Coming to Know the Real Carlo Acutis

In just a short time, Blessed Carlo not only lived life to the full, but also became a teacher to his peers, the poor and to the whole Catholic Church.

By Father Roger Landry

On Saturday, Oct. 10 in Assisi, Carlo Acutis was beatified. On Oct. 12, the Church celebrated his feast for the first time, on the 14th anniversary of Blessed Carlo’s 2006 death of acute leukemia. 

The time between Carlo’s birth into eternal life and his being raised to the altars was almost as brief as his 15 years of life on earth. In that short span, however, Carlo not only experienced the “life to the full” (Jn 10:10) that Christ came into the world to bring, but became a teacher to his parents, peers, the poor and now the whole Church. 

He may already be the most famous 15-year-old to die. While the beatifications of Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, John Paul II and John Henry Newman were bigger than the pandemic-reduced crowds in Assisi, none had 15 days of preparation and veneration, or a vigil of prayer the night before, like he did. The others were all quite famous during their life, while few outside of Milan and Assisi would have known Carlo. 

But now, just 29 years after his birth, Blessed Carlo is perhaps touching far more people than any of those great saints did when they were 29. And he’s just getting started. Pope Francis penned three paragraphs about him in his 2019 exhortation to young people Christus Vivit and now thousands of articles and hundreds of websites tell his story. 

When I first learned about him, I was impressed by his precocious hunger for God: He prayed the Rosary every day from a young age; made his first Holy Communion a year early and then attended daily Mass thereafter; cared for the homeless each night; traveled regularly to Assisi; loved the saints; learned computers to design websites to spread his love of the Eucharist and Mary and to teach about angels and the four last things. I figured, frankly, that he must have come from a home similar to the one that produced, for example, St. Thérèse. 

Instead he came from a home that, as his garrulous mother Antonia has humbly said in various interviews, wasn’t even lukewarm. By the time Carlo was born, Antonia had been to Church only three times in her life, the days she was baptized, confirmed and married. Carlo, through his questions and zeal, eventually got her to take her faith more seriously, and she was just one of many converts. While Carlo’s grandparents practiced the faith and he attended Catholic schools, it seems pretty clear that the Lord interacted with Blessed Carlo much like he did with the young prophet Samuel. 

Several things strike me about his life. 

He had an advanced awareness of the meaning of life and how to live well. “To be always united to Jesus is my program of life,” he declared. In contrast to contemporary narcissism, he said that happiness comes from keeping “one’s face turned toward God” and sadness from focusing your attention on yourself. “Not I, but God” was his mantra. “Find God,” he stated, “and you will find the meaning of your life.” 

He lived life with a certain urgency: “Every minute that passes,” he said, “is one minute less to become like God,” and to become like God was his desire. “What does it matter if you can win a thousand battles if you cannot win against your own corrupt passions?” he asked. “The real battle is with ourselves.”

Right before he died, he said, “To have a long life doesn’t mean that this is a good thing [because] one can live a very long time and live badly.” He humbly confessed, “I am happy to die because I have lived my life without waiting a minute on those things that do not please God.” 

Blessed Carlo had an ardent love for Jesus in the Eucharist. He lived a Eucharistic life, calling the Eucharist “my highway to heaven.” He attended daily Mass from the time he was 7 and spent time each day in adoration. “The more Eucharist we receive,” he believed, “the more we will become like Jesus.”

He had a Eucharistic amazement, so fascinated by the Eucharistic miracles across the centuries that he went on an adventure to try to visit them all and to document them so that others could share his astonishment. It didn’t make sense to him that there would be huge crowds for soccer games and rock concerts but no lines before the tabernacle where God is present and lives among us. 

He had a deep love for Mary. “The Virgin Mary is the only woman in my life,” he said, and he called the Rosary, which he prayed daily, the “shortest ladder to climb to heaven” and the “most powerful weapon,” after the Eucharist, “to fight the devil.” Like his inspiring 196-part series on Eucharistic miracles that has posthumously traveled the world, he also had conceptualized a 156-part series on the Marian apparitions, which was completed by his mother after his death.

He had a love for the Church and the saints. “To criticize the Church means to criticize ourselves,” he said, because “the Church is the dispenser of treasures for our salvation.” We judge the Church not by those who don’t live according to her teachings but by those who do, which is why he drew near to the saints, like St. Francis of Assisi and various great young saints like Tarcisius, Aloysius, Dominic Savio, Bernadette, and Francisco and Jacinta Marto.

He had a vibrant charity. He stuck up for classmates being bullied, invited to his home kids who were suffering because of their parents’ divorce or domestic problems, tutored classmates who were struggling with homework or computer problems, patiently rescued friends experimenting with drugs or addicted to pornography, spent time with the elderly helping them with tasks, “hunted” for litter in parks or on the beach to beautify the world, brought warm drinks and food to the homeless and used his allowance to buy them sleeping bags or warm clothes. “Life is a gift,” he said, “because as long as we are on earth, we can increase our level of love.” 

His greatest charity was to try to share the faith. From the time he was 11, he taught catechism and sought to inspire younger kids to choose to strive for sanctity. To make the faith practical, he made a “Holiness Kit” for them that involved nine steps that he himself practiced: to love God with all your heart; each day to try to go to Mass and receive Communion, pray the Rosary, read a passage of sacred Scripture, and make a visit to Jesus in the tabernacle each day; to go to confession once a week; to help others as often as you can; and to rely on your guardian angel as your best friend. 

He attracted people to the faith more by his example and friendship than by words. His mom said, “To live close to someone like Carlo means not to remain neutral in your faith.” His zeal led him use his computer skills to try to design websites not only on the Eucharist and on Marian apparitions but also a 170-part series on the Last Things and a 131-part series on Angels and Demons in the lives of saints. 

Despite all of this, there’s a danger in the devotion to him now growing very fast. It’s that, like Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, he might suffer from well-meaning but superficial caricature. Some reduce Frassati from a man of the beatitudes and heroic charity to a “holy hunk” who hiked and smoked a pipe. Similarly, some are basically promoting Blessed Carlo as a PlayStation-competing, comic-book-loving, jeans-and-sneaker-wearing computer whiz. In trying to make holiness “cool,” they’re instead making it mundane by focusing on accidents rather than substance. 

Like his beloved St. Francis, however, Blessed Carlo was an “influencer for God” not by his worldliness but by his ordinary otherworldly radicalness. His most famous quip was, “All people are born as originals, but many die as photocopies,” and some are unfortunately trying to make him two-dimensional, evidently believing that the depth of his originality in God’s image would repel rather than attract the young even more. 

The world and the Church, however, are in need the real thing. 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.