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from issue no. 03 - 2003

Fra Tommaso from Olera

Despite the fact that he has not yet been raised to the honors of the altar, this friar from the fifteen hundreds is still remembered and invoked in the valleys around Bergamo. Tommaso was an illiterate, but the people recognized his extraordinary humility and goodness, and men of power the wisdom infused by grace. His collected works was one of John XXIII’s favorite pieces of reading.

by Giovanni Ricciardi

The saints, before being canonized, often enjoy a spontaneous veneration on the part of Christian people. Their fame is not always universal, as that of Padre Pio or of Pope John XXIII: but the dynamic does not change, even if on a reduced scale. It can happen, then, that a humble friar born in the fifteen hundreds can still be remembered, prayed to and invoked in the valleys around Bergamo, even if he has not yet been raised to the honors of the altar: such is the case with Fra Tommaso Acerbis, from Olera, a small village in Val Seriana.
“Olera: a cluster of small houses at an altitude of 523 meters, surrounded by mountains and cheered by a small stream. A small dirt road, narrow as a corridor, with little stone stairs, led me to the heart of the village. I asked two chilled women, wrapped in shawls, if they had ever heard tell of Fra Tommaso. “Oh, blessed Tommaso!”, they replied with warmth. They talked to me about him as if he were one of the family; and I, with growing emotion, listened to them”.
It was the Capuchin father Fernando da Riese who took these notes, when he came to Olera in 1962 to gather information about Fra Tommaso. There was still a year to go before the fourth centenary of his birth and the Capuchins were thinking of introducing the cause for beatification. Father Fernando was surprised by the vivid memory his people still kept of him, four centuries from when he had lived.
“I would never have believed that the Capuchin friar from Bergamo, Tommaso Acerbis, would still be remembered in Olera, since at 17 years old (in 1580) he left his native village, to continue the rest of his life in the monasteries of the Capuchins, combining in admirable fashion the life of the cloister and that of the roads of north Italy and of the Tyrol”.
In Olera, an old building, still occupied by the descendants of the Acerbis, an impoverished family of ancient nobility, still carries the family coat of arms on the facade. In this house, towards the end of 1563, the future Fra Tommaso was born. At the time the Council of Trent was ending, Europe was still buffeted by the wind of the Reformation. Bergamo and Val Seriana formed part of the then territory of the Republic of Venice. The seventeen year old Tommaso knocked at the door of the convent of the Capuchin friars in Verona in 1580 – his ecclesiastical province – to don the habit of Saint Francis. Without education, Tommaso had nurtured his vocation, pasturing the sheep and living in poverty with his family. He had no other school, if not the three years of novitiate passed at Verona, during which his superiors taught him how to read and write, making an exception to the rule of Saint Francis which expressly forbids “ the teaching of those who are illiterate”.
And yet, even as the illiterate which he was, he composed mystical and ascetic treatises which were collected, many years after his death, with the title Fuoco d’amore (‘Fire of love’) and published in 1682. A text which has never had a proper critical edition, but one is now being prepared. A volume loved and read assiduously by another great native of Bergamo, Angelo Roncalli.
“I still remember the impression it made on me, the joy felt by Pope John when on November 24 1959 he received as a gift from a man from Innsbruck ( Dr. Joseph Mitterstiller) the book Fuoco d’amore by Fra Tommaso from Olera”.
Monsignor Loris Capovilla, the then secretary to Pope John, wrote the following:
“I recall well that the Pope stated that he had found in it an old acquaintance, namely this lay Capuchin, whose life, works and, further, the fame for sanctity which he enjoyed in Alto Adige, he had known from his youth [....]. Pope John frequently reread the pages of this Fuoco d’amore and declared his great esteem and veneration for the saintly writer. [....] He said that Fra Tommaso had to have been led by the Holy Spirit to set down such limpid pages in conformity with orthodox doctrine”.
Despite the studies completed with fervor and diligence during the years of the novitiate in Verona, his Italian remained elementary and ungrammatical. And yet his writings reveal a surprising spiritual profundity and doctrinal exactness. A fellow friar, Ilarione from Mantova, noted in this regard: “I saw him many times after communion retire to his cell and write meditational pieces on the life and passion of the Lord; and having sometimes read me these spiritual works of his after having written them, he confidently affirmed [....] that he could not himself understand how he could have put those things on paper”.
All of his life he carried out humble works, “seeking alms, washing the pots, cooking and tending the garden”, as he once wrote. One seems to see in him again that friar Galdino of Manzoni who, in that same region of Lombardy, between Bergamo and Lecco, knocked at Lucia’s door for alms and recounted the gracious “parable” of the “miracle of the walnuts”. But friar Galdino is but a secondary personage in the great fresco of The Betrothed. Fra Tommaso will, on the other hand, despite his role as a simple mendicant friar, become an extraordinary personality for his time.
After his definitive entrance into the Capuchin order, beginning in 1583, he remained in Verona until 1605, and then moved to different cities in the Venetian area: Vicenza, Padova, Rovereto, until 1619. Everywhere the fame for sanctity of this “apostle without a stole spread”. He visited the sick, brought peace to disputes, knocked at the doors of the poor and the rich to spread the Gospel: people recognized his extraordinary humility and goodness, men of power the wisdom infused by grace, of an illiterate, capable of advising and correcting, guiding and comforting. The source of this wisdom was none other than the gaze continually directed at the crucifix, as in the purest Franciscan tradition. “ I have never read a syllable from books” he was to write, “but I strive to read the impassioned Christ”.
