The Italian city of Milan has been blessed with many saintly shepherds over the centuries. From Saint Ambrose in the fourth century to Saint Paul VI in the twentieth, many archbishops of Milan have later been acclaimed as saints.1 Blessed Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster (1880-1954), whose feast is celebrated on August 30th, is one of the most recent holy men who have led the Church of Milan, and he teaches us what it takes to be a good and holy bishop.
His last name gives away his ancestry; both his parents were Austrian. But Alfredo was born and lived his whole life in Italy. His father even worked in the Vatican—though as a master tailor. His father had been predeceased by two wives before he married Alfredo’s mother, and he was thirty years older than his wife. It was therefore sad, but not surprising, that Alfredo’s father died when he was only nine years old.
Fortunately, a colonel in the Swiss Guard had been a close friend of Alfredo’s father. He generously arranged for Alfredo to be educated at a Benedictine school. It was the perfect choice for the studious little boy, who decided to enter that same order when he grew up, taking the religious name of Ildefonso.
Ildefonso was ordained a priest, earned degrees in theology and philosophy, became prior and abbot of his Benedictine monastery, and was even given important assignments by the pope. It was a shock to no one when he was appointed archbishop of Milan and named a cardinal.
Being intelligent and good at administration are helpful qualities for any leader, and Ildefonso was both. But those abilities alone aren’t enough to make an effective bishop into a saintly one. Besides God’s grace and the man’s cooperation with that grace, that bishop needs to respond to the specific challenges he faces both with the Heart of Christ and the gifts God has given him.
Benito Mussolini and his fascist party took control of Italy in 1922, and fascism reigned until 1945. Fascist supporters and faithful Catholics debated and fought for years, both in the newspapers and in the streets, with occasional improvements in the government’s treatment of the Church.
Ildefonso became a priest in 1904 and archbishop of Milan in 1929, so he was forced to deal with fascist policies and leaders for many years. In general, he followed the lead of the pope, who spoke out strongly about the rights of lay Catholics against fascist persecution but who tried to avoid taking sides in politics.
Having grown up in a simple home, Ildefonso was concerned about the needs of the poor, particularly the many refugees who were left homeless during and after World War II. He used the resources of the archdiocese to help them, for example, by organizing a refugee network and constructing new apartment buildings.
Ildefonso is often falsely accused of cooperating with fascism. However, his chief offense appears to have been that he attended celebrations of public holidays and blessed the people who were present, which included members of the fascist army. One can easily imagine that he was praying for God to convert the hearts of all the anti-Catholics present when he blessed them. After all, in December 1945, Ildefonso spent three hours in a personal meeting with Mussolini, trying to convince him to repent of his sins and surrender. In this task, Ildefonso failed. Il Duce refused, fled, and was killed soon afterwards.
Ildefonso was, by nature, a scholar. In addition to writing many articles and books, he wrote a biography of Saint Benedict of Norcia, not an easy task since so few biographical details have survived since the sixth century. But his masterpiece was his Liber Sacramentorum, commonly called The Sacramentary in English. This huge, multi-volume commentary on the Mass throughout the liturgical year was based on his lecture notes about the liturgy, but it also included discussions of topics such as sacred art and architecture, portraits of our Lady found in Rome, and Christian initiation. This commentary was translated into many languages when the volumes were first published in 1924-1930, and it has recently been re-published in English.
Ildefonso’s devotion to sacred music and the liturgy was one of his strengths as a bishop. He didn’t merely examine the liturgy as a scholarly subject. He proposed several changes be made to the liturgy—decades before Vatican Council II—because of his pastoral care for his flock. For example, he suggested that the prayers used at Good Friday services be changed to reflect a greater sensitivity toward the Jewish people. (Pope Benedict XVI made that change in 2008.) Ildefonso initiated ecumenical outreaches to other Christian churches long before the Council fathers recommended it in Unitatis Redintegratio. And he suggested that the Mass be translated into the vernacular because he, like all other true lovers of the Sacred Liturgy, wanted Catholics to pray every Mass with all their hearts.
Blessed Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster was a strong leader who led his people through a period of government persecution and a world war. But more than that, he was a holy man.
For all of us, being holy simply means giving everything to Christ. If you are passionate about research (like Ildefonso) or sports or cooking, find a way to give that to Him. Patiently offer up all the unpleasant aspects of your vocation to God too, which will probably be easier than trying to convert a fascist dictator. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you insights into how you can better serve those under your care, whether that be your children or your employees or your friends.
Or your flock. Being a good shepherd of human souls is not a task for the faint-of-heart. But all bishops should emulate the Good Shepherd, and we can particularly ask Blessed Ildefonso to pray for ours on his feast day.
1 The other holy archbishops of Milan formally recognized by the Church are: Saints Anathalon (second century), Calimerius (second century), Caius (third century), Castritian (third century), Mona (d. c. 300), Mirocles (d. after 314), Eustorgius I (d. c. 355), Protasius (d. c. 356), Dionysius (d. c. 361), Maternus (fourth century), Simplician (d. 401), Venerius (d. 409), Martinian (d. after 431), Eusebius (d. c. 462), Benignus (d. c. 470), Geruntius (d. c. 472), Senator (d. c. 480), Lazarus (fifth century), Marolus (fifth century), Eustorgius II (d. 518), Datius (d. 552), Honoratus (d. 570), Auxanus (d. c. 589), Magnus (sixth century), John the Good (d. c. 660), Antoninus (d. c. 661), Mansuetus (d. 680), Benedict (d. 725) Galdinus (d. 1176), Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), and Blessed Andrea Carlo Ferrari (1850-1921).
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