Christians believe in the communion of the saints. After all, that’s something we proclaim every Sunday during the Apostles’ Creed, and to be a Christian is to believe that at least some of the holy men and women who have preceded us in life are waiting for us in Heaven. But how can we know the names of those saints?
I previously blogged about the complicated question of whether or not the martyr Philomena is really a saint. I’ve also blogged about the history of the process of naming of saints here. But I am often asked a related question: how can I be sure that [insert name of a particular holy person] is really a saint?
This question could lead to a much deeper philosophical question about how we know things at all. Your knowledge of the color blue, your own name, whether or not there are cookies in your kitchen, and of the existence of God, for example, are different things. But let’s set those questions to one side.
Instead, let’s examine the lives of some of the more famous saints celebrated in the month of August. Assuming that certain men and women have been canonized or beatified by the Catholic Church, can ordinary Christians recognize the reasonableness of those decisions? Based on our understanding of God, our understanding of ordinary human nature, and our own natural reason, can we agree that it’s reasonable to believe that certain holy men and women are saints in Heaven?
Saint John Vianney, the nineteenth century priest of Ars-en-Dombes, France, is celebrated as saint by the Church on August 4. As a modern saint, we have many sources of information about him and his life. While John intentionally diverted attention away from details about himself—and the miracles that resulted from his prayers—the 230 villagers of Ars reported what they saw during the decades that he lived among them. Thousands of faithful Catholics traveled to Ars, generally to go to Confession with the famous priest. Even secular newspapers of the day wrote about him, and John received the award of the imperial cross from France’s secular government out of respect for his positive effects on the country. It was not difficult to acknowledge John to be a saint.
Saint Dominic de Guzman (feast day August 8), on the other hand, was born in 1170 in Spain. Although Dominic became the priestly founder of the Order of Preachers (often called the Dominicans after him) and traveled widely during his lifetime, he, like John, never wrote a biography. In fact, although the most famous Dominican—Saint Thomas Aquinas—was a prolific theological writer, Dominic himself appears to have left behind no theological works. However, he did found a religious order that has a unique charism which has inspired thousands of men and women to join the order over the past eight hundred years, and many of those men and women have become known as saints and blesseds. If you think it is a trivial thing to establish a religious order, just think about how hard it would be to establish, say, a business, particularly one that would still be around in eight centuries. Saint Dominic de Guzman is therefore also easy to recognize as a holy man and a saint.
Saint Lawrence the Deacon (August 10) died a martyr in the third century. Although his death occurred during a time of Roman persecution of the Church and although written records were lost or often nonexistent during that time, our certitude about Lawrence’s existence and even the year of his death is fairly high. That’s because he was executed just a few days after his famous boss: Pope Saint Sixtus II.
In the year 258, the Roman emperor Valerian sent his soldiers into the catacombs to execute the pope during the middle of Mass. Lawrence was not killed at that time, but that was only because the Romans wanted to confiscate any treasures that the Church possessed, and deacons were often placed in charge of sacred items. When Lawrence showed up a few days later with what he considered the treasure of the Church—the poor—the authorities were not amused. He was roasted slowly over a fire and famously quipped to the executioner to “turn me over because I am done on that side”.
Did that really happen? Actually, we have good reasons to believe that it did. After all, Roman soldiers executed a lot of people, and making jokes is not the typical way that people respond to torture. Lawrence’s response was memorable and quickly became popular news throughout Rome. The proof that Lawrence really did face his death with bravery and humor is shown in the remarkable number of conversions to the faith that occurred in the city of Rome after his martyrdom. The fact that so many people converted to the faith at that time, as well as the fact that a strong devotion to Lawrence can be traced back to the early centuries of the Church, strongly indicates that the story of his holy death is no mere story.
Saint Augustine of Hippo is celebrated by the Church on August 28. One of the most brilliant and prolific saints in the history of the Church, few people would argue against his holiness. Augustine’s biography, Confessions, is a remarkable and frank autobiography but also a spiritual classic. In this book, Augustine reveals the ugliness of his youthful sins, as well as his sins of the flesh and the intellect. Unlike modern autobiographies which are typically all about me, me, me, Augustine’s autobiography is certainly about Augustine, but also a lot about God.
