Saint of the Day – 17 January – Blessed Teresio Olivelli (1916–1945) Martyr – known as the “Rebel for Love” – Layman, Lawyer, Professor, Soldier,Defender of Human dignity and rights, apostle of the poor, those in need, apostle of prayer, the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin, of love of Christ and His Church – born on 7 January 1916 at Bellagio, Como, Italy and died by being beaten and kicked to death by guards on 12 January 1945 at Hersbruck, Nürnberger Land, Germany, he was 29 years old. His body was cremated at the Hersbruck camp and his ashes dumped in a common grave. Patronage – Italian Catholic Action, soldiers, young people.
Teresio was born in Bellagio, in the province and diocese of Como, on 7 January 1916, son of Domenico Olivelli and Clelia Invernizzi. He spent his childhood between Carugo Brianza and Zeme Lomellina (Pavia), receiving a profoundly Christian education from his parents and his uncle Fr Rocco Invernizzi.
At the age of 10, in 1926, the family moved to Mortara in the province of Pavia, where Teresio attended gymnasium, becoming passionate about Latin. His adolescence revealed him full of vitality and capable of not being afraid of anything or anyone.
He ardently professed his love for Jesus, not caring about those who derided him. His faith was crystal clear – every week he attended the Sacrament of Confession and received daily Communion in the parish of San Lorenzo. He meditated every day on the Word of God and on the text of the “Imitation of Christ”.
At the high school in Vigevano (Pavia) he distinguished himself among his peers for intelligence and maturity. He became involved in Catholic Action, taking part in many conferences on religious and social issues and organising some himself. When, in 1931, the Catholic Action circles were forcibly closed, the young Teresio became inflamed against the Fascist regime, saying: “Either Mussolini changes course or we change it!”
Referring to the apostles James and John, called by Jesus “sons of thunder” for their zealous and impetuous character, he often stated that, having been born and baptised in the parish of St James, he too had to become “son of thunder”.
At 18, he was a confident young man, tall and slender, with a firm faith, in other words a convinced and credible Catholic. He enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Pavia, staying at the Ghislieri University College (founded by St Pius V). He attended the University from 1934 to 1938, the year in which he graduated with honours in Law.
In those years in Pavia, Teresio won the affection of professors and classmates, for his generosity and the spirit of sacrifice, for the devotion with which he prayed during Mass and with which he was in Adoration before the Eucharist. He, so cheerful and cultured, immersed himself in long and intense prayers with the Rosary in his hand, isolating himself from everyone – he thus deserved, from those who admired him and those who were just teasing him, the nickname of “Father Olivelli” from the companions of the college.
In 1936 the civil war broke out in Spain – the Church suffered one of the most ferocious persecutions of the modern era, with thousands of priests, religious and lay Catholics, killed by the communist and anarchist revolutionary militias. Teresio, now in his twenties, immediately proposed himself as a volunteer to fight the Godless. To his uncle, Father Rocco, he wrote: “Youth is either heroic or miserable. The man cannot give half measures of himself, he must give everything. When then Christ is the Ideal that impels us, I believe that our duty is realised in total love to Him and must be consumed until the last drop. Either faith is experienced as conquest or it is anaemia of invertebrates. In Catholic Spain, the Divine is fought in us. We must overcome the anti-Christ, the denial of man and of Christ. The future does not belong to the soft. Life is perfect when love is perfect.” His family members prevented him from leaving but from that moment Teresio, while continuing his studies, devoted himself to prayer and self-offering, so that Christ would triumph not only in Spain but also in Russia which was prey to atheistic Bolshevism.
Almost immediately after graduating, he was assistant Professor of Administrative Law at the University of Turin. During his stay in that city, he also undertook to take young stragglers on the right path and took care of the poor of Cottolengo. For him it was a period of intense work, studies and research on legal and social issues.
It was a time when much of the Catholic world believed that it was possible to apply Christian principles to fascism. Teresio, therefore, worked with the ambitious aim of detaching the regime from the German National Socialism as much as possible.
He won the “Littorali della Cultura” of Trieste (competitions of oratory skills and cultural preparation), supporting the thesis that establishes the equal dignity of the human person, regardless of race. He then wrote legal and social articles in the university newspaper “Libro e Muschetto” and in the journal “Civiltà Fascista.” Finally he was appointed Littore and secretary of the Institute of Fascist Culture and a member and first secretary to the Office of Studies and Legislation at Palazzo Littorio.
In 1939 and in 1941, for reasons of study, he stayed in Berlin. At that time, he came into contact with the culture and politics of half of Europe, in Prague, Berlin, Vienna and then in Rome at the National Institute of Culture. He soon discovered the reality that surrounded him and the hatred of opposing ideologies, which developed violence in every sense. The news of the occupation of various nations by the Nazis began – the Second World War had broken out.
