XXXI. SOUTHERN SAINTLINESS
In the case of one of the dead men whom he brought to life, the undertakers were already about their sad task; but Fra Egidio, viewing the corpse, remarked in his usual manner that the man was "not dead, but only asleep," and after a few saintly manipulations, roused him from his slumber. The most portentous of his wonders, however, are those which he wrought after his own death by means of his relics and otherwise; they have been sworn to by many persons. Nor did his hand lose its old cunning, in these posthumous manifestations, with the finny tribe. A certain woman, Maria Scuotto, was enabled to resuscitate a number of dead eels by means of an image of the deceased saint which she cast among them.
Every one of the statements in this biography is drawn from the processi to which I will presently refer; there were 202 witnesses who deposed "under the rigour and sanctity of oath" to the truth of these miracles; and among those who were personally convinced of the Venerable's rare gifts was the Royal Family of Naples, the archbishop of that town, as well as innumerable dukes and princes. An embittered rationalist would note that the reading of Voltaire, at this period, was punished with three years' galley-slavery and that several thousand citizens were hanged for expressing liberal opinions; he will suggest that belief in the supernatural, rejected by the thinking classes, finds an abiding shelter among royalty and the proletariat.
It occurs to me, a propos of Fra Egidio, to make the obvious statement that an account of an occurrence is not necessarily true, because it happened long ago. Credibility does not improve, like violins and port wine, with lapse of years. This being the case, it will not be considered objectionable to say that there are certain deeds attributed to holy men of olden days which, to speak frankly, are open to doubt; or at least not susceptible of proof. Who were these men, if they ever existed? and who vouches for their prodigies? This makes me think that Pope Gelasius showed no small penetration in excluding, as early as the fifth century, some few acta sanctorum from the use of the churches; another step in the same direction was taken in the twelfth century when the power of canonizing saints, which had hitherto been claimed by all bishops, became vested in the Pope alone; and yet another, when Urban VIII forbade the nomination of local patron saints by popular vote. Pious legends are supposed to have their uses as an educative agency. So be it. But such relations of imperfectly ascertained and therefore questionable wonders suffer from one grave drawback: they tend to shake our faith in the evidence of well-authenticated ones. Thus Saint Patrick is also reported to have raised a cow from the dead - five cows, to be quite accurate; but who will come forward and vouch for the fact? No one. That is because Saint Patrick belongs to the legendary stage; he died, it is presumed, about 490.
Here, with Saint Egidio, we are on other ground; on the ground of bald actuality. He expired in 1812, and the contemporaries who have attested his miraculous deeds are not misty phantoms of the Thebais; they were creatures of flesh and blood, human, historical personages, who were dressed and nourished and educated after the fashion of our own grandfathers. Yet it was meet and proper that the documentary evidence as to his divine graces should be conscientiously examined. And only in 1888 was the crowning work accomplished. In that year His Holiness Leo XIII and the Sacred Congregation of Cardinals solemnly approved the evidence and inscribed the name of Egidio in the book of the Blessed.
To touch upon a few minor matters - I observe that Fra Egidio, like the Flying Monk, was "illiterate," and similarly preserved up to a decrepit age "the odorous lily of purity, which made him appear in words and deeds as a most innocent child." He was accustomed to worship before a favourite picture of the Mother of God which he kept adorned with candles; and whenever the supply of these ran out, he was wont to address Her with infantile simplicity of heart and in the local dialect: "Now there's no wax for You; so think about it Yourself; if not, You'll have to go without." The playful-saintly note. . . .
But there is this difference between him and earlier saints that whereas they, all too often, suffered in solitude, misunderstood and rejected of men, he enjoyed the highest popularity during his whole long life. Wherever he went, his footsteps were pursued by crowds of admirers, eager to touch his wonder-working body or to cut off shreds of his clothing as amulets; hardly a day passed that he did not return home with garments so lacerated that only half of them was left; every evening they had to be patched up anew, although they were purposely stitched full of wires and small chains of iron as a protection. The same passionate sympathy continued after death, for while his body was lying in state a certain Luigi Ascione, a surgeon, pushed through the crowd and endeavoured to cut off one of his toe-nails with the flesh attached to it; he admitted being driven to this act of pious depredation by the pleading request of the Spanish Ambassador and a Neapolitan princess, who held Fra Egidio in great veneration.