The following article is an adaption from the Biographical Memoirs of Saint John Bosco by Giovanni Battista Lemoyne. The TFP website will be posting similar articles about this great saint from time to time. This story is an account of the saintly death of his closest friend and fellow seminarian, Luigi Comollo.
After suffering illness for some time, Luigi Comollo intoned the Ave Maris Stella at midnight in a very robust voice and sang it to the last verse even though his friends begged him not to tire himself out. He was very absorbed in this angelic medieval Marian hymn, and his face displayed such a heavenly glow that he looked like an angel.
A friend asked him: “What is consoling you most now?”
He answered: “Having done something for the love of Mary and having frequented Holy Communion.”
He listened to everything being said to him, smiling attentively with unalterable tranquility. His eyes were fixed on the crucifix, which he held tightly in his hands clasped against his chest. He strove to repeat every ejaculation people suggested. About ten minutes before dying, he said to those in the room, “Goodbye, I’m on my way. Jesus and Mary, I place my soul in your hands.”
These were his last words. As his lips hardened and his tongue thickened, he could no longer pronounce the suggested ejaculations and thus only articulated them with his lips.
Two other deacons, Sassi and Fiorito, read to him the proficiscere prayer (“Go forth, Christian soul”). When they pronounced the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, he smiled sweetly and always serenely, as if surprised at the sight of a marvelous and joyful object. Without any movement, his beautiful soul separated from his body, flying to rest in the Lord’s peace. His happy transit occurred at two a.m., before the dawn of April 2, 1839, at the age of 22 years minus five days.
On that night, Father Vercellino from Bulgaro, who was sleeping in a different dormitory from that of Don Bosco, awakened suddenly and began shouting: “Comollo has died!”
Everyone arose and asked him questions. The vice-prefect urged him to be quiet, but Vercellino kept repeating: “Comollo is dead!” His colleagues said it was impossible because Comollo seemed much improved that particular evening. But he said, “I saw him; Comollo entered the dormitory and said, I am dead now! And disappeared.”
As they tried to persuade him that he had been dreaming, behold, deacons Fiorito and Sassi, who had been assigned to assist the sick man that night, entered the dormitory.
Everyone asked: “How’s Comollo?”
“He’s dead,” they answered.
“At what time?”
“Twelve minutes ago.”
Imagine the astonishment with which the seminarians heard these words. Father Vercellino’s vision had not been an illusion!
Utter consternation invaded the seminary as daylight dawned and word of Comollo’s death spread. Everyone consoled each other, saying, “At this hour, Comollo is already in heaven praying for us.”
They vied to obtain some object that had belonged to him as a keepsake of that beloved and revered colleague. Moved by the singular circumstances surrounding his death, the seminary rector did not want him buried at the common cemetery. He left for Turin at dawn and obtained permission from the civil and ecclesiastical authorities to bury him in the Church of Saint Philip attached to the seminary.
Accordingly, on the morning of April 3, his body was carried in a procession through the city of Chieri and, after a long tour, was led to Saint Philip’s Church by seminarians, superiors, the lord canon vicar, other canons and clergy, amid a huge crowd.
They arrived with mournful music. The director sang the Mass in the presence of the coffin. When the service ended, Comollo was laid in a tomb prepared for him near the altar rail. It was as if the Sacramental Jesus, to whom he showed so much love and with whom he so willingly stayed, wanted him near also after his death.
Comollo appeared a second time to an entire dormitory of seminarians soon after his burial. Don Bosco narrates the portentous event:
“With our great friendship and confidence, Comollo and I used to talk about what could happen to us at any moment, meaning our separation in case of death. One day, we recalled reading about saints who agreed to communicate with others after death. In a moment between levity and seriousness, we said it would be a great consolation if the one first called to eternity brought news of his state to the other.
