When Gemma Corsini (some biographers inaccurately call her Pellegrina), who belonged to a devout, prosperous and well-connected Florentine family, was expecting the child who would be baptized Andrew, she consecrated him under the protection of the Virgin Mary to the service of God. However, when she was about to give birth, she had a disturbing dream in which it seemed that she was giving birth to a wolf.
Andrew Corsini was born in 1301, and, as he arrived at adulthood, he appeared to be far closer to fulfilling Gemma’s alarming premonition than to fulfilling the vow that she had undertaken on his behalf, for he was indeed living like a wild animal, devoting himself not to the service of God but to the pursuit of drink, gambling and sex.
Perceiving Andrew intent on self-destruction (in this life and the next), Gemma decided to reveal to him both her original act of consecration and her subsequent nightmare, and Andrew was so impressed by what she told him that he underwent a dramatic conversion, racing off to the nearest church to pray at the altar of Our Lady.
Being a man who never did things by halves (whether in pursuit of the pleasures of vice or the joys of virtue, his commitment to his goal was invariably wholehearted), Andrew resolved never to return home, and, in 1318, chose instead to join the Carmelites of Fiesole near Florence.
He embraced Carmelite life with characteristic zeal, seeking to atone for past sins and to subdue existing passions (which at this early stage were, presumably, as fiery as ever) by throwing himself into prayer, hard work and humiliations at every available opportunity. (The love of humiliation and self-abnegation which is such a part of the Carmelite tradition as exemplified by, for example St Thérèse of Lisieux, was very much part of Andrew’s approach to religious life).
Having been ordained to the priesthood in 1328 he was so concerned to avoid the lavish celebrations (musical and culinary) which his justifiably proud family were planning that, on the day designated for his first celebration of Mass, he contrived to spirit himself away to a small hermitage were he was able to celebrate Mass in quiet and humble solitude.
In 1349 Andrew was elected bishop of Fiesole (near Florence), but, conscious of his own unworthiness (as he saw it), and reluctant to assume a role which would inevitably compromise a personal spirituality which was grounded in radical humility, he initially withdrew to the Carthusian monastery of Enna.
Having been prevailed upon to accept episcopal consecration, Andrew discovered that his aristocratic connections together with his natural empathy for the poor and lowly were the ideal qualifications for a bishop at a time when promoting social cohesion was as much a part of the function of a bishop as was purely spiritual leadership, and no less a figure than Pope Urban V made use of Andrew as a kind of troubleshooter in situations of civic and political conflict.
Whereas previous bishops of Fiesole had lived in Florence, Andrew elected to live among his own flock in Fiesole, and was thus able to develop a genuine bond with those whom he served.
He was always assiduous in the service of the poor, meeting their material and spiritual needs, and insisting, not just on Maundy Thursday but every Thursday, on washing the feet of poor in conformity with Our Lord’s injunction (resulting, on one occasion, in the miraculous healing of a man whose feet were severely ulcerous).
Although he was now a bishop, Andrew never forgot that he was also a Carmelite, and, far from relaxing his penances and austerities, actually added to them, supplementing his hair shirt with an iron girdle, and sleeping on the floor on a scattering of vine-branches.
He also dedicated himself to the restoration of church buildings and to the reformation of the clergy, many of whom had grown lax, wearing secular clothes and indulging in those same vices which Andrew had abandoned after his conversion.
He died aged 71 in January 1373, having been struck down with fever while celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve. He was buried (curiously, considering that he was a Carmelite) in the Franciscan church in Florence, which soon became associated with miracles, and his status as a saint was recognized by public acclaim immediately after his death, though he was not formally canonized until 1629.