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from issue no. 11 - 2007

Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, the treasure hidden in the Church

Four hundred years after her death, research and unpublished documents throw new light on the “paschal” and joyous spirituality of the mystic saint from Florence

by Chiara Vasciaveo

The original notes of the <I>Colloquies</I> of Saint Maria Maddalena de’  Pazzi, found in 2005 by Chiara Vasciaveo, Archive of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Florence

The original notes of the Colloquies of Saint Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, found in 2005 by Chiara Vasciaveo, Archive of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Florence

The four hundredth anniversary of the death of Saint Maria Maddalena (1566-1607), Florentine Carmelite, teacher of the spiritual life was celebrated on 25 May. Such was her widespread reputation for holiness among the people and the clergy that the cause for her beatification was begun in 1611 very soon after her death. On 8 May 1626 she was proclaimed Blessed by Urban VIII and, on 28 April 1669, canonized by Clement IX.
Reputable scholars claim that «Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi is among the best known Italian female spiritual writers along with Angela da Foligno and Caterina da Siena»1. Many authoritative Catholic figures have valued her witness and words. Venerables such as Diomira del Verbo Incarnato (Margherita Allegri, 1651-1677) of the Nuns Established in Charity (Philippines of Florence), Blesseds such as Ippolito Galantini (†1619) or Saints such as Alfonso Maria de’Liguori (1696-1787)2 and Teresa of Lisieux (1873-1897)3, have had a significant veneration for the mystic from Florence.
Paul VI was fond of reading her works, while Don Divo Barsotti was not afraid of declaring, in intense autobiographical tones, on his last visit to the nuns of Careggi: «Saint Maria Maddalena lives her mission of love for us… That is why I would like to entrust myself and all the community of San Sergio to Saint Maria Maddalena… She has been my friend, my help, my light on my way through life. We thank her so much for this. I would never have thought that here below we might be given a living and profound experience, especially one divine»4.
Unfortunately, a not much enlightened devotion and short-sighted cultivators of her witness have divulgated in texts and images a baroque vision of the saint (that is to say a particular interpretation of her life, dwelling on the extraordinary happenings) neglecting her words. Strong and incisive, they are capable of branding themselves on her readers in a cogent demand for ecclesial renewal. Perhaps for this reason the authentic texts of the Carmelite are read by few even during this centenary. With the risks one can guess.
Different models of holiness exist in Christian sanctity. Generally the missions characterized by the service of charity and mercy are “easier” and better understood. The reception of gifts of prophecy, characterized not so much by the “heralding of the future” as by genuine spiritual magisterium, in listening to the Word, authenticated by the coherence of a life.

A hidden life
The life of Saint Maria Maddalena featured few happenings. She was born into one of the most notable families of the Florentine nobility, to Maria Buondelmonti and Camillo di Geri de’ Pazzi, on April 2 1566, their second child, whom they named Caterina. In two periods (from 1574 to 1578 and from 1580 to 1581) she was a pupil at San Giovannino of the Female Knights of Malta. Perhaps still too young, she chose to become a Carmelite nun, entering Santa Maria degli Angeli at sixteen (27 November 1582), not long after the closure of the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
The first five years of convent life are the best known in Maddalena’s life. “Abstractions”, “raptures”, dramatizations of Gospel episodes, interwove with the ordinary life of the young Carmelite. In reality, under these labels are grouped a highly diversified variety of phenomena founded on the contemplation of the Word in prayer. In the large Carmel of Santa Maria degli Angeli (the oldest of the Order), numbering almost eighty nuns in the period in which Maddalena lived there, various were of great spirituality, from Mother Evangelista del Giocondo to Pacifica del Tovaglia, friend and among the main “secretaries” of the saint.
For around twenty years she was silently engaged in the interweaving of prayer and work proper to convent life. In charge of the reception of the young women who came to the guesthouse (1586-1589), she was then from 1589 engaged in the training of the young women, and became under-prioress from 1604. She fell ill, spent her last three years troubled in body and spirit, dying on 25 May 1607, at forty-one years old.

<I>Saint Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a woman dwelt in by the Spirit</I>, 
icon by Sister Benedetta Tenore, private collection

Saint Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a woman dwelt in by the Spirit, icon by Sister Benedetta Tenore, private collection

