An Exclusive Interview with Antonia Salzano, mother of Blessed Carlo Acutis by Graziano Marcheschi, the Contributing Editor of Shalom Tidings as she speaks from her heart of what it’s being like to be a Saint’s mom.
At age seven he wrote, “My life plan is to be always close to Jesus.”
By the time he was fifteen, he had gone home to the Lord whom he had loved throughout his short life.
In between, is the remarkable story of a remarkably ordinary boy.
Ordinary, because he was not a standout athlete, nor a handsome movie star, nor even a brilliant scholar who finished graduate school when other kids are struggling through junior-high. He was a nice kid, a good kid. Very bright, to be sure: at age nine he read college textbooks to teach himself computer programming. But he did not win awards, nor influence people on Twitter. Few outside his circle knew who he was—an only child, living with his parents in northern Italy, who went to school, played sports, enjoyed his friends, and knew how to handle a joystick.
As a very young child he fell in love with God and from then on, he lived with a singular focus, with a hunger for God that few ever achieve. And by the time he left this world he had made an indelible mark on it. Always a boy on a mission, he wasted no time. When people could not see what he saw, even his own mother, he helped them open their eyes.
Via Zoom, I interviewed his mother, Antonia Salzano, and asked her to explain his hunger for God, which even Pope Francis described as a “precocious hunger”?
“This is a mystery for me,” she said. “But many saints had special relationships with God from an early age, even if their family was not religious.” Carlo’s mother speaks from her heart openly about having attended Mass only three times in her life before Carlo started dragging her there when he was three-and-a-half. The daughter of a publisher, she was influenced by artists, writers, and journalists, not popes or saints. She had no interest in matters of faith and now says she was destined to become a “goat” rather than a “sheep.” But then came this marvelous boy who “always raced ahead—he spoke his first word at three months, started talking at five months, and began writing at age four.” And in matters of faith, he was ahead even of most adults.
At age three, he began asking questions his mother could not answer—lots of questions about the Sacraments, the Holy Trinity, Original Sin, the Resurrection. “This created a struggle in me,” Antonia said, “because I myself was as ignorant as a child of three.” His Polish nanny was better able to answer Carlo’s questions and spoke with him often about matters of faith. But his mother’s inability to answer his questions, she said, “diminished my authority as a parent.” Carlo wanted to engage in devotions she had never practiced—honoring the saints, putting flowers before the Blessed Virgin, spending hours in church before the cross and tabernacle.” She was at a loss about how to deal with her son’s precocious spirituality.
The unexpected death of her father from a heart attack led Antonia to start asking her own questions about life after death. Then, Father Ilio, an elderly holy priest known as the Padre Pio of Bologna, whom she met through a friend, set her on a journey of faith on which Carlo would become her primary guide. After telling her all the sins of her life before she confessed them, Father Ilio prophesied that Carlo had a special mission that would be of great importance for the Church.
Eventually, she began studying Theology, but it is Carlo whom she credits with her “conversion,” calling him “her savior.” Because of Carlo, she came to recognize the miracle that occurs at each Holy Mass. “Through Carlo I understood that the bread and wine become the real presence of God among us. This was a fantastic discovery for me,” she said. His love of God and appreciation of the Eucharist was not something young Carlo kept to himself. “The specialness of Carlo was to be a witness,” she said, “…always happy, always smiling, never sad. ‘Sadness is looking in toward the self;’ Carlo would say, ‘happiness is looking out toward God.’” Carlo saw God in his classmates and everyone he met. “Because he was aware of this presence, he gave witness to this presence,” she said. Nourished daily by the Eucharist and divine Adoration, Carlo sought out the homeless, bringing them blankets and food. He defended classmates who were bullied and helped those who needed homework assistance. His one goal was “to speak about God and help others get closer to God.”
Perhaps because he sensed his life would be short, Carlo made good use of time. “When Jesus came,” Antonia commented, “he showed us how not to waste time. Each second of his life was glorification of God.” Carlo understood this well and emphasized the importance of living in the now. “Carpe diem! (Seize the day!),” he urged, “because every minute wasted is one less minute to glorify God.” That’s why this teenager limited himself to but one hour of video games per week!
The attraction that many who read about him instantly feel toward Carlo characterized his whole life. “Since he was a young boy, people were naturally attracted to him—not because he was a blue-eyed fair-haired child, but because of what was inside,” said his mother. “He had a way to connect with people that was extraordinary.”
Even in school he was beloved. “The Jesuit fathers noticed this,” she said. His classmates were competitive kids from the upper classes, focused on achievement and success. “Naturally, there is lots of jealousy between classmates, but with Carlo none of that happened. He melted those things like magic; with his smile and purity of heart he conquered everyone. He had the ability to enflame the hearts of people, to turn their cold hearts warm.”
