Easter Season and Incorruption

Saint Rita of Cascia’s tomb, which contains her incorrupt body,
Wikimedia Commons

It is fitting that we commemorate Saint Rita of Cascia on May 22. This is fitting not only because it’s the date of her death, but also because the date is situated deep in the heart of the season of Easter. Only in the light of Easter can we understand one of the many remarkable things about this remarkable saint.

Rita was born in Roccaporena, a suburb of Cascia in Italy, in the fourteenth century. Although she wanted to be a nun, her family married her off to a nobleman when she was twelve years old, a common practice at the time. Her husband soon proved himself to be bad-tempered, abusive, and unfaithful. But Rita, proving her sanctity and making her the patron of innumerable unhappy wives for centuries ever since, eventually brought her husband to repentance and conversion through her love of God and through eighteen years of Christ-like patience and kindness.

There are many great stories about how Rita handled her husband’s murder, her sons’ fatal illnesses, her initial rejection when she asked to enter a convent, and her mystical gifts after she became a nun. But it is often overlooked that her body has remained incorrupt since her death in 1457.

As Joan Carroll Cruz points out in her book, The Incorruptibles, people noticed a sweet perfume in the church when Rita’s body was exposed in the church in Cascia prior to her burial. Miracles through her intercession were also noted soon after her death, which is why her body was placed beneath an altar but was still clearly visible. More than a hundred years later, the pope ordered her body to be examined, and it was “found to be as perfect as it had been on the day of her death (Cruz, The Incorruptibles, TAN Books: 1977, p. 131).”

Talking about examining dead bodies just seems, well, wrong, but the point is that Saint Rita is not the only one. The bodies of many Christian saints have been been found to be incorrupt, to greater or lesser degrees, for millennia. The most famous examples include Saints Cecilia of Rome, Louis Bertrand, Francis Xavier, Bernadette Soubirous, Andrew Bobola, Catherine of Siena, Sharbel Makhluf, John of the Cross, and Josaphat of Polotsk. These and other amazing phenomena experienced by the saints are admirably catalogued in Deacon Albert E. Graham’s Compendium of the Miraculous (also by TAN Books).

All people know what happens to living things—plants, animals, and humans—when they die. Their bodies begin to decompose. Every human culture has some sort of funerary rites based on their theological beliefs and other factors. Even though civilizations may differ in how they dispose of their deceased loved ones, they all do something.

In the natural course of things, human bodies decay. Western culture turns to burial out of respect for the dead, though modern health and safety issues are also involved. Even the most famous ancient culture’s funeral rites—Egyptian mummification—shows the same recognition that living matter will decompose completely if you don’t do something about it.

But over the centuries, Catholics have found that the bodies of some holy men and women do not follow that natural course. (We must set to one side the issue of incorruptibility among Orthodox saints. Although incorruptibility has sometimes been used as a criteria for acclaiming a saint for the Orthodox, their process of recognizing saints is very different and not formalized in the same way as in the Catholic Church.) The most important question here is: Why does this happen?

Why is it that, outside the Christian faith, the “incorruptibles” do not exist? That is, this phenomena is not known or expected in other religions or in certain geographical regions or in other cultures. It seems to be a uniquely Christian phenomena. But it has been found from the earliest centuries (Saint Cecilia of Rome, d. 177) to the present (Saint Sharbel Makhluf, who died in1898, but his body remained incorrupt up to 1950).

Notably, the Catholic Church does not believe that incorruptibility is a measure of holiness. The body of Saint Therese of Lisieux, for example, one of the holiest saints in the history of the Church, was not found to be incorrupt. So one cannot say that an incorrupt body is directly related to the living person’s holiness and that those whose bodies are not incorrupt are somehow less holy in God’s sight.

But the existence of incorrupt saints at all can only be explained in one way: God’s miraculous intervention. For some reason, God permits the bodies of some of His beloved sons and daughters to remain intact after their deaths.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this intervention is the liturgical season that is still celebrated on Saint Rita’s feast day: Easter. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead on Easter Sunday. His Risen Body is now in Heaven, and He waits to see us when we, God willing, will join Him there. The incorruptibles, therefore, remind us of His Resurrection from the dead, as well as “the resurrection of the body” described in our Creed and which we can all look forward to when He comes again.

And perhaps that is the other reason that God permits this miraculous phenomena in the first place. Saints Rita, Cecilia, Bernadette, and all the others whose bodies have not decayed after death are lying in churches right now. They are waiting for the Second Coming, like a mighty army waiting to welcome their returning king. Are we ready and waiting for that day when it comes too? If not, shouldn’t we be?

Saint Margaret of Castello

Saint Margaret of Castello
Wikimedia Commons

When I wrote my first book about saints, I believed it was important for it to include every well-known saint and blessed, as well as many lesser-known ones. After all, it had annoyed me greatly as an adult convert to find out that some great saints had been omitted from the only saint book I owned. Granted, that gave me the happy opportunity to purchase more books about saints, but the inconvenience rankled me.

Unfortunately, I realized after publication of Saints that I had inadvertently omitted a holy young woman with a powerful life story: Saint Margaret of Castello. The only excuse I can offer is that I often confuse Saint Margaret with Saint Germain Cousin of Pibrac, whom I did include in my book. The biographies of both these women would be considered fairy tales or melodrama if they were not, sadly, true stories.

