Assisi: Of Prayerful Holy Teens and Heroic Catholics

Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino shares the faithful legacy of young Blessed Carlo Acutis, who is buried in the hometown of St. Francis, and those who saved Jews in the Umbrian city during World War II.

The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi rises high above Assisi, Italy, and is the burial place of Blessed Carlo Acutis (top left) and where Catholic cyclist Gino Bartali (bottom left) helped with local efforts to save all the Jewish inhabitants of the Umbrian city during World War II.
The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi rises high above Assisi, Italy, and is the burial place of Blessed Carlo Acutis (top left) and where Catholic cyclist Gino Bartali (bottom left) helped with local efforts to save all the Jewish inhabitants of the Umbrian city during World War II. (photo: Unsplash; via CNA; public domain)

Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino, Italy, spoke with the Register when he was in the United States last month to present Blessed Carlo Acutis’ relic to the U.S. bishops and to attend a Pave the Way Foundation event in New Rochelle, New York. 


‘The Center of Carlo’s Life Was Jesus’

The story of the millennial blessed is ever popular, the archbishop has found.

“The story of Carlo has shown itself capable of touching hearts of both young and old people. … From around the world, we in Assisi get many requests for prayers and relics of Blessed Carlo. This holy boy speaks the language of the Gospel in a way which is adapted to our times. He speaks about a Gospel which can be practiced in everyday life, in the life of a boy who loves nature, who loves technology, computers, who lives between family and school, like so many young people do today,” the archbishop shared.

He emphasized Carlo’s devotion to the Eucharist. “The center of Carlo’s life was Jesus, especially in his daily encounter with the Eucharist. Carlo did his things every day, but when it was time for Mass, he would leave everything. It was like an interior call. He needed to meet Jesus. This moment was generative for the rest of his activities, interests and dreams, to the point that he wanted everyone to know about him [Jesus]. Given Carlo’s extraordinary computer-programming skills, he put this mystery of the Eucharist and especially Eucharistic miracles in a website.”

This Eucharistic devotion is why the U.S. bishop have invoked him as a patron for the National Eucharistic Revival, he explained.

“As you know, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have decided to revitalize Eucharistic spirituality in this great country, choosing Blessed Carlo as a patron of this revival. This is why I have brought Carlo’s relic. It is a fragment of his pericardium, which is the membrane that covers the heart.”

Explaining that there is a prayer now for his canonization,” he shared how the relic is “under the care of Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan [of New York]. It has to be protected and well-guarded. Any diocese that wants must organize with the Archdiocese of New York. It will stay here in the U.S. for one year. If people want second-degree relics, they have to ask for them from the Diocese of Assisi or the Association of Carlo Acutis.”

He says that interest in the teen blessed in the U.S. is encouraging  Eucharistic devotion. “We had a meeting at St. Anthony’s High School in Long Island yesterday [April 4] with more than 2,000 young people. They were extremely attentive and engaged. Last night in the Diocese of Brooklyn, in Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, we had a packed meeting young people for Eucharist adoration. I believe that Carlo will do a great job here in the U.S.”

The archbishop also spoke of how Carlo is similar to Assisi’s hometown saint, Francis.

“I think, for example, of their love of nature. St. Francis is the saint who wrote the Canticle of the Sun. Carlo was full of love for nature, animals, the beauty of creation. Next, there is the Eucharist. St. Francis had a tremendous devotion for the Eucharist. He loved to say that every day God comes down from heaven onto our altars. Carlo used a complementary perspective: Every day, when you participate in the Eucharist, you put yourself on the highway to heaven.” 

Archbishop Sorrentino underscored, “The saints point us toward Jesus.” 


Assisi’s Heroes

Assisi isn’t just home to St. Francis and the tomb of Blessed Carlo. Archbishop Sorrentino also highlighted efforts undertaken during World War II in Assisi to save Jews, spearheaded by the Church.

