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Two women for one place

· Emma, saint of the month, recounted by Lucetta Scaraffia ·

Everyone knows it: in paradise the saints, together with the angels, sing the glory of God immersed in his beatific vision. But even there in the end there are problems of confusion, especially when the number of saints continues to increase and those whom serious historical research on earth has defined as non-existent refuse to leave that privileged position. It is well known, they have been there for so long, they have made friends and they have their habits. For example, St George, who scholars say didn’t exist, has become a good friend of the Archangel Michael, who would never let him be expelled from the choir. It is impossible to banish them, Peter thought. “OK, so let us at least impose a little order”, the first of the Apostles said to himself and decided that every name should have a corresponding precise place in the choir, always the same, for eternity. 

Everything seemed to be going smoothly and Peter was content. But then he suddenly found himself facing something unexpected: two women were going to the place reserved for St Emma, both claiming a right to it. The communication between them was of course facilitated by the fact that they both spoke German and were from more or less the same epoch, around the year 1000. On the rest, however, there was a heated dispute, as violent as it could be between two well-brought up and fervent Christian gentlewomen, each of whom was convinced in her heart that she was the only St Emma.

The situation became difficult, other saints approached, curious – quarrels are rare in paradise – until St Alphonsus, a famous Neapolitan advocate, arrived and immediately instigated a true and proper investigation. The saints seemed the same, they were dressed in the same way, both were aware of the noble rank from which they came, while not wishing to let this be apparent: as, obviously, befits true saints.

Alphonsus addressed the one on his right, asking her where she came from and why she had been canonized. Emma answered that she had been born at Gurk in Styria, and that, after the death of her husband and son in battle – those were harsh times for men –, she had inherited the immense properties of the countship of Sann. Free at last to administer her great wealth as she wished, she had allocated part of it to the poor and the rest to the foundation of two monasteries, one for monks and one for nuns. “As soon as I could” she added, “I too retired to the female monastery, in whose church my body is still preserved and venerated”.

The other Emma immediately jumped up, almost indignant: “But what you are recounting is my life! It is I, Emma of Saxony who gave all my possessions to the Church and to the poor, dedicating myself solely to the good of my neighbour. You have copied me, you want to be like me! My body is preserved in the Cathedral of Brema and a relic – my incorrupt hand – is preserved in Werden. It is an undeniable proof of holiness!”.

Alphonsus then sought inspiration in written proof, in documents – relics, as everyone knows, are never trustworthy – but no documents of the time existed for either of them: the first hagiographies dated from centuries after their deaths and hence were hardly reliable. While poor Alphonsus was doing his utmost to find a solution, the two Emmas had regained their composure and had begun to make friends and, especially, to gossip about the women who, more or less worthily, had borne their name.

If both felt a troubled attraction for the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, uncertain whether to condemn her or to adhere to her, they both declared themselves to be fervent admirers of the actress Emma Thompson. However, what united them most was their ferocious aversion to one Emma who had never existed but had nevertheless become far better known and more renowned even than they: Emma Bovary! What a disgrace, they said, our name borne so badly… and moreover on the lips of all.

Alphonsus attempted to intervene to calm them down – in paradise everyone tries to be good – to remind them that not all women had been so fortunate as to be widowed young and to be very rich, as had happened to both of them. But there was no way he could get them to listen to him.

And then the question of their place, which had to be only one, remained unsolved. Luke, paradise’s true intellectual who was always reading, suddenly remembered he had read that sometimes in writing hagiographic legends, in disseminating devotions, two saints had been unified in one figure which contained both experiences in a single life, or that a single saint, by virtue of the local devotion, had been doubled in two places of worship, each one with her relic. This may have been the case of the two Emmas, who lived in the same period and had such similar lives.

In the face of this degrading insinuation, the two saints joined forces and resolved the situation on their own: they would take turns to share the place, with alternate days for each one. The saint awaiting her turn would make the most of her freedom to take a stroll or to rest. So it was that peace returned to paradise and both the saints called Emma lived happily and satisfied for ever after.


Lucetta Scaraffia taught history at the University of La Sapienza, Rome. She is a member of the Italian National Committee for bioethics and a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Her books include: La Chiesa delle donne (con Giulia Galeotti, 2015), Le porte del paradiso (2015), La santa degli impossibili (2014), Per una storia dell’eugenetica (con Oddone Camerana, 2013), Due in una carne (con Margherita Pelaja, 2008), Francesca Cabrini. Tra la terra e il cielo (2003). 




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 17, 2020