Recently beatified young woman demonstrated value of suffering
June 11, 2020
Italian laywoman has lessons for everyone, including her Gretna relative
“I want to say to those who are suffering, to the sick, that if we are humble and docile, the Lord will do great things in us.”
– Blessed Benedetta Bianchi Porro
Blessed Benedetta Bianchi Porro, an Italian woman beatified Sept. 14, 2019, is a model of holiness particularly suited for these COVID-19 times and beyond.
That’s the view of Liz Kelly – an author, speaker, spiritual advisor and college instructor, who sees Blessed Benedetta as someone who poured her heart out to God as she carried her cross on her own Via Dolorosa (Latin for the “Way of Suffering,” the route in Jerusalem that Jesus is believed to have taken on his way to crucifixion).
Benedetta had a rare disease that stripped away her career aspirations, hearing, sight, ability to walk and much of her ability to speak or feel someone’s touch.
The illness – neurofibromatosis, also known as Von Recklinghausen disease – isolated Benedetta from much of the outside world and eventually claimed her life in 1964 at age 27.
Blessed Benedetta’s lessons on surrender and suffering are personal for Kelly, who has multiple sclerosis. The adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, has written and given presentations about Benedetta and plans to feature her in an upcoming book.
Kelly spoke about Blessed Benedetta during a March talk at St. Patrick Parish in Gretna.
Those who have impaired hearing or vision also are among those who can turn to Benedetta as an example, said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese and pastoral coordinator for Mother of Perpetual Help Church of the Deaf in Omaha.
“It might appear Blessed Benedetta was burdened by physical poverty because she was deaf and blind,” he said. “In truth, she lacked nothing. Her relationship with the Lord gave her abundant life and riches. She is someone for the deaf and blind to model and call on in prayer.”
But for at least one person in the archdiocese, Francesca Dammermann of St. Patrick Parish in Gretna, the connection to Blessed Benedetta is not only spiritual, but personal.
Benedetta’s youngest sister, Carmen, married Dammermann’s uncle, her mother’s youngest brother, in 1978, when Dammermann was 9.
Though Dammermann was born after Blessed Benedetta’s death, “I had the honor of knowing her whole family,” said Dammermann, who grew up in Italy and remained there until she was 21.
Growing up, Dammermann was deeply impacted by Benedetta.
Dammermann said she knew her relative must have felt lonely at times, without being able to hear or see and with limited means of communicating.
“So as a child, I didn’t want anyone to feel like they’re alone or that their suffering is in vain,” said Dammermann, now a pastoral and liturgical minister at St. Patrick.
Dammermann’s middle school in Italy was attached to a nursing home, where she would visit her grandmother and other relatives and residents during lunch break, hurrying to eat so she would have more time to spend with them, she said.
As an adult in the United States, Dammermann continued to visit the sick, especially during the day while her children were at school. She became an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, figuring “it wasn’t enough to go visit. I don’t want to bring myself, I want to bring Jesus to them.”
As a third order Benedictine, she was asked to choose a saint for protection, whose name she would add to her own.
“I had no question it would be Benedetta,” who already was on the path toward sainthood at the time, Dammermann said.
Benedetta suffered from an early age, contracting polio when she was a baby, which made one leg shorter than the other. She limped, struggled, lagged behind and was made fun of, Dammermann said.
Once when a child teased Benedetta, calling her a cripple, her protective brother started a fight. But Benedetta stepped in, according to Dammermann.
“He called me ‘the cripple’ – what is wrong with that? It’s the truth!” Benedetta said, defending her attacker and stopping the fight.
“From the beginning she had that kind nature,” Dammermann said.
SACRIFICE FOR GOD
Benedetta was intelligent, Dammermann said, graduating from high school at 17. She enrolled in physics courses to please her father but changed her studies to medicine to become a doctor.
“She wanted to fight for others, she wanted to cure others, she wanted them to feel better,” Dammermann said.
Benedetta also wanted to be a sacrifice for God, said Kelly.
“And she would live and struggle and sacrifice herself, but it was not going to be as a medical doctor. In fact, about the only person she ever diagnosed was herself, in 1957, … after four years of medical studies.”
Her neurofibromatosis attacked her nervous system, gradually taking away her senses. She retained some feeling in her left hand, where friends and relatives could sign the alphabet, the only means of communicating with Benedetta.
When Benedetta couldn’t go to school anymore, her friends would visit, trying to bring relief. But they benefited as well, Dammermann said.
“They were coming out of that room changed, filled with hope and with joy and with peace. It was the Lord that Benedetta was sharing with them.”
