The “Attestations” by Fr Battista Soresina
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF
REV. FR. ANTHONY Ma. ZACCARIA
by Fr. Battista Soresina
The Rev. Fr. Anthony M. Zaccaria was a native of Cremona, a descendant from the noble Zaccaria family: he was the only son. The name of the Father who generated him was Lazzaro. The Mother was Antonia from the noble family Pescaroli in Cremona. From early age he was gifted with a good temperament and displayed irreproachable conduct, by behaving himself quite prudently and always avoiding any sort of levity. He studied Philosophy and Theology in Pavia and in Bologna1
; then he entered the service of the Church.
The Countess of Guastalla chose him as her Confessor and Master in the life of the Spirit.2
Besides serving the Countess, Father was instructing in the regular discipline some young ladies the Countess had gathered in order to establish a monastery.3
This Lady used to reside mostly in Milan, where also our Father was. In a short time, in this city, he earned for himself the reputation of being a man of worth and holiness. He had many followers who were coming to him to be directed in the way of the Spirit. Some, moved by the desire of greater perfection by the counsel of the Father, decided to live in the Congregation under his protection and guide; they were Sir Bertolameo Ferrari, a noble Milanese and a priest, Sir Jacomo Antonio Morigia, he too a noble Milanese, Sir Camillio de' Neri, Sir Battista Sorezina. They received the habit as clerics in 1534; then, there were Sir Francesco Cripa, and Sir Gianiacomo Casei, who served as laymen.4
The Countess had purchased some houses near St. Catherine on Rena Street to build a house for nuns. But the place turned out to be too confining, therefore she decided to acquire a larger one. It was on this occasion that she donated to Fr. Zaccaria these houses near St. Catherine, so that he and the other members of his Congregation could live there. Two years later the Countess purchased the houses located in the place where the monastery of St. Paul now stands; she sold those near St. Catherine, and gave our Fathers a house of hers in the neighborhood of St. Ambrose Major, close to the chapel where St. Augustine was baptized. In this house our Fathers built a chapel, and Morigia, Nero, and Sorezina were ordained priests.5
In it the Fathers started to hear confessions for men only; on feast days they would preach, and the people’s attendance increased so much that they would not depart before dark. The best proof of the results of such preaching was the frequent and great conversions. This practice was kept until the death of Fr. Zaccaria, which happened in 1540.
Since he was very busy establishing regular observance in the monastery of St. Paul, where some 60 nuns were already gathered, Fr. Zaccaria made Fr. Morigia Superior of the Fathers, and Fr. Sorezina Vicar; while he himself supervised everything, and instructed Morigia how to govern.6
As Fr. Sorezina relates, Fr. Zaccaria was “Spirit through and through.” He was gifted with divine light for the discernment of the spirits, and would therefore warn the Fathers saying: “Look after this one,” “Dismiss that one;” he could predict who would progress, or who would come to the Fathers merely for the sake of criticizing rather than sanctifying themselves; and all he said would come true.
Sorezina was used to go to him for confession, and once in making a general confession, ashamed to reveal a certain secret sin, was told by the Father who was about to give him the absolution: “Haven’t you commit such and such sin?” After being admonished and full of shame, Sorezina made thorough confession. The very same thing happened with another person, lay brother, Innocente by name, in a general confession, as Fr. Sorezina himself heard it said from Innocente himself.
By no means could Father stand things done by habit. That’s why he was constantly looking for new religious practices to enkindle the spirit, and would strongly reproach the fault of doing things by rote.
During the Collatio he was just marvelous: not only he would inflame everyone with the love of God and the desire for perfection, but also, he would give inspiration - even when speaking in general terms - adding such appropriate admonitions that each and every one would be convinced and feel ashamed of his own defects.
