The first Italian "Righteous Gentile" to be beatified
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Saturday 15 June was an unforgettable day for the little town of Carpi, Italy, as one of their very own is beatified. Odoardo Focherini; the Italian Schindler. A devoted husband, father, catholic, and friend to the persecuted Jews during the brutal Nazi regime of WWII.
The sunlit “Piazza of the Martyrs” could not have been a more fitting place to hold the celebration, as more than 5000 people squeezed into the little square outside the town’s cathedral, half destroyed by an earthquake a year previously. They had travelled from near and far to celebrate the extraordinary life and martyrdom of a true hero and devoted servant of God.
Among the attendees were Odoardo’s own family, as well as the families of the Jews he saved and fellow inmates from the Nazi prison camps.
The beatification was celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in representation of Pope Francis. Monsignor Francesco Cavina con-celebrated the event, and he talks to Aleteia about his experience:
“For me, Focherini’s beatification was a motive of joy and interior peace because I touched with my own two hands real evidence that the Lord never abandons his children, and that he puts signs of consolation and hope on their path” remarked the Monsignor. “It also filled me with wonder to see the attention and interest that the figure of the blessed has aroused in the public opinion:”
A life devoted to God
Odoardo Focherini was born in Carpi, Italy, on the 6th of June, 1907. He lost his mother when he was 2 years old; his father remarried and his adoptive mother loved him as her own son, directing his attentions towards life in the parish where Odoardo was formed in his faith.
He was of a sociable and friendly character and had many interests – the theatre, journalism, songs from the mountains, playing the harmonica, bike riding and skiing – and he had a special love of the youth who he constantly engaged in parish life, offering them spiritual formation.
In 1930 he married Maria Marchesi, and between 1931 and 1943 they had 7 children.
He also became president of the movement Azione Cattolica (Catholic Action), as well as promoter of the Catholic scouts, of the St Vincent Confraternity (that cared for the poor) and of Unitalsi (that worked with the sick). He also worked for the Catholic Insurance Society and wrote for the Osservatore Romano.
As the Second World War swept throughout Europe, and the Nazi’s brutality devoured the innocent, instilling fear wherever they trod, Odoardo refused to surrender to their tyranny. He saved over 100 Jews, securing them with false identity cards, helping them to escape into Switzerland, and even hiring them to work for him.
His love for God and fellow man conquered all fear.
Dying in faith
In March 1944 he was arrested by the Nazi’s and condemned without any due procedure or trial, and sent to the prison camps, where he died on the 27th of december 1944, faithful and joyful to the end.
Odoardo’s body was never found, since in all likelihood he ended up in the furnaces of Hersbruck. The official relic is his wedding ring, which he managed to keep from the clutches of the Nazi’s, miraculously smuggling it out of prison and back to his wife.
The family of our Italian hero were also present at the beatification, to see their own flesh and blood step into sainthood. Along with all of Odoardo’s children there were 15 grandchildren and 21 great grandchildren at the celebration. One of his grandchildren, Francesco Manicardi, tells Aleteia about the life and character of this incredible man.
“Odoardo’s interior life consisted in a constant dedication to others” remarked Manicardi, “he revealed to the other, by way of charity, the beauty and joy of following Christ. Obviously, the teachings of Jesus often saw some ferocious opposition, but this didn’t phase Odoardo at all. When the ‘other’ that he always helped came in the form of Jewish families trying to escape deportation, the ‘samaritan’ Odoardo didn’t hesitate to open his heart to them, even in the face of immense risks.”
Manicardi also remembered the loving devotion of his wife Maria, who was an incredible support to her husband. He echoes the voice of this dedicated life companion who encouraged her husband to attend to their suffering brothers and sisters: “we and our children are safe, the Jews are not: go and help them.”
He continues: “together with a priest, don Dante Sala, the future Blessed created a clandestine network of organised aid to hide the Jewish runaways, to secure them false identity cards – that Focherini himself filled out with false data – and he guided them until they reached Switzerland.”
The Jewish people that knew him in that period, “whether man, woman or child – remembered him as always smiling, serene, faithful in Providence and convicted in the work of the Good” recounts his grandson.
Focherini did not submit to the orders of the Fascist Regime and to the impositions of the Nazi occupants. “He actually took on Jewish journalists” says Manicardi, “as well as anti-Fascists, among which was the future famous journalist Enzo Biagi.”
“Odoardo died at only 37 years of age” he continues, “confirming his fidelity to his wife and offering his life in the holocaust for the Church and for the return of peace to the world.”
Manicardi, as one of the family, describes his experience of the beatification: “for the children of Odoardo it was a moment of great emotion, a moment long awaited and one that also gave credit to Odoardo’s wife, Maria Marchesi, a woman comparable to her husband in faith and generosity.”
However he explained that this day was one that united all of the people touched by Odoardo in some way. “There were not only immediate family…but representatives from all the spheres of life that Odoardo had come across and breathed life into” he says, “they were all grateful, like us, for the gift of Odoardo, as were the representatives of the Italian Jewish Community that, through their president Gattegna, expressed ‘respect and deep feeling’ for the beatification of Focherini, who for Israel, was a ‘Righteous Gentile’.”
“To be able to live together the emotions of the day of the beatification, with the children and grandchildren of the hundred people that he saved, brought together by the vital sacrifice of Odoardo, it made me think of Jesus and of the profundity and beauty of his words when he affirms: “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12, 24)
An example for all
Manicardi continues: “he showed us, through his very existence, works and words – through his articles and above all the letters that he wrote to his wife and friends from prison – that the only way to live your life fully is in joyful service and attentiveness to others, without any distinction in creed or political bearing, and without fearing the consequences of your good actions.”
“Odoardo was not a “armchair christian” but a christian of the street, that walked with others, keeping step with the littlest and the last.”
Monsignor Cavina too, spoke to Aleteia about what a great role model Odoardo is for all of us. “Focherini was a clear example for everyone because he was a free man and his freedom was the fruit of his adhesion to the Truth. This truth, in the Christian vision, before being a fruit of intellectual research, is the Person of Christ. He put himself at the service of the Truth not in arrogance or presumption, but in humility, simplicity and charity, that derived from his being a true disciple of Christ.”
He continues: “precisely for this reason he incarnated a profound human vision of Christianity in his life. In a dramatic moment in the history of Italy and Europe, dominated by the vicious and dehumanising ideologies, he defended the dignity of the person, the inviolability of the conscience and the rights of freedom of thought and religion.”
On a personal note, the Monsignor adds “Odoardo reminds me that I am a unique gift, I am unrepeatable and I can’t be monopolized. He is a witness to me that the Lord has entrusted me with a mission; that I do not exist for nothing; that I have good to carry out for the Glory of God and the progress of Humanity.”
Finally, Odoardo’s grandson calls on us to be inspired by the Blessed’s words written from the torment of the prison camp to his beloved wife Maria: “so you say that the Lord wants or even permits such prolongation or aggravation? Fiat voluntas Dei my dearest Mary; and with an immovable certainty that we must give everything in generosity, we can accept the cross, even if it becomes heavier, with the serenest of souls, and carry on.”