The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Contardo Ferrini

Blessed Contardo FerriniArticle

The Servant of God, Contardo Ferrini, was a professor of Roman Law in the university of Pavia. On May 27, 1909, Pius X said to the pastor of Suna, where Ferrini lies buried: “I would call a university professor to the honors of the altar with the greatest joy. What a noble example for our days!” A layman, famed in learned circles as an investigator and lecturer of the first rank – a man surrounded by all the comforts of modern life, and yet in the depths of his soul an ascetic almost without feeling for the pleasures and honors of this world, and a most conscientious follower of the maxims of the saints, this man is indeed a glory and consolation to the Church.

Contardo Ferrini was born of a distinguished family at Milan on 4 April 1859. His father, Rinaldo Ferrini, was professor of physics at the Polytechnic Institute and is known by his numerous works on heat and electricity, which have been translated into many languages. Contardo distinguished himself by his diligence and piety during his classical studies in the schools of his native city. He showed a particular liking for the Holy Scriptures, and the better to understand them learned Hebrew and Syriac. He knew the Epistles of Saint Paul by heart. At seventeen he went to the university of Pavia to study law, residing meantime at the College of Saint Charles Borromeo, or the Borromeum. In the midst of dangers to faith and morals he shut himself up interiorly in God. His letters and notes at this period give a glance into the inner working of his soul. He made use of prayer as the best means of living a pure and joyful life; and communicated to a friend by letters his experience in this regard. How eloquent he becomes when he pictures the joy and consolation he found in his daily meditation. The words of the forty-second Psalm – “God who rejoices my youth” – gave him frequent occasion to consider God as the God of joy and view to all things as reflecting the beauty and amiability of God. At the college where he lived there was Mass only on Sunday, but Ferrini used every day to be present at the Holy Sacrifice in the parish church, and also paid a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the evening. He made such an impression on the people by his devout behavior that they called him the Aloysius of the Borromeum. He avoided everything that could endanger in the slightest degree his purity of heart. He never permitted himself words, jests, or songs of doubtful meaning and was sensibly annoyed when others indulged in them. Frivolous companions jeered at him for this. But this youthful blushing at shameless language was indeed great praise for him. It was in him a sign of innocence and of victory and, therefore, a precious ornament. Outside of this Contardo was greatly loved by his fellow-students for his cheerful disposition and sociability, and he exercised on doubtful characters a wholesome influence. What consolation he experienced in Holy Communion is shown in a beautiful letter to his sister who was preparing to make her First Communion.

After our admirable student finished his course of four years at the university of Pavia, he received the degree of doctor and obtained from the government, through the recommendation of the faculty, a purse for study abroad. He chose Berlin, whose faculty had won great renown in the school of Frederic Charles von Savigny. On his journey thither in the autumn of 1880 he passed through Leipsic. Here he searched for a Catholic church and finding none, was very sad, as he says in a letter, because the busy chy was to him “like a frightful desert.” In Berlin Ferrini went at once to the church of Saint Hedwig. As he was finishing his prayer for protection and blessing he noticed praying near him a young man of about his own age. To the latter he applied for information. The young man was favorably impressed by the stranger and helped him to find a lodging. During the first days he put himself quite at Ferrini’s service and introduced the stranger to other Catholic students. Contardo was quite astonished to find such fervent Catholic life in the northern city. Social intercourse with others in a Catholic students’ society was of great benefit to him. In his letters he recurs again and again to the zeal and the good spirit of these students and urges Italians to imitate them. He also praises the frequentation of the Sacraments in Saint Hedwig’s and the edifying behavior of the soldiers seen there. He forgets to tell how he edified all others by his own example. Prince-bishop Forster of Breslau, in a letter to Archbishop Riboldi of Pavia, who had given Ferrini a letter of recommendation, speaks of him as “potens in lingua Germarrica et in pietate,” and expressed a desire that more such students if possible be sent from Italy. As had been his custom he daily went to Mass and communicated every Sunday and feast-day. He was enrolled in a conference of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and here he met the professor of botany, Dr. Max Westermeier, with whom he soon formed a cordial friendship. In this way he became acquainted with all Catholic circles in Berlin. He conceived a deep sympathy with the distressed Church in Germany. The strong faith of German Catholics, he wrote, gave him the best hope for the future. During vacations he visited other German cities. Once he went to Copenhagen and in the Canute Chapel there was moved to tears by the fact that in this distant little church he felt so much at home and so united in faith with a foreign people. He found German hymns particularly pleasing and translated many of them into Italian.