“His secret was Jesus. He was so full of Jesus—daily Mass, Adoration before or after mass, devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary—that he lived his life with Jesus, for Jesus, and in Jesus.
“Carlo genuinely felt God’s presence in his life,” said his mother, “and this completely changed the way people looked at him. They understood there was something special here.”
Strangers, teachers, classmates, a holy priest, all recognized something unique in this boy. And that uniqueness was most evident in his love of the Eucharist. “The more we receive the Eucharist,” he said, “the more we will become like Jesus, so that on earth we will have a foretaste of Heaven.” All his life he looked toward Heaven and the Eucharist was his “highway to Heaven… the most supernatural thing we have,” he would say. From Carlo, Antonia learned that the Eucharist is spiritual nourishment that helps increase our capacity to love God and neighbor—and grow in holiness. Carlo used to say “when we face the Sun we get a tan, but when we stand before Jesus in the Eucharist we become saints.”
One of Carlo’s best known accomplishments is his website chronicling Eucharistic miracles throughout history. An exhibit developed from the website continues to travel the world from Europe to Japan, from the US to China. Besides the amazing number of visitors to the exhibit, numerous miracles have been documented, though none as significant as the many it has brought back to the Sacraments and the Eucharist.
Carlo is beatified and his canonization is assured, pending the authentication of a second miracle. But Antonia is quick to point out that Carlo will not be canonized because of miracles but because of his Holy life. Holiness is determined by the witness of one’s life, by how well they lived the virtues—faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. “Living the virtues heroically”—which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as ‘a habitual and firm disposition to do the good’—is what makes one a saint.”
And that’s exactly what Carlo strove to do. He tended to talk too much, so he made an effort to talk less. If he noticed himself overindulging, he’d strive to eat less. Nightly, he examined his conscience about his treatment of friends, teachers, parents. “He understood,” his mother said, “that conversion is not a process of addition, but of subtraction.” A profound insight for one so young. And so Carlo worked even to eliminate from his life every trace of venial sin. “Not I, but God,” he would say. “There needs to be less of me so I can leave more room for God.”
This effort made him aware that the greatest battle is with ourselves. One of his best known quotes asks, “What does it matter if you win a thousand battles if you cannot win against your own corrupt passions?” This effort “to overcome the defects that make us spiritually weak,” observed Antonia, “is the heart of holiness.” Young as he was, Carlo knew sanctity lies “in our efforts to resist the corrupt instincts we have inside us because of Original Sin.”
Of course, losing her only child was a great cross for Antonia. But fortunately, by the time he died, she had already found her way back to her faith and had learned that “death is a passage to true life.” Despite the blow of knowing she would lose Carlo, during his time in the hospital the words that echoed inside her were those from the Book of Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21).
After his death, Antonia discovered a video Carlo had made of himself on his computer. Though he knew nothing of his leukemia at the time, in the video he says that when his weight goes down to seventy kilos, he will die. Somehow, he knew. Yet, he is smiling and looking at the sky with his arms upraised. In the hospital, his joy and peacefulness belied a chilling insight: “Remember,” he told his mother, “I won’t leave this hospital alive, but I will give you many, many signs.”
And signs he has given—a woman who prayed to Carlo at his funeral was healed of breast cancer without any chemotherapy. A 44-year-old woman who had never had a child prayed at the funeral and one month later was pregnant. Many conversions have occurred, but perhaps the most special miracle “is the one for the mother,” says Antonia. For years after Carlo’s birth Antonia had tried to conceive other children but to no avail. After his death, Carlo came to her in a dream telling her she would become a mother again. At age 44, on the fourth anniversary of his death, she gave birth to twins—Francesca and Michele. Like their brother, both attend Mass daily and pray the Rosary, and hope one day to help further their brother’s mission.
When his doctors asked if he was in pain, Carlo replied that “there are people who suffer much more than me. I offer my suffering for the Lord, the Pope (Benedict XVI), and the Church.” Carlo died just three days after his diagnosis. With his last words, Carlo professed that “I die happy because I didn’t spend any minutes of my life in things God doesn’t love.”
Naturally, Antonia misses her son. “I feel Carlo’s absence,” she said, “but in some ways I feel Carlo much more present than before. I feel him in a special way—spiritually. And I feel also his inspiration. I see the fruit his example is bringing to young people. This is a big consolation for me. Through Carlo, God is creating a masterpiece and this is very important, especially in these dark times when people’s faith is so weak, and God seems to be unnecessary in our lives. I think Carlo is doing a very good job.”
©Graziano Marcheschi serves as the Senior Programming Consultant for Shalom World. He speaks nationally and internationally on topics of liturgy and the arts, scripture, spirituality, and lay ecclesial ministry. Graziano and his wife Nancy are blessed with two daughters, a son, and three grandchildren and live in Chicago.
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