St. Vincent Pallotti (1795-1850) founded the Societas Apostolatus Catholici (S.A.C.) in 1835. He was canonized in 1963.
St. Vincent Pallotti was born in Rome, April 21, 1795, the third child of ten. His parents were Peter-Paul Pallotti and his wife Maddalena. From his earliest years his devout parents took him to daily Mass and religious devotions in the many neighborhood churches of Rome. For a time Vincent had trouble with his studies until his mother sought the advice of a close friend, Father Fazzini. He advised her to make a novena to the Holy Spirit with Vincent. The Novena completed, something clicked in the boy's head. He became the brightest student in his class.
Vincent had an innate desire to do what he could to help the poor. Before he would give them a coin he would wash it in the nearby fountain. "When I give to the poor," he would say, "I give the coin to Christ. I want it to look nice." He felt called to do penance. He ate little. When his parents informed Father Fazzini of the penances, he replied, "Let us leave Vincent undisturbed. It appears to be a higher call than we have been given. It seems to come from God."
Vincent's first registration in a religious youth group was at his grade school of San Pantaleone, staffed by the Piarist Fathers. The school had been hallowed by the presence of its holy founder, St. Joseph Calasanz who formed a youth apostolate in Counter-reformation Rome. Our Lady had appeared to Joseph Calasanz when he was a teacher in the classroom where Vincent now attended. Joseph had been instrumental in restoring both eye and eyesight to a pupil whose eye had been jabbed out by a pencil thrust into it by an angry classmate. Vincent's Marian development was thus well nurtured in this school with the solemn observances of our Lady's feasts and the devout use of a small rosary of twelve Hail Mary's called the "Crown of Twelve Stars," which St. Calasanz had much promoted among the students of his schools.
Vincent was quite religious and of a serious nature. Yet, he loved to play ball with his friends in front of his father's grocery store. Early every morning he walked to Santa Maria in Vallicella. There he put on his cassock and surplice as an altar boy. Under the altar of this church there was reposed the remains of the great youth worker, St. Philip Neri.
In the days before St. John Bosco, the name of St. Philip Neri would first come to mind whenever any program was being instituted for youth. Pallotti was often referred to in later life as the "Second St. Philip Neri."
St. Vincent became a member of a more advanced youth group at the Church of Santa Maria del Pianto. It met every Sunday and Holy Day for catechetical instruction, Marian devotions and recreation. It was under the direction of diocesan priests and among them was St. Gaspar del Bufalo. Vincent as a major seminarian and young priest succeeded St. Gaspar in the directorship of the group.
Once when he was on a summer vacation, Father Pallotti wrote to his youth group reminding them that St. Philip Neri had said: "The most insane thing in the whole world was not to want to be a saint. Sanity is to take every means to achieve sanctity and be pleasing to God. When we think of the infinite reward God will give us for that - it is sheer insanity to do the opposite!"
Vincent's high school studies were accomplished at the world-famed Collegio Romano which had been established by St. Ignatius Loyola. Among its graduates were the paragons of youthful holiness, St. Aloysius Gonzaga and St. John Berchmans. In Vincent's time the Jesuits had been suppressed for several years and replaced by other clergy. The profound tradition of the Jesuits who had taught there, and the magnificent altar tomb of St. Gonzaga, could not be ignored and was very much kept alive. Pallotti chose St. John Berchmans, a Jesuit seminarian, as his role model to imitate on the path to holiness, particularly in his love for Mary in her Immaculate Conception.
Collegio Romano, as all Jesuit schools once did, had a distinctive youth organization known as the "Sodality of the Blessed Virgin." Because the school's unit was the first Sodality, it bore the distinguished title: "Prima Priaria." Vincent cherished his membership in it and the group heightened his Marian devotion all the more as he practiced it in union with his peers who took their devotion to Mary very seriously.
After his entrance into the Sapienza University as a theology student, he decided upon a very bold and daring move. Despite the very negative reaction of many toward the clergy, now that he was a seminarian, he chose to wear his cassock and collar in public. He was clearly visible as a man of the Church when most diocesan and non-monastic orders wore a garb that resembled very much what comes to our minds when we think of Benjamin Franklin. For him it was a sign and defiance of the secularized world and its anti-clericalism.
One day Pallotti was leading his youth group at Santa Maria del Pianto to some function elsewhere in Rome. An irate diocesan priest, himself dressed in the "Benjamin Franklin" style garb, sharply upbraided the seminarian as a hypocrite and phony for his use of the cassock. Vincent let the priest rant and rave on. In a few minutes he slipped away from the group and was found in a corner of the sacristy of Santa Maria del Pianto on his knees reciting the Te Deum in thanksgiving for this mistreatment for what he believed was right.
