I love the saints, and always have; I remember pulling out my copy of the old Fr. Lovasik 1950s-era Picture Book of Saints (you know the one) and reading the stories straight through, rapt with attention to the diverse names, places, historical eras, and stories. As a girl, I was particularly drawn to the female saints and found myself stunned by their bravery in the face of oppression, whether the demands came from second-century Roman authorities or 15th-century Church ones. A child of the JP2 Generation (well, at least the tail-end of it), I appreciated the many contemporary saints he elevated. But as I grew, I moved on to longer—and often more complicated—biographies and saints’ writings and realized that the pat hagiographies we often tell about our best-known saints don’t do justice to their full lives, or the work of God within them.
This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the hagiographical depictions of the female saints I love. From the virgin martyrs who display courage and hope in a God who saves even when they are violated, to the religious women who sought refuge from a world that would interfere with their ability to learn about and grow in intimacy with God as they were called, to the many women who suffered abuse, I came to appreciate only as an adult that stories of profound trauma were woven into these women’s lives. Unfortunately, our hagiographies don’t typically do justice to those stories of harm; even worse, depending on how these stories are told, they can perpetuate further harm today, rather than provide healthy sources of inspiration and intercession.
One recent example of this is Venerable Maria Aristea Ceccarelli, a married Italian woman whose cause was recently advanced by Pope Francis, who recognized her heroic virtue on April 9, 2022. Born in 1883 in Ancona, Italy, and a lay associate of the Camillian religious order, Aristea was a tireless servant of the poor and sick in Rome. She also practiced spiritual motherhood, encouraging vocations, particularly for the Camillian seminarians and brothers, as she did not have children of her own. She did this all while suffering many painful physical ailments, including an eye condition, as well as the abuse of those who ought to have cared for her.
There is very little English-language material available about Aristea, aside from a report and brief biography published by the Catholic News Agency on April 12 under the headline “Woman who endured neglect and abuse declared venerable by Pope Francis.” A particular detail of the biographical account in the report—which likely served as the first introduction for many, including myself, to the life of this holy laywoman—was the abuse she endured at the hands of others–her parents, in-laws, and especially her husband, Igino. Another hagiographical version of her life story, the official account from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, also provides a biography that glorifies her patient and private endurance of abuse as evidence of her holiness: “She loved her husband even when he cheated on her, humiliated her, and used violence to her, and never talked about the betrayal in public” (translated from the original Italian). A pivotal detail in these hagiographies of Aristea’s life is the how all the years of quietly enduring abuse from her husband culminated in her husband’s conversion–what some accounts call her “reward”–in 1948.
These biographical accounts try to establish Aristea not only as a survivor of domestic violence but as an exemplar in the way she catered to her husband even as he harmed her, which is described in CNA’s report as her “heroic fidelity”:
“Ceccarelli never gave up her private hope for her husband’s conversion to the Catholic faith and a life of virtue. Her heroic fidelity to her husband is shown in something she wrote in her spiritual diary: “I always think this and I would repeat it to all brides: Adorn your soul internally as best you can for Jesus, but externally for your husband. If you draw him to you, you will draw him to God himself.”
Seeing this advice—that wives should adorn themselves externally for their husbands—I cannot help but be reminded of Ask Your Husband, the book I recently reviewed at length for WPI. Coming as it does in the context of Aristea’s abusive marriage, this gives a clear example of the dangers inherent in the deformed complementarianism I critiqued there. Depicting Igino’s conversion as a reward for Aristea’s forbearance reinforces the narrative that it is the responsibility of a virtuous wife–or a wife who aspires to heroic, saintly virtue–to act in the same way. What could be more important than drawing a wayward spouse to Jesus? Given that so many Catholics hear today that the purpose of marriage is “to get your spouse to heaven,” it is no stretch to suggest at least some will interpret the message of Aristea’s story that bearing patiently even with domestic violence could be part of that vocation.
This “heroic fidelity” was also apparently expressed in Aristea’s private suffering in silence. Why is it noteworthy for the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints that she “never talked about the betrayal in public”? One can conclude that this privacy evidenced faithfulness to her vows to love and honor her husband by not speaking “badly” of him even though he did not. But it should make no difference in our estimation of Aristea’s holiness if we discover she had “talked about the betrayal” in public. Not talking about the ways we have been harmed, even by those who have said they love us, is not virtuous. Secrecy regarding abuse and the violation of vows, either out of a misguided notion of “love,” or the misplaced desire to protect a person’s honor or esteem in the eyes of others, is not virtuous. Indeed, it is virtuous for victim-survivors to seek justice for their abusers, not only for the survivor’s benefit but for the abuser’s. This entails exposing their actions to others for accountability. That the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints cannot even recognize this and instead identifies silent suffering as an element of feminine heroic virtue is unsettling, to say the least.