Once, during a spiritual meeting with the nuns of St. Paul’s monastery, he asked Angelic Paola Antonia Negri, Mistress of novices, which spiritual exercises she had given her novices to do. After she gave a detailed account of them, he ordered the novices, since they had failed through lukewarmness and negligence to reap fruit of so excellent spiritual practices, to spit upon their Mistress’ face. And because the novices were unwilling to do that, at last by his sheer authority he prevailed upon them to spit all over her. All the while the novices felt no less humiliated than their mistress because the Father in the course of these actions kept reproaching them harshly.7
The familiarity Father had with these nuns led someone to slander him as not quite an honest man. In his own defense Father said he had a sign to convince them without any doubt of his virginity. Now, he happened to see the body of Father Fra Battista da Crema, who had already died some years back, while it was shown for people to venerate. On uncovering his private parts, as his clothes were already worn out, the Father said, “He’s careless, by overlooking to cover himself.” Accordingly, six or seven years after his death, having been buried dressed as was customary with his hands crossed, Fr. Zaccaria was found with one hand covering his private parts.
He was unusually gifted in giving spiritual exhortations, so that, talking with several people, he would touch upon their personal defects. Various superiors of several convents in Cremona witnessed this fact more than once. They asserted that Fr. Zaccaria in his sermons would condemn all their shortcomings so thoroughly that if he had lived with them for twenty five years, he could not have known more about them.
There was a monastery of nuns in a city of Lombardy (Vicenza) that had become quite lax. Anybody could see it by the way the nuns dressed. They wore ornate silk dresses and arranged their wimples in the most vain fashions and, in addition, their conduct was scandalous in many other ways. By the Father’s frequent exhortations, they were so pierced to their hearts that they abandoned their more-worldly-than-religious dresses, and, after accepting a total reform, embraced a truly religious life.
Father would warn his brothers to bind souls to the Crucified Christ, and not to tire themselves too much in anything else; for, when one falls in love with Jesus Crucified, he himself would detest and abhor all vanities, pleasures, proud manners, and any other thing contrary to the good Christian way of life.
He was a great devotee and imitator of St. Paul the Apostle. Consequently, he would always have the Apostle’s Letters at hand and greatly delighted in reading them, which is why he would read them if he was singing them. And in writing his own letters, he would imitate St. Paul’s style. His sermons were steeped in, and interlaced with the doctrine and sayings of the same Apostle. That’s why, just before his death - as he told Fr. Soresina while he was taken ill in bed - St. Paul appeared to him in a vision, and invited him if he wished to go with him. As he willing agreed, the Father died of that illness. He desired to write about St. Paul, but his incessant activities and premature death hindered him from doing it.8
Besides the doctrine of St. Paul, he greatly esteemed the Collationes and other treatises of John Cassian. Hence, in his own collatio, he made great use of them, as he had some passages read to him, and commented on them to the benefit of all.9
In these collatio, Father was outstanding because he not only was a most effective speaker, full of the Spirit, but he also brimmed with ideas, so that he would from time to time stop to select, from among the many concepts that came to him, the most useful and pertinent for the occasion at hand.
Father was quite perfect in all kinds of virtues, as they who had familiarity with him have testified, for they never found the slightest defect in him. He was never seen laughing, though his countenance was constantly joyful and cheerful. No one ever heard him say an idle word, let alone talks about worldly things like war, etc. Despite his weak constitution, as he was born two months premature, he never indulged in any delicacy whatsoever. The most delicate thing he would eat was boiled veal. He was never seen eating meat roasted or cooked otherwise, neither fowls, etc. The other Fathers used to eat no other meat except the cartilaginous parts and the scant meat left on the hides to be tanned, and Father too would sometimes eat that.
As to food and clothes, he never asked for anything special, nor was he ever heard to complain about anything. He dressed humbly in closely fitted, unpleated clothes, of dark tan color, and the fabric was cheap. He wore a round headpiece. For some time he wore white underwear that later he changed to black. He would take his medicines, no matter how unpleasant, as serenely as if they were food. His love for cleanliness was incredibly.
He loved everyone with utmost tenderness. He would make us of the most loving words and manners with his religious and he would cover them with a great deal of caresses, and force them, when necessary, to take due and proper rest. He truly became “all things to all men.” With people desirous of spiritual life he would talk about perfection and mortification. With people of a different outlook - soldiers, bravoes, etc., he would first talk about things which were interesting to them, then, little by little, would adroitly turn his conversation into what he had in mind. That’s why his conversation appealed to all without distinction and was much sought after by all, and those who came to him always left edified and changed.