As Vincent neared ordination he was introduced into apostolic work among the farmers who brought their products to Rome from the surrounding towns and villages to sell at the markets. Vincent was assigned to the hay sellers. He organized the young farmers and their children into classes in the evening and helped them to learn how to read and write. He also prepared many of them for the sacraments. From this experience of being a volunteer, he would later encourage others to volunteer to spread the kingdom of God.
Vincent Pallotti was ordained in May, 1818, at the Lateran Basilica. He said his first Mass on the following day in the Jesuit Church in Frascati. He was not assigned to a specific church or rectory. Instead, he lived at home with his family and continued as a teacher at the Sapienza University. In the world of college students he was very well liked. He offered tutoring to those who had found their studies difficult. He began a very successful apostolate of street preaching on the steps of local churches and was able to attract large numbers of people into church afterwards for confession.
In his travels Vincent became aware of a number of young workers whose work hours prevented them from attending daytime classes. He soon gathered these workers at a nearby parish hall and recruited volunteer teachers to give them a basic education. He and several others gave the religious instruction. In a matter of a few years the project mushroomed into many other "night schools" and was relocated to more spacious quarters. By now, 500 young workers were enrolled. At this point Pallotti turned over his project to the supervision of the Christian Brothers to ensure that it would be properly managed.
After ten years at the Sapienza University, the diocesan authorities turned to Father Pallotti for assistance with a very pressing youth problem in Trastevere. This section of Rome was a difficult one. While it had produced saints as lovely as St. Cecilia and St. Frances of Rome, it had also produced many rogues and toughened people. It has been ever the spot where urchins and ragamuffins run rampant.
There was now a great need for a kind, patient and sincere priest who could see beyond brokenness and be capable of drawing the best out of these disorderly youth. They needed to be given the most elemental religious instruction. They needed to be prepared for First Holy Communion. In those days First Communion was received when a child was about twelve years old.
This new assignment would mean relinquishing his teaching position at the University and saying goodbye to his favorite youth group at Santa Maria del Pianto. Father Vincent knew that the assignment would bring many souls to God and strengthen the faith of these Trastevere urchins and so he accepted it willingly.
He was given space in the Ponterotto retreat house which had formerly been the family home of St. Frances of Rome. The rough Trastevere teens, who could have matched any scugnizzi that Charles Dickens could describe with his pen, now got the attention they deserved in order to set them in the right direction. They responded with extraordinary cooperation. Pallotti did not neglect the nobility nor the upper class and he provided retreats for them at another retreat house nearby. His purpose was to inculcate into these men who would be the leaders of the future, a love of virtue, a sense of honor and integrity coupled with a sense of responsibility for those who had less than they.
His knack for getting volunteers involved in his many projects, expanded beyond his concern for youth when he began his broad vision of the UNION OF THE CATHOLIC APOSTOLATE which strove to accomplish a revival of the Catholic Faith among Catholics and a rekindling of charity toward achieving the salvation of one's neighbor. In his desired UNION, men and women of every social strata, church folks of every rank and religious order would work in harmonious collaboration for the missionary endeavors of the Church. Moreover, the poor, the aged and ailing, the sick and bedridden could offer their prayers and sufferings for the success of the venture. Pope Gregory XVI heartily approved the new movement and it soon had hundreds and hundreds of members.
Not long after its foundation and its first experience of the Epiphany festival as the visible exemplification of its spiritual ideals, philosophy and objectives, the UNION was confronted not by ceremony but by calamity. Deadly cholera struck in 1837 and decimated the population of the Eternal City. Not even Vincent's father was spared. His director, Father Fazzini and his friend, St. Gaspare del Buffalo died. In its wake hundreds were left homeless and hungry.
Orphaned girls roamed the streets. It was their pitiable plight that wounded the heart of Vincent Pallotti who was himself strenuously working day and night and round the clock to care for the destitute and abandoned. What grieved him most was that these orphan girls were being taken advantage of by the unscrupulous. He and a trusted friend, Mr. James Salvati, got the use of a small, former seminarians' residence and fixed it up to receive the orphan girls. A corps of carefully chosen volunteers looked after the girls and taught them the domestic skills they would later need in life. This home became known as the Pious House of St. Agatha. It is still in operation today behind what is now the St. Thomas Aquinas University in Rome. In its chapel Vincent placed the large painting of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The Pious House of St. Agatha occupied much of the Saint's attention and his visits there were a delight for the young girls who loved him dearly. His lay volunteers later became the nucleus of the Pallottine Sisters who would devote much time to the education and Christian formation of young people. He began another orphanage near the Vatican. Later on it was taken over by another religious order, and a third, at Velletri, was already in the planning stage just before Vincent died.
