Gentili, ALOYSIUS, b. July 14, 1801, at Rome; d. September 26, 1848, at Dublin. He was proficient in poetry, displayed considerable musical aptitude, had a taste for mechanical and electrical science, and was devoted to the cultivation of modern languages, applying himself more particularly to the study of English. His early life was that of a brilliant young man of the world, full of ambition of a nobler kind, a pet of society, and an evident favorite of fortune. He sought admission into the Society of Jesus, and would have been accepted, but his health seemed broken, and the Society did not venture to receive him. He became more and more impressed with the conviction that God called him to the priesthood and to labor for the conversion of England. He made the acquaintance of Father Rosmini, who, at his earnest entreaty accepted him as a postulant of the newly-founded Institute of Charity. He remained in Rome, attending theological lectures, whilst residing at the Irish College, in order, at the same time, to improve his English, and after his ordination to the priesthood, in 1830, proceeded to Domo d’Ossola to make his novitiate.
Whilst Gentili was living at the Irish College, a young English gentleman, who had been converted whilst a student at Cambridge, arrived in Rome. This was Mr. Ambrose Phillipps de Lisle (q.v.). This zealous convert applied to the rector of the Irish College, to obtain for him a priest to preach the Catholic Faith in the neighborhood of his ancestral home. The rector suggested the Abate Gentili as in every way suited to the purpose. This led to a great friendship between the young priest and Mr. de Lisle, the submission of the whole project to Rosmini, and eventually to the coming of Gentili and other fathers to England in 1835. It was not merely the invitation of Mr. Phillips de Lisle that brought the Rosminians to England. In the meantime, one of the vicars Apostolic, Bishop Baines, who then ruled over the Western District, having his residence at Bath, had sought to obtain the services of the fathers for his college of Prior Park. Though Rosmini gave his consent as early as 1831, the period of preparation for the English Mission was a long one; for the little band did not sail from Civita Vecchia till May 22, 1835. They set forth with a more personal blessing and mission from the Holy See than even St. Augustine and his companions received from St. Gregory the Great; for Pope Gregory XVI actually came on board the vessel and blessed the three “Italian missioners” just before they sailed, probably a unique event in missionary history. Gentili and his companions arrived in London on June 15, and no time was lost in getting to work. A few days later Gentili preached his first sermon in England, at Trelawney House, in Cornwall, whither they had been invited by Sir Henry Trelawney, Bart., a zealous convert. He took for his text, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”, and his discourse made a remarkable impression upon the many Protestants who came to hear it. Soon after, the missionaries were settled at Prior Park, where early in the following year (1836) Gentili gave a retreat to the whole college; and this was one of the first, if not the first public retreat according to the method of St. Ignatius ever given in a secular college in England. For this reason it excited among some no little criticism and opposition as a “novelty”.
For two years Gentili was made president of Prior Park; but Bishop Baines’ plan of combining secular and regular professors on his staff was an ill-advised one, and eventually led to the only possible result, viz. the entire withdrawal of the fathers from Prior Park College. This step left them free to devote their energies and their increasing numbers to the real work for which they came—preaching the Faith to the English people. In 1840 was opened the missionary settlement at Grace-Dieu, the seat of Mr. Phillips de Lisle, from which as a center they evangelized much of the surrounding country, the total population of which region was reckoned at 6000, of whom only twenty-seven were Catholics. Notwithstanding the unpromising surroundings, the bitter hostility of the neighboring ministers and Gentili’s being publicly burnt in effigy, his ceaseless labors were rewarded in a space of some two years, by the reception of sixty-one adult converts, the baptism of sixty-six children under seven years of age and of twenty other children conditionally, and the conversion of an Anglican clergyman, Rev. Francis Wackerbarth. These consoling fruits were secured by incessant toil, daily instructions, visits, and religious services of every kind, sometimes in inns or hired rooms, sometimes in a poor cottage, or even in the open air. In the meantime the numbers of the Fathers had much grown. Among the Italians are now to be mentioned Fathers Pagani, Rinolfi, and Signini; whilst some Englishmen and Irishmen had joined their ranks, notably the afterwards celebrated Fathers Furlong and Hutton. In 1842 Gentili visited Oxford, where it is probable, but not certain, that he met Newman. At any rate the visit had important consequences. For Gentili did meet one of Newman’s chief and best-beloved followers, William Lockhart, a young Scotch graduate. The result was that during August of the following year, “Mr. Lockhart, feeling it impossible to resist his conviction that the Anglican Church had fallen into fatal schism in separating from the Holy See, came to visit Father Gentili at Loughborough. After making a few days retreat under him in the chapel house at Loughborough, he was received into the Catholic Church, and a little later, entered as a postulant of the Order”. This conversion was the very first-fruit of the Oxford Movement, preceding the reception of Newman himself by no less than two years.
The first public mission was given at Loughborough by Fathers Gentili and Furlong, and had an extraordinary success. Sixty-three converts were instructed and received at it. From this time forward, the work of the fathers takes a new and far wider development. Great public missions all over the country alternate with innumerable spiritual retreats to colleges and communities for the next five years. It was a stirring-up of the minds and hearts of the Catholics of England, and a gathering into the net of converts from Protestantism, on a scale which astonishes us as we read of it at this distance of time. Some idea may be given of the labors and zeal of the fathers from what has been recorded of various great public missions. They usually gave four or five discourses daily, at fixed intervals, taking the sermons alternately, treating both dogmatic and moral Gospel doctrines, especially the great truths, the mystery of the Redemption, the Divine precepts, the Life of Christ. And the whole of the time intervening between the discourses was devoted to the arduous work of the confessional. So great usually was the concourse of penitents, that the fathers were kept occupied for eight or ten hours a day. Sometimes they even remained in church all night long, hearing confessions, and had absolutely no time either to say Mass, or recite the Divine Office, much less take any sleep, or any nourishment, except in a hasty manner. Such wearisome labors were not interrupted, but only varied, for weeks and even months together. They had to prepare children for their First Communion, instruct converts, restore peace in families, see to the restitution of ill-gotten goods. They also introduced processions, evening Benedictions, and other solemn functions at the close of missions.
The years 1844 to 1848 were fully occupied with an incredible number of popular missions and retreats all over England. At Newcastle 250 adult Protestants were received into the Church; at Manchester missions in three of the principal churches produced no less than 378 converts. It was in 1848 that Gentili gave his great mission in Dublin, where, in spite of the political excitement of that year, the confessionals were so crowded, that the Fathers often sat there without a break from the last instruction at night till the Mass on the following morning. But a sad and altogether unexpected blow brought to a sudden end the labors of this great mission. Father Gentili, the pioneer missioner, was suddenly seized with a fatal fever, and died after only a few days’ illness. His mortal remains still repose in Glasnevin Cemetery.
L. C. CASARTELLI