At the entrance to the chapel of the General Curia in Rome there is a familiar painting of the Augustinian Blessed, Stephen Bellesini. It is a copy of an original work done by G. Toeschi in 1905, depicting a crowning moment, and possibly one of the last, of Stephen’s life. He stands close to the bedside of an infirm man, administering perhaps the sacrament of the sick or simply offering him some physical comfort, while the man’s wife presses her head to the bed, seemingly overcome with grief or exhaustion. Two young children look on anxiously. The artist touchingly captured here an important aspect of the ministry which occupied the latter part of Stephen’s life, as he visited the homes of the townspeople, bringing them the comfort of the sacraments and oftentimes material assistance as well, during the typhus epidemic which struck Genazzano in the Spring of 1839. As we know, less than a year later, Stephen, himself, would fall victim to the pestilence and would succumb - a martyr of charity - faithful to the end.
Fidelity in challenging circumstances was something Stephen had learned early on as an Augustinian. Just three years after his religious profession, and still only twenty-two years of age, he experienced the effects of a rising revolutionary campaign that forced him to leave the monastery in Bologna where he was studying for the priesthood, and return to his native city to continue his education under the guidance of tutors. His years as a young priest were spent in the trying circumstances of a Church under siege by a government desirous of limiting the Church’s influence and eventually putting an end to the religious way of life which Stephen had professed. Finally, after several years of tension and uncertainty, Stephen and his community were expelled from their monastery for good, forbidden to wear any longer the habit of their religious profession. They would never return. The monastery would never re-open.
Seven years later, the priest Stephen, by now a successful and respected educator who had championed the rights of poor and underprivileged children, and won the admiration and love of the people, through a plan marked by a combination of intrigue and grace, was able to take up once again his religious way of life, but at a great price: the forfeiture of human respect and his good name in the eyes of some, and the loss of legal status in the judgment of his homeland, as he was branded a criminal. Stephen arrived in Rome, at the convent of Sant’Agostino, on October 23, 1817. He found there the warm embrace of fellow religious who were anxiously awaiting his arrival, and who rejoiced, as he did, at his homecoming. For the next fourteen years he was to serve as Master of Novices and finally, as pastor at Genazzano where he rendered caring and devoted service until his death in 1840.
Why is Blessed Stephen, who was beatified in 1904, not yet a saint?
Certainly his sanctity is not at issue. Champion of youth, advocate for justice, comforter of the sick, guardian of the poor, his message is timely, his life is exemplary, and his love for and commitment to religious life speaks loudly to Augustinians of today. The Postulator of Causes will tell us that Stephen needs to obtain a miracle! And so we might be inclined to leave the question at Stephen’s own feet ... and wait. But, to borrow an opinion expressed in another context, “how will they call on him if they have not heard of him?”
In Stephen Bellesini we Augustinians have a powerful witness to show forth, a religious and priest who has a great deal to say to and so many categories of people in need today: the sick, the young, religious and priests, to those who fight injustice and religious persecution. This is a small attempt to make him better known. Can you help us in this effort?