In the Redemptorist tradition there have always been boundary riders. They move more easily than some of their confreres around the margins of society and among the excluded. In our tradition there have also been mavericks, confreres who will try something quite different to make a breakthrough on behalf of the Gospel.
Gennaro Sarnelli was in many ways both a boundary rider and a maverick. But he was not a loner. He worked unsparingly with his confreres on parish missions up and down the kingdom of Naples.
Gennaro was born to a noble family on September 12, 1702. He was just six years younger than St Alphonsus. In his teens he wanted to join the Jesuits. His father counselled him not to rush into things, and as Alphonsus had done before him, he went on to study both civil and ecclesiastical law. A celebrated practice followed. At the same time, he diligently visited the sick in the Hospital of the Incurables.
In 1728, he entered the seminary to study for the priesthood. He lived in the Chinese College and later joined the Congregation for the Apostolic Missions. He was ordained a priest in 1731. Over the years following, he visited the sick, the excluded ones living around the docks area of Naples, and cared for abandoned and abused children. During this time he formed a friendship with St Alphonsus. Their backgrounds were similar, as were their interests and concerns. It was a rich friendship flowing over with shared insights and convictions, shared faith and mission.
Gennaro ministered as a priest in the parish of Saints Francis and Matthew in the Spanish quarter. There he became aware of the rampant abuse of young women and girls caught in prostitution.
St Alphonsus formed the Redemptorist Congregation on November 9, 1732, and that same year, Gennarao Sarnelli defended Alphonsus in the civil courts after unjust accusations were made against him. The following year, Gennaro worked with Alphonsus on a mission at Scala. It was then he decided to join the Redemptorists. He formally joined in 1736.
With the support of St Alphonsus, Gennaro returned to Naples and renewed his efforts to free women who were forced into prostitution. Amidst these activities he wrote many works. He believed all people were capable of deep prayer, and through his writings, he encouraged them to be prayerful. From the title of one of his books, Il mondo sanctificato (The Sanctification of the World) one can get a feel for the breadth of his vision and his conviction that God filled all creation.
Gennaro often preached missions with St Alphonsus, including regional missions in the hamlets outside Naples. His weak health finally caught up with him and he died in Naples on June 30, 1744 at just 42 years of age. He left 30 works that explore meditation, theology, spiritual direction, law, pedagogy, moral and pastoral themes. By his social action in favour of women, he is considered one of the authors who treated this subject most fully in the first half of eighteenth century Europe. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1996.