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Pope Francis advances sainthood cause of Italian Catholic priest who saved Jews in WWII

The Franciscan friar Fr. Placido Cortese (1907-1944). / Il Messaggero di Sant’Antonio via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Vatican City, Aug 30, 2021 / 09:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis has advanced the sainthood causes of a Franciscan friar who helped to rescue Jews during the Holocaust and a mother who sacrificed her life to save her unborn child.

Fr. Placido Cortese is remembered for using his confessional in the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua to clandestinely communicate with an underground network that helped Jewish people and British prisoners of war escape the Nazi occupation of Italy.

Known locally as “the Italian Fr. Kolbe,” the priest is now considered “venerable” by the Catholic Church after the pope recognized him for living a life that was “heroic in virtue” on Aug. 30.

Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, Cortese was a Franciscan friar who directed a Catholic publication and was tortured and killed by the Nazis.

He was born Nicolò Cortese in 1907 on the island of Cres, which is now part of Croatia. At the age of 13, he entered minor seminary with the Order of Friars Minor Conventual and took the name Placido after taking his vows in 1924.

Cortese studied theology at the St. Bonaventure Theological College in Rome and was ordained a priest in 1930 at the age of 23. He offered his first Mass in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

He spent several years serving at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, where he was asked to be the director of the Italian Catholic magazine Il Messaggero di Sant’Antonio (The Messenger of Saint Anthony), whose readership grew by 500,000 under his leadership.

After the German occupation of Padua, Fr. Cortese was part of an underground group linked to the Resistance, using his printing press to make false documents to help Jewish people and Allied soldiers reach safety in Switzerland.

In October 1944, two German SS officers tricked Cortese into leaving the walls of his monastery in Padua, which was protected as an extraterritorial territory of the Holy See, on the false pretext of someone needing his help.

Cortese was immediately arrested and taken to a Gestapo bunker in Trieste, where he was brutally tortured. But he did not give away the names of any of his associates, according to Fr. Giorgio Laggioni, his vice-postulator.

After weeks of torture, he died in Gestapo custody in November 1944 at the age of 37. His confessional in the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua continues to be a place of prayer today.

In one of his letters to his family, Cortese wrote: “Religion is a burden that one never tires of carrying, but which more and more enamors the soul toward greater sacrifices, even to the point of giving one’s life for the defense of the faith and the Christian religion, even to the point of dying amid torments like the martyrs of Christianity in distant and foreign lands.”

In the decree from the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints that advanced Cortese’s cause, two laywomen were also recognized for their heroic virtue.

Enrica Beltrame Quattrocchi, an Italian laywoman who died in 2012, is also on her way to sainthood, along with her parents, Bl. Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, who were beatified together in October 2001.

Unlike her three older siblings who each followed vocations to religious life, Enrica lived out her Catholic faith as an unmarried lay Catholic who served as a high school teacher, a volunteer helping the poor, and a caretaker for her parents in their old age.

Through illness and economic difficulties, Enrica remained faithful to attending daily Mass and dedicated to serving others. She died at the age of 98 after seeing her parents beatified.

The decree also recognized Maria Cristina Cella Mocellin (1969-1995), a Catholic mother who chose not to undergo cancer chemotherapy while she was pregnant to save the life of her unborn third child.

“You are a gift to us … You are precious and when I look at you I think that there is no suffering in the world that is not worthwhile for a child,” Maria Cristina wrote in a letter to her child, which she gave to her husband.

The Italian mother began chemotherapy as soon as her son, Riccardo, was born in 1994, but the cancer spread to her lungs. She died on Oct. 22, 1995, at the age of 26, leaving behind three children.

“I believe that God would not allow pain if he did not want to obtain a secret and mysterious but real good. I believe that I could not accomplish anything greater than saying to the Lord: Thy will be done,” she wrote.

“I believe that one day I will understand the meaning of my suffering and I will thank God for it. I believe that without my pain endured with serenity and dignity, something would be missing in the harmony of the universe.”

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