As Allied forces bombed the Nazi-occupied Italian city of Bologna in the fall of 1943, a 28-year-old Italian priest was seen digging through the rubble with a pickaxe desperately trying to rescue civilian survivors.
“I remember Fr. Giovanni with the pickaxe in his hand working so hard as if he were digging his mother out of that rubble,” Fr. Angelo Serra, a fellow parish priest, recalled after an air raid.
In the testing days under German occupation, Fr. Giovanni Fornasini was described as being “everywhere,” traveling on his bicycle to be of help and bring relief to those who were in danger.
When Nazi troops carried out a mass killing of at least 770 Italian civilians in the village of Marzabotto between Sept. 29 and Oct. 5, 1944, he sought to bury the dead.
After receiving permission from an SS captain, the young priest left on Oct. 13 to bless and bury victims of the Marzabotto massacre, but never returned.
His body was recovered at the site as the war neared its end in April 1945 and an examination revealed that Fr. Giovanni had been brutally beaten before he was killed.
Fornasini was declared blessed at a live-streamed beatification Mass in Bologna on Sept. 26.
“Fr. Fornasini was the guardian angel of his parishioners,” Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, the prefect for the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said in his homily for the beatification.
“He was a prophet of inclusion hated by the harbingers of discrimination. Caring for evacuees, he never stopped praying with the people at Mass with the Sacraments and the Rosary. Above all, he multiplied his efforts to prevent further bloodshed,” the cardinal said at the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, northern Italy.
On display at the beatification Mass were the priest’s bicycle, glasses, and his aspergillum, the tool used for sprinkling holy water, which was found on him after his death.
An apostolic letter from Pope Francis was read aloud in which the pope declared that Fornasini’s feast would be observed locally each year on Oct. 13.
Fornasini was born near Bologna in 1915. He is reported to have been a poor student and, after leaving school, to have worked for a time as a lift boy at Bologna’s Grand Hotel.
He eventually entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1942, at the age of 27. In his homily at his first Mass, Fornasini said: “The Lord has chosen me, rascal among the rascals.”
Despite beginning his priestly ministry amid the challenges of the Second World War, Fornasini gained a reputation as a go-getter.
He opened a school for boys at his parish outside Bologna, in the town of Sperticano, and a fellow seminary classmate, Fr. Lino Cattoi, described the young priest as seeming “always to be running.”
“He was always around trying to free people from their difficulties and to solve their problems,” Cattoi recalled. “He had no fear. He was a man of great faith and was never shaken.”
In 1950, the president of Italy posthumously conferred upon Fornasini the country’s Gold Medal of Military Valour. His cause for beatification was opened in 1998.
Pope Francis applauded the beatification of Blessed Giovanni Fornasini at the end of his Angelus prayer on Sept. 26 and described the young diocesan priest as a martyr.
“A parish priest zealous in charity, he did not abandon his flock during the tragic period of the Second World War, but rather he defended it to the point of bloodshed. May his heroic witness help us to face life’s trials with fortitude,” the pope said.
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.
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