February 22, 2006
I was brought up Catholic in the glorious 1950s, the heyday of the kind of Catholic childhood portrayed in The Bells of Saint Mary’s. We had a patron saint for everything. You prayed to St. Anthony to find a lost object, to St. Francis for the protection of animals, or to St. Jude for the success of a seemingly lost cause. St. Dominic Savio (martyred for trying to protect the consecrated host) and St. Maria Goretti (martyred for refusing to give up “the incorruptible treasure of her virginity” to the family gardener) were held up as the patron saints of teenagers.
Recently I wondered if there were a patron saint for weight loss efforts. A Google search led me to discover Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297), pictured at left, whose feast day is today. Not only is the she the patron saint of those who seek to lose weight, she is also the go-to saint of falsely accused people, hobos, the homeless, midwives, penitent women, and reformed prostitutes, as well as those suffering from insanity or sexual temptation. She also watches over those who are struggling with the loss of their parents or who are being ridiculed for their piety. This is one busy saint!
My attitude toward my Catholic upbringing is sort of a loving tolerance for a way of life that I can’t follow now but which I wouldn’t trade away for anything. The lives of the saints are in many cases romanticized or even completely fabricated. Margaret of Cortona is in various sources portrayed either as a headstrong young woman who eloped with a married man and lived as his mistress until he died, or as simply a wanton prostitute. Whatever the truth behind her story, the bottom line is that she repented of her sins and lived out her life in penance by serving the sick and the poor. There isn’t any evidence that she struggled with her weight. (What, indeed, qualified as “overweight” seven hundred years ago?) She is the patron saint of weight loss because she overcame temptation. Evidently being tempted to sexual excess and being tempted to eating excess were the same thing.
Maybe they are. Or maybe one is a substitute for the other.