Feast Day: February 8th
In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two – you all know the phrase – Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue. As that news made its way around Europe, surely it must have created waves in the city of Venice. For centuries, the Italian power had held mastery of the sea. Its galleys, sailors, captains, and system of ports had given it a powerful trade network crisscrossing the Mediterranean and beyond, but never into the unknown of the Atlantic Ocean. Now, someone had, and the Venetian lion was not unfurled atop the Niño, Pinto, and Santa María.
I spent far too much time trying to find whichflag did … maybe it was Portuguese, with its shields and castles? But Columbus was financed by Spain! Maybe the Spanish lion and castle? But Spain was not yet united, so that flag was probably years in the future. So maybe it was the royal, white flag of Ferdinand and Isabella, with its green cross? That flew at least when he landed upon San Salvador. … perhaps this digression reveals the chaos of those days … but, regardless, it was not the flag of Venice! And so, an eleven year old boy in that great maritime city, Gerolomo Emiliani, must have felt both exhilaration, and dread at the news of the new world, as would have everyone in the city, who depended for their security, and sustenance, upon their command of the sea, well, now, the seas.
And that was not the only crisis sailing over the horizon.
It is useful, and offers us a bit of perspective and wisdom, to every so often glance back in history and realize that things are not as bad today as they have been in the past. Not only were their days controlling the seas dwindling fast, Venice was soon engulfed in what might as well be remembered as the World War of the 1500s. Technically the “War of the League of Cambrai” or the “War of the Holy League”, this decade of battling across Italy, though primarily between France, the Papal States, and Venice, ended up with every other power in Europe at the time – Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, England, Milan, Florence, Ferrara, and Switzerland – jumping into the fray, making various alliances (and switching alliances), and destroying a lot of cities, and lives, in the process. But, to make it all worse, there is the Pope (perhaps first Alexander VI, but then, of course, Julius II) in the middle of everything, scheming, battling, and back-stabbing like the best of them. And, our young Gerolomo, loses his father, runs off to the army at 15, eventually rises to become a captain of a fortress in the mountains of Treviso, but disaster continues to follow him: the fortress is captured, and he is imprisoned and shackled.
In the midst of the ugliness, pain, and horrors of his day; in the face of his own helplessness, failure, and grief, he finally prays – everybody wasn’t pious in the 1500s either – and finds himself miraculously able to escape. He gives his chains, literally, to Our Blessed Mother, returns to Venice in 1518, becomes a priest despite the horrific leadership and politicking in the Church, and as the horrors of the black plague envelop Europe (it only gets worse!), he becomes a saint. He nurses the sick and dying, builds hospitals, cares for the orphans, gives a new life to the prostitutes, and founds a congregation to join his charitable labors. He poured his life out for the plague victims, and succumbed to it himself in 1537.
The chains, chaos, and corruption of our own day need not control us. Can we surrender to God our dreams, and chains? Can we repent of our sins, finding freedom in Confession? Can we give our lives to charity? Can we face the storms, and yet remain calm? Saints can. So can we.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin has not defended fortresses from rampaging Papal armies, and prays that he will never have to. He has tried to care for plague victims, with little success given current hospital protocols, and has contracted said disease, with nothing like the terrible consequences faced by most in our own day, or certainly by Fr. Jerome Emiliani. But, if in all those ways he cannot follow in Jerome’s footsteps, he can, at least, surrender his chains to Mary, and his life to Love. Pray for him. He prays for you.