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The Conversion of a Soldier - Part 1

Fr. Manuel Souza Pereira, O.F.M.

An excerpt from the book
The Admirable Life of Mother Mariana of Jesus Torres, Vol. 2
Translated and edited by Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

The moment has arrived for me to narrate the reason for my entry into the Seraphic Order. This grace is due to Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres, Abbess and one of the Founders of this Royal Convent of the Immaculate Conception of Quito, who, from heaven, was watching over me - even though I never knew her.

Thus I believe that it was this Angel who protected me from my tender years and saved me from perdition in a military career, where there are so many abysses of evil.

The search for a profession

I am Portuguese by birth, born in the village of Sotomayor in the Bishopric of Braga. When I was still a child, my father died, and my mother soon followed him. I then remained under the care and guardianship of a maternal uncle, a military man and general in the army.

Manuel Souza Pereira Franciscan friar

Manuel Souza Pereira
He took charge of me and my inheritance, which was more than sufficient since I was an only child. My uncle was a very good Catholic and an upright military man. He confessed and communicated every year during the Easter season. His wife, a noble and pious matron, frequented the Sacraments, along with her children and myself.

One night, when the whole family had gathered together, the topic of my future came up. The decision was made that it was time for me to begin my studies. Otherwise, they said, I would not have a profession or means to support myself, which would be most undesirable since then I would have to live at the hands of my relatives. It was proposed that I use money from my inheritance to bear the expenditures of following a course of study at the university. It only remained for me to decide upon a career.

Some suggested that I should become a lawyer; others proposed the field of Medicine. Only my uncle held his tongue, and when all were silent awaiting my response, he finally spoke:

"Manuel, to what career do you freely feel yourself inclined? Choose freely, without being swayed by the desire of pleasing the family. Speak now, for the time to begin your studies should be delayed no longer."

Encouraged by this question, I responded:
"Uncle, I do not want to be either a doctor or a lawyer. I choose only one thing, a military career. I will either devote myself to this, or do nothing at all."
The family was astonished. My uncle’s wife expressed her concerns:
"Manuel, I do not want you to become a soldier because you will endanger yourself in this profession and lose your soul. Reflect well on the life you will embrace."
I responded, "I understand this very well, my aunt. But I am very firm in my resolution."

Then my uncle gave his opinion:
"If this is what Manuel wants, how can we oppose his desire? A good military man can give much glory to God, and can even reform a military barracks.”
Seeing that he approved of my choice, I spoke decisively before them all:
"Uncle, without delay, I ask to be enlisted in the military, so I may begin my career."
My uncle, who was a general, exercised considerable influence among the officers of higher rank, who held him in great consideration and esteem. He made all the arrangements, and I had the great happiness to be enlisted in the military, the golden dream of my life.

The family was deeply moved by my departure, as was I, and I thanked them all for their care. I especially thanked my uncle’s wife, who had been like a mother to me. Receiving her blessing, I kissed her hands and took my leave.

In the military barracks

My military career having begun, I applied myself to it with diligence and vigor, never wasting my time on futile pursuits, unlike the other young soldiers, who were soon far behind me, even though many had entered much earlier than I. My uncle watched out for my interests, so I wanted for nothing. His wife also continued to be a true mother to me.

Old city gate in Braga, Portugal

The old city gate in Braga, a city in the north of Portugal

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Living in close contact with all type of persons and the company of youth without morals corrupted me somewhat. I felt a strong attraction toward the world and its pleasures.

My colleagues, some more and others less, spoke to me of matrimony and pointed out possible spouses. I pondered this matter when I was alone, but I did not feel the inclination to marry. My strong penchant for the military seemed linked to my conclusion that I was not called to the married state.

One day, when I was out strolling with my uncle, he said to me:
"Manuel, you have already reached an age where you might marry. I, who have taken the place of father to you, have an obligation to attend to your future that it might be secure. For this reason I should find a proper wife for you. I know several very good young ladies and, among them, I will see which one would best suit you as the lady of your house and make you happy, as I have been happy with my wife. I believe that you also desire this.

"Since you have said nothing to me – undoubtedly because you were timid to broach the subject - I am addressing you privately to settle this matter and arrange all that is necessary. I myself will see to everything. For, as you know, my wife and I, your godparents, have also been your parents. I only desire to know your final decision. Speak to me freely and with confidence. You know that I love you as a son, the cherished jewel of my dearly beloved only sister."
I responded:
"I thank you, my beloved uncle. My heart feels profound gratitude to you. For, in truth, I consider you and your wife as my parents. I was very young when I lost both my parents, and you did all that you could so that I never felt like an orphan. God Our Lord will more than repay you for everything, and even more, your children. For my part, I will try to fulfill my duties as a faithful and grateful son, wherever my future may lead me.

