Like many medieval saints, Ubaldo Baldassini of Gubbio, Italy, came from a noble family. People may wonder why so many of the ancient European saints were nobles. I think it is because in those days aristocrats were best qualified by education and background to exercise leadership, whether in the community or the church.
Orphaned at an early age, Ubald was raised by his uncle, the bishop of Gubbio. He studied for the priesthood, was ordained, and was then named dean of the cathedral clergy. It so happened that the “chapter” of canons of Gubbio (the chief diocesan priests) were living unseemly lives. As their immediate superior, Father Ubaldo determined to reform them. His approach was deft. First he persuaded three of the canons to join him in accepting a rule of life like that of religious orders. The plan worked out well, so that eventually the other canons embraced the same rule, and the whole chapter began to set a better example.
Sensing that he had now accomplished his aim Ubaldo decided to leave his native town and become a hermit in the nearby monastery of Fonte Avellana. But the abbot there told him to return home. He said that the yen to become a monk was not a grace but a temptation. The runaway obediently complied with the advice of the abbot, resumed his work in Gubbio, and carried on with his valuable reforms.
In 1126, Ubald was elected bishop of Gubbio. On hearing the news, he fled to Rome and begged Pope Honorius II to get him off the hook. The pope consented to his plea. But when the bishopric fell open again two years later, it was the pope himself who instructed the Gubbian clergy to choose Dean Ubaldo. This time the poor dean had to consent. You just don’t refuse the pope.
As Bishop Ubald grew easily into his new task, he proved to be a true father to his people, not only as Christians, but as citizens. Thus, when German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa invaded Italy and began to plunder its cities, the bishop went out to meet him before he reached Gubbio, and talked him into sending the army off in another direction.
St. Ubaldo’s most distinctive trait was his patient gentleness. On one occasion, for example, a team of masons, while repairing the city wall, invaded the bishop’s garden and trampled his vines. Vines are important in Italy for both food and drink, so the saint politely called the laborers’ attention to the problem. But the foreman, who quite likely did not recognize his critic, took the rebuke personally, began to shout and gesticulate, and finally gave Ubaldo a hard push. The bishop, losing his balance, fell into a pool of wet mortar. When he struggled up, he was ludicrously covered with sand and lime from head to foot. He said nothing, however, and simply went back into his house to clean up.
But there had been witnesses, and these promptly denounced the foreman. He was arrested and haled before the city court. Hearing of the arrest, the bishop hurried down to the court house. “This case,” he announced to the magistrate, “involves an attack on a clergyman.” Then he turned to the foreman, embraced him as a sign of reconciliation, and prayed that God would forgive him his offenses. With that, he ordered the police to set the man free.
During the last two years of his life, Bishop Ubaldo suffered much pain, but he accepted this, too, with admirable patience. On Easter Sunday 1160, he struggled through the Paschal Mass so as not to disappoint his people. Death came a few weeks later. Ubaldo was mourned by all, and miracles were reported at his tomb.
To this day, St. Ubald’s body has remained incorrupt, although by now the flesh is dark and mummified. But incorruption was not what motivated his canonization. He was declared a saint particularly because of his heroic gentleness. Ubaldo had borne well in mind our Lord’s admonition, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.” (Mt. 11:29)
–Father Robert F. McNamara