Privacy also extended to Aristea’s concealment of her own inner life and suffering from others, as the Camillians emphasize:
She knew how to conceal pain from other people behind a smile or constant gaiety and then within her intimate self she transformed it into a feeling of joy, to the point that she became sad if she did not have it or at the least if it was attenuated. The people who knew her, or who learn today about her existence, rightly ask themselves if there can be a creature who prefers pain to joy.
It is not unusual to hear of saints–canonized or not–who bore burdens of suffering quietly, without complaint, and with constant outward-facing joy. At the same time, one hopes while reading this that Aristea was able to share her pain with someone–perhaps the Camillian fathers who were her spiritual directors for almost fifty years–otherwise this account is of a woman who suffered silently simply because that is what women have been forced to do for millennia when they know that there is no recourse for them and no real way out of abusive situations. Concealing one’s pain behind a smile is not virtue. This is a fundamental mistake. Offering one’s pain to God so that we bear the fruit of joy is evidence of the work of God’s love in our hearts, not our own efforts. It is all too easy to praise the person numbing themselves to their pain and “putting on a happy face,” judging from appearances when we cannot see inside.
Furthermore, the Camillian hagiographies seek to position Maria Aristea’s marital experience as an exemplar of marital love—even invoking the sorts of terms frequently used by Pope Francis. An example of this can be found in this passage from an Italian language website of the Camillians’ Youth Vocations ministry:
“With courage, she testifies to the different dynamics of the couple: listening, welcoming, communion, tenderness, and solidarity, despite the many humiliations of her husband, who called her “carrion, fetid, and mummy.”
Tenderness? Listening? Communion? When Pope Francis uses these words, he is describing the life-giving sacramental bond of matrimony and the mutual love between spouses, not the relationship of a woman towards her abuser. We must be clear, even in her hagiographies, that the dynamics of this couple’s relationship involved violent domination and humiliation. The holiness of the sacrament of matrimony cannot be “testified to” by one faithful party alone. Marriage is a mutual partnership of two persons who vow to love and honor one another for their whole lives, “subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). It is no “communion” for a woman to remain vulnerable to harm, perpetrated by an unfaithful and violent man, because communion cannot be one-sided.
A saint caught in the cycle of abuse
Instead of reading her account as one of “heroic fidelity,” with a bit of knowledge about the cycle of abuse, we can understand that these are the words and actions of a woman who was trying to survive her marriage. We can see this especially in the quotes selected from her diary by those postulating her cause: “Every time he came home as soon as you could hear the sound of the keys in the lock, I had to rush to meet him and to repeat jovially: Gino! Gino! – whatever his mood, his face… his intentions, otherwise it was war declared.” What she is describing her the way she would “walk on eggshells,” like so many other women enduring intimate partner violence learn to do, in order to try to avoid triggering a violent outburst. Indeed, this type of pattern is common for women with no legal recourse and no means of escape from their abusers to a life of safety. This is likely what Ceccarelli faced in early- to mid-20th century Italy. Women in such situations also frequently try to give spiritual meaning to their experiences. This is evident in a passage in her CNA biography:
“To her husband one day like many others, after having mistreated her harshly, she said: “But for me, you are all my Gino! You are my father, mother, brother, and even confessor because I say everything to you, I do not hide anything, indeed you are for me the same Jesus, because wherever you are my spouse, I find Jesus!”
Many women, to keep some sense of safety or control within abusive relationships, will invent reasons why they need their abuser to fulfill some sense of purpose for themselves. That these are presented as laudatory or holy examples of married life, the wisdom of a new married Servant of God is deeply alarming.
Just a few years ago, Pope Francis wrote about domestic violence in Amoris Laetitia. There, he said that violence “contradicts the nature of the conjugal union.” He continued:
“Unacceptable customs still need to be eliminated. I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.” (Para 54)
Later in Amoris Laetitia, Francis affirms that in some cases, women are not only justified in leaving an abusive spouse but that this may be morally necessary to protect their dignity:
In some cases, respect for one’s own dignity and the good of the children requires not giving in to excessive demands or preventing a grave injustice, violence or chronic ill-treatment. In such cases, “separation becomes inevitable. At times it even becomes morally necessary.” (para 241)
The way that Aristea’s cause for canonization has been advanced is dissonant with Pope Francis’s statements on abuse and violence against women. Therefore, it is worth considering how the manner in which her cause has been promoted sends mixed signals—or even promotes “unacceptable customs” that Francis decries.
Catholic women and the dynamics of abuse
Catholic women and married couples do need to have more examples of married saints to venerate, intercede for us, and provide touchpoints and examples of holy married life. While we cannot expect saints to have had perfect marriages, much less egalitarian marriages far ahead of their time, when they do not–or when grave offenses against the dignity of marriage exist–the Church must be incredibly careful in how these experiences are presented. Why? Perhaps most obviously, because so many lack good examples of holy married people in their own lives and turn to guidance from the Church for them. A person in a “difficult marriage,” or even an abusive one, often turns to the saints who experienced similar suffering for intercession and guidance; we need to be clear in presenting examples that we are sure they are ones we want people today to emulate.
