Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, Archbishop Emeritus of Ravenna-Cervia (Italy), was born on July 20, 1914 at Centovera di Sangiorgio Piacentino, Italy. He was ordained priest on April 18, 1937 by Bishop Ersilio Menzani. He became vice- rector of the seminary in Piacenza until 1939, and then moved to Rome to study civil and canon law at the Lateran University. On his return to Piacenza in 1943, he started teaching Italian, Latin and Greek, and was made spiritual director of the Fuci and Catholic students groups. His first meeting with the world of social communications was in 1947, when he became editor of the diocesan weekly 'Il nuovo giornale', at a time marked by severe social clashes and class struggles.
On May 14, 1953, he was appointed parish priest in Salsomaggiore, where he had the great 'Oratorio Don Bosco' built, and at the same time provided spiritual guidance to female undergraduates at the Catholic University's College of Castelnuovo Fogliano.
He returned to Piacenza once more in September 1968 to take up office as rector of the seminary, but was there only briefly because Paul VI, on April 28, 1969, decided to raise him to the status of Bishop. He was ordained by Bishop Umberto Marchiodi - also consecrating him were the future Cardinal Agostino Casaroli and the Auxiliary Bishop of Milan, Carlo Colombo - on June 2, 1969. 26 days later he was installed in the Diocese of Macerata and Tolentino, as well as the Apostolic Administrations of Treia, Cingoli and Recanati (which were merged only at a later date) where he devoted himself to expressing the spirit of the Second Vatican Council in the concrete aspects of diocesan life. He remained there until the end of 1975 when on November 22, he was called to govern the ancient Archdiocese of Ravenna and the Diocese of Cervia (which were subsequently combined on September 30, 1986), succeeding Archbishop Salvatore Baldassarri. It was December 17, 1975, when Archbishop Tonini acceded to the cathedra of St Apollinaris, in accordance with Paul VI's explicit instructions, to begin the work of the reunification of the Ravenna Church, rendered urgent by the violent clashes following the announcement of the Council's innovations, to restore trust and to encourage everyone constantly to look ahead, in order to succeed in being ready to accept the great changes taking place in society. With a gesture which deeply impressed his new fellow citizens, Archbishop Tonini left his apartments in the splendid Archbishop's palace to a group of drug addicts seeking to be cured. He retired to the Santa Teresa Institute, the true heart of the region of Romagna, founded by Don Angelo Lolli, where he henceforth lived side by side with the seriously ill whom Providence had entrusted to the charitable care of the people of Romagna.
Well aware that he had the open mentality of a true journalist, in 1978 Paul VI wanted Archbishop Tonini as president of the Administrative Board of the NEI, 'Avvenire's' publishing house. A few days before his death, Pope Montini also entrusted him with the necessary material means to give the Catholic daily a fresh start.
It is also due to Archbishop Tonini that on September 28, 1978 the seminary in Ravenna was re-opened. It had been closed during the dark period of controversies about the role of the priest himself in the Church. The re-opening of the seminary was uppermost in the Archbishop's mind from the very moment when Paul VI let him know of his decision to entrust him with the Church of Ravenna. Shortly after he had entered the Diocese, Archbishop Tonini was sought by three Jesuit priests. 'The Holy Father has sent us to help you re-open the seminary'. During his episcopate, from the wilderness which he started with, the Archbishop subsequently had the joy of ordaining 11 priests.
In 1948 the Ravenna Centre for Solidarity was inaugurated. This was a home for drug addicts, part of the Federation of Don Picchi's therapeutic communities of the Ce.I.S. In 1985, Archbishop Tonini renewed and developed the diocesan weekly 'Risveglio 2000', entrusted to a co-operative of lay people, as well as 'Ravenna Radio'.
In May 1986, John Paul II made a Pastoral Visit to Romagna, accompanied by Archbishop Tonini and the warm affection of the people there. He visited the Dioceses of a land which had until then been considered the homeland of Italian anti-clericalism. It was actually a time of exceptional grace, as John Paul II has several times confided to Archbishop Tonini. That visit indeed marked the end of the last historical clashes between lay people and Catholics in Romagna.
In 1987, he intervened on the issue of the 'Sunday, day of rest' abolished by a work contract in the textile sector, recalling that initiatives like this undermine the very dignity of work. Just a few days earlier, in March, the whole of Italy had been shocked and indignant about the tragedy of the 'Elisabetta Montanari', the ship which caught fire in the port of Ravenna with its precious cargo of 13 human lives, and had thoroughly understood the words of the Archbishop who condemned the rule of unlimited financial profit, the true reason for the disaster. During that same year, Archbishop Tonini founded the Pro-Life Centre in Cervia-Milano Marittima. In 1988, he sponsored the national campaign to collect funds to buy cows for the Yanoamö people of the Brazilian Diocese of Roraima. The initiative - 'Uma vaca para o Indio' (One cow for each Indio) - aimed to prevent the expropriation of the indigenous land. Brazilian law in fact guarantees that pasture-land for grazing cannot be taken from the Indios. John Paul II, informed by Archbishop Tonini himself during the Synod in autumn 1987, was the first to contribute generously to this initiative.
In the years of his episcopate, Archbishop Tonini had given the diocesan Caritas a powerful impetus, inviting it to follow more closely the needs emerging in the Ravenna area, and leading it to create the AVULSS for voluntary service to the marginalized - the elderly, the handicapped, prisoners - the Friendship Canteen, the Tribune for the Rights of the Sick, the Alcoholics Anonymous Group, the first unit of conscientious objectors. From October 1988 to June 1989, he governed the See of Rimini as Apostolic Administrator. In 1987, he was chosen by John Paul II to take part in the Synod of Bishops on the Laity. In September 1990, he again had the joy of welcoming the Holy Father to the Archdiocese of Ravenna, to visit the tomb of Don Giovanni Minzoni in the Cathedral of San Nicolò di Argenta.
A few days later, on October 27, the Pope accepted Archbishop Tonini's resignation from the governance of the see of S. Apollinaris. In the cathedral on December 15, after entrusting the pastoral work to his successor, Mons. Amaducci, Archbishop Tonini pronounced words which have become engraved upon the hearts of the people of Ravenna: 'May I continue to love you'. Henceforth, 'as the most obedient and reverent of diocesan priests', he has continued his ever tireless activity teaching philosophy and theology to women religious and youth, preaching spiritual retreats, writing articles for 'Avvenire' and other papers, contributing the witness of his experience as a priest and his pastoral wisdom through many television broadcasts, thanks to which he has become one of the best known and popular figures of the Italian Church.
In February 1991, he was summoned by the Holy Father to preach the retreat for the Roman Curia on the theme: 'The Church of hope for our time'. That same year, together with Enzo Biagi, he directed the film broadcast on television: 'The Ten Commandments', which today remains an example of a modern type of catechesis which makes the most of the means and language of television. In January 1992 he returned to Brazil, to Roraima, to take part in the First Congress of the heads of the Indios tribes. This year, once again, John Paul II invited him to take part in the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
Created and proclaimed Cardinal by John Paul II in the Consistory of November 26, 1994, of the Title of Most Holy Redeemer in Val Melaina.