A Man can have no Greater Love
Feast Day : 19th September
The Plague Claims its most Famous Victim
In August 1866 a cholera epidemic was ravaging Italy's north-western port city of Genoa. By the end of that month, the number of victims who had already died or were dying was already in the hundreds, but all the measures the city authorities were taking were having no effect whatsoever.
In the sanitarium under Capuchin control, the voluntary services of Genoa's most beloved figure were refused by the doctors, on the grounds he was too physically weak to take care of patients. He, however, was not going to be put off so easily. Instead, he took to the poor back streets lined with tenements which he had known from of old in order to offer some words of consolation or lend a helping hand to those suffering from the disease or bereaved by it. Yet, despite all these efforts, there was no let up in the vast numbers of fatalities that ensued.
And so in mid-September, in the silence of his monastic cell, this highly renowned old man prayed to the Lord, asking him to put an end to this scourge that had befallen the people of Genoa and also freely offering his remaining years as a sacrifice for this. And his prayerful offer was accepted by the Lord. For he had no sooner emerged from his cell after prayer than his face and hands grew hot and began to flush with fever. He was already displaying the first symptoms of cholera. Only thus would the cholera ravaging the whole city abate. And when this terrible epidemic had waned, the citizens of Genoa would be able to identify the pallid corpse of the city's most famous resident, the one they called 'Holy Father(Padre Santo)', Brother Francis Mary of Camporosso. Here was a Capuchin Brother, who to the nth degree, had lived according to the sacred words of his Master, "Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends."
A Pious Country Boy
But if we wish to understand this Brother's fame, we need to go back some 62 years, to the year of his birth. The future Brother Francis Mary, John Evangelist Croese, was born in the small village of Camporosso, near the west coast of the Italian Riviera, on 27 December 1894. He was the fourth of five children born to farm worker Anselmo Croese and his wife Maria Antonia Gazzo.
He attended school for a little while but he was a student that took little interest in his studies. Eventually, at seven years of age, he began to work for his family, leading their small cow out to pasture. He also worked in the family's vegetable plot, harvesting olives, grapes and all sorts of vegetables.
Marian devotion played an important role in the faith life of the Croese family. John fell seriously ill at about ten years of age. So his family took him to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Lake, which is near Nice. After this he recovered his health. The pilgrimage deeply impressed John. And, from then on, he began to frequent the Conventual Franciscan Friary and made the acquaintance of one of the friars there, Friar John.
Finding his Vocation after many Twists and Turns
His vocation, which matured slowly. led him to finally become a tertiary oblate with the religious name of Anthony at the Conventual Franciscan Friary in Sestri Ponente on the 14th October 1822.
But the conventual life was even more comfortable than life at home and left the new entrant, who longed for absolute poverty and for deeper meditative prayer, totally dissatisfied. He decided to enter the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor but he could not gain his superiors' permission for the move. In the end, with help from Brother Alexander of Genoa, a Capuchin Brother he knew, he fled the Conventual Franciscan Friary of Sestri Ponente early one morning in late autumn. Subsequently he was received as a postulant at the Capuchin hermitage of San Francesco di Volti and received the religious name Francis Mary. Thereafter he underwent a three year long extended postulancy in that place.
Outstanding for his spirit of charity, he would eat only leftovers in order to share his food with the poor. Such a spirit was nothing new for him but something which sprang from the virtue of doing good works which he had practiced ever since he was a child. In those childhood days, when his father went to Mentone to set up a small business, John, who had accompanied him, gave away his new clothes to a boy of own his age who was dressed in rags. This landed him a slap on the cheek from his angered father, but he responded to his father's chastisement by turning the other cheek and, in the end, won his father's admiration and a hug.
This long postulancy at Voltri, in reality, made up for what was lacking in his Sestri experience. At the end of 1825, with the permission of the Vicar Provincial, Brother Anthony of Cipressa, Francis Mary left the hermitage to go to the novitiate at the hermitage of Saint Barnabas in Genoa. There, on December the 17th of that year, he was clothed with the habit and began his novitiate. His Novice Master, Brother Bernard of Pontedecimo, had to cool his fervour somewhat, but his companions in novitiate experienced his goodness and his warm friendship. He wished to become a Lay Brother and confided that the reason for this was that it was “preferable to be humble and obedient,” following the example of Saint Francis. Later people would call him the "Holy Father(Padre Santo)" but he vociferously rejected such a title for himself.