Such a great affability was well coupled with due seriousness. He was wont to exercise his religious with great practices of mortification and self-control. He would do likewise with many layperson who, following the good example and exhortations of the Fathers, had embraced a life of mortification in their own secular state.
It would take too long to tell all the various mortification those first Fathers used to practice. So, suffice it to say this: as they dressed poorly in dark brown, plain clothes without folds and wore round headpieces (while in the house they wear black clothes) whenever they went through the city of Milan in such fashion, people would make a great din after them as if they were mad; artisans would bang their tools on the benches, and their children and other people would scream insults: “Look, look at those clowns, hypocrites, jokers, etc..” In the midst of these jeers and sneers, the Fathers stood firm in their peace of mind, went modestly through the streets, and rejoiced in putting up with reproaches for the love of Christ.
Usually at table the Fathers would not eat. For one thing, the food was anything but appetizing. Then, they were so full with the things of the Spirit that they just set there, motionless. Father had to force them by obedience to take the necessary nourishment and not to send back any portion of their meals without permission.
They used to scourge themselves, both publicly and privately, and with the Father’s permission would wear hair shirts, some more frequently than others. Ordinarily, after the sermon on feast days, someone would practice some form of penance or self-abasement. Some would use the same wooden bowl to eat, to drink, etc. One form of penance was daylong silence, so after Morning Prayer, one would talk only with permission. After lunch, they would converse briefly and afterwards no word could be heard. It was considered a serious fault to say, “I want,” or “I do not want.” Everyone was very much concerned with mortifying the vivacity of his will so as to humiliate himself above all in what he was most willful.
Father Giovan Pietro Besozzi, while still married and with children, with his wife's consent made many entreaties to be admitted into the Congregation. The Fathers thought it advisable to put him to the severest test. Once, while still a layman, he was sent to St. Ambrose shabbily dressed to beg for alms with a wooden bowl, together with the other beggars. Another time he went to the fish market to buy fish for some of his relatives and deliver it to their house.10
Sir Baldisar de' Medici, on a Sunday, smeared his face monstrously and then stood in front of the Fathers' house. As people were going in and out, he would look into a mirror and say to himself: “Look, see how handsome you are!” This nobleman had been quite vain and well honored, too, for he had been at the Cardinal of Trent’s service as a trainbearer. Many more similar mortifications were being made by the Fathers as well as by people who were following their discipline.
Several people, both religious and lay, dislike them. A certain Fra Cornelio, who used to preach at St. Rose’s church, would spent most of his time speaking ill of the Fathers, condemning them as hypocrites; and calumniating their behavior in all possible ways, he would endeavor to discredit them with the people. Once, carried away by greater zeal than usual in speaking ill of the Fathers, after giving vent to his rage for a while, he tired himself out to convince people to use violence on the house of the Fathers and set it on fire, telling them they would offer God a pleasant sacrifice.
In the midst of growing persecutions, Father Zaccaria gathered together all the Fathers and Brothers of the Congregation and addressed them most fervently of the good of being humiliated. He concluded saying that the Lord, in order to protect his vineyard, was fencing it with scorns and ignominies. Let, then, everyone decide what to do: either to persevere in the way of life they had begun or to abandon it. Moved by these words, they all stood up; then prostrating themselves to the floor, they earnestly promised to give their lives for Christ’s sake.11
Thus, on account of both the Fathers' public penances and the animosity and disparaging remarks by many people, there arose in Milan no little shispering, to the point that one morning the City Senate dealt with no other matter but that of taking some measures against such novelties. Almost all the Senators were ill disposed towards the Fathers, everyone saying this thing or that against them. Finally, after everyone spoke his mind, President Sacco stood up and concluded the discussion by quoting the words of the Book of Wisdom: “These are they whom once we held as laughingstock, etc.” And so from then on for a while the Fathers were left unmolested.
Those first Fathers lived in extreme poverty, and used household implements made of stone, wood, and like material. In church no silk was used. During this time Fr. Zaccaria died at the age of 37, in 1540, on the day of the octave of Ss. Peter and Paul in Cremona, where he had asked to be brought from Guastalla, where he had fallen ill. His death was saintly as his life had been. He had, as I have said above, a vision of St. Paul. After his death, a person with the reputation of a great saint, exclaimed: “Oh Cremona, if you only knew who just died!” And he was unable to say any more, breathless as he was.
