Feast day: May 8

On Sunday, Nov 23, 2014, Pope Francis canonized a Third Order Franciscan saint of the thirteenth century, Blessed Amato Ronconi, a pilgrim and lover of the poor. He lived in Saludecio, a picturesque hill town along Italy’s Adriatic seacoast just southeast of Rimini.

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Painting of St. Amato in the Chiesa dell’Isola in Brescia. The picture evidently represents him receiving the message from an angel. He is wearing the pilgrim’s scallop shell and his pilgrim’s staff is next to him on the ground.

The documentation of his life is unfortunately rather scanty. (1) We do know that he was born sometime around 1226, or soon after the death of St. Francis. We know little about his parents who gave him the name Amato, which means “beloved”. Later tradition gives the father’s name as Felice and the mother’s as Santuccia. The author of the earliest life of the saint, Sebastiano Serico, says, based on local tradition, that they were leading citizens of the town,(2) but much of the rest of the information he supplies doesn’t really support the idea that the family was wealthy. For instance, he tells us that Amato’s older brother Geronimo worked as an artisan, most likely a shoemaker, and Amato himself as a farmer. Nevertheless, it’s also clear that his family owned a certain amount of land, in the form of fields and perhaps vineyards. In addition to Geronimo and Amato, there was a younger sister named Chiara.

They seem to have had a secure childhood, until their parents suddenly died while Amato and Chiara were still quite young. Geronimo, who was already grown and had employment, made a home for his younger brother and sister. He soon married a girl named Lansberga, who brought her own younger sister to live with them. She cherished the hope that when Amato was grown he would marry her sister, and keep all the property in the family. But Amato came of marriageable age, he declined this offer, because he was intent on living a celibate life devoted to God.

Lansberga became embittered over this thwarting of her cherished plans, and began doing everything she could to make Amato’s life miserable; she constantly complained to her husband about how lazy he was, and how he was stirring up trouble in the family. Geronimo took her side. Things were not improved by the fact that Chiara, who admired her brother Amato, was determined to follow him in a life of religious devotion. Amato, who was known all his life for his gentleness and patience, did not respond in kind to the attacks, but the atmosphere became more and more tense.

In the end, to avoid more domestic strife, the brothers divided their inheritance. Amato went to live on the family’s property on Mt. Orciaro, while Geronimo maintained his own home.

Amato was now free to live a life of penance. We know for certain from his Testament that he was a brother of the Third Order of St. Francis, but we don’t know for sure when he became a member. The Franciscans had a convent in Saludecio on Mt. Formosino, so it’s likely that Amato was introduced to the Third Order and formed in Franciscan spirituality by these friars.

Where Chiara lived is not entirely clear. She may have had her own home on the same family land as her brother; the few details about her suggest that she lived like one of the Beguines – women who were not cloistered, but who lived religiously and did penance in their own homes, engaging in works of charity. It is possible that, like her brother, she belonged to the Franciscan Third Order.

The most noteworthy aspect of Amato’s life was his devotion to the poor. He gave all the income he received from the lands of his parental inheritance to the poor, and himself lived on what he made hiring himself out to work in the fields of other landowners. St. Francis always had the intention from the beginning that his brothers should give their goods to the poor, and live from the work of their hands, and Amato’s behavior is consonant with this earliest understanding. He ate nothing but vegetables and herbs, once a day. He wore a rude garment of wool that covered him to his ankles, with a cilice, a penitential shirt of coarse goats’ hair or burlap, woven into it He also frequently used the discipline, flagellating himself, in memory of the passion of the Lord.

Lansberga continued to mock him, and even called him, because of his long garment, “Piss in Tunic.” In fact, many people called him nothing else for the rest of his life. Taking their cue from her, the populace began looking at Amato as a madman.

Amato’s property was beside a well-traveled road that served as a major pilgrimage route to Rome from travelers from the countries to the north. He began giving them hospitality, offering food and a place to sleep while they rested from their journey. Eventually, he used some of his goods to enlarge the house to form a hospice for pilgrims, the sick and the poor, which had its own chapel, dedicated to the Nativity of Mary. (3) Chiara would visit her brother every day to help take care of the needs of the visitors, some of whom came from foreign parts.

The still-vindictive Lansberga saw her chance and spread hints that that the closeness of brother and sister could only be evidence of an incestuous relationship between them. The rumors and accusations were so widespread that they led the city prefect to issue a summons to Amato to answer the charges. But when the messenger arrived, he happened to pass a window from which he could see Amato using the discipline. He had taken off the upper garment he used for a cloak and the messenger could see it hanging unsupported in mid-air, lit up by the sunbeams coming through the rafters. He returned to the prefect with news of the miracle, and Amato was vindicated.

