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Raising saints: Lessons from the mother of Blessed Carlo Acutis
“I felt like I was living in a dream. I thought that only a few days prior, everything had been so different! In that room, Carlo joked, played, laughed, lived his teenage life. And now look at him, lying lifeless in a wooden box.“
With these words, Antonia Salzano Acutis — the mother of Blessed Carlo Acutis who is likely to become the first millennial to be canonized by the Catholic Church — describes the unthinkable moment.
“When I saw the coffin leave the room with my son inside,” she continues,” I thought of his words: ‘Mom, even if all our dreams were to fall apart, we could never allow cynicism to take over and harden our hearts. From each disappointment, a new dream is born.’”
Antonia’s words come from the dramatic first chapter in her new book, My Son Carlo, (Mondadori Libri S.p.A., Milan) first published in 2021 and made available in English earlier this year (Our Sunday Visitor). In it, she shares the deeply personal story of her son’s death from promyelocytic leukemia, a devastating disease known for remaining hidden until days before death. Carlo’s final day of school was September 30, 2006. By October 7, the illness his pediatrician first thought was a flu, then mumps, had fatigued him to the point that he could not get out of bed. Five days later, Carlo left his earthly life.
Faith magazine had the opportunity to meet with Antonia when she spoke at the 2023 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia on September 30. After a lengthy day of meetings and prayer, followed by her keynote presentation, she was generous, thoughtful and at times even humorous as she sat for the interview.
“I am the secretary of Carlo!” she admitted with a laugh, acknowledging that her life’s work is now driven by his.
It is well-known that Antonia grew to embrace the Catholic faith as a direct result of Carlo’s desire to understand his own. Like her son, she was an only child. She was educated in a Catholic school, partly because it was nearby, partly because her parents wanted her to receive a Catholic education. Looking back, she knows it also was providential.
“There are no coincidences,” she asserts. “Nothing that happens to us is casual.” Despite her schooling, Antonia had only ever attended three Masses: her first Communion, her confirmation and her wedding.
“I was terribly ignorant,” she says, referring to the Catholic faith. “And then came Carlo, who was like a savior for me.” He was bright and always a step ahead — he started speaking at five months — and was not yet four when he began asking his mother questions about the Catholic faith. Many came as a result of conversations he’d had with his devout Polish nanny.
“He asked me about very serious matters I couldn’t answer, and this made me uncomfortable,” Antonia says. Just around the same time, her father died of a heart attack, a sudden and unexpected occurrence.
“I started to contemplate the future, about what happens after life,” she says. At this point, Antonia reveals the depth and ease with which both she and her son took their faith — and supernatural experiences — in stride.
“Two months after the death of my father, Carlo told me his grandfather had appeared to him, asking for prayers because he was in purgatory,” Antonia says. “This made me worry and I started really contemplating all these things.” Confiding her concerns, she acted upon a friend’s recommendation to visit Father Ilio Carrai, whom Antonia describes as the Padre Pio of Bologna.
“He told me straight away when he saw me that Carlo had a special mission for the Church — and so many beautiful things,” Antonia says. “Of course, he didn't tell me that Carlo was going to die,” she says, leaning forward and widening her eyes conspiratorially.
What did she think Father Carrai meant when he spoke of this special mission?
“I started to think maybe he would become a priest,” she says. “My mother joked, ‘Ah, Carlo will become pope!’ But Father Carrai had the gift of discernment of the spirit, so he heard my confession and it was a scary confession! I think of this as the beginning of my conversion.”
But it is Carlo whom Antonia credits with helping her to embrace the fullness of the Catholic faith.
“He was the one who made me understand that the Blessed Sacrament is the body and soul of Christ, the real presence of Christ.” Until then, she had thought of the Eucharist as a symbol that didn't mean anything. Now she says, “this was the most important discovery of my life. To discover that in the Blessed Sacrament there is the real presence of God.” She began on that path with Carlo and continues to feel they are united in their journey.
Which brings us to another supernatural moment. In My Son Carlo, Antonia mentions that Carlo reported having had a conversation with St. Jacinta.
“Yes,” she confirms. “For us it was normal. But Carlo didn't make a big deal about it. He was very concrete each day, going to Mass, Eucharistic adoration, reading the Bible. It was not (like this) she explains, throwing her head back and raising her hands to her face in ecstasy. “He was a computer geek. A computer geek has a different attitude.”
But after that experience, Antonia acknowledges, Carlo was scared.
“He said, ‘Jacinta told me that there are no words on earth to describe the horror of hell.’ He had read the memoirs of Sister Lucia and knew that Mary told the children of Fatima that the reason many souls go to hell is because nobody was praying and doing sacrifices for them.”
Carlo couldn’t help but respond.
