TEODORO PIETROCOLA ROSSETTI was born on the 26th of November, 1825, of pious parents. He was brought up most religiously, and more than one good Catholic friend ventured the prophecy that the lad would become a Saint. In the true and real sense of the word the prophecy was fulfilled! He made rapid progress in his classical studies, and with his fellow-students enjoyed many a walk in the country, reciting and discussing the Latin and Italian poets. Poetry is not an aftergrowth: it is innate, and appears early in the springtime of life. So in Rossetti. His early compositions showed how rich was his poetic vein.
The young student was now nineteen years of age, and among his companions was a priest, a few years his senior. They had arranged to take a long walk in the country one Sunday morning after mass. Rossetti arrived early that morning at his friend's house, purposing going with him to the solemn sacrament. When he entered the young priest's room he was shocked to find him enjoying a hearty Italian breakfast, which consisted of ham, figs, and wine!
"What are you doing?" exclaimed Rossetti. "Are you not going to say mass? And here you are eating!" "What harm is there?" asked his reverend companion. "Why, it is a mortal sin to eat before receiving the Lord," remonstrated Rossetti. "Who says so?" indifferently retorted the young priest. "Why, the holy mother church," replied Rossetti, indignantly.
"Oh, my son," answered his free-and-easy sacerdotal friend, "if you believe all that the holy mother church teaches, you will believe many things that are not true. Give me that book (pointing to the Vulgate Bible). Read here what it says: Luke 22. 19, 'This is My body, which is given for you.' Do you believe that it is possible to do anything in remembrance of a person who is present; or that a person can have two bodies at one time, which would have been the case if the bread had become the body of the Lord? If you believe this, then you must believe that He is a vine and a door."
These statements of the young priest came as the first great shock to Rossetti's faith in the Church of Rome.
At the age of twenty-one he went to Naples and entered the University. That was in 1846, in the very throes of political agitation. The love and longing for freedom had laid hold upon the youth of the country, and with his fellow students young Rossetti was drawn into the rapid current of the national cause. But he soon found that it was dangerous in those days to say a word against the Bourbon government, and it was only his manifest natural ability that caused his political enemies to bear with his views, in the hope of gaining him over to their party. This hope proving vain, and Rossetti's fervour growing stronger in the cause of freedom, he was sought for by the government of Ferdinand II, and made his escape to France. His literary gifts soon found him many friends among the French nobility, but he found his freedom was again in danger, and he was just in time to cross the channel and reach the hospitable shores of England at the close of 1851.
He received a most cordial welcome from his uncle Gabriel, and through him was soon introduced to many literary personages in London. With a rich store of classical poetry, fired with the love of liberty, he had no lack of matter for his ready pen.
But there was One who was following the steps of that ardent youth in the land of exile, One who knew the longings of his unsatisfied soul, and He was about to reveal to that heart seeking rest, a liberty never attained to nor obtained by any of this world's reformers. So it was one of God's links in the golden chain of His grace that Rossetti should go to Teignmouth to teach. Here Count Guicciardini was staying, and the two Italian exiles met. That was a historical meeting! As they walked slowly along the shore, the Count calmly put the question to Rossetti: "If you were to die to-night, what would become of you?" "If I were to die to-night? Indeed, I do not know what would become of me," replied his friend, taken by surprise with a question so unexpected and of such a solemn personal import.
"If I were to die to-night / know where I should go," peacefully said the nobleman. "Excuse me, Count, but to say what you say, one must be either ignorant or presumptuous," retorted Rossetti. "Well, let it be so. I may be ignorant and you learned, but all the same I know where I am going and you do not," repeated the Count with perfect assurance.
No more was said on the subject, but the arrow remained fixed in Rossetti's soul, and he could not sleep that night. He had to return to London to give lessons in Italian to some of the highest personages in the country. Among his students was a Christian gentleman, who proposed reading the New Testament in Italian. One day the reading lesson was in the Epistle to the Ephesians. The student having read the Scripture: "by grace ye are saved, " ventured to offer an opportune explanation of this saving truth. The work of grace had begun in Rossetti.
With a pure and personal faith Rossetti believed on Him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification (Rom. 4. 25). As in the natural so in the spiritual world, first impressions often remain the most vivid. The free, unmerited grace of God was the first Gospel truth which impressed Rossetti's heart, and it became the greatest theme of his life.
A few days after, his Christian pupil said to him: "I am going to a meeting to-night." "A meeting? What kind of meeting?" inquired Rossetti. "It is a meeting that has nothing to do with politics," replied the student, adding politely: "If you would like to come, I should take you there. It is in Orchard Street."
