As the canonization of John Henry Newman and four women were undertaken today, I couldn't help but think about the disappeared women of Matthew 14:21. "And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children."
In the run up to the canonizations today, there has been a lot written in the English press about the canonization of John Henry Newman. Rightly so.
But there has been much less written about the four women who were also canonized today, a pattern that shows up again and again in our Catholic tradition.
These women should be well known to all of us for their visionary work.
Sister Dulce Lopes, the "Mother of the Poor" in Brazil who was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Price; Swiss born Marguerite Bays, a Third Order Franciscan; Mother Mariam Thresia of India, founder of the Congregation of the Holy Family; Mother Giuseppina Vannini of Italy, founder of the congregation of the Daughters of St. Camillus were recognized as saints in the Catholic Church.
St. Dulce Lopes Pontes, often referred to as Brazil’s "Mother Teresa" because of her great care for the poor, was born into a well-off family.Born in Salvador de Bahia in 1914, after her mother died, she went to live with her aunts. When she was 13, they took her to visit one of the poorest areas of the city. Maria Rita was so struck by what she saw that she began dedicating herself to the poor and needy of her neighborhood.
She felt attracted to minister to the poor from an early age and joined the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God.
After entering the Congregation, she became Sister Dulce, her Mother’s name, and spent her time attending to the local poor and destitute.
Eventually she founded the Sao Francisco’s Workers Union and opened a clinic, a library, a school and even cinema for the poor.
After a series of evictions, Sister Dulce’s Superior said she could use the henhouse attached to the convent, on condition she took care of the chickens. She did: by feeding them to her sick patients. That chicken coop was later to become the present-day Santo Antonio Hospital, a 1500-bed health care centre specializing in cancer treatment.
The President of Brazil nominated her for the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of her work with the Charitable Works Foundation of Sister Dulce, which she founded in 1959 which includes a teaching hospital and educational center which provides free education for very poor children. She died in 1992. Benedict XVI beatified her in 2011.
St. Marguerite Bays was born in La Pierraz, in the Swiss canton of Fribourg, in 1815. She was the second of seven children and grew up in a farming family. When she was 15 she began her apprenticeship as a seamstress, a skill she practiced all her life.
Marguerite spent all her free time working in the parish, where she taught catechism to the children, visited the sick, took care of the poor, and all those people she thought of as "God's favorites". This life of active apostolate led her to join the Franciscan Third Order, now the Secular Franciscan Order, in 1860. Pope Saint John Paul II proclaimed her Blessed on 29 October 1995.
St. Mariam Thresia was an Indian religious who cared for the poor, the sick and lepers. She was born in Puthenchira, in southern India’s Kerala state, on April 26, 1876. Belonging to a once rich and noble family with extensive landed property, the future pioneer of the family apostolate grew up in piety and holiness under the loving guidance of her saintly mother, Thanda. As an 8-year old girl she gave herself over to penance, fasting and prayer. In 1914, she founded the Congregation of the Holy Family to care for families. Today it numbers some 1,500 sisters in communities around the world that care for families and run hospitals and schools. St. John Paul II beatified her in the year 2000.
St. Giuseppina Vannini is reportedly the first Roman woman to be canonized in over 400 years and is considered the first Roman saint of healthcare. She lost both her parents by the age of seven and grew up in an orphanage near St. Peter’s Basilica run by the Daughters of Charity. She wanted to join that religious congregation, but after being rejected due to her poor health, she then went on to found the Daughters of St. Camillus to care for the sick. Her order has today 800 sisters working in 22 countries. St. John Paul II beatified her in 1994.
So proud to be a Catholic right now
As I walked through St. Peter's square this week, I came upon the sculpture commissioned by the Vatican, that was unveiled at a Mass on the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees at the end of September. Timothy P. Schmalz is the artist of the work titled "Angels Unaware."
It depicts 140 migrants and refugees from various historical periods traveling on a boat including, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, Mary and Joseph fleeing death threats, and other poor and disadvantaged people fleeing the destruction of war and violence. It is these people who "pay the price" of wars and injustice, said Francis in his message. He called on us to, “welcome, protect, promote and integrate."
I always tell people that I am a Catholic because of the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching. I loved the smells and bells of Mass as a kid, but as a grandmother, mother, and dreamer, I belong because I want to be part of a church that helps realize God's radical love and desire for a healed world where the voices of the poor and excluded are our Good News guides and where justice can be found in every remote corner.
And seeing this sculpture, right in the heart of St. Peter's, opened my heart in a deeper way to the realities of our world today where people fleeing unspeakable violence and terror drown at sea, and those who make it, are kept in cages at the border.
I love that our dear Pope is relentless. Physically, he may shuffle along at this age, but he just won't stop opening our collective eyes to the plight of vulnerable peoples who are easily demonized and criminalized by those who don't care to understand or, worse, who profit from keeping hate and distrust alive. And he reminds us that some of our most important Christian figures suffered the same.
For all this, I am grateful, down to my toes.
Prayers, laughter, and drink
There is a prayer at the beginning of each morning and afternoon session and journalists are able to attend. It is usually our only chance to get an inside look. Almost no one is wearing their pink or red hats and garb. It is nice.
On the afternoon I joined, the synod hall was buzzing with laughter and a sense of joy. And a drink, Mate, that is popular with Argentinians was being passed to the Pope. He drank some with a big smile on his face. It is fun to see people in their human form.
Thinking of Van Gogh and women on the cross
After spending the day writing, and watching the canonizations from a distance, I walked an hour to get to the Museum of Modern Art.
Art feeds my soul and spirit, so it is almost as important as getting a regular dose of the extraordinary pasta here.
One of Vincent Van Gogh's treasured pieces here is, a piece he painted on the grounds of the mental asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausol, where he was sent after he cut off his ear. Some art historians believe the young man in the 'Portrait of a Gardener', was a 28-year-old gardener who was likely to have become a friend of Van Gogh's while he tended the gardens in the grounds of the asylum.
I admit it, I am in love with all of Van Gogh's works and I share his love of beautiful gardens and purple irises (my mom's favorite). So standing in front of this painting made me wriggle with happiness.
I was also struck by the juxtaposition between two pieces that exhibit women in similar poses, but caught in male domination in different situations.
The sculpture of a woman on the cross is titled "Eulalia cristiana." The artist Emilio Franceschi depicts the patron saint of Barcelona, a 13 year old Roman girl who was murdered for protecting Christians during the persecution of Christians under Diocletian. The dates of her life are circa February 12, 290 - 303.
As I stood in front of this sculpture, I thought of the hoopla and the removal of the sculpture "Christa" from St. John Divine decades ago. The sculpture has been re-introduced, but I remember, even then, wondering why people were so upset. Women are crucified every day in one form or another and shouldn't our art help us recognize that reality? Certainly "Eulalia cristiana" reflects that reality.
Another piece by Edgar Degas, displays a woman, a sex worker, in a similar pose, but many art critics say, Degas portrayed these women, not as the stereotype of the day, but as women of dignity.Let's hope so.