In 1287, Margaret was born to Parisio and Emilia, a noble couple living near Mercatello sul Metauro in Italy. It soon became obvious to her parents that the child had serious medical problems. Not only was she blind, but she had a severe curvature of her spine, she was abnormally short, and one of her legs was shorter than the other. Unkind tongues would call her a hunchback, a dwarf, and worse.

Her parents, though Christians, responded to her conditions with startling selfishness. They literally hid her from sight, claiming that their child was so ill that she was not expected to live, and they tried to avoid ever seeing their deformed daughter themselves. As nobility, they left that chore to their servants as much as possible. But when a visitor to their castle discovered six-year-old, blind Margaret walking through the halls and when that person began speaking about Margaret to others, her parents walled Margaret up in a room next to their chapel. While it was not uncommon at that time for holy men and women to decide to live in solitude in a room next to a church, it was an act of amazing cruelty on the part of her parents to condemn a young child to such isolation for a decade.

However, God supplied what Margaret lacked in her parents. A kindly maid gave her her name (since her parents did not appear to think to do so). A chaplain taught her about Christ, God’s love for her and for all men, and about bearing the sufferings of life. And everyone who took the time to stop and talk to the girl came away inspired by Margaret’s devotion, purity, kindness, and acceptance of trials. What Margaret may have lacked in her physical appearance, God supplied in abundance by pouring faith, hope, and charity in her soul. Though only a child, she forgave her parents and entered wholeheartedly into a vocation of time spent alone with God.

When Margaret was sixteen years old, her parents latched onto a new plan for their daughter: perhaps if they took her to a shrine located in a Franciscan church at another Italian city, now called Città di Castello, Margaret would be miraculously cured of all her deformities. After all, others had received miracles at that shrine, so why not Margaret? When they arrived at the church, it is assumed that her parents did indeed pray for her to be cured. But when that cure did not happen immediately, her parents left. They abandoned their blind, handicapped daughter in a strange city and went home, leaving her homeless, penniless, and alone. Once she realized that they had left her, Margaret was forced to live on the streets as a beggar.

Although her parents’ abandonment of her must have been devastating, Margaret was a young woman of great faith. Her kindness, intelligence, piety, and complete acceptance of her poverty was eventually noticed by the faithful residents of Castello. For a time, she lived with several kind but poor families in the city, moving from home to home so that no one family was overly burdened. In time, the nuns of the convent of the city invited her to join them. However, it didn’t take long for the nuns to realize that Margaret was far more devoted to God and to radical simplicity and poverty than they were. Her holy example was a bit too much for them to handle, so they asked her to leave.

Margaret returned to Castello, where she, though blind and handicapped, cared for some of the children of the town while their parents were working, even teaching them about their faith. Margaret also became a third order Dominican, wearing a religious habit but remaining a laywoman. She lived quietly in Castello for the rest of her life, greatly loved by the residents of the town but unknown elsewhere until her death at the age of thirty-three.

It is hard to believe that, although she was acknowledged as Blessed Margaret by the Church in 1609, she was not canonized and given the title of saint until 2021, under Pope Francis. It was surely an easy decision for the pope, since miracles have occurred at her tomb since her death in 1320 and since devotion to Margaret’s intercession has continued unabated for seven hundred years. In our modern era of prenatal diagnoses, where disabled children like Margaret are all too often removed from our sight by abortion long before birth, her witness to the dignity of life is particularly needed now.

But the most inspirational thing about Saint Margaret of Castello is not that she lived, but how she lived. Being born with physical limitations does not make you a saint, but bearing those physical limitations with patience is a great first step. Suffering from persecution does not guarantee holiness; but forgiving those who reject you is essential. Being homeless does not automatically make you a holy person; but turning to God even in times of poverty is yet another way we show Him that we trust Him with everything.

We do not become saints simply by suffering; all human beings suffer. We become saints by bearing our sufferings as Jesus Christ did. Saint Margaret, by her intercession and her example, can help us learn to do that.

Many thanks to my friend Lisa, who kindly gave me this excellent short book about the holy young woman of Castello.

Growing in Virtue this Lent with the Saints

Photo by Rui Silva sj on Unsplash

Until my daughter began attending a Catholic high school, I thought I was a patient driver. After only one week braving stop-and-go traffic during rush hour on the beltway twice a day, I realized that I was not a patient driver at all. My patience had simply not been tested so regularly before.

As Lent approaches, we Catholics are tempted to fall back on the same penances that we’ve practiced in previous years, such as cutting back on our intake of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, or some other food or beverage. This may be a mature way of acknowledging that a desire for a particular item is out of control or unhealthy. Or it may be a sign of laziness.

The Church always recommends to us the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent. We should examine ourselves about those areas first. Do I have a habit of daily prayer? Am I fasting and abstaining from meat according to the Church’s Lenten rules and according to my age, health, and state of life? Am I financially supporting the Church and the needy?

But forty days is a perfect length of time to do more than that. Specifically, I can ask myself some questions: Is there a virtue I lack? Am I failing to act in love toward God and/or my neighbor on a regular basis in some way?

The easiest way to get an answer to that question is to ask members of your family or close friends what they think. They may even give you a list.

But there are other, perhaps gentler, ways to face your personal weaknesses during Lent and make some concrete resolutions to turn from vice to virtue. The forty-day period of Lent may be the perfect time for you to try to establish some holy habits that will last into the Easter season.

