I bet many of you have never heard of Maria CelesteCrostarosa, the foundress of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer. Neither had I until I entered the Order, commonly known as the Redemptoristine Nuns, and fell in love with her and her message.
Born the tenth of twelve children to the Crostarosa family, Celeste was baptized Giulia. Little Giulia, so loved spiritual things that by the age of six, sensed the presence of Jesus in her heart. Yet, when she was nine years old, Giulia became lax in her fervor because she enjoyed the company of the servants learning their nonsense songs and worldly ways. But the Lord pursued her to change her foolish conduct and after a few months Giulia made a good confession and resolved to do better.
On the day of her First Communion, when Giulia was 11, the Lord invited her into His Heart saying, "Enter into this wound; and I will purify you from all your sins." With that, she entered into a profound recollection, and heard Jesus say, "I wish to be your Guide. Love Me alone."
Giulia responded, “My Lord, You have always loved me; keep me close to You.” And from then on, she wished to live a humble life. The Lord was pleased and said within her heart: “You must imitate my life and unite whatever you do to My life.”
At 15, Giulia, still a beginner in the spiritual life, made the mistake of changing her confessor to a much younger, inexperienced priest. This led to spiritual darkness. Gone were the consolations but not the guidance from her Lord, who said, “Look at the sun. Now behold how the warmth of the Divine Son lights up everything and makes the plants of virtues grow in your soul to produce flowers and fruits for eternal life. By My Divine Fire, I burn up all the bad weeds of your soul. Your eyes are closed by sin. Open your eyes to My Divine Light.”
This spiritual darkness lasted two years. By seventeen she had become a very subdued young woman. Young Giulia had always been the pet of the family because of her intelligence and vivaciousness. The change in her was so remarkable that her family feared for her health and thought she was dying.
Now enters a wise old Dominican who understood her struggles. He advised Giulia to break with that young confessor. When she did, the Dominican unlocked the mysterious way Jesus was working in her heart.
While recovering her health, Giulia saw from her window a priest coming down the street holding a monstrance. No, not a priest, but Jesus Himself in all His splendor. She rushed to follow and ended up in church sobbing and confessing her sins aloud for all to hear. Those who heard her confession were astounded by her humility and love for the Savior. Once more Giulia felt that Sweet Divine Companion enter her heart and was at peace.
From that day on, she was determined to be the true daughter of God the Father, and pure spouse of the Son through the Holy Spirit. Giulia wanted to become a religious.
Her first attempt to enter religious life was when Giulia was nineteen. She and her older sister, Ursula, tricked their mother into letting them enter a Carmelite conservatory by plotting beforehand their course of action. What was supposed to be a friendly visit to a holy nun turned out to be a formal entrance. The two young women were so captivated by the Religious and the monastery that they begged their surprised mother to let them enter religious life right there and then. Signora Crostarosa finally gave the permission but on the condition that if Signore Crostarosa did not approve, a carriage would be sent to fetch them. The carriage never came.
The Carmelites so regarded Giulia’s talents that in just a year Giulia was given a Carmelite habit, and in quick succession, was professed and named Novice Mistress! Giulia had observed a certain laxity in the monastery and attempted to rectify that by instructing her novices with lights she received from the Lord: “The Lord has breathed into my heart all teachings regarding Pure Love, so desire Jesus alone as the only treasure of your soul. In Christ’s Light your soul will see its darkness, and will then desire to be clothed with holy virtues.”
After 6 years, unfortunately, the monastery was dissolved because of the interference of their main benefactor in their Carmelite life.
In 1722, Giulia had the occasion to meet someone who would impact her life for years to come: Fr Tommaso Falcoia. He was a member of the Pious Workers who had great organizational skills and a number of nuns as spiritual daughters. He was very impressed with this young religious and encouraged her to take him as her spiritual father. Eventually, she did and opened her soul to him.
