At the time of James Oldo, Lodi was a town of some significance in the North of Italy about 25 miles southwest of Milan. Richly blessed with irrigated fields for agriculture and with the fighting spirit of the Gallic Celts who overran the town in ancient days, Lodi was idyllic. And it was so most especially for James Oldo, who enjoyed an easy life there since his birth in 1364. He came from a wealthy family. He was a painter, a singer, a musician and – it was said at the time – the best dancer in town.
James fell in love with Catherine in their home town and they found each other equally in love with the amusements that made up so much of their lives. Neither of them was known to pass up a good time, to give up on fine clothes, to sacrifice their rare jewelry or eschew their lavish living quarters. All was directed towards the finer goods of this world.
A nasty plague broke out in Lodi, however, and the two young lovers found themselves bereft of the same sorts of amusements to which they were accustomed. So they left their city dwelling for Catherine’s father’s place in the country. These city mice would never been the same.
You see, in that pastoral countryside of northern Italy there was a small church which was hosting a traveling replica of various significant sites in Christ’s life. The day that James Oldo entered, he and his male friend saw a replica of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Our Lord’s lifeless and bloodless body would have been laid after having been taken down from the cross.
Now, while for you and me this would have brought a sense of awe and quiet wonder, for James, it was a moment for amusement. So he leaned over to this companion and with a nudge of his elbow said, “Let us see which is taller – Christ or I.” Thus it was that James walked into the replica and laid down on the slab of faux rock.
We don’t know what James saw or experienced, what he heard or felt but when he got up he was a changed man. From then on he avoided the luscious pleasures of this life. At that point he realized what a fool he had been in chasing down all these passing things. He still painted, but now it was only religious art designed to point the soul to Christ Jesus. He spent the rest of this time in prayer, study, in serving an elderly priest who taught him Latin, in doing all he could to make up for lost time.
His wife Catherine was taken by this new zeal in her husband, but she did not join him in this unadulterated pursuit of Christ until after she had suffered the death of their two daughters to the plague. Only then did she take up a zeal for the faith. Yes, instead of lashing out at a God who should take her daughters, she embraced Him.
She and her husband James took vows of continence. They converted their home into a church and a hospice. They tore up all their fine clothing making vestments. They dismantled their jewelry in order to decorate the sacred vessels. He worked diligently until his dying days for the ill, the lonely, the imprisoned. Indeed, he contracted the illness that killed him because he was so careless in embracing those with the plague.
This life of Bl. James Oldo of Lodi makes me focus on what it was that occurred to him while he lay down there on the “rock” of the Seplucher, starting up at a plaster ceiling within that Italian Church darkened and smudged by the smoke of hundreds of years worth of votive candles. Did it, for instance, grab him suddenly that Christ Jesus actually lived and died for him? Was he granted a vision of what would happen to him if he didn’t change his ways? Could he, let’s say, feel the hands of Hades’ devils pawing at him while he lay there? It is sobering business.
Yet, my day passes by with a million luxuries and many of them beyond the wildest imagination of Bl. James. How can I hope to emulate him? Well, for me there are two things that must be clear. The first is the return to that famous Latin saying “Frater Momento Mori” “Brother, Remember They Death.” It is only too easy for us to forget just how mortal we are. On the drive home from work yesterday as I pondered Bl. James, I envisioned that Mac truck not stopping as it did and just going right through the intersection and right into my lap. It could happen, so I should have my life in order.
This second thing, then, is that whatever “getting my life in order” means it probably involves loving the poor, the lame, the dying, the sick with a greater zeal than what I have now. Indeed, the degree to which I love will be the measure of my conversion. Isn’t that the mark of Christ Himself after all.
So consider they death dear reader and wonder at the various luxuries we could all give up in Christ’s name, for if we don’t die with Him we shall never rise with Him either. Long may he live.