Cornelio Fabro: Teacher and Friend
by Nello Dalle Vedove, C. S. S. (1997)
I do not present myself so much as a religious brother of Fr. Cornelio, as perhaps the closest and most intimate Stigmatine brother of his, since 1935. I have always preserved a lively sentiment of gratitude towards him, which I felt necessary to express to him when, on his death bed, he celebrated the 60th anniversary of his first Mass. A kind of pride on the part of Fr. Fabro towards me corresponded to this sentiment of mine, which he manifested not only at the beatification and then canonization of our Founder, Don Gaspare Bertoni, of whom I was the postulator, but also on many other occasions. He considered me, to say it candidly, his creation.
But before relating my direct experience of him, I would like to begin with some biographical notes of the preceding period.
Fr. Cornelio was born on August 24th, 1911, in the eighth month of pregnancy, in Flumignano, a small village 18 kilometers from Udine. Until the age of five, he suffered from a motor deficiency, which prevented him from walking and talking. He would express himself by signs, because, although he could not speak, he was able to understand.
When his condition worsened, he was also afflicted by a terrible anorexia and continual crying. All attempts to cure him being in vain, the Father Guardian of the Capuchins had the inspiration to send him to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace in Udine. As soon as his mother, on an impulse of faith, laid her small son on the altar of the Virgin, the child stopped crying and smiled. He was cured.
The terrors and privations of World War I followed.
When he was not yet four years old, he caught black typhus and was at death's door. Providentially, an artillery corps arrived in the village with a doctor, who prepared an infusion and had him drink it. In the morning his fever had broken and he was out of danger.
In the summer of 1915, he was stricken by a very painful mastoiditis. He was operated on in the hospital of Udine, where he remained as an in-patient until the spring of 1916.
Unable to attend elementary school, his older brother taught him the basics at home. He was finally able to go regularly to the village school in third grade. To attend fourth grade, he had to walk every day to Talmassons, and he succeeded in excelling over all his classmates.
His religious vocation, which he had already entertained for some time, was solidified during a mission preached in his village. On October 27th, 1922, skipping fifth grade, he left for the Scuola Apostolica Bertoni of the Stigmatines in the Most Holy Trinity Parish in Verona, where he received a solid, austere formation, as was the custom in those days. He attended the Stigmatine middle school and took the third-year exams at the “Scipione Maffei” Royal City School, with brilliant results. (Presenting Foscolo's “Dei Sepolcri” in his Italian exam, the professor asked him which passages he knew by memory. “All of them,” he replied. He had a truly exceptional memory.)
On November 1st, 1927, he entered the novitiate, under the guidance of the deputy novice master (“deputy” because he wasn't old enough, but he did everything himself), Don Paolo Zanini (1901-1970). An intelligent and strong-willed priest, impassioned by the Bertonian ideal, he had also found ways to spiritually influence some comrades from the Catholic University of Milan, including the future cardinal Angelo dell'Acqua, who always treasured his memory. In the last two months of novitiate, his novice master was Don Emilio Recchia (1888-1969), well-known at Santa Croce, where he would be the pastor for many years and would die with a reputation for holiness. Fabro, as a novice, took this most decisive year of his life quite seriously, even embracing personal austerities that could have compromised his admission to the profession of vows on account of poor health.
Having pronounced religious vows on November 2nd, 1928, he began the first year of high school and philosophy courses at the Scuola Apostolica. One of his practice sermons on Venerable Bertoni from this first year of profession, which already reveals remarkable reflective capabilities in the eighteen-year-old orator, has survived. In the prologue he says:
“The ancients said that the human species enjoys this advantage: among all created corporal beings, it alone participates in the divine light, its reason is something divine, that which is most divine in all our being. Now the ideas that we form tend to manifest themselves not only in the interior word, but also in the exterior word, expressed in its various forms. This manifests to our fellow men the loveliest fruits of our energy, allows these to reach their minds, and establishes an intimate bond between us and others: now there is something of ours in them! That is why we immensely cherish this gift: and upon the death of some loved one our heart breaks because he will no longer be able to communicate with us, he will no longer speak to us. Oh, if the dead could speak!