Falcoia encouraged Celeste to entered a monastery in Scala,
Italy, high above the Amalfi coast where he was the Spiritual Father. She was 27. Sr. Maria Celeste thought she had reached heaven. In later years she says, “My ignorance was profound because I did not see the signs that should have enlightened me. Oh! I was far indeed from that sublime state, being not yet purified by the fire of sufferings and tribulations.”
What sufferings? What tribulations?
It all began while Celeste was still a novice in Scala. She writes, “At Communion time, the Lord made her experience a transformation of herself into Him. The Lord spoke within the very center of her soul the words in the Creed: ‘Con-substantial with the Father.’
On the next day, April 25, 1725, came another revelation. Again, after Communion the Lord revealed to Celeste the ‘Intent of the Father’ to make that community a “Viva Memoria,” a ‘living memorial’ of all that it pleased the Only Begotten Son to do for their salvation. He set a seal on her heart to be on earth a living portrait of the Beloved Son. Florilegium But not only on her, but on all those souls who would have life by means of her. This new institute would have as its rule His very life.
You can image how her soul quaked at the thought of what she must share with her Novice Mistress and Spiritual Father. Celeste suspected Falcoia would not be thrilled over replacing his idea for a rule by a new Rule, supposedly dictated to a novice by the Lord Himself.
The very next day the visions continued and the Lord strengthened Celeste, saying, “It is really I and not the demon.” And in the Sacred Host she saw the Lord clothed in the habit of the Order, and understood that she must change her life into His.
Moreover, she saw Jesus writing on her heart with His own blood the new Rule for the community. Jesus ordered her to write down these Rules in His name every day after Communion for an hour. The Redeemer said, “In this Order, He Himself was the cornerstone, the Gospel was the mortar; and His Father was the Builder.”
It was just as Celeste feared when she shared these visions with the Novice Mistress, who then wrote to Fr. Falcoia describing the situation and inviting him to Scala as soon as possible. He wrote a swift reply accusing Celeste of being a “mad-woman,” a “dreamer” and a “troublemaker” and ordered that she not receive Communion as a mortification.
Despite all this, Sr. Celeste, and her two blood sisters who had joined her in religious life, were professed. But this tension between Sr. Celeste, Fr Falcoia and the community continued for five more years. Things turned around when a young priest came to the monastery in Scala, at the request of Falcoia, to give a retreat to the nuns. This priest also happened to be a spiritual son of Falcoia, and was warned of ‘a nun there filled with illusions.’ This young priest is Alphonsus Liguori.
Alphonsus came prepared for the worst. With his characteristic legal thoroughness, Alphonsus interviewed each nun personally and had repeated interviews with Maria Celeste. The crucial issue was the authenticity of the revelation and the feasibility of a new Rule. To both questions Alfonso answered in the affirmative. Thanks to his powers of persuasion, all the nuns finally agreed to accept the new Rule. MWR
This meeting of these two souls was the beginning of a life-long friendship. Celeste writes to Alphonsus: “O My Father, I make my communions united to your spirit. I thirst for your companionship. May the Lord bless this friendship of ours forever, for the glory and honor of His name.”
On the feast of Pentecost, May 13, 1730, the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer began. And then on the feast of the Transfiguration the nuns donned the red, blue and white habit. The Holy Redeemer had explained earlier the meaning of the colors: Red is for ‘the robe of charity’ which the God-Man clothed himself on earth and, in turn, bestows on us by his merciful Love. The sky-blue mantel is a sign of Christ’s humility by who’s cross earth is united to heaven. The white shoes signify that the nuns are detached from earthly things. The Portrait of the Redeemer worn over the breast is a sign that Christ is living in their hearts.
On October 3, 1731 Celeste had another revelation. This time involving Alphonsus. Duty bound to her spiritual Father Falcoia, she wrote to him about the vision. She had seen Christ, St. Francis of Assisi and Alphonsus Liguori conversing together. The Lord said to her, "This soul is chosen as the head of My Institute to go and preach to every creature that the Kingdom of God. It is he who will be the first superior of the Congregation of men."
