When Haydn discovers, shortly after his soprano’s murder, that his wife, Maria Anna, is lighting candles to St. Gerard, he’s greatly alarmed.
Maria Anna, Haydn’s well aware, had a strong motive to kill Lucia Pacelli, who crashed to her death in the middle of her performance. Lucia was poisoned and everyone knows that the last thing the poor woman ingested before she died was a tisane prepared by none other than Maria Anna.
God have mercy, Haydn thinks. God have mercy!
St. Gerard Majella was born in 1726 and died in 1755. That fact gave me some pause when it came to including him in the plot. After all, the events of the novel take place in 1770, about fifteen years after his lifetime. Had sufficient time elapsed for him to be viewed as a saint?
Furthermore, it was only in 1904 that he was canonized. How likely was it that an eighteenth-century church would have a shrine devoted to him?
Yet as patron saint of both expectant mothers and the falsely accused, St. Gerard was the perfect saint for the plot. And the more I read about him, the more convinced I was that he should be the saint Maria Anna lights candles to.
In his own lifetime, St. Gerard was already regarded as something of a saint. He’d performed many notable miracles. And, as with many other Catholic saints, his intercession was both eagerly sought and reputed to be extremely effective long before he was canonized.
In fact, the miracle that caused him to be regarded as patron saint of pregnant women and those seeking a child took place not long after his death. Shortly before he died, St. Gerard had met a young girl. Apparently, he’d dropped his handkerchief and she, noticing that, brought it back to him. But the good saint kindly suggested that the girl keep the piece of cloth. It might, he said, come in use some day.
And sure enough it did. Years later, the girl now grown was heavy with child and unfortunately in grave danger of losing her baby. Remembering the handkerchief the blessed man—a lay brother in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer—had given her, she asked for it to be applied to her womb.
This had no sooner been done than her pain subsided and she went on to give birth to a healthy child.
Given the miracles performed in his lifetime—miracles of healing, restoring a boy’s life, and multiplying bread—and that he was widely regarded as a saint in his native Italy, it seemed entirely plausible that fifteen years after his death, the faithful should seek his prayers on their behalf. After all, he was already viewed as a saint while still alive.
Besides, St. Gerard was born not far from Naples and given Habsburg control of various parts of Italy either directly or through carefully negotiated marriage alliances. It wasn’t unlikely—I felt—that stories of the miracles performed in his lifetime and of his successful intercession afterward might have spread to Austrian and Royal Hungary, inspiring the faithful there to venerate him as well.
As for being patron saint of the falsely accused, the good saint was falsely accused himself. A woman he’d helped insinuated that he was engaged in an illicit relationship with the daughter of a family he regularly visited. Confronted with this accusation, St. Gerard—like Christ before Pontius Pilate—remained silent.
Why did the woman do this? Well, Gerard had helped her get into a convent. But within three weeks, she’d been sent back to her home. Ashamed of this, she first tried to slander the nuns. Then when that didn’t work, she targeted Gerard.
He, rather than defend himself, quietly accepted the penance his superior gave him—to have no contact with the outside world and, worse still, to be deprived of the Eucharist. This may not seem like a severe punishment, but to be denied the Eucharist is to be denied the bread of spiritual life and to be denied communion with Christ. For a devout Catholic, this would’ve been a mortal blow.
But the story fortunately doesn’t end there. Ultimately, St. Gerard was justified. The woman who’d accused him fell ill, repented of her lies, and retracted her accusation.
While I was researching saints and the devotion both Catholics and those of the Orthodox Church reserve for them, I learned something else: That contrary to popular conception—or misconception, to be more precise—the members of the two oldest Churches in the history of Christianity don’t worship the saints or Mary. Instead they venerate them and seek their intercession.
Petitioning a saint or Mary to pray for you and raise your concerns to God is no different than asking a friend or neighbor to do the same. And since we know the saints and the Virgin Mary to have been especially righteous and blessed, it follows their prayers—as James 5:16 tells us—must be especially effective.
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