Personally, I find that reading about the saints every day helps me try to pattern my life after theirs. Otherwise, I am tempted to compare my life to the examples offered by TV shows, supermarket tabloids, and social media—which most of the time could be described as moral train wrecks—and think I’m doing pretty well in comparison. If I daily read about holy men and women, on the other hand, I not only have higher standards, but their example helps me follow in their footsteps. That’s why I wrote a book about them, after all.

Your local Catholic bookstore probably has a large assortment of Lenten books and booklets with reflections from great saints. Reading the words of a saint not only helps me see Lent through that saint’s eyes, it helps me recognize areas of my life where I am lacking in a virtue (or two or three). Similarly, reading a good biography or even historical novel of a saint, which is a not unreasonable goal for Lent, can help me appreciate both that saint’s gifts and challenges, and apply those lessons to my own life. The German-born author Louis de Wohl knew that well, which is exactly why he wrote so many historical novels about saints.

How to tackle your personal struggles with the help of the saints is the topic of Fr. Joseph Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems.[1] This book examines typical issues with which we all struggle, describes how saints faced those same problems, offers a short reflection and some approaches to try, and concludes with further reading options. You may not be facing all forty-seven topics covered in this book during Lent. After all, it’s not likely that you are struggling with difficulties in conceiving a child and old age at the same time (two different chapters in the book). But who doesn’t need some encouragement in the daily battle against impatience and gossip (two other chapter topics)?

It is always encouraging to discover that canonized saints fought the exact same interior battles that we do. Having a hard time forgiving someone? Saint Francis de Sales had to forgive a man who tried to kill him. Struggling with anger? Blessed John Columbini was notorious for his bad temper—until he began reading a book about saints. Do you find yourself feeling judgmental about family members who aren’t practicing their faith well or at all? Saint Veronica Giuliani did too, which is why God allowed her to have a vision of her own heart—which looked to her like it was made of iron. She got the point.

In our personal pursuit of virtue, however, we must remember one very important point: it’s impossible. That is, it is literally impossible for any of us fallen human beings to even have a good thought, much less perform a great and holy act, without God’s grace. Left to our own devices, the only thing we do really well is sin. But with God’s grace, if we ask the great saints and blesseds of the Church to inspire and watch over us, they can show us how to grow in virtue. They can show us how to “put on the mind of Christ” (see 1 Cor. 2:9-16) and find areas of our lives that need work. They can show us how to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our daily struggles and how to discern truth and falsehood. The example of the saints can even help us grow in virtue so that we will spend eternity with God, surrounded by our friends, the saints, who led us into Heaven.

[1] Note that Fr. Esper has also written More Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems, which includes chapters on gambling, widowhood, and stubbornness, for example, but that book is out of print.

Great Women, Great Saints

Saint Brigid of Kildare
Patrick Joseph Tuohy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What does it take to be a great woman? Our culture seems to think that greatness requires an advanced degree from an Ivy League school, martial arts training, a flawless body, and/or loads of money. But the female saints that the Church celebrates in February offer a very different image of greatness.

Saint Brigid of Ireland (feast day of February 1) started out in life as a slave in fifth century Ireland to a Christian mother and a pagan father.

Saint Josephine Bakhita (feast day of February 8) also experienced life as a slave. She was kidnapped at the age of nine in nineteenth century Sudan and was brutally tortured and mistreated by her masters.

Saint Margaret of Cortona (feast day of February 22) was an abandoned single mom in thirteenth century Italy.

Saint Anne Line (feast day of February 27) was a Catholic widow in anti-Catholic England in the sixteenth century.

What do all these women have in common besides the fact that they all are commemorated in February? Although we might be tempted to pity them and their apparently miserable lives, they all show us that the weapons given us by Christ can make any life into a truly great one.

Saint Brigid was generous with the poor from the time she was a young child. She was so generous with possessions—including the possessions of other people—that both her parents were often bewildered. Did her angry father finally give her her freedom from slavery and let her become a nun because he thought that would stop her from giving away his possessions any more? Maybe. Or maybe her extraordinary generosity finally infected even her pagan father. Either way, it was Brigid’s heroic example of selflessness that inspired so many other women to give up everything they possessed and become nuns just like her. She founded multiple monasteries during her ninety years of life, and both men and women placed themselves under her wise governance.

Saint Josephine Bakhita could have been bitter about the mistreatment she endured as a slave. Instead, she learned about the Catholic faith from the Italian family that both bought her and freed her. Josephine discovered the power of one of Christianity’s greatest weapons—forgiveness— when she became a Catholic, and that helped her decide to become a religious sister. Josephine spent many years telling her life story, begging for donations to her order, and spreading the good news of freedom through forgiveness to those who had never heard such a countercultural message before.

Saint Margaret learned in the most vivid way possible that actions have consequences and that sinful actions have particularly painful consequences. She thought living with her boyfriend and having beautiful clothes would make her happy. When he was murdered, she was overwhelmed with grief, loneliness, but most importantly, repentance. In that moment of despair, she saw and felt God’s mercy envelop her, and she lived the rest of her life offering that mercy to others in need.