Struck by the fame of Fra Tommaso’s sanctity, archduke Leopold V summoned him to the Tyrol, in 1619, so that he might check the spread of Lutheranism in his territories by his preaching. Transferred to Innsbruck, Fra Tommaso was for twelve years, until 1631, the year of his death, the most heeded adviser of the Archduke and was received on many occasions by the Emperor Ferdinand II himself. Furthermore, he was spiritual adviser to the archbishops of Trent and Salzburg, to whom he suggested the best way to apply the reforms of the council of Trent in their dioceses. All of this, without ever ignoring his own duties, the daily alms, manual labor, the contact with the poor people of the Tyrol. “Der Bruder von Tirol”, the friar from Tyrol, was the nickname he was given. In those years Fra Tommaso did not see his own native land again. But in Val Seriana, more than elsewhere, prayer for his intercession has always gone on, even in recent times.
“Like the tolling of bells in the valleys” writes father Fernando da Riese again, “so for over four centuries, the inhabitants of Olera have handed on to every generation the devotion to their fellow countryman: calling on him in every season either of the year or of life and praying him to intercede for the whole village, to protect it from every form of moral and physical evil. They considered him their best friend, “as an angel sent from God”, commented an ancient writer.
Father Fernando da Riese, who was the first vice-postulator of his cause for beatification, collected many testimonies to Fra Tommaso’s intercession on behalf of his fellow countrymen.
“Signora Renata Zanchi, twenty four years old, in September 1962, was in desperate conditions because of a phlebitis during birth. The doctors did not know what to do anymore and the patient was by now resigned to dying. Her family rushed to me, and asked me to celebrate a mass in honor of Fra Tommaso and, days afterwards, the woman was perfectly cured”.
It is, in brief, one of the testimonies collected ‘viva voce’ by the then parish priest of Olera don Franco Cavalieri. In the church beside the painting which represents “the true likeness of the great servant of God, Fra Tommaso, the lay Capuchin of Olera” kneeling before the Immaculate Conception, hearts and votive tablets are hanging.
In his daily struggle to defend the Catholic credo and to oppose Calvinism and Lutheranism, at court as well as among the people, Fra Tommaso arrived at the insight into the profundity of the mystery of Mary which permeates his writings. In them, among other things, the formulation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is anticipated in a clear way. And not just in the writings.
At Volders, on the banks of the river Inn, in the Tyrol, there stands a church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which was desired by Fra Tommaso and completed twenty three years after his death, by Ippolito Guarinoni, a doctor at the court of Innsbruck, and spiritual child and great friend of Fra Tommaso. That was in 1654, exactly two hundred years before the proclamation of the dogma by Pius IX.
Perhaps it was because of this also that Pope John loved the writings of Fra Tommaso so much as to wish to hear them as spiritual reading, even on his death bed. Again Monsignor Capovilla writes:
“In the last days of his life, especially from when he began to remain in bed – on May 20 1963 – Pope John wished that I, the undersigned, the nurse, Friar Federico Bellotti, and the young helpers, Guido and Giampolo Gusso should read in turn for him not only pages from the Imitation of Christ, the breviary, and other pious books, but also copious passages from the Fuoco d’amore. He spoke to all his visitors of the delights he received from this reading, beginning with his confessor Monsignor Cavagna, even with his doctors, and down to the sisters and the serving personnel”.
There are many reasons for interest in the treatises collected in the Fuoco d’amore by Fra Tommaso. For example the seven chapters dedicated to the Heart of Jesus, which anticipate by thirty years the revelations of Jesus to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, which were to play a large part in western spirituality of the last centuries.
The long meditations on the pierced heart of Jesus recall to memory The incredulity of Thomas, the work of another great native of Bergamo, Caravaggio, who was a contemporary of Fra Tommaso and had in common with him, along with his birth, the constant frequenting of the humble places as well as the homes of the powerful.
It was these motives, along with many others, that persuaded the Bishop of Bergamo, Roberto Amadei, to call to mind in an open letter to the Pope, in 2000, the hope that Fra Tommaso– whose “heroic virtues” were proclaimed in 1987 – would soon be beatified. Now a miraculous healing is awaited, supported by scientific evidence. But the people of Olera have no doubts that his intercession has been operative and powerful for more than four centuries.
“In conversation with the people of the village”, Father Fernando da Riese writes again, “ the answers of those whom we asked about Fra Tommaso were always full of veneration and faith in his patronage. And, invariably, at the name of Fra Tommaso they permitted themselves the title of blessed. I remained pleasantly surprised at this live memory. The following morning, while I was about to leave, the parish priest introduced Signora Schiavi née Orsola Acerbis to me who, with evident pleasure, told me: “For seventeen years, every day, I say nine Gloria Patri to blessed Tommaso. Blessed Tommaso saved a child for me. He is called Romano and is now twenty years old. In January 1960 he was taken with hemiplegia: he couldn’t move his left arm or leg anymore. When they took him to the hospital in Bergamo, I ran to our church and knelt at the altar where the painting of blessed Tommaso kneeling in front of the Immaculate Conception is kept. Lifting a shirt of my son’s up towards the sacred image, I prayed the blessed one that he would grant me the grace. Then I too also went to the hospital, taking with me the blessed shirt. Romano put it on and I noticed a “strange” thing in him. One became aware that he succeeded in moving his left hand, then his arm, and then his leg. In a few days I saw him come back home completely cured. From then he’s been well, he works and doesn’t feel the least disturbance. To prove what she was telling me, she called her son and showed him to me. He was a strapping young man, tall and with a full ruddy complexion. He himself told me that every day he prayed to his powerful benefactor. Returning to my monastery in the Venetian region, in Padua, I confirmed to myself even more that the venerable Fra Tommaso not only deserved to be made known as an illustrious figure from a remote time [....], but also – and especially – to be made loved and invoked: as one does with a saint, certain to be heard and answered by him”. q

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