At the top of a very large pile of books on my nightstand are two titles I’m reading: Happiness in This Life by Pope Francis and Dr. Burns’ Prescription for Happiness by the late comedian George Burns, who lived to 100 so he must have known something about what makes us happy.
Above the mirror in my bedroom is a photo a friend gave me that I look at every night when I say my prayers. It’s the face of a woman born blind, hunchbacked and lame; a woman born into nobility, but whose family abandoned her as a child to beg on the streets.Above the mirror in my bedroom is a photo a friend gave me that I look at every night when I say my prayers. It’s the face of a woman born blind, hunchbacked and lame; a woman born into nobility, but whose family abandoned her as a child to beg on the streets.
It’s the face of a 700-year-old woman whose incorrupt body lies at the base of an altar in the Church of St. Dominic in Castello, Italy. A woman whose sanctity moved thousands of people to come to her funeral when she died at 33 years old and whose intercession has led to an estimated 200 miracles over the centuries.
I first learned about Blessed Margaret of Castello five years ago when my friend who is a lay Dominican gave me a novena booklet to her because my birthday, April 13, is her feast day.
“Little Margaret,” as she was called, was born into a family of wealth and privilege in a castle near Perugia, Italy, in 1287. She was born to parents who wanted a son to carry on their noble ancestry ... but instead God gave them a daughter who was blind, lame and deformed. Today, in an era of pre-natal testing and eugenic abortion, Little Margaret likely would never be born.
As a result, she has come to be known as the patron of the “unwanted.” In modern America, the “unwanted” have many different faces. They’re the unborn, the incurably ill, the handicapped, the elderly, the poor and the dispossessed. And they have one thing in common: Their dignity as human beings is denied, and their right to life is threatened by a society that does not value the weak and infirm.
In America, alone, 1.2 million babies are aborted each year more than 20 percent of all pregnancies. St. John Paul II in his encyclical The Gospel of Life wrote, “Eugenic abortion is justified in public opinion on the basis of a mentality that accepts life only under certain conditions and rejects it when it is affected by any limitation, handicap or illness. ... It is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: A life that would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or lifestyle of those who are more favored, tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated.”
Such was the case of Little Margaret, whose existence compromised the proud self-image of her family. She was a scandal to her parents because she was a hunchbacked dwarf, and they were determined to hide her. At 6 years old, she was evicted from the castle and imprisoned for 13 years in a tiny cell next to a chapel in the forest.
When she was 19, her parents brought her to Castello, hoping for a miraculous cure, but there was none. They abandoned her in the church, and for a year she had to beg on the streets until the townspeople took her in.
Despite her infirmities, she was intelligent and full of goodness, and she loved God with a fervor that inspired those she met. She eventually became a lay Dominican and spent her remaining years visiting prisoners, educating children, caring for the sick and poor and comforting the dying. Although her personal pain was great, she brought joy and love to those who suffered from the same affliction as she did they were “unwanted.”
St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “There is a much greater and much more painful hunger than the hunger for bread: the hunger for love, the feeling of being wanted, to be somebody to somebody. The feeling of being unwanted, unloved, rejected. That’s a very great hunger and a very great poverty.”
Little Margaret died at 33. In 1609, she was declared blessed, and her incorrupt body lies in the Church of St. Dominic. Over the centuries, her story has inspired countless people, and her life offers a telling lesson for our age: A child who had no value to her parents had inestimable value to God. And through her, God did great things.
During our dinnertime discussions, things occasionally got out of hand when I was growing up. Being Italian, we were inclined to speak in loud voices, which my friends from more reserved families considered “yelling.”
That April morning in Manhattan when I had coffee with my friend Lenny, we discussed many things. The state of the nation, the state of the world, Donald Trump, Pope Francis, the job market, the stock market and our families.
Many years ago, a little nun from the Sisters of St. Joseph would drill our third-grade class on the Baltimore Catechism, week after week, until we could recite the answers verbatim. It was as close to the Marine Corps as I ever got.