Father Luigi Gentili, Missioner
14th July 1801-26th September 1848
By Brian Galway
On 16th June 1835 at noon, three weary travellers, all members of the institute of Charity, a newly-founded Italian religious congregation, disembarked in the port of London after an over-night voyage from Calais, the last stage of their long journey from Rome. The leader and superior, Fr. Luigi Gentili, was not favourably impressed by what he saw. At midday and in summer,
[we] seemed to be entering the city of Pluto. Everything was black --- the houses, the sky, the shipping, the sailors (who were filthy dirty). The Thames was a mixture of yellow and black, and stank. On shore, horses, carriages and human beings rushed around in tremendous confusion. The devil is enthroned here.
This melodramatic description was typical of Gentili whose generous, heroic life often consisted in a battle against self-imposed odds.
He was born in Rome on 14th July 1801, the eldest of the ten children of Giuseppe and Maria Gentili, and baptised a day later as Luigi Bonaventura Francesco Camillo. Many years after, in 1842, Gentili wrote about his
two saintly parents, to whose care, vigilance, and good example I owe everything under God. May he reward them for the good they have done me, which I did not deserve.
Giuseppe Gentili, a lawyer, was able to keep his family in a fair degree of comfort. Luigi, an exceptional student, was admitted to the Sapienza University in Rome when only fifteen years of age. He read law, with the intention of following in his father’s footsteps, and was the most brilliant as well as the youngest in his class. At the end of his first year he obtained the highest honours and won a number of prizes; at 17 he was admitted as an attorney; three years later he gained his doctorate in civil and canon law summa cum laude. He then attached himself to the Sacred Rota, where he soon attracted the attention of Ercole, Cardinal Consalvi, a man of exquisite taste and broad culture, a statesman of great courage and industry, and a consummate diplomat who, as Secretary of State to Pius VII and a devoted servant of the Church, was one of the greatest figures of his time.
From 1792, Consalvi had been Auditor of the Roman Rota. The young Gentili, full of ambition, now made a comprehensive and detailed study of all Consalvi’s judicial decisions. He summarised the legal arguments on both sides, arranging and analysing each judgement, with the intention of publishing them with a complete index. The Cardinal was pleased, even flattered, and promised Gentili a position as judge on the Rota. But the promotion was thwarted by Consalvi’s death in 1824.
The young man was bitterly disappointed. Ambitious, and eager to achieve a prominent position in society, he gave up his promising practice as a lawyer and at the age of twenty-three determined to succeed by some other means.
Gentili knew his own worth. His bourgeois family had a reasonable social position and a comfortable income. He himself, with his keen intellectual gifts, powers of concentration and hard work, had great possibilities. He was also strikingly handsome, tall and slight. His deep black hair, pale complexion and vivid blue eyes formed an attractive combination, although his authentic piety and regular, weekly reception of Holy Communion, an exceptional event for the time, were genuine reflections of his interior life.
He set out to establish his reputation on quite different lines and in solitude taught himself French, English and Spanish. His isolation and concentration during this period led even his family to suspect that he had “gone mad”. But, before the year was over, Luigi had achieved his object and emerged from his solitude, astonishing everyone by speaking the three languages with remarkable fluency and an atrocious accent.
He now began to cultivate the cosmopolitan circles at Rome and, as a young, handsome lawyer with a good command of languages, made a deep impression in society. English visitors interested him particularly. For their part, they greatly admired him as an amusing and lively companion, a gift which he never lost. His polished manners, outstanding good looks and witty, vivacious conversation all added to his popularity. But he saw that music would be an additional enhancement and began to devote himself to it with the same energy he had applied to the study of law and languages. He learned to play the piano with considerable success, took singing lessons from the best teachers in Rome, and had a good enough voice to join the Philharmonic Society and take part in public performances. Requests for solos came next, which “gave him the greatest satisfaction”.
Finally, Gentili rounded himself off socially by obtaining a title. Through his personality and his talents, he became the favourite of the soirees given by the French Ambassador, the Vicomte de Chateaubriand. There he met Duke Sforza Caesarini who, Gentili discovered, held the hereditary privilege of bestowing the title of Count and Knight of the Golden Spur. Caesarini was sufficiently impressed by the young lawyer’s knowledge and versatility, and by his social graces, to award him the title, which was granted only for outstanding distinction. From then on, as Gentili’s brother laconically relates,
Luigi appeared at public functions or receptions as often as he could to have the gratification of hearing himself announced as “the most noble Count and Knight, Luigi Gentili”.
Gradually, many of the English visitors and residents in Rome turned to Gentili for Italian lessons, and paid him handsomely for the tuition. He taught for two years in Rome, but also in Naples and along the coast where his wealthy pupils spent the summer. At the end of two years he had saved enough to buy a vineyard and farm at Monte Mario, overlooking the Vatican. The new landowner astonished the local farmers with his enthusiasm for rural life and, Cincinnatus-like, took up ploughing behind a pair of oxen bought for the purpose. Here, he felt, was the creative life that really mattered. Never one to do things by halves, he spent his days in the fields, reclaiming land, renovating vineyards and haranguing the local peasants about the values of republican Rome. This did not last long. Luigi was far too highly-strung for such physical exertions, and his constitution, never very robust, was unequal to heavy, manual work. His doctor insisted that he give up farming and return to his former life to which he was obviously suited.
