On my visit to Napoli (Naples) earlier this year, I was taken to a shrine in a church near the historic center of town, honoring the memory of the Italian medical doctor and saint, Giuseppe (Joseph) Moscati, who lived from 1880 to 1927. Moscati was beatified by Pope, now Blessed, Paul VI in 1975 and canonized by Pope, now Saint, John Paul II in 1987, who called Giuseppe Moscati, “an example for all in the medical profession to imitate, for those of faith or not.”
“San Giuseppe Moscati,” as he is known in Italian, is especially venerated at “Chiesa del Gesu’ Nuova” (New Church of Jesus) in the center of Naples. Run by the Jesuits, people come every day to pray before the tomb of this beloved saint, popularly called “the Holy Physician of Naples.” His shrine is at the altar of the Visitation to the Blessed Virgin Mary and includes a statue of San Giuseppe Moscati and a bronze urn holds his mortal remains. Many of Moscati’s personal effects and furnishings are also on display in rooms just off the church. It is all a must-see for all who are devoted to Saint Giuseppe Moscati. I was very moved by what I saw and learned there.
Moscati was a professional scientist, teacher of general medicine, physician and surgeon, who worked tirelessly as a lay apostle of the Church for the good of people, totally dedicated to the care of the suffering. This he did right up to his last breath at the age of forty-six, on April 12th, 1927.
Doctor Moscati had attended Mass that morning and had received Holy Communion. The remainder of the day he worked at the hospital where he was administrator, until about 3:00 pm. Feeling somewhat tired, he sat down in an armchair in his office and died shortly after.
Moscati’s cause for canonization moved along fairly quickly for those times. He was beatified in 1975 and canonized on October 25, 1987, the latter while I was a student in Rome. His feast day is kept on November 16th. I recall having heard about his canonization in 1987 but in fact knew very little or nothing of the “doctor saint” until many years later.
As a doctor seeking the good physical health of his patients, Giuseppe was also deeply concerned for the entire welfare of his patients. He told his medical students always to keep in mind that not only the body must be cared for, but the soul of the patient as well. He wrote, “Many pains can be allayed with good counsel and can touch the spirit of people more than mere prescriptions from the pharmacy.” Saying this he in no way shunned modern medicine, but also asked the hard question about the healing of the entire person.
Seventh of nine children, Giuseppe Moscati was born on July 25, 1880, in Benevento, where his father practiced law. In 1884 the family moved to Naples, so Giuseppe really grew up there. His father had been appointed to the Court of Appeals, thus the move to Naples.
The prosperous and loving Moscati family was very religious and Giuseppe was baptized six days after birth and received First Holy Communion when eight year old. He was confirmed at the age of ten.
Regular Mass attendance was the norm in the Moscati family and something Giuseppe kept up, going to daily Mass whenever possible throughout his life, until the day he died. As a boy Giuseppe had seen his father serve at the altar, especially at the Poor Clare monastery in Avellino where the Moscati’s spent summer holidays. His father’s example was undoubtedly a formative influence on Giuseppe’s personal piety.
Known by all as, “Peppino,” Giuseppe Moscati finished elementary and secondary school, then enrolled in university in 1897 when he was nineteen years old. He pursued a medical degree, for the purpose, he said, “of alleviating the sorrow of the suffering.” There was a deeply personal reason for his choice.
While still in secondary school, Giuseppe’s older brother, Alberto, had received incurable head injuries in a fall from a horse during military service. The misfortune of his brother touched Giuseppe deeply in his decision to study medicine and become a doctor. In the same year that he began medical studies, 1897, Giuseppe’s father Francesco died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
At university Giuseppe was immersed in a very secularized environment, but his deep faith and upbringing kept him on a steady course. The young student wrote in his notes at the time, “Love the Truth and show others who you are.” This was to be done, he wrote, “without embarrassment, without fear and without regard for the consequences. And if the truth costs you persecution, you must accept it, as even torment you must embrace. And if for the sake of Truth you have to sacrifice yourself and your life, you will be strong in the sacrifice.”
