by Hubert Wolf (translated from the German by Ruth Martin; English publisher Alfred A. Knopf, 2015; ISBN 978-0-385-35190-4)
Hubert Wolf is a professor of ecclesiastical history, and his book reads a bit like a very long Ph.D. dissertation (for 371 pages of text, there are 91 pages of notes and citations). The Franciscan convent of Sant’Ambrogio della Massima in Rome is the setting for a juicy scandal involving false saints, letters from the Virgin Mary, attempted murders, and heterosexual and homosexual sex. It was successfully covered up for over a century; only the opening of the archives in 1998 permitted researchers access to the files of the trial of the convent’s abbess, Maria Veronica Milza; its vicaress/novice mistress, Maria Luisa Ridolfi; and its two confessors, Giuseppe Leziroli and Giuseppe Peters, for heresies and crimes against the Church.
Wolf presents us with an objective chronology of the events that led to the trial and of the trial itself and its aftermath, including what happened afterwards to all of the accused. In so doing, he includes a lot of Church history (that is, after all, his area of expertise) to put the scandal in its proper context. Some of that history was too dry for my taste, but for a full understanding of what happened and how it affected and was affected by the politics and theologies of the day, it is necessary. For example, one of the tensions roiling the Church at the time was that between those who easily believed in mysticism and visions and those who did not.
Sant’Ambrogio was founded in 1804 by a nun who was venerated as a saint by the nuns and priests who knew her during her lifetime and subsequently by newcomers to the convent, even though this had been strictly forbidden by the Inquisition in 1816. (The continuation of this cult of the mother founder was one of the crimes that the nuns and confessors were found guilty of.) Years later, in 1845, 13-year-old Maria Ridolfi entered the convent as a young novice. She rose swiftly to positions of power, simultaneously serving as the vicaress (in charge of the running of the convent) and novice mistress (in charge of teaching the novices) by the time she was in her twenties. Physically very beautiful and apparently possessed of an extraordinary charisma, the young Sister Maria Luisa exerted an astonishing power over the convent, even controlling the election of the abbess. She claimed to have experienced many visions and religious ecstasies that caused the confessors and the nuns alike to begin to see her as a living saint. For example, she said she visited heaven during her visions and spoke with the Virgin Mary and Jesus. She even received letters from the Virgin. Amazingly, many people (including the priests who were supposedly in charge) believed this nonsense, and even the nun who actually wrote the Virgin’s letters (according to Maria Luisa’s dictation) did not expose her.
When Maria Luisa was 27 years old, a German princess, Katharina von Hollenzollern, entered the convent of Sant’Ambrogio with the intention of taking her vows and remaining there as a nun. Unfortunately for her, Princess Katharina was a rich woman who had placed a lot of money in a convent fund. Maria Luisa, who wanted to found an offshoot of Sant’Ambrogio with herself as abbess, immediately began maneuvers to get the princess to use this money to found the new convent. For example, she had the Virgin Mary write a letter about it. But Maria Luisa had not counted on Katharina, who was older (in her 40s), well educated, and of a more scientific bent of mind than the more mystically-inclined padres and sisters. She saw through Maria Luisa’s feigned holiness pretty quickly; but in so doing, she put herself in grave danger. Maria Luisa was not above disposing of novices and nuns who did not support her, and accordingly, she began trying to poison the princess, who must have had an iron constitution, because she somehow survived ground glass, alum, opium, tartar emetic, varnish, and other substances mixed into medicines that she was taking. She managed to escape Sant’Ambrogio with the help of a cousin of hers who happened to be an Archbishop. She was encouraged to denounce Maria Luisa and her fellow perpetrators at the convent to the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition, represented by the investigating judge, Vincenzo Sallua. Katharina’s 1859 denunciation led to an investigation and trial that lasted several years. All of this history is reported in detail in the book.
I was amazed by the machinations of supposedly devout people, admiring of the thoroughness with which Sallua held his investigation but curious as to how he decided at what point to believe that the person he was questioning was telling the truth; all of them came to the truth through days of denial and lying. I was not surprised that the accused nun had a much worse time of it than the accused priests, who managed to do penance and then continue their careers pretty much undamaged by the scandal, especially, the Jesuit Joseph Kleutgen (aka Padre Giuseppe Peters), who went on to formulate Church doctrine, “including the new dogma of papal infallibility that remains binding for Catholics to this day.” (p. 362) Maria Luisa, meanwhile,was sentenced to twenty years of monastic imprisonment in solitary confinement, during which she lost her mind (assuming she was not already insane when she was scheming for power and influence at Sant’Ambrogio); she was eventually released and died in poverty and obscurity.
I enjoyed the occasional flippant comments by Wolf, for instance, his list of Dramatis Personae, which includes “PETER KREUZBURG: “The Americano.” Possessed by the devil (and by Maria Luisa)…. MARY: The mother of Jesus Christ, supernatural manifestation and correspondent.” There is also his wry comment on the inscription on Joseph Kleutgen’s gravestone: “It is questionable whether a priest convicted by the Inquisition of seduction in the confessional can really be lauded for his moral integrity. And a respected scholar perhaps shouldn’t have believed in letters from the Virgin Mary announcing the murder of a nun.” He is clearly scandalized by the wrongdoing exposed by these files and set out in this very interesting, well-researched book. (Apologies for the length of this post and congratulations to those who managed to read until the end!)
Link to the March 2015 Washington Post book review by Gerard DeGroot: http://wapo.st/1JzHKHH