Life lessons from new saint Lodovico Pavoni

The 19th-century Dominican-trained priest was canonized this week by Pope Francis. Pavoni’s work feeding and educating the needy left a lasting legacy of caring for the poor and marginalized.

Tapestry of Lodovico Pavoni hanging on the facade of St Peter's basilica during a canonization mass led by Pope Francis on October 16, 2016 at St Peter's Square in the Vatican.   Andreas Solaro | AFP | Getty Images

A whirlwind of technological change. Jobs disappearing before new ones are created. Young people dropping out of school, influenced by negative peer pressure. Economic disparity growing, and hope shrinking. Families disintegrating due to infidelity, stress, disease, and death. Children left without stable homes.

No, I’m not describing contemporary American society. This was the reality of life for many people in the Italian city of Brescia when Lodovico Pavoni was born there in 1784. One of seven new saints named this week by Pope Francis, Father Lodovico Pavoni is revered for changing the lives of thousands of young people in Northern Italy. His example has much to teach us today.

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Trained by the Dominicans, Pavoni was ordained at a young age, and right away he took an interest in people on the margins of society. He opened a school for boys who were living on the streets, educating them, and providing religious instruction. But after a few years, he realized that they needed more. Religious instruction was good, but without marketable skills, these young men would never fully flourish. Believing that improving socio-economic conditions would also improve the spiritual lives of his students, he expanded the school to include housing and vocational training.

Young people learned carpentry, silversmithing, blacksmithing, shoemaking, farming, and, most famously, typesetting, printing and publishing. In 1823, they formed the Publishing House of the Institute of Saint Barnabas, which still exists today under the name Ancora. That same year, the school began taking in deaf and mute students.

Pavoni founded an order of priests, the Sons of Mary Immaculate, who helped run the school. Today there are 210 members in Brazil, Colombia, Eritrea, Germany, Italy and Spain. The lasting legacy of Pavoni and the Sons of Mary Immaculate is a legacy of caring for the poor and marginalized. Pavoni understood that the spiritual life is not separate from the physical life. To care for spiritual needs, we must also be concerned about the physical needs of our neighbors.

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Like Pavoni, we live in a time of great technological change and social upheaval. Globally, 65 million people have been forcibly displaced. There are more refugees today than at any point in history, and over 10 million of them are children, in need of safe homes and education. In America, economic insecurity has created its own upheaval: about 15 million children live in poverty.

When he broke bread and fed them, meeting their physical need of hunger, their eyes were opened to the spiritual truth of who He was.

Christ calls us in the midst of social, economic, and technological turbulence to care for our neighbors as whole people—to care for their minds, bodies, and emotions as well as their souls. That’s the example Pavoni set, but it’s also an example that Christ himself set. Remember, after the resurrection, when Christ met two friends on the road to Emmaus? They didn’t recognize him, even as he explained the Scriptures to them. But when he broke bread and fed them, meeting their physical need of hunger, their eyes were opened to the spiritual truth of who He was.

Pavoni’s ideal of care was a broad one; he wanted to train people in their wholeness to be good. Fifty years before Rerum novarum, he grasped the religious significance of social justice. We too, can fight for social justice and the full flourishing of every human, even in simple ways. Maybe we work to make sure that kids who rely on free school lunches during the year don’t go hungry during the summers. Maybe we volunteer to tutor students who are falling behind. Maybe we take in foster children, or connect with Catholic Charities to provide support to refugees arriving in our towns. Together, we can work for the flourishing of our neighbors and our cities. Let Pavoni lead the way.

Amy Peterson
Amy Peterson

Amy Peterson is a mom, teacher and writer covering pop culture, food, books, parenting, education and church. Her new book, “Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World,” is available on Amazon.

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