“And some do speak. Defuctus adhuc loquitur: the concise and expressive language of their example endures and overcomes the barrier of death, even after organic destruction. Thus, men of great example always speak to the mind and heart of those who bear the memory of their virtues written, not on corruptible paper, but in the soul.
“So too, our venerable Father. Today what speaks to us is... his holiness.”
And he proceeded to write, for a dozen notebook pages, the discourse that he would give on June 12th, 1929, the anniversary of Bertoni's holy death. Among the teachings that he said he gathered from the mouth of the Founder, there is that of humble hiddenness, that of the cricket enclosed in his little hole and burrow: “You know my spirit,” warns the Ven. Father, “the spirit that should pervade all your actions: A little hole and burrow, I would say and repeat. The love of hiddenness was not only a love in me, but a true and great passion of every hour and of every minute.” It is a characteristic of the Founder that will be cultivated from then on by Cornelio Fabro, always averse to exhibitionism.
Having finished high school with high honors, his superiors sent him to continue his studies in Rome. In August, he went to the Marian sanctuary of Ortonovo (in La Spezia) to complete in private his high school studies in a restful atmosphere. Then, at the beginning of the academic year, he went to the Roman house of Sant'Agata de' Goti on Via Mazzarino, seat of the Stigmatine Generalate and their International College.
Don Luigi Benedetti
He found as the prefect of the seminarians another candidate to the altars, the gentle and sweet Father Luigi Benedetti (1884-1957), who had been his first confessor in Verona. It was Fr. Benedetti's idea to begin a journal in which the young professed could exercise their philosophical, theological or literary aptitudes. “To leaf through it again today”, writes Fr. Gino Facchin, “is delightful: writers of a shaky pen, naïve humor, primitive illustrations. And yet this was the first journal of the seminarian Cornelio Fabro: without a doubt a title of great honor for our humble Echi Romani,” soon to become Stigmatina Juventus (N. Dalle Vedove, Fr. Luigi Benedetti, Rome 1965, 186).
Fr. Fabro would say, among other things: “I have met no one in the Congregation that held study in such high esteem (...) as Fr. Benedetti. Every little success of his students would make him light up with joy and he would run to inform the Fr. General” (Ib., 187). But the pious father's best school was, in the opinion of these seminarians, the way he lived his priesthood.
Doctor of Philosophy
Fr. Cornelio Fabro attended the Lateran University and, in 1931, at just twenty years old, he received his doctorate in philosophy with the thesis, “La oggettività del principio di causa e la critica di David Hume” [The objectivity of the principle of cause and the critique of David Hume].
Theology at the Angelicum
For his theological studies, he transferred to the University of St. Thomas (the Angelicum), where he fell passionately in love with Aquinas. In his first year, he was given the responsibility of putting on a panegyric of the holy Doctor for his companions at Sant'Agata. “Among the various dimensions of the great figure of our Saint,” he said, “there is one that often remains hidden, but which is very interesting and useful for us: his love and esteem for the religious state; we will limit ourselves to key biographical passages.” After highlighting what related the Saint to consecrated life, he concluded:
“Our Saint consecrated himself entirely to religious life in every phase of his existence through his works and knowledge, and he is a compete model of religious life in all its aspects. It is admirable to see young boys and men like St. Stanislaw, St. John, and St. Aloysius enthusiastic about their religious life, but it is undoubtedly more admirable to see a man who, not only in the years of enthusiasm, but also in mature manhood, in the midst of the most lavish and honest enticements, keeps himself devoutly and heroically attached to this state that seemed to him to be the most suitable means of following Christ.
“Therefore, the teachings of our holy Patron are eloquent in this respect (...).”
And so, the young Fabro, revealing his feelings about the fundamental choice of his own life, exhorted:
“Great love, then, for this life, for the rules, for our brethren, for our Superiors: we must love all of these as the atmosphere in which our spiritual growth develops, as the air that keeps us alive, with a nobler and more intense love than soldiers have for arms, than the musician for his instrument, than the farmer for his plough. Religious life traces for us the path to eternity and, for us, it is probably the only thing that does so” (Rome, February 23rd, 1932).
On December 20th, 1934, in the Pallazo della Cancelleria, he was granted first prize from the Pontifical Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas for a monograph on “Il principio di causalità, origine psicologica, formulazione filosofica, valore necessario ed universale” [The principle of causality: psychological origin, philosophical formulation, necessary and universal worth]. The Osservatore Romano spoke extensively about it in the December 22nd issue.
Santa Croce in via Flaminia
On September 8th, 1934, Fabro was transferred to the community of S. Croce on Via Flaminia, assigned to be the church organist. Don Emilio Recchia, who had been his Novice Master in the last part of the novitiate, was the new pastor there since June 17th.
Ordination to the Priesthood
He returned to Sant'Agata for his ordination, as we read in the Il Bertoniano: “The most salient and interesting event for our chronicle occurred during the first month of the quarter (April-June 1935), on April 20th, Holy Saturday, with the priestly ordination (in St. John Lateran) of our Don Cornelio Fabro, who now belongs again de jure and de facto to the community of Sant'Agata. This event brought much joy and celebration to all, especially to his fellow students” (n. 3, Sept. 15th, 1935, 95). For his ordination, the dispensation of five months from the canonical age was obtained.
He celebrated his first solemn Mass in his own village on June 29th, feast of Saints Peter and Paul, seeing his native Flumignano for the first time after thirteen years of absence.
Back in Rome, on July 7th, he received his Licentiate degree in Theology with full marks (summa cum laude).
During the summer, he went with Professor Giuseppe Reverberi, who had been his teacher at the Lateran University, to the Stazione Zoologica of Naples to study the fundamental problems and the close relationship between biology and philosophy.
In 1935-36, he registered for the second year of Natural Sciences at the University of Padova, and in 1937-38, for the third year in the University of Rome.
In the middle of October 1935, Fr. Fabro went to Verona to begin teaching philosophy to the seminarians of the Stigmatine Institute. The Scuola Apostolica Bertoni was now in full bloom. I, who had been there for seven years, had never had any contact with Fr. Cornelio, because I had gone to Trent for my first year of middle school, and when I returned to Verona the following year, he had already left for Rome. I had heard, however, everyone speak of him as exceptionally brilliant, and they were all proud of him. So, you can imagine my enthusiasm and that of my companions when we welcomed him to Verona, where he came to begin his teaching career.
I was in the second year of high school, but for the philosophy classes (Cosmology and Psychology that year) all three years came together in one class, around Fr. Cornelio's desk. On Thursdays, the day off, he gave classes on the History of Philosophy, in which many theology students also freely participated. He would mainly give the profiles of the most important philosophers. There are those who still remember his masterly treatment of St. Augustine.
Under his teaching
My first impression was dazzling. School was no longer the tedious reading and exposition of a scholastic text, usually in Latin (at that time, the Farges-Barbedette), but an original, lively, and engaging discussion, in Italian, of the various problems raised, first in Cosmology, and then in the second semester, in Psychology, in light of the principles of St. Thomas, together with his most accredited commentators and with updates from the latest publications in the philosophical and scientific realms. The lessons could be said to be at university level, but at the highest level. And just like at University, the professor would give us the distillate of his studies in lecture notes that also made mouths water at the Seminary, where the brother priest of our seminarian, Scatolini, was a teacher.
Father Cornelio's dedication could be seen just by stepping into his room, where he seemed to be buried under his books. Besides those that he had brought with him from Rome, the Scuola Apostolica's library furnished him with a good number, as well as the library of the Stigmatine mother house, where the Founder had established one of the most precious libraries of the city. But not content with this, I remember that he ordered, for example, the volumes of Cajetan from our house in Parma. Naturally, he had some of us help him when he had to get to class under an enormous weight.
His assiduity in his application to study made an impression. It seems incredible, but in that first year I never saw him take recreation, with a walk or a little sport. We had a huge garden with spacious courtyards at Holy Trinity. Fr. Fabro never came down once to take a breath of fresh air along the paths or to join the students in recreation. So, when at the end of the academic year, I finally saw him out in our garden, it seemed strange to me.
His only diversion was going to help the orphan girls on Via Carlo Montanari, in the home run by the Salesian sisters: here he celebrated Mass, taught catechism, heard confessions; he acted, in short, as Chaplain, but with a truly extraordinary zeal, love, and devotion. Among those little souls, some made the most of such a Father's teaching in order to mature well and to set out on a life of total consecration. Don Cornelio stayed in contact until the end of his life with at least one of them, who became an important member of a great Institute.
But let us return to school. Here we must say that Fr. Cornelio, who was also the prefect of studies, was able to make his points of view prevail, even when, playing the part of a lion, he clearly assured the predominance of philosophy over all the other subjects, which no one before had ever dreamed of doing. He succeeded, for example, in attaining that the exams for the other subjects, contrary to our usage, would be held at the end of the last year of high school, like in the public schools, and only for philosophy would the exam be annual. In this way, the students' immediate concern remained that of the study of philosophy.
My personal relationship with Fr. Fabro
As for my personal relationship with Fr. Fabro, I must confess that, little by little as the school year progressed, I became more and more convinced of my good luck in being taught by a genius, and I felt myself drawn by his speech and his method so as to find myself completely transformed. Fr. Fabro noticed this and when, at the end of the year, it came time to choose three students send to Rome to study, he also presented my name. The house council was opposed to it, but Fr. Fabro, using the power of his position as prefect, replied: “Either with this one or none of the three.” He got his way and I was included in the triad. And afterwards, I was the only one to reach the goal, by the grace of God, of course. And Fr. Fabro, every once in a while, was delighted to think that he had been the one to mark this turning point in my life, and to consider me his creation. But when it seemed like everything was arranged, something unexpected happened. Having reached the town of Sezano on July 1st, the next morning, because of a trivial accident (an error in the administration of a medicine) I was at death's door. Fr. Fabro, terribly afflicted, delayed his departure for the Stazione Zoologica of Naples and came to visit me that evening. By then I was out of danger; he blessed me and arranged to meet me in Rome, where he had also been assigned in order to obtain his doctorate in Theology.
At the beginning of the 1936-1937 academic year, therefore, I was at Sant'Agata with Fr. Fabro, who not only was in the fifth year of Theology at the Angelicum, but was also Prof. Reverberi's assistant in teaching experimental psychology and biology at the Roman Seminary. At the same time, he devoted himself to drafting his thesis on the principle of participation according to St. Thomas Aquinas.
He was no longer my teacher, like he had been in Verona, but I had recourse to him in each of my problems, not only as far as study was concerned, but also in relation to my spiritual life, choosing him for my confessor and spiritual director. For six years he was thus the wise and loving guide who accompanied me on my ascent towards priesthood. I met with him weekly, and even more often; he was always welcoming, communicative, and inspiring. He led me as by the hand, not only into contact with the great thinkers he was studying, but also with the Saints with whom he was most enamored. After Our Lady, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Gemma Galgani, and so on.
I was able to follow the various phases of the preparation of his doctoral thesis and on October 30th, 1937, I attended the defense of that thesis, for which he obtained summa cum laude. Later, he confided to me that, when writing on participation, he had been so absorbed as to be almost unaware of the sensible part of his being.
I also followed him in his publications, often collaborating in the correction of rough-drafts, and then receiving dedicated copies of them.
In 1935, he had already published his first article, “Avicenna e la conoscenza divina dei particolari” [Avicenna and the divine knowledge of particular beings] in the Bollettino Filosofico dell'Ateneo Lateranense (n. 1, 45-55). In 1936, in the Rivista di filosofia neoscolastica (n. 2, 101-141), he published his study: “La difesa critica del principio di causa” [Critical defense of the principle of cause], reviewed by L.-B. Geiger in the Bulletin Thomiste (January-March 1938, 401). The learned Dominican concluded that Fr. Fabro's work “porte la marque d'un esprit philosophique authentique [bears the mark of an authentic philosophical mind].” But we are just at the beginning.
In 1938, he was also named Temporary Professor of Biology in the Pontifical Urban University [Urbaniana] of the Propaganda Fide.
In 1939, he published his doctoral thesis: La nozione metafisica di partecipazione secondo san Tommaso d'Aquino [The metaphysical notion of participation according to Saint Thomas Aquinas], an analytical introduction to Thomistic thought (Milano, ed. “Vita e Pensiero”). Fr. Olgiati, congratulating the author, called it “a splendid work.” And Fr. Martin Grabmann of Munich wrote to Fr. Fabro: “From a first read-through, I was already convinced of your extraordinary familiarity with the texts of Saint Thomas from all his works and especially from his commentaries on Aristotle. I was also delighted with the excellent manner in which you unite the profundity of speculation with an exact methodical historical treatment in your work. (Il Bertoniano, n. 2, June 1st, 1939, 288). A 2nd edition was published in 1950 and a 3rd in 1963 with the S.E.I., which is no small thing for a philosophical work. He recently confided to me, with a certain satisfaction, that he had received a telephone call from Naples: a professor from that University wanted to congratulate Fr. Fabro for his work on participation, which he was studying with lively enthusiasm, and he remained on the telephone for a good half hour defining Fabro's work as “the work of the century.”
Meanwhile, Father Fabro also established himself as a good orator and was much sought-after. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the First Mass of the former Stigmatine Superior General, Fr. Giovanni Battista Tomasi, it was Fr. Cornelio who gave the congratulatory speech in the Mass that was solemnly celebrated at Sant'Agata. It was “a learned and elevated discourse on the priest and his high spiritual mission, which outlined, with profound theological thought, the battle that the priest must wage within himself and against the enemies of good, in order to accomplish his divine mission as Christ's legate. He spoke briefly about the task that belongs to the priest, when as a member of a religious family, he is called to direct its future, and with an obvious allusion to Fr. Tomasi, who had been the general superior of the Congregation of the Stigmatine Fathers for 11 years, he spoke about how the superior can and must carry on, in every religious family, the spirit of the Founder. He concluded by affirming that Fr. Thomas was justly honored because he was truly a model of a priest and religious.” (Il Bertoniano, n. 1, March 15th, 1940, 14).
I will not mention all the promotions and teaching positions that soon brought him to the chair of metaphysics both at the Lateran and at the Propaganda Fide. But I cannot omit mentioning his ministry to the Pallottine sisters on the Via Sant'Agata de' Goti. The Pia Casa, founded by St. Vincenzo Pallotti, received a host of girls in difficulty, from economically or morally unstable families. Here, he continued that attentive care that he had already demonstrated in the orphanage of Verona. It was easy to see that those unfortunate creatures had all become his preoccupation, his love, and even his delight. Inexplicable, surprising events also occurred, such as when one day, at the end of Mass, he confided to the girl who served as a sacristan: “Look, during the celebration I had a very special light about your future”. And that little girl, who had never before thought about her vocation, would become a Pallottine Sister, and be supported, defended, and encouraged by Fr. Fabro, who would also delight her later by his visits and his writings. On January 18th, 1948, he wrote to her: “I am very happy, after almost 8 years of work at the Pia Casa, to have seen a pupil enter with the Daughters of Pallotti. I hope that you will be followed by a host of companions (...). I must especially thank you for the wish you sent me that I become a saint: I hope that you will assist me by your prayers to pacify divine justice that surely must be indignant with me for having made so little and bad use of so many, almost infinite graces granted to me in these 12 years of priesthood. Who knows how it will go for me at God's tribunal: when I consider that Venerable Pallotti called himself ‘a great sinner' and defined himself as ‘a sinner who longs to be converted,' I get the shivers” (Letters, n. 1308).
“Today”, he wrote to her on August 24th, 1948, “I turned 37, with 13 years as a priest, and it seems to me that I have done nothing for the holy Church and for souls: indeed, I feel an immense desire to fly to their aid. If only I could give myself over to active ministry, and leave these books: but I do not want anything besides the Holiest Will of God.”
With me as well he stressed the necessity of great holiness for the priest. “The principle aim of the Congregation”, he said, “is that of the sanctification of individuals. When a Congregation has succeeded in making a saint, it has done a very great deed. Founding many houses and parishes, in comparison with this, is nothing” (Nov. 4th, 1939).
On July 7th, 1941, I went to the convent of Saints John and Paul to begin the exercises in preparation for ordination. News came during the day of the death of a priest very dear to me, and I was devastated. Fr. Cornelio came all the way to the Passionist convent of Celio during the week to comfort me. Then, at my first Mass, celebrated privately in a side chapel of Sant'Agata, he kindly wanted to accompany me by playing the organ.
I finished theology with a master's degree in 1942, and I went to Verona to teach some philosophy at the Scuola Apostolica. When the difficult years of the war ended, Fr. Giuseppe Stofella, who at Sant'Agata had arrived at the culmination of his historical work for the Cause of the Beatification of Ven. Gaspare Bertoni, he asked the Superiors to let me help him. For this reason, in October of 1945, I found myself again in Rome.
To understand who Fr. Stofella was, to whom I had been assigned, I will reference a later writing of Fr. Cornelio, composed in 1989 on the occasion of the Canonization of Blessed Bertoni.
“The upcoming canonization of our beloved Founder,” says Fr. Fabro, “reminds me of Fr. Giuseppe Stofella, to whom we owe the decisive step, represented by the Summarium additionale of the Positio super virtutibus. A profound sense of the historical reality, a profound conviction of Bertoni's holiness, with the critical understanding of the mentality of the 1800s, a time of revolutions for all of Europe, and an exceptional nose for documents, set him on the right path, which, continued with equal zeal by Fr. Dalle Vedove, made him the indisputable protagonist of the conclusion that led to the Canonization.
“In the most fervent years of his work in the General Curia, he would come by every morning to give me a fraternal greeting and inform me of the progress of his work: as soon as he made some big score [finding documents], he would come straight to my room and give me the news. Musical and poetical genius of the highest sort, he plunged into the interpretation of documents and easily wove the historical constellation of the reality indicated therein. The indifference of his environment with its false ideas never discouraged him, and he was happy when some young Stigmatine put himself on his side; he suffered a great deal from misunderstandings (...). The encouragement of Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli [at that time the Relator General of the Historical Section of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints], who discovered and protected him, was enough for him. I can testify to, as a direct witness, the feeling of joy and confidence that accompanied him to the end: his reward came soon with the recruitment of a disciple of equal energy and confidence (...)” (Comunità Stimmatina, n. 9, Apr.-Sept. 1989).
From these lines one can understand how much I gained when I had to return to Sant'Agata. I found myself at the side of two greats: Fr. Stofella and Fr. Fabro. I was also allowed to finish the doctoral theology courses at the Angelicum, although I had to postpone writing my thesis. And in the meantime, I also had another great honor, to be a fellow student of the future Pope John Paul II.
Fr. Alfredo Balestrazzi, who had been at the side of the famous Fr. Riccardo Tabarelli (+ 1909), theology professor at the Apollinare [Pontifical University of the Holy Cross], who had the honor of conferring degrees on Pius XII, John XXIII, and several cardinals, confided to me that Fr. Fabro, even though he was so young, had already surpassed that ancient glory of ours [Fr. Tabarelli], through the vastness and profundity of his studies and publications.
