· Vatican City ·

Theme of the month

The virtues of the saints
of Francis

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06 November 2021

Patience, meekness, joy and even a sense of humour


Is there a Pope Francis’ “policy” when making a woman saint? Can we read an idea, a “line” in this Pontiff’s choices on women who deserve to be raised to the honours of the altars? Are the women chosen also to be considered models of women offered by the Pontiff to the faithful? I state there is, and here I will explain why.

Gaudete et Exultate: this is how Pope Francis titled his Apostolic Exhortation on the call to holiness in the contemporary world on 19 March 2018.

Why should we rejoice and exult? Because holiness is not reserved for some and some alone, because holiness is the goal of all followers of Jesus who can achieve it by imitating him and, one might add, that it should be the goal of all human beings.

“The saints accompany and encourage us” writes Francis: here is the exemplarity (ibid, 3-5). And not only the “famous” ones, for they can also be “the saints next door” (ibid., 6-9), people who often live humbly in the world and who leave a trail of goodness in their wake.

To render his thoughts even more explicit, the Pope urges us to look to the most humble, and he does so by quoting the words of a saint of our time: Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her name is Edith Stein, who was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. In fact, she wrote, “which souls we have to thank for the decisive events of our personal lives, is something we will only know on the day when all that is hidden will be revealed” (ibid., 8). Her, she means when we are in another life and in a condition that crowns the effort of the exercise of virtue and that she defines as “blessed life”. From these words, what comes to mind is Dante’s description of Heaven.

The quotation from Edith Stein illustrates Francis’ attention to women, an attention reiterated during the general audience of 8 September 2021 on the occasion of the commentary on St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. In the holiness of the militant Church, women are a fundamental point of reference. Can it be said that women live religious experience more intensely? If we look at their attendance of places of worship, the answer is affirmative, but this is not enough for holiness. Certainly, motherhood, which characterises the feminine, indicates openness to the other, which can be understood not only in human terms, but also as the Divine. The maternal generates and also protects; so is there a greater affinity of the feminine to God the Creator? The female saints demonstrate this, albeit in the most diverse ways, and the plurality of these manifestations helps us to understand the many ‘paths’ towards holiness. This multiplicity can be seen if one analyses the long list of saints and blessed proclaimed as such by Pope Francis. The numbers speak for themselves here too: 22 canonised women and 150 beatified women awaiting proclamation as saints. In this pandemic era there has been a suspension of the complex process leading to the proclamation of sainthood, but it is very indicative that the only woman declared a saint in 2021 was Margaret of Città di Castello. A life that we would certainly define as tragic from a human point of view; she was a “discard”, a human being rejected by the same parents that Pope Francis wanted to canonise on his own initiative. However, let’s take it one step at a time, because it is worth dwelling on this case, which clearly expresses Pope Francis’ “policy” on holiness, hence not only his theoretical interpretation, but also his action.

Here we are dealing with the Dominican tertiary which/who had been already declared blessed, Margaret of Città di Castello, who lived between the 13th and 14th centuries. On 11 December 2019, Pope Francis presented to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints the request for the equivalent canonisation of Blessed Margaret. This consisted in extending to the Universal Church the recitation of the Divine Office and the celebration of the Mass, which are expressions of public worship reserved for saints. This procedure was also implemented for Hildegard of Bingen, who was canonised by Benedict XVI, and for Angela of Foligno, by Pope Francis.

