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Viseu (Portugal)
Sunday, 28 May 2006

An ancient, very well-known Marian hymn that our Portuguese People still sing today says: "I am going to see Heaven, what a happy day in Heaven, happiness because Heaven is our Homeland". Indeed, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, we know that: "here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come" (Heb 13: 14).

In fact, St Paul reaffirms: "we have our citizenship in Heaven", "in coelis est" (Phil 3: 20).

Our human journey is not an aimless wandering on earth. On the contrary, we have a wide horizon and a lofty destiny before us, and as children of God and baptized persons we must never lose sight of this supernatural dimension of our Christian life.

Jesus' Ascension reminds us, in other words, that we are "called to look on high" and that not everything is brought to completion on this earth. It is providential to remind ourselves of all this because, as the great French poet and writer Charles Péguy, said: "Today, unfortunately, a real amnesia of eternity is spreading".

In telling the story of Our Lady's first apparition to the three little shepherd children at Cova da Iria on 13 May 1917, Sr Lucia said that when the ice of their first fright had been broken, after the Lady in white said: "Do not be afraid, I will not hurt you", it was Lucia herself who asked the Lady in white, encouraged by the trust she inspired: "Where do you come from?" and they heard her answer: "I come from Heaven" (cf. Sr Lucia, Gli appelli del Messaggio di Fatima, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2001, p. 116).

The gaze with which we are contemplating the new Blessed is certainly turned to heaven, to Rita Lopes de Almeida, in the glory and bliss with which the Heavenly Bridegroom clothed and crowned her.

The events recounted in the First Reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles can be reduced to two: the first, looking back to the past, recalls Judas' betrayal; the second, oriented to the future, re-establishes the full number of the group of the Twelve who were gradually converted and, especially after the initiatives of Barnabas, Paul and Philip, opened themselves to the universal apostolate.

The Apostles' conversion, a result of the events they lived, must also be the conversion of us all. These are also the themes of the Second Reading and of the Gospel just proclaimed.

What we know of God's redeeming love for us, namely, faith, brings us to love one another. Our individual social behaviour - that is, our morality - is therefore founded on faith.

Consequently, Christian life has two dimensions: vertical and horizontal.

The vertical dimension makes us aware of the fact that God is Love, that he actually loved us to the point of sending us his Son, and that he wants to establish his dwelling place within us; the horizontal dimension encourages us to love all our brethren, near and far, with that same love with which God loves us.

Furthermore, it is only by loving our brothers and sisters that we can be loved by the God who, in making himself man, consecrated the human being, and for and in human beings reaches out to us and saves us.

However, our openness to others and to the world, our apostolic concern to reach out to every human being, must not intrude on our life of communion with God.

Bl. Rita shows clearly that being consecrated in the truth means combining faithfulness to human beings and faithfulness to God without evasion.

Only by staying faithful to God and jealously preserving his presence within us can we bring forth fruit in our apostolic action. Like all the saints, Bl. Rita, who said: "What I always wanted was to do the will of Our Lord God", teaches us precisely this. And on another occasion she confided: "I felt such fervour that I would have been capable of going round the world for the conversion of a single soul".

The new Blessed began working in a very difficult period, due to the situation in Europe and the internal circumstances in Portugal, when here too the Church was recording events of martyrdom and presenting to the world outstanding witnesses of great anthropological and religious value. Mother Rita was one of these expressions of the life, culture, diligence and religiosity of the Portuguese.

Her unusual qualities developed while she was still very young: and she perceived, as few were able, the need for education, having suffered herself from the lack of a school at Ribafeita. She was inspired to open a school for poor and abandoned girls in order to help create a strong ethical fabric through education.

She thus anticipated that process of promoting the dignity of women and working for their advancement, and her methodologies are still fundamental to similar efforts in our day.

When Rita was 32 years old, on 24 September 1880 and with the help of Fr Lapa, she took the first steps to found the religious Institute of the Sisters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, by opening the first school for poor and abandoned girls.

She begged for alms to support her Institute, and the first collection was actually made at the door of a church here in Viseu. With time and despite alternating problems and vicissitudes, the Institute grew until it had schools in the Dioceses of Castelo Branco, Porto, Viseu and Guarda.

Before her death, Mother Rita was able to see the continuation of her work in Brazil, where she had succeeded in sending her Religious, and inaugurated the first school in the city of Igarapava, in the Diocese of Ribeirão Preto, in St Paulo State.

Today, she is remembered from Portugal to Brazil, from Bolivia to Paraguay, from Angola to Mozambique, and her memory links Portugal to the American and African Continents.

