Ordained at Age 19, for 24 Days – Yet A Priest For Ever

I recently heard about a young man from Turin, in northwestern Italy, who died at the age of 19 in 1976. He had dreamed of being a priest and was following that calling, when his life was cut short by incurable bone cancer. But through the goodness of his Bishop, with the permission of Pope Paul VI, he was able to receive priestly ordination just over three weeks before he died.

His name was Father Cesare Bisognin.

(“Cesare” is the Italian version of “Caesar”, pronounced “CHEZ-uh-ray”; his last name would be pronounced “Biz-own-YEEN”, the “gn” being like the Spanish “ñ”.) Hear me pronounce his name via the audio widget that immediately follows:

Father Cesare’s story is extremely inspiring, and I’m pleased to provide my translation of a biography that I found online, as it seems that virtually nothing has been published about him in English. (I did find one mention of his death in a 1976 column of England’s The Tablet, but otherwise nothing comes up in a search!)

Also, as far as I have been able to tell thus far, there is no cause for beatification open for Father Cesare. Why this may be, I really don’t know. God’s ways are mysterious! But even if he might never be declared a saint, we can still draw inspiration from his story, and courage to accept our own crosses and follow the Lord faithfully in our vocation.

(Most of the names I left in Italian, but I did want to make a note here about his father’s name – Andrea – which looks like a girl’s name in English but is actually unisex in Italian, meaning either “Andrew” or “Andrea”, as the case may be. The Cardinal’s first name, Michele, is Italian for “Michael”. FYI.)

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A VOCATION AND A CROSS:

The Remarkable and Inspiring Story of Father Cesare Bisognin

The plans of God are inscrutable. He freely picks flowers from the most diverse gardens to bring them safely with Him to Paradise, and there is no logical explanation for His choices. We are all called from childhood to strive for holiness, just as it is from childhood that we build our future; if it later happens in God’s plan – which is incomprehensible and sometimes even absurd to us – that someone should be called to the Father’s house “prematurely” (according to man’s calculations), then everyone has to seek out, by the light of faith, his own response to such a situation.

If these considerations apply in the case of those who die as children, adolescents, and youth – which happens daily for the most varied reasons, such as sicknesses, accidents, and tragedies, all of which are difficult to accept –, then how much more difficult is it to understand how it can happen to young souls who responded generously to God’s call to a life dedicated to Him?

If the Lord had chosen them to be His ministers among men, then why is their preparation for the ministry so suddenly interrupted? It is not easy to respond to this, since all sparks issue forth from a crackling fire shooting upwards towards the sky… but there are some that burn out early or that fall back into the fire from which they came, as if to obey a silent recall and go anew to fuel the blazing flames.

In the area of religious life, there have been so many of these glowing sparks that returned to the Father (the divine fire) “prematurely” – but their brief flare produced other fires and lights amidst the darkness of mankind.

Let us recall some of the young people chosen for the priesthood who, nevertheless, prematurely died, having left a luminous wake behind them both in society and in the Church: St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591), 23-year-old Jesuit cleric; St. John Berchmans (1599-1621), 22-year-old Jesuit cleric; the Servant of God Antonino Pisano (1907-1927), 20-year-old Mercedarian novice; Blessed Dominic of the Most Blessed Sacrament (1901-1927), a young Spanish Trinitarian, 26 years old; Venerable Francesco Maria Castelli (1752-1771), 19-year-old Barnabite cleric; the Servant of God Girolamo Tiraboschi (1733-1753), 20-year-old Camillian novice; the Servant of God Luigi Lo Verde (1910-1932), 21-year-old Franciscan cleric; Venerable Maggiorino Vigolungo (1904-1918), 14-year-old aspirant to the Paulists; the Servant of God Raphael Mennella (1877-1898), 21-year-old cleric of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart; St. Stanislaw Kostka (1550-1568), 18-year-old Jesuit novice; and others.

To this incomplete list it is necessary to add the young seminarian of the Diocese of Turin, Italy, Cesare Bisognin, ordained a priest at age 19, shortly before leaving this earth. He was born in Turin on June 6, 1956, the first-born of Andrea Bisognin (from Turin) and Agnese Frigeni (from the area of Bergamo). He was baptized four days later.

