By Nicolina Villani
It was St. Ambrose who said, “Nothing graces the Christian soul so much as mercy.” Our beloved Pope Francis, for whom mercy is a central element of his personal and spiritual experience, has declared the upcoming year, “The Year of Mercy”. Starting on December 8, 2015 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception), the current “Year of Consecrated Life” will usher in a Holy Year and an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
Mercy is certainly the most beautiful of God’s attributes, and one that has touched everyone in some way. For me, the poster boy of Divine mercy is my uncle, Don Alfredo Morelli, whose brief, consecrated life is an extraordinary example and witness of God’s mercy. Although I’ve always wanted to write his inspirational story, I feel compelled to do so now, during the “Year of Consecrated Life”, as we approach both the Jubilee of Mercy, and (had he lived) the centennial of my uncle’s birth.
Alfredo Morelli was the penultimate of five children born to Giuseppe and Maria Donata Morelli on March 30, 1916 in Cansano (L’Aquila, Abruzzi), Italy. Unfortunately, I never had the privilege of knowing him because I was born several years after his death. The little knowledge that I have of his life comes primarily from my beloved, beautiful mother Ersilia, who was born on September 25, 1920, four years after her brother Alfredo. As the youngest of the five Morelli children, my mother lived at home longer than any of her siblings, and developed a very close relationship and special bond with her brother Alfredo-a bond which united them long after his death.
According to my mother, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 92, as a child, Alfredo could be described simply as “cattivo”, meaning bad. Although he was good looking and extremely intelligent, he was obstinate and had a very bad temper. These negative traits got him in trouble frequently. Invariably, while he was out playing with other children, someone would knock at my grandmother’s door to complain about him. If another child so much as looked at him the wrong way, Alfredo would not hesitate for a second to slap him down or throw a punch. He did not tolerate being reprimanded and when he got really angry, he would throw his hat on the floor, put all of the prayer cards with various saints inside the hat, and while stepping repeatedly on the hat, he would curse every single saint. This behavior was in sharp contrast with that of his wonderful parents and siblings, particularly with that of my mother who was sweetness personified. Since no amount of talking to or punishment had any effect on him, my grandmother would pray daily to the Blessed Mother, beseeching her to please change him. One particular incident was probably a turning point in his life. When the time came for Alfredo to make his First Holy Communion, he did not take his religious instruction very seriously. He skipped many classes, didn’t want to go to Mass, and was not very cooperative with the parish priest. So the priest decided to teach him a good lesson. On the long awaited day, the church was packed with family and friends, but as Alfredo (dressed in his Communion suit) knelt at the Communion rail with the other children, the priest (unbeknownst to anyone) decided to skip over him and refused to give him his first Communion. An enraged Alfredo ran home after the ceremony, grabbed a kitchen knife, and swearing and cursing the priest, set off to kill him. Fortunately, his family was able to stop him, and kept him away from the priest for quite a while, but it took a long time for him to get over the humiliation and anger.
Alfredo received the body and blood of Jesus the following year. I like to believe that this is when the Blessed Mother swept up the little black sheep and claimed him as her own, enabling God’s grace and infinite mercy to flow and begin to transform him. At some point after that, he came home one day, and told his mother that he wanted to be a priest. At first, no one took him seriously. His friends wondered what he was up to, but he kept insisting that God was calling him to be a priest. After he entered the seminary, his friends visited and asked him to stop the charade and leave the seminary. He replied that if he could be born again 100 times, he would choose to be a priest 100 times.
Alfredo was an exemplary seminarian- devout, obedient, and hard working. His intelligence and amazing memory undoubtedly made him excel. My cousin Richard, who had the privilege as a child to spend time with him, tells me that our uncle had a photographic memory and was able to read an entire page and recite it verbatim from memory. Don Alfredo (“Don” is a title used in lieu of “Father” in Italy) was ordained in 1942, and assigned by the Bishop as pastor of his hometown where he lived at home with my grandmother and my mother. (My grandfather had passed away at age 50 in a mining accident.) The town experienced an immediate “rebirth” under his spiritual leadership. Sunday Mass was packed (standing room only). He was a gifted, charismatic preacher who brought many people back to the church, including two atheists. He organized parish activities/ministries, and gave all that he had in service to the Lord and His people. My grandmother and mother were instructed to give food to anyone who came to the house, even if it meant depriving him of his meal for the day.