Gentili returned to Rome. With his knighthood of the Golden Spur, his early success at law, his double doctorate, and his linguistic abilities, he cut a brilliant figure in Roman society, and dazzled his contemporaries. The gossips even compared him to that incomparable linguist, Cardinal Mezzofanti. For his part, Gentili decided that he had sufficient standing in Catholic English society to ask for the hand in marriage of a wealthy heiress, Anna Fermina de Mendoza y Rios. An orphan, the daughter of a Spaniard admiral and an English mother, she was three years older than Gentili and, it would seem, favourably disposed towards him. Her guardians, however, discreetly refused Gentili’s suite and spirited her off to England. The rebuff, although courteous, inflicted a severe blow to Gentili’s pride. Anna, who later married Sir Patrick Bellew of County Louth in Ireland, would meet her suitor again twenty years later, but in very different circumstances.
One of the lady’s two guardians was Bishop Peter Augustine Baines, a former Ampleforth monk, and at the time coadjutor to Bishop Collingridge of the Western District, although ill-health had forced him to come to Rome in 1826. Here he found himself at home in society, and was noted for his magnificence and elegance. Still in Rome in 1828 as Catholic emancipation was about to dawn in England, he was Leo XII’s candidate as the first English cardinal since the Reformation. The Pope’s sudden death put paid to the plan and Baines returned to England as successor to Collinridge and Vicar General of the Western District Vicar Apostolic, a post he was to hold till his own sudden death in 1843. In the meantime Gentili, now a priest, would meet him again and work for him in England.
Gentili’s road to the priesthood began as a result of his bitter disappointment, although the journey was not wholly out of character. His faith was already deep, prayer was familiar to him and his life had not been dissolute. His weekly reception of Holy Communion was preceded by Confession. Entirely in character was the seemingly exaggerated way in which he threw himself into a new life of devotion. Social activity ceased; he began to read the bible; he spent time with the sick and the poor; and he looked for spiritual direction and companionship. Often, when passing a church, he would kneel in the street to pray. According to his bemused brother, “God, Our Lady, the saints and miracles, priests, friars, nuns, hermits, the Holy Bible, and such things” were the object of his thoughts. In particular, he had many Jesuit friends and finally decided to apply for entrance into the Society of Jesus. His delicate health caused the Jesuit superiors to advise him against entry and Gentili was left without any scope for his devouring energies.
A new focal point now appeared in Gentili’s life. Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, a young, well-known priest and scholar, arrived in Rome from Northern Italy late in 1828. Only four years older than Gentili, he was already responsible for a new religious foundation, the Institute of Charity, and had come to Rome to seek advice about the future congregation and to publish the first of his great philosophical works, A New Essay on the Origin of Ideas. The two first met in November 1829 and, although the exact circumstances of their encounter are unknown, it is probable that their acquaintance can be traced in some way to Francesco Brunatti, Gentili’s godfather and a nobleman of Rovereto, Rosmini’s own city. Gentili was already familiar with Rosmini’s work on education. For his part, Rosmini was enthusiastic about his new acquaintance who soon became his disciple and threw in his lot with the director’s new congregation. Rosmini insisted, however, that Gentili should continue with his studies for the priesthood at Rome before entering the noviciate at Domodossola in northern Italy.
Luigi Gentili was formally admitted as a student to the Irish College in Rome in 1830. The choice of an English-language seminary was dictated by the concerns of Rosmini and Gentili, both of whom were intensely interested in the conversion of England to Catholicism. Gentili would write to Loewenbruck, Rosmini’s companion in the foundation of the Institute of Charity:
I began to study theology with the idea of being ordained and going to England with a few priests of like mind, where I would try to convert souls to God, and do whatever good I could, especially in reforming the clergy and improving our Catholics.
Indeed, invitations to work came from even further afield. While still a student Gentili received a personal invitation from Mgr Dubois, Bishop of New York, asking him to come to America and help in extending the Church’s work in that vast continent. Almost at the same time Bishop Baines was pressing him “most earnestly”, as an old friend, to go to England. For Baines, Gentili was indeed a candidate that any Bishop would be glad to welcome.
Gentili found Bishop Baines’ proposal not only “most pressing,” but also most attractive. It was an alternative to the prospect of Domodossola in the winter, where he would have no specific duties and no apparent scope for the gifts of training of which he was so conscious. Baines’ invitation, which was tied in with the bishop’s grandiose ideas for his own establishment at Prior Park, might well have caused Gentili’s nascent vocation to falter. However, the young man’s friendship with Rosmini, and the close ties of spiritual relationship which had been formed between them, won the day. In a long, but typically dramatic letter to Rosmini, Gentili told him plainly all his thoughts:
God be praised! But were he to permit the crown of the Chinese Empire to be offered to me I would renounce all, and prefer his Calvary … abjection, obscurity, suffering, crosses and tribulations are my portion, not opulence and the dwellings of the great … Since you left Rome the Lord has given me such interior light to penetrate and understand the spirit of our Institute that I would willingly dwell in the depths of the earth to lead an obscure and hidden life.