Father Battista did not arrive at Cremona the day before his death; that is why he has no other memory concerning the death of this Father. After his death, all Cremona converged to see him, kiss him, etc. The Bishop of Cremona12
chose to take part in the funeral service. Afterward, Father’s body was taken to St. Paul’s church in Milan. While he was carried through Castiglione d'Adda, the parish priest came with the whole people to meet him, carrying candles and accompanied him to the church, where they sang the Office of the dead.13
1. It is certain that Zaccaria studied Latin, Greek, Medicine, and Theology: in fact, in the document drawn on April 10, 1528, for the division of the properties between him and his cousin Bernardo, he reserves for himself the books of Humanity, Greek, Logic, Philosophy, and Theology, obviously because they belonged to him and they were used by him, since it does not appear that Bernardo had followed those studies. Still open is the question where he did study. For Latin and Greek certainly in Cremona, during the years before October 1520. For Medicine and Philosophy certainly in Padua, during the years 1520-24. For Theology we do not know if it was Pavia or Padua or some other place (it seems that Bologna was out of the question).
2. In 1529, Fr. Peter Orsi, the chaplain of Countess Ludovica Torelli of Guastalla, died. The following year he was substituted by Anthony M. Zaccaria, who moved from Cremona to Guastalla. In the absence of Fra Battista Da Crema, Zaccaria was also the confessor and spiritual director of the Countess.
3. The first young ladies to be received in the Torelli household were Virginia Negri and Bianca Martinengo, soon to be joined by Negri's two sisters, the three Da Sesto sisters, the two Rotoli sisters with a cousin, and the two Sereni sisters with a cousin, followed later by others.
4. “Laymen” here perhaps must be understood in the sense that they never received the Sacred Orders; in fact, De Caseis was never a cleric, and Crippa received only the tonsure. The canonical institution of the Brothers did not exist as yet at the time of Zaccaria, as it was only established on November 23, 1554.
5. This chapel later was transformed in a church dedicated to St. Paul Decapitated, inaugurated on November 30, 1542 (Cronachetta A, f. 67v). We do not have documents to confirm that the priestly ordination of Frs. Morigia, Negri and Soresina took place here. For Fr. Morigia we know from Fr. Secco (Synopsis cit., pp. 234-235) that he received the three Major Orders in three successive feast days, June 28 and 29, and July 4, 1535: news which, at least for the Subdiaconate, is confirmed from the records of the Ambrosian Archdiocese (Gentili, I Barnabiti cit., p. 34); he celebrate the First Mass in the chapel of the Countess Torelli by St. Ambrose on September 14, 1535, feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
6. St. Francis de Sales, who visited their monastery in 1613, says they were up to 150 (Oeuvres de Saint Fran Hois de Sales, JvLque et prince de Geneve et docteur de l'Iglise, XIX, Lyon-Paris, Livr. Cath. Emmanuel Vitte, 1904, p. 202, letter to Mother Chastel, Superior of the Visitation in Grenoble). It is a fact that only in 1536, 24 postulants received the veil (Sfondrati, Historia..., ff. 36-37: “And since from January through November 24 received the habit as nuns, the Mistress of novices was ordered, who had a rare spirit, to take care of the government of those who a new everyday were entering in this group”), and that at the time of Zaccaria's death they were “forty five to fifty,” a number which will be stable for few years (ibid, f. 59). Msgr. Lino, writing to Rome to St. Charles Borromeo on July 11, 1565, says to be eighty in number. When the Angelic Timotea Rottoli was Superior, while Fr. Besozzi was Superior General of the Barnabites, they “passed the hundred number” (ibid, ff. 75-76).
Morigia was elected on April 15, 1536 (Cronachetta A, f. 2v; Premoli, Storia..., I, p. 37), but Soresina was elected Vicar not the day of the election of Morigia as Superior, but of Ferrari on November 30, 1542, as he himself says in the Cronachetta A, f. 66v. - That Zaccaria was supervising everything is confirmed by the fact that in the community he was called “The Major” (Premoli, Storia..., I, pp. 475, 476, 477; Gabuzio, Historia..., p. 61).
