Purple Day and Pius IX

Today is Purple Day. The inspiration of Cassidy Megan, this day calls for the wearing of purple so as to raise awareness of epilepsy.

While there are several saints that are connected with the curing of leprosy, it’s not easy to find a Catholic saint who suffered from epilepsy – though some have speculated that Saint Joan of Arc may have had epilepsy. Certainly the stigmatization of epilepsy and past tendencies to see the epileptic as “possessed” have contributed to this. Indeed, until the most recent Code of Canon Law in 1983, an epileptic could not be ordained to the priesthood.

Bl. Pius IX, Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti, too faced this prejudice. He applied to enter the Papal Noble Guard in 1815, but after experiencing an epileptic seizure he was forced to leave. However Pope Pius VII supported his vocation, though for awhile it was required that another priest assist Giovanni during the liturgy. Giovanni would later take the name Pius in honor of Pius VII.

While Pius IX would later assert that Our Lady of Loretto had cured him of his epilepsy there are signs that he continued to struggle with seizures – albeit less often – and that, perhaps, it was an epileptic seizure that contributed to his death. There is also some indication that Pius IX’s belief that the Mother of God had healed him was part of his motivation to proclaim the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

After his death, the issue of epilepsy continued to color interpretations of Pius IX and his actions.

There is a very interesting paper on this subject by Joseph I. Sirven, MD, Joseph F. Drazkowski, MD and Katherine H. Noe, MD, PhD entitled Seizures Among Public Figures: Lessons Learned From The Epilepsy of Pope Pius IX which was published by the Mayo Clinic in 2007. If these authors are correct in their assertions perhaps Bl. Pius IX should be the patron saint of Purple Day.

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