Benedetta and her friends lifted up the meaning of friendship in a mutual exchange of faith and love, Dammerman said. Benedetta’s mother and a nurse helped her respond to letters and visitors.
“Somehow either she was the one giving them what they needed, or they were giving her what she needed at that point,” Dammermann said. “As soon as she had a moment of discouragement, her friends, without even knowing it, they would say something and she listened. I mean although she was deaf, she was listening better than you and I.
“There was one time that she was completely discouraged because she saw how she was declining.” But her friend Nicoletta, a former medical school classmate, inspired Benedetta through letters.
‘WHY IS GOD ALLOWING THIS?’
Benedetta wrote to her friend in 1960: “At the moment I am going through a period of great aridity. I feel alone, tired, somewhat humiliated, and without much patience. … The worst part is that I am not at peace. Pray for me, pray for me. … Why is this happening to me? Why is God allowing this?”
Her friend replied: “Don’t force yourself to feel what you believe, or to understand why it is fair that you suffer so much. … Before this vast mystery, He only wants our ‘yes’; it doesn’t matter if we say it badly.”
Benedetta wrote back to her friend that she was “flooded with joy” at her words, “as though all the oceans were poured into a walnut shell.”
“And from that time on,” Kelly said, “Benedetta started to receive her sufferings as less of a burden and more as a mark of divine favor, that Jesus had called her to share his cross in a very unique way, her walk to Calvary, her Via Dolorosa.”
“He was calling her to identify with him, and she really surrendered to that.”
“Through this extraordinary suffering she became aware of the richness of the interior life,” Kelly said. “As her exterior life shrank, her interior life expanded.”
Through her pain, Benedetta gave “the deepest part of her heart” to God, said the author, whose column appears in the Catholic Voice.
Though Benedetta had aspired to be a doctor, the Lord had other plans for her and helped her heal souls in ways she never would have imagined, Kelly said.
“This disease was robbing her of the desire to be a medical doctor, but in accepting God’s grace to continue giving the deepest part of her heart, she became, I would argue, a doctor of another sort, a kind of surgeon of the soul … a spiritual doctor.”
ATTEMPTS AT HEALING
Benedetta had sought different forms of healing to alleviate the pain of her incurable disease.
Surgeries didn’t work. Doctors made mistakes and caused further suffering, but she didn’t want them to feel bad and tried to comfort them, Kelly said.
Benedetta made two trips to Lourdes, France, for a miraculous healing at the site known for miraculous healings after the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared there.
On the first trip, in 1962, Benedetta found herself next to another paralyzed woman on a stretcher.
Benedetta said to the woman, named Maria: “Maria, the Madonna is here, looking at you! Speak to her, the Madonna!”
Maria rose from her stretcher and walked. Though Benedetta didn’t receive healing for herself, she abandoned herself to Mary, according to accounts of the miracle.
The next trip to Lourdes, a year later, Benedetta’s miracle was “the sweetness of resignation,” she had said.
“The Madonna … repaid all that had been taken from me, because I possess the richness of the Holy Spirit.”
The next year Benedetta died. Her last words were “Thank you.”
A SAINT TO TURN TO
Benedetta is a saint needed during this time of COVID, Kelly said.
“Few could better understand the shrinking of one’s civil liberties and general capacities than Benedetta, as her world shrank bit by bit down to the palm of her hand,” she said. “She continually turned over her circumstances to God, to do with her as he wished, to use her illness in any way he wished. As she grew in holiness under these conditions, certainly we can too.”
Benedetta’s story needs to be told, Dammermann said, “especially nowadays when suffering is shunned by everybody, while Jesus stands there for us as a model. He was completely naked, stripped of his dignity, ridiculed, beaten. And we in our small way are to imitate him and Benedetta. She shows us that suffering is not in vain. We can be so close to the suffering of Jesus that we become one with him.”
Benedetta is a reminder that all life is precious, Dammermann said.
“I hope people who suffer … can see that suffering is really something that unites us to Jesus on the cross, and it’s something that has to be valued, instead of something to be avoided by shortening a life.”
“Yeah, even in complete darkness and silence, life is beautiful,” she said.
Benedetta is a reminder that God calls everyone to be saints, Dammermann said.
“We are all saints in the making. Some have a bigger cross, a bigger sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. For some the suffering is physical, for some spiritual, for some emotional. But nevertheless, we all have a cross.”
“The cross is there, then let’s make the best out of it. By God’s grace we can all do it.”
“Ask for her intercession,” Dammermann said. “The saints are there, ready to ask the Lord for grace. They stand there for all of us, ready to ask the Lord to send down graces upon those who ask in faith. The graces are always given. Sometimes it’s not what we asked for,” but God does grant physical, spiritual and emotional healing.