"Since you have spoken to me of embracing the state of matrimony in order to secure my future, I will tell you with frankness and unwavering resolution that I am not called to this state. I tremble to consider myself married, no matter how good the spouse might be. I have already thought long on this matter, and always I arrive at the same conclusion. I will live until I die under the protection of you and my aunt, being, indeed, your affectionate and grateful son."
My uncle embraced me and replied:
"Your forthright resolve pleases me greatly. I cannot oblige you to marry, nor should I. As for me, I have fulfilled my duty. I see your resolution and accept your decision. Henceforth we will consider you even more as our own son, and will redouble our parental care.

"In all that you do, always be an upright soldier and worthy of your family blood. Do not stain your soul with unsightly sins that so greatly degrade creatures before God, Who is our Father, yes, but also our just and severe Judge. Such sins also disgrace a man before creatures, to whom he gives scandal, resulting in dishonor and the contempt of judicious and upright souls."
In my heart I guarded this advice, which was always beneficial to me in those moments when the bad company of dissolute soldiers tempted me to follow them into the snares to which they often fell.

Manual Souza Pereira learns about the life of Mother Mariana

My good resolves to lead an upright life would sometimes waver in face of imminent dangers. On one occasion, especially, compelled on all sides to yield and fall into a snare, I felt that I would succumb. At the time, I was squadron leader of one of the companies.

I always confessed to a Franciscan friar, but, at this time, I was not frequenting the Sacraments, and my soul was becoming weak, lacking the vigor of grace. Finally, my head filled with vain frivolities, I resolved to speak one last time with this Franciscan friar, my confessor since childhood, to ask him not to forget me in his prayers and to tell him that it would no longer be possible for me to return to see him.

I had a high regard and great affection for this friar, whose counsels, together with those of my uncle and aunt, had sustained me in my battles against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Once in the presence of this priest, grateful memories of the past filled my heart with unexpected tenderness, and, unable to speak, I wept like a child. The venerable physiognomy of the priest, the warmth with which he received me, and the great virtue that shone in him were silent but eloquent censures of my behavior and the unequivocal abyss into which I was hurling myself with full knowledge.

The priest embraced me and asked:
"Manuel, my son, what is wrong? Perhaps your aunt or uncle has died, leaving you a complete orphan and alone? Come now, take heart and speak to me with confidence, as you have always done since you were a child."
I made a sign for him to sit and fell to my knees as if for confession.

The priest encouraged and consoled me, saying:
"My son, perhaps some grave sin has stained your soul in the barracks. Come now! The mercy of God is great. An act of contrition, a humble self-accusation made with the firm resolve not to fall again – this is all that must be done. Holy absolution will be the salutary bath to cleanse your soul and return it to friendship in the benevolent love of our good God. Speak, my son, speak to your father."
Somewhat encouraged, I responded:
"My father, no one in my family has died, but my soul is going to die. I see myself already hurling headlong into the abyss, and I come only to take my leave of you because of my regard for you, for I shall never return to see you again. I also ask you to pray to God Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin, to Whom I shall always have a devotion, that They take pity on me and save me when my final hour comes.

"My uncle knows of none of this, nor do I want him to know, for he has always counseled me to be an upright soldier. My sufferings are redoubled when I think that he could die from shock, should he receive news of what I am going to do."
And I made a detailed account to the priest, who listened with great serenity. When I finished speaking, he gently patted my head and said:
"Now, now, Manuel! You are drowning in a little water. The evil has not yet been done. You are only tempted to do it. I was frightened, thinking that you had already committed the deed. Put this out of your mind for the moment, as I recount some marvels that will distract your mind, for you are wandering far from the truth."
Raising me from the ground where I was kneeling, he made me sit in his old but sturdy chair. He picked up a book from his desk, seated himself alongside me, and said:
"Understand, Manuel, that what you are going to hear is not a story, but the pure truth.

"This is the life of a Spanish sister who lived in the Colony of Quito, where the King of Spain established a Convent of the Immaculate Conception. She is one of the Founding Mothers. What an angelic creature! Become devoted to her and you will be happy, because from Heaven she will watch over you."
And he began to read.

