Giuseppe Moscati: The lay bachelor who became a saint

As we approach Valentine’s Day, brace yourself to inundated with condescending messages about how to “survive” or “navigate” the holidays as a single person. Is anyone getting sick of this? Vocation–whether it’s married life or consecrated–isn’t a prerequisite for sainthood.
I sometimes think that in our desire to make sure we all take vocation seriously, we give the impression that sanctity doesn’t start until the vows are made. This is ridiculous. To quote the very first line of the Catechism: “at every time and in every place, God draw close to man.” There is no vocational prerequisite.
Being single has its own unique opportunities for holiness. We can give ourselves to our neighbors the way our married friends just can’t, yet we have more connection to the world and power to evangelize than many consecrated.

 

Perhaps one of the best examples of this was Saint Giuseppe Moscati, an Italian physician who lived in the early 1900s. I made his life into a list so it’s easier to skim, but I’d really prefer if you read it.

  1. He made his career his ministry
Pg. 12 GuiseppeAsAChild

Photo portrait of Giuseppe as a child.

St. Giuseppe was born on Sept. 25, 1880 in Benevento, Italy. To put it delicately, he was hard-working and intelligent. To put it honestly, he was crazy stupid unbelievable-level smart.  Despite his family’s legal background, St. Giuseppe decided to study medicine. This was largely influenced by his older brother, Alberto, who suffered a head trauma when Giuseppe was 12. Giuseppe saw the care his brother received, and decided he would commit his life to alleviating both the spiritual and physical pain that afflict the ill.
He did it. He would often see patients free of charge, and would even sometimes send them home with a prescription and a 50-lire note.

  1. He lived as a disciple.

Before examining a patient or participating in research, Moscati would take the time to place himself in the Presence of God. He also practiced detachment in a way that made sense for his state in life. It wouldn’t make sense for him to sell everything and live on the streets, because that would inhibit his ability to give quality medical treatment to his patients. Instead, he turned down promotions that would have given him an illustruous academic career. He realized God’s plan for his gifts was to serve his patients and train his interns.

 

  1. He lived an integrated life

St. Giuseppe didn’t give long-winded speeches about why he was a “Catholic” doctor, or why his faith was the most important piece of his life. It was more like his faith was at the heart of his life, and everything else radiated out from it. He didn’t just study a singular brand of medicine; he made himself proficient in 20 different specialties so that he could better serve his suffering patients. One fellow doctor recalled that his knowledge was “so complete in all its ramifications that those who were studying to be specialists found themselves calling on him constantly to ask for clarifications. Amazing incidents often occured in which he, against his will, was compelled to point out the truth to experienced specialists.”

  1. He practiced the works of mercy
Pg 12 Grown Moscati

St. Giuseppe Moscati (NOT Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World)

Obviously, he did many of the corporal works of mercy, such as visiting the sick and giving food to the hungry, through the course of his job. However, he also made a point of practicing the spiritual works of mercy. He seems to have been espeically devoted to teaching the ignorant, saying it is “an obligation in conscience to instruct the young, shunning the current fashion of jealously keeping secret the fruit of one’s own experience, but rather revealing it to them.”

  1. He was brave but humble

On April 22, 1906, shortly after Giuseppe graduated medical school, Mount Vesuvius erupted. Lava, ash and stones burst out of the crator and poured down the slopes of the mountain. The town was impossible to reach by rail. The people living in the ravaged towns were fighting to get their families to safety, but Giuseppe knew that many wounded lay in the hospitals. Since he didn’t have a family for which he was responsible, he went to the afflicted town of Torre del Greco and ordered the director to leave, as the building was about to collapse. He then began to help the most severely disabled to cars, aided only by an inspector and a handful of nurses. Just as they evacuated the last patient, the roof capsized.

Giuseppe could have demanded to be treated like a hero after that (I know I would), but instead he wrote a letter asking for a reward for the inspector and nurses.

“I am certain that anyone of my station would have done the same and better,” he said.
GuiseppeBookYou can learn more about Giuseppe by reading this book or watching this movie (in Italian, with subtitles) by Ignatius Press.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.