This evening I am reflecting on two famous Italians who died on this date – one is Niccolò Machiavelli who died in 1527 and the other is Aloysius de Gonzaga, S.J. who died in 1591. The latter lived fewer than half as many years than the former. And, while Machiavelli is certainly on more course syllabi today, Aloysius de Gonzaga is a canonized saint whose example and spirit continues to be invoked from generation to generation.
Aloysius de Gonzaga came from an affluent and influential family. He decided, however, to renounce his aristocratic lifestyle and joined the Jesuits while he was still a teenager. When there was a plague in Rome in 1591, Aloysius insisted on volunteering at a hospital and it was in this context that he contracted the disease and died when he was just 23.
What does a 23-year-old who died in the sixteenth century have to teach young people today living in the 21st century?
Here is a summary of Pope Francis’ remarks on this point to high schoolers:
Today my friend Max told me the story of a turning point in his life.
It was summer vacation and he was a seventeen-year-old teaching English in Spain at a camp for boys.
During the camp, he came across this prayer card with a short description of Venerable Montse Grases, a young woman who “knew how to find God in the loving fulfillment of her work and study duties, in the small things of each day.”
Montse had been diagnosed with bone cancer as a teenager and, “throughout her illness, she never lost her infectious cheerfulness or her capacity for friendship.”
Max was totally struck by the fact that Montse died when she was 17 – the same age he was then.
Three years ago today, Arnaud Beltrame offered his life in the place of a female hostage.
I think his story of sacrifice is worth remembering not only because it was formerly news but because it is now an honourable legacy from which we can stand to gain understanding something about the purpose of life.
Here’s some of what I wrote at the time:
Beltrame’s act of heroism was not out of character for him since he had first prepared the ground by surrendering to the call of natural virtues through his commendable military service. He superiors had acknowledged his “resolutely offensive spirit when faced with adversity” and his preparedness to “fight to the end and never give up.” In Beltrame’s life we can see how human virtues, such as the loyalty and selflessness he cultivated through his military training and service, prefigured his act of supernatural virtue in laying down his life for a stranger.
Beltrame’s act was not mere chivalry or a random act of kindness; it was something more powerful than that. As Hildebrand reminds, “We can never bring about of our own volition this state of being possessed by and lost in what is greater than ourselves.” Beltrame clearly believed in something even greater than his own life.
“Whenever anything thus causes us to soar above the habitual plane of our life,” says Hildebrand, “Whenever we are possessed by something that overwhelms us… by its objective superiority, we also become delightfully aware that it is precisely this renunciation of our sovereignty which makes us really free.”
This is the freedom of a martyr who – even in losing his or her own life – still bears witness to that profounder and nobler reality than life itself – the love that triumphs over death.
Like the death of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who seventy-seven years ago offered to take the place of a husband and father in Auschwitz, may Beltrame’s self-surrender bear much fruit in witnessing to the fact that we love best when we lay down our lives for God and others.
We need Beltrame’s legacy.
We need his example to fill us with admiration at the nobility of self-surrender for the sake of others.
His willingness to take the place of a stranger, even though it meant death for himself, confirms to us that death is not the greatest evil. What the terrorist did to Beltrame was far worse than the death Beltrame suffered, particularly for the terrorist’s own soul. But for Beltrame, while the loss is certainly tragic for his loved ones, the nobility of his self-surrender remains a resplendent example so that we are free to contemplate what it is that gives a person the freedom to literally lay down their life for another.