One could characterize the thoughts as high idealism of a young person, but also the solid conviction of one who was wholly dedicated to the Lord in the Catholic faith even from his youth.
At the age of twenty-three, in July of 1903, Peppino Moscati was licensed to practice medicine and began to work in Naples. He tended patients in a hospital for the incurable and also worked at a research institute at a post normally reserved for older and more experienced doctors. His abilities were obvious to his contemporaries in the medical field.
Eventually he was named administrator of the hospital he worked at.
In April of 1906, Mount Vesuvius, the famous volcano near Naples, began erupting. This is the same volcano that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in thirteen to twenty feet of volcanic ash and pumice in 79 AD. Hence, any rumblings from Mount Vesuvius are taken seriously, to this day.
Because of the spewing lava, ash, rocks and fire, thousands of people who lived close to the volcano fled to Naples and its environs. Many died in the tragedy while others survived, but severely wounded and in need of medical attention.
The hospital Giuseppe worked at in Naples had a smaller hospital in Torre del Greco, outside of Naples, just a few miles from Vesuvius’ crater. Many of the hospital’s patients were elderly and paralytics. Concerned for the injured and sick, Doctor Moscati went to Torre del Greco and oversaw the evacuation of the hospital. He assisted in getting everyone out just before the roof collapsed and the building crumbled due to the accumulation of rock and ash. No lives were lost in the hospital’s collapse.
Afterwards Doctor Moscati sent a letter to the general director of the Naples hospital services, asking that those who had assisted in the evacuation be thanked, though not mentioning his own name as part of the effort. His intervention was considered essential for the averting the loss of lives at the Torre del Greco hospital.
In 1911 cholera broke out in Naples and Moscati was put in charge of public health inspections, as well as doing research on the disease and the best way to end it. Most of his ideas were put into practice by the time of his death in 1927. During the cholera outbreak Guiseppe became a member of the Royal Academy of Surgical Medicine, and received a doctorate in physiological chemistry.
Moscati was also made director of the Institute of Anatomical Pathology, that is, the study of disease and diagnosis. In the autopsy room of the institute, Giuseppe placed a crucifix inscribed with a verse from the Book of the Prophet Hosea, chapter 13, verse 14: “Ero mors tua, o mors,” that is, “O death, I will be your death.”
Giuseppe’s beloved mother Rosa died of diabetes in 1914. Her son in fact became one of the first doctors in Naples to experiment with insulin in treating diabetics, though after his mother’s death.
During World War I Doctor Moscati tried to enroll in the armed forces but was told he could better serve the country by treating the wounded. His hospital was taken over by the military and it is estimated that he visited nearly 3,000 soldiers. He continued to teach general medicine during this time as well.
A life-long celibate, Giuseppe had taken a private vow of chastity and lived an inspiring life of faith, hope and love. He refused to charge the poor for medical treatment and was known to have sent patients home with a prescription and the needed funds to pay for the medicine.
Giuseppe Moscati was also known as a great diagnostician, and one of his best known patients was the famous Italian operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso, who lived from 1873 to 1921. Already in the final stage of his life, Caruso had been operated on in the United States for pleurisy, though not his actual ailment. Still unwell, Caruso returned to Italy for further treatment and Doctor Moscati was summoned to visit Caruso in Sorrento in late July of 1921.
At that time Moscati diagnosed Caruso with subphrenic abscess, which had remained undiagnosed, and something completely other than pleurisy, but it was too advanced to be treated. On his way to Rome, Caruso died on August 2, 1921, at the age of forty-eight. Caruso’s funeral was in Rome’s church of “San Francesco di Paolo,” a fifteen minute walk from where I now live.
With miracles of healing attributed to Giuseppe Moscoti’s intercession after his death, he was the first modern doctor to be canonized by the Catholic Church and a special patron saint of all those employed in the healing professions. He once wrote to a student: “Not science, but charity has transformed the world.,” explaining that very few go down in history as men of science, but all can leave the world a better place by their charity. Saint Giuseppe Moscati, pray for us.