By Renae Kranz
Is there a word that strikes greater fear than this one? I know for me, there are few things that terrify me more (except perhaps fire, but that’s a story for another day). We’ve all been touched in some way, whether directly or indirectly, by this disease that sends even the strongest of us cowering in a corner.
Now imagine having cancer in the early 1300s. No treatments known. A nearly certain death sentence. That was the news St. Peregrine Laziosi faced midway through his life.
This saint’s early life started out a bit rocky as well. Let’s just say he didn’t exactly feel the love early on for the Church that eventually made him a saint.
Peregrine Laziosi was born in Forli, Italy, in 1260. He was the only son to affluent parents. This was a turbulent time in Italy for the Catholic Church. Forli, which was in northern Italy, was part of the Papal States. Residents in these states chose sides, either the anti-papal faction or the pro-Church faction, sometimes switching sides when it suited them.
Peregrine’s family chose the anti-papal side, and he became involved in the faction’s activities as a young man. When Pope Martin IV placed the area under an interdict, closing the churches in an attempt to bring the people to their senses, the forces against him rose up all the more.
Attempting a different method with the faithful in Forli, the pope sent as his personal ambassador a future saint, Philip Benizi, to the town to try to bring the rebels back to obedience to the Church and the pope. Benizi would have an uphill climb to say the least.
While addressing a crowd one day, Benizi was attacked. The crowd heckled him, beat him with clubs, and threw rocks at him. Peregrine joined in the fray, punching Benizi in the face so hard he knocked the poor priest down. He immediately regretted it.
Can you picture a scene like this today? With our country so divided over politics, it’s not hard to envision. We might not punch someone from the opposing side, but we often say things we later regret. Or maybe we are so sure we’re in the right, the regret never comes.
As you can see, even future saints struggle with controlling their emotions and the desire to be on the right side of a fight. Usually being right is much less important than showing love and respect to others. It’s even possible to be both right and respectful. With God’s grace to help us, we can engage the opposition in a manner that honors who we are as children of God.
After the blow he dealt Benizi, Peregrine threw himself at his feet and begged his forgiveness. The good priest smiled and forgave him without hesitation. It became a turning point in Peregrine’s life.
He converted to Catholicism and took Benizi’s suggestion to pray in the chapel at the cathedral. To his surprise, the Blessed Mother visited him in a vision, telling him to go to Siena and join the Order of the Servites there that Benizi had founded. He followed her directions and was later ordained to the priesthood.
Peregrine spent many years as a Servite devoted to the poor and sick. He offered such good advice to those who sought it from him that people called him “Angel of Good Counsel.” He also is said to have performed a miracle of multiplying grain and wine during a serious shortage.
In those years, Servites were known for performing acts of physical penance as a devotional practice. Peregrine imposed on himself the penance of standing whenever it wasn’t necessary to sit. He developed varicose veins in his legs after many years of standing. This lead to one of his legs becoming ulcerated, gangrenous and malignant.
The doctor told Peregrine that to try to save his life, they would have to amputate his leg. In those days, surgery was often as dangerous as the problem it tried to fix. Peregrine knew his life was precariously balanced between two terrible options that would likely mean his death.
If you’re like me, we often don’t think about the real emotions of people who lived hundreds of years ago. We tend to see them as two dimensional. But Peregrine would have had the same emotions and fears we have now when a grim diagnoses is given.
I’ve had quite a few people close to me fight a heated battle against cancer. Some have beat it, others have not. Some are still in the process of fighting it. The suffering they experience is still a mystery to me and probably colors my vision when it comes to God. Anger and confusion as to why these things happen always break into my thoughts.
Peregrine surely felt all those things when his own life hung in the balance. Instead of staying angry with God, he turned to him for help.
The night before his surgery, Peregrine went to the chapter room of the Servite house where he lived and prayed before the fresco of the Crucified Christ. He was eventually so exhausted he fell asleep at the foot of the cross. While he slept, he dreamt that Jesus came down from the cross and touched his leg.
When he woke in the morning, the cancer was completely gone. His leg had been miraculously healed.
You might be wondering what exactly Peregrine prayed for at the foot of the cross. It is said he prayed for God to heal him, if it was his will. His surrender to the will of God was remarkable, even in the face of death.
Can we do that? It’s a difficult ask, but our Lord does ask us to surrender to his will, just as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. We can ask God for the grace to do this in our own lives. He is never stingy with His graces.
Even with these graces, sometimes the prayer we beg of the Lord is not answered the way we would like. Our limited human understanding of God’s bigger picture keeps us from seeing how our circumstances fit into that picture. Don’t let that lead you into despair.
Our role in the fight is not small, regardless of how our prayers are answered. We can help those fighting cancer to find grace and peace along the way. And we can find it for ourselves. God is waiting for us to ask him for it.
I have no magic bullet for the cancer and suffering question. I’m not even qualified to try to begin to answer it. All I know to do is pray like your life depends on it. Miracles still happen, and that’s all we can hope for. But hope we will because we have a God who loves us.
The miraculous healing of Peregrine spread far and wide over the years. After many more years of serving the sick and poor, he died from a fever on May 1, 1345, at 85. St. Peregrine was declared blessed by Pope Paul V in 1609, and he was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. He is the patron saint of those suffering with cancer, AIDS and other malignant diseases.