San Gimignano in Tuscany is one of the best preserved cities of medieval Italy. It is so ancient in its atmosphere that move director Franco Zeffirelli chose it as the locale of his movie “Romeo and Juliet.” A particular feature is the little city’s “skyscrapers.” Each of the wealthy families tried to outdo the other by building a higher tower. The towers still bear witness to the vanity and worldliness of its citizens in the Middle Ages.
At the same time, San Gimignano boasts of a local patron saint who was the epitome of humility and unworldliness. St. Serafina, better known as St. Fina, was a victim of heavy sickness and poverty, but bore it with heroic fortitude for the love of God. (A good reminder that one of the best ways to observe Lent is to offer up to God our daily trials and sufferings!)
Fina’s family had been prosperous, but had seen their prosperity go with the wind. A pretty girl was Serafina, but more important, a devout one. Though her food was skimpy, she always shared it with those more destitute than herself. Uninterested in the ways of the world, she mostly stayed at home, working and praying.
While Fina was still young, her father died. Around the same time, she herself was stricken simultaneously by a number of diseases, which deprived her of her good looks and paralyzed her body. For six years she lay on a plank in one position, utterly dependent on others to turn or move her. Her mother had to go out to work each day, so the daughter was alone and helpless for hours on end. But Fina accepted this trial with great patience. She looked upon the plank as her cross, and kept repeating to Christ, “It is not my wounds but Yours, O Christ, that hurt me.”
When her mother died suddenly, the poor young invalid was even more disabled. Only one devoted friend named Beldia tried to assist her. Some others would have volunteered but could not stand the odor of the sores that covered her body.
Somebody told Fina one day about Pope St. Gregory the Great. This wonderful 6th century churchman, despite his great activity as pope, had constantly suffered a host of physical ailments. Fina turned to him in prayer, asking that he who was so patient in pain would intercede with God to give her, too, the gift of patience.
Eight days before her death, when she lay alone and in deep suffering, St. Gregory himself appeared to her. He brought welcome news. “Dear child,” he said, “on my festival God will give you rest.” The prophecy came true. Fina died on the feast of Pope St. Gregory, March 12, 1253. The neighbors declared that, when her body was removed from the rotted plank on which she had lain for so long, the plank was found to be covered with white violets!
All San Gimignano, the boastful plutocrats as well as the grimiest paupers, turned out for her funeral. In life they may have avoided her like the plague, but they all recognized her as a model of steadfastness and a true saint. Many miracles attended her passing. It was even said that the dead woman’s arm stretched out and touched and healed the injured arm of her devoted friend Beldia. Ever since, the people of San Gimignano have called the local white violets, which blossom around her feast day, “Saint Fina’s flowers.” Eventually, the great painter Ghirlandajo decorated her shrine chapel in the cathedral with lovely paintings of the city’s patient little saint.
Today there are many sick people whose afflictions reduce them to immobility and who suffer, as did St. Serafina, both pain and loneliness. May God grant these sufferers, too, the gift of penitential patience. And may he give us the Lenten charity to serve their needs.
–Father Robert F. McNamara