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from issue no. 04 - 2003

Marco d’Aviano's life

The preacher who filled the confessionals

Marco d’Aviano's life

by Gianni Cardinale

MARCO D’AVIANO with the crucifix, 
a painting in the church of Villotta, Aviano

MARCO D’AVIANO with the crucifix, a painting in the church of Villotta, Aviano

At baptism he was given the name Carlo, in honor of Saint Charles Borromeo, who about a half century before had been of great solace to Milan during the plague of 1576. When he was born, on 17 November 1631, the other great plague – the one Manzoni describes which had raged through the lands of the Venetian Republic, had begun to subside. Aviano, in the south west of Friuli, where Carlo Domenico Cristofori was born was a village in the already waning Most Serene Republic. Some years later, on becoming a Franciscan novice, he took the name Marco d’Aviano. A timid, reserved, thoughtful and placid boy: difficult to predict that, on growing up, he would be a sought-for guest of all the great European courts, or that he would have to defend himself from crowds acclaiming him saint, or that he would have become friend and counselor to Leopold I of Hapsburg, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
After taking religious vows in 1649, being ordained priest in 1655 and given a license as travelling preacher in 1664, Marco began his journeyings. It was a continuous pilgrimage – undertaken in obedience to his superiors – which would take him to various places in Italy and to a large part of Europe, summoned by bishops, nobles, civil authorities and the populations of entire countries and cities with an ever more insistent rhythm, the more his fame for sanctity spread and accounts of the miracles that occurred during his blessings. France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia are the modern countries where the Capuchin from Friuli came and preached, without knowing any languages other than Italian and Latin. Even if in the homiletic language of the time, the seventeenth-century use of conceits was widespread (“ the artist’s purpose is wonder: / he who does not know how to astound, let him take a scolding”, was the rule laid down by Giovanbattista Marino), Marco preferred instead to say simple things without using metaphors both to the ordinary people and to the nobles who listened to him. On the other hand, it was his person, more than the words he said, that struck those who met him, as an anonymous Tyrolese poet put it, “Yes, at first glance / his face shows grace, / so that all reform / even before he’s uttered a word”.
Sermons, Lenten exercises, blessings, masses: the life of Father Marco was composed in large part of these activities. But it was especially the practice of confession that he was most devoted to. Father Venanzio Ranier, Vice-postulator of the cause for beatification, recounts: “Father Marco was interested above all in the life of grace and the return to it of those who had strayed from it. The Apostle of forgiveness par excellence , he filled up the confessionals, so much so that the Jesuits in Belgium, where Marco d’Aviano went in 1681, wrote that they had never confessed so many as during the passage of the Italian Capuchin. And that this was his primary purpose, so impelling he could take on any discomfort, as he himself tells us: ‘Dealing with the health of souls, I will engage all of myself’ ”. And he did indeed engage all of himself, seeing that he was practically pursued wherever he went by masses of people. He stopped every time, and wherever he was – on a balcony, in church, on an embankment – and invited all to a recital of the Act of perfect contrition and imparted the blessing. It was during these blessings, one reads in the reports of the time, that the miraculous cures occurred that gave wing to his fame as a miracle worker. In 1681 Innocent XI granted Father Marco the privilege, never before granted to a religious, of imparting the papal blessing, with plenary indulgence for the dead attached, on the day of general communion. Obedience to the circumstances of life, to the orders of his superiors and of the Pope, led him to preach wherever he was called upon to do so, but not without fatigue. In 1683 he wrote to the Caesarian Ambassador in Venice, Count Della Torre: “The tasks are so great, that it is impossible to endure without the special help of God ”. And in 1688 to the Emperor Leopold: “The participation of the crowd of people is already so great that I am quiet neither by day nor night”. Events also led him to the heart of the political questions that afflicted Europe in those years, from the tense relations between states – the France of the Sun King opposed to the Hapsburg Empire of Leopold – to dialogue with the Protestants – with whom he tried to build up relationships based on charity -, from relations between the Papacy and the nobility to the pressure of the Turks who in 1683 even laid siege to Vienna. “They want me a politician, something I abhor more than death”, he recounted in a moment of great tiredness: “Secluded from the conversation of men, all of me is with God and I think myself to be in Paradise”. In all of these situations, explains Father Renier, “he presented himself as an ‘unarmed prophet’, a man of dialogue and peace, as an authentic son of Saint Francis. His greeting to the crowd which acclaimed him was always: “Pacem habete, pacem diligite”. His presence, obliged by obedience to the Pope and his superiors, where there was war and bloodshed in the Europe of his time, must be also read as an extreme attempt to save mankind, as individual and as community. When the Church, in the decree of recognition of heroic virtue, exalts the “sanctity of his life” it certainly does not exclude this aspect which ran through the whole of the generous apostolate of Father Marco”. It was an aspect of the Franciscan’s personality which was recognized and appreciated by the Jews and the Muslims of his time as well. In 1684, in fact, the Jews of Padua were about to be lynched because their co-religionists in Buda were falsely accused of having cruelly attacked the Christians of the Hungarian town where the Turks were fighting. Father Marco, who was in Hungary, immediately wrote a letter belying the rumour and saved the lifes of many people. The Jews of Padua still celebrate the “Purim of Buda” in memory of the event. Thus also, after the battle of 1688 in which the Imperial army took Belgrade by storm from the Ottoman soldiery, Marco saved the lifes of eight hundred Turks, who had surrendered and were barricaded in the city. A chronicler of the time attests how the fame of the just man “spread also among Muslims”.
In many of the letters which remain to us, his desire to withdraw from the activities which he was incessantly forced to pursue all over Europe, in the courts of princes and amid the turmoil of the world, constantly appears. He wanted to return to his monastery in Padua: “I get more enjoyment from my solitude than from all the delights and grandeur of the great of the world,” one reads in one missive. But events did not allow him to fulfill his desire; he continued to journey and his last destination was indeed Vienna, where the Emperor Leopold had called him, content with the peace that had finally been reached with France and the Turks. “May your reverence help me,” wrote Leopold to Marco in 1699, “to give thanks to that God, qui nobis dedit illam quam mundus dare non potuit pacem”. Marco, tired and sick, reached Vienna in that same year and on the 13 August, clutching the crucifix to his breat, died in the Capuchin monastery in the center of the city. God had finally granted him his much longed for peace, the only one that lasts forever.

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