A pair of medieval holy men faced disease together with a love that speaks across the centuries to the LGBTQ community and all people in the age of AIDS and Ebola.
Thirteenth-century Franciscans Blessed Bartolo and Blessed Vivaldo ministered in an Italian leper hospital. When Bartolo got leprosy himself, Vivaldo chose to move into the leper colony with him, even though he had not contracted the disease. They lived together for 20 years until Bartolo’s death separated them. Vivaldo became a hermit after his beloved companion died.
Their little-known love story is retold here by Kevin Elphick, a scholar of queer Franciscan history. His reflection weaves together themes of same-sex love, church history, AIDS and Christmas, ending with a detailed history of the lives of the two.
Bartolo and Vivaldo are known as patrons of the AIDS pandemic. Today there are effective treatments for leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease. AIDS and Ebola have taken its place as dreaded and stigmatized diseases.
Blessed Bartholomew Buonpedoni of San Gimignano (1228-1300), better known as Blessed Bartolo, was a priest and Blessed Vivaldo Stricchi of Boscotondo (1260-1320) was a lay brother. Bartolo’s feast day is Dec. 12 and Vivaldo’s feast day is May 1.
Vivaldo and Bartolo are progenitors and ancestors to today’s gay families and blazed a trail for same-sex fidelity and relationship that today enlightens both Church and society. When Bartolo developed leprosy, both church and society counted him as good as dead, sending him away to a leper hospital. But for Vivaldo, love was stronger than death, and he followed Bartolo. Their covenant of mutual love was implicit. And rather than dwell upon their loss, and await impending death, the leper hospital became for them an opportunity to expand their family and discover yet more kinfolk.
As these men clung to each other, forging each their own unique relationships, and bending tradition and convention to name their lived experiences of paired, covenanted relationship, so also do we find strength and precedent with which to embrace our own. Bartolo and Vivaldo have already been named as unofficial patron saints of the AIDS pandemic. Even more so, they are ideal candidates for patron saints of same-sex marriage, extraordinary examples of fidelity and fecundity. As we celebrate the Feast of Blessed Bartolo, it is important that we hear in his story a path for our own stories.
Here is one such contemporary story…
In the mid-1980s, I worked as a social worker to a gay couple in Chicago who had adopted two girls who had been born of HIV infected mothers. The two men were both named Robert, so they went by “Rob and Bob” (not their real names). To their daughters they were Daddy and Papa. I tell their story as an introduction to the lives of the Italian Franciscan saints Vivaldo and Bartolo because I hear so many similar echoes from the lives of this 13th-century pair in the saintly family which Rob and Bob created in modern day Chicago. Both stories resonate from a firm stance of family-making and novel kinship amidst societal pressures which would dictate otherwise. Both stories emerge from among the unknowns of disease, contagion, social stigma, and death. But each story chronicles the ultimate triumph of relationship and fidelity over the twin scourges of societal oppression and terminal illness.
Initially, Rob and Bob did not know if their love for these children would turn to heartbreak, should they go on to develop HIV disease. The entire medical community was newly learning only then about maternal transmission of the HIV virus to newborns, so it was with much joy that we came to learn that their daughters, while initially born testing HIV antibody positive, were actually virus-free, and at no risk for developing AIDS later on.
Rob and Bob were a compassionate couple, who had welcomed these infants into their home. Although the girls were born to cocaine-addicted mothers, Rob and Bob ensured that they had visits with their mothers and siblings, fostering these family ties, but also knowing that these visits entailed the risk that the mothers might seek their daughters’ return to their own custody. Amidst many unknowns and uncertainties, Rob and Bob provided a stable home for these girls and nurtured them from infancy to toddlers, and onto preschool age.
At a time before civil unions and same-sex marriages, Rob and Bob defined family on their terms. Where there was no clear path to marriage, children, and family, Rob and Bob forged one. During a time in which few people stepped forward to take home AIDS babies, Rob and Bob said “They will be our daughters.” Before Heather has Two Mommies was ever published, Rob and Bob told their daughters “Call us Daddy and Papa.” Together Rob and Bob made a family, unearthing a universal kinship already everywhere present.
What I didn’t know then, and what Rob and Bob kept private to themselves, was that Bob had AIDS himself. While Rob and Bob successfully parented their girls through their preschool years, Bob would never see them enter kindergarten together. He died of AIDS the summer before this milestone.
Christmas was an especially important holiday and ritual for this small family, so shortly before he passed, they put up their Christmas tree, strung lights, played Christmas carols, and on a mid-summer morn, exchanged gifts. Bob wanted to ensure that he was part of the girls’ Christmas that year and that they had one last Christmas together. His last gift to his daughters was this joyful celebration, and gift-giving, family memories, ritual, connection, and the blessings of belonging. Their “Papa” died at home shortly thereafter, surrounded by the loving family he had created and now left securely behind. Like all families, birth, and now death were part of their narratives.