In keeping with the spiritual legacy of the Portuguese People, Mother Rita became an ardent Apostle of the Holy Rosary, and in a certain sense anticipated what the Blessed Virgin told the shepherd children of Fatima.

Portuguese ecclesial historiography, like the better-known forms of Mariology, does not hesitate to interpret the apparitions at Fatima precisely against the background of the already intense Marian piety of the Portuguese People.

In this context, the new Blessed appears as a felicitous link and even a hermeneutical sign of Mary's special love for our People, who were spared the horrors of the war and were bathed in a Marian light that still today shines throughout the world.

However, Mother Rita Lopes de Almeida was not only a great devotee and tireless apostle of the Rosary. She was also in love with Jesus in the Eucharist, with the Heart of Jesus and with the Holy Family. From here flowed the formidable energy of her apostolic zeal, her great spiritual adventure.

Her love for Christ prompted her to open herself to others, going to meet them in order to invite them to live a renewed life in Christ. She knew how to read the signs of the times which demanded new and courageous responses to the needs of that age: the different forms of social poverty - material, moral and spiritual.

In line with such needs, her charism aimed at restoring the dignity of the family (threatened by break up) in accordance with the spirit of the Holy Family of Nazareth by building happy homes; to free women from the slavery of prostitution, and hence, to promote them; and to offer free education to poor and abandoned children so as to preserve them from the dangers that come from poverty and misery.

There is no doubt that the family was one of Mother Rita's most important concerns. She herself visited families, especially those injured by division, infidelity and vice, to the point that she was personally involved in delicate situations that led even to death threats. Rita's family home frequently offered hospitality to women seeking conversion and serenity.

Mother Rita never tired of saying that at the base of every family there is always love: not selfishness but generous love, open to life. And this was precisely what Pope Benedict XVI recently stressed once again.

In speaking of the family he said that it is necessary "to overcome a private conception of love that is so widespread today. Authentic love is transformed into a light that guides the whole of life towards its fullness, generating a society in which human beings can live. The communion of life and love which is marriage thus emerges as an authentic good for society" (Address on the 25th Anniversary of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, 11 May 2006; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 17 May, p. 3).

In addition to her concern for the liberation and advancement of women, the new Blessed was zealous to educate children through human and Christian formation. Her own pedagogical programme for them shows an inclination for the poorest as well as awareness of the social need inherent in Christian charity.

In the Spiritual Patrimony it is written: "She was convinced that the whole of life depends on the principles received in childhood: she therefore worked with great zeal to educate little girls, since one of the principal points in her Constitutions concerned welcoming poor and abandoned children".

Dynamism and creativity, maternity and dialogue, activity and participation: these were the salient features in her simple and enlightened religious pedagogy that made Mother Rita one of the great Christian teachers of her time and gave concrete and participatory answers to the "new secular schools" that were being established in the European States between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.

Bl. Rita's message is a highly relevant one. The many tensions and great problems of our time can and must be resolved first by a new, wide scale and committed educational action.

Fr Guissani said in this regard that "if the people were educated, everything would be better" (L'Osservatore Romano Italian edition, 12 May 2006, p. 9). It is on education, especially of children and young people, that the future of a country and of the entire society depends. This is the important and invaluable teaching of Mother Rita de Almeida.

She is the extraordinary woman whom today the Church is holding up to the Christian People as a model of holiness. She was a woman who did not live in history with her head "in the clouds", nor did she live like those who have no hope or believe that there is no future. She worked her hardest on this earth to carry out the promptings that the Holy Spirit continued to inspire within her with her feet planted squarely on the ground.

If it is true that every saint is always a word that God addresses to men and women, let us learn in practice precisely this from Mother Rita Lopes de Almeida, allowing ourselves to be penetrated by the mystery of Christ's Resurrection and his Ascension into Heaven; for we too, like the new Blessed, desire to be happy "in this body" and not without it.

What "Heaven" means for us Christians is the encounter "with the Lord who comes" or the "going to be with the Lord". In the Blessed's behaviour and example we recognize that we, too, have also been chosen from eternity to be holy and to make others holy, and to be a leaven of holiness, like her, for the people of our time.

The world today needs saints, as the Servant of God John Paul II often used to repeat. However, Simone Weil said: "Today, it is not enough to be holy; a present-day holiness is needed, a new holiness, which is also unprecedented.... The world needs saints who have genius, just as a city where the plague is rampant needs doctors".

Yes, it needs men and women who live their human and Christian vocation to the full, like the new Blessed, Rita de Almeida.