Genoa's Much Quested Questor
One year later, on 17 December 1826, Brother Francis Mary made perpetual Profession into the hands of Brother Samuel da Genoa. He had just turned twenty two but, seeing his spiritual maturity, the Ministers(Superiors) nominated him to be a member of the Fraternity of the Immaculate Conception, the Genoa Province's Mother House.
This house, which was to be the place where Brother Francis Mary would live for the rest of his life, was a centre for the Order's vcarious apostolates and the hub of many of Genoa city's activities. This Friary of the Immaculate Conception, besides the usual Friary's pastoral activities, also took on various other roles such as housing the Provincial Curia, which dealt with the Province's administration, the Provincial Infirmary and a woolen mill for manufacturing the Brothers' habits, as well as a pharmacy which also acted as a health centre for Genoa's citizens, the public weighing scales and a fuel distribution depot. Just like other newly arrived young Lay Brothers, Brother Francis Mary also had to get used to the practicalities of various tasks such as nursing, cooking gardening etcetera. According to documentation of his canonization process, he was “always tireless and calm” during those five years of apprenticeship
At completing this learning process, he was appointed, in 1831, as companion to the elderly rural questor, Brother Pius of Pontedecimo, who could no longer work alone. This mission of service, that would soon make him the most famous questor of his province, now began little by little to take on a shape of its own. He travelled throughout the little valley of Bisagno for around two years and visited farm workers, calling to their homes. For him, this period of apprenticeship was very valuable and helped him to form a way of relating to people in a trustful, patient, charitable, humble and faith-filled manner specific to the life of a questor.
The outstanding results produced by this rural questing persuaded the Guardian to entrust the urban questing also to Brother Francis Mary. The citizens had already intuited his holiness, and gradually came to depend upon him. They were accustomed to see him making his way through the streets. After attending some Masses early each morning, he used to walk through the streets with his questor's sack slung over his shoulder. There was always a small boy tagging along, and around this boy's neck hung a small moneybag to receive those alms which were offered in cash. Brother francis Mary adopted Saint Felix of Cantalice as his heavenly protector.
A ‘Holy Father(Padre Santo)', who shared in the People's Joys and Sorrows
Because of the Risorgimento - Italy's Unification Movement, nineteenth century Genoa was fermenting with the political and social disturbances that go hand in hand with any conflict or revolution. In the midst of such circumstances, Brother Francis Mary listened to the worries of people of all kinds, whether small and great. These worries of theirs, which resemble the myriad of amazing and fascinating stories described in the Fioretti, realistically and accurately reflect the outlines of the city's new development. Mothers at home, shopkeepers, sailors, dock workers, merchants who sought advice, children with their little problems, the sick whom he never neglected to visit, no matter how difficult the journey, prisoners demanding justice, all these people who confidently shared their worries with him. In such cases, Brother Francis Mary had received from the Lord the grace of being able to answer questions that had not yet been asked and so could accurately foretell future events. Many letters were sent to him and he made every effort to reply to all of them, but unfortunately much of this correspondence of his has been lost.
Even the Capuchin Brothers were not immune to the social tensions of their times. It became difficult to preserve harmony and peace within the fraternity. In 1847, the general minister of the time had to visit the fraternity and try to resolve the Brothers' divisions and conflicts. In the midst of such circumstances, Brother Francis Mary resolve to concentrate more and more on carrying out the project of his own ongoing conversion, by joyfully accepting suffering with the intention of bringing about peace, by expressing his appreciation of the Brothers, by helping them out with some kind words and by always showing his concern for the lonely and the sad. In doing all this, he displayed a great deal of affection for and devotion to his local Fraternity. Nevertheless, there were times when he also warned the Brothers. In 1854, he prophesied that if the Brothers did not quickly act quickly to acquire their house, they would be expelled. But no one paid him heed.
With simple words, he would tell people about Kingdom of God. To those who asked advice from him, he would say, "Have faith! Have faithl" and if people, whose situation had improved due to his prayers, expressed their thanks, he would reply only by saying "I did nothing, it was the Madonna who helped you." Of course, even he was not always welcomed by everyone. Sometimes children would throw stones at him, seeking to test his sanctity and patience. When one time he was wounded in the head by a stone flung at him, he just picked up the stone and kissed it.