Saint Anne Line chose to do the unthinkable many times in her life. First, she chose to become a Catholic in anti-Catholic England in the sixteenth century, which led her Protestant family to disown her. Then she chose to marry a Catholic, who died in exile not long afterward, leaving her alone, but not poor. With the money and property she possessed, she decided to do something that was both dangerous and illegal: she chose to hide priests so that they could minister to other Catholics in secret. When Anne had been arrested and was brought before judges, they accused her of the “crime” of hiding a priest from the authorities. She fearlessly replied, “My lords, nothing grieves me more but that I could not receive a thousand more.” That answer, brave as it was, sealed her fate and cost her her life. But Anne had found the pearl of great price—the Catholic faith—and was ready to sell all that she had to keep that precious gift.

Patterning your life after the rich and famous does not make you great. But patterning your life after the life and teachings of Jesus Christ—through selflessness, forgiveness, repentance, and sacrifice—may make you more than great. It can make you into a saint.

Rejoicing in a busy calendar

St. Barbara Altarpiece
By Wilhelm Kalteysen – 3gEm1sQ389cbzg at Google Arts & Culture, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54932295

No one likes to look at a busy calendar; it can seem overwhelming. The Church’s liturgical calendar can seem that way too.

After Jesus Christ rose up into Heaven, the early Christians had to develop their own calendar of celebrations. Dates associated with our Lord, such as Easter, obviously came first. Over the centuries, as more and more men and women lived Christ-like lives, more and more saints were celebrated in local churches and then in the universal Church.

Protestantism rejected the whole idea of the “communion of saints” in the sixteenth century. In the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its understanding of saints, but the Church also made a more concerted effort to demonstrate the holiness and even the existence of these holy men and women to our separated brethren. Not only should saints encourage Catholics to live better lives, their lives should be encouraging to non-Catholics as well.

For example, we don’t have photographic evidence or detailed newspaper accounts of the martyrdoms of Saints Perpetua and Felicity because photography and newspapers did not exist in the year 203. But we do have ancient writings and other evidence demonstrating that these two young women really lived and died and that they have been venerated by Christians for many centuries. In their case, we have proof in the writings of fourth century Bishop Saint Augustine of Hippo, who had to remind his parishioners that The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, while valuable, should not be treated as if it were as sacred as the Gospels themselves. That’s how popular the biography of these two saints had become among faithful Christians.

From about the time of the Council of Trent to the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical calendar of saints and blesseds of the Church was periodically updated. But in 1969, Pope Paul VI issued Mysterii Paschalis, a motu proprio which reorganized the Roman Calendar. The pope pointed out that, over time, the calendar had become very complicated with many feasts, octaves, and vigils, which tended to divert the faithful (that is, you and me) “from the fundamental mysteries of our Redemption.” The changes he authorized were supposed to help us remain focused on “the whole mystery of Christ which [the Church] unfolds within the cycle of the year.”

I was unaware of how dramatic these changes were to the celebration of the saints until my book, Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year, was being edited. My publisher asked me to consider adding another appendix (after all, my book already had five appendices). It was suggested that a correlation table, showing the differences between the saints’ dates in the current Church calendar and the calendar from the 1962 Roman Missal, would help those who wished to participate in an Extraordinary Form Mass (also commonly called a Traditional Latin Mass). With the table—which I did create and add as Appendix 2—someone could follow along in the 1962 Roman Missal and still find the saint biography from my book if it were on a different date.

My correlation table is twelve pages long! Devotees of the Latin Mass have valid complaints that these changes to the calendar were not insignificant and did not respect longstanding devotion to particular saints. The greatest damage, however, was probably that some people were led to believe that particular saints had been “unsainted”.

That is not at all the case. All of the changes that were made from the 1962 Roman Missal to our current liturgical calendar can be characterized as due to one of five reasons.

  1. In a few cases, the date was simply renamed. “The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary” became “The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple” (with no change in date).
  2. In a few cases, dates and titles associated with an important saint were rearranged or dropped. Our Blessed Mother is no longer celebrated under the title of “The Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary” on October 11, but the “Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God” was added to January 1.
  3. In several situations, the saint’s date was changed, presumably for a good reason related to that saint or to another (more well-known) saint in the calendar. For example, Saint John of Kanty’s feast day was changed from October 20 to December 23, the date of his death.
  4. For the vast majority of the changes, the saint is still listed as a saint in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum, the latest complete liturgical calendar of the Church. But he or she is not given a solemnity, feast, memorial, or optional memorial at Mass. However, just because there is no memorial celebration for Saints Christopher and Barbara at Mass on their respective dates (along with the hundreds of other saints who were dropped from the calendar used at Mass), that doesn’t mean they’re not saints.
  5. There are thirty-seven saints that are listed in the 1962 Roman Missal who are not included in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum at all. While it’s impossible to guess at the particular reason for each saint, it is safe to make some guesses. It is probable that almost all of these lesser-known saints were removed because of a lack of certain evidence about their existence or because one saint had apparently been conflated into two saints over the centuries, with similar but different spellings. These omitted saints are: Marcellinus, Boniface, Venantius, Pudentiania, Cyrinus, Nabor, Nazarius, Modestus, Crescentia, the Seven Holy Brothers, companions of Timothy (unknown number), the Twelve Holy Brothers, Lucy, Geminianus, Thecla, Cyprian, Justina, Marcellus, Apuleius, Respicius, and Nymphna.

There were and are many benefits to these changes in the Church’s calendar. First and foremost was what the pope desired: that the celebration of the liturgy—which for most of us is the celebration of the Mass—would be focused on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. These changes also allowed the Church to make room for more recent saints, and the twentieth century certainly gave the Church innumerable saints, particularly as martyrs under Communist and Socialist governments.