In all Gentili spent eighteen months at the Irish College. He made a deep impression there. Father Matthew Collier, a contemporary, wrote: His great exactness in observing the rules of our college, his spirit of prayer, his abstinence at table and his devout recollection made an impression on my mind, which has never been effaced. I feel an utter incapacity to express the many edifying facts of his humility and charity in college.
Gentili was ordained priest by Placido, Cardinal Zurla, Papal Vicar, at St. John Lateran on 18th September 1830. He was twenty nine years old.
Gentili’s four years at Monte Calvario, Domodossola, began inauspiciously. First, he did not want to go there immediately. The excuses he put forward for delay --- his charitable work at Rome for young criminals, the opinion of his family and friends, the possibility of opening a house of the Institute in Rome itself --- were not accepted by Rosmini. When he did decide to depart for Domodossola, and wanted to walk the four hundred miles to Calvario, Rosmini told him to abandon the idea and use the normal means of transport. The superior’s letters to Gentili were a pattern for their future relationship. Rosmini’s stern frankness was a constant rebuke to Gentili’s over-exuberant and sometimes frankly ambitios spirit; at the same time, Rosmini was conscious of Gentili’s true values and never hesitated to encourage him on the path of holiness. Gentili himself summed up his time at Calvary, as well as the temptations to which he was subject and the true foundation of his life when he wrote:
It was such a blessing to hear of the Institute of Charity! Such a blessing to join the Order! For all the spiritual desolation and trials of every kind that beset me, that tempt me to restlessness and irritability, and to loathe everything, even what is most holy, I enjoy in the citadel of my soul a kind of Eden, a deep peace, which leaves nothing to be desired, save to make ever more and more the love of God my sole preoccupation.
In May 1835 --- after protracted negotiations with Henry Trelawney, ambrose Phillips de Lisle and Bishop Baines --- Father Gentili and his two French companions, Fr. Antoine Rey and the cleric-student Emile Belisy, were ready for their mission to England where they were to teach philosophy and theology in Baines’ school at Prior Park. On Rosmini’s directions, they first made their way to Rome to ask a blessing on the new work from Gregory XVI. In giving it, the Holy Father said:
The Lord opens for you a large field in which to do good; be firm in good principles and teach sound doctrine.
The Pope saw the missionaries again at Cività Vecchia and wished them bon voyage when he boarded the steamer “Sully” on which they had embarked. Setting out, Gentili wrote to Rosmini:
I am not afraid. Our Lady, in whose hands the whole matter is, will take care of us.
The words were indicative of Gentili’s great love of Mary, and of his trust in her; they mark the spirit in which he set forth for England which he thought he knew so well.
Rosmini’s acceptance of the mission to England was the result of considerable discernment. He had received three separate invititations to send missioners to the country. Each invitation could be traced back to people with whom Gentili had enjoyed contact in Rome: the Trelawneys, a Cornish family comprising Henry and his two daughters, Laetitia and Anne, who had later become Catholics at Domodossola under Gentili’s direction; Ambrose Phillips de Lisle who had met Gentili at the Irish College during his preparation for the priesthood; and Bishop Baines, who was now desperate for staff at Prior Park.
Moreover, Rosmini felt that Gentili would be a suitable director of the new project. In his favour, Gentili had immense spiritual and intellectual qualities, considerable energy and an excellent command of English (an account of a sermon in which Gentili is alleged to have said: “I know my muttons and my muttons know me” can be taken as apocryphal). These gifts would, according to Rosmini’s judgement, compensate for the impulsiveness and intolerance which Gentili often manifested in his dealings with his brethren and others. Gentili’s opnion of English Catholicism, for example, and of the English clergy, was at first ill-informed and often wrong --- as Gentili would come to see.
Nevertheless, later experience brought Rosmini to see that his own judgement was not wholly correct. Gentili himself had already written to his superior in 1831 about negotiations for the mission:
I have to tell you that if you do not go more slowly in this business, you may regret it. Don Giovanni [Loewenbruck] himself, swift though he is to do something, has noticed from your way of writing to us that you think the matter concluded and show a certain anxiety which is unusual in your way of dealing with our matters.
And Rosmini wrote years later, when the situation seemed desperate to Pagani, newly arrived in England and tempted to refound Rosmini’s Institute:
Your charity will attribute them [my mistakes] to inexperience … Then I must confess that I had formed a great esteem for the virtue of Don Luigi and his companions destined for the English mission. I hoped that their virtue would have increased and become more generous rather than diminished through the encouragement they might have found in a seminary under the immediate eyes of the bishop [Baines] and in a place where I was told (wrongly, as I now recognise) that Catholics were very fervent.