But while describing his life, Augustine also discusses his friends and family, particularly his long-suffering mother, Monica, who is commemorated on August 27 in the Church’s calendar.
Being the mother of a saint does not earn you the right to be named a saint. (Sorry, moms.) But Augustine’s autobiography is an important document in the Church’s decision to honor Monica as a saint. In Confessions, Augustine explains how his mother raised him in the Catholic faith (though he rejected it), repeatedly invited him to be baptized (though he refused), followed him in his travels and gently confronted him with his sinful lifestyle (though he responded by running away to another city). She never stopped praying for him and loving him, even when he seemed so far away from God that a lesser woman might have given up hope. With the help of Monica’s tears and prayers, Augustine finally opened his heart to God. She died soon after his conversion, having “prayed” her son into the Church, becoming a model for every mother of a prodigal child since the fourth century. Her son’s miraculous conversion was no small miracle, either for her or for us.
Blessed Teresa Bracco, remembered by the Church on August 29, is not nearly so well-known as Augustine and Monica. In 1944, she was only a twenty-year-old woman living in a little village in Italy during World War II. German soldiers looted the countryside and entered her town. One of those German soldiers kidnapped Teresa, dragged her into the woods, and tried to rape her. She died during the attempt.
Those details alone would not be enough to canonize Teresa Bracco. Sadly, there have been many rape victims during wartime in the history of the world. But there is more to Teresa’s story than that.
Teresa was only nine years old when she saw a holy card of Saint Dominic Savio, an Italian boy who lived a holy life and died young. The holy card included Dominic’s famous quote: “Death rather than sin.” Teresa was so moved by that quote that she pasted the holy card over her bed and kept it there for years. She became the sort of devout, modest young woman that the other villagers noticed, precisely because she was so “different”. That is, she was prayerful, charitable, and an exemplary student, and she seemed to have a profound devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
When Teresa disappeared in August of 1944, villagers went looking for her, and they found her body in the woods. They realized not only that she had been assaulted but that she had vigorously tried to stop her attacker, so vigorously that the man had killed her with particular brutality. That’s when they recognized that Teresa was not just a typical twenty-year-old woman. Instead, having spent several years meditating on God’s love for her and His hatred of sin, she had become the sort of Catholic who was willing to die to try to stop someone from committing a sin. And that is a sign of holiness.
At the end of the month of August, on the 31st, the Church remembers two saints whom all Christians know by name: Saint Joseph of Arimathea and Saint Nicodemus. These two men are described in the Gospels. They were followers of the Lord, tried to defend Him during his trial, and even brought His body to Joseph’s tomb after His death. But how do we know that they are saints?
First, both men are described repeatedly in the Gospels by name. This indicates that it is likely that they were members of the early Christian community. They, just like the apostles, had personal stories to tell about their encounters with Jesus Christ, and they surely told them to other Christians.
Second, there are ancient traditions about the two men that have come down to us. According to one tradition, Joseph of Arimathea brought the chalice from the Last Supper—the Holy Grail—to England because he owned mines in England. One tradition about Saint Nicodemus says that he was martyred with Saint Stephen. Granted, the validity of these traditions is open to debate.
But Saints Joseph and Nicodemus are recognized by the Church as saints for the same reason as are all the other men and women in this list. That is, they were followers of Jesus Christ, but there was something profound and personal about the way they followed Him. They accepted whatever vocation that God had given them—as a priest, a religious founder, a deacon, a theologian, a mother, a young woman, or an older man—and they lived that vocation wholeheartedly, trusting in God to work big and small miracles through them.
Each of these saints of August reached a point in life where they had fulfilled their vocation, just as Saint Monica had done when she saw her wayward son fully converted. They recognized that the end had come and, as good and faithful servants, they entered into the joy of their Master in Heaven (Matt. 25:21). And that is why we call them saints.