We can hope that the twenty-first century will continue to keep the Church’s calendar busy with new saints—but we can also hope these future saints will make it into the calendar without losing their heads, as did Saint Barbara.

Patron Saints of December

Saint Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death (1888) by Ilya Repin

In ancient Rome, it was important to have a patron. That is, it was important to have a wealthy, powerful person to rely upon if you needed protection, money, a job, social contacts, or some other favor. The word “patron”, after all, comes from the Latin word for “father”. In that culture and time, becoming bankrupt meant you might have to sell yourself and your family into slavery, so it was important to have some sort of “father” who could bail you out of trouble.

The culture of ancient Rome may be long gone, but the idea of having a patron lives on in the Catholic tradition of patron saints. Almost every holy man and woman who has been declared a saint or blessed of the Church had some unique experience which caused them to be thought of as a source of help for those in similar circumstances.

Obviously, many saints would be considered patrons for clergymen. Saint Francis Xavier (feast day Dec. 3) is an excellent patron for evangelists; he brought tens of thousands of people into the Church in India, Japan, and many places in between. Saint Stephen (Dec. 26) was one of the first seven deacons of the Church and was the first martyr, so he is clearly the perfect patron for deacons and martyrs. Saint Flannan (Dec. 18) traveled as a missionary monk to Killaloe, Ireland, and became its first bishop, so he is obviously a heavenly protector for Killaloe, Ireland. But what about patrons for laypeople and our ordinary challenges?

Perhaps the most obvious patron saint in the month of December is Saint Nicholas (Dec. 6). However our secular world has created and embellished the mythical Santa Claus, its inspiration, Saint Nicholas, really existed. He was the bishop of the city of Myra in what is now Turkey, he lived through a time of persecution, he confessed his faith in Christ, and he was (somehow) released from prison instead of being executed. After all, local governors didn’t always kill every Christian they found. There are multiple ancient stories about Nicholas, all of which show him to be a protector of the innocent and those who are unjustly treated, including children.

Saint Lucy (Dec. 13) was a Christian virgin who died a martyr in Syracuse, Italy, around the year 304. Her name means light. Did her torturers really blind her before they killed her, in mockery of her name? Or did the story of her being blinded arise after her death? We’ll never know, but everyone with eye problems can ask Saint Lucy for her intercession all the same.

Bishop Saint Ambrose of Milan (Dec. 7) is a patron for beekeepers. Why? Because his writing was considered as sweet as honey. That’s also why he was later named a Doctor of the Church. Saint John the Apostle (Dec. 27) is considered a patron saint for those suffering from burns. Why? Because there is an ancient tradition that some unwise pagan tried to kill the beloved disciple by throwing him in a vat of boiling oil. Just as the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar failed to kill the faithful Jews Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (as is described in Daniel, chapter 3) by throwing them into a furnace, so Saint John escaped unharmed. Both Saints John and Ambrose are also excellent patrons for writers, for more obvious reasons.

Suffer from a bad temper or know someone who does? Saint Thomas Becket (Dec. 29) is the saint for you. He was a devout archbishop of Canterbury in England, and he placed the needs of the Church before his own, but some of the difficulties he faced were caused by his impulsive nature and aristocratic temper. Fortunately for him, being sent into exile and having the pope correct some of his mistakes taught him some humility before he died a martyr at the hands of assassins sent by the king of England.

Saint Adelaide of Burgundy (Dec. 16) is a powerful intercessor for those suffering from many modern marital problems. She was born into the nobility in the tenth century and married to the king of Italy when she was a teenager. Her husband died so suddenly that everyone suspected he’d been poisoned. The obvious candidate for his poisoner was a ruthless leader who then insisted that Adelaide marry his son. Unsurprisingly, she did not want to marry the son of her husband’s killer, and she was left in prison until the king of Germany literally came to her rescue. Adelaide then married the king who had saved her. But that king had sons by a previous marriage, and Adelaide spent the rest of her life in family squabbles between her son and her stepsons, squabbles which involved the entire country. Saint Adelaide therefore has great compassion for those involved in second marriages, for conflicts between children and stepchildren, and for women who’ve been physically abused.

A more modern saint, Marguerite d’Youville (Dec. 23) is another sympathetic saint for women. She was a wife and mother in eighteenth century Canada, but four of her six children died young, and her unfaithful husband died suddenly, leaving her with nothing but debts. She eventually became the founder of an order of religious sisters now known as the “Grey Nuns”, but she too knows the pain of family disunity and loss.

On Dec. 28, the Church remembers the young children who were executed under the orders of King Herod, who was afraid that the predicted newborn king would take his kingdom from him. These children were too young to understand that they were dying for the Messiah, but the Church believes that God honors them for their sacrifice in Heaven. We call them the Holy Innocents, and they are ideal patrons for the millions of unborn children who have died by abortion in the past several decades, children who are just as innocent as were the Jewish children who were slaughtered in Bethlehem centuries ago.

But the greatest patron for December is the One we celebrate every December 25. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who humbled Himself to be born on a winter night in a forgotten stable among animals, is the ultimate patron. There is no vocation, medical condition, family calamity, or injustice that we suffer that is unimportant to our Lord. He cares for us all. And His birth reminds everyone each Christmas that He knows our sufferings and is ready to share them, in every place, time, and family.

