Luigi Scrosoppi was an Oratorian priest, who with his brother ran an orphanage in Udine at a time when there was a strong anti-religious wind sweeping over Italy. Working and keeping his good humour through adversity, he became famous for miracles of healing after his death.
‘The God who feeds the hungry gives you and me the bread with which to do it.’ So ran the caption on a Trócaire poster campaign a few years ago.
God raises up men and women in every age to feed the hungry and help the poor. Whether it is a Fr. Damien to reach out a hand to the lepers of Molokai, or a Mother Teresa to help us see Christ ‘in the distressing disguise of the poor’, we need reminders that God still cares for his people and feeds them, using us to do so.
Italy, of course, has had its fair share of saints through the centuries. Some of them are well known and greatly loved: men like Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, and women like Catherine of Siena and Angela Merici There are others who are less well known, like Luigi Scrosoppi who was born in Udine, in northern Italy in 1804.
In 1806 Carlo, one of Luigi’s halfbrothers, entered the Congregation of the Oratory in Udine and was ordained priest in 1809. The following year the Congregation was suppressed, however, and the priests were expelled from their church.
This was a time of difficulty for the Church, when so much of the heritage of Catholic Europe was destroyed. It was on the orders of the Napoleonic regime in northern Italy that the Oratory was suppressed. Carlo returned to live with his mother and stepfather for his widowed mother had remarried – and their children. He taught the smaller ones in the family their first lessons in the faith.
Peace returned to Italy in 1814, and in the years that followed the young Luigi became an external student at the Archdiocesan Seminary in Udine, where he had a brilliant academic record. He was ordained a priest on 31 March 1827 in Udine Cathedral, and said his first Mass on Passion Sunday in the old Church of S. Maria Madalena, where the former Oratorian priests still served.
The desperately poor conditions of life in Friuli at that time were not lost on Luigi. It was a land devastated by famine and disease. Luigi soon became involved with his half-brother, Carlo, in helping to run an orphanage for girls, situated close to the Oratory church. The orphanage had been founded in 1816. With some other priests and teachers, Luigi worked hard for these poor women, but a series of bad harvests meant that he had to devote much time to begging in the streets and shops to obtain food for the girls’ supper.
A new house was later obtained, and a steady supply of money put things on a better footing. By 1840 Luigi was the guiding light of the institute. At the same time, he began to lay the foundations for other such houses for poor children and for children who could not hear or speak.
He recruited several older women to help him in his work. These soon decided on becoming religious. On Christmas Day, 1845, fifteen of them received the habit and became known as the Sisters of Providence.
Whilst these developments were taking place, there were also moves to re-establish the Oratory in Udine. In 1846 the Oratory was formally reopened, with the surviving Fathers from the suppression of 1810 returning to their house and church. Carlo was elected Provost, and held the position until his death in 1854. Luigi received the Oratorian habit, and began to devote much of his time to the Christian formation of the young workers and students of Udine. He himself would be chosen as Provost of the Oratory just two years later, in 1856.
The advent of Italian unification in the 1860s and the arrival of an anti-clerical government resulted in the passing of a law suppressing all religious congregations. This was a death-blow for many Italian Oratories.
Luigi fought fiercely against the application of this law, and although he managed to preserve the Sisters of Providence, the Udine Oratory was suppressed in 1867. This was the end of Luigi’s community life as an Oratorian, but not the end of his devotion to St. Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorians, and the Oratory.
He maintained Oratorian principles and practices to the end of his life, always signing himself ‘F. Luigi of the Oratory’. He left his possessions to the Congregation should it ever be re-established, and left instructions that on his grave the words Presbyter Oratorii should appear.
In his spiritual life Luigi had a great devotion to Our Lord as a poor and humble man, and he taught the sisters to see Christ in the poor and the suffering. Luigi also had a great love for Our Lady, especially Our Lady of Sorrows, for St. Joseph and, of course, for St. Philip, whom he tried to imitate closely.
Like St. Philip, a spirit of cheerfulness and joy marked Luigi’s life. His complete indifference to earthly reputation and honour was reflected in what he said to the sisters as he lay dying: ‘I do not want this poor man even to be remembered’. After an illness of three months, he died on 3 April 1884, and was buried in his home town of Udine.
The likelihood of his last wish being respected was always remote. Miraculous cures through Luigi’s intercession were reported within days of the saint’s death.
The miracle which secured his canonization happened in 1996, when Peter Shitima, a young catechist from Zambia, was dying from AIDS. Doctors had decided that nothing more could be done for the young man.
One witness said, ‘He could scarcely lift his legs. He could not stay in bed without help. He was a terminal patient, and nothing could be done’. Peter’s parish began to pray to Blessed Luigi for him. On the night of 9 October 1996 Peter dreamed of Luigi, and the following morning he woke up feeling completely better.
One of the doctors involved, Dr. Pete de Toit, said, ‘I sent him home because he was a terminal patient, and he returned brimming with health’. The doctors agreed that there was no medical explanation for the cure, and the curial congregation recognized that what had happened was indeed a miracle. The necessary documents were signed by Pope John Paul II on 1 July 2000, allowing the canonization to proceed.
The feast of St. Luigi Scrosoppi is kept on 5 October each year.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (October2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.