Franceso Chiovara, C.SS.R., A Life of Blessed Gennaro Maria Sarnelli: Redemptorist (Liguori Publications 2003 (1996), 113pgs.)
It struck me as prudent to start my “Year of 100 Books” endeavor with a short work, and one that should spiritually edifying. Having had very little direct knowledge of Blessed Gennaro Sarnelli, I stumbled across this brief work quite by accident while perusing the shelves of a local Catholic bookstore some months ago. The book, which was written initially in 1996 for Sarnelli’s beatification by Pope John Paul II (Sarnelli had been declared venerable 90 years earlier by Pope Pius X), is not a classic work of hagiography, nor is it a detailed critical biography. Rather, it is a brief recounting of Sarnelli’s life, work, and writings filled with equal parts uplifting details and needless polemical potshots at Tridentine ecclesiastical life, traditional piety, and, somewhat ironically, classic Redemptorist spirituality. Such is the way of things in the era after the Second Vatican Council.
Sarnelli, for those unaware, came from a prestigious Neapolitan family, had a brief career as a successful lawyer, and then, like his friend St. Alphonsus Liguori, answered God’s call to the priesthood and eventually joined the nascent Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). During his 41-year stay on earth, Sarnelli was perhaps best known for his work among the poor and sick, particularly his work with prostitutes and his desire to remove prostitution altogether from the city of Naples. As the author notes, Sarnelli (like Liguori) was out-of-step with his times for both refusing to see prostitution as a “necessary evil” to be tolerated and linking prostitution to poverty. Although Chiovara chides Sarnelli for not being a “social reformer” dedicated to some modern sense of “equality,” he does recognize that Sarnelli wanted to rid prostitution by finding other alternatives for the young women whose circumstances had forced them to sell their bodies.
Beyond his work with prostitutes, Sarnelli, like the other Redemptorists of his time, preached missions among the most poor and abandoned in society while also offering spiritual instruction to any who would listen. Sarnelli’s tireless work, coupled with long hours spent ministering to the sick and dying, took a terrible toll on his health, leading him to question God’s favor and making him fearful of death. By the close of his life, however, Sarnelli was given spiritual consolation and died a peaceful death on June 30, 1744. Although he was given only 12 years to serve as a priest of Jesus Christ, he made a lasting impact on Naples and the surrounding areas and the cause for his canonization was taken up a century later.
While I appreciate the knowledge gained of Blessed Genarro’s holy life, I find books like this to be distasteful to the extent that they seem intended to denigrate Catholic piety and holiness from Trent up to Vatican II. The author never misses a chance to remind readers about the “bad old days” and to make the Church appear to have been a harsh, thoughtless, and insensitive institution that “miraculously” produced a handful of “progressive” priests who placed the social above the spiritual. The end result is a rather uneven work which should be read with caution.