Remembering All of the Saints

Madonna and Child with Saints
Giovanni Bellini, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Who exactly do we remember on All Saints’ Day?

The official liturgical calendar of the Church, the Martyrologium Romanum, says that the Solemnity of All Saints commemorates all the saints who are in Heaven with Jesus Christ. The Martyrologium Romanum also reminds us that, even though we are still pilgrims on earth, some human beings are already in glory with God and all the angels. These men, women and children not only encourage us by the way they lived their lives, but they protect us with their prayers from Heaven.

Those holy people obviously include the saints we celebrate on other days of the Church’s calendar, and that list includes men, women, and children whose names are known only to God. But there are also several lesser-known saints who are celebrated on November 1 in the Church’s liturgical calendar, typically celebrated on that date because that’s the date that they passed away.

Interestingly, five saints on the calendar on All Saints’ Day provide a snapshot of Church history, as well as a reminder of what it takes to become a saint.

On practically any date of the calendar, the Church celebrates the death of a martyr from the early Church. Until the Roman emperor Constantine the Great permitted the practice of the Catholic faith in the Roman empire, persecution caused the death of many Christians over a period of almost three hundred years.  Saint Caesarius of Terracina is typical of these early martyrs. We don’t know much about him, except for his name and the fact that he was martyred on November 1 of an unknown year in Terracina, Italy.

While the reputation of sanctity among bishops has taken a beating in recent years, saintly bishops are ubiquitous in the Church’s calendar. Magnus of Milan (6th century Italy) is remembered on November 1, one of many Catholic bishops who lived and died such a holy life that his flock began calling him Saint Magnus after his death.

The medieval period produced many men and women who entered religious orders and inspired others with their holiness. Blessed Rainieri Arentino was a Franciscan friar who lived his life in the true spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi; Rainieri was particularly known for his love of poverty and his humility. He died in 1304 in modern Sansepolcro, Italy.

Proving saints from countries other than Italy do exist (unlike the three listed above), Blessed Nuño Álvares Pereira was born in Portugal and became a great general, as well as a husband and a father. But after his wife died, he left it all behind to become a Carmelite friar. He died in 1431 after living happily for many years as a Carmelite.

Blessed Rupert Mayer was born in 1876 in Germany and became a Jesuit priest. In time, he became known all over Germany for the parish missions he preached. During World War I, his bravery in serving his men as a chaplain became legendary; he even lost his left leg during a grenade attack. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Rupert continued to preach repeatedly and fearlessly against Nazism and was therefore repeatedly imprisoned. But he was considered a great German hero, and when he developed heart problems in a concentration camp, the Nazis sent him to be interned in a converted monastery. They were afraid that the famous man would die in the camp and be considered a martyr to the German people. After the Allies defeated Germany and liberated Nazi camps, Rupert was set free and returned to his parish church in Munich. Ever a man of action, he “died with his boots on”; he suffered a stroke while celebrating Mass soon after he was released.

All Saints’ Day is the perfect day to remember the unknown saints in Heaven, but the saints of November 1 also remind us that Heaven is full of real men and women who have given glory to God in the challenges of their own times, places, and cultures. A hundred years from now, what will the life story of a “typical” saint from the twenty-first century look like?

Making Sense of Church Feasts

The liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church is a complicated thing, with varying liturgical colors, two cycles of daily Mass readings, three cycles of Sunday Mass readings, and a four-week psalter for the Divine Office. Add in important dates related to the Son of God and commemorations of the saints, and it can start to seem incomprehensible.

But the hierarchy of dates related to our Lord and the saints is actually fairly easy to understand.

There are four categories of commemorations of Jesus Christ and the saints in the Church’s liturgical calendar: solemnities, feasts, memorials, and optional memorials.

The word solemnity comes from two Latin words which are added together and basically mean “annual celebration”, and it’s easy to see why the Church insists that we celebrate these dates every single year all over the world. For example, dates that commemorate important events in the life of Christ – from His Annunciation to Easter Sunday – deserve to be celebrated in a solemn manner every year. Some dates related to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, as well as dates on which we try to understand great mysteries, such as the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist, are also categorized as solemnities. Saint John the Baptist, the deaths of Saints Peter and Paul, and a commemoration of all the saints in Heaven are all celebrated as solemnities as well.

Although we can informally refer to any commemoration as a feast (as was done in the title of this blog), the Church currently uses the word feast in a very specific way. Feast days are ranked lower than solemnities but higher than memorials. Why?

Our Lady of Guadalupe
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

An excellent example can be found in the celebration of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego in sixteenth century Mexico. This miraculous event is particularly important to the peoples of the Americas, so this date is counted as a feast in the US and many South and Central American countries. In Mexico, it is unsurprisingly celebrated as a solemnity, but it’s not even an optional memorial in England.

While there are no solemnities on the calendar in October, there are two feasts: the Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist (Oct. 18) and the Feast of the Apostle Saints Simon and Jude (Oct. 28). Since the Twelve Apostles are the “foundations” of the Church (see Rev. 21:14) and since we wouldn’t know much about our Lord and the apostles if it weren’t for the four evangelists, it makes sense to celebrate them with feasts.

Memorials also commemorate a saint, group of saints, dedication of a church, or mystery of the faith, but they are lower in rank in the hierarchy of the Church’s calendar. Memorials remind us of saints who are important to Catholics all over the world, such as Saint Therese of Lisieux (Oct. 1) and Saint Teresa of Jesus (Oct. 15), not just in France and Spain where those two women spent most of their lives, respectively. Conversely, the North American Martyrs (Oct. 19) are celebrated with a memorial in North America, but not in other parts of the world.

