It is no secret that during the Protestant Reformation many priests and nuns fell away from the Catholic Faith because they had already “lost their savor.” The Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually succeeded in strengthening the Church because it produced bishops, priests and religious who were truly the “salt of the earth.”
A leading figure in this counter-reform effort was St. Andrew Avellino.
Andrew (originally Lancelot) Avellino was born near Naples, Italy, in 1521, a year when Martin Luther was just launching his great revolt against the Catholic Church, Lancelot felt a special call to chastity, so he entered the diocesan priesthood. He also won a degree in canon law and began to practice law in the church courts. One day, however, when pleading a case, he caught himself telling a lie. This moment of untruth so disturbed him that he decided to give up church-law practice entirely the devote himself only to the care of souls.
Father Lancelot proved to be so effective in his pastoral work that in 1556 the archbishop of Naples delegated to him to reform a Neapolitan convent of nuns. The sisters of this convent had become notorious for receiving visits from laymen friends, so Avellino faced no easy task. In fact, the rebellion came to a point where the nuns’ friends ambushed him one day and severely wounded him. Despite his readiness even to die if death would help him in this task, he got nowhere with the nuns, so the church authorities eventually had to suppress their convent. (People who need reforming cannot be corrected unless they want to be!)
While recuperating from his wounds in a monastery of the Theatine Fathers, Lancelot was attracted by the lifestyle of his hosts. St. Cajetan had founded their order 30 years earlier. His purpose was to train model priests to offset the scandals caused by unworthy priests. Father Avellino decided to join their community in 1556. He now took the religious name “Andrew.”
As he had been an outstanding diocesan priest, Fr. Andrew now became an outstanding Theatine, named to offices of importance in his congregation. The great reforming bishop of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo, was impressed by this reforming priest and asked him to found a Theatine monastery in his archdiocese. St. Andrew also founded a house at Piacenza and promoted or ruled over other foundations elsewhere in Italy.
Andrew’s reformist efforts were principally those of a preacher and home missionary. Because of the spread of Protestant doctrinal errors, he had to preach not only on morals but on the doctrinal teachings of the Church. But he was most persuasive both as a preacher and teacher.
At Parma for instance, he won over several noble ladies to more spiritual outlook, so that several entered religious orders. This caused a great stir, and some Parmesans reported to their ruler, the Duke, that Avellino was “turning the city upside down.” When the Duke called the saint onto the carpet, Andrew had no difficulty in explaining his aims. The Duchess of Parma was so struck by him that she chose him as her confessor.
Many other people throughout Italy were also led to change their lives after listening to him. He was meanwhile training a new generation of Theatines to carry on his work. One of these was Fr. Lawrence Scupoli, whose little book The Spiritual Combat has remained a spiritual “best seller” up to the present time.
Miracles also occurred when St. Andrew was around. One day, for example, a man who disbelieved in the Real Presence received Holy Communion because of peer pressure. But then he slipped the Host out of his mouth and wrapped it in his handkerchief. However, when he next took out the handkerchief, he found it stained with blood. Repentant and frightened, he hastened to seek advice from St. Andrew. The saint published this miracle in praise of God, but he kept the man’s name secret to protect him from arrest for sacrilege.
I think that St. Andrew Avellino has two messages for us today. First, he says to priests and religious: “You are the salt of the earth, preserve that savor.” Secondly, he says to all of us: “Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. Receive Him only with the greatest of reverence, and into hearts that are without sin.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara