St Aloysius Versiglia
Beatified : 15-05-83, Canonised: 01-10-2000Liturgical celebration: 25 February
Callistus Caravario: a shining light from the dawn to sunset of his life, completely dedicated to the ideal of a holy priesthood and crowned by martyrdom at the age of twenty-six years and nine months.
Callistus Caravario was born at Cuorgné in Canavese on 8 June 1903 to a working class family who moved to Turin when Callistus was just five years old. From a tender age Callistus was attracted to the ideal of the priesthood, and this grew in the Salesian setting in Turin: the St Joseph’s Oratory, then primary school as a boarder at Saint John the Evangelist’s and secondary schooling at the Oratory in Valdocco. On 19 September 1919 he took his religious vows in Don Bosco’s Congregation. He then completed Classics at the Valsalice High School in Turin where he also looked after the founder’s burial plot (1919-23). In 1922 he met Bishop Versiglia, who was passing through Turin, and told him: “I will follow you to China.” And indeed in October 1924, at 21 years of age, cleric Caravario left as a missionary for China. He was in Shanghai for three years (1924-27) and for two years in Timor (1927-29) as an assistant and catechist for orphaned and abandoned boys there. Meanwhile he was studying theology. Over the four years of his theological studies (1925-29) the ideal of the priesthood filled his whole being. The 82 letters he wrote to his mother over this time are overflowing with this yearning: to be a priest, a holy priest and to lead souls to God; we can see his love of God in these letters, his readiness to do anything for God, including the supreme sacrifice of his life: “By now your Callistus is no longer yours. He must be completely the Lord’s, completely dedicated to his service! ... Will my priesthood be short or long? I do not know, but what is important is that I do it well and that when I present myself to the Lord I can say that with his help I have made use of the graces he has given me.” During his time in Timor, to the thirst he had for holiness he added the ardent desire to sacrifice his life for the salvation of souls. He had a presentiment of his coming martyrdom. He would present himself to the Lord as a priest of just eight months, a year later.
On 18 May 1929, Callistus was ordained a priest at Shiu-Chow (Canton) by Bishop Luigi Versiglia. He was immediately sent to the mission station at Lin-Chow, where he gained the admiration of his Salesian confreres and the Christian faithful for his priestly virtues and apostolic zeal. After seven months of missionary work at Lin-Chow (July 1929 – January 1930), Fr Caravario went up to Shiu-Chow, in the centre of the Vicariate, to accompany Bishop Versiglia who needed to make a pastoral visit to Lin-Chow. Bishop Luigi Versiglia and Fr Callistus Caravario left on 24 February by train along with two pupils from Don Bosco College who were returning home for the holidays, their two sisters and a catechist. The socio-political situation was turbulent due to guerilla attacks in the territory in China’s south: the bishop had waited some time for better times to make a pastoral visit to Catholics at Lin-Chow, but then went because “if we wait for things to be safe we will never go... No no, woe betide if fear gets the upper hand! Let things be as God wants!” On the 25th they were one their way by boat along the Pak-kong river. Then a brief stopover at Ling Kong How. By midday they were once again on the river, heading for Li Thau Tzeui. They were praying the Angelus when suddenly there was wild shouting from the riverbank. A dozen or so men, aiming their rifles, indicated that the boat was to pull ashore. The boatsman was forced to obey. “Whose protection are you travelling under?” the mean asked; the boatsman answered: “Nobody’s, since this is never asked of the missionaries.” Two men jumped aboard, and under the roof of a shelter they discovered the three women whom they wanted to carry away, but Bishop Luigi and Fr Callistus formed a barrier and protected them. The criminals, shouting, beat them with rifle butts, and they collapsed on the ground. The bishop still had the strength to encourage Maria Thong: “Increase your faith”, while Fr Callistus was whispering: “Jesus ... Mary!” The missionaries were bound then dragged into a thicket. One of the bandits said: “We need to destroy the Catholic Church”. Bishop Luigi and Fr Callistus understood that the hour had come for witnessing to their faith in Christ. They were calm. They began praying in a loud voice, on their knees, their eyes raised to heaven. Five rifle shots interrupted their ecstatic praise. The women, in tears, had to follow their aggressors, while the men were forced to leave without looking back. The martyrs’ remains were collected and buried at Shiu-Chow, then disinterred and thrown away. In 1976 Pope Paul VI declared Bishop Versiglia and Fr Caravario to be martyrs; on 15 May 1983 John Paul II beatified them, and on 1 October 2000 proclaimed them saints along with another 120 Chinese martyrs.