At the university, Ferrini diligently attended the lectures of Henry Dernburg, Bernstein, Theodore Mommsen, Charles Ed. Zacharia von Lingenthal, and others. Zacharia in particular gave him many suggestions. It was the latter who directed his attention to Roman-Byzantine law – a field in which he was to achieve universal renown as an investigator. While Zacharia lived they maintained a close friendship and mutual interest in their learned labors and Zacharia at his death bequeathed his manuscripts to Ferrini. From this time our student began to lay the foundation of his fame as an author.

After two years Ferrini left Berlin and spent a year in further study at Paris, Rome, and Florence. In November, 1883, he qualified as instructor in the history of Roman Law at Pavia. Two years later he was appointed extraordinary professor. In 1887 he accepted the chair of Roman Law in the university of Messina, in 1890 was called to Modena and finally in 1894 was unanimously chosen by the faculty of Pavia to the professorship of Law.

After his two years in Berlin, Ferrini became an exceedingly fertile author. Every year he published a multitude of articles and critiques in Italian, German, and French periodicals. He is the author of a series of text-books for the study of law and of many works on the history of law. He is particularly famed for his various researches in archives on the subject of Roman-Byzantine Law. After Zacharia’s death he became the chief authority in this branch. The elevation of law studies in the higher schools of Italy is to be ascribed principally to the labors and learning of Contardo Ferrini.

Theodore Mommsen is said to have declared that “what Savigny was to the nineteenth century, Ferrini will be to the twentieth.” Once Mommsen was in Milan and inquired in some libraries for Ferrini. When they could give him no information he exclaimed: “Oh, you poor Italians; you do not know your greatest men.” After Ferrini’s death the university of Pavia erected a monument to him bearing a most laudatory inscription in which, among other eulogies, the title of “Prince of scholars of Roman Law – the pride of the Faculty” was given him.

Worthy of admiration as is the great learning of this man, his lively faith and profound piety were still more so. Neither honors and flatteries, nor the opposition of unbelievers could in the least diminish his religious spirit Every day without exception he heard Mass and after his arrival at Modena in 1890, he received Holy Communion every day and regularly at the close of each day paid a visit to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, often bringing with him at the end of the lecture some of his auditors. He prayed before and after study, spent a quarter of an hour in meditation every morning and on free days a whole hour. He obtained material for consideration from the “Meditations” by Father Louis de Ponte, S.J., and prepared the points of the meditation the evening before. His utterances on prayer are golden. “If I have an element of character – ” he wrote, “and I believe I possess more than all past, present, and future liberals – I have prayer to thank for it. If my studies have produced fruit, I thank the blessing of prayer for it. Because of the consoling effect of prayer, I waste no time in the theaters, cafes, and the thousand other useless pastimes of an ill-regulated life.” “Life without prayer – a consciousness that excludes the precious blessing of God, another place of rest than in the arms of Christ, are to me inconceivable. Such a life must be like a dark night, disheartening and saddening, on which rests the curse of God, which gives no strength to withstand temptations and in which all joy of spirit is wanting. It is a puzzle to me how any one can live such a life.” Ferrini’s life was truly one unbroken prayer, an elevation of his soul to God. His clear understanding reached always to the last principle of all things. Everything gave him an occasion of admiring the greatness of God. His best prayer-book was God’s own creation.

Contardo’s father had a country house in Suna, near Pallenza, on the west shore of Lake Maggiore, opposite the well-known island of Borromeo. Here the family used to spend the greater part of the vacations. In his youth Contardo had learned to love this Alpine region. Long tours and mountain-climbing parties were the only pleasures to which he gave himself. For him it was the healthiest recreation after strenuous mental work. But his spirit even more than his body waxed strong in the beautiful Alpine land. We know from his letters and from the accounts of his companions how mightily it inspired his heart to praise God and to admire the Divine omnipotence of Goodness.

When an intelligence so clear, united with so incorrupt a heart as that of Professor Contardo Ferrini, contemplates the splendor of the universe, it fully responds to the thousand voices which announce God’s creation and God’s beauty. Those high and calm regions of the mountain land especially suited the lofty and ideal spirit of our professor. Hence it was that he felt so much at home there and his soul so filled with praise for his Creator.

