There was a priest called Andrew (part one)
Andrew is the name he gave himself. His baptismal name was Lancillotto Avellino, and like Sir Lancelot of Arthur’s court he was breathtakingly handsome, but there the resemblance ends. He was a strong-minded, determined man who chose his goals early in his life and never saw any reason to alter them. He had two major objectives: to serve the people of God as a good priest should and to strive for spiritual perfection in himself. From these two aims, quiet, undramatic, and incredibly difficult, he formed the path to sanctity which he walked for eighty-eigh years, arriving exhausted but successful at the end. He had come a long, long way.
He was born in Castronuovo, South of Italy, a little town in the Kingdom of Naples, which at that time was under the dominion of the King of Spain. The year of his birth is a matter of some dispute, but it must have been either 1520 or 1521 (probably he was born on 20th August 1521), since he says himself he was seventeen in 1537. In 1520 the Order of Clerics Regular which he would join did not yet exist, and Saint Cajetan who would found it had himself been ordained priest for only four years.
Andrew was the eldest son of John Avellino and his wife Margherita Apelli or Appella. Both the Apelli and Avellino families were well-to-do and well-known in the community, and Margherita’s brother, Father Cesare, was the archpriest of the area. Andrew’s parents were sincere and devout Catholics, Margherita in particular being described as a very saintly woman wich a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary. The Avellino family had one other son, Nicholas Anthony, Andrew’s dearly loved younger brother. In later years the sons of Nicholas would testify for their uncle at Andrew’s beatification process.
With her husband’s consent, Margherita Avellino asked her brother, Father Cesare, to educate his young nephew himself. The archpriest agreed, and for several years little Andrew had a wonderful time studying with his uncle. The small boy was in and out of the church all day long, becoming, as one interested person put it, as much at home in the sanctuary as the priests were. He loved to help Father Cesare prepare for and conduct the religious ceremonies, considering himself, as it were, the head altar boy. He was also a most zealous recruiter of members for the parish youth organizations, since he knew everybody in town and his powers of persuasion were forceful.
When Andrew was a littie older, he was sent to school at Senise, a town near Castronuovo (six miles). Here he suddenly discovered just how handsome he was and just how much of a nuisance that could be. Girls became strongly attracted to him and began to follow him through the streets of Senise; one in particular seemed to be behind him every time he turned around. “One look from you,” she told him one day, “makes a fire of passion spring up in my heart!” Absolutely terrified, the frantic thirteen-year old fled.
When he was about fourteen, he was called home from Senise to become the head of the Avellino family, and it is thought that his father, John Avellino, died at that time. To his horror Andrew discovered that girls in Castronuovo found him just as attractive as girls in Senise had. One incident with his own babynurse shook him up mentally as much as another, with a determined female who literally knocked him down, shook him up physically. He could not convince them that he simply was not interested.
As a boy named Cajetan had done before him, Andrew, now about sixteen, received from his bishop the right to wear clerical clothing and the clerical haircut known as the tonsure. He also requested permission to be ordained subdeacon. This was granted, and he received the first of the major orders on August 17, 1537, in the Church of St. Nicholas in Castronuovo. Following the ordination, a happy and energetic young vandal got some sort of steel object with a sharp point and carved a memorial of the occasion into the wall of the church.
Anno Domini 1537 Today I sang the epistle.
Lancelloto Avellino August 19 age 17 years.
The new subdeacon now decided to become an educator, and he began to teach the children of Castronuovo and several other nearby towns religion and regular school subjects, as his uncle had once taught him. The children in his classes also iearned to sing. Exceptionally talented musically, Andrew sang himself, played the lute with genuine artistry, and even composed music. In later years the chanting at Theatine church services improved materially every time Father Andrew was a member of a particular community.
Now that he had young students to work with, Andrew liked nothing better than to stage religious processions on all possible occasions. He would bring the children two by two, dressed in white and singing the hymns he had taught them, through the streets to the church, where they recited the prayers they had learned and attended mass. All of the townspeople found the processions enchanting.
Under Andrew’s instruction the children went to confession and communion every Sunday and also on the great feast days. To receive communion so often was unheard of in that locality. After all, it was only twenty-five years earlier that, in northern Italy, Cajetan himself had encouraged his people to communicate eight times a year instead of four. While it is unlikely that Andrew had ever heard of Cajetan, their minds were in perfect accord.
In the year 1547 this happy and productive period of Andrew’s life come to an abrupt end. If he had hoped that the vow of celibacy which he had taken when he was ordained would protect him from further problems involving young women, Andrew was destined to be disappointed. A crisis situation suddenly and unexpectedly developed.
A girl of good family had taken a lover, and when her outraged parents demanded to know his identity, she named Andrew. Why she made this false accusation remains an unanswered question. In spite of his denials, a sizeable section of the community believed him guilty, and a major scandal arose, with the parents of the girl swearing vengeance and the entire area gossiping about the nephew of the archpriest. Things got so difficult, even dangerous, that Andrew thought it advisable to leave Castronuovo. He went to Naples, and he had been in that city only a very short time when tragic news arrived. The girl had continued her love affair until the man invoived had been caught in her father’s house and killed. This information threw Andrew into such a mixture of horror relief, and sheer nerves that he actually cried.
He decided to remain in Naples in order to take advanced work in both civil and canon law. It was about this time that he was ordained first deacon and then priest, although exactly where and when he received these major orders is not known. He was older and, unfortunately for historians, he no longer carved memorials into the walls of churches.
Since it was now safe to go home, Andrew decided to pay a short visit to his mother and brother before beginning his studies. The local citizens, ashamed of the cruel and untrue gossip which had compelled him to leave, greeted him warmly, and he enjoyed a pleasant vacation; he would, however, never again live in Castronuovo. Just before he left, he formally gave the affairs of the household into the hands of his brother, Nicholas Anthony.
He returned to Naples in November of the year 1547. As he himself states it, “Father Cajetan died in August. I came to Naples to study the following November.” While pursuing his studies, he thought seriously about his future life, and it was at this time that he formed the desire to strive toward personal spiritual perfection.
Passage from Heroic virtue Theatine lives, by Margaret Oyler