Rose of Lima and the ‘Art’ of Tattoos

Saint Rose of Lima (+1617) was a consecrated virgin, and the first native-born canonized saint of the Americas. She was renowned during her lifetime for her generosity and charity, flowing from a life of self-denial and asceticism and prayer. Although beautiful and desired, she from the earliest age renounced any thought of marriage, cutting her hair and smearing pepper on her face, so that she would appear less appealing to members of the less-fair sex. Her father forbade her entrance into the convent, so she remained in the lay-state, but consecrated herself through participation in the third-order Dominicans, helping the poor, selling the fine needle-work she would make.

When we read of her rather extreme penances, fasting three times a week, sleeping two hours a night, wearing a crown of thorns, we should see these as motivated by the love of God. For her, they were not ‘negative’, but rather affirmative ways of removing all that stood in the way of complete devotion and self-gift to the One Who has given all to us. I consider all things as dross, as Saint Paul confessed.

And God did not stint in his reciprocity, favouring Rose with ecstasies, visions and heavenly delights, and she foretold her own death, and entrance in that same heaven, at the tender age of 31. She was canonized by April 12, 1671 by Pope Clement X.

She is the patron saint of embroiderers, the Philippines and, of course, Peru, where she appears on their highest currency, the 200 soles bill, ironic for one who never owned any money, nor anything much at all. For all she had, she gave to God, something we should ponder in this age of immersion in the world.

Saint Rose of Lima, oren pro nosostros!

And speaking of worldly immersion, I am not entirely sure what Rose would have thought of tattooing, whose origins lie in indigenous cultures, especially Tahiti and Hawaii, but I am rather sure she would frown upon the practice, even if she did temporarily disfigure her own face pro caritate Dei. Father George Rutler today has a wide-ranging historical piece on the art , if such be the word, of tattooing, weaving in some elements of its morality. (I am not sure where Father Rutler gets all of his historical minutiae, such as George V having a dragon tattoo on his arm; the good priest should compile a tome on such facts alone).

Alas, the central moral question might get lost in such details, and my own piece on tattooing was somewhat more direct, arguing that scarring and inking one’s body in such a way was a kind of mutilation, a violation, if not always a mortal one, of the natural, moral law. I was distressed to read at the end of Father Rutler’s article, the current Holy Father apparently endorsed such, to my mind, mutilation. One commentator recommended that anyone pondering a tattoo be forced to watch a video of what they look like when their skin begins to fold and sag, as is the way of all flesh.

And, as another recalled, when a young woman asked his advice about getting tattooed, he said to that putting such a stamp on a beautiful woman is like putting a bumper sticker on a Ferrari. An analogy, to be sure, and one that limps, for even our bodies are worth many Ferraris, and it matters not whether they be young and beautiful, or not. For we are all made in the image of God.

But, anon, here is Father Rutler’s account of the papal exchange, and you may draw your own conclusions.

At a gathering of three hundred young adults in Rome on May 19, 2018, a seminarian from Ukraine, where a tattoo festival is held annually in Kyiv, asked Pope Francis for a pontifical opinion on tattooing. In a development of the imputed anti-tattoo doctrine of Pope Adrian I, while supposedly not contradicting it, His Holiness said, “Don’t be afraid of tattoos” and cited the example of Eritrean Christians tattooed with crosses. He added: “Of course, there can be exaggerations,” but a tattoo “is a sign of belonging” and talking about it can begin “a dialogue about priorities.”

Ah, yes, belonging and priorities. But, I might clarify for the reader, your body belongs to God, as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and one’s priorities should be to glorify God in that body in the way He created it. Why try to improve upon God’s handiwork?

Indeed, I repeat, Saint Rose of Lima, oren pro nosostros!