In a few instances, Catholic saints have been able to cross the Catholic-Protestant divide and be celebrated even outside the Catholic Church. For example, some non-Catholic churches celebrate the memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4) with the blessing of animals.

There are also many optional memorials in the Church’s calendar. This is just what it sounds like; the celebration of an optional memorial is optional, not required. If you attend Mass on Oct. 22, Pope Saint John Paul II may be remembered with extra prayers directed to his intercession, or maybe not.

Some days on the liturgical calendar include more than one optional memorial. For example, on Oct. 5, prayers at Mass may refer to the Polish nun Saint Faustina Kowalska or the American priest Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos – or neither. Additionally, every Saturday of the year can be celebrated as an optional memorial for the Blessed Virgin Mary – but not if there is a memorial, feast, or solemnity on that date for another reason, such as Holy Saturday, which would trump the optional memorial.

Although this sounds confusing, the hierarchy of solemnities, feasts, memorials, and optional memorials can help us recognize which saints or mysteries of the faith that the Church would like us to particularly remember on a given date. And that is the point of the liturgical calendar to begin with: to help us draw closer to God and the saints every day, every month, and every year, until we (hopefully) reach our destination, which is Heaven itself.

Lessons from the Saints for September

Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many lessons that we can learn from the lives of the saints of the month of September. Here are seven of those lessons.

Lesson #1: You don’t need so much “stuff” in your life

The famous Mother Teresa (feast day Sep. 5), known to the Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, founded the Missionaries of Charity to care for the poorest of the poor. But Teresa and every sister in her order lived lives of poverty too, and each one possesses only two habits: one blue-and-white sari to wear that day and one to wash for the next day.

What does that teach us? We need God in our lives, much more than all the things we think we need.

Lesson #2: Don’t let others’ opinions rule your life

The Jesuit missionary priest Saint Peter Claver (feast day Sep. 9) had become a well-known but controversial figure in Colombia because of the decades he spent caring for Africans who arrived in South America as slaves. He faced endless opposition for daring to treat African slaves as real human beings. During an epidemic, he cared for the sick of the city and caught the disease himself. In the aftermath of the epidemic, everyone forgot about him—until they found out he was dying. The whole city showed up to be blessed by the dying man and then came to his funeral.

Although people may forget about you, remember that God never forgets about you.

Lesson #3: There are hidden joys in suffering

Saint Catherine Fieschi (feast day Sep. 15) found herself married to a cruel and unfaithful man in late seventeenth century Genoa, Italy. After moping about her situation for years, she was given a great grace: one day God overwhelmed her with the knowledge of all that He had done for her, and she was brought to her knees in gratitude. She began to devote her time to prayer rather than complaining, and her husband eventually repented. The couple lived devoutly together for the rest of their lives.

Our sufferings—though seemingly interminable—really do bear unexpected fruit in God’s time.

Lesson #4: “Retreat” is sometimes the best option

Saint Cyprian (feast day Sep. 16) was the bishop of Carthage (modern Tunisia) in the third century. When he heard that the Roman authorities were coming to persecute Christians, he escaped from the city and went into hiding. Some Christians complained afterwards, blaming him for abandoning his flock, who were largely martyred during this bitter persecution. Cyprian vigorously responded by asking a valid question: who would lead the church in Carthage if the head of the church had been killed? Cyprian later returned to the city during a time of peace. Proving that he was no coward, when Roman soldiers showed up on his doorstep under a later persecution, he professed his faith and was executed immediately.

Clearly, there are times when retreating from the battle is the most Christ-like option.

Lesson #5: What you think are inspirations from God may not always be inspirations from God

The twelfth century Benedictine abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen (feast day Sep. 17) was brilliant, devout, and a strong leader. She also received mystical visions from the time she was a girl. Perhaps she was one of those saints who assume everyone receives such gifts because she didn’t tell anyone about them until the messages they contained began to alarm her. She immediately submitted them to the authorities, and the pope himself later approved them.

Remember that if you want to be holy, the inspirations, visions, or even simple insights you receive need to be judged by the Church (sometimes simply comparing them to something like the Catechism), rather than your own subjective opinion.

Lesson #6: You don’t have to be a straight A student for God to use you

If sanctity required a high IQ, Saint Joseph of Cupertino (feast day Sep. 18) would never have become a saint. He was such a poor student that he was only ordained a priest through a seeming miracle. Yet he was a deeply humble man, and humility is far more important to God than IQ points. This is proved by the fact that Joseph’s adult life was one long string of inexplicable miraculous events: levitation, healings, ecstasies, and feats of strength. His fellow Franciscan friars, far from showing Joseph off to get attention, basically forced him to live in solitude to avoid crowds of gawkers.

God showers gifts on people who love Him, not those who think they are smarter than others.

Lesson #7: God is patient with difficult people

Many, many saints of the Church are noted for their gentleness. Not so Saint Jerome of Stridon (feast day Sep. 30), the fourth century Doctor of the Church who became famous for using his wit and wisdom in devastating his opponents. Granted, Jerome’s opponents were generally those that he thought were speaking falsely about God or His Church, but if the Church wanted to appoint a patron saint of overly sensitive people with biting tongues, there is no candidate better than Saint Jerome.

