Don Carlo Gnocchi - Priest of Heroic Kindness
G. K. Chesterton once wrote of war that if it is, “not a holy war, it is an unholy one: a massacre.” (CW, XXX, P. 307) The horrific realities of war are often not realized until they have been experienced. Until then it is easy to glorify war and get caught up in the patriotism that drives young men to fight. Venerable Don Carlo Gnocchi (pronounced NO-kee) embodies one man who was transformed by his wartime experience.
Don Carlo was an Italian priest who desired to serve as a military chaplain. Before having the honor, he encouraged young men to enlist during World War II. Even though the Italian army was currently controlled by the Fascist regime, he believed that fighting for one's country was a way of defending the weak. He rightly saw war as an opportunity to make better men because war allows men to practice heroic virtue. Eventually he was given a post with the Alpine regiment fighting in Albania. While he was serving on the front lines he witnessed countless young men sacrificing their lives for commanders who did not value life and who were ultimately fighting for an unjust cause.
When Don Carlo returned to his hometown he was dismayed that all the boys he had been teaching had decided to follow his lead and join the military. He had no choice but to re-enlist and serve alongside these young men (now fighting under German command) on the frigid Russian front. 68,000 troops were sent to Russia and only 7,000 returned. Some were lost to the fighting, but most were lost to the extreme cold.
The most difficult task Don Gnocchi had to undertake began after the war ended. He traveled throughout Italy to personally console the families of his fallen friends and give them any letters or belongings that he had been entrusted with. In his journeys he realized that the real war was not over. The real war was being fought in the lives of the victims. With so many men gone, many families were left with no one to care for them. Among the needy were a large number of children who had lost limbs because of land mines placed in the Italian countryside. Without fathers to support them, these children had no futures, and their special needs surpassed the abilities of the orphanages to care for them.
Don Carlo had no money and no plan, but he put his trust in God and began gathering all these children. He started by opening up the rectory to disabled children but he required more help and better facilities to sustain the growth and adequately care for the orphans. It took the support of many generous people and powerful Church leaders to provide the housing, food and medical attention that these poor mutilati needed.
Don Carlo's story is unique because he not only provided for the physical care of the orphans, he championed the Catholic theology of redemptive suffering and taught the children how to live it. When we offer up our suffering for others, we offer it for those we love and for the weakest people in society. Don Carlo showed his children that even the weakest of people can unite their suffering to the suffering of Christ on the cross. When they do this they are participating in the life of Christ and helping Him with His work on earth and in the Church.
The Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundazione for disabled children is well-respected and continues to thrive in Italy today. It has expanded its care to elderly people who are unable take care of themselves and for terminal cancer patients. On January 17th, 2009 a miracle attributed to Venerable Don Carlo Gnocchi was promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI and he will be beatified on October 25th, 2009.
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For more information on the remarkable life of Fr. Gnocchi's, we recommend the DVD Father of Mercy.
If you'd like to learn more about the Catholic teaching on suffering we recommend Peter Kreeft's Making Sense Out of Suffering.