The Bishop felt that Don Alfredo had the potential to advance in rank within the church and wanted to reassign him to the nearby city, close to him, but the townspeople fought to keep him and won. During WWII, the Germans occupied the town, and wanted to kill many people who were resisting their order to evacuate. Don Alfredo, who spoke fluent French, was able to communicate with a French speaking commander and assert an influence that saved many lives. Even so, when people returned to the town after the war, they had nothing – not even a bed to sleep in. Everything had been taken or destroyed.
Right after the war, Don Alfredo got very sick. He was bedridden for several months and suffered greatly without ever complaining. He died of pneumonia on June 19, 1945 at the age of 29, three and a half years after he was ordained. Those who were at his bedside reported that just before he took his last breath, he said that the angels had come to get him. Right after he spoke, a picture on the opposite wall spontaneously fell to the floor, (perhaps brushed by the wing of an angel). Thus ended the life of an ordinary parish priest who lived a consecrated life of extraordinary virtue. His humble wish was to be buried with a rock instead of a pillow under his head and without shoes. My grandmother refused to do it. Interestingly, they had to bury him without shoes because his body did not fit in the coffin. After his death, numerous people came to my grandmother with stories of how he had quietly or secretly helped them in countless ways while he was alive. He had given all that he had- money, food and clothing, as well as comfort, advice, and spiritual guidance.
Perhaps it was because she walked over 12 kilometers to the seminary to pick up, hand wash, and return his laundry, or because she was always there for him after he was ordained that Don Alfredo remained spiritually close to my mother all of her life. We had many signs of this, but a couple of them stand out in my mind. One of them involves me. One morning, while I was going to high school, the heel of my shoe broke off, causing me to fall down an entire flight of metal steps leading to the subway train. A neighbor who witnessed it told my mother that there must have been an angel watching over me because I could have died or been critically injured in that very bad fall, but I walked away with only a minor sprained ankle. My mother cried after speaking to my neighbor because that very morning she had dreamt that I was standing on the top of a very tall ladder. In her dream, she urged me to come down, and warned me that I was going to fall. At the bottom of the ladder stood Don Alfredo who turned to her, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Ersilia, I’m here to catch her.” From that dream, my mother knew that there was indeed an angel watching over me that morning, and his name was Don Alfredo.
Throughout her life, my mother’s wish was to have a High Mass with three priests upon her death. When she died two years ago, my sister and I did everything in our power to honor that wish. We had two priests for the funeral Mass, but could not find a third. We involved everyone we knew and tried everything, but each time we thought we had found a third priest, it fell through. The night before the burial, I prayed for and thought I’d found a third priest, but when we got to the funeral home the next morning, we found out that he would not be able to come. We cried as my sister said, “I think that Mom knows we tried our best.” Many who attended remarked that the funeral Mass was really beautiful, and some described it as uplifting. That night, I struggled with my evening prayers because I was deeply disappointed and somewhat angry with God for not granting my sweet mother’s reasonable wish. I wept and asked God why he did not let me find a third priest. I just couldn’t understand it. Around 5 am, I awoke with the Recessional Hymn from the funeral Mass, “How Great Thou Art,” playing in my head. Then I saw in my mind’s eye the altar, but instead of two priests there were three. The third priest was Don Alfredo. Like a lightbulb going on in my head, I knew that God had granted my mother’s wish. He had sent her beloved brother, and although we could not see him, after 68 years my mother could finally see him again, and I’m sure that she was very happy. For although his consecrated life spanned only three years, Don Alfredo Morelli is a priest forever in the Order of Melchizedek.
With tears in my eyes, I thanked God for the gift of Don Alfredo’s life. Then I vowed to write his story, in the hope that it will touch many hearts, and so that time does not erase the memory of a life that continues to glorify God, and bear witness to God’s grace and infinite mercy.