In 1840, in recognition of Brother Francis Mary's trustworthiness and diligence, the Capuchin Ministers had entrusted him with the duty of chief questor, in other words, the leader of all the questing Brothers, a duty which carried with it the title of “Capo-sportella(meaning: main basket).” Because of this he exchanged the questor's sack which he slung over his shoulder for a basket with handles to carry on his harms. He was authorized to beg for the high quality food for the sick and enjoyed the right of entry to the port area, where expensive goods were traded.
In the friary, he organised a storeroom to manage the alms and he also administered the Mass stipends of the Fraternity. In addition, he had the role of assigning questing Brothers to different areas of the city. Thanks to these new responsibilities, he was able to help people in a more timely and ongoing manner than before. He gave wholehearted assistance to family units and individuals, and especially to sailors and emigrants, Among his benefactors, there were also Protestants, Jews and non-believers, and the reason these were able to offer money was because they trusted that their charitable offerings would certainly go to the poor. The Order's Ministers had authorized him to do such work, because they too trusted his prudence and sense of balance.
His Personality and Way of Relating
Brother Francis Mary rekindled his devotion above all by praying late into the night. In fact he would himself make time for prayer in many different ways, such as by visiting churches situated along the streets, by taking part in the fraternity's liturgical life, and especially by meditating on the Passion of Christ. As a man of penance, he treated himself very harshly.
He always slept on wooden planks and, for his meals, he satisfied himself with a few crusts of bread which he dipped in water. And he would only wear a patched, threadbare habit and always went about barefoot. He ate only once a day, wore a coarse hair shirt and frequently flagellated his body. However when advised by his Ministers to moderate his mortifications, he obeyed willingly with spiritual freedom. His saintliness was one that captured peoples hearts. He related to people with a very natural kindness and a generosity that was direct and sprang from his heart.
At one time he cherished the dream of becoming a missionary but, due to his age and other circumstances, he was not able to realize that dream. Therefore he would sometimes say: “Oh to be young again. I could go with our missionaries!” He also showed a great interest in cultivating vocations and he often provided even material aid to poor young men who wanted to be priests.
In contemporary lithographs artists drew him as a tall, thin, black-haired man, with a long beard and in most of these beside the figure of him carrying a questor's basket, a small boy is drawn, carrying a moneybag for cash offerings around his neck. There are also some depictions of him praying before a crucifix or image of Our Lady.
Victim of Charity
In 1866, as soon as cholera was first detected on board a merchant ship which had docked in Genoa, all the other shipping too was quarantined. Nevertheless the cholera epidemic had already spread to the city on 'August the 5th. Despite the warnings of others and overcoming his fears, his own and others' fears, brother Francis Mary, desiring that he be sacrificed as a victim of charity, rushed to be among the sick and offer them help. By the end of August, 232 reported cases of cholera infection had been reported and 130 fatalities had already occurred.
On September the 15th, 1866, Brother Francis Mary was infected cholera and two days later he was dead. His body encased in a lead casket was hastily buried in the cemetery at Staglieno. From that day on. Genoa city's number of cholera infections rapidly decreased and within a few weeks the epidemic was totally eradicated. Accordingly, Genoa's citizens insisted that this seemingly miraculous event had come about thanks to the sacrifice and prayers of Brother Francis Mary, the "Holy Father", whom they loved and by whom they in turn had been loved.
But around the same time the government of Genoa, which always harboured animosity towards the Church, began to persecute the Capuchins. Therefore, in accordance with Brother Francis Mary's prophecy, within 3 months, the Government confiscated the Brothers' house and expelled the Brothers from it. Because of this the Brothers had to live outside their home for another forty years, until finally, in 1905, they were able to return to that house.
In 1911 Brother francis Mary's remains were exhumed and re-entombed in the Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception. On the 30th of June 1929 he was beatified by Pope Pius XI and he was canonized by Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1962.
"The will of God is always just, always holy, always loving and fatherly towards us.. One hour of suffering is of more value than a hundred years of delight.. Silence, mortification prayer, so as to have peace with the Lord, peace with our selves, peace with the whole world!" - Saint Francis Mary of Camporosso
primary source : order of capuchin friars minors