By Dave Jolivet
FALL RIVER — May 15, 2022 was a day that will forever live in the mind and heart of Fall River Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. On that day, the founder of the order in which the bishop is a member, Father Justin Russolillo, was made a saint by Pope Francis, along with nine other pious souls. “All my life, Father Justin was a father figure to me and the others at the Vocationary, where men study to become priests in that order,” the bishop told The Anchor. “He was a model, an inspiration, and all of his teachings and everything that I learned about him was affirmed when he was canonized.”
The bishop was impressed by all the people he could see from his vantage point in St. Peter’s Square during the ceremony. “It was said there were 50,000 people there, but I think there were much more. This was a once in a lifetime experience to be with such a large crowd, that included many bishops, priests, deacons and lay people. And there were many from our order who were there.”
Bishop da Cunha was the first-ever Vocationist priest to be ordained a bishop. Since then another, Bishop José Ionilton Lisboa de Oliveira of Brazil, has joined that rank. “I met with him and many other Vocationist priests while there and it was very nice to sit and talk and share memories,” the bishop added.
“I was asked to lead a prayer vigil for Father Justin on the eve of the canonization,” Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor. “They wanted the service done in four languages and they felt I could handle that. I led the service and shared reflections on St. Justin’s life.”
Shortly after the bishop attended the canonization, he was asked to preach at a Thanksgiving Mass for St. Justin’s canonization, at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., the archdiocese in which Bishop da Cunha used to serve as a priest and auxiliary bishop.
In his homily, the bishop told the congregation, “Justin Russolillo did not become a saint on May 15. He was a saint before he died. In his case, it took only 67 years for the Church to conclude that he is truly a saint.
“The canonization is not for the saints but for us. It is an opportunity for us to have the assurance that we can count on his intercession, and that it is safe to imitate him. It is also important for us to know that imitating him will lead us to holiness also.
“This occasion should rekindle in each of us that desire to draw even closer to the source and origin of St. Justin’s holiness, that is, the Holy Trinity. God who chose him, loved him, called him, anointed him and sent him to spend his entire life in service to vocations. St. Justin was aware that it is the Ministers of God who help to form saints, through a life that then takes flight in search of Divine Union. St. Justin believed in this and that is why he became a cultivator of holiness, a missionary of Divine Union, and an apostle of vocations.”
Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor that St. Justin’s canonization was a huge step for the Society of Divine Vocations. “It gives the order credibility, visibility and acknowledgment,” he said. “Everything that he did, that he taught, has become credible and has more meaning, not that it didn’t before, but it provides more visibility.
“I think this will lead to more vocations in the order.”
While in Rome, the bishop stayed at the Generalate House with members of the Vocationists. “Everyone was on cloud nine. I, myself, was so happy to have such a connection to St. Justin, and to the other Vocationists who were there. It is such a treasure I will always remember. It’s almost indescribable.”
In his May 13 Anchor editorial about St. Justin, Father Roger J. Landry, interim executive editor, said, “Blessed Justin is the founder of the Society of Divine Vocations, the religious congregation to which Bishop Edgar da Cunha belongs, as well as of the Sisters of Divine Vocations, a secular institute called the Apostles of Universal Sanctification. He could therefore be called the spiritual father of the spiritual father of Catholics in the Diocese of Fall River.”
Justin Russolillo was born in Pianura, Italy, a suburb of Naples, to Luigi and Giuseppina Russolillo. He was the third of 10 children.
The young Justin had great interest in the Catholic faith early on, eagerly learning about the lives of the saints and what they had to offer.
At the tender age of 10, shortly after his Confirmation, Justin wanted to enter the minor seminary, but his large family didn’t have the resources to afford the request.
The family sought the assistance of a wealthy local who was know to be a generous man, but he refused to help, saying, “If you have no money to pay for seminary, let him become a shoemaker.”
Astonished, yet undaunted, Justin’s mother said to him, “Do not be afraid, your mother will make sure you go to the seminary, even at the cost of pawning her own eyes.”
In time a family member assisted and Justin went to seminary, but with a new attitude: one of zeal for young men who would face similar obstacles on their way to seminary.
While in seminary, Justin asked his family if they would allow their home to take in young boys and girls who felt they may have a vocational calling.
After his ordination to the priesthood, Father Justin opened his first Vocationary at the rectory where he was ministering, where 13 young men felt a calling but couldn’t afford seminary. A place of prayer and study, the Vocationary was used by Father Justin to teach and guide the young men.
He later opened Vocationaries for those who had temporarily left religious life, or who needed some type of rehabilitation. It is said he saved more than 300 vocations.
The Society of Divine Vocations received diocesan approval in 1927 and was recognized by the Vatican as a congregation in 1947.
Father Justin died in 1955, and the Society is now in 16 countries.
In a May Blog, Bishop da Cunha shared, “The first miracle, which led to Father Justin’s beatification, came from curing a woman from New Jersey, Ida Meloro, of cancer. She was a member of my former parish, and I knew her personally. The second miracle needed for his canonization involved a seminarian, Jean Emile Rasolfo, who was in formation with the Vocationist Fathers. He fell terminally ill with a neurological disease for which doctors had no cure. While the young man lay in his hospital bed on life support, a relic of then Blessed Justin was placed on his pillow, while many people prayed both at his bedside and beyond. He made a miraculous recovery and was not only present at Sunday’s canonization Mass but was able to participate, chosen to carry one of the 10 bowls of incense, each representing one of the new saints.”