Father Carlo Gnocchi. Wikimedia Commons

Father of Multitudes

A chaplain in the Russian campaign. His return to Italy and its impact on thousands of maimed children.

A portable altar set up along the edge of a trail, or in the wards of a field hospital, or again, on a rattling troop train. To decorate it, just humble wildflowers and the Italian flag. Father Carlo Gnocchi, accompanying the Alpine troops of the Trent division on the banks of the Don, on the Russian plan, says Mass. His reply to those who tried to talk him out of enlisting as a chaplain was, "If our soldiers are there out of duty, don't you want a priest to go there out of love for souls?" The man whom Cardinal Schuster had entrusted with the spiritual direction of the students at the famous Gonzaga School in Milan and the university students of the Second Legion of Milan (which gathered together a large part of the young people enrolled in the Catholic University) did not want to leave the boys alone in the terrible experience of war.

Passing through impoverished villages as he crossed the steppes, Don Carlo came to know the spiritual desert created by twenty-five years of Bolshevism. The desire to seek man out in order to accompany him in the mystery of God's salvation led him to build a small church among the izbas of Dolshik. He wanted it to be built completely and only by Russians, following plans drawn up by an Alpine sergeant, so that it would be a clear symbol of a people who built their church with their own hands. The day of its inauguration, the little church was soon filled with people, crowded together, patiently and silently waiting for Mass. He testifies in his diary, Cristo con gli alpini [Christ with the Alpine Troops], "The crowd was very composed, but as soon as the ceremony was over, an old man with a Biblical beard made his way through the assembled throng and, taking an old prayer book out from under his thin quilted parka (how long had he been keeping it carefully hidden?), cleared his throat and softly hummed the beginning of a song. At first timid and uncertain, because of long lack of exercise, then increasingly warm and sure, the dull murmuring melted slowly into a song, a lament that was at the same time whimpering, prayer, and weeping."

The retreat
In January 1943, events quickly came to a head. The order was given to retreat, and Father Carlo found himself marching across 400 kilometers of white, unending steppe. In that long itinerarium crucis, he met many people. One night he bent over an Alpine soldier, and heard him whisper, "My little boy. Take care of him." Father Carlo reassured him, assuming the burden of fatherhood, without having any idea of what that promise would bring in the future. On the fourteenth day of marching, it was Father Carlo's turn to collapse. He had stayed back to bless a mortally wounded officer. He didn't even realize he had fallen. Those that were marching behind him, their heads down against the gusts of icy wind, didn't realize it either. Tobia, the chaplain's faithful attendant, became aware he was missing at the first stop, and retraced their steps. And there was Father Carlo in the snow, half-frozen. Carried into an izba, he came to. Next to him, prostrate from fatigue, was Father Carlo Chiavazza (the other chaplain of the Alpine troops). They embraced at length, then Father Gnocchi whispered, 'The night is about over. Would you like to take communion?" "What?" asked Father Chiavazza in amazement. 'Do you have the Host with you?' 'I have always carried it with me. I only have a little fragment left, but it is enough for twoÖ.' 'But then,' Father Chiavazza insisted, 'Our Lord has always been with us, he walked along with the troopsÖ. Doesn't that seem beautiful to you?' Father Carlo smiled. 'The Alpines's calvary was also His calvary. He gathered the fallen to Him, He comforted those in combat. He was my strength.'

Upon his return from the front, Father Gnocchi had pinned to his breast the medal of valor for having gone 'where the fighting was most furious to take to the wounded the comfort of the faith and to combatants the encouraging word toward victory.' In reality, he could not forget all the suffering he had seen. 'I carried always in my heart, still, open, poignant, the eyes of my dead,' he wrote in his war diary. In his wallet was a long list. These were the names of the children, wives, mothers entrusted to him by soldiers who had fallen at the front. Thus began a new pilgrimage: he climbed over hill and dale, met the families, gave them comfort, and if he could he also gave some moneyÖ but how could he help all of them? And yet, he wanted to do something. He thought and thought: 'Poor children of my war, my little friends in grief, where are you today and what will happen to you tomorrow?' All that pain could be redeemed. He asked for help and authorization. At Arosio, in the province of Como, he succeeded in housing a certain number of orphans in the veterans' home which would later be put under his direction. Father Gnocchi's enthusiasm and commitment to his new task emerge in his letter to his friend Aldo Del Monte, he too a chaplain at the Russian front: 'Let's throw ourselves into this holy adventure, which is the continuation and development of what we began during the war. To give a home to these children, create for them a family atmosphere, feed and educate them, help them to grow up and to love life. I am ready to leave everything. This work makes me happy. I need someone to work with me. Come on, Father Aldo!'

The first maimed child
In the months and years that followed, Father Carlo wore himself out on his project. At night, before going to bed, he would draw up plans, do accounts, check estimates; the house at Arosio had to be expanded.