Rossetti went, and found a number of people met to read and meditate upon the Holy Scriptures. What a meeting that was to him! He never departed from what he learnt there. It was the old, unchangeable theology of the Gospel he received, and in its rich, spiritual truths he became an established believer. Among those by whose Christian fellowship he early profited were Lord Congleton, Lord Radstock, Col. Bell, Dr. Maclean, Mr. George Muller, Mr. R. C. Chapman, and many other eminent Christians.
Liberty had been granted in Piedmont, and the spiritual awakening there was spreading. The news of its needs reached Rossetti, while that of his conversion had reached his brethren in Italy. He had prospects of a brilliant literary career in England, but the Gospel call from Italy came with such irresistible power that he went to the Embassy in London and got his passport, signed by Cavour, "to preach the Gospel."
Many farewell missionary meetings have become memorable, but none more so than that held in Orchard Street, London, to bid God-speed to Rossetti, leaving England, the land of his exile, in which he had found true liberty, and now, freed, he was going to free his fellow-countrymen in Italy. Mr. Chapman's farewell address, Rossetti's touching request for the prayers of his brethren that he might be blessed to his dear Italy, the final, fervent prayer of one of the elder brethren, offered for him as on his knees he bowed, the other elders holding their hands over his head, all was worthy of the event which was to have such blessed results.
Alessandria became the first centre of Rossetti's work in Italy. This Piedmontese city, which lies in a plain at the junction of the rivers Bormida and Tanaro, and possesses one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, was called after Pope Alexander III, who raised it to a bishop's see. The labours of Rossetti made it become one of the centres of evangelical testimony in Italy. He soon gathered around him a band of Christian young men, to whom he taught the Word and whom he guided in the work of God. He had a rare and valuable gift of inculcating confidence in these young native evangelists in the Gospel mission, and developing the talents in them for their future service.
So widely did the Gospel spread in Piedmont that even from the city of Rome there arrived monks to preach against the ardent evangelist, who had now the hearty and helpful fellowship of several able Italian brethren, a band of faithful witnesses for Christ. Some of these were men of learning and social position, and some belonged to humbler ranks: all preached the same Gospel.
The enemy made a strenuous effort to get rid of the leaders of the evangelical church, and so scatter the flock. When this persecution was at its height, after one of the meetings, Rossetti put the question to the audience: "They wish to send us evangelists away. What will you do? Will you return to your idols ?" Soon the reply came from one and another, assuring Rossetti and his companions that the Gospel which they had preached to them would be their firm hope to the end.
Shortly after this the Church in Alessandria met for the first time around the Lord's table, a testimony which ior over half a century has not ceased. Rossetti had published a few of his choice hymns, which were sung by that simple, saintly company.
Meanwhile the persecution against the Gospel continued. The enemy, however, changed its tactics and became more aggressive, and with the Apostle Rossetti could say: "Once was I stoned." The injury which resulted was painful and might have been very serious, but God's faithful servant preached the same evening. To the young brethren who gathered around him in sympathy, he said with a satisfied smile: "I was hoping that the stones might not wound your faith."
On another occasion Rossetti was expected to arrive at Spinetta by a certain train. Two hundred young ruffians were instigated by the priest to wait his arrival with stones and sticks! The hour arrived, the train arrived, but Rossetti did not arrive! He had missed the train. The ill-intentioned hooligans contented themselves with the hypothesis that the authorities in Alessandria had detained the evangelist, and they soon dispersed with the hope that he might never return. Those who had gathered with the good intention of hearing the Gospel remained in the hall, and were discussing the situation when Rossetti appeared in their midst! He had come in a carriage rather than disappoint the people. How vain was the hope that Rossetti might never return to Spinetta may be gathered from the fact that in 1868 he convened the first annual Agape held there, a Christian gathering which since has proved a source of fellowship and encouragement to thousands of God's
people in Italy.
But Rossetti's labours were not confined to one part of Italy. Turin, Genoa, Florence, Rome, and many other cities, as well as towns and villages enjoyed his ministry. For some time, however, symptoms of failing health had been occasionally showing themselves, but Rossetti continued in his joyful service. He reached Florence, and though weak in body he went to the morning meeting there on Sunday, 3rd June, 1883. He read Acts 7. 5, 6; Hebrews 13. 8-15; Rev. 1. 4-6; 4. 1; 5. 9-14; 16. 13; and spoke with great feeling and power of the joy and glory reserved in Heaven for all the redeemed. Those who heard him said afterwards: "He transported us to Heaven." Having finished his happy and helpful meditation and exhortation he sat down, and was in the act of rising again to propose a hymn, when he suddenly and peacefully passed to be with the Lord whom he had so loved and served.
J. S. A.