Friday, May 1, 2009

St. Peregrine: The Cancer Saint

Did you know there's a patron saint for those suffering from cancer, AIDS, and other chronic diseases? A saint who actually had one of these afflictions himself.  There are lots of different viewpoints about saints and the value of praying or not praying to them.  As one who has seen cancer's devastation wrought on my mother, my aunt and godmother, and my grandmother, not to mention countless friends and acquaintances through the years, I'm not too picky about whatever help and support I can get, nor the source. 

Peregrine (Pellegrino) Laziosi was born into a wealthy family in the northern town of Forlì, Italy, in 1260. Anti-clericalism was particularly common in his time, though it has been around for a long time in various places and times, and in varying degrees of intensity. Sometimes opposition against clergy has been justified, for many clergy have too often used their honored role in the Church as a status symbol, giving them a supposed superiority over lay people.  They forget that their primary ordination is in Baptism, where all Christians born into the new life of Christ are commissioned to live out His ministry and mission together. Among the People of God, the priestly role is only one among many others.  At any rate, Peregrine's parents and, indeed, almost the whole citizenry of Forli were definitely down on their clergy. It is said that into this volatile situation the Pope sent a special representative to Forli to preach, and to try and win the people's hearts over to God. The preacher's name was Philip Benizi, later proclaimed a saint. Philip preached to the crowd and at first it seemed that things were going well; at least, the people listened. That is, until Peregrine Laziosi showed up with a gang of troublemakers, and literally drove Philip from the pulpit. Pushing the envelope beyond his peers' actions, Peregrine even slapped Philip in the face. Philip quietly responded by offering the other cheek, and forgave Peregrine. At length, the young man became so full of remorse that he went back to Philip Benizi and apologized to him. Something within him changed, and Peregrine no longer went around with his friends anymore. He began to spend more time in prayer. The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to him during this time, directing him to go to Siena, about 91 miles or 146 kilometers southwest of Forli. There Peregrine joined the Servants of Mary or the Servites. The superior who received him??  None other than Philip Benizi! 

Peregrine thereafter devoted his life to assiduous prayer and penance. Apparently one of the special penances he decided upon was to stand whenever it wasn't necessary to sit. It's said that Peregrine continued to do this for some thirty years. Presumably there was more standing than sitting, because Peregrine developed varicose veins and, eventually, cancer on his leg and foot. The cancer progressed to where the doctors recommended that his foot be amputated.  The night before the surgery was scheduled Peregrine dragged himself to the foot of a crucifix and spent many hours in prayer, asking God to heal him, but only in the way that God might choose. When he awoke in the morning, his foot was completely healed.

Peregrine died on May 1, 1345 at the venerable age of 85.  He was officially recognized as a saint in 1726.

A story like this inevitably raises a lot of questions, particularly about prayers of petition on behalf of oneself or others, and specifically questions about healing.  One thing is unquestionably certain: God always wills that we be well and whole.  Inevitably, though, our bodies have ways of breaking down and failing, even dying, for a myriad of reasons.  But when that happens, God nevertheless always desires our healing.  God doesn't play favorites or engage in a kind of celestial lottery as to who gets to be healed and live or who doesn't.  Contrary to common opinion, all this has nothing to do with "our number" being called or not being called by God! Woodeene Koenig-Bricker, in her book, 365 Saints, expresses it well when she writes: "...most of us don't know how to ask.  Oh, we know how to put in our requests, as if God were a short-order cook in a fast-food restaurant, but that isn't asking. Asking isn't merely the act of articulating our desires and then sitting back and waiting for God to deliver.  Asking is the total surrender of our will to the will of God. We bring our needs to God, believing they will be fulfilled, not because we want them, but because God wants to grant them to us..."

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