Like a lot of people, I dig the new Pope. I do not like Popes generally, and most of what appeals to me about Francis are his deviations from papal norms—his asceticism, his emphasis on helping the poor, and his tendency to do things like telling a bunch of Italian reporters that he will not judge priests for being gay. Good work, Pope. If you read to the end of that article, though, you will also find this:
Francis also commented on the case of Msgr. Nunzio Scarano, who was suspended as an accountant in the Vatican after being arrested in June for his alleged involvement in a plot to bring 20 million euros from Switzerland into Italy with the help of a former secret service agent and a financial broker, both of whom were also arrested. Francis said, jokingly, that the monsignor had not been jailed “because he resembles the Blessed Imelda,” using an expression that means “he’s no saint,” The National Catholic Reporter reported.
So that’s something you can say when you want to baffle people.
Exactly why resembling the Blessed Imelda means you are good but not perfect is unclear. The Wikipedia page for Imelda Lambertini tells us that she was born in the 14th century and “had a burning desire to receive Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist” at age five, which reminds us that perhaps church accounts of medieval children are not all about historical facticity. It does not, however, explain why Imelda became an eponym for tainted goodness.
There is reason to believe she was an irritating child—in her insistence on joining a convent at age nine, for example, or her tendency to ask “can anyone receive Jesus into his heart and not die?” There are few more subtle indictments of faith than the devoutly religious child. The BI showed everybody, though, when she finally took communion at age 11 and “fell to the floor and died in complete ecstasy.” Evidence of sainthood and/or poor food safety standards in the 14th century? Sure, why not? But again we are left to wonder why “many argue that contrary to popular belief, she is not truly incorrupt.”
It turns out that “incorruptibility” is not a moral position. Applied to sainthood, it refers to the resistance of the body to physical decay after death. Saint Francis Xavier’s body was said to remain intact for 150 years after his death and endured multiple exhumations, which, okay, maybe everyone will be happier if you stop checking. According to this weird book, a wax effigy of Imelda lies in her coffin in the Church of San Segismondo next to her bones. The skeleton, and to a lesser extent the effigy, would seem to be an acknowledgement of her body’s corruptibility.
In this context, Pope Francis’s comment that Monsignor Nunzio Scarano “resembles the Blessed Imelda” becomes satisfyingly apt. For one thing, the accountant for the Vatican Bank—arrested in connection with a plot to secretly move 20 million euros from Switzerland to Italy—is no saint. More subtly, though, he reminds us that the administrative realities of running the world’s largest church often diverge from the divine perfection that church puts forward. His scheme to launder money through the Vatican is like a wax statue that covers up the skeleton of a supposedly incorruptible 14th-century girl.
Or that effigy, along with the public acknowledgement that it is just an effigy, is like a Pope who admits that a lot of priests are gay. I am not a Catholic, but I bet there are plenty of them who can believe in the Blessed Imelda without believing that her body never decayed after she died, or even that she died of ecstasy after eating a communion wafer. Francis’s reference to her was likely an offhand remark, but it can also be read as an acknowledgement of the reality of modern Catholicism.
The church has not proven incorruptible in the primary sense of the word. Rumor has it that Francis came to power after a conspiracy of gay bishops forced the last guy out of office. Even if that’s not true, the old rhetoric of miracles and perfect Popes sounds hollow to all but the best-plugged modern ears. By making reference to the Blessed Imelda, Francis acknowledges that the church is a human institution, run by people who are more religious but maybe not more perfect than anybody else. That admission is long overdue.