The saints of September remind us that sanctity is often not what we think it is. Sanctity requires that we renounce our attachments to possessions. Sanctity teaches us to trust in God’s word more than the opinions of other people. If we are trying to be holy, we try to accept difficulties out of love. Holy people recognize the need to retreat from the fight sometimes and be ready for the next battle. Becoming holy means that we turn to the wisdom of the Church to evaluate our own ideas sometimes. Saints know that we are all fools compared to God. And being patient with difficult people is part of the battle for holiness. After all, sometimes we are difficult people.

Saint John Vianney and Philomena

Saint Jean-Marie Vianney
Andreas König, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/,
via Wikimedia Commons

When Saint John Vianney (whose feast day is August 4) attributed miracles to the intercession of the martyr Philomena, was it really her prayers that healed people, or was it due to Saint John’s prayers? Fr. George Rutler, in his charming book The Cure of Ars Today, delicately raises the question of whether Saint John was deflecting attention away from the power of his own prayers by crediting an early Church martyr instead. To answer that question, it would be helpful to examine the lives of both of these saints first.

Saint John Vianney (1786-1859) was a French priest who was famous during his own lifetime for spending many hours every day in the confessional and for his ability to read the consciences of his penitents. But despite the fact that he was well-known all over France, he strongly resisted secular fame, lived a strict and ascetic personal life, and rejected any insinuation that he might be responsible for the occasional miracles that seemed to result from his prayers for the sick and needy. Instead, he pointed to Saint Philomena. Who was Philomena?

On May 24, 1802, an examination of the catacomb of Saint Priscilla in Rome had unearthed a damaged inscription on a tomb. The broken skeleton of a teenage girl was found inside the tomb, and it appeared that the girl’s name was Philomena. The fact that a small vial (which had apparently contained blood) and a palm symbol were present on the tomb strongly indicated that she was a martyr. But no other information was found, and her relics were merely catalogued with those of many other Catholics buried in the catacombs. A few years later, a priest came across the relics of Philomena and said that he experienced a feeling of “great joy”. Convinced that Philomena was a powerful saint in Heaven, he had her relics enshrined in a parish church in Italy. Miracles followed. Saint John was not the only person in the early nineteenth century who became convinced of the power of Saint Philomena’s prayers, but he was certainly one of the most famous and the most vocal in encouraging others to seek her intercession.

But this is not the first time that a holy (living) person has had a great devotion to a (deceased) saint of the Church and has directed all the credit for possible miracles toward that saint. For example, the humble Brother (now Saint) Andre Bessette (1845-1937) from Canada attributed the intercession of Saint Joseph for the many healing miracles that occurred when people asked for Andre’s prayers. A less well-known saint, Theodore of Sykeon in Turkey (d. 613), had a great devotion to the early Church martyr Saint George and was known as a miracle worker; Theodore’s prayers even healed the emperor’s son from leprosy on one occasion. Saint Gemma Galgani, a young woman who lived in nineteenth century Italy, claimed that Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (a saint from her own hometown) interceded for her miraculous cure from spinal tuberculosis. Which saint was responsible for those inexplicable events?

In some ways, to ask whether it was Saint John or Philomena who was the true miracle worker is a ridiculous question. As Fr. Rutler and any good Catholic could easily point out, the saints are just human beings have no supernatural power of their own. Our requests for help from any saint in Heaven rests on the simple fact that that saint is in Heaven, looking upon the face of God. As we Catholics have to explain to our Protestant brothers and sisters, we ask for the saints to help us precisely because they are closer to God than we are, not because they are gods themselves.

Perhaps the Church has already discovered the best way to settle this situation, as it does in every canonization process. The Church waits until after the death of a person and examines the “fruits” of that person’s life, both before and after death, before making a statement about whether the person was holy or not. Although the pope can waive the requirement for a miracle to raise a holy person from the rank of Venerable to Blessed and to Saint, the requirement is there for a reason. If, for example, a woman gave birth to her child, saw that her son was not breathing, and then prayed fervently and incessantly for a particular deceased bishop to intercede with God to save her child from death, and then if that child inexplicably woke up after not breathing for an hour, one would have good reason to believe that the bishop she called upon was already in Heaven. That’s what happened to Bonnie Engstrom, and that’s why we should have good reason to believe that Venerable Fulton Sheen will be named Blessed Fulton Sheen at some point.

Unfortunately, like Fulton Sheen, Philomena is not officially Saint Philomena in the eyes of the Church yet. That is, she is not listed in the Martyrologium Romanum, the official calendar of saints and blesseds in the Church. After all, it is difficult to be certain of her status as a martyr based solely on strong feelings, an image of a palm branch, and an empty vial.

But to focus on whether or not Philomena is a canonized saint is to miss an important question: why does God permit miracles to occur when we call upon the names of holy men and women in the first place? When God allows a baby to come back to life, a sick person to recover from a fatal illness, a teenager to get out of his hospital bed after a deadly accident, right after someone has begged for Saint John or Philomena or Fulton to beg the Lord for healing for their loved one, then He is teaching us important lessons about holiness. He is reminding us that death is not the end for a Christian and that saints still care about and love us even from Heaven. And perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is that we should want to walk in the footsteps of these holy men and women, lead holy lives, and beg the Lord to rain down miracles when we (God willing) get to Heaven.

Saint John Vianney and Philomena, pray for us!