A devouring passion
· St Battista Camilla da Varano told by Caroline Pigozzi ·
“St Battista's life, totally immersed in divine depths, was a constant ascent on the way of perfection, with a heroic love of God and her neighbour”. With these words which rang out over St Peter’s Square, Benedict XVI, moved, canonized Battista Camilla da Varano on 17 October 2010. She was a woman noble by birth and by mind, who had already impressed two pontiffs: Gregory XVI who beatified her in 1843 and Leo xiii, who reopened the cause of her canonization and in 1877 recognized the miracle of her healing of a little Italian girl afflicted by rickets. However, it took more than half a millennium for her to be proclaimed a saint.
Our protagonist was born on 9 April 1458 in the Italian region of the Marches and grew up in a very privileged milieu. She was the daughter of Giulio Cesare di Varano, Duke of Varano and Lord of Camerino, the head of a small independent state, like other states much coveted by the pope. The future saint thus came from a “good” family, according to a common expression of the time. Her father, allied with important families of the high aristocracy who reigned in the various Italian cities, had three legitimate children and six born out of wedlock, including Camilla. A secret wound? In any case this did not prevent the natural daughter from being brought up at the court of Varano, in their magnificent palace where she received the excellent education of a true aristocratic woman, studying Latin, history of art, painting and the great classics of humanistic culture, as well as music, dancing and equitation.
Her youthful years oscillated between pleasures and mysticism. In fact, at the age of 10, having been impressed by the preaching of the Franciscan Friars – Domenico da Leonessa and Pietro da Mogliano – every Friday Camilla would venerate Christ in silence in the deepest recesses of her heart. It was a devouring passion which could simply have guided her daily life, but prompted her instead to become a religious.
This was a complicated decision with an authoritarian pater familias who, faithful to tradition, had already made a good match for his daughter, a fact that might have flattered his vanity. Nevertheless the Duke respected her decision and since he wanted the best for his favourite daughter, when she entered the poor Clares at the age of 23, obeying the strict rules of love for Christ in poverty and fraternity he had a monastery built for her, now Sr Battista, in Camerino.
Accompanied by eight women religious, with a black veil and dark habit she became the mother abbess of her convent and devoted herself for 20 years to the adoration of Christ and to the Scriptures. Hers was an impressive opus: letters, prayers, poems, treatises and historical writings of great spirituality and intellectual depth.
If until then the nun had been able to abandon herself serenely to God and to him alone, the two subsequent decades were the most painful to her. Alexander vi Borgia excommunicated the Duke of Varano, officially for financial reasons. This deprived her of her honour and seignorial rights and permitted the ambitious Cesare Borgia, the pope’s son, to annex the vast lands of the Lord of Camerino in order to extend the Papal State. Cupidité oblige: cupidity entails obligations! In an atmosphere of war, Cesare organized a terrible uprising: he had the Duke of Varano and three of his sons imprisoned, then strangled. Sr Battista, crushed, succeeded all the same in fleeing and in protecting the Duchess of Varano and her younger brother, who then went into exile in Venice. She was not to return to her convent because of the fear of retaliations in the heart of her community. She therefore sought refuge in Fermo, but the local population, terrified by the idea of facing the ruthless Cesare Borgia, rejected her. Sr Battista found shelter at Atri, in Abruzzo, where she remained until the election of the new Pope Julius ii, who permitted her to return to the town of her birth. We are by now in 1503; the family reacquired its legitimacy and Giovanni Maria, the only Varano who was still alive, was restored to being head of his dukedom. As regards the pontiff, he was to help Sr Battista to found the Monastery of Poor Clares at Fermo in the Marches where she had grown up.
However, this woman of character, full of wisdom, wanted to bring her life’s work to conclusion. She therefore went to the neighbouring Monastery of San Severino to follow with austerity, kindness and an equal measure of pedagogy the formation of the sisters who had passed to the Observance. On 31 May 1524 the mission she had chosen for herself since she was a girl was interrupted. She was 66 years old.
The recent canonization of St Battista Camilla of Varano  has shed light on the order founded in 1212 by Clare of Assisi. Those 15,000 nuns who live a cloistered life in every part of the world in a certain way continue to accompany our daily life, for a deeply rooted custom has for centuries suggested bringing eggs to the Poor Clares to prevent rain on days of special ceremonies. They are worthy heirs of Sr Camilla, who still make the good and bad weather.
Caroline Pigozzi was a political journalist for Figaro Magazine and since 1992 has been grand reporteur for Paris Match. She also writes on religions for Radio Europe 1. Her books include, Le Pape en privé (2000, translated into 10 languages), Jean Paul II intime (2005, translated into eight languages [title of edition in English: An intimate life: the Pope I knew so well] and Rosso cardinale (2010). Together with Henri Madelin she wrote Così è Francesco. Un gesuita in Vaticano (2014).
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