Bishop de Mazenod wrote in his memoirs: “It was this priest Don Bartolo, who died later in the odour of sanctity, who instructed me in religion and inspired in me the sentiments of piety which preserved me from the youthful aberrations so many others have lived to regret, for want of meeting with similar help.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 16, no. 8, p. 39) And Bishop Jeancard bears witness that the Founder of the Oblates used to often speak about Don Bartolo, stressing that it was thanks to this holy priest that he had acquired solid principles of this kind.
Bartolo Zinelli was born on April 12, 1766 in Venice in a well-to-do, deeply religious family. Two of the sons were ordained to the priesthood. Young Bartolo dedicated himself fervently to prayer and study. Ordained to the priesthood, he worked in the ministry of preaching and teaching catechism to children. Of a kindly and very sensitive nature, he had even gained the confidence of the Patriarch of Venice who used to consult him with regard to difficult questions. Four months after Eugene de Mazenod left for Naples, on March 5, 1798, Don Bartolo joined the Society of the Priests of the Faith, as a first step to re-establishing the Jesuits.
He made his religious profession on June 21, 1799 at Hagenbrunn in Austria. From there, he was called by the superior general, Nicolas Paccanari to Vienna to help preach a mission in the Italian church. Once back in Italy, he devoted himself entirely to the preaching of missions and retreats. He began at Our Lady of Loreto. And for a year and a half, he criss-crossed the country, preaching and hearing confessions with very good results. But he overestimated his strength. Taken by illness, he was compelled to withdraw to the convent of Saint Sylvester near the Quirinal in Rome. His illness was long and painful. Strengthened by the Sacrament of the Sick, he fell peacefully asleep in the Lord on July 3, 1803 at the age of 37. He was buried in the church of the same name under the altar of the Blessed Sacrament. (General Archives S.J., Paccanaristae 8, Societas Fidei, Catalogi 1797-1805; no. 538, Ruolo dei Morti) In the course of renovations in the church, his body was removed. Today, we have lost all track of it.
A genuine man of God, very attached to the Society, deeply humble, ardent in charity, he was especially distinguished by his zeal. Although he was sometimes troubled by scruples, they never hindered his own conscience in his work in hearing confessions and in directing souls. In short, concludes the Society’s obituary, a man of God and a true son of the Company, his only concern was the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
In a December 6, 1825 letter to Father Courtès, Father de Mazenod wrote: “The cause of his beatification would have been launched long ago if the Society of which he was a member had not been dissolved, because of the misconduct of the head, the famous Paccanari, who finished so badly after having made a good beginning. […] God has not willed apparently to glorify his servant here below. If he had been entirely a Jesuit, these good Fathers would have taken more trouble with the matter.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 6, no. 210, p. 206 and 207)
Don Bartolo’s brother, Don Pietro, who was only a deacon at the time, also used to spend time with young Eugene in Venice. Born on March 18, 1772, he followed his older brother into the Society of the Priests of the Faith. Later on, he became secretary to the Father General and died in Padua on June 11, 1806 at the age of 34.
Eugene’s first encounter with Don Bartolo was contrived by Don Milesi, parish priest of the parish of Saint Sylvester where Eugene used to come to serve Mass for his great-uncle, Charles André de Mazenod. One day when Eugene was playing at the window of his house, Don Bartolo appeared on the other side of the street and asked him: Are you not afraid of wasting your time? Alas, responded Eugene, it is really awful, but what can I do? I am a foreigner here without any books available to me. Well, then, replied Don Bartolo, I am right in my library at the moment and here I have many books in Latin, Italian and French. Having said this, he took up the stick that was used to bar the shutters and put a book on it and passed it over the narrow, approximately one and one half meter street.
After having read the book, Eugene, following the advice of his father, went to Don Bartolo’s house to thank him for this kind gesture. “Well,” said Don Bartolo, “do you see this lovely library? All of these books are available to you as well.” Then, Don Bartolo showed Eugene his study where he and his brother Don Pietro used to study and told him. You can take the place here of my younger brother who has died. Eugene could not contain his joy. Well, then, you can begin tomorrow already.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 16, no. 8, p. 40 and 41)
From that day until his departure for Naples in November of 1797, Eugene went regularly to the Zinelli family home to study and to pray. At Donna Camilla and her sons’ house, he saw examples of work, prayer, charity and an affectionate warmth that did him an immense amount of good. But he was especially taken by Don Bartolo because of his greatness of spirit and his practical knowledge. Don Bartolo became a friend to Eugene, a seasoned big brother, tactful and prudent. At this difficult age of passage from childhood to adolescence, Eugene had the good fortune of finding in Don Bartolo a guide who consoled him, who supported him and who helped him climb the difficult way of Christian perfection.
Don Bartolo laid out for his disciple a rather strict rule. It contained: a fifteen minute morning prayer, attending Holy Mass, reciting the office of the Blessed Virgin or the rosary, spiritual reading. After Mass, Eugene used to go to the Zinellis and would study until noon. After, he would go home to the de Mazenods for dinner. The afternoon was reserved for a walk. Don Bartolo and Eugene would especially visit churches where they would pause for a few moments to pray. When they went home, Eugene would continue his study until supper which he took with the Zinelli family. Then they recited the rosary together and said night prayer. It was only at eleven o’clock at night that Eugene returned home always under the tutelage of one of the Zinelli servants.
Eugene used to go to confession every Saturday to Don Zauli, a former Jesuit. He received communion every Sunday; daily communion was not allowed at the time. Living with this priest, Eugene naturally wanted to follow him in his holy vocation. When his great-uncle Charles André objected that, in this case, the de Mazenod family would become extinct with him, Eugene replied: “Would it not be a great honour for our family to end of with a priest!” Later on, in an October 2, 1855 letter to Father Tamburini, he added that it was a missionary vocation: “I was only twelve years old when God aroused in my heart the first and very efficacious desires to dedicate myself to the mission, to work for the salvation of souls.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 11, no. 1292, p. 285) And in his memoirs, Bishop de Mazenod declared that if he had remained in Venice any longer, he would have followed his saintly director into the Society of the Priests of Faith. (see Oblate Writings I, vol. 16, no. 8, p. 42-43)
Unfortunately, this budding vocation was not able to contend with the crisis of youth. It began to fade away in Naples and disappeared during the years 1800-1805 to give way to ambition and the search for worldly glory. Don Bartolo tried to arrest the crisis through his letters, reminding Eugene of his “dispositions” while in Venice and suggesting that he follow him by entering the Society of the Faith. But, in vain! Eugene in his last letter to Don Bartolo, dated November 4, 1801, responded cheekily to his former master: “I am no longer a child; I have grown to be a man!” And he ignored the suggestion to follow Don Bartolo in a priestly and religious vocation. (REY I, p. 44)
Later on, during the years 1805-1807, the budding vocation, slumbering in his subconscious, nudged by the grace of God, would reawaken and would transform itself into an adult priest-missionary to the poor vocation. Eugene states this in his correspondence with his mother. Let us cite here, for example, his February 28. 1809 letter: “Now is the time to apply something I said when I was 14 years old and of which you reminded me one day. What family even of royal blood would not feel itself honoured to become extinct in the person of a priest…” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 14, no. 46, p. 103)
The greatest merit on the part of Don Bartolo was to have formed the soul of Eugene, sowing in his heart the desire for the priesthood, and subsequently giving to the Church the founder of a religious congregation, a bishop and finally a canonized saint.
Jósef Pielorz, o.m.i.