by FR MICHAEL HILL, IC
One hundred and fifty years ago no one had any conception of the Internet or other modern means of communication. There was no TV, no radio, no cinema, no music hall, and many ordinary people were illiterate. Communication therefore was almost exclusively via the spoken word.
Preaching was a prized art. In seminaries and schools one of the principal subjects was rhetoric: today few people would even understand the meaning of the word. It was the age of great parliamentary oratory, but also it was the time of famous preachers such as John Wesley, who wandered the countryside on his donkey spreading the Word of God to all who were prepared to listen.
At Oxford, John Henry Newman electrified a whole generation of undergraduates and young aspirants to the Anglican priesthood. He was the driving force behind the so-called “Oxford movement”.
Among these powerful Christian preachers one name stands out, but it is a name that has been all but forgotten. Angelo Maria Rinolfi was born of a peasant family in the extreme north of Italy in 1813. He was brought up in a school of hard manual labour, but he also was fortunate to receive an excellent education. He joined the Rosminians, and after ordination he was sent on the English mission.
Rinolfi was a gifted linguist, and he was soon able to preach in English so fluently that his listeners did not realise that he was not a native English speaker. The Rosminians were the first Catholic priests to preach parish missions, and this became his exclusive priestly work. Over nearly 30 years, he preached nearly 200 parish missions, across the length and breadth of Britain, including over 50 in Ireland. He was led especially to work in Ireland because of the devastating legacy of the terrible potato famine, as well as the centuries of English misrule.
People flocked to these missions in numbers which would be inconceivable today. For instance, when he and another Rosminian went to Belfast for the first ever parish mission in that city, over 4000 people turned up to attend. How do you preach to 4000 people with none of the aids of modern amplification?
These missions provided the nourishment people were looking for: attractive liturgies, the sacraments, and especially a call to conversion that the people wanted to hear. Confession and frequent Communion were part of the essential diet. Large numbers of converts came into the Church, and literally thousands of Catholics had their faith renewed.
Reading about Rinolfi’s remarkable life, we have to ask what means could we find today to touch the same chord, and bring the grace of conversion into so many hearts? I have personally found his life and vocation an inspiration: I hope readers enjoy the same experience.
Angelo Maria Rinolfi: The Preacher. Price $25 incl. postage. From J. M. Hill ic; A2/39 Opoho Road, Dunedin 9010.