The Hidden Saint Mark

Statue of Saint Mark the Evangelist, located in the colonnade of Saint Peter’s Square in Rome
All images used are from Wikimedia Commons

We call the Gospel of Mark the Gospel of Mark for a simple reason: the most ancient copies of that document are titled “According to Mark”. But what do we really know about the human author whom we call Saint Mark the Evangelist?

Like all the Gospel writers, Saint Mark is commonly portrayed in art (see images above) as either reading or writing the book that he wrote—though he wrote it with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course. While modern scholars may debate the authorship of some books of the New Testament, Mark is widely acknowledged as the human author of the book that bears his name.

While that Gospel teaches us many things about Jesus Christ, it does not tell us anything directly about its author or how he came to know so much about our Savior. Unlike Matthew and John, Mark does not appear in the list of the names of the Twelve apostles. Since the author of the Gospel of Luke is believed to be the same Luke who traveled with the Apostle Saint Paul, it is commonly suggested that Mark is the same John Mark who later traveled with Saints Paul and Barnabas (Acts 12:25), although that collaboration did not end well (see Acts 15:36-41). However, the mother of that same John Mark was named Mary, and she was apparently a supporter of the early Church. After all, when Saint Peter was miraculously released from prison by an angel, he came to her house to speak with the Christian community that was hiding there (Acts 12:12-17).

That Biblical connection between John Mark’s family and Peter is the reason that scholars have proposed an interesting theory about the source for the contents of the Gospel of Mark. According to this theory, Mark became a traveling companion and assistant to Peter. After Jesus’ Resurrection, Peter journeyed from place to place, telling of his personal experience of following Jesus Christ during our Lord’s three-year-long public ministry and bringing people to conversion. As his secretary, Mark wrote down Peter’s stories, which he had probably heard many, many times. Thus the Gospel of Saint Mark is, according to this theory, almost the Gospel of Saint Peter: that is, a compilation of the preaching of Saint Peter as arranged by Mark. This theory can be seen in a recent translation of the Gospel of Mark by Michael Pakaluk. Titled The Memoirs of Saint Peter, Pakaluk’s translation, with its urgent, blunt tone, makes it seem very plausible that the Gospel of Mark was indeed based on the words of a simple fisherman-turned-street preacher.

The Prophet Ezekiel, who lived in the sixth century BC, received many visions. In one of his most famous visions, he saw four fantastical creatures, living beings who had the form of men but who had wings and four faces. On each creature, one of its faces looked like a man, one looked like a lion, one looked like an ox, and one looked like an eagle. (See also the four living creatures described in Rev. 4:7-8.) For various reasons, each of the four Gospels have been associated with one of those four face shapes for many centuries.

The Gospel of Mark is associated with the symbol of a lion. You can see that lion in all of the images above, although the lion is hiding at Mark’s feet in the example on the right. Perhaps the symbol of a lion seemed appropriate because Mark’s telling of the life of Christ is so vivid and almost abrupt. Mark uses the word “immediately” more than thirty times in his short Gospel.

There are some writings that claim to describe the life and actions of Mark himself, although some are more reliable than others. According to an ancient tradition, Mark brought the Good News to Alexandria, Egypt, established a church there, and became the archbishop of the city. During a time of persecution, he was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. Tradition says that he died a martyr while being dragged through the city of Alexandria.

Several centuries later, also according to tradition, Mark’s relics were translated to the great city of Venice, where he has been called upon as a patron for the city—and against the city’s many floods—ever since.

In this lifetime, we will never know most of the personal details we would like to know about Saint Mark. Only God knows how and when Mark became a Christian, whether his Gospel is based on Peter’s testimony or not, and whether he ever personally met Jesus Christ. But many people have wondered whether Mark did include a cameo appearance of himself in one scene described in chapter 14 (verses 50-52).

After Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospel records that all the disciples ran away—all except for one young man who followed as the Lord was taken away. That young man was wearing only a linen cloth, and when the guards tried to arrest him too, they only managed to grab the linen cloth. The young man escaped but was left naked. This detail has reminded Christians ever since of a different man—named Adam—who was naked in a garden and who listened to a snake rather than God.

Perhaps young Mark was ashamed that he did not try harder to save his Lord from death. Perhaps he thought his written record of the life of Christ would help others to believe. Whatever motivation Mark had for writing his Gospel, we can simply thank God, on Mark’s feast day of April 25, that he did.

Saint Mark, brave missionary and evangelist, pray for us!

The Real Story of Saint Patrick

Statue of Saint Patrick at the footstep of Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo, Ireland
All images are from Wikimedia Commons

The great Saint Patrick of Ireland is a larger-than-life figure who is known by millions, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Some of the stories that are commonly told about him can seem more like fiction than fact. Is it possible to separate fanciful Irish tales from the real fifth-century man?

Quite a few stories about Patrick’s life can be trusted, not only because of the number of early biographies that were written about him, but also because Patrick wrote one himself. Granted, The Confession of Saint Patrick does not give us all the details about his life that we would like. That’s simply because Patrick did not write it like a modern autobiography. However, it teaches us quite a lot about this amazing saint.

