by Delores Riley
Antonio Rosmini was born March 24, 1797, in Rovereto, a small city in the Trentino region of the Italian Tyrol. The ancient and illustrious lineage of Rosmini’s family is reflected in his full name, Antonio Rosmini-Serbati. Rosmini’s brilliance and piety were evident from his youth. He received early training in philosophy and science from Don Pietro Orsi, a family friend and priest. With ordination in mind, Rosmini studied theology and canon law at the University of Padua, where he also attended lectures in mathematics, science and medicine. His father died in 1820, leaving him heir to two-thirds of his family’s estate.
Ordained a priest in 1821, Rosmini received his doctorate in theology from the University of Padua in 1822. In April 1823, he accompanied the Patriarch of Venice, the Hungarian Jan K. L. Pyrker, on a trip to Rome. In the Eternal City, Rosmini met Cardinal Castiglioni (the future Pope Pius VIII), Cardinal Cappellari (the future Pope Gregory XVI) and Pope Pius VII, who encouraged the young priest to devote his gifts to philosophical studies and writing. Taking the Pontiff’s counsel to heart, he spent the rest of his life publishing works of philosophy, theology, spirituality, pedagogy, politics and ethics.
Rosmini resided in various locations, including Rovereto, Milan, Rome, Trent, and (towards the end of his life) Piedmont. His friends included St. John Bosco; the writers, Niccolò Tommaseo (1802-1874) and Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873); and Popes Gregory XVI (r. 1831-1846) and Pius IX (r. 1846-1878)—who considered naming Rosmini a Cardinal. Rosmini had the greatest respect for the work John Bosco (known as Don) was doing at Turin, Italy, and in 1851 he made an indefinite loan to Don Bosco of 20,000 lire to help him expand his work with the poor, making Rosmini among the early benefactors of the Salesians.
Encouraged by Abbé Jean Loewenbruck, a priest from Lorraine, Rosmini composed the Constitutions for the Institute of Charity for male religious in 1828. By 1832 the Institute of Charity had spread to Northern Italy, and in 1835 Rosmini sent Luigi Gentili and some of his ablest men to the small Catholic community in England that lacked vitality and felt very much a defeated minority. By the time the Institute received official papal approval in 1838, it had already spread from Italy to France and England. In England, the community enjoyed substantial growth and in the subsequent twenty years, the landscape was transformed completely. Gentili and his companions converted thousands to the Catholic faith and ministered to the multitudes of the poor Irish Catholics in the new industrial towns. They started Missions in the Midlands, South Wales and London. In 1832, Rosmini founded the Sisters of Providence for women religious, dedicated to the ideals of the Institute of Charity. Rosmini, in 1843, sent Sisters of Providence to Loughborough, where they faced much hostility, as did the priests. In 1837, he named Sister Giovanna Camilla Antonietti the first mother general of the community. By the time Sister Antonietti died in 1872, there were 500 Sisters of Providence in 50 different houses.
Rosmini’s “Maxims of Spiritual Perfection” (1830) is probably his greatest spiritual work, and Pope John XXIII referred to it in his “Journey of a Soul”. Rosmini was an original and courageous thinker, and at times his writings generated controversy and misunderstanding. Some of Rosmini’s life was punctuated by attacks on his philosophical and theological works and although Rosmini enjoyed the friendship and support of the Popes of his age, he could not escape the opposition aroused by some of his writings. Two of Rosmini’s books, “The Five Wounds of the Holy Church” and “The Constitution According to Social Justice” were placed on the Index, which was a list of publications prohibited by the Catholic Church. In 1854, the year before his death, the Sacred Congregation of the Index removed all of Rosmini’s writings from examination.
Why were these works placed on the Index? In part, it was because they were perceived as a criticism of certain policies of the Austrian government, and some influential Cardinals were pro Austrian. Rosmini’s love for his faith moved him to criticize certain unfortunate trends within the Catholic Church of his days, trends that he described as “The Five Wounds.” In 1887 the decree of the Holy Office, Post Obitum, cast a shadow over the writings of Rosmini, but the Institute of Charity and the Sisters of Providence remained devoted to their founder. Both John XXIII and Paul VI admired the spirituality of Rosmini and in 1994, Pope John Paul II agreed to open the cause for Rosmini’s beatification. The cause for Rosmini’s beatification required a reconsideration of the 1887 decree of the Holy Office. After careful study it was concluded “these motives can now be considered superseded because such interpretations do not belong to the authentic position of Rosmini but to conclusions that may have been possibly drawn from the reading of his works. Rosmini never denied any truth of the Catholic faith. The plausibility of his philosophical and theological theories, therefore, should remain entrusted to theoretical debate.”