Director of the Community of Santa Croce
In the summer of 1947, I returned to Verona, and only kept up correspondence with Fr. Fabro by letter and some fleeting encounters, like on the occasion of the defense of my doctoral thesis at the Angelicum in 1950. But on August 8th, 1949, Fr. Fabro became the director of the Community of Santa Croce al Flaminio, composed of eleven priests and three lay brothers, who took care of the large parish (around forty thousand souls), still governed today by the holy Don Emilo Recchia. To lighten his task of director and to be able to attend to his studies, ample powers were granted to the father vicar.
On October 22nd, 1949, he wrote to his spiritual daughter [Sr. Agata of the Pallottines]: “The Superiors have made me Director of this house, which has the spiritual care of one of the largest parishes in Rome. At the same time, I continue at the school of philosophy at Propaganda Fide, and in November I will begin a philosophy course at the University of Rome as well, having ranked first in the Ministry of Instruction competitive exam. On account of this, I am in great need of prayers so that the Lord may help me defend His Truth and may give me a bit of strength in the middle of so many troubles.”
On December 13, 1950, Fr. Fabro “held his first lesson as Professor at the University of Rome. Contrary to every expectation and every unfriendly attempt,” reads the chronicle of the house, “there are a good number of auditors that remain fully satisfied and admirative of his knowledge” (Il Bertoniano, n. 1, 1950, 165). It now becomes difficult to follow him in all his commitments and travels, even abroad, to Argentina and Chile, for Conferences of philosophy. He was everywhere sought after and received with great esteem.
In 1954, he won the Chair of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Naples and became a temporary professor of Theoretical Philosophy and Director of the Instituto Universitario di Magistero “Maria SS. Assunta” in Rome. He repeatedly told me of his satisfaction at this success, because, he said, since the unification of Italy, no priest had obtained a chair in Theoretical Philosophy. He was the first.
In 1956, he went to Milan, with 68 boxes of books, to teach at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, where he was promoted to full Tenured Professor (1957).
He returned to Rome in 1958. The chronicle of Santa Croce reads: “Fr. Fabro arrived and resumed teaching at Maria Assunta, left off two years ago; in the parish as well, his exceptional ministry will do much good” (Il Bertoniano, n. 3, 1958, 91).
In 1958, I was named General Postulator and went down to Santa Agata in Rome. Every Sunday I would go to Santa Croce to carry out my ministry, and in this way I could meet with Fr. Fabro every week.
In 1959, we worked together on preparing the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Fr. Riccardo Tabarelli. I took care of the historical aspect and Fr. Fabro, the scientific part (cf. Il Bertoniano, n. 4, 1959, 383-411). Then, by request of Fr. Antonio Piolanti [rector of the Pontifical Lateran University], Fr. Cornelio oversaw the publication of the Complete Works of Fr. Tabarelli, and hence my collaboration with him was prolonged for years. The Supreme Pontiff, John XXIII, admirative disciple of the Stigmatine father, at the publication of the first volume of De Deo Uno (Rome 1962), condescended to send a congratulatory letter to the Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, who had promoted the undertaking, saying: “suave est meminisse Nos, adulescentia florentibus annis, in Pontificio Seminario Romano eum [Fr. Tabarelli] audivisse, magistrum sincera pietate sanaque doctrina eximium, ubertate et copia scientiae spectabilem.”
On Christmas Eve 1967, I transferred to Santa Croce, where I remained until September 19th, 1995. I was able to be at Fr. Fabro's side uninterruptedly for 28 years, until his death.
I can speak of his apostolic zeal in a superlative manner. On Sundays and feast days, I always saw his confessional, which was next to mine, crowded with faithful during the entire morning. He would come out at noon to celebrate Holy Mass, with those famous homilies that were listened to by an overflowing crowd. They even came from other parts to hear him, as I accidentally heard one day from a Roman monsignor, who did not want to miss these Sunday appointments. The honorable professor Gabriele De Rosa would punctually show up with his family as well, and would afterwards converse cordially with Father.
