Founder of the Congregation of the Sacred Stigmata of Our Lord Jesus Christ
GASPAR BERTONI was born in Verona, in the Republic of Venice, on October 9, 1777, of Francis Bertoni and Brunora Ravelli of Sirmione. He was baptized the following day by his grand-uncle, Fr. James Bertoni, in the parish church of St. Paul, in the Campo Marzo section of Verona. On both sides of the family, the profession of "Notary" was exercised, and from an old legal document, it can be seen that the family was fairly well off. Even more outstanding, however, was the practice of the faith.
From the grace of his first Holy Communion at age 11, Gaspar Bertoni was called to a life of mystical union. His vocation to the priesthood matured, and at 18, he entered the seminary. In frequenting the theological course as an extern student, he found in his professor of moral theology, Fr. Nicholas Galvani, an excellent spiritual director.
During his first year of theology, he witnessed the invasion of the French armies (June 1, 1796). This was the beginning of a 20 year period of great upheaval for his native city. Inspired by deep charity, he dedicated himself to the assistance of the sick and wounded, as a member of a Gospel Fraternity for the Hospitals, that had just then been instituted by the Servant of God, Fr. Peter Leonardi.
At his priestly ordination (September 20, 1800), at the dawn of a new century, he found himself in a world in need of much assistance for the resolution of the serious problems that disturbed it. His pastor assigned the youth of parish to his pastoral care. He dedicated himself with all his energies and great organizational ability to the new mission. He established an Oratory in the form of a "Marian Cohort", that had as its goal the Christian and social formation of the youth. All such organizations were suppressed by a decree from Napoleon (1807), and Fr. Bertoni reserved the carrying out of his plans for better times.
Meanwhile, he took over the spiritual direction of a community founded then by St. Magdalena of Canossa at St. Joseph's Convent (May 1808). It was here that he met the Servant of God, Leopoldina Naudet, whom he would then spiritually guide to the heights of the mysticism of holy abandonment and to the foundation of the Sisters of the Holy Family. He extended this aspect of his ministry to another Servant of God, Teodora Campostrini, of a noble family, both in the discernment of her vocation, as in the foundation of her Community, of the "Sorelle Minime" of the Charity of the Sorrowful Mother.
By September of 1810, he had already moved from his family home after the death of his mother, and was transferred from St. Paul's Parish, to St. Firmus Major. Here, the bishop also entrusted him with the spiritual direction of the seminarians in the diocesan seminary. A solid spiritual and theological formation of the young was always the clear objective of the frequent gatherings that he held in his own home. At this time, he began to organize this endeavor in a more orderly fashion. His overall idea was the renewal of the clergy based on an unconditional adherence to the Supreme
Pontiff, Pius VII, at that time, Napoleon's prisoner. For Fr. Bertoni, the Pontiff, was always "the first and irremovable stone" of the Church. The reform of the Church had to begin from the sanctuary itself, with the return of its ministers to the integral following of the Gospel. The diocesan seminary was going through a very bad crisis. However, in a short time it regained its proper form, and even assumed a monastic aspect as a contemporary witness stated.
With the fall of Napoleon, the need for restoration was widely felt. Fr. Bertoni clearly understood that to gather the flock once again, it would be necessary to awaken them by the presentation of the fundamental truths of the faith through the preaching of missions to the people. On December 20, 1817, Pope Pius VII conferred on him a precise mandate, by conferring on him the faculty of "apostolic missionary". While the suspicious government of Austria forbade this specific ministry, Fr. Bertoni dedicated himself to other preaching and catechetical instruction.
While becoming all things to gain all for Christ, Fr. Bertoni cultivated a very intense interior life. From the reading of his Spiritual Diary, it appears that he was also grace by mystical gifts. Among these, was the call, made evident to him by grace, to the foundation of a religious family.
On November 4, 1816, with two companions, he moved into a small house, adjacent to a suppressed Church, that bore the title of "the Sacred Stigmata of St. Francis (from this, the name of his community was eventually adapted; in this small church, he also worked to spread the devotion to the Passion and the wounds of Christ). In a very unostentatious manner, the new community opened a tuition-free school, offering this and other gratuitous services to the Church and society. The men lived together a common life of strict observance and penance. An intense life of contemplation was joined to a broad apostolate, including the Christian education of the youth, the formation of the clergy and missionary preaching, in perfect availability to the requests of the bishop.
Right after an ecstasy that he experienced praying before a Crucifix (on May 30, 1812), he suffered a first attack of "miliary fever" that brought him to the very threshold of death. Almost miraculously, he did recover but for the rest of his 41 years of life he remained in poor health, all this while giving a wonderful example of patience and heroic confident abandonment to God.
Even from his sick-bed, suffering indescribable discomfort, he became the "angel of counsel" for countless persons who sought him out. A number among these were gifted human beings, who were founding charitable works, such as Blessed Charles Steeb, the Servants of God, Fr. Nicholas Mazza and Fr. Anthony Provolo - and others from outside the city, who came to Verona to meet with him.
He was canonised on the 1st November 1989 by Pope John Paul II.