7. This episode is not reported by any of our historians, but it is not unlikely, because Bonsignor Cacciaguerra (who was our guest during the last months of the life of the Holy Founder, and for sure was in our house on June 9, 1539, as shown by a document drafted by Giampiero Besozzi on that a day), reports another episode which happened to himself: cf Premoli, Storia..., I, p. 477).
8. That Zaccaria had a vision of St. Paul on his death bed is reported by all the historians, but not all of them report the same exchange of words between the Apostle and the Saint. Here Soresina reports a confidence done to him, and that “willing” captures the whole soul of Zaccaria. Even the desire to want to write about St. Paul, if saddens us the unfulfilled desire, tells us a lot about the profoundly Pauline spirit.
9. The records of our first Capitular Acts are full of references to the Collationes by Cassian, which were read by the individuals as well as in the community chapter, or in the refectory, or during recreation after dinner.
10. The same day, June 29, 1542, the public notary, Giampietro Besozzi, entered the Barnabites and his wife, Vienna Dati, the Angelics. The tests imposed on him are amply described in his biography (Gobio Innocente, Vita del Ven. Padre Giampietro Besozzi, Milan, Boniardi-Pogliani, 1861, pp. 13-16). The second event reported here by Soresina, is picked up, but without Besozzi's name, both by BascapèP and Gabuzio (De spiritualibus..., f. 3; Historia..., p. 49), while the first is reported only by Gabuzio (ivi).
11. It is the famous speech of October 4, 1534. Fr. Premoli (Storia..., I, pp. 25-28) reports the speech both as given by Gabuzio (Historia..., pp. 52-56), and as narrated in the Cronachetta A and C, these were picked up by Gabuzio on p. 5. But we, rereading the formal speech reconstructed by Gabuzio, with a practically uninterrupted stream of Pauline quotations, can imagine how far and different the reality was. We can sense it from the words written by Soresina in the Cronachetta A: “The words that came out of the angelic mouth of the said Father were such that, all engulfed by divine love, he inflamed all the hearts, so that they all felt compelled to lose themselves in the warmth of Christ which was penetrating to their very interior, and so they embarked an a sacred path” (f. 35). In more details in the Cronachetta C: “He inflamed us all in such a way that we all threw ourselves on the ground in the midst of tears and promised to persevere; and with fullness of heart we promised God to journey on the road of contempt. Finally, being so inflamed that any coldness in our hearts was gone, we promised to give up our life and shed our blood for the love of our Lord, who had died for us on the cross. As so while kneeling, we embraced each other in the midst of abundant tears, ready to do whatever our Father would say, without any reservation. And we started to live together in poverty, embracing mortification and the uprooting of vices and passions, in order to gain our neighbor, without counting the cost to be of help to all” (ff. 2v-3).
12. The Bishop of Cremona was Benedetto Accolti, but he was not in Cremona in 1539: in fact, after been a prisoner in Castel Sant’Angelo in 1535, he went for sometime to Ravenna (where he was also its Bishop), then passed his life partially in Ferrara, partially in Venice, and partially in Florence, where in died. Soresina, having seen at the funeral someone with the mitre, must have thought to be the Bishop of the city. Bascapè and Gabuzio did not accept this detail.
13. That Zaccaria had special funeral honors in Castiglione d'Adda (Milan) has an historical reason. Lords of the town were the Marquises Pallavicino of the Busseto branch: the last of them, Marquis Jerome, who had built the present parish church, died there and was buried, on May 25, in the sanctuary of the church of the Incoronata. Torelli was related to this family and Clara Pallavicino was the one to put the first seeds of conversion in her heart, as reported by Sfondrati (Historia..., f. 7). No wonder then that Torelli and Zaccaria were at home with the Castiglione family, whose guests they must have often been during their many trips from Milan to Cremona and Guastalla, since the old road of Cremona used to pass through Castiglione. The subject should be investigated further, but these few elements are enough to explain why the clergy and the people of the town felt the need to honor in a special way Zaccaria, who had certainly left there too the marks of his apostolic priestly ministry.