One July evening he saw a young woman approaching with a child in her arms who was missing a leg. 'Father Gnocchi. This is my son, I give him to you because I don't know how I can support him any more.' She put the little boy down and turned and ran away, choking on her sobs. The boy's name was Paolo Balducci, who was eight years old, and was the first maimed child in the house at Arosio. Very soon Father Carlo's desk was overflowing with files; there were so many requests and Father Carlo was impatient. He talked to people in a thousand offices, presented a thousand applications, went to talk with important people, took tripsÖ patient, smiling, persuasive, he asked for what seemed impossible. What he needed was thousands of braces and artificial limbs, millions of hours of medical care, thousands of actions, hundreds of schoolrooms, gyms, and he even wanted camps at the beach and in the mountains. In 1947 a large villa at Cassano Magnago, in the area around Varese, was rented to him for a negligible amount. The Ministry of Public Health granted medical equipment and nominated specialized personnel for the surgical ward. In 1949 Father Gnocchi's work obtained its first recognition: the Pro Infanzia Mutilata federation, which he had founded the preceding year so as to better coordinate the aid he was receiving for his young victims, was officially recognized by a decree of the President of the Italian Republic, and that same year Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi named Don Gnocchi consultant to the President of the Council of Ministers for the problem of war-maimed children. From that moment on, donations poured in, and new institutes were opened all over Italy. On his Lambretta scooter, Father Gnocchi would travel back and forth between one home and another to visit his 'children.' In Parma he met Marco who, disfigured by a bomb, had had both legs amputated and had lost an eye. He waited until the daily medication was finished, then drew close to the child's bed and asked, 'When they take off your bandages and dig around in your wounds and make you cry, who do you think about?' 'Nobody,' answered the little boy, amazed at such a strange question. This answer cut through Father Carlo's heart like a knife. Pain could not be endured in such solitude. That misery had to be handed over to someone. And so he went on, 'But don't you believe that there is someone to whom you can offer your pain, for whose love you could stifle your laments and swallow your tears, and who could help you to feel your suffering a little less?'

A brooch for the Pope

Human pain offered to God, vigorously affirmed in its connection with Destiny, is transfigured and becomes a means of resurrection. More than for anything else, Father Carlo ardently wanted his little ones to set out on that path. Thus he challenged them in a meeting: 'Your tears must become pearls.' The children listened to him, their curiosity piqued, asking how this was possible, since for the children it could not be taken as a poetic metaphor. 'We will prepare a little box,' Father Carlo went on, 'When one of you, for his own good, has to undergo surgery or a painful operation, he suffers. Well, this physical suffering must not be lost or thrown away like something that doesn't count for anything; you have to offer it to the Lord, without crying, without screaming. When one of you succeeds in thinking about Jesus Christ who suffered more than any man and in standing the pain of your operation without complaining, then that person will have the right to put a precious pearl into the box.' 'And then?' asked the astounded children. 'In a year we will count all the pearls (I know there will be lots of them!) and we'll take them to a jeweler; he will use them to design our badge, then we'll take it to the Pope as a symbol of your brave suffering.' And the audience with Pius XII really happened. Excited, the children offered the brooch to the Pope and Father Carlo explained to him the meaning of the jewel. Pius XII grew pensive and was greatly moved, full of tenderness and appreciation at the thought of how much good Providence had been able to draw out of the great evil of the war.

No philanthropy

Over the years the work grew, and so did his little maimed children. In fact it happened that some beds, out of the two thousand that his eight homes had available, remained empty. So the idea began to take hold in Father Gnocchi's mind of a new crusade: he would gather and help also polio victims. In 1955 he laid the foundations for a new, modern center that would represent the synthesis of his rehabilitation methods. In September of the same year, in the presence of Italian President Giovanni Gronchi, the first stone of the new building was laid, near San Siro Stadium in Milan. The center would cost a billion lire, an enormous amount of money in those days, but Don Carlo knew he could count on the good hearts of Italians and especially of his own city of Milan. Under stress, worn out, in the months that followed he had attacks of high fever. He went to Rome for treatment, and spent a short period of convalescence in one of his homes, in Salerno. This was a brief interval of serenity. Back in Milan, he was continually assailed by lacerating pain in his stomach. As soon as he was hospitalized in the Columbus clinic, his friends came running: his co-workers, ex-students, Alpine troops, and even the Archbishop of Milan, Montini. Everyone understood that he had an incurable illness. He suffered, but his spirit was lively, and in the ever-briefer pauses in his illness he tried to keep going with his work. One afternoon he dropped his head on his pillow, looked at his companions in his great adventure who gathered around him, and said in dialect, 'Friends, I commend my business to you.' These were his last words. 'Relieving pain is not only a work of philanthropy, but is a work that closely pertains to Christ's redemption’ everything he did was born of this certainty. Beginning with the request of that soldier, he gave everything, unstintingly, full of expectation that the work of God would reverberate in human history. This was witnessed even by his last act of charity, the donation of his corneas to two blind children, which in those times caused consternation and even heavy criticism.

Thirty years after his death, on March 1, 1986, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini opened the process of beatification, which is currently moving forward in the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in Rome.