Father Norbert

Venerable Norbert Cassinelli was the spiritual director of St. Gabriel. He was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II.

1. Beginnings

On 12th April 1829 a baby was born to Antonio Cassinelli and Maria Soracco in the town of Graveglia of Chiavari, near Genoa in Italy. As was the custom of the time he was baptised the day after his birth and given the name Domenico, after the founder of the Order of Preachers, otherwise known as the Dominicans. The Cassinelli family, including their seven children, were deeply attached to their Christian faith and known for their generous charity to the less fortunate. Their strong Catholic faith was manifest in the way they brought up their children and it was certainly a faith that bore fruit. Two of their sons enter monastic orders and Luigi, who was to die at the young age of 33, became a secular priest. Dominic was also to give his life entirely to God.
frnorbertDominic was an ordinary child by all accounts. His parents ensured he was a well-mannered boy and the Christian focus of the family imbued the young boy with a strong attraction to the practice of piety. Domenico was not what we might describe as a ‘churchy’ person but his faith was certainly very real and influenced every aspect of his life, as would be expected from one who grew up in a strongly Catholic family. As for his other qualities, he was lively, but also possessed a strong intelligence and an enquiring mind. His sister remembered him as somewhat inclined to vanity – he always ensured he looked his best, and was ever to be seen in the most fashionable clothes. On account of this he was given the nickname ‘Sir Domenico’.
The young man obviously had his whole life ahead of him, and with his lively intelligence, solid faith and obvious capability, he could have chosen any path that lay open to him. But he wanted something more, he wanted to do something real with his life, something concrete. He gradually became aware that God was calling Him to serve Him at His altars and, with the direction of his parish priest, Father Francesco Oliva, he decided to enter the diocesan seminary. He was only 14.
This young age may be surprising to readers of our own day, but when the Lord calls a man, he must answer Him. So it was to the junior seminary of Chiavari that the young Domenico was sent to study for the priesthood. Seminary education at that time realised the importance of training both the mind and the soul. The young seminarians were prepared for the priesthood by studying philosophy and theology and their souls were carefully directed so that they should be made ready to serve the Lord. Domenico found the change from the world to the seminary a difficult one, as is to be expected, but he worked hard on forming both his mind and his soul in preparation for the holy priesthood.
A decisive moment came at the time of his confirmation, at the age of 16. He had been struggling in particular to overcome the sin of pride and with the help of his spiritual director and of course the grace of the sacrament, he was able to acquire gradually the virtue of humility. He finally was able to say that he had conquered himself and put on Christ. The other seminarists noticed the change in Domenico and were much edified by his conduct. His superiors were pleased by his progress and noted his inclination both to prayer and to study, but in his interior life Domenico was growing ever closer in union to God. He was beginning to think that he might be experiencing a call to the religious life, wherein he might further work on his soul.
The rector of the seminary at Chiavari had invited the Passionist Father Tommaso di san Giuseppe to give the annual spiritual exercises to the seminarians and Domenico was struck by the life and work of this Congregation. The Passionists were well known in Chiavari and had been since the founder of the Congregation, St. Paul of the Cross, had preached a mission there in 1743. The Passionists had been founded by Paul to increase in the hearts of the faithful a lively devotion to the sufferings and passion of Jesus. They were a religious congregation and so lived in community and took the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience like other religious, but to these vows they added a fourth by which they promised to devote their lives to making people know and love Christ in His Passion. Members of the Congregation wear a black habit, symbolic of their mourning for Christ Crucified, and to this is attached a sign, with the white outline of a heart, and in the heart the words JESU XPI PASSIO – signifying in Latin and Greek ‘The Passion of Jesus Christ’. The habit is thus very striking and leaves a lasting impressing. The Rule that St. Paul of the Cross gave to the Congregation is noted for its stress on penance and prayer and throughout Italy, and beyond, the Passionists were known for the strictness of their life. It was to them that the young Domenico felt the Lord was calling him and in the depths of his soul he aspired to live their life.