In June 1940, Italy also went to war alongside the German ally. Meanwhile, Teresio had been called to military service – he refused the exemption as a teacher. In 1940 he was appointed officer of the Alpini and asked to volunteer in the war of Russia. On 10 September 1941 he found himself on the front line, despite being at the head of the 31st Battery, he shared the dangers and the sufferings of his soldiers. He provided them with help of all kinds, in short, he appeared to them as a big brother rather than a superior in rank. During the disastrous retreat of the Italian troops of the VIII Armata, ill equipped for that frost and attacked by the Russians, the second lieutenant Olivelli succoured the wounded, he comforted the desperate and assisted the dying. He often lingered in the march to help the fallen, regardless of the grave danger. He went through these terrible conditions for two thousand kilometers on foot.
He returned to Italy with the survivors in March 1943, deeply marked in his spirit and increasingly eager to give all of himself to others, especially if suffering. His first occupation was to inform the families about the fate of the soldiers, by letter or personally, also by taking an interest in the prisoners.
A few months later, at the age of 27, he won the Rector’s post at the Ghislieri College of Pavia. However, the position only lasted a few months, because in July 1943 he was recalled again to arms. Shortly thereafter, after the 8 September armistice, Italy was invaded by the Germans. Teresio, who deeply loved his homeland, refused to surrender himself to Hitler’s troops, so as not to be complicit in their occupation. As a result, on 9 September 1943, he was captured and imprisoned in a prison camp in Innsbruck. After two failed attempts to escape, he succeeded on the third attempt, on the night between 20 and 21 October, he managed to escape from the Markt Pongau camp. After a long and exhausting walk he reached Italy, finding refuge a family in Milan. He recovered his health but by now, he was an outlaw. He became part of the Italian resistance movement in Milan as part of the triangular resistance including Brescia and Cremona branches. He worked to create the newspaper “Il ribelle”. His paper was the underground newspaper for the Green Flames Brigades partisan group. In the newspaper he published the article “Rebels”, a manifesto of the moral revolt against fascism and its time and a prayer, commonly called the “The Rebel’s Prayer” considered the most inspiring and beautiful spiritual testimony of the whole Catholic Resistance.
On 27 April 1944 he was arrested in Milan by the fascist police and locked up in the San Vittore prison, where he suffered beatings and torture until 8 June when he was sent to the concentration camp of Fossoli near Modena, from where he again tried to escape, unsuccessfully. In August 1944 he was deported to the concentration camp of Gries. His prison garment was marked not only with the red triangle of political prisoners but also with the red-rimmed white disk of the fugitive prisoners, who needed to be monitored more. Even in Gries he tried to escape, taking refuge in a warehouse, where he remained hidden for about a month. Discovered, he was cruelly and violently beaten and in September 1944 transferred to Flossenburg in Bavaria.
The conditions of life became unbearable but Teresio did not give up – his faith and his charity were opposed to the hatred and violence of the torturers. He confronted the SS by speaking German perfectly, to help alleviate the sufferings of his fellow inmates. In the evenings he organised the recitation of the Rosary and, assisted all who needed him for spiritual guidance and advice.
After 40 days of arrival, he was sent along with others to the satellite camp in Hersbruck. The surviving prisoners later remembered him for his serenity and courage, for the solidarity with the most exposed inmate. He was himself suffering terribly, wasted and beaten, developing many ancillary illnesses due to the conditions and the hunger, the torture and the beatings.
He assisted his friend Blessed Odoardo Focherini (1907-1944) Martyred at aged 37, originally from Carpi, interned for his relief work to the Jews and forced to be admitted to the infirmary for a serious leg injury. He was able to assist him on his deathbed on 27 December 1944. Blessed Odoardo Focherini was an Italian Roman Catholic journalist. He issued false documents to Jewish people. Yad Vashem later recognised him as a Righteous Among the Nations in 1969 for his efforts. He was Beatified in June 2013.
In early January 1945, while Teresio served as a shield with his emaciated and wounded body to a young Ukrainian beaten up unjustly, the irritated wardens launched a violent kick to his belly, followed by twenty-five further kicks. Hospitalised in the infirmary of the Hersbruck camp, he remained lucid and praying to the last. He died on 17 January 1945, at age 29, after having donated the last intact clothes to a friend.
Civil recognition, such as the Gold Medal for Military Valor, were conferred on Teresio on 25 April 1953.
The Beatification process opened in the Diocese of Vigevano in a diocesan process that Bishop Mario Rossi inaugurated on 29 March 1987. The formal introduction to the cause came under St Pope John Paul II on 19 January 1988 after the Congregation for the Causes of Saints issued the official “nihil obstat” and titled him as a Servant of God. On 1 December 2015, the confirmation of his life of heroic virtue allowed for Pope Francis to name Olivelli as Venerable. The pope approved his beatification on 16 June 2017 and on 3 February 2018 the Beatification recognition was celebrated at Palazzetto di Vigevano, Vigevano, Italy presided by Cardinal Angelo Amato, on behalf of Pope Francis.
“The Gospel and the constant reference to the figure of Jesus were his strengths.”
O God, You who are Truth and Freedom,
make us free, strong and zealous,
breathe in us, new purpose,
inspire our goals,
tend to our wills,
multiply our strengths,
help clothe us in Your armour.
We pray You, Lord.
from The Rebel’s Prayer (Teresio Olivelli)