“He started to really pray and to do little sacrifices, maybe renouncing Nutella, Coca-Cola,” Antonia remembers. “He started to pray more, maybe not going to see a film he liked — whatever he could offer, appropriate for his age. Of course, as he got older, he started to do bigger things but in a very natural way, without making a fuss. He was very discreet with his faith. Very simple.”
But the encounter with St. Jacinta remained with him.
“He used to tell me, ‘Mother, can you imagine, let’s try to think of forever. Forever, forever, to be in hell. Forever, forever, forever!’ He once asked if it was more important to save souls from damnation or to do works of charity. He decided doing good works was important, but that it is more important to save souls. Eternal life! We are here as a pilgrimage. We are to do our best. Jesus has infinite mercy, but there is the possibility of losing your soul forever.”
Antonia moves comfortably into her own views.
“This is not a joke,” she says. “This is a very serious matter. People don’t think about the eternal. They always have the earthly things. They try not to contemplate. They should contemplate more.” Having visited Fatima, Antonia is well-versed in the events that transpired in 1917.
“Jacinta used to say that “if people would understand what eternity is, they would do everything they could to change their life. And instead, we continue to do the same thing. Think about COVID,” she says. “Have you seen any changes? Very little change after COVID. Even with something that dramatic, that should have touched us, should at least push us to contemplate: ‘What is life after death? Why am I here?’ Carlo used to say that we should live each minute of each day like it was the last of our life. That’s a good way to live, to always be ready to go. With your luggage!” she says, lightening the mood.
Four years to the day after Carlo’s death, Antonia and her husband Andrea welcomed fraternal twins, Michele and Francesca. Antonia accepts this as an extraordinary grace through the intercession of Carlo. The children now are entering their teens.
“Of course my son and daughter, they’re very different from their brother. They are more like my husband, more reserved, more shy. But they have a very big sense of eternity,” Antonia says. “They fear in the sense that they understand the importance of living a life consistent with the commandments of God. So they go to Mass each day, they pray the rosary each day, they participate in Eucharistic adoration.”
How have she and Andrea managed to introduce them to a life of faith?
“Of course, to arrive at this, the family is very important. We started to pray with them when they were three years old,” she says. “We started to read them the stories of the saints, the story of the Virgin Mary. The family is very important. What happens if the family never prays with the children?”
Antonia says her family simply is committed to this way of life.
“We started, and then they wanted to pray the rosary each day. They read a lot. And of course, as a family we did pilgrimages, we speak about faith matters often and most especially, we pray together. For example, we announce in the morning sometimes, instead of waking up at seven, we’re going to wake up 30 minutes before and pray the liturgy of the church. They love this. They want it because they think praying is very important. You see, it is the example of the parents. It is easy to be lazy because we are tired and we are working. But when we arrive home at night, we have to impose on ourselves a moment of prayer together. We might renounce a little bit of television, wake up a little early. But we have to try to transmit faith. Faith is the most important thing.”
Antonia acknowledges many children might not want to go to Mass.
“They don’t want to go because the parents are not consistent with their faith. The children see this,” she observes. She and her husband follow the parenting advice of St. John Bosco, known for reforming many young people who were on the wrong path in the late 1800s. His method, referred to as the Salesian Preventive System, is based on the three pillars of reason, religion and loving-kindness as opposed to constant correction and punishment. He believed it was important to treat young people as persons, always focused on their formation as human beings and as Christians.
“Many parents always say yes, okay my dear, yes, yes!” Antonia says. “Instead, to say no is very important. We have to understand that if we love our children, we also have to educate them. We have to say no sometimes.”
The Salesian system posits that it is easier to prevent poor behavior than to correct it.
“We do prevention for breast cancer,” Antonia points out. “We do the scans. St. John Bosco was an enlightened educator. He says we have to teach our children to do everything for the love of God. And so, all our life becomes a continuous prayer.”
And for parents who may not have begun this approach early on?
“There is always a moment to start,” Antonia says. “Of course we have to pray. We have to offer our sacrifice to God. We have to be very, very strong in our prayers and faith that God will hear us and will help us and that our prayer will save our children. It’s very important to pray for our children, to sacrifice for them. The Virgin Mary told us that many people go to hell because there was nobody to pray and do sacrifices for them. This is in the holy Scriptures as well, and Jesus says we need to pray continuously not to enter into temptation. We really have to pray, pray, pray!”
According to Antonia, the place to begin is with ourselves,
“When you change yourself, people around you will change. The first conversion is our own conversion. When we are filled with Jesus, we will be contagious. It is a chain reaction, like nuclear fission. But first, we need to live this friendship with God. We need to pray, to have this intimacy with God. How can we speak about God if we don’t live with his presence inside us? We have to be the witness, the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”