On April 26, 1478 during High Mass at the Duomo—the Cathedral of Florence—Giuliano de’Medici was stabbed to death before the main altar of the Cathedral. His brother, Lorenzo—known as The Magnificient—escaped, wounded, to the sacristy. The assassination of the leading citizens of Florence had been arranged by a cabal of political rivals, allegedly including the great enemy of the Medici Pope Sixtus IV. The citizens of Florence went wild with revenge—stripping Francesco Salviati, the archbishop of Pisa and one of the conspirators, naked before hanging him from the walls of the Town Hall. Another conspirator, Jacobo de Pazzi, was tossed from a window and torn apart by the mob before being dragged naked through the streets by the mob and his body tossed into the river Arno. The Pazzi family—one of the wealthiest in Florence—found their possessions confiscated, themselves exiled from Florence, and every trace of their name erased.
Unlike the Medici who had made their money in banking and bought what claim to nobility they hand, The Pazzi were an ancient family of the most noble provenance. They were descended from a Crusader known as Il Pazzo—the madman—because he had led the charge climbing over the walls of Jerusalem to seize the city in 1099 during the first Crusade. He brought home with him a stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and a member of the Pazzi family would each year—during the Great Vigil of Easter when all the lights of the city had been extinguished—kindle a new light from this stone that would be used first to light the Easter Candle and illuminate the Duomo, and then from the altar lights of the Cathedral the light would be taken to the homes of Florence.
In 1460, almost two decades before their downfall, the family had been noted for their munificence in constructing a magnificent chapel for the Franciscan friars at Santa Croce. This chapel is still admired to today as one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture.
It was too a cadet branch of this great Florentine family—a branch sufficiently insignificant to escape the Medici vengeance but yet wealthy and proud, that a daughter Catherine was born on April 2, 1566. Though 88 years had passed since the Medici assassination no one forgot the role the Pazzi had played—the plot to eliminate the family that now ruled Florence as Imperial Dukes was known, and still is, as the Pazzi Conspiracy.
Catherine was a very devout and pious child—given to meditation and prayer from a very young age. At age 16 she entered the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Angels in Florence—having chosen the monastery because the nuns had the very rare privilege of daily communion. As a novice she fell seriously ill and, the nuns fearing that she was about to die, had her brought on a stretcher to the chapel to make her vows before the novitiate was domplete. She did not die, but she did fall into a forty-day rapture. Catherine was rather given to raptures and profound ecstasies through much of her life but she also experienced a period of great temptation and of spiritual dryness that lasted for over five years, ending only on Pentecost Sunday, 1590. During her raptures she would often move about the convent, going from room to room, physically acting out the scenes, particularly the scenes from Christ’s Passion, as she described what she herself was experiencing. A famous incident was her ringing the bells of the monastery one night to announce that Love was Itself not loved. While we should not set behavioral standards for other cultures and times past, frankly, there seems to have been something of the hysteric in her. It is never fair—nor accurate—to do a posthumous psychoanalysis and the possibility that Mary Magdalene de Pazzi was a hysteric by no means lessens the simultaneous possibility that her religious experiences were genuine, of Divine Origin, great graces given to an incredible soul. Grace builds on nature. The Lord does not work in our souls against our nature but works with it to produce the fruits of his grace. In particular while her mystical experiences sometimes caused dramatic, even eccentric, behavior she was never narcissistic or self-preoccupied. She actually tried to be as discreet as possible in her penances and she was not happy that—at the insistence of the monastery confessors-the nuns took down the utterances she made in ecstasy—profound conversations with the Trinity—in notebooks, describing her actions as well.
Mary Magdalene de Pazzi was able, even while in ecstasy, to perform the routine duties of the monastery conscientiously and well. she served terms as Mistress of Professed, Mistress of Novices, and Sub-Prioress. She also, and this is perhaps the most important part of her relevancy, had a deep longing for, almost an obsession with, the Reform of the Church. It was related to her longing that love be loved. And she knew that reform—like charity—begins at home. She not only exhorted her sisters to manifest their love for God by leading more holy lives, she herself set the pace.
She died relatively young—even for her period in history—on Friday May 25, 1607 at the age of 41. She was buried in the choir of the monastery. Today the nun’s monastery is the archdiocesan seminary for Florence and the nun’s choir is the chapel—but when the nuns moved from the site, they took the saint’s body with them. Today it rests in a glass casket in their monastery in the hills overlooking her native city. To say that it is incorrupt would be an overstatement, the skin is brown and leathery, it looks almost petrified. Perhaps its preservation is miraculous, perhaps not. Again, the line between nature and grace is rarely fixed. The saint herself is little known outside Italy, but her cult is very strong especially in Florence. There is a 40 year old translation of her work into English, but it is not of great quality. Paulist Press issued as selection of her writings in English translation in their series of Classics of Western Spirituality.
In our Collection you will find
Vita seraphicae virginis S. Mariae Magdalenae de Pazzis Florentinae Ordinis Carmelitarum Antiquae Observantiae regularis. In tres distincta libros, extracta et concinnata ex vita per ejus confessarium scripta, nec non ex processibus et relatinisbus coram summon ponfifice formatis…
Cui accessit brevis relation quorundam miraculorum, meritis et intercession S. Post solemnem ejus canonizationem patratorum, et documenta deu monita quae sancta diversis dedit religiosis dum visit. Frankfurt: sumptibus Joannis Baptistae Schonwetteri, 1670.
La vie de Sainte Marie Magadlene de Pazzi, religieuse Carmélite de l’Ancienne Observance du Monastere de Sainte;Marie des Anges, à Florence. Ecrite en Italien par Vincent Puccini et traduite en nostre langue par Louis Brochand. Paris: Sebastien Cramoisy, 1670
Vita della veneranda Madre Suor M. Maddalena De’Pazzi, fiorentina, monaca dell’Ordine Carmelitano nel monastero di S. Maria de gli Angeli di borgo S. Fridiano de Firenze. Raccolta e descritta dal molto Rever. M. Vincenzio Puccini con l’aggiunta della terza, quarta, quinta, e sesta parte dal medisimo raccolta, ed ordinate. Firenze: Appresso I Giunti, 1611.
Opere della B. Maria Maddalena de Pazzi, Carmelitana. Raccolte dal M.R. Padre Maestro Fra Lorenzo Maria Brancacio, Carmelitano dell’Osservanza di Santa Maria della Vita in Napoli, e divise dal medesimo in cinque parti. Con due prediche in lode dell’istessa Beata. Napoli: Francesco Savio, 1643.
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