Cesare grew up in a fervent and religious family environment, in which the rosary was recited each evening; frequently he would be the one (even at 7-8 years of age) to lead the Marian prayer. He would also do this outside the family home, during the summer, when they went on vacation to Celana, his mother’s hometown. There the local farmers would gather in the evenings inside the small country chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

On May 1, 1965, then nine years old, he made his First Holy Communion and was confirmed, together with his younger brother Carlo, in their parish of Saints Peter and Paul.

He attended elementary school in Turin and later attended the “Alessandro Manzoni” Middle School in the same city. During the delicate years of his pre-adolescence and adolescence, Cesare showed himself to be a lively young man, firm of character – even a bit stubborn – and he was always willingly in the company of his peers. He was passionate about soccer, a member of Catholic Action, the leader of his parish’s altar boys, and a diligent student.

Father Pino Cravero proved to be a decisive and providential spiritual director to Cesare in those years. He was the assistant priest in the church of Saints Peter and Paul; today he is pastor in another parish. Father Pino was close to Cesare as a confessor and a dear friend for the 10 years between his First Communion and his death. Cesare was so convinced about Father Pino’s invaluable work as spiritual guide, that whenever someone ask him for advice about teenagers and their formation, he responded: “I believe that for a teenager two things are necessary: a priest friend and prayer.”

Having successfully completed middle school in July of 1970 at age 14, Cesare’s mother asked him if he had decided what direction to take from there. He, in full harmony with the heart of his mother, who had taught him, replied: “You know, Mother, what I wish to do” – there was no need to say anything else: they had never spoken about it, but all was clear. That Catholic family had been touched by the gift of God, to have a son become a priest.

Cesare entered the minor seminary in the town of Bra on October 5, 1970 and at the same time enrolled in the first year of the teaching institute. From his writings we learn that his time in Bra made an unforgettable impression upon him, above all in the area of his prayer life. He had had a love of prayer since childhood, but in the seminary, with its arrangement of prayer times throughout each day, his prayer found a higher expression: it became a wonderful experience of encounter with the One who had called him.

In the summer of 1971 the minor seminary was transferred from Bra to Turin, to a location on the Capuchin Hill; Cesare, in any case, continued to attend the teaching institute as well. As a student he made himself known – whether in the seminary or in the teaching school – for his candor, his swift memory, and his sharp intelligence. Endowed with a strong character, he was inclined to argue, but quick to reestablish friendship. He was willing and positive in his studies.

In the parish he was a reader, an organist, he trained the altar boys, and tutored middle school students. Each week he went as a volunteer to offer his love and the most humble service to the sick in the Cottolengo Charitable Institute. He also occasionally allowed himself to go on excursion in the mountains with his friends, or to attend cultural and artistic events.

In July of 1974, Cesare Bisognin received the diploma in teaching, and after three months, on October 7, 1974, he entered the theology program at the major seminary of Turin. Having now reached young adulthood, his ideal about becoming a priest had gotten stronger in the enthusiasm typical of youth: everything seemed more wonderful and achievable. The idea of celibacy did not frighten him, as he was well aware that the path of life – in the pursuit of an ideal and a mission – is essentially one of ascent, requiring perseverance and patience.

He studied the Word of God and dreamed of bringing it to whomever Divine Providence might wish for him to meet. But man proposes and God disposes; it is true that there was a calling, but how to reach the goal thereof was still to be discovered. Jesus said not only “Come”, but also “Follow me”, that is, “Walk with me”, because His ways are not our ways.

At the beginning of September 1974, at the end of the family’s stay in Celana, Cesare felt excruciating pain in his left knee, which he tried to alleviate with various ointments. Once they returned to Turin he resumed regular studies. But the pain did not diminish; often, whenever he arose from the seated position he collapsed on the first try. By December the knee started to swell, and Cesare went to the hospital for more in-depth radiological tests.

He was diagnosed with a sarcoma in the lower third of his left femur; in other words, a malignant bone tumor. A cloak of dejection fell over the anguished family, but Cesare especially – who had been the first to read the terrible diagnosis, and understood well what it foreboded – felt in an instant all of his dreams collapse. He found himself bewildered, while everything else – home, friends, plans, and activities – became distant and foreign.

father-cesare-4But Cesare had a strong character, and once the understandable moment of distress passed, he knew how to overcome any sense of hopelessness by the light of his genuine faith. So he accepted the cross that was offered him. He himself reported the diagnosis to his priest friend, Father Pino Cravero, who in disbelief tried to comfort Cesare and offer him moral and spiritual support. Cesare started playing the organ in church again, and he tried to lift his poor parents and younger brother out of the nightmare, certain that the Lord who had called him to the priesthood would not abandon him, but help him.

