Blessed Margaret of Castello slipped silently into my awareness several years ago. I didn't know this woman with significant disabilities who lived and ministered to the marginalized people of Castello during the harsh days when medieval eyes saw only the ugliness and grossness of their contemporaries who were disabled. Then, one day, little Margaret appeared, radiant as a unblemished pearl in my thoughts. How appropriate, for a pearl has been associated with the name "Margaret" over the years.
Today her image hangs on my wall; her statute rests beside a striding St. Dominic. I have come to love her and talk with her each day. She is present as this national office strives to fulfill its mission. For it was established to promote the 1978 U. S. Catholic bishops' pastoral statement calling for welcome and meaningful inclusion for the 12 million people with disabilities and their families within the activities of our Church.
When I first began to use Blessed Margaret as a model and guide for these last days of the 20th century, I found few among my audiences knew her story. However, as increasing numbers of Catholics have come to know her, she presents herself as a powerful ally in confronting the negative stereotypes about human vulnerability. Awareness the rhetoric of the culture of death fuels the campaign which endangers the very lives of those of us who live with physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities is growing. And Margaret fully understands the pain of exclusion felt by our brothers and sisters with disabilities as they face barriers in fulfilling their God-given potential. For even her parents scorned her for her fragilities and disabilities, abandoning her as a "monster." And yet today she seems destined for eventual canonization.
The diminutive, initially nameless baby, destined to grow into a tiny, yet powerful witness of God's ability to empower the powerless, was born to a noble Italian family in 1287. Her father, Lord Parisio, was a successful military strategist who defended his mountainous Castle of Metola against all rivals. Upon learning Lady Emilia was with child, a grand celebration was planned. He needed and expected a son. All joyful plans were made to greet his heir. But all merriment was quickly canceled and the facts of the birth were quelled when the day arrived.
In addition to being dwarfed, the baby girl was blind with a twisted back and legs which were ill-matched. She was viewed by her parents as am abomination and treated with revulsion. And even today, those who write of Blessed Margaret's physical appearance persist in describing her in the odious words deemed appropriate in medieval descriptions of those "unfortunate" enough to survive in spite of "grievous" impairments.
If amniocentesis had been an option, she would surely have been aborted. It is probable Padre Cappellano, chaplain of the fort, was witness to the noble birth. And possibly it was his Christian intervention which prevented the "crippled" life from being snuffed out in an act of infanticide. There is reason to assume he retained interest in the rejected child, since she was educated in spiritual matters.
Parisio sent word the baby was stillborn while whisking her away to be nursed by servants. Later, baptized "Margaret," she thrived and began to explore her environment. Her roaming threatened to disclose her parent's lies and stricter controls had to be imposed. Increased isolation and rejection were to follow.
A medieval manuscript contends she was confined in a walled up room and later in underground chambers. During the dreary days Margaret was brought into ever closer union with the Lord and her Heavenly Father. Her spiritual insights and prayers were sources of comfort as she came to realize she was loved. The discernment that the body is merely the temporary receptacle of the soul is a comfort to many with assorted disabilities. Contending with assorted impairments is a rather common experience in the lives of our Saints. It was thus for Margaret, who continued to grow ever closer to her Creator.
Upon hearing cures were taking place near the tomb of a Franciscan friar in the city of Castello, Margaret's parents remembered their abandoned child and secretly took her to that holy place. Returning hours later to find her still praying but unchanged, they silently abandoned her again, this time in totally unfamiliar surroundings.
And so the young blind and significantly disabled girl was left to beg for her livelihood. Again, her survival depended upon the every-day miracles which sustained and comforted her. A medieval biographer notes she was taken in by Dominican nuns but her efforts to reform their conduct offended them and she was forced back onto the streets, to mingle and spread her faith in God with other marginalized and ostracized people.
We are told the family of Venturinus and his wife, Gritia made room for her in their home. She had become a Third Order Doninican and continued her long hours in prayer for all who were unfortunate and vulnerable. When she died at the age of 33, the people of the streets, many of whom were disfigured and disabled, credited her with several miracles of healing and solace and insisted she was a saint who must be buried in the place where she had spend so many hours in prayer. And there she lies today within a crystal casket, her body uncorrupted.
And her body does not show the extremes of deformities which artists have imposed upon her. She is surprisingly tiny but lies in dignity, not like the thickset, squat caricatures which have perpetuated the medieval view. The figure which stands within her Shrine at St. Patrick Church in Columbus, OH most clearly matches her body which can still be viewed by the faithful who journey to the Church of St. Dominic in Castello, Italy.
And what of Blessed Margaret as a Pearl of Great Value? Insight was fanned by the gift of a canned oyster from Japan. That can sat upon my kitchen counter for weeks before I ventured to open it. The stinky water sloshed over everything as the can slipped and the rough, crusty shell slide onto the floor. It was pried open to reveal the slimy flesh. Searching through this disagreeable substance revealed a beautiful pearl, which hangs around my neck next to my Blessed Margaret medal.
As the story of Blessed Margaret's ministry to the disabled, vulnerable and marginalized of her time is shared with today's disabled brothers and sisters and their families, a powerful connection is made. For the image of the beautiful pearl within has deep and comforting meaning for such individuals. They have learned the human body is messy and never perfect.
Blessed Margaret's confirmation that it is the soul within the earthly shell which confirms the essential value of each of His people is a message for our time, as we counter the threats of abortion, infanticide, assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia. For Blessed Margaret is surely a saint of the culture of life and love.
For Information Contact: The National Catholic Office for Persons with
Disability, Suite 240; 415 Michigan Avenue, N.E.; Washington, D.C. 20017
USA, Tel: 202/529-2933, TTY: 202/529-2934, e-mail: <email@example.com> AND
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