Saint Peregrine Laziosi (1260-1345) did not write theological masterpieces like Saint Thomas Aquinas. He did not convert thousands of people in multiple countries like Saint Francis Xavier. He did not even become known as a miracle worker during his lifetime like Saint Martin de Porres. But most people today know someone—or many people—who have been diagnosed with cancer. For this reason, Peregrine has become a popular saint all over the world.
We don’t know much about Peregrine’s life. But we do know about two important events in his life, and to understand the first one, it will help to know a little Italian history.
During the Middle Ages, there was constant tension—and even sometimes outright violence—between secular leaders and the pope. Kings often wanted to leverage Church authority and money to advance their own political agendas, and popes often fought back. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, two powerful families controlled much of Italy, one taking the side of the pope, and the other taking the side of the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante included members of these families, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, in his famous work, Inferno.
Just as people in a region today may lean toward a particular political affiliation because of longstanding history, so cities in Italy generally sided with one or the other of these two families. The city of Forli often supported the Ghibellines and the emperor, which was considered an act of rebellion since Forli was located in the Papal States. At one point, the pope punished Forli by placing the city under an interdict, which meant, among other things, that the faithful in that city could not receive the sacraments.
Peregrine was born an only child to wealthy parents in Forli. Like a lot of young men in every time and place, he had strong opinions about the political issues of the day. The citizens (and eighteen-year-old Peregrine) were incensed about the interdict, so the pope sent a Servite priest to Forli to mediate with the residents. That priest was heckled and threatened by the citizens, and Peregrine even struck the priest in his face with his fist. But the priest calmly responded as Jesus had taught his followers to do (Matt 5:39, Luke 6:29), and he literally offered the teenager his other cheek as well.
This simple, humble act brought Peregrine to his knees, and he asked for the priest’s forgiveness. He later sought out the priest whom he had attacked and decided to join the man’s religious order. The priest was Philip Benizi, a brilliant and holy man who eventually became the superior of the Servite order and is now recognized as a saint.
Peregrine became just as devoted to God and peace as he previously been to politics and anger. He carefully followed the rule of life of the Servants of Mary and was zealous in trying to live a life of spiritual perfection and virtue. For example, as a personal penance, he remained standing as much as possible, never sitting down, a practice that he continued for thirty years.
He was also ordained a priest and served in the city of Siena for many years. Eventually, he was sent back to his hometown to establish a Servite community. He became well-known for his preaching in Forli, and he was effective at bringing fallen away Catholics back to the Church.
After years as a Servite priest, at the age of sixty, he was diagnosed with cancer in his foot. (Some sources instead say the cancer affected his leg.) The swelling became painful, smelly, ugly, and persistent, and his doctor finally said that the only possible treatment was amputation. Obviously, the surgery would be done without modern anesthesia (because such things did not exist at the time), and there was a serious risk that he would die during or after the surgery.
But Peregrine had spent his life trusting in God, and he prayed with great peace the night before the surgery was to take place. When he woke up, the cancer was completely and inexplicably gone. After this miracle, Peregrine became widely known for his personal holiness, and he lived to be eighty years old.
Peregrine is certainly not the first or last saint to be diagnosed with cancer. From Saint Galla of Rome (sixth century) to Blessed Chiara Badano (twentieth century), many women and men have been diagnosed with cancer and have showed great peace and trustful surrender to God during their illnesses.
For example, two holy men—a martyr and an almost-martyr— who lived at about the same time but in different countries, were both told they had cancer. Blessed Edward Oldcorne (1561-1606) was an English priest who was forced to keep his vocation secret due to anti-Catholic persecution at the time. He was miraculously cured of throat cancer after a pilgrimage to Saint Winifred’s Shrine, but he was later arrested and tortured for the crime of being a priest. He died a martyr. On the other hand, Saint Joseph of Leonessa (1556-1612) was a Capuchin Franciscan priest. He traveled to Turkey to ransom Christians from slavery and brought many Muslims to the faith. For the crime of converting Muslims, he was tortured, but they eventually released him. He returned to Leonessa, Italy, where he later died of cancer.
Other holy men and women who have suffered with cancer include:
- Saint Émilie (Marie Guillemette) de Rodat (1787-1852)
- Saint Zelie (Marie-Azelie) Guerin Martin (1831-1877)
- Blessed Maria Anna Sala (1829-1891)
- Blessed Maddalena Caterina Morano (1847-1908)
- Blessed Marie Leonie (Alodie-Virginie) Paradis (1840-1912)
- Blessed Isidore of Saint Joseph de Loor (1881-1916)
- Saint Marie Bertilla (Anne Frances) Boscardin (1888-1922)
- Blessed Margarita María (María Pilar) López de Maturana Ortiz de Zárate (1884-1934)
- Blessed Liduina (Elisa Angela) Meneguzzi (1901-1941)
- Blessed Eustachius (Joseph) Kugler (1867-1946)
- Blessed Pere Tarrés i Claret (1905-1950)
- Saint Artemides Zatti (1880-1951)
- Blessed Lucia of the Immaculate Conception (Maria) Ripamonti (1909-1954)
- Blessed Charles Emmanuel Rodriguez Santiago (1918-1963)
- Blessed Giovanni Schiavo (1903-1967)
- Blessed Hanna Helena Chrzanowska (1902-1973)
- Blessed Stefan Wyszyński (1901-1981)
While there are many effective treatments—and even cures—for cancers today, even the prospect of suffering from cancer can be frightening. For those who are suffering from cancer and those who care for them, Saint Peregrine can be both an inspiration to trust in God and an intercessor during difficulties. Even today, each person needs the wisdom of the Holy Spirit when making medical decisions and the grace of perseverance when undergoing treatments. Catholic practices such as making a pilgrimage to a shrine of Saint Peregrine (such as this one in Chicago) or praying a novena to Saint Peregrine can help us become more open to God when facing cancer.
After all, Saint Peregrine has no power on his own to save anyone from cancer; it is Jesus Christ who is our Divine Physician and our Savior. But the life story of Saint Peregrine can give us hope when things seem hard or hopeless. And asking for his intercession reminds us that there are saints in Heaven who are cheering us on until the day when God calls us from this world into the next.