If there was a Catholic thinker who resonates with many of Rosmini’s insights, it would be Pope John Paul II. Both men recognized the link between anthropology and ethics; both saw the dignity of the human person as the foundation for human rights, and both saw the state at the service of human beings not vice versa. Needless to say, both Rosmini and John Paul II were men of prayer and holiness. Writing in 1998, Pope John Paul II said, “Rosmini stands in that great intellectual tradition of Christianity which knows that there is no opposition between faith and reason, but that one demands the other. His was a time when the long process of the separation of faith and reason had reached full term, and the two came to seem mortal enemies. Rosmini, however, knew that faith without reason withers into myth and superstition, and therefore he set about applying his immense gifts of mind not only to theology and spirituality, but to fields as diverse as philosophy, politics, law, education, science, psychology and art, seeing in them no threat to faith, but necessary allies. Although very much a man of the 19th century, Rosmini transcended his own time and place to become a universal witness whose teaching is still today both relevant and timely.”
Rosmini’s good friend, the Italian writer Manzoni, was with him as he lay dying in 1855. Manzoni told his friend: “I hope that the Lord spares you for our sakes, and gives you time to complete the many noble works you have begun; your presence among us is necessary.” Rosmini replied: “No! No! God needs no one; the works begun by God will be completed by the means He holds in His hand, there is no limit to them; they are an abyss into which we can only peer and adore. As for me, I am quite useless; I fear I may even do harm; and this fear not only makes me resigned to death, but also makes me desire it.” Manzoni interjected: “For heaven’s sake, don’t say that: what shall we do? Rosmini replied: “Adore, Be Silent, Rejoice!”
In retrospect, On July 1, 1855 a day dedicated in the diocese of Novara to the Precious Blood of Christ, Antonio Rosmini died at 58 years of age. The Piedmontese Government notified its diplomatic representatives abroad of Rosmini’s death, and all Italy hastened to pay him tributes that had been denied him in life. In the short pontificate of John Paul I we also find the Pope speaking of Rosmini. As a young priest he had presented his thesis at the Gregorian on the works of Rosmini. We are told that during the 33 days of his Pontificate he described Rosmini as a Priest who loved the Church, who suffered for the Church; a man of vast culture, of integral faith, a master of philosophical and moral wisdom who clearly saw the delays as well as the evangelical and pastoral inadequacies of the Church.
In England, the Rosminians are credited with introducing the use of the Roman collar and cassock and the practice of wearing the religious habit in public. They were known for preaching missions, the practice of the Forty Hours, May devotions, the use of the scapular, novena celebrations, public processions and the blessing of throats on the feast day of St Blaise. On June 16, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI signed a Decree of the Heroic Virtues, and hence declared Rosmini to be Venerable. On June 3, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the promulgation of a decree approving Rosmini’s beatification. On November 18, 2007, he was beatified in Novara, Italy
In conclusion: the beatification of Rosmini is in a small way a recognition of his human and spiritual greatness which sweeps away the clouds of the past which hung over him, a confirmation of the merit which he accumulated in his service of the Church. But above all the beatification is a bridge built for the future. It is as if the Church is placing on a lamp stand a light which remained for a long time under a table, exhorting us in these times of the obscurity of truth and charity, to make use of the light of truth and of the fire of charity which shines forth from it.
Foot note: Shortly after the establishment of Blessed Sacrament Parish in 1959, Archbishop Hurley entrusted it to the care of the priests of the Institute of Charity. Archbishop Hurley was impressed by the life of its founder, Fr. Antonio Rosmini, who required close cooperation between the priests of his Institute and the Bishop and Priests of the Diocese in which they serve.
Blessed Antonio Rosmini, pray for us
Umberto Muratore, Director of the International Centre of Rosminian Studies
Francis Campbell, British Ambassador to the Holy See
Claude Leetham, “Rosmini, Priest and Philosopher”
Biographies of Pope John Paul II