Feast of Blessed Gennaro (‘Januarius’) Maria Sarnelli, Redemptorist. 1702- 1744.
GENNARO SARNELLI was a very close friend of young Alphonsus de Liguori and is sometimes refrred to as the “twin” brother of St.Alphonsus Liguori. They met in Naples, and both were lawyers, there. They came from fairly well-off families,- Alphonsus from Naples, and Gennaro was son of the Baron of Ciorani, some distance from Naples. As young men, they were both passionate about their faith, attending their confraternities, and caring for the sick. They worked together on the ‘Street Missions’, gathering people in groups on the streets and in the cafès, to explore faith together.
They visited the ‘Hospital for the Incurables,’ each week, to care for the dying,- a great many of whom where sailors who had contracted syphilis in this and other port cities. There was no cure for them, and young Alphonsus and Gennaro, along with others of their friends, tended to them.
Both eventually chose the priesthood, in their twenties. Gennaro worked mostly in Naples, and his lifelong passion was for the care of prostitutes, and of girls who were at risk of becoming prostitutes. Gennaro worked hard to get the city authorities to care for them and to regulate the great amount of prostitution going on everywhere in this port city. These were the ‘poor’ to whose care Gennaro devoted so much energy. He was well known in the city for his work, and was held in great esteem. He also cared deeply for the young boys who were forced, by poverty, to work around the docklands.
Alphonsus worked in and around Naples for a number of years, and then, seeing the poverty and spiritual deprivation of so many people out in the countryside and in the mountains areas, decided to found a congregation of priests and brothers who would be devoted to giving Missions in these remotest areas.
His first attempt at gathering people around him, at Scala near Amalfi, in November 1732, came to a sad end, when all but one of the group abandoned him. Only Brother Vitus Curtius, formerly a ne’er-do-well, stayed with him. Alphonsus became the laughing-stock of many clergy and former friends back in Naples. He and Bro. Vitus Curtius remained at their post in Scala, and continued to believe in the project of Missions and in a particular style of preaching to even the poorest.
Gennaro , newly ordained a priest, came to his rescue a few months later. Alphonsus planned a Mission in May 1733, in the nearby town of Ravello (-above Amalfi, and nowadays a favourite haunt of the glitterati!-), and Gennaro came from Naples to help him. The mission was a huge success, and Gennaro, went back to Naples and wrote a public letter about it, and about the method and vision of his friend, Fr. Alphonsus de Liguori. No longer was Liguori the butt of jokes in his native city.
Gennaro then went to his Dad, the Baron, back in Ciorani, and persuaded him to give a parcel of land to himself and his friend Alphonsus, and to their newly-arriving companions. These ‘Redemptorists’, as they later came to be known, built their first permanent home and church in Ciorani, and this is the ‘Mother House’ of the Redemptorists. Gennaro worked with Alphonsus and the others for a few years, then asked to return to Naples to the work he was doing in that city, among the prostitutes. His health gave way before long, from exhaustion. He wrote over thirty books, in his work for the Gospel. He died in his early forties.
Alphonsus mourned his death, and declared of Gennaro, in the face of critics who gave out that he had abandoned the project of the Missions, that ‘He was one of us!’
In many parts of the world today, there are Redemptorist projects called the Sarnelli projects, after Blessed Gennaro Sarnelli, who died on this day, June 30th, in 1744, aged 42. He was beatified by St. John Paul II on May 12, 1996.