We can safely say that Margaret of Città di Castello cannot be compared to these two saints, one an extraordinary intellectual, the other a great mystic, and this becomes clear if we look at her short life. She was born in 1287 in a village called Metola. Her parents were nobles, her father was the lord of the castle. Little Margaret, born blind and deformed, was a disgrace to them and had to be hidden away; in fact, they locked her up in a cell near the house, where she spent her childhood. When a war for the possession of Metola broke out between the lords of the neighbouring territories, little Margaret was removed from her cell. Her parents tried to help her by taking her to Città di Castello to see a lay friar, Brother Giacomo, who was said to perform many miracles. The miracle in this case did not happen and the little girl was abandoned by her parents in Città di Castello, according to a practice that was quite common at the time. Deformed children could be, and in some cases “had” to be abandoned, because they were a sign of divine punishment. The little girl survived thanks to the charity of the local inhabitants. To begin, she was taken into a small monastery, where she showed herself to be an example of spirituality. Though she dedicated herself to prayer and fasting, she was expelled by the nuns and once again found herself living on the streets. A couple took pity on her and welcomed her into their home. The new parents took care of her and allowed her to manifest her extraordinary gifts, including the ability to perform miracles. Her life, which continued in silence and meditation, is said to have been accompanied by ecstasies and levitations that shocked the inhabitants of the Città di Castello. She attended the church of the Preaching Fathers and wanted to become a tertiary, and devote herself to a life of total consecration to God. Her spiritual strength was extraordinary, but her physical constitution was weak, so at the age of thirty-three, she died as peacefully as she had lived.  During the exposition of her body, a young girl was miraculously healed, thus beginning the long journey of graces and miracles.

What strikes our sensitivity in this case is the parents’ behaviour, who followed the customs of the time while professing to be Christians. The life of Margaret is an example of marginalisation that deeply touched Pope Francis. Some of the saints and blesseds’ causes had already commenced before his pontificate and, therefore, were completed and accepted by him, but this one and the other concerning Blessed Angela of Foligno indicate the “recovery” of those who were abandoned and despised, because they did not conform to the canons of the world. 

The sanctity of Angela of Foligno (1248 - 1309) was recognised after seven centuries, for several reasons. First, there is a book about her, entitled Memorial, the contents of which have left us perplexed. However, given the presence of other testimonies of the time, the doubt as to her existence and also as to the truthfulness of her strange behaviour, culminating in the episode, which became famous, of her shouting in the cathedral of Assisi in 1291, of her denuding herself in front of the Crucifix, which was certainly very unseemly. This fact attracted the attention of an anonymous friar who, intrigued by her personality, questioned her and wrote down what she said. It is now established that the story is true, and was even submitted to the judgement of Cardinal Colonna and eight Franciscan friars who approved it. Indeed, what is puzzling is the saint’s physical reactions, the involvement of her body, but not the doctrinal content of her stories. This is how she describes her mystical experience, characterised by light and shadow, by the darkness that Mother Teresa of Calcutta, another saint proclaimed by Pope Francis, also spoke of, and of which many mystics speak.

Recent Popes have recognised the value of mystical experience and Pope Francis has shown that he considers it a path to holiness.

He has indicated certain basic characteristics for everyone to achieve it, which are inner attitudes that can characterise any lifestyle: the practice of forbearance, patience and meekness, the cultivation of joy and a sense of humour. Here, the question begs to be answered; where can all these be shown? The answer is, in the community, together with brothers and sisters. However, it is not an easy thing to have the strength for the path of interior perfection that requires forbearance (of whom?), patience (with whom?), meekness (towards whom?).

On this path to perfection, as recognised by Pope Francis, we find the most diverse existences. For example,  Jacinta Marto, one of the visionaries of Fatima, who died when she was only ten years old; a laywoman, the mother of St Theresa of Lisieux (1831-1877); and, a nun, Blessed Clelia Merloni, the founder of the Institute of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart (1861). I have chosen three radically different lives to illustrate this, but what they have in common is the process of interior perfection that is manifested in charity towards others, an indispensable prerequisite for achieving holiness. This is explicit in another “policy” proposal of Pope Francis, which is the one therein the encyclical Fratelli tutti [Brothers All], in which “brotherhood” certainly includes both brothers and sisters.

by Angela Ales Bello
Professor Emeritus of the History of Contemporary Philosophy at the Lateran University, President of the Italian Centre for Phenomenological Research.