Bl. Rolando Rivi. Wikipedia

Fr. Raymond de Souza: The remarkable story of Bl. Rolando Rivi

  • July 2, 2020

Anniversaries remind us to learn the lessons of history and, for a Christian disciple, to remember the workings of Providence.

The big anniversary in May was the centennial of the birth of St. John Paul the Great on May 18. Following by just a few days the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day at the end of the Second World War, John Paul’s impact on ending the subsequent Cold War was highlighted.

There was another papal centennial in May, the priestly anniversary of St. Paul VI. Ordained on May 29, 1920, that date has now been set as Paul VI’s feast day.

More remarkable still is the story of a little known martyr, Rolando Rivi, who shares a feast day with Paul VI. In 1945, on the very day that the future Paul VI was celebrating his silver jubilee, the remains of 14-year-old Rolondo were being carried to their resting place. His body had been found in a makeshift grave in the woods and he was being returned to the parish seminary.

His martyrdom 75 years ago highlighted the shifting history of our time. While John Paul was a protagonist of resistance to the twin evils of Nazism and communism, Rolondo was an early victim of both — though in Italy, not behind the Iron Curtain.

Blessed Rolondo’s brief life summarizes the totalitarian persecution of the faith in the 20th century. Indeed, the final year of Rolando’s life is like a precis of the 40 years that Karol Wojtyła lived under the Nazis and the communists in Kraków.

The war came early to Rolando’s family. Two of his uncles were killed before his 10th birthday. Confirmed in 1940 at the age of nine, Rolando declared an early desire to become “a perfect Christian and a soldier for Jesus Christ.” In 1942, a few months before his 12th birthday, he entered the minor seminary with the support of his parents. At the time, the custom was to wear the cassock upon entry, long before a final decision was made about the vocation.

In June 1944, the Nazis were being pushed back in France, but they still had their hold on northern Italy. That month German troops occupied the seminary where Rolando studied and shut it down. Rolando returned to his village of San Valentino, carrying his books with him. At home, he continued his studies and wore his cassock.

“I study to be a priest, and these vestments are the sign that I belong to Jesus,” Rolando told those, including his parents, who were worried that his public witness would mean danger.

While the Nazis were still in control, the communist partisan brigades were also strong in the area, fighting against the Nazis and in favour of communism. Both ideologies hated the Catholic faith. The communists killed four priests in the area and San Valentino’s parish priest was moved away for his safety after being attacked.

Rolando kept his seminary routine as best he could and continued his service in the parish. In the fall of 1944, there was another seminarian forced to live an unusual seminary life. Karol Wojtyła — the future John Paul II — was part of the clandestine seminary in the archbishop’s residence in Kraków under Nazi occupation.

On April 10, 1945, Rolando, after serving the morning Mass, took his books into the nearby woods where he liked to study. The communist partisans seized him, stripped him of his cassock and tortured him for three days. The alleged “charge” against Rolando was that he was a Nazi collaborator. It was nonsense, and of course there was no trial. The communists killed him, even though he was only 14 years old, because, as one killer put it, it would mean “one less future priest.”

On April 13, 1945, they dug a grave in the forest and forced Rolando to kneel at its edge. He was shot dead while he prayed. His cassock, so precious to him, was rolled into a ball, kicked around and then hung on the front door of his house — a grim message to his family, his parish and his village.

At his beatification Mass in 2013, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, spoke about the killers as “fed with hate, looking for prey to bite and devour, who stripped Rivi of his vestments as the executioners of Jesus did.”

“(Rolando’s killers) forgot the commandments of the Lord,” preached Amato. “They were indoctrinated to fight Christianity, humiliate priests, kill the parish priests and destroy the Catholic teachings.”

Rolando was driven out of the seminary by fascists and killed by communists. Both ideologies were brutally atheist, the cause of more martyrdoms in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. Blessed Rolando’s death summarized the anti-Christian drama of the time, communists taking over from fascists in persecuting the Church.

His remains were transferred on May 29, 1945, the date later chosen for his feast day. On that very date in the same country, a future saintly pope was celebrating his 25th ordination anniversary.

Holiness proceeds in history, both manifest and hidden, side by side, even on the same day.

(Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief of and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.