Bartolo was born of noble lineage in northern Italy in 1228…
It was the same year that Saint Francis of Assisi was canonized a saint. His father, an Italian count, encouraged Bartolo to become a knight or soldier, so that the young Bartolo might make his father proud as he approached manhood. Instead, Bartolo wanted nothing of these virile, social roles for himself. He fled to the Benedictine convent of Pisa for refuge. There, he was trained in the medical arts, and excelled in its skills and practices. There, Bartolo was encouraged to become a Benedictine. But another vocation awaited him. The wounded Christ appeared to him and adjured him to reject the Benedictine habit and instead be clothed in “suffering and wounds, and in the garb of penance.” Bartolo interpreted the vision to mean that he should seek diocesan priesthood and the habit of St. Francis. He could not have known it also foreshadowed his infection and eventual death from leprosy.
As a parish priest, Bartolo continued to exercise his ministry of medical care, offering hope for human bodies as well as their souls. It was during this period of his life that Bartolo extended welcome to a poor pilgrim and gave him lodging in his own home. Later that night, Bartolo was awakened by a voice calling his name and saying: “You have given hospitality to Jesus Christ.” Rushing to the pilgrim’s room, Bartolo found his Guest to now be gone. Making a welcoming home for all people would characterize the entirety of Bartolo’s life.
Born in 1260, Vivaldo entered into Bartolo’s life as a young adult. Under Bartolo’s guidance and influence, Vivaldo joined him in communal life as a fellow Franciscan tertiary. Francis had encouraged his followers to live life with others and all creation as if in family together (hence his famous canticle, “Brother Sun and Sister Moon”). To those who professed his way of life, Francis encouraged them to live as mothers and their children, taking turns and even eventually switching those roles. Another model he proposed to his brothers were the sisters of the Gospels, Martha and Mary.
When Bartolo mentored young Vivaldo at the start of their relationship, one can see that he lived out Francis’ admonition to care for each other as a mother for her son. And when Bartolo fell ill with leprosy, the roles shifted so that Vivaldo assumed this maternal role. Living the message of St. Francis, Vivaldo and Bartolo gave witness to its validity, evidencing that family and kinship undergird and inform all our relationships. Where society and church seemingly offered no name for committed love between two men, Bartolo and Vivaldo dressed it in Franciscan robes, and named it fraternity and friendship, thereby winning their eternal, saintly fame.
A Novena prayer to St. Vivaldo decribes their relationship this way: “Vivaldo, in the beautiful flower of that age when the passions begin to boil, in the tumult of affections… the pulling of blood and flesh…instead joined in holy friendship with his fellow, St. Bartolo, that shone in those days… like a bright star…” (from “San Vivaldo, eremita del Terz’ordine francescano” by Fr. Faustino Ghilardi dei Minori. Florence, Italy, 1908).
At age 52, Bartolo developed leprosy, perhaps contracted by his decades of caring for the sick. In keeping with the societal quarantine standards of their times, Bartolo withdrew to the leper hospital of San Gimignano. Vivialdo did not have leprosy, but he moved into the leper colony with his friend anyway. Together they continued their former ministry of care of the sick, but now with the patients of the leper hospital. And in particular, Vivaldo now cared for Bartolo.
Taking care of people with leprosy has always been a specifically Franciscan concern. (Today, what was once called “leprosy” is now known as Hansen’s Disease and understood to be caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria.) In Medieval culture, people with leprosy were exiled from their communities and quarantined apart from the general population. So complete was the ostracism, that it was preceded by a funeral liturgy which effectively ended their lives with the rest of society. St. Francis described being led by God amongst lepers and ministering to them as pivotal to his conversion. In fact, it became his intention to bridge this egregious gap between society/church and the leper colonies, his goal always to make sisters and brothers of all.
The earliest Franciscan dwellings were built intentionally in proximity to leper colonies, specifically to give them access to this active ministry, and to be a telling sign of contradiction to society by reclaiming and renaming those otherwise outcast as both family and sibling. Franciscan saints like Angela of Foligno, Elizabeth of Hungary, Margaret of Lorraine, Elzear of Sabran, Margaret of Cortona, and Giles of Assisi (among many) provided care and compassion toward people with Hansen’s disease as part of their essential Franciscan identity. These saints recognized the need to reclaim as family, those whom society would otherwise make outcast. More recently the same is seen in St. Marianne Cope’s unhesitating decision to travel along with her fellow sisters to Hawaii to care for the leper colony there at Molokaʻi. This same impulse today motivates Franciscan missionary, Sr. Barbara Brilliant, who works currently in Liberia in the front lines of the Ebola epidemic.