The diagnosis was confirmed at Turin’s Orthopedic Hospital during his stay there from December 27, 1974 to January 15, 1975, at which point he was sent home as incurable. The year 1975 saw him going from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital, trying various treatments, even some that were extremely invasive and painful. He went twice to Lourdes – in April and August – and from December 3 to 24 he was in Rome for the Jubilee of the Holy Year. During all of this there were moments of small advances and of violent regressions, with things relentlessly getting worse. The illness frequently caused in Cesare brief collapses, and it would last a total of 19 months. At the beginning, the problem was localized in the left femur, but later it went down to the tibia, then throughout his whole body.

Cesare, however, even amidst his sufferings, never wished to renounce his priestly vocation. He remained in contact with the theological faculty of the seminary and even succeeded in taking two exams. Young people and priests flocked to his room to visit him, and all the while his spiritual life grew more refined in prayer and in an always prompt and generous adherence to the will of God. He wrote: “Sickness helps you to mature, practicing patience; it also helps you to know how to treat others – to offer a smile – because those who are in need are the ones who are around you.”

father-cesare-3Both his personal Calvary and his desire to become a priest were known in the Chancery of Turin, and so on March 31, 1976 the Cardinal-Archbishop, Michele Pellegrino, personally requested of Pope Paul VI the authorization to ordain Cesare a priest. Thus he obtained the dispensation required, due to Cesare’s young age of 19. Then, during three weeks of April 1976 – Passion Week, Holy Week, and the Octave of Easter – things happened one-after-another, amidst greater pains and greater joys: on Friday, April 2, the auxiliary bishop Msgr. Maritano conferred upon Cesare the minor orders; on Saturday April 3, he was ordained a deacon; and on Sunday, April 4, Cardinal Pellegrino ordained him a priest.

The ceremony took place in his home, where Cesare lay on his sickbed, amidst the understandable emotion of his family members and of so many friends who crowded in, while in the nearby parish church an additional 2,000 persons in recollection and prayer followed the extraordinary celebration.

Father Cesare Bisognin had said: “If the Lord desires it so, I will die a priest: I will bring to the altar my sufferings and unite them with Jesus on the Cross.” Lovingly assisted by his friend, Father Pino, he was able in the days that followed to celebrate 17 Masses – 12 at home and five in the hospital, where he was admitted during the last days of his life.

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On the evening of April 6, feeling his weakness worsen, he requested the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick from his confessor. His room would then become the destination of a continuous procession of the faithful, who came to kiss his consecrated hands. A tide of letters started arriving, especially after a television interview broadcast on the evening of April 9, seen by millions of people, who thus came to know and hear the very young dying priest; thousands of them wrote to him from all over Italy to say how his witness stirred up faith in so many hearts.

Sensing that the end of his life was near, Father Cesare asked Father Pino and his family to take him home from the hospital; they did so on April 26. At home, Father Cesare offered a continuous stream of greetings and good words, to all present, as well as expressions of love for his sorrowful mother. Father Cesare remained lucid until the end.

Serenely, as if he had fallen asleep, he died at 1:40am on Wednesday, April 28, 1976. The funeral took place on April 30 with the participation of over 5,000 people – the majority, youth – in the presence of Cardinal Michele Pellegrino.

Father Cesare had told his spiritual director: “The priesthood is a great gift! Tell it to young people – it’s worth it to follow this path!”

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(Italian source – translated and adapted by Fr. Bryan Jerabek)

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3 Responses to Ordained at Age 19, for 24 Days – Yet A Priest For Ever

  1. Paul Noto says:

    Beautiful story! Thanks Father for sharing it with all of us.

  2. Analda Anglin says:

    Thank you for this post. Over the years I have heard stories and rumors of a young man who was ordained a priest when he was near death, but I never knew anything more about the case.

    • There is this good book, about an American priest ordained there hours before he died: http://amzn.to/1f0PLno

      However, that case was a bit different, as he wasn’t so young, and the papal dispensation required was for slightly different reasons. Very good book though.

      I’ve heard of at least one other case of a priest who was ordained very young by dispensation because of circumstances of health.

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