Like nature, art also guided him to God. “God breathes,” he writes, “in all immortal masterpieces. How often I felt drawn to Him with unspeakable longing when I contemplated the works of art in the museums of Munich, Dresden, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, and Florence. Often when I admired a great masterpiece tears sprang unbidden to my eyes – tears I hope my angel did not let fall to earth.”

Modern unbelief, so widespread in higher schools, could never touch Ferrini. There was no doubt or wavering for him. He published a pamphlet on the contradictions of positivism, with particular advertence to the writings of Ludwig Buchner, then widely spread throughout Italy. He exposed the absurdities of unbelief in an incisive and convincing manner. To friends who had difficulties in matter of faith he was an admirable adviser. It is remarkable that this great scholar considered pride the greatest hindrance to the knowledge of the truth. Hence he could never insist enough on humility as the only way to the knowledge of God. In witness of the truth that true learning leads to God, Ferrini is an illustrious example, and one that our university students would do well to imitate.

The daily order which he followed when professor makes known to us how profoundly this admirable man was penetrated with the spirit of mortification and of zeal for souls. We may find recorded there all the acts of self-denial he intended to practise in his meals, in his intercourse with others, and so on. He would behave with modesty and courtesy toward all. The greatest friendliness would be shown to unbelievers and sinners, since it might give them occasion to feel attracted toward our Faith. Before his lectures he prayed that his hearers might profit by them. When the evil deeds of others were recounted he prayed interiorly for their conversion. Every hour he greeted the Mother of God with a Hail Mary and renewed his desire for Holy Communion.

Ferrini was a man of high ideals. We can not wonder, therefore, that he chose for himself the state of celibacy. He is inexhaustible in praise of this virtue. The notes and points of meditation which he gathered for himself indicate the thoughts of his innermost soul. “What are the satisfactions of the world,” he asks, “the joys of knowledge, the gratification of our natural inclinations, in comparison with the joys which celibacy brings?” We could gather from his writings a complete bouquet of beautiful sayings on the nobility and charm of chastity. He appears to have acquired his enthusiasm for this virtue from meditation on the prerogatives of Mary. Every day he said certain prayers to Mary, to Saint Aloysius and to his patron, Saint Contardus, for protection against dangers to his purity. His parents often expressed a desire that he should marry. But his prompt and decided answer made them understand that this question had long been settled. When similar proposals came from other quarters his refusal was still more energetic. Every one praised Ferrini’s courtesy. Even unbelievers highly esteemed his knowledge and character. He had no personal enemies. “Companionship with Ferrini,” wrote Professor Luigi Olivi of Modena, “was for many, certainly for myself, a school of perfection.” The students were attracted by the noble qualities of the man. Many sought his advice, or brought him books of whose morality they doubted. In 1895 the Catholics of Milan elected him city councillor.

In his own family circle Contardo was always an obedient son, ready for any service. Since he had only three lectures a week when professor at Pavia, he lived with his people at Milan. His parents survived him and had the happiness of being permitted to give testimony to the sanctity of their son.

In 1900 he was afflicted with a heart lesion in consequence of his excessive labors. In the autumn of 1902, greatly weakened, he went to the country house at Suna. At the beginning of October he was stricken with typhus, and his strength being insufficient to resist the malignant fever, he died on the 17th of that month, 1902, aged forty-three. Now became known the high esteem in which all held the deceased. Letters of condolence from the university professors praised him as a saint. The people of Suna at once expressed the desire to see him numbered among the saints. They had seen him so often among them and had been edified by the piety, modesty, and courtesy of the Aloysius of the Ferrinis, as they called him. The call for Ferrini’s beatification ever became more insistent. Laymen, priests, and bishops asked for it, and there was universal rejoicing when in 1909 Pius X appointed Cardinal Ferrari to begin the process. Ferrini is indeed a man who merits to be placed before the modern world of culture as a model. On May 29, 1910, Professor Carlo Meda, leader of the Catholics of Milan, directed a pilgrimage of Catholic students to the grave of Ferrini at Suna and there delivered an eloquent discourse before a large gathering of people, exhorting them to follow the example of that great man. If it be true that a Catholic scholar of the laity, who is devoted heart and soul to his Faith, is of greater service to the Church than any apology, we have such a man in Ferrini, universally renowned for his learning and leading in the world a life of religious perfection – the life of a saint.

MLA Citation

  • Father Constantine Kempf, SJ. “Contardo Ferrini”. The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, 1916. CatholicSaints.Info. 17 September 2018. Web. 13 November 2018. <>