Once he had made the decision to enter the Passionists Domenico soon realised it was not going to be easy. The life of a secular priest, the life for which he was training, is quite different to that of a religious, particularly in so strict a Congregation as the Passionists. The religious life requires the renunciation of everything that has meant to a man; his family, his friends, the world he leaves behind. The young Domenico realised all of these difficulties and it was most especially difficult to convince his parents that this was truly the call of God. It was on 2nd July 1847, during a procession of the image of Our Lady of the Orchard of Graveglia, an icon to which the people of Chiavari were devoted, that Domenico decided once and for that he must become a Passionist. He was 18 years old.
The introduction to the religious life begins with a year of novitiate; a year of testing one;s vocation to ensure that this is really and truly the life to which one has been called. Domenico arrived at the novitiate of the Passionists and the Retreat of the Angels near Lucca. He was entrusted to the care of Fr. Bartolomeo di san Gabriele Arcangelo who was to guide him throughout his training. The young novice was to retain a lasting affection for this man whom he was to call forever after ‘my dear master’. On the 23rd July Domenico was clothed with the black habit of the Passionists and received his religious name – he was to be known as Norbert of Holy Mary of the Orchard, taking the name of St. Norbert – an 11th century saint and founder of the Premonstratensian Canons who propagated devotion to the Eucharist, and the name also of the icon of his hometown and before which he made his final decision. Norbert enthusiastically entered into all the rigours of the novitiate; this was to be the training ground of his soul and preparation for the rest of his life – both in this world and in the next.
Norbert reveals in a letter written at this time to another religious what was occurring in the depths of his soul. He speaks of his attempts to curb his pride and submit himself entirely to the obedience of the superior; he was not happy with doing things by halves and set himself to obey the Rule in its entirely. All of this was to be done in order to please God and to correspond with the graces which God had accorded him. These resolutions of the young Brother Norbert are striking in their similarity to a longer list of resolutions made by his future disciple, St. Gabriel. But there is still time to pass before the young student Norbert becomes a master. His profession of his religious vows on 24th July 1848 brought him yet another step closer to fulfilling the role for which the Lord Himself had selected him.
As a Passionist student there was much to learn – as at the seminary the training was both intellectual and spiritual. As a religious Norbert was especially devoted to rooting out his imperfections, curbing his enthusiasms and preparing himself for a life that would be spent at the foot of the Cross. The life of the student was spent in various retreats of the Congregation; shortly after professing his vows Norbert and the other students went to the retreat of Monte Argentario, the first retreat of the Congregation, and, after a stay in Umbria, the class were transferred in 1851 to the retreat at Pievetorina in the province of Macerata. On 20th December 1851 Norbert was ordained to the sacred priesthood at the hands of Bishop Salvaini. This was by no means the end for Norbert’s studies – he would now prepare to undertake the proper occupation of the Passionists – the preaching of missions.
As a scholar in his own right, Father Norbert was deeply immersed in the theological teachings of the Church and particularly of the Church Fathers. He produced a complete text of all major references to the Mother of God in Patristic writings and a similar work based on the Passion; these were called Mariologia and The Passion of Jesus Christ respectively. In 1854 he was transferred to the retreat at Recanati where he undertook a course in sacred eloquence. Norbert’s potential was realised and it was thought he would make a fine former of souls, and thus he was sent to be vice-master of novices at the retreat of Morrovalle. It was here too that he would first meet the young soul who would never again leave his side and to whose name his own would be forever attached.
The early 1850s was an interesting time for the Passionist Congregation. The superior general was Anthony Testa who had guided the congregation for some 27 years. Under his leadership the congregation was expanding rapidly, to Bulgaria, to the United States and, with the aid of the brilliant missionary, Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Congregation had settled in Belgium and England. There was great debate as to whether the religious in these other countries should be dispensed from some of the points of the Rule that seemed more suited to Italy than to the new missions. Opinions ran deeply, Blessed Dominic even declared from England that when he reached heaven he would never pray for the Congregation if they abandoned the habit or the Rule, but eventually the path of peace won out. The Congregation realised the difficult way that whilst times change, the truth does not.
In the midst of all of this there came to the door of the retreat at Morrovale one day in 1856 a young man asking to join the novitiate. He was Francesco Possenti, from Spoleto. The young man was in many ways similar to Father Norbert – he too had been prone to vanity as a teenager, he too had decided to enter the Passionists during a procession of an image of Our Lady and he too had a difficult time taking leave of his family. But he was here, he only 18 and Father Norbert still only 27. Francesco Possenti was admitted to the novitiate and clothed with the habit, taking the name Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows and entrusted to the care of Father Norbert. He would never be without Father Norbert and the names of these two Passionists would be linked forevermore.
