It's hard to even imagine the crosses carried by the chronically ill. But these men and women found holiness in their pain.
As churches and businesses begin to open up and people are deciding how best to protect themselves and those around them, there are millions of people with chronic illnesses for whom these decisions are even more complicated. But the Church has always honored the sacrifices made by those who suffer well for love of Christ, and there are any number of chronically ill saints who are powerful intercessors for those who live with these conditions (and those of us who seek to love them well).
St. Lidwina (1380-1433) was ice skating near her home in the Netherlands when she fell and broke a rib. Only 15, she must have expected to recover, but her wound seems to have become gangrenous and her body increasingly disabled. Some speculate that the paralysis that followed was actually a result of multiple sclerosis, itself the cause of her fall and not its result. Lidwina spent the rest of her life (nearly 40 years) in bed, dealing with debilitating pain and nausea but consoled by mystical visions. She’s said to have survived on only the Eucharist for 19 years, to have received the stigmata, and to have been the instrument through whom God worked many miracles.
Bl. Miguel Pro (1891-1927) is best known for the antics and disguises by which he evaded capture during the Cristero War in Mexico. But the young priest was only in his war-ravaged native country in the first place because of his chronic stomach pain. Throughout his formation as a Jesuit in Europe, Pro had suffered from severe stomach pains (which he often disguised by making a joke so that he could grab his stomach as he laughed afterward). Not long after his ordination, Fr. Pro underwent three separate operations to treat his ulcers; during one, doctors thought anesthesia too risky, so the young priest, laughing, asked to have the Code of Canon Law read to him during the operation instead. When Fr. Pro’s health failed to improve after his third operation, his superiors decided to send him back to Mexico in the hopes that the weather would do him good. There, Fr. Pro lived in hiding for a year and a half before he was captured and executed.
Bl. Carlos Manuel Rodriguez (1918-1963) was a Puerto Rican man with ulcerative colitis. Though his illness delayed his graduation from high school until he was 21 and prevented him from earning a college degree, Carlos didn’t allow it to hamper his work for the Church in Puerto Rico. He had a deep love of the liturgy, which he shared with his people through the newsletters he produced, talks he gave, study groups he organized, and retreats he ran. In addition to all this work, he had a paying job as an office clerk and spent his free time hiking and playing piano and organ. He died of rectal cancer at only 44.
Bl. Benedetta Bianchi Porro (1936-1964) suffered from polio as a baby, which left her with a permanent limp and required her to wear a back brace. She began to lose her hearing as a medical student, but doctors believed it was psychosomatic. Possessed of a brilliant medical mind, Porra diagnosed herself with von Recklinghausen’s disease, a neurological condition that would ultimately rob her of all five of her senses. Over the next seven years, she lost her hearing, then her sight, then the use of her legs. Eventually, she could move nothing but her left hand and receive communication only through letters signed on her cheek. She struggled mightily with spiritual darkness and the temptation to despair, but found joy in the end, saying, “I do not lack hope. I know that at the end of the road, Jesus is waiting for me … I have discovered that God exists, that He is love, faithfulness, joy, certitude, to the end of the ages. My days are not easy. They are hard. But sweet because Jesus is with me.”
Servant of God Darwin Ramos (1994-2012) was a Filipino child born into devastating poverty. Though his mother worked hard as a laundrywoman, his alcoholic father drank most of her wages. The oldest of eight hungry children, Darwin and his sister would spend their days picking through the trash. But his muscles became weak when he was around five and he ultimately lost the ability to walk. He would later be diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. At that point, Darwin’s father set him to begging (though Darwin was ashamed) until a group that worked with street children invited Darwin to come live with them at a home for children with disabilities. There, Darwin’s constant joy was evident to each person he met. He never lamented the disease that was slowly killing him, instead calling it his mission, and the way in which he would learn to love and trust God. He died at 17. His last words? “A huge thank you. I am very happy.”
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