Jacopone Benedetti was a prosperous lawyer in the Umbrian town if Todi. His life took a tragic turn one day when his young wife was killed in an accident. This terrible loss was compounded by the belated discovery of his wife’s piety. As she lay dying before his eyes, he loosened her gown and was surprised and deeply moved to find that she wore a secret hair shirt, a penance he believed she must have undertaken to atone for her own sins.
His world in ruins and his ambitions laid bare, Jacopone quit his profession, gave away all his belongings, and became a public penitent- to all appearances, a kind of wandering fool. For ten years he maintained this life of aimless poverty and penance. Then, at the age of forty-eight, he knocked on the door of the Franciscans and applied for admission.
Remarkably, in joining the Franciscans he also found a new voice as a poet – indeed, one of the great lyric poets of the Middle Ages. In the passionate language of love, his mystical poems described the soul’s yearning for Christ. But they retained a mournful undertone, the accent of a faith born in loss. Among his most famous poems is the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, a heart-breaking meditation on the sorrows of Mary at the foot of the cross.
At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last:
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
All His bitter anguish bearing,
Now at length the sword had passed.
Jacopone was a leader of the Spirituals, a Franciscan party dedicated to the most radical form of apostolic poverty. The Spirituals ran into conflict with the worldly Pope Boniface VIII, whose legitimacy they challenged. After addressing a bitter manifesto to the pope, Jacopone was imprisoned for five years. Only after Boniface’s death was he freed to live out the rest of his life as a hermit. He died on Christmas day in 1306.
Adam Chmielowski was born in Poland to an aristocratic family. At seventeen, he lost a leg while participating in a nationalist uprising. Afterward, he was drawn to art and began to enjoy recognition for his painting. At the same time, living in Krakow, his heart was increasingly moved by the sufferings of the poor. He finally gave up his life as an artist to assume the life of a poor beggar. With the name Brother Albert, he donned a gray robe and became a Third Order Franciscan.
In time he founded orders of men and women, known as the Albertine Brothers and Sisters, who practiced the works of mercy in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. In one of the shelters that he founded, Brother Albert died in Christmas day, 1916.
His reputation lived on. Among the priests who attributed their vocation to his example was Karol Wojtyla, who in 1949 wrote a play about him. Years later, as Pope John Paul II, he championed Albert’s cause and later presided over both his beatification and, 1989, his canonization. He said of St. Albert, “In his tireless, heroic service on behalf of the marginalized and the poor, he ultimately found his path. He found Christ. He took upon himself Christ’s yoke and burden; he did not become merely ‘one of those who give alms,’ but became the brother to those he served.”
Frances Schervier, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, was born in Aachen. Upon the death of her mother when Frances was thirteen, the young girl assumed responsibility for the household and the care of her younger siblings. With other women in Aachen she engaged in various charitable projects, visiting prisoners, caring for the sick in their homes, and rescuing prostitutes. In 1844, she entered the Third Order of St. Francis.
In 1845, following the death of her father, she joined with several other women to form a religious community, the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis. They established soup kitchens and fearlessly cared for those suffering from typhoid, cholera, and smallpox. Eventually, Frances sent sisters to America, where she visited in 1863 and offered her service as a nurse during the Civil War. Returning to Germany, she joined her sisters in nursing soldiers and staffing ambulances during the Franco-Prussian War.
She died in December 14, 1876. Her beatification followed in 1974.
Benedetta Rossello was born to a large, poor family on the Ligurian coast of Italy. Lack of a dowry frustrated her desire to enter religious life. Instead, she became a Third Order Franciscan and entered domestic service to a wealthy family, sending all her earnings to her family.
When she heard that the bishop of Savona wished to do something for the girls and young women at risk of abuse, she volunteered for service. The bishop recognized her gifts and readily agreed to set her up with three companions in a rundown house. They took the name Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy, and Benedetta, who would serve as superior for the rest of her life, became Maria Josepha.
Despite their poverty, they quickly attracted new recruits. Remembering her own sad experience, Mother Maria decreed that no worthy woman should be turned away for lack of a dowry. At first, the sisters founded a series of homes – Houses of Divine Providence – for girls in trouble. But schools and hospitals followed, and in 1875, the first foundation was established in Argentina
Mother Maria never scorned the most humble tasks. But then when illness left her unable to walk, she could do no more than oversee the work of her sisters.
“There are God, the soul, eternity. The rest is nothing.”
She died on December 7, 1880. She was canonized in 1949.
St. Leonard , who was born in Port Maurice in Italy, joined the Franciscans when he was twenty-one, hoping to spend his life preaching the Gospel in China. In the end, his mission field did not extend beyond Italy. Nevertheless, Alphonsus Liguori called him “the great missionary of the eighteenth century.”
A gifted preacher, he conducted mission tours through Umbria, Genoa, and the Marches. Enormous crowds would turn out to hear him – so great that he would preach in the open air. Wherever he went, his preaching prompted a spiritual revival. One of his favourite “preaching aids” was the Stations of the Cross – a devotion he was largely responsible for popularizing. It is said that he established 571 Stations throughout Italy, even in the Colosseum in Rome. He also promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart and was an early advocate for defining the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
In 1744, Pope Benedict XIV sent him on a mission to Corsica – one of his less successful undertakings, as many people assumed he was an agent of the ruling doge of Genoa. Shaking the dust from his feet, he resumed his work in Italy, preaching and leading retreats. By that time, however, his energy was failing fast.
He died in Rome on November 26, 1751. He was canonized in 1867.
Margaret Sinclair was born in Edinburgh to a poor family. She left school at fourteen to work in a series of factories, helping to support her family. An eventual marriage proposal served as the catalyst for deeper reflection on her vocation, resulting in her decision to enter the Poor Clares. As the community in Edinburgh had no room for her, she was accepted into a community in Notting Hill in London. She was given the name Sister Mary Frances of the Five Wounds.
Her working-class roots and her Scottish brogue set her apart from the educated and upper-class backgrounds of the other sisters. One time, noticing that Margaret was having too much fun whitewashing an outhouse, a nun upbraided her, “You’ll never be a saint.” Margaret replied, “Dinna fash yerself” (Don’t let that trouble you).
Despite her obscure life, her reputation soon spread, especially in Scotland, where she was celebrated as a saint of ordinary life. The archbishop of Edinburgh said,
“We can still admire the heroism of the early martyrs, but the unlikelihood of our being thrown to the lions makes these first Christian saints somewhat remote and shadowy figures. Margaret Sinclair may well be one of the first to achieve the little of Saint from the factory floor.”
She was declared venerable in 1978. Pope John Paul II described her as
“one of God’s little ones who, through her very simplicity, was touched by God with a real holiness of life.”