Saint of the Day – 4 May – Blessed Tommaso da Olera OFM Cap (1563-1631) Lay Brother of the the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, Spiritual Advisor, Confessor, Apostle of Charity, Writer, Mystic, Penitent and Ascetic. He was born Tommaso Acerbis in 1563 in Olera, Bergamo, Milan and died on 3 May 1631 in Innsbruck, Austria. Blessed Tommaso lived as a Franciscan porter and alms-seeker and as a religious who provided Spiritual advice and consolation to many nobility that included Leopold V and his wife.
Of the time of his birth at the end 1563 in Olera, a small village at the mouth of the Serio river and of his childhood, we do not know much. The child of peasants and shepherds, until age seventeen he was a peasant and shepherd himself, helping his parents in their work. Illiterate because the small village lacked schools, he wanted to become a Capuchin Friar and was received on 12 September 1580 at the friary of Santa Croce di Cittadella in Verona, becoming a lay friar of the Province of Venice. There he sought and obtained, although a lay friar, to learn to read and write. Living in the school and the choir with great intensity, his remarkable qualities and above all his virtues came to light during the three years of formation.
Tommaso flourished in his vocation and advanced quickly in the spiritual life. He made his religious profession on 5 July 1584 and was charged with the delicate and essential service of alms-seeking in Verona. He carried this out until 1605 when he was transferred to Vicenza with the same assignment. There he remained until 1612 before being in Rovereto from 1613 to 1617. The humble friar’s daily tasks included washing pots, collecting alms and visiting the sick but he also joyfully shared the Gospel with everyone he met. His reputation for holiness spread quickly and in 1619 Archduke Leopold V of Austria requested Tommaso’s assistance in confronting the spread of Lutheranism. Barely literate, Tommaso avoided disputation. Instead, with great success, he simply witnessed to Christ’s impassioned love for His Church. At the time Austria was the ‘bridgehead’ for the Catholic reform and above all the ‘Catholic reconquest’ of the German lands.
Obedience and humility made him the ‘begging brother’ for almost fifty years, love for souls made him a ‘tireless apostle’ in proclaiming the Gospel. With everyone, believer or not, he spoke of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. He taught the faith to all, the little and the great. He asked everyone, the great and the humble, to commit themselves to love. A true apostle, many “were astounded and it seemed humanly impossible that a simple lay friar should speak, as he spoke, in such an elevated way about God.” His commitment was a fire of love. “Everywhere he spoke of the things of God with such spirit and devotion that everyone was put in awe and wonder.” At the same time, he invited and urged peacemaking and forgiveness, he visited and comforted the sick, he listened to and encouraged the poor; reading consciences, he denounced evil and facilitated conversions. In order to obtain from God what he envisaged for those he met, he stayed awake at night in prayer, scourging his body, imposing fasts and austerities on himself for the salvation of others.
Br Thomas was also a promoter of vocations to consecrated life. In Vicenza he sponsored the erection of the Monastery of the Capuchin Poor Clares, built at Porta Nuova in 1612-13. At Rovereto he sought from the commissioners of the city a Poor Clare monastery, which was then built in 1642. There he met and guided the thirteen-year old Bernardina Floriani, who would become the mystic Venerable Giovanna Maria della Croce.
In Tyrol he was the spiritual guide of the poor of the Inn Valley, catechist and promoter and defender of the Tridentine decrees for a true Catholic reform.
From 1617 he was friend and spiritual director to the scientist Ippolito Guarinoni of Hall,
Court Physician in Innsbruck. There are also many letters written to the Archduchesses Maria Cristina of Habsburg and Eleonora, sister of Leopold V, as there were also many personal encounters with them. Br Thomas was Spiritual Guide to Leopold and to his wife Claudia de’ Medici, with frequent meetings at the palace and many letters.
To all he taught that “high wisdom of love” that “one learns from the precious wounds of Christ,” urging them to take refuge in “happiness in suffering.” He also counselled Archbishop Paris von Lodron, Prince of Salzburg and Spiritual Director of Emperor Ferdinand II, staying at his side during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). During his stay in Vienna (1620-1621), Br Thomas assisted the conversion to the Catholic faith of Eva Maria Rettinger, widow of George Fleicher, count of Lerchenberg, who then entered Nonnberg Abbey as a Benedictine nun and became Abbess. Still at Vienna, in 1620, he drafted the “moral concepts against the heretics,” published posthumously in Fire of Love. Here the source from which his writing was drawn is revealed: “I have never read a syllable of books but I strive to read the suffering Christ.”
Despite the studies completed with fervour and diligence during the years of the novitiate in Verona, his Italian remained elementary and ungrammatical. And yet, his writings reveal a surprising spiritual profundity and doctrinal exactness. A fellow friar, Ilarione from Mantova, noted in this regard: “I saw him many times after communion retire to his cell and write meditational pieces on the life and passion of the Lord and, having sometimes read me these spiritual works of his after having written them, he confidently affirmed [….] that he could not himself understand how he could have put those things on paper.” This book was among St Pope John XXIII’s favourite spiritual works, speaking of Bl Tommaso as“a saint and a true master of the spirit” and the Pontiff had portions of it read to him on his death bed. St Pope Paul VI also spoke of him with high esteem.
Love for Our Lady in his writings recognises, among other things, her Immaculate Conception (Dogma 1854) and Assumption (Dogma 1950), hundreds of years before these Dogmas were promulgated. He made pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto three times (1623, 1625, 1629), recalling that “arriving at the that Holy House, I seemed to be in paradise.”
To his friend Ippolito Guarinoni, he pointed out a location near Hall, at the Volders bridge on the Inn river, such that a church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception should be built there. In 1620 the foundations were laid and, many criticisms and difficulties having been overcome, the church was completed in 1654. It was the first church on German-speaking land dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and St Charles Borromeo. Even today it is considered an Austrian national monument.
Many who were present at his death, which came on 3 May 1631, considered it a ‘death of love.’ He was buried on Sunday, 5 May in the crypt of the chapel of Our Lady in the Capuchin church in Innsbruck.
It took another 356 years before St Pope John Paul II proclaimed the friar Venerable in 1987. Pope Benedict XVI authorised Tommaso’s Beatification in 2012 and the Beatification Mass was finally celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Amato on behalf of Pope Francis in 2013.
Franciscans observe Bl Tommaso’s feast today too, 4 May.