Bl. Ildefonso Schuster

(1880 - 1954)

Sometimes the popes delay or even omit the beatification or canonization of an unquestionably holy person because he or she had become entangled somehow in the web of current politics. Since Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, archbishop of Milan from 1929 to 1954, was on personal good terms with Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the Vatican authorities must have examined carefully their relationship before deciding him qualified for beatification. In other respects he was regarded as a holy man and a pastoral bishop.

It may seem odd that Pope Pius XI should have named to head a major Italian see a man with so Germanic a name as Alfredo Schuster. Alfredo’s father was indeed Bavarian by birth. His mother Anna Maria Tutzer was a native of the South Tyrol, Italian by citizenship but Austrian by culture. However, Johannes Schuster, a tailor, had moved to Rome, and his son, born there, grew up a true Romano.

Alfredo felt called to the monastic life. In 1899 he made his monastic profession in the Roman Benedictine Abbey of St. Paul’s-outside-the-Walls. Then, having completed his theological studies in the great Roman Benedictine monastery of Sant’ Anselmo, he was ordained a priest in 1904. A model monk from the start, he rose through many promotions to the post of abbot-ordinary of St. Paul’s.

As a scholar specializing in monastic history and matters liturgical, Father Ildefonso became internationally known for his classic study of the Roman Missal. The popes employed him increasingly as a consultant, and on June 26, 1929 Pope Pius appointed him archbishop of Milan, created him a cardinal, and personally consecrated him to the order of bishop. The frail ascetic then took over the see of Milan with a zeal comparable to that of his great predecessors St. Ambrose and St. Charles Borromeo.

By the time of Schuster’s election to Milan, Benito Mussolini, the founder of the totalitarian Fascist movement, had already thrust himself into the Italian political scene and been named prime minister. Italy’s bishops were uncertain about this anti-religious ideologist who had achieved power through violence. Their opinion of him mellowed, however, when in early 1929 he shrewdly engineered the Lateran Pacts in which the Italian government, which in 1870 had robbed the papacy of its independent kingdom and declared the popes subjects of the kings of Italy, reversed its stance, proclaiming the popes politically independent, and making financial restitution for the stolen lands and properties.

Cardinal Schuster took an optimistic view of the new dictator. As the first Italian bishop named under the agreements, he was also the first to take the agreed-on oath of loyalty to the Italian state; hence he felt obliged to maintain deferential relations with the Italian government.

It was not long, however, before the Fascist “Duce” started to violate the spirit of the Lateran Pacts. Seeking to dominate and “fascistize” all Italian organizations, he moved to obliterate Catholic Action groups and Catholic youth societies. Then in 1937 he began to enact a series of racist laws like those promulgated by Hitler. Hitherto, Pope Pius XI had taken him sternly to task for such actions. After 1938 Cardinal Schuster, too, spoke out against these and other “Germanizations” introduced by Mussolini.

During World War II Schuster governed his diocese well despite the bitter Italian military campaign. When Italy fell to the Allies in 1943, Mussolini fled north, henceforth a mere puppet of Hitler. The Cardinal’s advice to the Nazi-Fascist troops still in northern Italy to surrender had a decisive influence. His personal solicitude for Mussolini prompted him to seek out the dispirited dictator on April 25, 1945, and urge him to make his peace with God and man. The Duce spurned the admonition, to his own quick disaster. He was assassinated three days later by a band of extremist Italian partisans.

--Father Robert F. McNamara