Vivaldo cared for his companion for 20 years until Bartolo’s death on December 12, 1300 C.E. Bartolo’s patience in suffering won him the local reputation of being like the biblical “Job.” But whereas Job was abandoned by his wife and friends, Vivaldo was steadfastly at Bartolo’s side continuously until his end. Their love too was unitive and pro-creative inasmuch as it fostered their relationship with each other, and it motivated, undergirded and inspired their care of the other people with leprosy in the hospital in which they dwelt. Theirs was a covenantal love, faithful for decades, “in sickness and in health.” They enter the venerable tradition of paired, same-sex saints, ever faithful to each other. As Franciscans, Vivaldo and Bartolo’s love embraced their fellow lepers, making kin and family of all.
At Bartolo’s death, Vivaldo embraced a hermit’s life. Uniquely, he made his hermitage in the trunk of a chestnut tree of great circumference, the hollowed area providing him just room enough to kneel and pray. It is difficult not to read depression and prolonged grief in Vivaldo’s flight into isolation. He spent 20 years alone in his chestnut tree hermitage. The loss of Bartolo must have affected him profoundly. Two decades of caring for Bartolo translated into 20 years of solitude for Vivaldo, until his own death on May 1, 1320 . Whereas Bartolo’s body was interred in the Church of St. Augustine in San Gimignano, Vivaldo’s body was taken to the church in Montaione. Locally each is known by the title of “Saint,” although Bartolo was not formally beatified until 1910 by Pope Pius X. The cult of Vivaldo was confirmed by Pope Pius two years earlier, in 1908.
In the English-speaking world, the Franciscan hagiographer, Marion Habig, OFM, is the major source of information on the lives of Vivaldo and Bartolo. Distressingly, Habig chronicles the entire life of Bartolo with no mention of Vivaldo. It is only in his entry on the life of Vivaldo that one discovers the important connection between these two saints. The cause of this omission from Bartolo’s life is uncertain, but Vivaldo’s absence from Bartolo’s life narrative misses an important opportunity to highlight the fraternal and communal character of his life, quintessentially Franciscan elements. The lives of Vivaldo and Bartolo are best told together, emphasizing a theme of connection and family-making.
With no other societally recognized construct, when Vivaldo entered into Bartolo’s life, they used the model of Third Order Franciscan life as an acceptable institution whereby an unordained, lay man might live together with a parish priest. There was a fecundity to their shared life: together they shaped Bartolo’s pastoring of his parish and together they shared the care of the local sick. As a couple, their holiness of life was evident to all the church family they gathered around them.
We need saints because in their shared stories we hear affinity to our own stories and find fellow companions to accompany us on our shared pilgrimage to the Kin-dom of God. Bartolo and Vivaldo are ideal companions for this journey as they reach across barriers and reveal the innate, shared kinship of all people. It is also a good season to remember Rob and Bob and their family-making instinct, forging family where society pretended to see none. As Ebola cases surge, it is good to remember both couples, Bartolo and Vivaldo, and Bob and Rob, these brave men who rejected conventional ‘wisdom,’ heroically living with and caring for individuals with potentially fatal, infectious diseases.. We live now with the example and blessing of their lives,. one couple’s story told beneath the outstretched branches of a chestnut tree, the other’s told in the glowing light of a summer’s Christmas tree.
Kevin Elphick is both a Franciscan scholar and a supervisor on a suicide prevention hotline in New York. He wrote a thesis on “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” for a master’s degree in Franciscan studies from St. Bonaventure University in New York. Elphick also has a master’s degree in Religious Studies from Mundelein College in Chicago and a Doctorate in Ministry from Graduate Theological Foundation with a focus in ecumenism. He writes regularly for the Jesus in Love Blog about queer Franciscan subjects, including Francis of Assisi, Madre Juana de la Cruz, and Blessed John of La Verna. Elphick joined the Sisters of St. Francis in New York as a lay associate in 2014.
The portrait of Bartolo and Vivaldo at the top of this post is a detail from the icon “Patrons of the AIDS Pandemic” by Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). He studied with master iconographer Robert Lentz and has made social justice a theme of his icons. The icon shows two pairs of medieval male saints: On the left are Bartolo and Vivaldo. On the right stand 14th-century Carmelite monks Saint Avertanus and Blessed Romeo, traveling companions who died together of the plague. Avertanus felt inspired to go to Rome, so he got permission to take Romeo with him. They faced rain and snow as they made an adventurous pilgrimage over the Alps from France to Italy. No Italian city would let them in, for an epidemic of plague was raging. Avertanus died first, followed a week later by Romeo. The man-to-man bonds speak to the gay community, where AIDS has a disproportionately large impact. The couples stand on each side of a chestnut tree, symbolizing life after death and calling to mind Vivaldo’s hermitage. “It is hoped that they offer solace to companions who have survived a loved one’s death, or to friends\family burdened by the death of two companions,” says the text accompanying the icon.
Vivaldo da San Gimignano (Wikipedia)
Bartolo da San Gimignano (Wikipedia)
Top image credit:
Bartolo joins arms with Vivaldo in a detail from “Patrons of the AIDS Pandemic” by Lewis Williams, SFO, www.trinitystores.com
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
Patrons of the AIDS Pandemic and many other icons are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores
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