I cannot omit his meetings in the Costantiniana room, where the gathering was so great as to render the space insufficient; the audience, especially the young university students, were packed into the hallway and even on the stairs. Not to mention the persons of all classes who came to consult him; toward everyone he showed himself available to the limit of his time, since teaching at the University of Perugia and his philosophical publications absorbed him immensely.
In the early afternoon, here at Santa Croce, he would indulge in a bit of sport, coming down to the field for a few soccer matches with the youth.
For theology, these were years of fire. Fr. Fabro did not abandon his principles. I would hear his impassioned outbursts. I remember that more than once I pressured him to intervene. I was convinced that his insuperable qualities as a polemicist had to be put at the service of the Church, for the triumph of truth. Perhaps some harshness escaped him, but the clearness of his intentions is to his credit, because he never pursued easy approval or vain applause. And he maintained this coherence until the end, following our most humble founder, Bertoni, even though he was fully aware of the talents that God given him.
The Last Years
In one of these last years (1990 or 91) our former provincial, Fr. Alessio De Marchi, recounted: “After an intercommunity retreat of the Stigmatines, we had a social lunch in community. And Fr. Fabro sat down on my right. At a certain point I said to him: ‘Father, the hard work at Perugia is almost done. You have written and published so much, and you were called Educator of so many young people in your brilliant career; how do you feel now, so close to leaving?' He responded: ‘I feel little. If you can believe it... I feel much more esteem for many of you, who have held positions of ministry, of command, of mission, of founding new works... Believe me, I am sincere...' I was ‘astounded.' It seemed to me to be a response worthy of a ‘Great.' A moving response, because ‘humble.'”
I can add what Fr. Pietro Bortignon, the bishop of Padua's brother, a man of great simplicity and intense prayer, recounted to me. He was a great apostle of youth, right here at Santa Croce, but he always found time for prolonged prayer, so that, when at some rare moment he was held in a somewhat prolonged conversation, he would express himself clearly: “I must withdraw, because I am too dispersed.” “And do not believe,” he said to me one day, “that my way of doing things is not appreciated by the great as well. One day I was totally absorbed in prayer in Santa Croce, and at a certain moment, as Father Cornelio was passing by, he leaned over me and whispered in my ear: ‘I envy you!'”
On August 29th, 1984, from Villa Cabrini in Rieti, where he was resting, he sent me a letter with an image of St. Gemma Galgani and a relic. It deserves to be heard at the end of this poor little discourse of mine.
“Dear Don Nello,
“This is for you, with an ardent request to your charity, begging you to use it upon me at the point of death, which does not seem to me to be very far off now: in these two weeks, in complete isolation in this religious house, I was able to recollect myself and prepare my soul by imploring divine mercy. Now I abandon myself wholly to His Will.
“1. I followed as a guide these days the little book of Hieremias Drexel, which I referred to at table before coming to Rieti: Mortis nuntius. In Rome I have kept it on the table for years: pick it up and try to follow it, if I go into agony, to comfort my soul.
“2. If it is possible, put the black ebony Crucifix and the Annunciation of Blessed Angelico at the head of my bed and put in my hands the wooden beaded rosary that is wound around the crucifix on my desk.
“3. I have prayed and continue to pray for you and for your work, both for the Canonization of our Blessed Founder and for the defense and dissemination of his authentic spirit: do not get discouraged or lose peace because of contradictions and misunderstandings. Let us put all in God's hands. Also St. Cabrini highly recommended the spirit of Holy Abandonment.
“Thank the Lord for me for the continual and powerful aid through which he has illuminated, almost step by step, the work of research and defense of the truth, with infinite timeliness and delicacy. You can find some notes about this in an agenda (Banco Agricolo Milanese 1979). Do not speak to anyone, not even to me, about this letter and its contents before my death.
“Meanwhile, I thank you in advance for this act of charity that I ask of you, and I'll try to reciprocate when I am with God.
“Yours, Fr. C. Fabro.”
Towards the end of his life, when he was immobilized in a wheelchair, I would say to him: “Father, now it is time for heroic virtue.” He would smile and silently continue his offering in total abandonment.