As he read, my mind became calm, my heart felt relief, and my spirit was reanimated with confidence in God, replacing the desperation I had formerly felt. Hearing how the Blessed Virgin had treated this human creature with such familiarity, I interrupted his reading and asked:
"Excuse me, Father, but is this really true?"
He responded:
"Yes, my son, it is the real and unadulterated truth. God Our Lord and Mary Most Holy, our Mother, take their pleasure in communicating to the humble of heart, and those good and faithful servants are our intercessors in Heaven. For this reason, I advise you to become devoted to this holy creature and invoke her so that you might also be happy. Is it not true that this is what you also want?"
I answered without hesitation:
"Yes, Father, I desire this very much. Hearing the narration of her life, I have recovered the lost peace of my soul. I now see, frankly speaking, how foolish I have been. For if the sin was not yet even committed, why was I consumed in despair? I did not want to commit the sin, yet I was ready to do so! I am not a toy to be played with by my companions, nor a child to be manipulated at their will. A thousand times blessed be the hour I came here! I am saved and my honor remains intact! Continue, Father, your reading, for it is God Himself who speaks to me."
The Priest looked at the clock and said:
"My son, it is the hour for choir. Go in peace to your quarters; do not sin, and return tomorrow. Then we will continue the reading and you can make your confession so that on the following day you can receive Communion."
He gave me a special blessing, and I kissed his hand and left the monastery.

Facing his companions

Meanwhile, the fatal hour to throw myself from the precipice had passed without my notice. My companions had been seeking me everywhere, including the home of my family.

My uncle, seeing their keen interest in finding me, became worried and also began to look for me. It was he who first found me. He addressed me in a severe tone:
"Manuel, where were you? Your companions have been trying to find you for hours. Why did you leave the quarters? What kind of soldier are you? This behavior is not worthy of a soldier of honor. Tell me frankly where you were during this time."
I responded:
"My uncle, a thousand pardons for the inconvenience I have caused you. I went to the Franciscan monastery for a short time, and then lost track of the time. I went there to seek consolation from the priest whom you know is my confessor, and truly I found it there. Moreover, my absence at the quarters was providential, which, some day, you will come to understand."
Reassured and satisfied, he then accompanied me back to my quarters.

Seeing me enter, my dissolute companions approached to question me. Because of the presence of my uncle, however, they restrained themselves in respect for him. My uncle made apologies for me to my commanders, who rebuked me for my absence, but said nothing more after my uncle left.

My companions then arrogantly reproached me for my absence:
“Because of you, the whole thing has fallen through. We were waiting for you, but you did not come, and, now the whole thing is impossible. We will have to set it up again, and this time you had better be there. We will see to it – either by argument or by force."
Ignoring their empty threats, I replied with a lofty and perhaps a bit disparaging tone:
"I am not your plaything to be manipulated at your will. I am a free man and a noble youth. I will not stain my family name with these depravities, nor will I lose my honor or reputation. Go and do whatever you will, but do not speak a word of it to me or include me in your evil deeds. For if I learn of any such other shameless deeds that you intend to do, I will denounce you to my uncle, who is a general, and he will see that you receive the punishment you deserve."
Hearing the firm resolve in my voice, they became frightened and withdrew.
***

I passed the whole night feverishly. How long that night was! I felt my heart beat with holy affection for that fortunate Spanish sister who enjoyed the delight of God in Heaven. I was anxious for the next day to come so that I could return to the monastery and hear new marvels that would enthrall me and elevate my spirit to God.

Mother Mariana

Mother Mariana appeared to the soldier and tells him to enlist in the army of St. Francis
When I finally succumbed to sleep, I seemed to see a Conceptionist nun dressed in blue and white, with a beautiful physiognomy and rosy cheeks, who said to me:

"Manuel, young soldier, leave this earthly army and enlist yourself among the sons of the Seraphim of Assisi, so that you might fight under his banner to your advantage and gain. This army is superior to yours, and you will not regret your decision."

I awakened, frightened, and exclaimed: "Who has dared to enter here?"

Looking around me, however, I could see no one.

Again I fell asleep, and again the same figure appeared before me, speaking the same words. Awakening with a start, I called out in anger: "Who is so bold as to dare to enter here? Beware!"

And I threatened to take up my sword.

The new day finally broke, and, with it, the hour for my appointment with my confessor. I requested permission from my commanders to go to the Franciscan monastery so that they would not become alarmed at my absence from the barracks. They readily acquiesced in view of the consideration they had for me, not only because of my uncle, the general, but also because of my irreprehensible conduct.

