By Robin Gomes
A zealous Italian missionary priest who worked for nearly 3 decades in what is today Myanmar and was martyred there among his people, was declared Blessed on Saturday in northern Italy.
Father Alfredo Cremonesi, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) was beatified in his native Diocese of Crema in Lombardy Region, during a Holy Mass presided over by Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, together with the local Bishop Daniele Gianotti.
In a decree on 19 March this year, Pope Francis acknowledged his martyrdom, clearing him for beatification, which was scheduled during the current Extraordinary Missionary Month of October. The martyred missionary is now a step away from being declared a Saint, for which a miracle through his intercession is needed.
The Burmese dream
Alfredo Cremonesi was born on 15 May 1902 in Ripalta Guerina in Cremona as the first of seven children to Enrico Cremonesi, a grocer, and Maria Rosa Scartabellati. He was killed in what was then Burma on 7 February 1953. He was just 50.
Cremonesi felt a desire to become a missionary when he was 20, already in the seminary. He read magazines and books on missionaries that fascinated him. "All my heart was in there because that great ideal powerfully stirred in me ".
Despite his zeal, a serious illness stood on the path of his missionary goal. Yet, precisely because of that adversity that weakened him physically, his "spirit became young and strong again,” he wrote. "It was in that slow decline of my being that my heart felt the attraction of the apostolate, above all, of sacrifice." He was finally healed of his illness, a fact he attributed to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, whom he deeply revered.
Cremonesi was just 23 when he left for Burma, where arrived on 10 November 1925. Soon he was sent to Donoku, a mission area in Bago Region inhabited by ethnic Karen, not far from Toungoo, the first diocese founded by the PIME missionaries.
His mission proved difficult in an isolated mountain village and he often had to travel long distances to visit the people.
Cremonesi had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart and Saint Thérèse. He performed the Eucharistic Adoration each night for one hour before the tabernacle and woke up the following morning at 4:00 am to celebrate Mass.
Proclaiming the Good News of God who is Love, was for him the embodied of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who filled him with enthusiasm, strength and self-irony.
"Here they call me ‘perpetual motion’ because I never know how to stay still", he wrote in 1947. Trying to satisfy his apostolic seal, Cremonesi proved to be pragmatic, oblivious to his health at times. He was asked to care for his health and not to work too hard. But the missionary could not understand such advice. His work was so great, so sublime, that such advice seemed ridiculous to him, even at the cost of life. In 1934 he wrote, "I probably gave myself a hundred quinine shots”.
Consumed by the Sacred Heart
During the Second World War, amid Japanese incursions and personal frustrations, Cremonesi constantly felt a compulsion from within, a force which he attributed to Jesus.
"Why does the Sacred Heart give me such a huge and devouring longing and then make it impossible for me to fulfil it?" Yet, Cremonesi remained generous, devoted, with an open heart. “Not being able to do anything else I also gave myself more hours of nightly worship . . . almost every night”. For him, the mission entrusted to him was "the most wonderful work that a man is given, not to perform, but to see."
“When I kneel for half an hour, a patch of sweat forms under the bench,” he said talking about problems associated with the climate. Likewise, “I never had a drop of oil for seasoning for four years,” he explained speaking about the limited food. “We had no sugar or even salt,” he added.
Yet, “if I were born a thousand times, I would go back on mission a thousand times.” Indeed, “I have never been so happy,” he wrote in 1926 one year after arriving in the mission, “except that my mind is like a volcano. I think all the time, and not a second goes by without thoughts going to work."
Cremonesi also associated his missionary work, "which is the most varied life, full of people and words, more on the outside and noisier than any high life", to "an insatiable longing to be in front of Jesus in prayer and in constant exercise of divine presence” and “a great desire to consume everything and soon, so that the kingdom of the Sacred Heart could come to these lands."
In Burma at that time walking was the norm, for days, from one village to another. "He was one of the most tireless travellers our the missionaries. And he had grown accustomed to walking on foot,” someone said about him.
World War II
The outbreak of World War II saw British-run Burma enter the conflict, where Italians were regarded as enemies with Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini declaring his alliance with the Axis powers against the Allies.
Near the end of the war, Fr. Cremonesi was forced to live in the forest where he ate herbs to survive.
"So here we are in the middle of a battlefield,” he wrote in 1945. "Soldiers come and go, shooting . . . villages destroyed by various troops in retaliation ...".
In a letter in 1946, he recounted his suffering, the lack of food and clothing (limited to what he had on), with villages devoid of people and marketplaces abandoned.
When the Second World War ended, a local civil conflict between the Karen rebels and government forces erupted. Despite the danger, Cremonesi was not keen to abandon the Catholic villages because his presence was often a good deterrent to violence.
In 1950, unfortunately, two other PIME missionaries, Mario Vergara and Pietro Galastri, lost their lives.
In August of the same year, Cremonesi was asked to leave, especially Donokù parish, and took refuge in Toungoo. Being far from his faithful was a true exile. He went back in March 1952 and promised not to leave again.
“Whatever my death, as long as it is not in exile,” he said after he went back to Donokù. The brief exile had however spared him a possible martyrdom.
On his return, he found that all his belongings at home, in the church, in the school and in the convent were looted. The work of 26 years was all lost. “I shall not run away anymore, whatever happens. At most they’ll kill me," he resolved.
On February 7, 1953, after the Burmese military operation failed to flush out Karen rebels from the region, government troops entered Donokù. Fr. Cremonesi and the villagers were accused of supporting the rebels. The missionary tried to convince the soldiers, who then fired their machine guns at him and the village chief. ground. Two girls behind them were also killed in the attack. The village head died while Fr. Cremonesi was still alive.
The villagers fled into the forest during the attack while the soldiers entered the local church and desecrated it before setting the village ablaze. When the commander found that the priest was still alive, he shot him in the face point-blank, killing him.
The villagers returned to the following day to bury their dead. Before burying their priest, they sent his bloodied shirt together with a part of his beard to the PIME superiors in Taungngu with a note: "Relics of the martyr Father Cremonesi to be sent to his parents".
"A victim of his charity” and “a good shepherd who gave his life for his flock,” his Christians said of him. (Source: AsiaNews)