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The FRA Institute

“I would like to announce a great joy... our humble Institute has now received the approval of the Sacred Congregation for Religious. It is the second Institute to be approved in Italy…”

 

It was Christmas 1947, and these are the words with which Elena told the FRA [Figlie della Regina degli Apostoli -] of the emotion resulting from the Church’s recognition: the FRA Pious Sodality, approved and canonically established for the first time on 19 March 1931 by the Bishop of Trento, Monsignor Celestino Endrici, had become the Secular Institute “Figlie della Regina degli Apostoli”

The new form of consecration to the Lord in the world, in the practice of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience, was recognised by Pius XII. A gift of the Spirit for the new times that would bear fruit the world over. There were two important documents promulgated by Pius XII: the apostolic constitution Provida Mater (1947) and the decree Primo Feliciter (1948), which recognised and legitimised the form of secular consecration as an authentic path of consecration not contradicted by secularity. Recognition came about following the birth of several institutes, including ours. Thanks to these, the Church was able to experience this new form of consecrated life and relaunch it for the entire ecclesiastical community.

 

For Elena, it served as confirmation of the spiritual intuition she had had so many years before, and the path of faithful following of the Lord, the crucified and risen bridegroom. Together with the Magnificat, she could therefore sing her Nunc dimittis.

On the Feast of Pentecost 1948, 16 May, with the teachers of formation and leaders of what was now the FRA Institute, she renewed her consecration to the Lord in an atmosphere of deep emotion. A little over a month later, on 28 June, consumed by suffering, her earthly life came to an end.

 

The beginnings

Recognition by the Sacred Congregation for Religious (today the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes) was the culmination of a journey, one of the first stages of which was in 1926, when the Patriarch of Venice asked Elena da Persico for documentation to forward the request for approval of the work of the FRAs to the Congregation for Religious.

 

Without hesitation, Elena recalled the inspiration she had in 1910 during a retreat which she later spoke of with her spiritual father Don Carlo Zamparo in 1911. For her, the origin of the FRA lay therein:

 

“In 1910, during a spiritual retreat with the Rev. Campostrini Sisters in Verona, the thought of the many needs of souls created by the modern social order dawned strongly and clearly on my humble self. At the same time, I was presented with the plan for a female institution which, while relying on the most intimate union with God through religious vows, would also give its members the greatest possible freedom to undertake the most varied works of the apostolate according to the various modern needs. The institution therefore had to have the title, corresponding to its purpose, of Filiae Reginae Apostolorum.”

 

FRA, Daughters of the Queen of Apostles. The name was this, discernible from the very beginning.

 

The foundation

In Elena’s writings from the founding years, there emerges a sense of God’s greatness and her own nonentity; a fear of interpreting what she considers to be the Lord’s voice according to her own imagination, not fully respecting its integrity; but at the same time a sense of peace nourished by faith that becomes a confident anticipation of the Lord’s wonders.

 

Elena spoke to her confessor, the Rev. Prof. Carlo Zamparo of the seminary in Verona, about this thought - which she first considered a fantasy - and he ordered her not to treat it as a such, but rather to gather as many ideas as she could about it.

So from 1910 to 1913 she gathered together the various aspects that would go on to regulate the life of the FRA, in the disorder in which they presented themselves to her, and handed them over, as she wrote them, to Don Zamparo, who remained their custodian. On this subject, Elena noted in her diary: “He did not, however, want these to be implemented at a practical level until the Lord’s will was manifest, pressing hard not to anticipate God’s grace and to wait for His time.”

 

Only on 24 October 1917 did Don Zamparo give her the long-awaited consent: she could speak of the FRA “to the souls that the Lord sends her and that He sees fit.”

 

There was a dominant motif that deserves to be emphasised: the ever-present and continually expressed awareness that she was an ‘instrument’ for the realisation of a project that went beyond her person and belonged to God. In fact, she writes:

 

“I understood, as never before, that He alone is the Source of holiness, and that, just as He can even draw His worshippers from stones, so too can He make me, however miserable, an instrument of any of His designs...”

 

“I have never felt so strongly... that I do nothing, that nothing comes from me, that I am nothing but a sinner and an instrument of the Lord’s work.”

 

“So deep is the feeling in me that what I write about these things is not my own, that I feel that if one day I were to embrace these rules I would feel as if they had been dictated to me by other hands.”

 

The FRAs, who knew her and had her as a vocational educator, affirm that, faced with the questions and problems about vocation that were presented to her, Elena

 

 

did not normally give a direct answer, but, taking the Constitutions in hand, sought the answers in them, convinced that she herself had to continually listen to and learn what the Lord had inspired in her.

 

Elena would also express and live in this way, regarding the work “which the Lord wanted to make the life of my life”, the need to “ponder everything at the feet of Jesus”.

 

This gift of the Spirit had asked the Church for a new openness, but the path to the recognition of ‘consecrated secularity’ needed a few years.

 

Still in 1939, when, on the instructions of Monsignor Endrici, Elena resumed contact with the Holy See, she had to explain the peculiarities of the FRA vocation, in some way defending the possibility of living the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience in the world, in a way that differed from traditional religious congregations. One of the most sensitive issues, around which she received the greatest objections, was that of poverty.

 

In December 1939, in an audience with Pope Pius XII, Elena gave him the FRA Constitutions, receiving his blessing and great encouragement. This was also an important step: in fact, subsequent communications from the Secretariat of State told Monsignor Endrici of the Pope’s satisfaction with the Constitutions and requested summarised information about the work and news about the foundress.

 

The death of Monsignor Endrici (1940) and the Second World War would slow down the process. But by now the time was ripe for Secular Institutes.

 

The first FRAs

Elena directly approached young women in different parts of Italy who asked to join the Institute.

 

She met with priests to spread word of the vocation. She personally monitored all the FRA located in various towns and cities, also with much correspondence, taking care of their formation. She periodically presided over the meetings of the small groups that were subsequently formed and for this she endured the fatigue of frequent, uncomfortable journeys.

 

Totally free from any preoccupation with ‘making up the numbers’ and finding converts, her effort in evaluating the person was a constant reference to the ideal of life that the Lord inspired in her.

 

The first FRA groups were set up in Verona around the Foundress, in Venice (1921), in Mantua (1923) and in Trieste (1925). In June 1925 in Affi (Verona), a residential week of ‘common life’ and retreat was held for the first time in the house of the Foundress: there were FRAs rom Verona, Treviso, Trento, Mantua and Trieste.

It was only in 1939, also supported perhaps by the first approval of the Institute, that Elena da Persico began to put some ‘lessons’ in writing, as an aid for initial formation. The number of FRA had increased considerably in the meantime and their disparate locations now made it impossible for the Foundress to ensure her regular presence at group meetings. Her age and state of health also made both travelling and working very tiring for her. Many of her teachings were therefore collected in letters and writings.

Today?

A long road has been travelled since those early years. Many women have come and chosen FRA spirituality and have consecrated themselves to God, remaining in the world, as part of everyday life, working with others without any distinction, mixed in with the crowd that every day lives, rejoices, suffers on the roads of life: in hospitals, schools, factories, libraries, universities, professional offices, trade unions, associations, local councils, politics... Today they live in Italy, France and Brazil, and seek to be passionate, joyful witnesses of the Gospel every day, following the Lord Jesus wherever he calls.

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