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Blessed Margaret, A Pearl of Beauty and Worth

Mary Jane Owen, TOP, MSW

Blessed Margaret of Castello has slipped into the consciousness of a growing number of Catholics at a critical time when the forces of death are emphasizing a utilitarian approach to life.  This woman with significant disabilities 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.  “Margarita” meant pearl in the Italian world in which her spiritual gifts grew and became known.  Now little Margaret appears, radiant as an unblemished pearl, to inspire all who call upon her.

Today her image hangs on the wall of the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities and her statute rests on a pedestal nearby.  She is present to the mission of the church in establishing “Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities,” (1) in every parish of the nation.  Ten years ago few knew her but suddenly awareness has grown and she is finally moving toward canonization.

Little “Margarita” is a powerful ally in confronting the negative stereotypes about human vulnerability.  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.  And she 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 delayed recognition. 

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.  Joyful plans were made to greet an 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.          If amniocentesis had been an option, she would surely have been aborted.  Padre Cappellano, chaplain of the fort, was witness to the noble birth and probably his intervention prevented the "crippled" life from being snuffed out in an act of infanticide.  Parisio sent word the baby was stillborn and whisked her away to be nursed by servants.  Later, baptized "Margarita," 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 Gritia Venturinus made room for her in their home.  She had become a Third Order Dominican 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 what of Blessed Margaret as a Pearl of Great Value?  Personal insight was fanned by a gift of a canned oyster sent to me by my daughter who was living in 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 her 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.  The image of the beautiful pearl which lies within each of us, no matter our outward appearance or abilities, is comforting as we come to realize that the human body is messy and never perfect. 

Blessed Margaret’s life reminds us that the soul within the earthly shell confirms the essential value of each of His people.  This is a message for our time, as we counter the threats of abortion, infanticide, assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia.  Little Margarita is surely a saint of the culture of life and love. 

FURTHER INFORMATION:

“Blessed Margaret of Castello, O.P. - A Mediaeval Biography,” Dominica Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary, Monestery Pius XII, Pua do Rosario, 1, 2495 Fatima, Portugal (English) (48 pgs) 1994.

“Blessed Margaret of Castello,” Fr. William r. Bonniwell, O.P., Idea Inc., Madison, Wisc. (114 pgs) 1988.

Information on the canonization of Blessed Margaret is available from the Dominican Friars, St. Louis Bertrand Church, 1104 S. 6th Street, Louisville, KY 40203-3395.

For Further Information Contact: The National Catholic Partnership on Disability, McCormick Pavilion, Suite 240, 415 Michigan Avenue, N.E.,Washington, DC 20017, Tel: 202/529-2933, TTY: 202/529-2934, Website: ncpd@ncpd.org, Email: mjowen@ncpd.org.


 

 

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