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Catholic Heroes… St. Alexander Sauli

October 11, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

After the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was blessed with many saints including a lesser known but deeply loved man, Fr. Alexander Sauli, who labored in a little-known order, the Barnabites.
Alexander was born of a wealthy and highly regarded family of Lombard on February 15, 1534. His father, Dominic, was the Marquis of Pozzuolo and assistant to Duke Francesco II of Sforza. Tommasina Spinola, his mother, also came from an ancient and noble family.
His parents provided a superior education for him at Pavia. This enabled him to become a page in the court of Emperor Charles V in Milan when he turned 17. This ended quickly when he sought to enter the Barnabite order, resisting his family and friends who urged him to enter a well-established order such as the Franciscans, Capuchins, or Dominicans.
The Barnabites imposed a harsh test on the youth before they would accept him. On May 17, 1551, the Vigil of Pentecost, he had to carry a heavy cross through the streets dressed as a page and preach on the love of God. That evening he was received as a postulant.
Three months later Alexander received the habit on August 15. Yet at the next chapter meeting, he received much criticism for being tepid, possessing a superior attitude, and being incompetent.
A year later, Alexander participated in the sessions on the Constitutions for the Order and then was permitted to continue his theological studies at the Franciscan Friary of St. Mary of Peace. Finally, he professed his vows on September 29, 1554. He was ordained a subdeacon on December 22, 1954 and a deacon on June 8, 1555. Having received a special dispensation for his youth — he was 22 years old — he was ordained on March 21, 1556 and then was assigned to the community library.
When a nobleman miraculously recovered his health, his family built a church in Pavia in thanksgiving. The Barnabites were given the church and sent Fr. Sauli to be the preacher. Like most saints, he did much more than dispense the sacraments.
Although possessing no degree, he established study groups for both college students and seminarians. He promoted frequent Holy Communion and the Forty Hours devotion. His classes were well attended with lively debates, and instruction was geared to students’ ability rather than to deadlines.
He introduced innovations such as teaching geometry to instill discipline and law so students could protect themselves in a society rife with disputes. He encouraged the organization of Church law.
After receiving an honorary bachelor’s degree, he was offered a position at the university, but his superiors declined saying it was not in accord with humility. Providence changed that when a substitute was needed and Sauli was called. In 1562, because he was such an excellent teacher, he was given a permanent position at the university.
Fr. Sauli, although given little time to prepare to discuss the “unity of the creating principle,” passed his doctoral exams even under the demands of an elite board of examiners. He received the degree on May 28, 1563.
As a member of the College of Professors of Theology, he taught theology and philosophy while also serving the parish where he taught the Epistles of St. Paul. In both places he drew large audiences with his wisdom and eloquence.
Despite his overwhelming success as a preacher and being the dean at the university, he wanted to focus on the running of the private school of the Barnabites. All this was interrupted when Bishop Ippolito de’ Rossi of Pavia called Fr. Sauli to his service.
He appointed Fr. Sauli to be his theologian, lector for cases of conscience, examiner of clergy, and planner for pastoral visits. Fr. Sauli also published many books and republished some in accordance with the documents of the Council of Trent.
Being a humble man, he had no fear of losing positions and easily made way for others to take over his work and assignments — frequently to develop and encourage more men to serve God’s sheep.
In 1567 he was elected superior general of the order at the young age of 33. He proceeded to practice the rule with great diligence, proving his dedication and commitment to the order. Soon Attilio Gritti schemed to take over the church given to the Barnabites, but Fr. Sauli appealed to Charles Borromeo, who settled the dispute in a meeting with the Pope.
As superior, Sauli ensured that the order followed the proclamations of the Council of Trent. Then he called for a special chapter to adopt the new breviary published by Pope Pius V in 1568.
In addition, he wrote updated guidelines for the curriculum and the seminary, gave conferences to religious orders, kept up with his voluminous correspondence, and settled disputes. Under his leadership the fervor of the order was rekindled so successfully that he is credited with being the second founder.
About 1569 Fr. Sauli went to Milan where he served Charles Borromeo. He participated in the first synod of the Archdiocese of Milan, while continuing to serve as superior general, helping to improve the stature of the Barnabites in Venice — they had been expelled in 1552.
Charles Borromeo recognized a great homilist in Fr. Sauli, inviting him to speak at the cathedral in Milan. Likewise, Pope Gregory XIV also appreciated the prudence and wisdom of Fr. Sauli who participated in several synods and councils.
When Fr. Sauli was sent to hear Borromeo’s general Confession, the cardinal remarked that it had changed his life. Then Borromeo made a miraculous escape from enemies and asked Fr. Sauli for advice to which he replied, “Humble yourself and reflect if God has allowed it in punishment for some of your defects.”
In 1571, Pope Pius V appointed Fr. Sauli to Aleria on Corsica — a place where the Church was in a wretched state. The Barnabites resisted, but Fr. Sauli was obedient to the Pope and was installed as bishop by Cardinal Borromeo.
Since Corsica had not had a bishop for 70 years the diocese needed much work. Of the 12 priests he was advised to take with him, only four were available. On May 18, 1570 he wrote to Borromeo about the devastation in Corsica after years of guerrilla warfare, famine, and lack of pastoral leadership. The priests did not know Latin and had to be trained how to administer the sacraments.
Lack of housing and lack of food presented problems since Fr. Sauli did not want to be a burden on the people. Nevertheless he began by holding synods and training the priests. He built a seminary and a cathedral and he defused many vendettas. After twenty years, he had revitalized the Church and the Corsicans had come to love and respect their bishop.
Thus, when he was called to become bishop of Pavia they grieved deeply. The people of Pavia were thrilled to learn that Sauli was returning and gave him a great welcome.
He arrived on October 19, 1591 and began to enkindle a deeper faith in the people, who were also suffering famine. He made pastoral visits until he fell ill during one of them. He died on October 11, 1592. His feast is celebrated on the anniversary of his death.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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