Q&A with Fr John Flader: Pain became youth’s path

Women hold a banner with an image of new St. Nunzio Sulprizio during the canonization Mass for seven new saints celebrated by Pope Francis on 14 October in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Women hold a banner with an image of new St. Nunzio Sulprizio during the canonization Mass for seven new saints celebrated by Pope Francis on 14 October in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring

“A friend told me that one of those canonised on October 14 by Pope Francis during the Synod of Bishops on youth was a boy who died in his teens. Who was he?”

The new saint is Nunzio Sulprizio, an Italian who was born in Pescosansonesco in the province of Pescara in April of 1817. When he was only three his father died and his younger sister died a few months later. Two years later, his mother married a much older man who treated Nunzio very harshly. Nunzio had a close relationship with his mother and also with his maternal grandmother.

Soon he began to attend the local school where he learned to read and write. From his childhood he attended Mass regularly and came to love Jesus Christ and the saints, whom he strove to imitate.

A month before his sixth birthday Nunzio’s mother died and he went to live with his grandmother, who was strong in the faith and took him to Mass regularly. But then she too passed away when Nunzio was turning nine.

He went to live with his uncle, who took him on as an apprentice blacksmith but treated him cruelly, making him work long hours in the intense cold or heat and making him carry things that were far too heavy for him.

He did not allow him to go to school, and he sometimes made him go without food and he beat and cursed him if he was angry with him. Nunzio sought refuge in the tabernacle, where he kept Jesus company.

With all this abuse, when he was fourteen Nunzio contracted a serious illness after his uncle sent him on a long errand one morning in the winter.

That evening his leg became swollen and he had a burning fever. He did not mention it to his uncle but the following morning he could not even stand up. The uncle was indifferent to his suffering.

The leg was oozing puss, which Nunzio cleaned regularly in a nearby stream, praying rosaries as he did so. He was later hospitalised and diagnosed as having gangrene in his leg. He bore the pain with patience and offered it to God.

In his suffering he would say such things as: “Jesus suffered so much for us and by his merits we await eternal life. If we suffer a little bit, we will taste the joy of paradise.” “Jesus suffered a lot for me. Why should I not suffer for Him?” “I would die in order to convert even one sinner.” When asked who was taking care of him, he would reply: “God’s Providence”.

While in hospital, Nunzio met another uncle who introduced him to an army colonel who looked after him like a father and paid for his medical treatment. In 1835, when Nunzio was 18, the doctors had to amputate his leg but the pain continued.

His condition worsened and his fever increased but Nunzio abandoned himself in the hands of God, aware that the end was near. He asked for a crucifix and received the sacraments before finally surrendering his soul to God in May 1836, at the age of 19. He died of bone cancer. One of the last things he told his colonel friend was, “Be cheerful. From heaven I will always be helping you.”

Such was the fame of his sanctity that his cause of beatification was opened in 1843, only seven years after his death. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII approved the decree on heroic virtues, declaring him Venerable and proposing Nunzio as a model for workers.

Nunzio was beatified by Pope Paul VI in December 1963 and was fittingly canonised with Paul VI in October 2018. In that ceremony, Pope Francis called Nunzio “the saintly, courageous, humble young man who encountered Jesus in his suffering, in silence and in the offering of himself.”

In the beatification ceremony Pope St Paul VI said: “Nunzio Sulprizio will tell you that the period of youth should not be considered the age of free passions, of inevitable falls, of invincible crises, of decadent pessimism, of harmful selfishness.

Rather, he will rather tell you how being young is a grace … He will tell you that no other age than yours, young people, is as suitable for great ideals, for generous heroism, for the coherent demands of thought and action.

He will teach you how you young people can regenerate the world in which Providence has called you to live, and how it is up to you first to consecrate yourselves for the salvation of a society that needs strong and fearless souls. He will teach you that the supreme word of Christ is to be the sacrifice, the cross, for our own salvation and that of the world. Young people understand this supreme vocation.”

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