Again, you can imagine, this did not sit well with the Spiritual Father. His response was dismissive: “It’s all nothing. Give no credence to it at all.” Falcoia wrote this because he himself was interested in starting a missionary congregation.
When Alphonsus came to visit the monastery, Celeste quietly shared with him the vision. Alphonsus was startled, humbled, and yet his heart was inflamed with love and joy, for he, too, had thought of a preaching institute. He spent many months consulting with many spiritual advisors, deliberating, praying about this new venture to preach to the poor and abandoned outside of Naples inviting them to a deeper love for God and a fuller practice of the Christian life. Finally, on November 9, 1732, Alphonsus Liguori founded the congregation in a house which sat on the corner of the nun’s property in Scala.
The following April, Celeste abandoned Falcoia’s spiritual direction. She writes to Alphonsus her reasons: Falcoia was unable to properly care for her soul. Bound by obedience, she had continually revealed to the spiritual father the state of her soul, but he always seemed to misinterpret everything she said in a sinister sense.
Letters go back and forth between Celeste and Alphonsus.
Alphonsus writes Celeste a long letter which only made the poor sister feel terrible because Alphonsus wrote, “My dear Celeste, my beloved sister in Jesus Christ…” then questioned her lack of total submission to the spiritual father and accused her of being obstinate in listening to Tosquez (a devout layman who would sometimes advise her). He challenged her humility with, “Where is the Celeste of former days? It breaks my heart to think of it!” Alphonsus charged her with attachment to her own judgment, “…what a dangerous hallucination this is!” Such were the words that pierced her heart. After much weeping and prayer, she replied with just two lines, “Thank you for your charity towards me. From this hour on, I renounce all these motives, all my words and judgments for the love of God.”
Throughout all this her Beloved Spouse, the Redeemer, spoke reassuring words, “You shall live a life of constant dying to yourself in everything you do, crucifying yourself on my cross, living crucified in my holy Flesh, yet always united to the joy of my divine Spirit.” At that moment an angel pierced her heart with an arrow dipped in the blood of the Lamb. This mysterious wound so strengthened her that she felt able to gladly bear all contradictions, contempt and insults to come in the service of God.
Alphonsus wrote again after receiving Celeste’s perceived cold reply. (More likely, Celeste felt the loss of all human consolation and just didn’t have the strength at that time to answer properly.) Alphonsus restated just as firmly his points, but in a more conciliatory tone. He ended with, “It is always profitable to humiliate a soul overwhelmed with favors from God. It is impossible for me not to desire your perfection because I love you in Jesus Christ and if you were offended by it, you would be wronging me. If I could, with the spiritual father’s permission, I would kiss your feet.”
With renewed strength it was Maria Celeste’s turn to respond with a long letter delineating point by point the state of her conscience regarding Falcoia’s inability to guide her soul and his continual tinkering with the New Rule. Celeste defended her friend Tosquez against suspicion within the community. And finally, she renounced all supernatural light and favors, in spite of the fact that the revelations she received were always founded on the light of holy faith.
She wrote, “God has no need of me. God can do it all.” Celeste ended imploring Alphonsus to make known her imperfections, assuring him she feared nothing and was at peace following the steps of her Savior. She ends with, “Pray for me and bless me. I, your humble servant, respectfully kiss your feet.”
Early in May 1733, everything came to a head. The Superioress and Falcoia imprisoned Sr. Maria Celeste in a cubbyhole under the eaves in the monastery attic while she considered three conditions: 1) to accept in writing, Falcoia’s version of the Rule, 2) never to write or consult with Tosquez again and 3) that she keep Falcoia as her Spiritual Director forever.
Isolated from the community, Celeste was forbidden to talk to anyone, even her own two blood sisters. Yet the hardest of all was being deprived of Holy Communion. After two weeks of prayer in the small attic space Sr. Maria Celeste agreed to the first two conditions but, because of ‘grave matters of conscience,’ she refused the third. With that, she was expelled from the monastery in Scala.