella Quiriti’s first question to me was: “So then, when are we entering?” It was May and we fixed my entrance for 20 August. The year was 1967 and I was 17 years old.
The week before I was supposed to leave for Alba, I was suddenly assailed by the conviction that I was doing the wrong thing but that there was still time to stop…. I wrote to Fr. Amorth and he, a wise counselor, replied: “Go to Alba. I’ll take care of your vocation.” It was enough. I set out, accompanied by my family. On the trip, my mother warned me repeatedly about the difficulties ahead of me–difficulties that I would perhaps not be able to overcome. I answered: “It doesn’t matter what lies ahead. I feel compelled to do this. The rest will come by itself.” This interior thrust, dictated by unshakeable trust in the Lord, fortified my vocation. It also served me well, later on, when I went through a kind of “identity crisis.”
The models, or rather the model, of the “perfect nun” reigned supreme at that time and I couldn’t identify with it. I wondered how it was possible that the Lord, having created me in a certain way, now wanted me to become almost another person. Something was wrong. I was filled with sadness and confusion. But little by little I came to understand that the secret of serenity was to be completely myself. One’s choice in life didn’t matter; what mattered was to do God’s will! This certitude of the early Christians illuminated my way and I felt God very close to me. He took me by the hand and never left me again, confirming what I had always known: he wanted me to be happy. And I was. Again. Completely.
Livia Sabatti, fsp