Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.
The diocesan priest Luigi Lenzini was killed for his Catholic faith in 1945, a few months after World War II was over. If he died as a martyr more than seven decades ago, why wasn’t he beatified until 2022?
The mysteries of Divine Providence and the idiosyncrasies of Vatican congregations may be difficult for us to understand. But we can make some reasonable guesses about why this Italian priest was not beatified by the Catholic Church until now, as well as why he deserves the title of “Blessed”, however belated.
Luigi Lenzini was born in Fiumalbo, Italy in 1881. His family was wealthy but also devoutly Catholic. He was ordained a priest at the age of twenty-two. For a time, he considered entering the Redemptorist order, but he eventually recognized that his vocation was to serve as a diocesan priest. Luigi completed his studies and served as a parish priest in various churches in the Modena-Nonatola archdiocese for many years.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini was appointed prime minister of Italy. Mussolini’s fascist party was able to take control of Italy in part because of its grand promises to bring an end to class conflict and to promote social equality. Of course, fascism did neither of those things, and Mussolini is now remembered primarily as a dictator who made a common cause with Adolf Hitler in trying to conquer the world.
What did this mean to ordinary Italians, like Fr. Lenzini, who lived under Mussolini’s rule during the early twentieth century? Among other things, it meant that their brothers, sons, and husbands were sent to fight in wars as Italy sought to expand its territories and colonies. It meant that businesses and industries—and all those who worked for them—were controlled by the state to comply with fascist goals. Although Mussolini initially shied away from anti-Semitic laws and apparently only persecuted Jews to pacify the Nazi government, the fascist government in Italy did promote the idea that some races were superior to others and eventually passed explicitly discriminatory and unjust laws.
As a priest, Luigi Lenzini’s primary responsibility was not to fight fascism but to lead the people of God to Heaven. But he lived in a country governed by fascism, which spread its propaganda to the citizens of Italy every day. So Fr. Lenzini studied the arguments offered by proponents of both fascism and communism, which was also popular in Italy at the time. He sought to understand not only what was wrong with those ideologies but also how to respond to their arguments in a Catholic manner.
Some fascist positions are simply incompatible with the Catholic faith; the idea that a specific racial group is inherently inferior to others, for example, cannot be reconciled with the first few chapters of Genesis. If we are all descendants from the same first parents, how can we be anything other than brothers and sisters?
Sometimes fascist propaganda sounded like it was encouraging a good practice but for all the wrong reasons. For example, as Catholics, we recognize that children are a gift from God and that large families are a blessing, although a challenging one. Fascism in Italy encouraged women to stay home and have many children so that there would be enough jobs for men. Presumably, this was also done to produce more soldiers, who would be needed to fight in endless fascist wars.
Fr. Lenzini spoke publicly against fascism and communism, carefully explaining why these ideologies were unacceptable for Catholics. His parishioners later remarked about what an effective preacher he was, how popular he was with his people, and how kind and charitable he was, even to those people who rejected the Catholic faith. His parishioners watched as he befriended communist and fascist supporters in the area and gently tried to explain the errors of those ideologies to them.
In 1941, a year after Italy had entered World War II on the Axis side, Luigi was made the pastor of the city of Crocette. This village of 600 souls, with parishioners spread out in homes all over the nearby countryside, would have been a challenging pastoral assignment even if a world war had not been going on at the time.
On July 21, 1945, a few months after the end of World War II, Fr. Lenzini was awoken in the middle of the night by a knock at the rectory door. The man at the door asked the priest to accompany him to visit a dying man. The priest responded that he had seen that particular parishioner the day before and that he knew the sick man was coming to see him the following day. The man left, but he soon returned with at least three other masked men. The men used a ladder to break into a rectory balcony and chased the priest through the rectory and church while trying to abduct him.
Before he was captured, however, Fr. Lenzini grabbed the rope of the church bell and rang the bell to alert others. His parishioners did not respond. Afterward, they said that they were too afraid to act, particularly when they heard the sounds of machine gun fire in the church.
The men who captured Fr. Lenzini were later found to be communist partisans who were angry about the priest’s outspokenness. They dragged him some distance from the church to a vineyard. There they threatened him and tried to force him to blaspheme God. When the priest refused to do so, the men beat him, tortured him, mutilated his body, and finally killed him.
It makes sense that Fr. Lenzini’s cause for canonization would be delayed for some time. Although he was clearly killed by communists because he was a Catholic, the situation is a bit complicated. After all, he was not killed during World War II and was therefore not a direct victim of Italian fascism. Canonizations and beatifications of martyrs under communism were also put on hold for many decades during the Cold War to avoid reprisals against those Catholics living in communist countries. One might have thought that Fr. Lenzini’s death would be forgotten, as have been the deaths of so many millions of innocent people who died at the hands of fascist and communist governments and groups in the twentieth century.
But the Church’s decision to beatify Fr. Lenzini teaches us two timeless lessons. First, it reminds us that every Catholic should be able to defend Church teachings when confronted by ideologies that are contrary to our faith. Whether our fellow citizens embrace the ideas of fascism, communism, wokeism, or material relativism, we must know the truths of the Catholic faith, understand the false teachings of our culture, and be able to explain the difference to others.
The second lesson is just as important: we must be ready to stand up for our priests, particularly when they are standing up for the truth. Perhaps what kept the memory of Fr. Lenzini’s martyrdom alive for so long was the regret of the Catholics of Crocette that they did not try to defend their priest when he was in danger.
Blessed Luigi Lenzini was a good priest who was willing to protect his flock from error to the point of death. May God make us worthy of many more priests just like him.