Bl. Giovanna Maria Bonomo, OSB
Memorial: March 1
Bl. Giovanna Maria Bonomo was born in Asiago at her family’s country estate on August 15, 1606, the first of four children born to John, a wealthy merchant, and Virginia Ceschi di Santa Croce, who hailed from the nobility.
Legend has it that because of fears her birth might not end well, she was somehow baptized in the womb. And since it was the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and it was assumed she would be a girl, that is how she was given the name “Maria.” In thanksgiving for her safe delivery, her father made a pilgrimage to the holy house at Loreto.
When Maria was just 10 months old, she received from heaven the power of speech, and evidently obtained this ability to stop her father from committing some wicked act.
And at just five years old, by divine inspiration, she had already penetrated the mystery of the Eucharistic presence. She also learned and spoke Latin well, even though she had never had a lesson.
As a child, she and her mother were frequently alone because her father was often away on business. In one instance he was also away at jail. He had a quick temper, and he had stabbed a man. One day his wife was told by their daughter, whom she had taught to pray from the earliest possible moment, “Dear mother, cheer up: Dad will be back soon.”
Virginia believed her daughter was relating some beautiful dream she had had. But Maria insisted, “I have seen he has been released and will soon be here with us.” Dawn had not yet come upon the following day when John came knocking at the front door.
Maria later said of her mother, “She seemed more religious than secular. She dressed in black and divided her time between her household duties and exercises of piety.”
However when she was just six years old in 1612, Virginia caught a malignant fever and died. Before she passed, however, she urged her husband to afford their daughter “every convenience so she can consecrate herself to God.”
From the same country home into which Maria entered the world through her mother, the Blessed now had a vision of her mother going out of this world into the blessing of heaven, enveloped in a beautiful cloud.
For the rest of her years in her father’s home, Maria wasn’t interested in fine clothes or other material vanities like other young girls of her age and station. Instead, every morning she went to the parish to hear Mass. Each day she recited the Office of the Blessed Virgin. And so we see this pattern that started in childhood and continued in her adult life of being very unusual: No matter the stage of her life, she did things people did not expect her to do.
Three years after Virginia’s death, her father, unable to attend with due dignity to Maria’s education, took her to the Poor Clare monastery of Santa Chiara in Trent. The Sisters provided her with a fitting education due her rank and according to customs of the time. She learned religion, literature, music, embroidery works, and dancing.
At night she would go and kneel in front of the altar rail before the chapel’s sanctuary, insensitive to the need for sleep or the cold. In this way she discovered her vocation to the contemplative and penitent life.
It was because of such factors that her confessor discerned she should receive her First Holy Communion. This was despite her being only nine, an age that was exceptionally young for the time for reception of the sacrament. On that occasion, Bl. Giovanna Maria later recalled, she felt like she was in heaven, and she pronounced to Our Lady a vow of virginity.
At twelve, Maria wrote to her father stating her intention of becoming a Poor Clare nun and staying in Trent.
At first Giovanni hindered his daughter’s vocation in every way possible. He came to pick her up on the pretext of making her first know a little bit about the world. After all, this was a big step she was preparing to take at just 12 years old. At least know what you’re missing out on, right? His real intent in making her return to Asiago was to get her started on the road to married life. He even suggested a coming out party. She refused this, however, because for the peace of her soul, she did not want a groom other than Christ Jesus.
Finally he consented to his daughter’s desire. However he reserved the right to choose the order and the monastery she would enter.
For the time being, she returned to Trent to finish her schooling. In the town’s church of Santa Chiara on Sundays, she accompanied the Mass with her violin playing, producing a sound so enticing that it attracted large crowds who stood outside the church’s walls to hear her play.
Finally, at age 15, on June 21, 1621, Maria entered the Benedictine monastery of San Girolamo in Bassano del Grappa. Her father chose this place because the family had several relatives who were already here. Her she continued her path to perfection by following the three traditional ways: the purgative, the illuminative, and the sensory. She did this by intensifying her prayers, fasting, and flagellating herself with the discipline (a cord of knotted rope), and keeping long hours of silence.
She was given the name of Maria Giovanna, and on September 8, 1622, she professed her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was at this time that in a mystical vision, she saw Our Lady, St. Benedict, and various saints and angels. Around her neck they placed three golden cords representing the three vows.
Her life became studded with the most amazing apparitions, and for about seven years, she received “many graces” and was able to enjoy heavenly joy, especially in her frequent mystical experiences, which became even more intense when receiving Communion. She also had the gift of bi-location.
With this privilege of reaching the height of the experience of the divine and dialoguing with the Savior, however, came a great testing and tribulation in body and in spirit.
For starters, at age 20, during one of her usual ecstasies, Jesus put on her finger the ring of mystical marriage. For several years after that, every Thursday afternoon until Friday evening or Saturday morning, she relived in her body all the moments and all the pains of her Groom’s Passion. She also received the stigmata. The two were one.
These phenomena on the one hand filled her with joy, but on the other hand they tormented her, because they made her seem in the eyes of the others “that which is not,” as she put it. In other words, they made her appear to be other-worldly. This made her the focus of attention, when the attention should have been pointed to Christ. After all, she was just a creature. Without Him, not only would she not have the phenomena, she would have nothing.
