Loving His Brother, Following the Pope

Superior Tells Story of Priest Who Saved Jews From the Nazis

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By Antonio Gaspari

ROME, JUNE 24, 2011 (Zenit.org).- In 1943, at the height of Word War II, when the Nazi diabolical fury seemed unstoppable, there were many unknown heroes who risked their lives to save persecuted Jews.

Among these heroes was Father Gaetano Piccinini, a religious of the Little Work of Divine Providence. He coordinated plans to save Jews throughout Italy, motivated not only by his humanitarian sense, but also by his resolve to respond to the wishes of the Pope.

Thursday, Father Piccinini was posthumously honored when the superior-general of the Sons of Divine Providence, Father Flavio Peloso, accepted the title of Righteous Among the Nations on his behalf.

The Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, presented the title.

ZENIT spoke with Father Peloso about the story of Father Piccinini, those he saved, and what led him to risk his life.

ZENIT: Who was Father Gaetano Piccinini?

Father Peloso: Father Gaetano Piccinini (1904-1972), was taken in by Father Luigi Orione [founder of the Sons of Divine Providence] after the Marsica earthquake of 1915. The saint became his father and Piccinini identified himself emotionally and spiritually with him. He became a religious and priest with the Sons of Divine Providence. With a licentiate in literature, he was director and rector of several Orione institutes. He promoted the opening of many new houses and works in southern Italy, in England and in the United States. Later on he was general adviser of the congregation.

He is remembered as a man of great intellectual ingenuity and notable organizational capacities, which he exercised magnificently in many endeavors for the good. He was a kind of "Bertolaso" of our congregation. He would throw himself into all great emergencies. The emergency that we recall with this medal, saving many Jews, was only one of the emergencies to which Father Piccinini dedicated himself with passion.

Subsequently he worked with orphans and the crippled after the War, organizing a dozen great institutions in Italy, among which is that of Monte Mario. Then he went to the rescue of victims of the floods of Polesine (1951), and helped with diligence and wisdom in the earthquake of Irpinia (1962), in the disaster of the Vajont (1963), and also in the earthquake of the Valley of Belice (1968), in Sicily, Gibellina.

His life and tireless activity ceased on May 29, 1972, leaving behind a great memory because of his priestly integrity, his clear-sighted and enterprising apostolate, his profound interior life, the friendships he fostered, the promotion of the laity.

ZENIT: Why has he been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations?

Father Peloso: In the period of the racial laws, beginning in 1938, he was director of the Novi Ligure Institute and rector of the St. Philip Neri Pontifical Scholastic Institute, in the Appio neighborhood of Rome. During World War II he worked especially in Rome and spent himself in rescuing many persons of Jewish race, often risking his own life. Afterward he maintained friendly relations with the persons he saved, as is the case of Bruno Camerini, who is the one who nominated him for the medal, because he was saved by him.

Among those rescued are some famous personalities of the Italian Jewish world. For example, the famous sculptor Arrigo Minerbi was received -- with a false name and the role of professor -- in the St. Philip Neri Institute of Rome. The so-called Madonnina is a work of his, nine meters (29.5 feet) tall, rising on Monte Mario, blessing Rome. With Arrigo Minerbi in the St. Philip Neri Institute was also Ettore Carruccio, an eminent mathematician and physicist. However, every life is precious in God's eyes and thus it was for Father Piccinini, who tried to save all those he could.

Father Gaetano Piccinini already received a first recognition from the president of the Jewish community in Rome, which reads: "1945-1955. Italy's Jews Are Grateful to Father Gaetano Piccinini." Then he received another official recognition in 1994 from B'nai B'rith with the certificate of a tree planted in Jerusalem. Now comes that of Yad Vashem, the institute for commemorating the martyrs and heroes of the Holocaust, the title and medal, Righteous among the Nations.

ZENIT: Has the spiritual family of Don Orione engaged in many activities in defense of Jews?

Father Peloso: Don Gaetano Piccinini is the most outstanding case of work in favor of Jews carried out by many brothers and several houses of St. Luigi Orione's Little Work of Divine Providence. This chapter of history, still unknown, was reconstructed by my study: "Oriones in Aid of Jews During the Years of Extermination" (Message of Don Orione, 2003, No. 112, pp. 75-106) and in Mario Maccio's book "Genoa and 'the Shoa': Saved by the Church" (Il Cittadino, Genoa, 2006).

Also, new stories of courageous and generous solidarity led by religious and Don Orione centers in the whole of Italy have been published recently. Invariably, Father Piccinini was always the coordinator, from one end of Italy to the other. I was moved by the fact that brothers were faithful to the instruction of absolute silence regarding these operations. Only 50 or 60 years after the events have things begun to be revealed. The majority of things will remain hidden.

ZENIT: What pushed him to risk his life to save brothers of the Jewish faith?

Father Peloso. In the [Vatican] secretariat of state at that time was Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI, who was always part of the circle of Friends of Don Orione. He had met him personally in the 30s. It was Monsignor Montini who transmitted to Father Piccinini and to the superiors of the congregation, the desires of Pius XII, and very probably he also pointed out persons and concrete situations of Jews for whom "something could be done."

We Oriones profess a fourth vow of special fidelity to the Pope and, through the sensus Ecclesiae that Don Orione inculcated in us, we hope to fulfill not only the mandates but the desires of the Pope and of the pastors of the Church. In addition to the humanitarian motivation, Pius XII's indications were determinant, as well as requests for collaboration from the bishops in cities where they acted. That is, that in addition to a humanitarian motivation and evangelical charity, the aid to Jews was an expression of ecclesial life.

ZENIT: What significance does a heroic story like Father Gaetano's have today?

Father Peloso: As superior-general of the Orione Family, I must say that this recognition given to Father Gaetano Piccinini is that much more appreciated because it honors a most worthy brother, the congregation and the Church. For us Oriones it constitutes a stimulus to cultivate limitless charity, which shows the universal maternity of the Church. As Don Orione said, "Charity does not look to see if the one who asks has a name, a religion, or a homeland, but that he has a sorrow." Father Gaetano Piccinini behaved in exactly this way.

[Translation by ZENIT]