Bl. Angelo of Acri

(1669-1739)

“Ziggy” is a familiar character in the “funnies.” He is the innocent little guy who always loses. Some might refer to him by the Yiddish word “schlemiel.” The original “Schlemiel” was Schelumiel, military head of the Israelite tribe of Simeon (Book of Numbers, 2:12). While the leaders of the other tribes were always victors, Schelumiel always lost. But Ziggy keeps going anyhow.

There have been schlemiels among the saints too. Why not? They are human, aren’t they? The important thing is how they accept being “all thumbs”; how they “turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones.”

Blessed Angelo of Acri was a sort of schlemiel, a sort of Ziggy.

Born in Calabria, southern Italy, in 1669, Angelo, at the age of 18, thought he might have a vocation to the religious life, so he was received on trial by the Capuchin Franciscans. The Capuchins followed a very rigorous rule of life, however, too rigorous for Angelo. For after a short time he left them and returned to “the world.” But he still felt that he had a religious vocation. Before long he asked the Capuchins to try him again. After a while, they consented. And after another while, he left a second time.

A priest-uncle now suggested to the willing but confused young man that God might be telling him that he wanted him to remain “in the world”, marry, and serve God as a devout layman. Angelo didn’t see it that way. He decided yet a third time to try the Capuchins. Perhaps it was his very persistence that persuaded the Franciscans to readmit him. This time he began his noviciate. It was a “rather stormy” year, but he eventually took his vows and began his studies for the priesthood of this missionary order.

The Capuchin superiors, concluding that the impulsive young novice needed strict discipline, treated him with severity. Angelo himself fought a battle with strong temptations against purity. But he made it to ordination, and it is said that at his first Mass he even experienced an ecstasy!

The Capuchin province to which Friar Angelo now belonged was engaged in the home missions. In 1702, his provincial sent him to preach a series of Lenten sermons at the town of San Giorgio. He prepared his sermons very carefully, following the florid oratorical style that was popular at the time. However, when he mounted the pulpit he forgot his text completely and lost his courage. Utterly nonplussed, he returned to his home monastery long before Lent was over.

While praying and seeking advice about his “stage fright”, Angelo heard a voice reassuring him that he would become a preacher after all. He asked the invisible speaker to identify himself. The voice answered, “I am who I am. For the future preach simply and colloquially so that all may understand you.” “I am who I am,” was God’s statement to Moses, so Friar Angelo was quick to heed the divine advice. Putting aside his books on baroque oratory, he resolved therefore to use only two sources for his sermons: the bible and the crucifix.

Angelo’s “simple, colloquial” homilies were immediately successful among ordinary people. Not so among the elite, who frowned on simple rhetoric.

It was in 1711 that Father Angelo won the battle in favor of unadorned preaching. Cardinal Pignatelli of Naples invited him to give the Lenten sermons in Naples. Angelo’s first “down-to-earth” sermon caused the gentry to laugh disdainfully. Practically nobody came to listen to his second and third sermons. The worried parish priest therefore begged the Cardinal to send some other preacher. But Pignatelli, a wise man, refused. Actually, a better audience turned out for his fourth sermon. Perhaps they came to see what His Eminence liked about the Capuchin’s new-style preaching. At the close of the fourth sermon, Friar Angelo asked the congregation to pray for someone among them who was about to die. As the congregation was leaving, a well-known lawyer suffered a mortal stroke. He had been the leader of the opposition to Father Angelo. After that dramatic event, the Capuchin’s sermons became so popular that the church could not contain the crowds that flocked to hear him.

For the next 28 years, Fr. Angelo preached missions throughout the kingdom of Naples, but especially among the poor of his native province, Calabria. Thus the diffident young “Ziggy” of yore became a most successful missioner, bringing thousands back to the sacraments, not only by his simple eloquence but by miracles and prophecies. He set an example of missionary method and of perseverance. Blindness alone put an end to his career six months before his death. Friar Angelo of Acri died in 1739. He was beatified in 1825.

Who said schlemiels can’t make it to heaven? Jesus himself was, in a sense, a “born loser”.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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