Happily I set forth and hastened my steps to arrive as quickly as possible. I entered the monastery and went directly to the cell of my confessor, who met me with warm amiability. He embraced me and took my hand, asking:
"How are you, Manuel? How was your evening? What are your impressions of this Spanish sister? Tell me everything, for I am eager to hear anything about a sister so favored by God, Whose liberality is infinite toward His creatures."
I sat down at his side and said:
"Father, this Spanish sister is indeed valiant, diligent, and enterprising. I retired with my mind filled with holy emotions and good thoughts. I was sleeping tranquilly when I saw her, dressed in a Conceptionist habit of blue and white, with beautiful features and rosy cheeks ..."
And I went on to relate everything to him, including my conduct and response to my companions in the barracks on the preceding day.

Filled with joy, he listened to me. He approved my behavior toward my companions, adding:
"Ah, my son! You cannot know or understand the pure happiness of a good religious who lives his whole life under the shade of the cross! O holy religious life! In truth, the army of Francis far surpasses the human army. O, if you are indeed called to it!

"You are still young and the good God has gifted you with intelligence. You could still study to be a priest - but in Spain, because more opportunity for study exists there.

"You and I must ask Our Lord that He deign to manifest His will to us on this matter through the intercession of our Spanish sister. For it is certain that as you read her biography, she will not stand by idly.

"Moreover, since you are not called to the state of matrimony, your categorical and resolute response to your uncle may have been providential with regard to your final vocation. Let us see, however, what God wants of you, Manuel."
And, taking up the book, he began to read.

My spirit, avid for truth, was enthralled with what I heard. My soul seemed to leave earth and my heart beat violently, longing for a pure and enduring happiness where, free from human concerns and affairs, I might live without ostentation or worldly pomp, a stranger to the desire for honors and vanities. For in the world, the hidden vices can spring forth when man least expects, striking fiercely and hurling him into their abysses, estranging him from God and bringing about, as a fatal consequence, his eternal condemnation.

Finally, unable to resist, I broke my silence:
"Father, if a weak young girl can love God like this with a heart so great, magnanimous, and generous, how can I, who am a man and a soldier, not do the same? How shameful for us men, that women should surpass us in the matter of heroism!

"Look, Father, the time is flying and the hour is soon arriving for Your Reverence to go to choir. And I will remain without knowing the conclusion of this beautiful life. It would be better if you would lend me the book. I will read it with all my companions in the barracks. Perhaps some of them will even amend themselves and leave their lives of vice. Furthermore, it will not be easy for me to leave the barracks for such long intervals in the coming days. For Your Reverence knows well the duties that belong to a soldier."
"With great pleasure, my son," responded the priest.

"You are right to concern yourself with the exact fulfillment of your duties, for perfection in all states of life lies in this. Here, then, is the beautiful book written by the renowned Father Bartholomew Ochoa de Alácano y Gamboa (1), Spanish by birth and a true son of my Seraphic Father, and, therefore, my brother.

"He lived and died in our provincial Monastery of St. Paul in Quito, the Colony of its great Mother Spain. A man of great wisdom and prudence, his virtue was built on the solid foundation of humility.

"Seven months after having been chosen to be Provincial for the first time, he sent out a beautiful and moving letter to the religious under his jurisdiction (for example, Superiors of monasteries, priests, missionaries in the Indian villages, etc.) This letter exhorted them to zealously and earnestly champion the cause for the beatification and canonization of the Venerable Mother Mary of Jesus of Agreda, also a Franciscan Conceptionist, the glory and honor of our Seraphic Family. Her life also captivates me, because I see in her the innocence of a child coupled with the wisdom of a great mystical doctor. It is most profitable for the soul to read the doctrines that the Queen of Heaven and Earth Herself, Mary Most Holy, our Immaculate Mother, deigned to give to this most beloved daughter. Her work is entitled The Mystical City of God, and it is worthy of such a name.’

"Through the course of time, this work will be read and esteemed by those privileged souls who have a great love for God and clean, pure hearts capable of receiving its truth, which issues from the spirit of God founded upon a solid humility. Manuel, without this virtue, there can be no other, and all else is but the vain appearance of sanctity, or, better said, hypocritical farce."

I took the book from his hands and, with great happiness, returned to the barracks.

(1) In 1760-70, Fr. Bartholomew Ochoa de Alácano y Gamboa published a series of articles that became a large book about Mother Mariana. It was widely circulated in the Franciscan monasteries of Spain, Portugal, and South America. Fr. Alácano lived many years in the Fransciscan provincial house in Quito, serving several terms there as provincial.
***


Part Two   l   Part Three   l   Part Four

Copyright 2002 (c) Marian T. Horvat All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever, including Internet, without permission in writing from Tradition In Action, Inc., except that brief selections may be quoted or copied for non-profit use without permission, provided full credit is given.

Posted January 1, 2005


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