Gabriel was not to be the only novice of that year whose name would be remembered throughout the centuries to follow. Alongside him was Francis Xavier, who would become superior general of the Congregation and Bernard Mary (Silvestrelli), who was later beatified, he too would become superior general and with Father Norbert would begin the cause for Gabriel’s canonisation. As their vice-master, and later master, in the novitiate and throughout their student days, Father Norbert would be responsible both for the discipline of the novitiate, and also for the spiritual and intellectual growth as future preachers of the Passion. Under his guidance the novices learnt all the skills needed for coming closer to a perfect union with the Crucified Lord. The path of the Passionist novice was one especially devoted to learning humility, obedience and mortification.
It was a difficult time in this region of Italy, particularly for religious. The anti-clerical and Masonic forces behind the moves for Italian unification were not only upsetting the peace of the country by military action, but also attempting to poison the minds of the people against the Pope and the Church. The situation made travel both difficult and dangerous, but the fervour of the religious, and the faith of the people, could not be dampened. One sad result however was that the ordination of Father Norbert’s students was delayed often and eventually, when the time for ordination to the priesthood came, Gabriel was not amongst those raised to Holy Orders, in fact, he would intercede for his classmates, not from the altar, but from Heaven itself.
gabriel52In 1858 the class was moved from Morrovalle to Pievetorina and the following year to the mountain retreat at Isola del Gran Sasso. Father Norbert was made master of novices and thus the students were placed under his total care. It was here that Gabriel was to die, on February 27th 1862. In his few years as a Passionist he had scaled the heights of sanctity, under Father Norbert’s diligent care. The relationship between the master and his student was a singular bond of fraternal love. Father Norbert was Gabriel’s constant companion in life, both in health and during his last illness. He was his confessor, his confident and his guide. Gabriel’s death filled Father Norbert with an intense grief, but the memory of the young student would stay with him forever. He had resolved to write the life of St. Gabriel, but this would only later be realised.
After Gabriel’s death the ensuring political troubles took Father Norbert back to Pievetorina and thence to Recanati where he was master of novices, but, because the situation made receiving novices impossible, he had no students. The situation was only to grow worse and in 1866 the anti-religious forces expelled the Passionists from their retreat in Recanati. The religious were dispersed and tried to continue life in diverse occupations. In the midst of this great tumult Father Norbert was named a provincial consulter of the Congregation. In this capacity he cared for all the religious who had been dispersed and ensured their well-being. He was so successful in this work that in 1873 he was elected provincial with responsibility for the religious at Manduria, Pietvetorina and Recanati.
The general chapter of the Congregation in 1878 would see the little group from Isola taken to Rome to administer the Congregation – Bernard Mary was elected superior general and Father Norbert was made consulter general. This new occupation took Father Norbert all over Italy exercising the administration of the Congregation. The subsequent years would see Father Norbert exercising various tasks for and on behalf of the Congregation and in consequence of his new duties he moved from retreat to retreat – thus earning him the title ‘The Nomad of God’.
gabriel54In 1867 the founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross, had been canonised and this provided the Congregation with a new impetus for discovering the heroic virtues of its members. The life and merits of Norbert’s student Gabriel had long been known both in the Congregation and by the people throughout Italy. In 1908 Gabriel was solemnly beatified by the saintly Pope Pius X. This was surely the greatest moment of Norbert’s life. At the beatification the Pope greeted Father Norbert and addressed him “Blessed are you to have a disciple in paradise . . . the gospel says that a disciple cannot be greater than his master and so you must become more .. . a saint!” In a moment of reflection after the ceremony Norbert saw once more his young pupil as in a vision “Thank you Father . . .remember?”
The beatification of Gabriel was the crowning height of Norbert’s life. It seemed only natural then that, his years having been prolonged for this moment alone, he gave up his soul to God on the morning of June 29th 1911.
On 15th December 1994 Father Norbert was proclaimed Venerable by His Holiness Pope John Paul II.