There was a priest called Andrew (part five)
Part five: since the last days on the Earth till his canonization
The young lay brothers who were assigned to assist the aging Andrew tended to lead rather tricky existences. One day Andrew wished to visit the Prince of Stigliano, one of his spiritual sons who lived not far outside of Naples. Andrew and Brother James made the trip in a little boat. After a time Andrew pointed to a spot on the coastline and remarked that from there Stigliano was only a short distance by road, so they pulled into shore only to discover that the sea had washed out the highway. While Andrew serenely read his breviary in the boat, Brother James leaped merrily from rock to rock looking for a possible landing place. Since Andrew walked with difficulty using a cane, Brother James did not see how he could get across the slippery surface of the rocks. He jumped back again and said, “I don’t think we can go ashore here.” Told to keep on looking, he did and finally discovered a narrow, dangerous path with a precipitous drop on one side of it. “Excellent,” said Andrew, “I think I will ride on you.” Brother James did not care much for the idea, but, as he firmly reminded himself, he had taken a vow of obedience. They arrived safely on shore, but Brother James, remembering the danger later, found himself in a state of shock for three days.
In his later years Andrew was never well, and as he lived on into his late eighties, his health deteriorated still further. During one of his frequent periods of intense illness, someone sent him a basket offresh fruit as a gift. He saved a peach stone, planted it in a little garden near his cell, and as it began to grow, often came to sit beside the tiny tree saying his rosary. When, after his death, Andrew’s peach tree started to give fruit, it always bore exactly fifteen peaches, and, since the complete rosary has fifteen mysteries, members of the community insisted that Father Andrew had planted a rosary in his garden. During the year of the beatification process, the Countess of Lemos, wife of the viceroy, wished to see the tree which, once again, held exactly fifteen peaches, but her request was refused because the garden was inside the cloister. A decidedly determined lady sought for and got permission from the pope to enter the enclosure and view the living rosary.
Although he had striven most of his life for spiritual perfection, Andrew was never aware that he had come close to achieving it. The night before he died he sent one last letter to Elizabeth, Princess of Stigliano. In it he reminded his beloved daughter that he had never asked her for anything; now he requested a favor. Would she, after his death, have masses said for his soul. With the letter came one last gift, a little anthology of spiritual readings. Princess Elizabeth knew at once that she would never receive another letter from Father Andrew. “He was saying goodbye to me,” she said.
On the morning of November 10, 1608, Alexander Gargano, the rector of St. Paul’s, met Andrew coming slowly down to say mass. In answer to Father Alexander’s question, he was forced to admit that he was not at all well. Although the rector suggested that he wait until he felt better before he began his celebration, Andrew continued to put on his vestments. Then he set a chalice on the altar in the chapel of St. Joseph and said the first Latin words of the mass, “Introibo ad altare Dei.”
There was no answer; the lay brother who was assigned to assist him was still in the sacristy. Andrew began again, and as he repeated the words, “Introibo ad altare Dei,” he suffered a massive stroke.
Members of the community rushed to the rector’s assistance, and the distressed and protesting Andrew was carried to his cell. Only partly conscious, he was trying to get back to the church to finish saying the mass he had barely started. The others had great difficulty in calming him, and Father Gargaro was finally forced to put him under obedience. After receiving the last sacraments, however, he ceased to struggle and lay for hours of suffering with his eyes on the picture of the madonna and child which hung on the wall of his cell. Finally his breathing became slower and slower as he slipped quietly out of life.
“We have lost our old Father Andrew,” wrote the rector of St. Paul’s to the superior general of the Theatine Order, “and we are all completely heartbroken. He was everything a man of God should be. We will simply have to seek comfort from God Himself; we will certainly never be able to find it anywhere else.”
The next day Andrew’s body, dressed in the vestments of a priest, lay in state in the church where he had begun his last mass while hundreds of Neapolitans passed by to bid him farewell. He was buried in St. Paul’s.
In 1609 the beatification process began. Surely in the history of the church there has been no happier occasion than this one, where Andrew’s friends shared their memories and their letters with officials of the church.
Tenderly they spoke of their beloved spiritual father, describing little incidents and relating pertinent conversations, giving examples of perfect charity, telling of the wonderful love he gave them, truly a mirror of the love of God. Andrew Avellino was beatified by Pope Urban VIII on June 10, 1625, and canonized by Pope Clement XI on May 22, 1712.
There was a priest called Andrew. He gave his entire life to the people of God, a life of merciless hard work filled with the ordinary things a priest does: hearing confessions, saying mass, preaching, giving spiritual advice, visiting the sick, comforting the suffering.
Through illness, fatigue, and extreme old age Andrew worked; often successful, sometimes not; often discouraged, sometimes reassured; he fell at last in the very act of saying mass, a mass he unconsciously tried to finish when he could not. The story of his life is a description of the path to sanctity laid bare in all its stony difficulty. There are no silver trumpets, no rejoicing choirs until that weary walkway has been followed to its end.
Passage from Heroic virtue Theatine lives, by Margaret Oyler – Theatine Pubblishers, Denver (Colorado), 1997 pagg. 39-42