MODENA, Italy — “Tomorrow, one priest less,” said the political commissioner of one of the Communist Party’s “Garibaldi Brigades” of Monchio, a small town in the northern Italian province of Modena. Those words uttered in 1945 signaled the commissioner’s decision that seminarian Rolando Rivi had to be executed. Rivi was only 14, and now he is the Church’s first beatified seminarian.
Rivi’s beatification took place Oct. 5 in Modena, and it was a true “feast of faith.” Nearly 20,000 people attended the event, coming from the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy, also known as “the triangle of death.”
From 1943-1949, approximately 4,500 people were killed in this region by communists. Among them were 93 priests, who were accused of several offenses, including collaboration with the fascist government, giving aid to fascist refugees or simply being priests or studying to become one. The latter was the case of Rivi.
Born in 1931 to a deeply Catholic family, Rivi discovered his vocation very early and entered the seminary when he was only 11 years old. At that time, all seminarians wore cassocks, and so did he.
After the Sept. 8, 1943, Italian armistice with the Allies and subsequent Nazi occupation of northern Italy, groups of partisans were formed to support the Allies’ liberation effort. The movement was initially composed of independent troops (members of political parties previously outlawed by the fascist regime) or by former officers of the Royal Italian Army.
In Modena, partisan formations were mostly composed by communists, socialists and members of Partito d’Azione (a republican liberal-socialist party), and they were united by animosity toward fascists and an anti-Catholic spirit. Communist partisans, in particular, thought that clergy could be an obstacle for their revolutionary project, and this fed their anticlericalism.
In June 1944, Nazis troops occupied the seminary, and so all the seminarians were sent home. Rivi returned to his hometown of San Valentino, carrying his books with him to continue his studies there.
In San Valentino, the young seminarian never stopped wearing his cassock, despite the rising climate of violence. When his parents suggested he refrain from wearing it for his own safety, Rivi reportedly replied: “I study to be a priest, and these vestments are the sign that I belong to Jesus.”
The situation grew more difficult: Four priests were killed by the communist partisan brigades, and Father Olinto Marzocchini, San Valentino’s parish priest and Rivi’s spiritual father, was attacked and subsequently transferred to a more secure place.
Nevertheless, Rivi’s days were spent between service in his parish and his studies. On the morning of April 10, 1945, after serving Mass, the 14-year-old took his books and went to the nearby woods, where he was accustomed to studying. Yet this time, he never returned. At noon, his parents, worried because Rivi had not come back for lunch; they went to the woods and found his books on the ground and a sheet of paper, where the following words were written: “Do not search for him. He just came with us partisans for a while.”
Kidnapped and stripped of his cassock, Rivi was imprisoned and tortured by partisans for three days. Some of the partisans proposed to let him go, since he was only a young boy. But the majority sentenced him to death, in order to have “one less future priest.”
On April 13, Rivi was taken to a forest in the surroundings of Modena. The partisans dug a grave and had Rivi kneel on its edge. While he was praying, the young seminarian was killed by gunshots to the heart and head. His cassock was rolled into a ball, kicked around and then hung as a war trophy in the front door of a house.
Reconciling With History
After the Second World War, the official history of the so-called “Italian Resistance” exalted the partisan resistance to Nazi fascism and hid the crimes brought on in the name of this resistance.
This is exactly the reason why the “feast of faith” of Rivi’s beatification is such a blessed day for Italy, and it even can be considered a high point in the process of reconciliation in the so-called triangle of death.
After the Second World War, Rivi’s death was immediately described as a “private crime.” Yet journalist and historian Emilio Bonicelli gave great impetus to the cause of beatification. He read about the story of an English child who was miraculously healed of leukemia thanks to Rivi’s intercession, and this story brought wider recognition of the young martyr.
“This is how I met Rolando,” recounted Bonicelli, “and from then on, I fought to shed light on his story. In the forest where Rolando was killed, it seemed that hate won and that Rolando had been extinguished from history. But the Lord taught us there is no great evil that cannot lead to a greater good.”
Sergio Rivi, a cousin of Rolando, was among the very first to search for the truth of the young seminarian’s death. It had been explained that the boy was killed because he was suspected of being a Nazi spy, but Sergio asserted that “nobody in our family ever believed it.”
Sergio’s search led him to the work of Paolo Risso, a researcher in Italian history. Risso had become familiar with the young boy’s life after reading a book that referenced him in 1976. Intrigued, Risso researched the documentation about Rolando, and he was put in touch with Sergio by then-Bishop Paolo Gibertini of Reggio Emilia.
Risso wrote the first biography of Rivi in 1991. Describing the challenges he met as he tried to research the boy’s death, he said, “I met so many hurdles and slaps in the face.”
Risso also stressed that “there were four other seminarians killed for hate of the faith in Emilia Romagna during the same period. Further investigations on their lives should be continued.”
“I was struck by Rolando Rivi’s story because he was the youngest of the killed seminarians, and there were no doubts about his martyrdom,” said the biographer.
Martyrdom for Hate of Faith
That Rivi’s execution was inspired by hate of his faith is also clear in the verdict of the court that sentenced his killers, Giuseppe Corghi and Delciso Rioli, to 16 years and 26 years of imprisonment, respectively. (They were freed after six years in prison. Italy’s then-Minister of Justice Palmiro Togliatti, a fellow communist, granted them amnesty.)
In the judge’s verdict, it is written that Rivi was killed because he was “very young and of a pious and irreprehensible conduct,” and “he sympathized with Catholic partisans and opposed the spread of communism.”
For Risso, Rivi’s martyrdom is clear. The verdict, he said, “seems to be written by a pope, but it has been written by an Italian judge.”
As a martyr of the faith, a miracle was not needed to proclaim Rivi "blessed."
During the homily of the beatification Mass, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, proclaimed that “human ideologies fall down, but the Gospel of love never goes down because it is the Good News.”
Cardinal Amato also spoke of the “hyenas, fed with hate, looking for prey to bite and devour, who stripped Rivi of his vestments as Jesus’ executioner did.”
Those “hyenas,” Cardinal Amato said, “forgot the commandments of the Lord,” and they were “indoctrinated to fight Christianity, humiliate priests, kill the parish priests and destroy the Catholic teachings.”
Andrea Gagliarducci writes from Rome.