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The priest whose preaching turned Piacenza upside down

A statue of St Andrew Avellino in Milan

Andrew Avellino (1521-1608) was a notable member of the Theatine Order, set up by St Cajetan in 1524 with the aim of raising the standard of the priesthood in face of the challenge from Luther.

He was born into a well-off family at Castronuova, a small town near Potenza in the kingdom of Naples, and christened Lancelot. As a young man he was sent to study philosophy at Venice. 

There, according to one account, he became so concerned by the temptations from women to which his good looks exposed him that he adopted an ecclesiastical tonsure.

Determined to enter the priesthood, he returned to Naples to study civil and canon law. After qualifying, he practised with outstanding success in the ecclesiastical courts.

One day in 1552, however, he became aware, while pleading a case, that he was lying. That evening his eye fell on a text in the Wisdom of Solomon (1:11): “The mouth that belieth killeth the soul.” Thereafter he devoted himself entirely to spiritual matters.

In 1556 Avellino was entrusted with the task of reforming the convent of Sant’ Arcangelo at Baiano, only to be beaten up by men accustomed to visiting the nuns for nefarious purposes. Eventually the convent had to be suppressed.

Later in 1556, Lancelot joined the Theatines, changing his name to Andrew. For the next 14 years he served in the order’s house at Naples, becoming master of the novices, and then being elected superior.

Among his pupils was Fr Lorenzo Scupoli, author of Spiritual Combat, which, with its maxim of “Fight or Die”, became a classic, and the favourite reading matter of St Francis de Sales.

In 1570, at the request of Charles Borromeo, Andrew Avellino founded a Theatine house Milan. The two men became close friends.

Avellino went on to establish another house at Piacenza. His preaching there “turned the city upside down”, even converting various noblewomen to a more rigorous Christianity.

Complaints about the sudden access of godliness in the town reached the Duke of Parma, who summoned the preacher. Avellino, however, acquitted himself so well that the Duchess asked him to become her spiritual director.

In 1582 Avellino returned to Naples, where he spent the rest of his life working for the conversion of sinners, and combating the influence of Protestantism which had affected even those southern climes.

He died aged 87, of an attack of apoplexy which struck him down as he was beginning to celebrate Mass. The faithful, eager for relics, removed his hair, cutting his face in the process. It was said that the blood subsequently liquefied.

Yet Giambattista Pamphili, the future Pope Innocent X, noted that his sample failed to liquefy on any occasion.