The birth of a child is usually considered a “blessed event” for parents, and so it was for Italian Catholics Domenico and Rosa Luciani Sulprizio on April 13, 1817, when a son, Nunzio, was born.
It was roughly a week after Easter that year and Nunzio, who was named for his recently departed grandfather, was the bright spot in a year of widespread famine in his native Pescara, (Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), Italy. His devout parents had him baptized before sunset that same day. Three years later, they presented him to the bishop of the newly created Diocese of Sulmona for the Sacrament of Confirmation. Two months later, in mid-summer, his father died leaving a widow, Nunzio and a baby daughter, Domenica. Sadly, Nunzio’s sister died five months later on Dec. 7, 1820.
• Video: Bishop's essay on Blessed Nunzio Sulprizio
Faced with the prospect of abject poverty while trying to provide for Nunzio, Rosa Sulprizio was married again in 1822 to a significantly older man. He detested young Nunzio and treated him harshly and with contempt. Nunzio attended a school run by a local priest, and along with learning the ordinary subjects of reading and writing, he developed a love for the Mass and stories about the lives of the saints.
A year later, his mother died and Nunzio was sent to live with his maternal grandmother , who although uneducated, encouraged his developing Catholic faith and piety. She cared for him with great affection and continued bringing him to Mass. When his grandmother died in 1826, Nunzio was taken by her son and put to work as an apprentice blacksmith at age nine. Like his stepfather, Nunzio’s Uncle Domenico treated him harshly, often beating, verbally abusing and starving him. Such abuse left him weak and susceptible to frequents bouts of sickness. His uncle showed him no compassion.
One morning, Nunzio fell ill with a swollen leg and could no longer stand. He was hospitalized in L’Aquila for four months with gangrene in his leg. Biographers have noted that Nunzio suffered his affliction with incredible patience and acceptance. He saw his suffering as an opportunity to draw closer to Christ.
After leaving the hospital, Nunzio was in the habit of bathing his constantly seeping wounds in a nearby stream. The story is told of a woman who chased him away from the comforting waters where she did her household laundry. Nunzio quickly found another body of water where he could continue his practice, often reciting multiple Rosaries while he attended to his wounds.
During his last hospital stay, Nunzio met his paternal uncle, Francesco Sulprizio, a soldier in the army. He cared for the suffering boy and introduced him to a fellow soldier, Colonel Felice Wochinger, who developed a father-like relationship with him. Through Felice, Nunzio became acquainted with St. Gaetano Enrico – later canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. Enrico was the founder of the religious order Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Naples. He promised young Nunzio a place in the order.
Despite some signs of progress, Nunzio was admitted to Naples’ famous “Hospital for the Incurables” for therapy and care. Nunzio would visit other young patients, comforting and teaching them prayers and catechism. Barely 15, the required age for First Holy Communion, Nunzio prepared for and received his First Eucharist.
Signs of Nunzio’s recovery came and went until it was decided by doctors in 1835 that his left leg, now septic, had to be amputated. It is said that despite his physical hardship, struggles and pain, Nunzio never lost his pleasant disposition and spiritual devotion.
Resigned to his steadily deteriorating condition, Nunzio developed regular fevers and, in March 1836, he requested the last Sacraments of the Church. Less than two months later, on May 5, 1836, Nunzio requested a crucifix to hold and died at the age of 19 with prayer on his lips. During the five days of his funeral it has been reported that “the smell of roses” surrounded his body. He was buried in the Church of San Domenico Soriano in Naples.
Nunzio became widely recognized for his patient suffering, concern for other sick young people he came to know and profound faith. Catholics in Naples began to honor his memory with prayers and devotion, calling him “our little saint.” A similar veneration also developed in his hometown of Pescara . Seven years after his death, efforts to have him canonized began and Pope Pius IX initiated his cause for sainthood.
He was declared “Venerable” for a “life of heroic virtue” and a patron of workers and blacksmiths and the disabled by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Two healing miracles were attributed to his intercession and Pope St. John XXIII accepted their validity shortly before dying. His successor, Blessed Pope Paul VI beatified Nunzio at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Dec. 1, 1963, during the Second Vatican Council, the fifth such beatification over which he presided in his first year as pope.
Another miracle was attributed to Nunzio’s intercession and, on June 8, 2018, Pope Francis declared that he would be canonized on October 14, 2018 during the “Synod on Young People,” the same day that had been designated for the canonization of Blessed Paul VI, who declared him “Blessed” 55 years before.
Using popular terminology of our own day, Blessed Nunzio Sulprizio has been aptly described by contemporary bloggers as “a poor kid who could never catch a break.” His less than two decades of a life of tragedy and suffering certainly bear witness to that reference. During his many encounters with illnesses and physical disabilities, Blessed Nunzio would tell visitors “Jesus endured so much for us … if we suffer for a while, we will enjoy Paradise.” His last words were recorded by his caretaker Felice Wochinger: “Be cheerful. From heaven I will always be helping you.”
At a time when suicide, drug addiction, dysfunctional families and widespread hopelessness among the young seem to plague our society, Blessed Nunzio Sulprizio stands out in the Church as a real-life model and powerful intercessor for them.
The life story of Blessed Nunzio offers proof that sanctity does not require a long life or an early death — only a life, whatever its length, lived with and for the Lord. For young people in today’s world, 19 year old Nunzio Sulprizio shows us that saints can and do look like them. As we celebrate his canonization on Oct. 14, Blessed, soon to be St. Nunzio Sulprizio, pray for the youth of our Diocese and inspire them, like you, to love the Lord.