Not the least of St. Vincent's contributions to the apostolate among the young was the magnificent care he gave to the students preparing for the priesthood at the Roman Seminary, Propaganda Fide (where the students from foreign lands came to study), the national colleges of England, Scotland and those of the various Eastern Churches whose students studied in Rome. His was a welcome presence and many looked back at the guidance St. Vincent had given them from as far away as Persia and Baltimore, Maryland, whose Archbishop Martin J. Spalding was able to write forty years later of his spiritual mentor that all Rome regarded him as a saint and a man of profound faith in the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. "No cross or aggravation could ruffle him and the memory of his holiness clusters as a halo around my heart!"
John Henry Newman, much admired by the young students of Oxford, had resigned his Anglican ministry and entered the Catholic Church. He and several others were sent to Rome to complete studies for ordination to the Catholic priesthood. Newman believed Pallotti to be a very holy man and said the same to the then Archdeacon of the Anglican Diocese of Chichester. Manning had come on visit to Rome to examine its claims "on location."
Manning went to visit Pallotti and came away with the same conviction. Manning spoke of hearing a group of young men singing a Marian hymn as they passed through the street and was told that it was one of the groups from Pallotti's Night Schools on their way home. Both Newman and Manning later were made Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.
Youth work was not the only part of Pallotti's apostolate though there is more than enough of it to merit a consideration of its own. He continued his duties as a diocesan priest and led his UNION OF THE CATHOLIC APOSTOLATE in its generous outreach to provide for the local needs of the Church and for those of the foreign missions. He was a great retreat master and preacher. Long lines waited their turn outside his confessional. Yet Pallotti made time for daily visits to the city hospitals and to the jails and prisons where his smile and compassion brought a ray of sunshine to those incarcerated there. He badgered the prison officials incessantly until he had obtained the separation of the youthful offenders from the adults in prison. "If you want to rehabilitate youth and keep them out of jail in the future, then give them the chance to do without a thorough training in criminality they are sure to receive from their elders here!" And he was listened to with respect by the prison authorities, and with thankfulness from those who would now have a new lease on life.
Vincent is still remembered for his unstinting generosity to the prisoners condemned to death. He would spend the entire night with them. He was their last friendly presence at the scaffold. Amid the hubbub and hurry burly of such gruesome scenes, it was he who calmly held the crucifix before their eyes as the headsman's axe swiftly descended.
Popes sought his advice and knelt for their own confession before him. Soldiers in their military barracks responded to their beloved priest with extraordinary respect.
For those at death's door he was an angel of mercy as he brought the sacraments of the Church and encouragement to trust in God's goodness until the very end.
Only once is it recorded that his contact with youth was a failure. A group of loud, boisterous wiseguys were standing before a picture of Our Lady and their language was not of the type one would expect to hear in a convent sacristy! Vincent went up to them and asked them to stop out of respect for the Blessed Mother's picture. The haughty braggarts who feared neither God, man nor beast, stood up to the young priest in the mistaken hope of besting him. The ringleader jeered: "Yeah, Father! What's she going to do about it, kill us?" Suddenly a look of horror came over Vincent's face as he saw into the near future. "Young man you are a fool to continue like this. You will be dead in less than a few minutes. Repent while there is time. At that the teenager let out a stream of profanity that would have twisted the tail of a stone lion. Suddenly he collapsed unconscious to the ground. His astonished following of juvenile delinquents rushed to revive him. They were shocked out of their wits. "He's dead, Father! My God, he's dead!" By use of a clever disguise Vincent was able to get near a young man who was a revolutionist and had promised to kill any priest who came near him. When the man fell asleep with rifle in hand and pistol beneath the pillow, Pallotti removed them and put the cross in his hand. Later the man awoke, astonished and made his confession to Father Vincent and died about a week later reconciled to the Lord.
St. Vincent Pallotti died in 1850 surrounded by a handful of followers which now numbers thousands of priests, brothers and sisters and an even more vast number of lay people committed to the apostolate. He was canonized in 1963 by Pope John XXIII as a model for all active priests and for encouraging the lay people to become more active in the mission of the Church. Also, he was hailed by Popes Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII as the precursor of Catholic Action and of the Second Vatican Council.