Pope St. John Paul II issued an Apostolic blessing in 1997 addressed to Giulio Nicolini, bishop of Cremona, Italy. In this letter, he briefly recounts the history of St. Omobono of Cremona, emphasizing that Omobono was “the first and only layman of the faithful, not to belong either to the nobility or to a royal or princely family, to be canonized during the Middle Ages.”
John Paul’s letter — written in recognition of the “Year of St. Omobono,” celebrated in Cremona between Nov. 13, 1997 and Jan. 12, 1999 — is among the first modern Church documents to reference this important merchant saint. Here John Paul correctly recognizes the “striking parallels” between 12th century Cremona and our modern world:
“Although distant in time, Omobono does in fact figure as a saint for the Church and society of our time … because of the exemplary way this faithful layman worked and lived the Gospel perfection. The striking parallels with the demand of the present time give [this] celebration a profound sense of ‘contemporaneity.’”
Indeed, the profound and complex issues faced by Omobono 800 years ago do mirror our modern world in compelling ways.
Although largely unknown in the English-speaking world, Omobono Tucenghi’s life provides a model of heroic virtue for anyone trying to appreciate the proper role of human work in our daily lives. My colleague Donald Prudlo has recently completed the first-ever English translations of the documents on Omobono’s life, and we have nearly completed the first academic biography of the patron saint of businesspeople and entrepreneurs. This biography will add depth and context to current discussions about the relationship between the free economy and the Catholic faith.
The Bull of Canonization issued by Pope Innocent III in 1199, for example, established a “theology of sainthood.” In this document, Innocent stresses that a reputation for earthly holiness is necessary but not sufficient for sainthood. The earthly reputation must be verified by divine marks of favor in the form of miracles. The vast and sustained expressions of grief after Omobono’s death clearly demonstrated an authentic reputation for holiness, and the subsequent miracles were a sign of divine endorsement. In fact, Omobono’s piety allowed him to avoid “the company of worldly men, among whom he was distinguished like a lily among thorns.”
We see this tension between the life of holiness and the realities of business life in another document as well. In Cum Orbita Solis, issued in 1200, we learn how Omobono’s devotion saved him “from the perverse and depraved practices of the market.” The document recognizes the difficulty of finding the proper work-life balance, for business concerns tend to be all-consuming and require enormous investments of time. The text acknowledges that “it is difficult for one who practices business to divest himself of religious indifference.” For this reason, the Church needs models for those “who trade in money” or work as merchants, demonstrating that no station in life is unworthy of sanctification. Thus, one can find dignity and redemption in all types of work.
Another document, Labentibus Annis, likely issued in 1275, provides even more detail from the life of the merchant saint. Here again we see something strikingly modern in his attitude and behavior. Omobono was a successful, well-respected and established merchant. He owned a home and land, living what we might call today an “upper middle-class” life. He worked diligently and faithfully in his occupation and earned a reputation for honesty and integrity. Yet, as he aged, “his formerly calloused preoccupation with increasing his wealth began to cool, and he no longer began to follow his associates, nor do his job with his usual craftsmanship.”
The merchant from Cremona suffered what we might call a mid-life crisis, had an epiphany, and realized that making money simply for the sake of making more money no longer motivated him. He thus sought a deeper meaning and significance from his life as he directed more of his time, talent and treasure to the service of others. He began a second business, making wine from his little vineyard (and thus began his entrepreneurial activities) and used that money to alleviate poverty and suffering — causing some strife and tension within his family. His wife and children did not support Omobono is his charitable efforts, often leading to arguments and resentment. In spite of the difficulties, Omobono dedicated his life to service and charity.
This brief overview provides a foundation upon which we will build a more robust and detailed analysis. This short introduction, however, clearly demonstrates why John Paul called Omobono a “saint for our time.”
PAUL J. VOSS, PH.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.