Thursday, November 25, 2021

A Sermon on the Death of a Poor Man

Just under two weeks ago, a Sicilian man by the name of Gaetano Tinnirello, who had long lived homeless on the streets of Rome, passed away in hospital about a month after his 33rd birthday. He had long struggled with addiction; this was not the immediate cause of his death, which was brought on by a pulmonary infection, but had certainly weakened him. In recent years, he had taken to spending much of his time on the steps of the FSSP church in Rome, Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, and as he himself stated, “Since I have come close to this church, I feel better. I feel changed.” (This is written on the back of his funeral card.) Despite the many serious adversities of his life, he was always a cheerful man. After his death, the parish celebrated his funerary rites, and arranged for his body to be returned to his family in Sicily for burial.

The following sermon was preached at his funeral Mass by Fr Vilmar Pavesi, who had attended Gaetano in the hospital; it is, I think, one of the most beautiful sermons I have ever read. Particularly in the winter, and in the holiday seasons, let us not forget that all thanksgiving belongs above all to One who was born in the poverty of a stable, and that we are charged by Him to care for the least of His brethren. And please offer a prayer for the repose of the poor man Gaetano. (Our thanks to Fr Pavesi and Fr Brice Messonier, the pastor of Santissima Trinità, for permission to reprint the sermon, and to Mr Jacob Stein, author of the blog PassioXpi, for the pictures. The text has appeared elsewhere; I have here corrected it against the original Italian.)
“I am thirsty”. On the Cross, in his agony, Jesus was thirsty. It was an immense thirst, caused by his wounds. But it was above all a spiritual thirst. Jesus was thirsty, and He still thirsts for souls, because He seeks souls to save them, without despising any of them.
Gaetano also felt thirsty. When I met him in the hospital, his mouth was dry. “Father, I’m thirsty, give me something to drink”, was the first thing he asked me. After asking if I could do this, I started giving him a drink using a syringe and a straw. He couldn’t move. After he drank half a bottle of water, I told him, “Gaetano, think of Jesus Christ on the Cross. He too was thirsty, but no one gave Him anything to drink. Now you can understand it better.” He nodded his head. Then I asked him if he wanted to confess. He said yes. He was perfectly lucid. He didn’t get tired. He confessed with the best dispositions of the soul, with humility and sincerity. And then we prayed his penance together. Afterwards, seeing signs of suffering in his face, for his pains, I advised him to offer everything up for the love of God: “Jesus, I offer this up for love of you.” And he repeated with me, like a child, “Jesus, I offer this up for love of you.”

Then I told him that I also wanted to give him Extreme Unction, and he agreed. After the Extreme Unction he asked me for more water, because he was still thirsty. Our poor Gaetano, who was still thirsty, with his Confession and with the Extreme Unction had instead eased the thirst which God felt in His soul. Before leaving him, we talked about various things and his life after the hospital. So he asked me to find him a place to live, and I promised him I would.
Then he asked me where he was at that moment. “At the San Camillo hospital”, I replied. “How far is it from the parish?” “10 minutes by tram,” I told him. “When will I take the tram again?” “When God wills, you don’t have to worry about the future. Lord, your will be done.” And he once again, like a child, repeated: “Lord, your will be done.”
I brought to Gaetano the greetings of all the priests of the parish, especially the parish priest, and of the people who cherished affection and pity for him. At some point I had to leave. “Ah, you have to go. So, please give me some more water and then you can leave.” After the last blessing and greeting, he said to me, “Father, thank you. You made me very happy.”
The first time I went to see him in the hospital was on Saturday, after the first surgery. He was in a coma and in grave danger of death. Normally, I always carry the oil of the sick with me, but that day, by chance, I didn’t have it. And since it was too late, they didn’t let me see him. So I returned on Monday, this time with the holy oil. Gaetano was perfectly lucid. The next day he would go back into a coma, undergo another operation, and remain in a coma until the day of his death. He would seem to have returned to a state of lucidity only for a few hours, like that child who was resurrected at the time of San Filippo Neri, only to be able to confess and receive the Extreme Unction, and then die again.
Speaking of St. Philip Neri, without knowing it, Gaetano lived one of his counsels. In fact, every day he entered the church, greeted all the saints, and then when he approached the main altar, he prostrated himself on the ground, kissed the floor and prayed. This was exactly what St. Philip Neri taught: “When you have little time or can’t pray well, go into a church and greet the saints. You will have said an excellent prayer.” I always thought that the Lord would save him for this act of piety, done with such sincerity, and also for the rosary and the Miraculous Medal that he wore around his neck.
Once I found him in the church fixing the floor. Do you remember when the marbles in the back were moved out of place? Without saying anything to anyone, he began to arrange the marble plaques, which more than one person had tripped on. “Gaetano, what are you doing?” “I’m fixing the marbles! It’s dangerous as it is. I’m not doing it for money. I’m doing it because it is God’s house and God’s house is mine too.”
He wanted to work. He wanted to be helpful. He cleaned the street because he said he lived there, and therefore he wanted it clean. He also cleaned the church’s staircase. I have seen him more than once spontaneously helping the garbagemen to collect the garbage. He did it without any self-interest, just to help out.
When he got here, he wore earrings. I can’t stand men with earrings, so one day I asked him to sell me his earrings. When Gaetano understood the reason why I wanted to buy them, he took them off, went to throw them in the sewer, and promised me that he would no longer wear them, and did not want the money. And so it was.
Gaetano’s death at the age of 33 is a great grief for all of us. His presence gave a picturesque face to the parish. His was a good presence. He knew how to make everyone love him. Even his dog looked so good together with him. The death of Gaetano is a great grief for everyone, because in the depths of our soul, we all feel a little responsible. He was one of those littlest brothers of Christ, because he had an immense need to be helped in his body and in his soul. More than money, he needed sincere affection and opportunity.
How many times did we repay his spontaneous “Good evening” with indifference, coldness or haste? How many times did we pass by him, without even looking at him, when he was not well? “Whenever you have done these things to one of these least of my brothers, you will have done it to me.” (Matt. 25)
Lord, before this body we ask your forgiveness for all the good we could have done for Gaetano, and did not do. Lord, before this body, we promise you to receive with generosity and love the poor whom your Providence will deign to send us.
However, I would be unjust if I only had reproaches before this body. Gaetano’s death has already begun to bear fruit. Many felt touched in their hearts and opened themselves more to charity. Very edifying is the number of people who continually ask for Masses for his soul. This is a great charity. Others offered to give him a decent burial. This too is a work of mercy, pleasing to the Lord. Some young people took care of Gaetano with true love during his last weeks. They are the ones who took brought and accompanied me to the hospital. May the Lord bless you.
Gaetano still has a great mission among us. Indeed, his mission has just begun. He, poor, but blessed by the Lord, must teach us to be charitable. He must teach us to have great hope in God. The Lord brought him close to this parish. He caused him to find the Christian affection of His faithful and priests, because He wanted to give him the eternal happiness of Heaven. Gaetano also has the mission of giving to the Archconfraternity of the Most Holy Trinity a new impetus in its works of spiritual and corporal charity.

Saint Philip Neri, pray for him.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, pray for him.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for him.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: