Saints for our Times: Bl. Contardo: Layman dedicated to faith, academia

By Mary Lou Gibson

Columnist

It may be that Blessed Contardo Ferrini is not well known today, but in the mid 19th century he was considered the world’s leading authority on Roman law. From a very young age, he had a tremendous intellectual curiosity and was encouraged in his academic pursuits by his father, Rinaldo Ferrini, a professor of mathematics and science.

Contardo was born on April 5, 1859, in Milan, Italy. As a student, he professed his love for the Catholic faith openly and often and that caused friends to nickname him "St. Aloysius" (after St. Aloysius Gonzaga).

He was 17 when he entered the University of Pavia. He especially loved languages and learned Hebrew and Greek so he could read the Bible in its original language. Paul Burns writes in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" that he also knew Syriac and some Coptic and was at ease with German, English, Dutch, French and Spanish. He also developed a love of poetry and became a keen mountaineer.

At age 21, Contardo became a doctor of law at the university. His doctoral thesis, which related penal law to Homeric poetry, brought him a scholarship to the University of Berlin in 1880. There was much prejudice against Catholics in the German capital, but Contardo found an active group of Catholics who were involved in social and charitable work. Through this group, Contardo joined the local branch of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

He returned to Italy in 1883 and was a lecturer at the universities at Messina, Modena and Pavia. Contardo received his first professorship at the young age of 26. During his years as a student and later as a professor, he prayed and thought about whether he had a vocation to the priesthood, or to a religious order, or as a married person.

Ultimately, he made a vow of lifelong celibacy and became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. Burns writes that Contardo did not believe he had a vocation to the priesthood.

Throughout his life, he pursued his interest in social work and became a city councilor of Milan in 1895. According to Burns, he deplored the papal ban on Catholics taking part in Italian politics. He advocated for the importance of marriage and the value of Catholic elementary education.

As a faculty member at the University of Pavia, he helped found the St. Severinus Boethius Society, an international organization that promoted scholarship for university students. John Delaney writes in the "Dictionary of Saints" that Contardo was regarded by his students and colleagues as one who lived a life of holiness in the midst of academia.

He was passionate about the faith he lived. "Our life," he said, "must reach out toward the Infinite, and from that source we must draw whatever we can expect of merit and dignity." (www.americancatholic.org) Editor Marion Habig notes in "The Franciscan Book of Saints" that Contardo showed in his speeches and writings that faith and science are not opposed to each other, but that faith is rather a shield to protect us from error.

He was instrumental in beginning the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, which opened after his death. In 1900, he developed a heart condition and went to his country home in the village of Suna in 1902 to rest. While there, he became ill with typhus and died on Oct. 17, 1902, at the age of 43.

He was declared Venerable by Pope Pius XI in 1931 and beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1947. At his beatification, Pope Pius held Contardo up as a model of a Catholic lay person and an example of how holiness can be achieved in modern times. His body is venerated in a chapel of Milan’s Catholic University. He is the patron of universities and his remembrance day is Oct. 17.

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