«If God is communicative».
The Carmel of Santa Maria degli Angeli was linked for various years to the female Savonarola circles. There for some time had circulated manuscript testimonies and sources on celebrated and highly esteemed women such as the Dominican nuns Saints Caterina de’ Ricci from Prato (1522-1590) and the Blessed Maria Bartolomea de’ Bagnesi (1514-1577), whose body is venerated still today in the Florentine Carmel. In 1563 her confessor became the governor of the convent.
Mention has been made of the importance of Scripture. One witness went into detail during the canonical hearings: «I remember in particular that every Saturday, taking the Gospel, she would choose two or three points from the Gospel for the following Sunday and exercised herself in meditation on them for the whole week, in which meditation she spent around two hours in the morning and one in the evening» (Sum 57). From this familiarity, developed in Franciscan and Dominican contexts, sprang her personal understanding of God as communicative God.
The superabundant effusion of the Spirit, received particularly on the Pentecost of 1585, led the young Carmelite by the austere paths of a desert consisting of the toil of the creature and of the Church in making room for such grace and in the need to grow in the mercy of a God who is «most loving Father», Word bestower of a «kiss of peace» and Spirit, transforming fire5. Undoubtedly, beyond the sentimentality, unduly stressed by her devotees, the centrality of the Trinity in the spiritual life and in ecclesial life is the greatest gift that she can offer our times.
So, from her encounter with God communion, Saint Maria Maddalena was enriched not only by a profound joy but also by a growing awareness of the inadequacy with which so many men and women, even outwardly Christian and sometimes, which is worse, religious and priests, responded to the offer of the Son and of his Spirit. To love Christ, for Saint Maria Maddalena, did not mean dwelling only emotionally on the consideration of His physical wounds, but developing an impassioned love for the wounded and rent body of Christ that is the Church. Welcoming Christ, involved for her, for example, opening her eyes to expectations disappointed by a religious life poor in brotherly relations, though rich in ceremony. 1202215147187">Despite that, both through interpersonal meetings and the letters dictated (but not always sent) even to the Pope and to the cardinals, she responded to the mission received, calling everyone to a personal and ecclesial life founded on the nakedness of the Gospel.

The original manuscript of the letter on the “Renewal of the Church”, by Santa Maria Maddalena de’  Pazzi, addressed to Sixtus V, but never sent, Archive Santa Maria degli Angeli;  below, <I>Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a woman dwelt in by theSpirit</I>

The original manuscript of the letter on the “Renewal of the Church”, by Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, addressed to Sixtus V, but never sent, Archive Santa Maria degli Angeli; below, Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a woman dwelt in by theSpirit

«To be bride and not handmaid»
Maddalena’s mysticism, in line with that of Catherine of Siena, was an ecclesial mysticism that called the whole people of God to conversion, not so as to “chastise” them, as some claim but so that, in answer to the Spirit who knocks, «someone may open to this gift».
Very fine the testimony of 1 May 1595 (the original has been found) that the Prioress Evangelista gave: «I Sister Evangelista, to the honor of the Eternal Father. I remember that Sister Maria Maddalena today this day first of May 1595 has promised to God to want to be His bride and not handmaid for His greater honor and so that He may be pleased with her and better help of His giving, she has promised to walk naked with her God and hear only His voice and that of those in His place and when she might be doubtful of anything wants to take counsel first of the naked Christ and of the most naked soul that her eyes see and of her superiors»6.
It seems, in fact, according to the texts and not the commentaries, that the heart of Maddalena’s venture did not center on suffering (generated also by health problems and a somewhat unbalanced spiritual yearning), but consisted in a theologic deepening of a spousal alliance with the Lord, rich in a “pure love”, she was wont to say «dead», or bridal. She lived off this paschal love, rooted in the divinizing blood of the Eucharist, thanks to the breath of the Spirit. From this acceptance, her frail woman’s word, moulded by the force of the Gospel, sprang forth. Of all this, her incorrupt body, venerated in the Florentine Carmel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and safeguarded by the praying presence, still today, of her fellow nuns, is humble testimony.
A hidden treasure for the Florentine Church and for the universal Church to be rediscovered. Don Barsotti hoped that one day Saint Maria Maddalena would be recognized as Doctor of the Church. The great many pilgrims coming from different continents, by ways almost unimaginable, who “encounter” her and approach her body, make one reflect on the need to make her voice resound and so accomplish her mission.

1 G. Pozzi- C. Leonardi, Scrittrici mysticihe italiane, [Italian mystical women writers] Marietti, Genoa 1988, p. 419.
2 Cf. Sant’Alfonso M. de’ Liguori, La vera sposa di Gesù Cristo, [The true spouse of Jesus Christ] Casa Mariana, Frigento 1991, pp. 23, 25, 29, 39, 157 ff.
3 Cf. Teresa of the Child Jesus, Opere complete di santa Teresa di Gesù Bambino e del Volto Santo. Scritti e ultime parole, [Complete Works of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Countenance. Writings and the last words] Libreria Editrice Vaticana – Ed. OCD, Roma 1997, ms. A, 183.
4 D. Barsotti, Riflessioni [Reflections] (12 July 2005), transcript, Careggi 2005.
5 C. Vasciaveo, Danzare al passo di Dio. Santa Maria Maddalena di Firenze, [Dancing in step with God] Cantagalli, Siena 2006; “... a spring of living water in us”. Mistica e profezia in santa Maria Maddalena di Firenze, [Mysticism and prophecy in Saint Maria Maddelena of Florence] in Horeb, 46 (2007), n. 1.
6 Promessa (1 May 1595), in Miscellanea Santa Maria Maddalena, Archive of Santa Maria degli Angeli, 1.4.IA.2.

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