“Once I became bishop, I learned more about it [the efforts to save Jews] in the house where I now live. My great predecessor was Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini [bishop of Assisi from 1928 to 1973] who, during those hard years, gave an exceptional witness of generosity and courage for the Jews. In those moments in Assisi, thousands of refugees came, of which a couple of hundred were Jews. This was in a time when Jews were terribly persecuted. The news spread by word of mouth that Bishop Nicolini had a big heart and respect for his Jewish brothers. So, then, these Jews began to count on his help, and Bishop Nicolini always had a great welcome for them. Bishop Nicolini, in particular, formed a working group with his secretary, Don Aldo Brunacci, Father Rufino Nicacci and a few laypeople who worked with a printing press and several monasteries and convents in Assisi who opened their hearts and homes. And so, Jews were spread out into all these places.”

“The working group took it upon themselves to provide the Jews with everything they needed,” he continued. “Some of them were given private homes to live in; and when it was necessary, the bishop would hide their precious religious objects that could identify them with their Jewish religion and betray their identity. Bishop Nicolini hid these objects with his own hands in a part of the episcopal building, in the basement, where right now we have created the museum [Assisi Museum of Memory, which opened in 2011]. The museum is right where Bishop Nicolini did this work of hiding of Jews and their objects.”

He explained that living in the same house as the museum is a blessing. “For me, to live in this story is very inspiring. Everything about the Diocese of Assisi is a great story because the exact place where I live is where the celebrated episode happened of young St. Francis stripping himself of his clothes to express his exclusive love for Christ, his solidarity with the poor and his spirituality. Bishop Nicolini, who did this great service for the Jews, did it with the full knowledge of the risk to his liberty and life. Therefore, this is a place where you breathe love, where the Gospel was lived to its depths in a concrete way. Today, we are rediscovering: first, the Franciscan dimension and, second, this great story of solidarity towards the Jews, where it remains as a great message, especially for the new generations: that it is possible to make light shine even in the darkest moments of history.”

That light, he said, saved all Jewish inhabitants of Assisi, making use of the many Catholic convents and monasteries to hide Jews in Assisi. “We know the principal ones, which were the ones closest to the episcopate: the Monastery St. Quirico, the Clarisse nuns, the Monastery of St. Joseph, the Benedictine nuns, the French Clarisse nuns, the monastery of the Bavarian nuns [Germans] and then other convents and monasteries. We are still discovering news from time to time of other places where Jews were hidden.”

In particular he highlighted “Bishop Nicolini, who had a great heart, perceived the great value of the ‘other,’ notwithstanding the differences,” explaining how “he had, as Jews themselves say, ‘a great heart that knows how to embrace.’ There is a testimony that is very beautiful of a young girl who was 10 years old at the time [in 1943]: Miriam Viterbi. Today, she lives in Jerusalem. She wrote a testimonial book. When she met Bishop Nicolini for the first time with her parents and family in Assisi, she said that she had the feeling of paternity in the eyes of this bishop. He had the eyes of a father.”

He went on to describe the various other “heroes of Assisi.”

“Besides Bishop Nicolini, there was his secretary, Don Aldo Brunacci, who was named a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem. He coordinated this operation of hiding the Jews among the monasteries. He procured food and everything necessary to live, which was not easy. It wasn’t a hosting of people for one day. He had to make sure that people were taken care of, and in a way which was respectful of their dignity and also with their Jewish food. He made sure they had their moments of prayer. There was great respect for them. The reception in Assisi was something absolutely free. The idea was to help a suffering humanity with no idea of anything in return.” 

“He also had false-identity papers made,” he continued. “From a Christian point of view, this was not an illegality but a superior legality. Transforming people’s last names signified, in reality, a way to make their real identity emerge as human beings with dignity — for all of these people who were being persecuted. We as Catholics are for legality, but a law must be based on morality. When a law is immoral, it is not even a law.”

He also mentioned others who upheld human dignity.

“There were many other people who helped; for example, the Brizi family, who were not even practicing Catholics, but they had the sense of the dignity of the human person. They helped by producing false papers with their printing press. In our museum, we have their actual printing press.”

The archbishop also referenced the role of famed Catholic athlete Gino Bartali.

“He was an extraordinary figure, a man of faith who offered to help by using his cycling expertise. He because a courier between Assisi and Florence. He would put false-identity papers of the Jews within the pipes of his bicycle. He helped Jews hiding in Assisi, but also in many other places. In the museum, we have Bartali’s own private chapel.”