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Catholic Heroes… St. Margaret Of Cortona

February 13, 2018 saints No Comments


Great sinners make great saints. It takes a strong-willed child to become a saint. These are statements which would easily fit saints such as Mary Magdalene and St. Augustine. In the thirteenth century, a young lady free in spirit and strong in will led such a life that she was essentially driven from her home village, but later in life Mary Magdalene and Jesus appeared to her as their beloved. Her change in behavior was so abrupt and was so different from her unwholesome ways that she was once again driven away by her family — not because of her immorality, but because of the extremes to which she went in loving repentance.
Margaret was born in 1247 in Laviano, Tuscany. Her parents were farmers, and her mother died when Margaret was very young. Although her mother had tried to provide Margaret with a firm foundation in the faith, her early demise and Margaret’s strong will jeopardized such a formation.
As Margaret was an only child, her father frequently indulged her, but he would give into bouts of rage when he was unable to control her errant behavior. Her father was devastatingly subject to violent moods swings, leaving the young girl both lonely and fearful.
When her father remarried, his new wife was also exasperated with Margaret’s behavior so the situation worsened. Margaret soon found the small house restrictive and began wandering the streets. As a lovely young woman, she basked in the flattery that her beauty generated. With no loving mother and a father unwilling or unable to discipline her, she spiraled out of control.
She detested her home life, wandering the streets of Cortona and associating with despicable characters. Overly pleased with the reaction she received from men and the favors they would grant her, she soon fell into a pattern of grave sin. She later recalled that if she had felt loved, her soul would have been freed from sin’s slavery. But she found no more affection in her home so she looked elsewhere for the attention she craved.
By the time she was 17, her life of overindulgence forced her to leave Laviano. Too many were aware of her sullied reputation so she was unable to find respectable employment. Eventually, a nobleman needed a servant in his castle and employed her. She was finally free of her stepmother and thought she had found some of the freedom she craved.
The nobleman, her master, was young, manly, and possessed great charm. Like many men before him, he found Margaret very appealing as she went about her work. Unlike most servant girls, she possessed great confidence and held her head high as she passed through the hallways. For once, she also was attracted to him. With no other men around and no family to dissuade her, she fell to temptation and soon was firmly established in the castle as his mistress.
Although he promised to marry Margaret, he never did and they soon had a son. Eventually, her conscience began bothering her. She finally realized that her “free spirit” had only brought her a new slavery.
She reflected on her earlier life in Laviano where she had felt limited by the poverty and restrictive parenting. She observed the wealth and comfort of her present circumstances as she looked at her clothes and fine jewelry. Then she remembered her dear mother and knew that she could not look her in the face if she were still alive.
She decided she would be generous to those who came to the gate seeking alms. Her heart ached for God’s forgiveness, but she had no access to priests so her sadness increased. The staff noticed her change and tried to offer her comfort, but she walked away defiant and aloof as she called back, “One day I will be a saint!”
Margaret had been at the castle for nine years when her master went on a journey. When he was late returning, she became concerned, and then she saw his favorite dog running to her whining. He tugged at her dress so she followed him with great dismay as she went through the gates. The master’s hound continued to the woods and finally led her to a pile of debris. Shaking with dread, she began moving the waste away and underneath it all was the corpse of her lord. The condition of the body made it evident that he had been dead for several days.
This event affected Margaret so deeply that she changed completely. Who, why had someone killed the father of her child? Had she provoked a rivalry? Suppose that was her in the ground with her beauty turned to ugliness, where would her soul go?
Suffering from her miserable state of soul as well as the man’s death, she fled to her quarters which she now saw as a prison of torture. In all her misery, like the prodigal son, Margaret decided to return to her father and beg his forgiveness. She bundled up her child and walked the distance to her father’s home.
After some deliberation, he allowed her back into his house. However, when she started making public confessions of her sins, he told her to leave. Margaret wandered the lanes and finally rested, gazing up the ridge where the castle stood. She toyed with the idea of returning there to do penance and give alms, but resisted the temptation.
Later she heard the Lord, “I have set thee as an example to sinners, for as I have been merciful to thee, so I will be merciful to them.” Then she went to the Franciscans in Cortona and they cautiously accepted her, placing her with two women in town of lowly means.
To hide her beauty she dressed in rags and disfigured her face so that men would not be attracted to her. She had women lead her like a beast through the streets not only for atonement, but to resist temptations of the flesh in which she had indulged for so many years. Her confessor struggled to moderate her severe penances, but she pleaded her cause, citing her lifelong struggle against sins of the flesh.
Wisely, the Franciscans urged her to earn her own keep, which she willing did by serving the poor. There was no task she would spurn, taking whatever they chose to give her in return for her kindness.
For her virtuous behavior, our Lord rewarded her by allowing her to experience personally all the merciful love He had for her. She realized that the love she craved could only be filled by God.
She beheld many mystical visions as she continued to do penance and minister to the poor. Margaret founded many organizations and was eventually allowed to enter the Third Order of St. Francis. She also became a peacemaker in the surrounding countryside, daring to admonish the bishop himself.
Before her death in 1297, Margaret had a vision of Mary Magdalene, and Christ spoke to her, “My Eternal Father said of me to the Baptist, ‘This is my beloved son’; so do I say to thee of Magdalene, ‘This is my beloved daughter’.”
Margaret is buried in the Church of St. Basil in Cortona and is still incorrupt. Her feast is February 22.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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