(1859-1902, Feast October 27)
We turn to universities if we are looking for learned persons, but not (unfortunately) if we are looking for saints. The universities may be staffed with brilliant personnel, but academic life usually has its own very worldly standards.
Contardo Ferrini was that modern rarity, an internationally respected lay scholar who was also a man of profound holiness.
Son of a professor, born in Milan, Italy, in 1859, Contardo owed his brains and his early training largely to his father. When he attended law school at Pavia in the 1870’s, he was already convinced that expertise in studies could be made to fit in well with a life of prayer and good works.
After winning his doctorate in law in 1880, he spent two years as a teacher in the University of Berlin. The history of Roman law now became his specialty. In 1883 he was named a lecturer in law history at the University of Pavia, and within eighteen months he had been promoted to a professorship.
In 1887 he was named professor of Roman law at the University of Messina. Then in 1894 he was recalled to Pavia to fill a still more notable professorship in legal history, which he retained until the end of his life.
Professor Ferrini was one of that elite body of savants that the average person can admire but scarcely appreciate. He was a scholar’s scholar, a master of many languages, the author of several textbooks and five volumes of scholarly essays, and the recognized authority in his subject throughout the world.
But Contardo, despite his learning, insisted that “Learning is not the road to God.” If he was wedded to scholarship (“Law is my wife,” he used to say; privately, he had made a vow to lifelong celibacy in 1881), it was because he believed that the call to perfection also included doing our daily work as well as possible.
That call to perfection he also heeded when he involved himself in charitable work and in public affairs where his knowledge helped him to defend marriage and other church doctrines then being attacked by Italian socialists.
His second great passion was for the beauties of nature. He loved to climb the peaks of the nearby Alps. Of these experiences he wrote, “God also speaks to man in the clouds on the mountain tops, in the roaring of the torrents, in the stark awfulness of the cliffs, in the dazzling splendor of the unmelting snow, in the sun that splashes the west with blood, in the wind that strips the trees bare.”
Here, then, was a bearded saint in a frock coat, always gentle, always courteous. Many students attended his classes not just because of his reputation as a jurist but because they marveled in listening to a “modern” professor who still believed in God. Layman Ludovic Necchi, a future founder of the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, and himself now a candidate for canonization, once said to a friend when Ferrini had greeted them in the street, “What is it about that man? He’s a saint!”
A saint for now, and especially for the academic world of now. As Pope Pius XII once said of him to an audience of scholars, Blessed Contardo was a man who “gave an emphatic ‘Yes’ to the possibility of holiness in these days.”
Attention, therefore, particularly you Ph.D.s who read these lines. Here is a saint you should get to know. Blessed Contardo also reminds all of us that performing our daily tasks perfectly is the easiest response to Jesus’ reminder, “You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
–Father Robert F McNamara