Thursday, November 27, 2014

St. Crispin of Viterbo (1668-1750)

St. Crispin of Viterbo, OFM Cap.
"I've got shoes, you got shoes, all God's children got shoes." The old spiritual conjures up numerous biblical images of feet, shoes, and hoofing it for the Lord. St. Paul tells the Ephesians to "stand fast, your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace" (6:15), and to the Romans he quotes the prophet Isaiah when he declares, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news" (10:15; Isa. 52:7).

St. Crispin of Viterbo was one well acquainted with footwear as well as the link between faith and feet, for though he worked as a shoemaker in his youth, he was destined to spend his latter days unshod as a Franciscan beggar for God.

Brother Crispin was born Pietro Fioretti to a poor family in Viterbo, a small town north of Rome. His mother dedicated Pietro to the Blessed Virgin at a local shrine, instructing her son that Mary was also his mother. Accordingly, Pietro grew up with a deep devotion to the Queen of Heaven and referred to her affectionately as his "other momma."

Pietro was vigorous in his pursuit of sanctity, but physically frail, so he was fortunate in obtaining a cobbler's apprenticeship from his uncle. This benevolent uncle also saw to his nephew's schooling and enabled the boy to acquire a rudimentary training in Latin from the Jesuits. Nevertheless, Pietro was unable to pursue a learned profession, and instead excelled as a shoemaker while all the time seeking perfection in the science of the saints. 

When Pietro was 25, he observed a group of Capuchin novices process through the streets of Viterbo, and the Lord gave him a clear interior message that he was called to religious life. Immediately presenting himself to the superior of the local Capuchin friary, Pietro requested admittance to the order, but was turned away due to his sickly appearance. The cobbler, convinced of God's call, was not dissuaded, and he doggedly made his case. Eventually, the superior relented and admitted Pietro to the Franciscan family.

The new novice took the name Crispin to honor the patron saint of his trade, although he forever put aside his shoemaking skills. At first he cooked for his community; then he took up work in the gardens and orchards. Crispin also worked in the infirmary, where he acquired a widespread reputation for healing, both physical and spiritual. Once he effected a cure for a Vatican chamberlain, and the pope's own doctor praised the Capuchin brother's art. Crispin demurred and humbly attributed his success to Mary's intercession, saying that "the Blessed Virgin can do more than all the physicians in the world."

Brother Crispin eventually settled in Orvieto where he was appointed questor, or "beggar of alms" – a role he fulfilled for over 40 years. Crispin was seen constantly in the streets, joyfully exhorting the rich to give of their abundance, and equally joyful in providing for the needs of the poor and his brother friars. Beloved by all, respected for his peacemaking abilities, and revered for the care he provided the sick, orphaned, and imprisoned, Crispin was considered by many in the town a close personal friend. Indeed, when the superior assigned another brother to be questor, the homemakers of Orvieto denied the newcomer entry, and flatly refused to support the community until Brother Crispin was restored to his post. 

Calling himself the "beast of burden of the Capuchins," Crispin cheerfully took on all tasks, no matter how difficult or unpleasant. When epidemics broke out among his brother friars in distant convents, he went to care for them, heedless of the risk to his own health. Also, he personally attended to the foundlings left on his community's doorstep, and not only provided for their immediate physical needs, but also arranged for their future training in a trade.

Brother Crispin's years of selfless service finally took their toll during the winter of 1747-48 when he contracted pneumonia. After two years of suffering from his infirmities, Crispin anticipated his death in the joyful spirit of the psalmist:
I rejoiced because they said to me, "We will go up to the House of the LORD." And now we have set foot within your gates, O Jerusalem (Ps. 122:1-2).
Pope Pius VII beatified Brother Crispin in 1806, and Pope John Paul II, in the first canonization of his pontificate, declared the Capuchin cobbler a saint in 1982. His feast is celebrated by Franciscans on May 21.

A version of this essay was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville