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.

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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: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.