Recently, I spent many hours with numerous sources, popular and scholarly, on the lives of the saints. While I ended up learning facts new to me about well-known saints, I also became acquainted with more than a few saints that I knew little or nothing about before.
In more than a few of these canonized and beatified people, I discovered surprising and inspirational examples of how possible it is to be creative when it comes to living an authentic Christian life.
Patron of mentally ill
St. Dymphna (May 15) is a seventh-century saint whose story — like that of more than a few saints from the early Christian centuries — drifts in and out of both history and legend.
Dymphna was the daughter of a Celtic chieftain. When Dymphna’s mother died, her father, mentally deranged by grief, sent his men in search of a woman who could compare with his late wife, but to no avail. He then turned to his daughter, Dymphna, to have as his new bride, but she refused. With the help of two friends and the priest who was her confessor, Dymphna escaped to Gheel, Belgium, where the four companions adopted the life of hermits.
The girl’s father tracked her down, however, and immediately killed the priest and Dymphna’s two friends. When his daughter refused to return with him, Dymphna’s father beheaded her. She died about the year 640.
After this, Dymphna’s story picks up only after another 600 years, when her relics and those of her three companions were rediscovered. Soon word began to circulate that prayer for Dymphna’s intercession often led to the healing of the mentally ill and those with epilepsy. A shrine was built in Gheel, and it became a destination for pilgrims.
A miracle unto itself, in subsequent years the people of Gheel dedicated themselves and their village to the healing and assistance of the mentally ill. In some places, even today in the United States, it can be difficult to locate even a residential care facility in a neighborhood. In Gheel, a hospital for the mentally ill has been in existence since the 13th century.
Because this hospital became overcrowded soon after it was established, the villagers opened their hearts and their homes to those suffering from mental illnesses. The afflicted were accepted as members of the family and were also given work to do as a way of helping them move toward healing.
This custom continues in Gheel today; indeed, the residents were centuries ahead of their time in caring for the mentally ill by de-institutionalizing them. Many believe that the existence of this remarkable community and the healings that take place there can only be attributed to the intercession of St. Dymphna and the grace of God. After all these centuries, Gheel continues to set an example of devotion to the healing of people with mental illnesses.
Poised when under fire
Another surprise to me was St. Lawrence (Aug. 10). Yes, his story is fairly well known, but in this case, the surprising part is the humor behind his patronage of cooks. Living in the third century, Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome during the reign of Pope Sixtus II.
In a well-known story about Lawrence, the emperor ordered him to collect and bring in all of the Church’s wealth and treasures. A few days later, Lawrence gathered the poor of Rome and brought them to the prefect, telling him that they were the Church’s treasures. So furious was the prefect that he ordered that Lawrence be slowly roasted on a grill to prolong his suffering.
The famous quip attributed to Lawrence, of course, is his declaration from over the coals that he was done on one side so he could be turned over now. Is this not a jolly reason for St. Lawrence to be the patron saint of cooks?
The Blessed Mother is, of course, honored under many titles, and her intercession is sought as the patron of many causes and situations. One that I found particularly surprising, however, is her patronage of bicyclists under the title Madonna del Ghisallo (Oct. 13). Pope Pius XII declared the Madonna del Ghisallo the patron saint of cyclists during the 1949 Giro d’Italia, a long-distance bicycle race in Italy for professional cyclists that is held each year in May or June.
According to legend, a medieval count named Ghisallo was under attack from thieves when he saw an image of the Virgin Mary at a nearby shrine. Running toward the shrine, he was saved from the unsavory characters. This apparition became known as the Madonna del Ghisallo, and she was known as the patron of travelers.
In 1949, a local priest, Father Ermelindo Vigano, proposed that Madonna del Ghisallo be declared the patron saint of cyclists, because the shrine had become a popular spot for cyclists to stop and rest and pray. Pope Pius XII agreed.
Today the shrine of Madonna del Ghisallo includes a small museum on the sport of cycling with photos and souvenirs from the Giro d’Italia. The shrine also houses an eternal flame in memory of cyclists who have died, and a particularly important artifact is the wrecked bicycle ridden by Fabio Casaretelli, a native of the region, who died in a crash in the Tour de France on July 18, 1995.
Many active in the pro-life movement may not know that their patron is Blessed Margaret of Castello (April 13). Born in 1287 to a noble family in the castle of Metola, southeast of Florence, Italy, Margaret had multiple birth defects. She was blind, hunchbacked and a dwarf with a malformed short right leg. Ashamed of her, the girl’s parents locked her in a cell adjacent to a forest church. Although she could not get out, Margaret was able to attend Mass and receive the sacraments.
When she was 14, her parents took her to the tomb of a holy man named Fra Giacomo in the village of Città di Cas-tello, where miracles were reportedly happening, to pray for a cure for her handicaps. When no miracle occurred, the parents abandoned their daughter in a church.
Subsequently, Margaret was adopted by a group of women who found her. Later, she was taken to a convent. However, her sincere faith and dedication to an austere lifestyle caused the nuns, who were used to a comfortable lifestyle, to send her away. Taken in by a villager, Margaret became a lay Dominican. She cared for the poor, the sick and prisoners, many of whom responded to her kindness by returning to the Church. Reports circulated that miracles sometimes followed Margaret’s prayers.
When Margaret died in 1330, the great crowd that gathered for her funeral demanded that she be buried inside the church, but the priest refused. When a girl disabled by an accident was miraculously cured during the funeral, however, the priest relented.
Blessed Margaret did not allow her disabilities to lead her to self-pity or bitterness. Instead, she focused on the love of God and brought that love to those around her. An unborn baby found to have birth defects today often is aborted before birth. Margaret’s life is a demonstration of why we should honor all people, even those with physical and mental challenges. Indeed, Blessed Margaret of Castello is the patron not only of the pro-life movement but of those with disabilities.
Mitch Finley is the author of “The Patron Saints Handbook” (The Word Among Us Press, $12.95). He writes from Washington state.
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