Each Sunday, approximately 30 minutes before mass, a small group of women enter the parish, quietly kneel before the altar, and begin prayer. After a few moments of quiet contemplation and personal prayer, they subsequently pray the rosary on behalf of the larger community. Then, like clockwork, they finish only minutes before the rush of parishioners, unaware of any intercessory efforts, who quickly take their seats just before the procession of the celebrant. The beauty of these women’s actions is the conveyance of leadership by private action and the desire to interact with God presently. What if, though, these women were to stop their routine? What would happen if they stopped praying?
The life story of Margaret of Cortona involves a drastic change in circumstances in which she was forced into poverty. Immediately following her transition in social status, Margaret moved with her son to Cortona. In Cortona, Margaret interacted with devout noblewomen who offered a helping hand. In the book Women of the Streets: Early Franciscan Women and their Mendicant Vocation, author Darleen Pryds suggests these noblewomen likely extended housing, food, clothing, and much-needed emotional and spiritual support.
Margaret’s later life appears to mirror the anonymous noblewomen’s selfless service, following a path that involved healthcare, helping the poor, extraordinary sacramental ministry, and as a spiritual director to friars. In her book, Women of the Streets, Pryds clearly describes Margaret’s leadership: “she offered what others needed,” and her actions were “not public per se but certainly not private.” Yet, ironically it wasn’t until Margaret lived a life of poverty, or a life without grasping, that she was able to offer what was needed to others.
Offering what is needed implies a kind of flexibility on behalf of the giver. When spontaneous needs arise, adaptation is required to meet those needs. Margaret expresses her ability to adapt through her actions and ministry, which encompassed both the active and solitary. Margaret expressed her ultimate motivation as sourced in a love of God by saying, “I would still love God the Almighty even if I were to spend all my life in a great desert.”
Pope Francis’s speeches routinely echo the words of Paul the Apostle when he says, “we are all called to become saints.” While it is only conjecture, Margaret may have led a different life should she have never met the anonymous noblewomen who provided her with what she needed. These unknown women, although not canonized themselves, probably influenced the life trajectory of Margaret from someone disenfranchised to one seeking God and ultimately attaining sainthood.
For Margaret, poverty was a privilege that allowed her to lead those around her. If God is perpetually calling us to become saints, we should respond similarly to the way Eli told Samuel, “if he calls you, that you shall say, Speak, LORD; for your servant hears.” This call, though, may be different from what we expect. The Franciscan charism of poverty, charity, and contemplation might differ from the typical flamboyant public leadership we are used to reading about and seeing. We may instead be asked to conduct silent meditative reflection and prayer weekly before the Sunday mass, which could influence and make all the difference in someone else’s life trajectory.