So Sister prayed intensely until she was granted the grace that the stigmata disappeared. Also from that point on, the ecstasies and experience of the passion happened only at night. This allowed her to lead a normal life in the monastery.
Her reputation for holiness spread. To the door of the monastery the visits of curious and the needy overflowed. These masses came and went in a constant stream, all asking—almost arrogantly—to see the “saint,” “the nun of miracles.”
At first, Sr. Giovanna willingly went down to the visitor’s parlor every time the abbess sent her there, and she would write letters to those who recommended themselves to her prayers, and she did what she was able to do to help the poor. Eventually, though, she began to feel uncomfortable about this strange situation. After all, it went against the very nature of being a cloistered nun. Moreover her interactions with men became very frequent. This bothered her greatly.
Eventually it was resolved to send her to a different convent, maybe a Capuchin one. But this aroused the opposition of some of the sisters, her confessor, and the diocesan curia of Vicenza, which for seven years forbade her to go to the visiting room to receive any guests except for relatives. She had to stop her correspondence. The local bishop, Msgr. Luca Stella, was so concerned with what she said during her mystical ecstasies that he feared she would be brought before the Inquisition to be investigated for heresy.
Bl. Giovanna’s confessor, who knew nothing of theology or psychology, even considered her “crazy.” He didn’t like the disruption she inadvertently caused in the monastery. He didn’t like her, period.
And so he confirmed everyone bad opinion of her. How? He made her go from cell to cell, with a rope around her neck, had her knock at each door, and when the Sister inside answered, say nothing. He had her kneel at the refectory door asking a prayer of all the sisters who walked by. He told her to go through the monastery with an old basket on her head, jumping and saying, “Here’s the crazy one.”
In order to humiliate her even more (he thought he was just keeping her humble), he imprudently ordered the nuns to go in procession to the cemetery and to make a circle around Sr. Giovanna, who was made to lie on the ground at the side of an open grave, with her fellow religious reciting in full the Office of the Dead.
Furthermore, he went so far as to restrict her access to the confessional and forbid her Communion. She went some time without the Eucharist until one day an angel finally fed her the Sacred Particle.
At this same time she was afflicted by various illness such as periodic fevers, sciatica, etc.
Eventually not only could she not see visitors through the parlor’s grate, she was forbidden from seeing her family. They even forbade her from writing her own father.
The situation eventually changed for the better. Maria became novice mistress. She was allowed to resume her correspondence and was also elected abbess in June 1652. During her time in office, she reformed the abbey’s spiritual practices, making them much more in line with the Rule of St. Benedict, and she increased the Sisters’ charitable works. What is interesting about this is that she inherited a large debt, which kept the abbey from making even necessary repairs to its crumbling infrastructure. But the more she had the monastery give, the less it lacked for anything.
Every morning the enterprising abbess had her sisters recite five Pater Nosters (Our Fathers) for 1) the perseverance of the just, 2) the conversion of sinners, 3) a good death for the dying, 4) relief for the suffering, and 5) the souls in Purgatory. Every day she prepared them for the Matins of the following night (Matins is the part of the Divine Office that concludes just before dawn) by explaining the meaning of the Psalms they would recite and by relating them to the Passion of the Lord. Under her leadership, things went “with taste and peace of all,” the monastery paid the debts, and she also expanded the physical plant with money received from her father.
Her opposition amongst the Sisters historically had come from a gang of four who really didn’t like her. Now with the monastery’s expansion, these women complained to the curia, claiming Sr. Giovanna was squandering money. An investigation was launched. Investigators concluded her management of the abbey’s finances was beyond exemplary.
On August 1, 1655, she was elected prioress, a post she held until 1664, when she was reelected abbess. By her (new) confessor’s orders, it was at this time that she set down again her memoires. (Twice she had begun this project, twice she had set it on fire.)
She taught the nuns holiness does not consist in doing great things, but perfectly performing the simple and ordinary things.
She gave the same advice to many outside the cloister, even the nobility, who came from all over for her advice about their doubts and worries, their material and spiritual needs. Not for nothing was she called “the Nun of Good Advice.” Additionally many needy people enjoyed her great charity, a virtue that together with humility and heroic patience were the characteristics of her life.
But by now she was old, yes, full of wisdom but also suffering from memory loss, wracked with pain, walking with a cane, and these and other maladies finally forced her to her bed. She prepared for her expected death by praying, meditating about the Passion of the Lord, and kissing the wounds of the Crucified One. She passed on March 1, 1670.
The center of her spirituality was the figure of Christ, the mystical Spouse, contemplated in the most important phases of His earthly life, as we see from her writings, among which stands out her, Meditations on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as numerous remaining letters.
So many miraculous healings were attributed to her intercession that in 1699, her beatification process was introduced. It ended on June 9, 1783, when Pius VI solemnly beatified her to the great joy of the population around the Veneto region and in particular of Bassano del Grappa and Asiago, which acclaimed her their patron.
The last miracle attributed to her occurred in her home country during the First World War, when, despite the furious bombardment that destroyed all of Asiago, the statue dedicated to her in 1908 and which stood in front of her birthplace, inexplicably remained intact.