06/04/2005, 00.00
ITALY – MYNAMAR
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"The blacksmith of God": 70 years in Burma

by Piero Gheddo

Milan (AsiaNews) – The missionary world is full of eccentric and extraordinary kinds of people. Felice Tantardini was one of these. He suffered from inguinal hernia which he would keep in place with a leather belt and wooden clip he himself made; he washed his teeth with ashes and an old toothbrush (at 85 years, he still had all his teeth); he slept on the floor near the bed on a straw mat and blanket, without sheets or pillow; when he felt a cold or intestinal problems (the only ailments he suffered from) coming on, he would eat nothing save chunks of dry bread soaked in salted water for two days, and he would get better. He lived in malarial zones but he never got malaria; he would always say laughingly: "Mosquitoes which bite me die."

Felice was a lay missionary born in Introbio in Valsassina (Lecco) in 1898. He was educated in school until the third elementary grade and then he went on to become a blacksmith. He was in the army in World War One, and he later joined PIME as a "brother co-operator", that is, a lay missionary consecrated for life.  He left for Burma in 1922 and died there on 23 March 1991 aged 93, after 70 years of mission with only one return visit home in 1956. In his autobiography, written on the order of the bishop, he described himself "the blacksmith of God" and he trained many Burmese youths in the skill of working iron.

He was at the service of the Burma missions, where the bishop sent him: he would go and do everything: from metal work to carpentry, to being a greengrocer, a farmer, a nurse, sacristan, head mason. Smiling, witty, available, he travelled always on foot, capable of covering 50km of mountain and forest paths every day for days at a stretch, carrying a load of around 30 or 40 kilos on his shoulders. He had extraordinary strength: he could fold iron bars with his hands. He would wake up at 4.30am every morning and he would go to bed at 10pm at night, without resting in the afternoon, when he would spend an hour in church reciting his daily three rosaries. At night, he would spend an hour in adoration.

He dearly loved the poor, the most marginalised in society and animals too; he gave away all he had and received. In decades of hard work, he built churches, schools, parish houses, hospitals, seminaries, orphanages, convents… his fame spread far and wide throughout Burma; at his funeral, a large crowd gathered, including Buddhists and Muslims. Many started to invoke him as the "saint with the hammer". On 28 January 2005, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints published the "decree of validity" for the diocesan enquiry into his heroic virtues, concluded last year by the archdiocese of Taunggyi of Burma. Felice Tantardi, the blacksmith of God, is on the path to recognised sainthood.

The mission of the Church in non-Christian countries is no longer that lived by Br Felice, but his story has the essence of the "little flowers of San Francesco", the same fragrance of the Gospel, the same "beatitudes" which according to human logic seem like folly, but which in the light of faith, bring serenity, peace and joy to the heart.
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