The way that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints characterizes Maria’s experience of abuse indicates a complete lack of familiarity with the actual dynamics of spousal abuse, and an alarmingly deficient way of speaking about women’s experiences of it. Aristea did not have the legal or social support to make her way out of that abusive situation to safety, even within the past hundred years; women in the world today often still lack that freedom. It is powerfully persuasive to provide a spiritual purpose for victims in enduring harm. The Church’s expression of care for women cannot come in the form of praise for strength that puts us in a bind: “If I am to be strong and holy, I must endure.” Women are strong and resilient, as Pope Francis often praises us, but there is a great danger in praising women’s long-suffering and calling it resilience.
We know from ongoing social science research into the dynamics of spousal abuse, including in religious communities, that this danger exists. Although domestic abuse is not more common in Christian marriages, we know that religiously observant women are more vulnerable when abuse occurs. The vulnerabilities of Catholic women in this area are related to how we talk about vocation and the ideals of wifehood. Does our messaging enable them to stay in abusive marriages, rather than to summon the resources of our faith to find the courage to leave them? In a 2014 paper by Michal Gilad, she writes: “Service providers working with Catholic victims of abuse also observed that it is often instilled in the women that if they pray, are more patient, and live through the hardship, they will be ‘better Catholics,’ will ‘go straight to Heaven,’ and will ‘have a seat at the right hand of the Father.’ They are taught that if they put up with the abuse, they will become saints.” The movement of Maria Aristea Ceccarelli towards sainthood proves the point.
The danger is that a woman in an abusive situation hears Aristea’s story and thinks, “well, I am called to be a saint. Heroic virtue means ‘never talking about his betrayal in public.’ It means being ‘careful to serve’ those who harm me. It means carrying on cheerfully, seeking to please those who hurt me, just in case my doing so could change them, could save them–just like Aristea was rewarded with her husband’s conversion.”
These messages make it harder for women to identify the abuse they are suffering, and even harder to find the resources to escape it. They prime women to accept abuse in the name of saving a marriage, teach them to ignore red flags, and demand they reimagine their harm–while it is happening–as suffering God uses to bring them closer to himself. Aristea’s is not a nice story to insert into the next Picture Book of Saints, it is one whose re-telling could perpetuate the harm being done to women–and their children–in countless marriages in the world right now. Aristea was able to survive her abuse long enough to do the work in the world to which God called her; each of the 1-in-3 women who will suffer intimate partner violence in her lifetimes is not so fortunate.
Saints are examples
Because the forces that have sought to control and harm women have been so powerful and deeply engrained throughout history, there are countless examples like Aristea. We can both honor their lives while also understanding the possible consequences of promoting their stories. We can choose to move away from ways of thinking that tend to reinforce ideas about holy victimhood and towards those that value women’s flourishing in physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual safety.
One possible reform for the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints would be to involve contemporary professionals who are experts in abuse and psychology, as well as survivors, to determine how a particular person’s story should be told based on how we want it to be received. It ought to be standard practice when a cause is presented in which the person suffered abuse or violation that psychologists are consulted and statements reviewed for best practices. Instead, as Dawn Eden Goldstein has pointed out in her book, My Peace I Give You, the Congregation typically relies on the journalists of L’Osservatore Romano to draft the official biographies featured on the Vatican website.
But beyond this, we must ask fundamental questions about the canonization process as causes are brought forward. Canonization isn’t for the person who has died; it is for us. The path to sainthood along which Pope Francis just advanced this Servant of God is an ever-expanding circle of audiences to whom a person’s example is held up for both veneration and imitation. The examples of holiness saints offer us are not abstract ideals, but very concrete realities. A person’s life must be examined not only to discern whether they expressed heroic virtue but also what lessons the Church today might glean from their example. Lingering questions about these lessons are legitimate reasons for slowing down and questioning the process, or even suspending it entirely. Such a case may also exist here.
I am certain that Maria Aristea Ceccarelli “lived the theological virtue of hope in trusting abandonment to God at all times,” as the Congregation’s biography said. How else could one explain joyful holiness, even in suffering, and her tireless willingness to serve her neighbor throughout her life? She reminds me of so many strong, long-suffering women of faith. The mystery of how suffering unites us in love with Our Lord who suffered is not one I can explain away, nor should anyone try, we can only witness it. I have no reason to doubt she is comforted by the love of God, united in heaven with her purified and forgiven spouse through the mysterious mercy of God.
But she would be a heavenly intercessor even if she had refused to marry the man her abusive parents chose for her; even if she had reported his violence to the authorities; even if she had exposed the breaking of his vows to her and his abuse publicly. Saintly women can fight for justice, including justice for themselves. They can fight back, like Maria Goretti, not for some rigid notion of purity, but for their own dignity as daughters of God whom no one can violate with impunity.
Image: Maria Aristea Ceccarelli and her husband Igino, around the age of 18.
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Rachel Amiri is a contributor and past Production Editor for Where Peter Is. She has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.