The Catholic Church offers a patron saint for every conceivable cause: for alcoholics, archeologists and amputees; for protection against breast cancer or mice or lightning. So it's no wonder they've named a saint for those who have conceived (or are trying to).
The only surprise may be that, given the array of mothers who have been declared saints, the patron saint of pregnant women is a man and a virgin: the 18th-century Italian St. Gerard Majella. Today is his feast day.
In Catholic tradition, a patron saint is considered a special advocate of a certain cause or group, usually because of some link to his or her own life. The reasons for St. Gerard's patronage remain a bit fuzzy. Some say his frail health gave him compassion for ailing mothers-to-be. Others cite his miraculous prayers for troubled pregnancies, a ministry that is believed to have begun during his 29-year life and continued during his canonization process. Italian women called him il santo de felice parti, "the saint of happy childbirth."
A woman from Yonkers, N.Y., created a website dedicated to him, SaintGerard.com, where she writes dramatically: "Mothers by the hundreds, the thousands, seek and win his intercession at that crucial hour when they must go down to the grim gate of death to open for a little one the frail door of life."
St. Gerard is held up as a champion for life despite medical complications or grave threats, she notes: "His intercession has triumphantly contravened the dark predictions of many gynecologists and obstetricians. Whether it be the newly discovered RH-factor, apparent sterility, 'inevitable' death to a mother .. .any of a dozen gloomy diagnoses .. .there are letters from jubilant parents telling of 'bouncing' newborn babies, thanks to the intercession of St. Gerard Majella."
He is also elevated as a model of silent suffering, which seems a far cry from the reality of child birth. States a popular prayer card for the Italian saint: "O glorious St. Gerard ... thou didst bear, like thy Divine Master, without murmur or complaint, the calumnies of wicked men ... Preserve me from danger and from the excessive pains accompanying childbirth and shield the child which I now carry..." (A woman's suffering during labor is also acknowledged in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, its comprehensive handbook of church teaching: "Do not forget the birth pangs of your mother.")
Another one of his prayer card seeks divine intervention for those battling infertility: "O good St. Gerard ... beseech the Master of Life, from whom all paternity proceeds, to render me fruitful in offspring..." And women share conception updates on a St. Gerard forum. "I have been having trouble conceiving," writes MJ. "I received my [St. Gerard] medal shortly after Thanksgiving. I took a positive pregnancy test on Dec. 3. I truly believe that prayer had a lot to do with it."
Prayer and Pregnancy
Some may question MJ's optimism, but can you really blame a woman who's been through the hell of infertility for seeking some heavenly aid? Can you fault any pregnant woman plagued with the harrowing twins of morning sickness and worry for adding St. Gerard to her arsenal of OBs, pickles and Pinterest? Who hasn't sought deliverance from delivery?
The concept of saintly intercession can be difficult to grasp. Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York tried shedding light on it in a Sept. 10 tweet, writing, "When folks ask me about intercession of the saints, I like saying this: In prayer, we always go to Jesus. Sometimes we bring friends with us."
As a Catholic who's pregnant for my first time, I'm counting on the power of prayer and prenatals. A few weeks after I took a positive pregnancy test, I headed to our local Catholic goods store to pick up some St. Gerard prayer cards. They were sold out. He seems to be growing in popularity, at least in some circles.
I'm wearing the silver St. Gerard medal my mother-in-law gave me shortly before the arrival of her first grandchild, born at a Catholic hospital that displayed a St. Gerard statue in its maternity ward. It hangs on a necklace beside a miraculous medal of Mary -- the ultimate patron for mothers -- and often I rub the two together. I find the soft scraping sound soothing, but St. Gerard's nose has been worn right off.
Prayer during pregnancy is steeped in fear and awe, the undeniable sense that something bigger is at work. My job is to believe and to behold.
As my stomach expands and unknowns persist, somehow I feel stronger having Mary and St. Gerard suspended on my collar bone.