Pope John Paul wasn't the only holy soul whose cause for sainthood was kicked up a notch last Friday. Fr. James Martin, SJ (author of "The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything" and "My Life with the Saints") pointed out that an Italian layman was also approved for beatification. And that Italian layman, an economist, professor and political theorist, had a big influence on our Founder.
It was Toniolo who founded the "Italian Catholics' Social Weeks" a kind of think-tank or forum for political thought (at a time when Catholics forbidden--by the Pope--to vote). Over 100 years later, these Social Weeks are still being held. Their goal is to promote the "common welfare, founded on absolute respect for every human life and on the centrality of the family." In 1900, our Founder, then just a 16-year-old seminarian, attended one of these congresses, and it changed his life. Fifty years later, he wrote: "He understood well the calm but profound and convincing talk given by Toniolo.... Both [Toniolo and Leo XIII] had stressed the needs of the Church, the new means of evil, the duty to oppose the press with the press, organization with organization, to make the Gospel penetrate the masses, the social question..." In prayer that New Year's Eve, Alberione received an extraordinary grace of enlightenment in which, among other things, he "seemed to comprehend the heart of the great Pope, the calls sent out by the Church, the true mission of the priest. Toniolo's words regarding the duty of being modern apostles, using the means abused by adversaries, appeared clear..."
Toniolo was also the first president of the "Popular Union," a kind of proto-political party that gave Catholics a way to take part in the political process without compromising with anti-clericalists (who pretty much dominated the scene--this was the era of socialist revolutions). As a young priest, our Founder was assigned by the bishop to go from parish to parish (in practical terms, this meant from hilltop village to hilltop village) to teach people about this new, approved form of participation in civic life.
Toniolo's vibrant Catholic witness and his efforts to involve Catholics in political life during a time of anti-clerical ferment marked him as politically incorrect. (I seem to remember him losing his position as a teacher of economics because of this.) Nonetheless, by the end of his life, he had become a kind of symbol in person of an Italy that claimed its Catholic heritage while firmly claiming a place in the modern political world.