Unfortunately, there are very few details in the sources about the operation of the hospice. One of them is a miraculous feeding of the poor pilgrims. Serico says:

“Having gone one day to the garden to plant turnips, [Amato] was called to return home, because of the arrival of the poor of Christ, whom he was accustomed to receive in the hospice. And when his sister asked him what she could give them to eat, he told her to go to the garden and gather some vegetables; his sister answered that there was nothing there but the turnips he had planted that day. To this, Blessed Amato said, ‘God is powerful; he pastured his people Israel with manna, that is, heavenly food, for forty years in the desert, and produced very abundant water from a very hard rock; now he will produce an abundance of turnips.’ He told her to go and whatever by the order of the Most High God she would find, she was to bring back with her. Quickly going there, she found a very large number of turnips in the garden, where a short time previously, the man of God had planted, and brought them back with her.” (4)

Amato had a special way with children, often the only people not prejudiced against him. Once when he was working in the field, and after eating, went some distance from the others to give thanks. He was gone for so long that the owner of the field sent his young son to look for him. The boy came upon Amato in a little grove of trees praying – suspended in the air and surrounded by a brilliant light. The boy, amazed, was running off to tell everyone, when Amato called him back and asked him not to reveal it in such a charming way that the boy did so “in order to please the holy man.” But when he did eventually tell his parents, the miracle led to people having a greatly improved opinion of Amato. (5)

On another occasion, early on Sunday morning, Amato met a young boy near his house and asked if he were going to Mass. The boy confessed that he was actually going to the field, because his father wanted him to see if the sheep were causing damage. They were standing on Mt. Orciaro overlooking the fields. Amato asked him if he saw anyone in the field down below. The boy said he saw one man, who went early to his fields every day, including Sunday and cared only about his income, and nothing about going to church. “Get up on my shoulders,” said Amato, “and you will see how great God’s justice is against the impious.” The boy did so, and then immediately begged Amato to put him down. He had seen a horrible winged beast dragging that man around in the field and was terrified. Amato put him down, and spent some time comforting him, then explained the importance of obeying God’s command to worship. (6)

In time, the townspeople who had once made fun of Amato now revered him as a saint, so much so, that he became greatly disturbed by the devotion of all the admirers who came flocking to him. Partly because of this, he began to go on pilgrimage to many distant places.

Among others he went on four pilgrimages to the shrine of Compostela in Spain. He was already old when he set out on a fifth pilgrimage, but he received a message from an angel to come home. He then donated all his goods and the hospice to the Benedictine monastery of San Giuliano in Rimini, where a relative of his named Salvo was a monk. He also offered himself as a monk there with the intention of spending the remainder of his life in the cloister. In the deed of donation (known as his Testament) he described himself as “Brother Amato of the Third Order of St. Francis.” (7) The hospice, transferred to the monks, continued to operate, and after almost 800 years, is still in use today as an old people’s home.

Most historians think Amato died very shortly after entering the monastery on May 8, 1292. (8) He was originally buried in the chapel of the hospice, as he had requested, but because of the devotion of the many pilgrims, it was transferred in 1330 to the city’s main church, San Biagio (St. Blase).

A beatification process was began in the 1700’s, and Amato was beatified in 1776. After more than two centuries, the people of Saludecio began working for his canonization, and a process was begun in 1992. A miraculous healing was approved by Pope Francis on April 6, 2014, and the date for the canonization set for November 23.

St. Amato Ronconi’s life is an excellent example of the Franciscan charism at it was practiced in its earliest days. A life of humility, charity, hospitality and care for the poor. A life of humble work that consecrates the world to Christ!

NOTES

(1) St. Amato was beloved in Saludecio and an early life was written by an unknown writer, but the only manuscript copy was destroyed in a fire sometime in the later Middle Ages. The first surviving life was written in 1518 by Sebastiano Serico, a learned writer of Saludecio known for his Renaissance learning. He relied largely on oral tradition in the town, and a few notarial documents. The life was published in the Acta Sanctorum for May 8. The most solid facts about the saint come from his surviving Testament and the supporting documents; they have been published in L. Tonini, Rimini nel secolo XIII (Rimini 1862), pp. 672-75. The sources have all been studied in Un santo pellegrino per il XXI secolo. Il Beato Amato Ronconi da Saludecio, ca. 1226-ca. 1292 (n.p.: Il Cerchio, 2011), pp. 17-20.

(2) Serico, “[Vita Beati Amati]” no. 8, Acta Sanctorum Mai II (Antwerp, 1680), p. 350.

(3) This detail comes from the Testament, Tonini, Rimini nel secolo XIII, p. 672; in a document by the Apostolic Legate, Cardinal Francesco of San Eusebio, confirming the donation in 1304, the hospice is described as having a campanile or bell tower, and a cemetery, which may have been added after the monks took over; ibid., p. 674.

(4) Serico, “Vita,” no. 17, ibid., p. 352.

(5) Serico, “Vita,” no. 12, ibid., p. 351.

(6) Serico, “Vita,” no. 15, ibid., p. 351-52.

(7) See Tonini, Rimini nel secolo XIII, p. 672.

(8) We don’t know the exact year he died, but the day of his death has been commemorated from the beginning as May 8. The opinion of most historians that he died in 1292 is based on the supposition that the angel mentioned by Serico must have called him home to prepare for his death, though the source doesn’t directly say this. He was clearly dead by 1304, since a document of the Apostolic Legate of that year describes him as “Blessed Amato” – a testament to the early devotion to him. See Tonini, Rimini nel secolo XIII, p. 674.