In a world known for its callous disregard for the poor and downtrodden, the example of Angelo Paoli is a refreshing breath of air. Angelo cared so well for his unfortunate brothers and sisters that he was known as “Father Charity” or “Father of the Poor.” Fortunately, he did more than just act as one kind individual – he was an excellent motivator, who set many wheels of benevolence in motion at the dawn of the 18th century.
Humanity was an assumed way of life for young Paoli. He was born September 1, 1642 in the humble Tuscan town of Argigliano, not far north from the stone quarries of Massa Carrara. His parents, Angelo Paoli and Santa Morelli, decided to baptize their son Francesco, in honor of the benevolent saint of Assisi. They were devout peasants who provided a loving home for their seven children, where care for others was the essential element of life. As a young man, Paoli frequently looked for times when he could go off to remote and beautiful places to be alone in prayer. But he was equally zealous in teaching the Christian beliefs and virtues to the young people of his village. It was no surprise to his parents or anyone else when his devotion to Mary led him at age 18 to join the Carmelites at nearby Fivizzano.
He was sent to Siena for his novitiate year, and professed his vows in 1661, taking the religious name of Angelo to honor his father. After studying philosophy and theology in Pisa and Florence, he was ordained a priest in 1667. The first 20 years of his ministry were spent in the ordinary busy tasks of his Tuscan province. As a versatile and reliable friar, he worked in the communities of his native Argigliano, in Pistoia, and in Siena. He served as novice master in Florence, as pastor in Carniola, taught grammar to young students in Montecatini, and served as organist and sacristan in Fivizzano. Throughout this busy period, he continued his regular prayer in remote and beautiful places, and never lost sight of the poorest people who might need his help. He developed a special devotion to the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. He dramatized his devotion to the Cross by setting up several large wooden crosses in his favorite prayer settings, often on beautiful mountain tops. He would later place a large cross in Rome’s ruined Coliseum in memory of the martyrs who died there.
In 1687, his life changed dramatically when the Prior General, Paul of St. Ignatius, called him to Rome to join the community of San Martino ai Monti. The General’s original plan was simply to have Angelo give good example to the community by his fervent observance of the religious life. But once he arrived, he was put in charge of the community’s finances. He immediately began to care for the teeming beggars and poor street people who filled Rome, amid the splendors of the glittering Baroque age. Angelo soon amazed his community members with the vast numbers of poor and hungry people who came to the monastery‘s courtyard for their daily food. Some days there were as many as 300 people lining up to be fed. Even more remarkable was how Angelo found enough food, money and clothing to care for everyone who came – he shyly claimed that there was always something in his pantry. Some Romans compared his largess with Jesus’ loaves and fish; others simply concluded that he had found secret patrons who wanted to remain nameless.
Angelo also found himself rapidly drawn to care for the sick. Not far from San Martino, there was a busy hospital at St. John Lateran, Rome’s cathedral. According to the custom of the time, the hospital cared primarily for the health and basic feeding of the patient, but such things as additional food, blankets, and clothing were often left to family members of the sick. For the poorest people, there was often no one to supply these needs. So Angelo began to visit the twin wings of the hospital, one for men, and the other for women. He fed the hungriest patients, comforted and counseled those in need, emptied bedpans, and saw to the most menial services. His visits increased to twice a day, especially when he was able to find other patrons and donors to support his efforts. He eventually found a location near the Coliseum where he organized and ran Rome’s first convalescent home for those discharged from the hospital, but still unable to care for themselves.
Part of Angelo’s practical genius flowed from the fact that his strong spiritual life attracted many others to help his charitable works. He was a popular confessor and spiritual advisor to the illustrious members of Roman society. He was eagerly sought by cardinals, ambassadors, Roman officials, including the Pope’s own doctor, and countless members of Europe’s noble families. Sometimes the only way that the rich and powerful could get a word with Angelo was to follow him through a hospital ward with a basket of food, or help him as he distributed bread at San Martino. Beyond any doubt, these well-fed patricians were also generous in helping his efforts to feed others.
To reward his lavish care for the poor, Pope Innocent XII wanted to make Angelo a cardinal, but he refused on the grounds that he could not maintain his level of charity with such an encumbrance. Another offer of a red hat by Pope Clement XI was also refused. Angelo had no wish to be a prince of the Church, since he was busy enough just being a good friar. He did, however, convince the Popes to halt the pilfering of stone from the ruined Coliseum, and to erect a large cross there in memory of the martyrs. One of the high points of Angelo’s impact occurred in 1708. He raised three wooden crosses on Mount Testaccio, an artificial hill created by a huge quantity of ancient rubble from broken pottery. He celebrated the Way of the Cross with a sermon on Jesus’ passion and death, as a sign of his love for all people. Then he distributed bread and sausage to all present to continue the celebration.
Angelo Paoli died peacefully in 1720, and was buried in the church of San Martino. Many people spoke of his ability to foretell future events, and to cure the sick. But his simple works of mercy spoke even more eloquently of his solid spirituality, and his love of God. He had told his rich patrons, “Whoever wants to love God must search for him among the poor.” Truly, a fitting epitaph!