“After talking about the matter several times, we promised to pray for each other so the first one to die would bring tidings of his salvation to his surviving friend. I did not gauge the full import of such a promise, and I confess much levity was involved. I would never advise others to make such a pledge. However, the two of us always took it seriously as a sacred promise to keep. We confirmed it several times, especially during Comollo’s last illness, always on the condition that God allowed it and that it pleased Him. Comollo’s last words and gaze assured me he would fulfill our covenant.
“Some colleagues were informed of this agreement and were anxious to see if it would really happen. I was most worried about it because I hoped to have some solace in my desolation.
“The night of April 3 to 4th, following the day of his burial, I was resting with twenty students of the theological course in the dormitory that opens into the south courtyard. I was in bed but not asleep, thinking about the promise. I was in the grip of a fearful emotion, almost foreseeing what was to come. At the stroke of midnight, I heard a gloomy noise at the bottom of the hall that became louder and more somber as it approached. It sounded like a cart pulled by many horses or a railroad train, almost like a canon firing. I could not describe it except that it consisted of a series of such vibrating and violent rumblings to cause great fright and render everyone speechless.
“As the noise approached the dormitory door, it rattled walls and the corridor floor like iron plates shaken by a most potent arm. One could not measure the dwindling distance between it and us. It was like a steam engine leaving, and it was sometimes impossible to know where it was in its course amid the smoke it spread through the air.
“All seminarians in the dormitory woke up, but no one spoke. I was petrified with fear. The noise advanced closer to the dormitory and became increasingly frightening. The door opened by itself, and the din continued more intensely. Nothing was seen except for a passive, multicolored light that seemed to regulate that sound. At a particular moment, there’s a sudden silence, the light shines brighter, and Comollo’s voice distinctly resounds, saying three times in a row: Bosco! Bosco! Bosco! I am saved!
“At that moment, the dormitory became even brighter. The noise started again, far more violently, almost like a clap of thunder about to sink the house, but it soon ceased, and the light disappeared. Leaping from their beds, the seminarians fled. Some gathered in a dormitory corner to try to cheer each other up, and others clustered around the dormitory prefect, Father Florito.
“And so, they spent the night anxiously waiting for the relief of daylight. All had heard the noise; several heard the voice without understanding its meaning. They asked each other what that noise and voice meant. Sitting on my cot, I told them to calm down because I had distinctly heard the words, ‘I am saved.’
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“I suffered greatly. Such was my fright that I would have preferred to die in that instant. In my memory, it was the first time that I was afraid. That gave rise to an illness that brought me to the brink of the grave and left me in such bad health that I would only recover many years later.
“God is almighty; God is merciful. He mostly ignores such covenants. Sometimes, however, He allows them to be fulfilled in His infinite mercy, as in the above case. I would never advise others to make such a pact because when natural things connect with the supernatural, poor humanity suffers grievously, especially in things unnecessary for our eternal salvation. Let us be certain of the existence of the soul without seeking other proof. All we need is what Our Lord Jesus Christ revealed to us.”
When Don Bosco reprinted Luigi Comollo’s biography in 1884, some witnesses to the apparition were still living. The drafts of the first edition, which mention it, were read and revised by seminary superiors and colleagues who were eyewitnesses. Father Giuseppe Fiorito often recounted it to Oratory superiors. The event made waves outside the seminary as well. Some people heard about it from the cathedral bell ringer, Domenico Pogliano, who testified to the truth of the episode.
The sufferings Don Bosco endured at losing his friend and the fright at that apparition severely damaged his health. He had already been weakened by attacks from the enemies of the Church, caring for so many young men, long vigils and writing books. As he says, it took him to the brink of the grave. However, a young, restless and unreflective seminarian who did not sleep in Don Bosco’s dormitory was annoyed at seeing him always reserved and often went to him, saying: “Bosco, Bosco, Bosco, I am saved!”
Don Bosco felt a painful wound reopen. The jest was in very poor taste. Yet, he smiled, jokingly threatening the young man with his finger, but kept silent. The young seminarian, who later became a saintly and zealous priest, narrated his eccentricities to give us an idea of Don Bosco’s patience and dominion over his naturally fiery disposition.