Patricius was born into a Catholic family, perhaps around the year 389, in the Roman territory of Britain. His father was a deacon. Pirates raided his community—a common occurrence in that time and place—and kidnapped him, along with others. The pirates sold their captives to pagans in Ireland, and sixteen-year-old Patrick found himself alone, far from home, and apparently doomed to spend the rest of his life as a slave.

Like many teenaged boys, Patrick had not given much thought to his Catholic faith in the past. But suffering brought him to his knees, as he found himself continually praying to God for answers, wisdom, and help. Patrick’s love for God grew as he prayed during the six long years of his enslavement. Finally, he heard a voice in his sleep one night, a voice which told him to be brave and get ready to return to his homeland.

Patrick ran away from his master, traveled 200 miles on foot to the coast, and, by God’s grace, found a boat that took him back to Britain. But now he discovered he was simply the slave of another group of people. These men forced him to travel with them and starve with them as they wandered in the wilderness. When his captors angrily complained about Patrick’s God, who did not seem to be helping them, Patrick told them to trust in God—and a herd of pigs suddenly appeared, providing them with a source of food that lasted for days.

Eventually, Patrick was able to return to his family. He was happy at first, but he continued to have visions of the people he had left behind in Ireland. An inner call to rescue those people from ignorance of God became too strong, and he traveled to France, which was famous at the time for the devotion and holiness of its monks. Patrick lived as a monk for at least one decade, perhaps two. But then he was sent to Rome to ask permission to pursue his next great call: to serve the Irish people as a missionary. Pope Saint Celestine I ordained him a bishop and sent him back to Ireland.

Patrick being sent to Ireland by the pope

Patrick’s efforts to evangelize Ireland brought about massive conversions. During his decades in Ireland, he converted many pagans, built many churches, and established many monasteries. He also directly confronted the falsehoods of Druidic beliefs and personally evangelized Irish kings and chieftains.

Patrick preaching to the Irish kings

Did Patrick’s former slavemaster intentionally burn down his own house when he heard Patrick was coming? Did Patrick really chase all the snakes out of Ireland? Did he really use a shamrock to explain the Trinity (a theological approach which is now frowned upon and technically termed modalism)?

Those tales might be just tales. But Patrick’s actual accomplishments are far more remarkable than those minor details.

Patrick returned to Ireland as a grown man, but still a former slave. Even though he returned with Christian companions, he could have been enslaved again. However, no one apparently thought of trying such a thing with Patrick.

Those six painful years of slavery had prepared him for his return just as much as had his years of monastic life. From his time among the Irish people, Patrick had come to understand their language, their religion, and their government. He could therefore speak to the ordinary people about Christ, confront the Druids like a Christian Moses, and explain Christian theology to Irish leaders. Patrick successfully evangelized an entire people—converting a culture without destroying their world—before his death in 461, a remarkable accomplishment in the history of the Catholic Church.

But he did not do this alone. Patrick traveled the countryside of Ireland, going from town to town with companions. Those companions included, among others: an assistant bishop, a chamberlain, a sacristan, a bellringer, a chariot driver, a bodyguard, a cowherd, blacksmiths, masons, and embroideresses. This Catholic household supported Patrick as he evangelized, but it also helped him establish new Christian communities. The bellringer called people to hear him preach, since he had no church bells to call them. His chariot driver, Odran, gave his life for Patrick during an attack. His bodyguard was, obviously, a bodyguard, for Patrick was not naive about the dangers of confronting false gods and their followers.

The Bell of Saint Patrick

Patrick’s famous autobiography indicates another reason he was so successful as an evangelist: his knowledge of the Word of God. The Confession is full of phrases and passages from both the Old and New Testaments, passages that Patrick clearly knew by heart and relied upon both for his own prayer life and also to lead others to conversion. The Word of God, after all, is the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:15).

As described in my book, The Leaven of the Saints, Church history is full of stories about great saints who were so successful in evangelizing a particular people that they later became known as the Apostle to that people. People may argue about how the snakes really left Ireland. But no one can argue that Patrick is the Apostle of Ireland and one of the greatest apostles in the history of Christianity.

The Great Saint Patrick of Ireland

Fra Angelico, Artist and Saint

Possible portrait of Fra Angelico
All images used are from Wikimedia Commons

The world knows him as Fra Angelico, one of the greatest painters of the early Renaissance. The Catholic Church calls him Blessed John of Fiesole, a Dominican friar who was known not only for his artistic ability but also for his holiness.

We only know bits and pieces about most of his life story, particularly his childhood. Most sources agree that his father’s name was Pietro, that he was born in a small town in Italy, probably around the year 1387, and that he was given the name of Guido at his birth. According to tradition, when he and his brother Benedetto were young men, they were so inspired by the preaching of a famous Dominican priest that they decided to enter that order.

It appears that Guido and Benedetto had already received some training as artists, almost certainly at nearby Florence, which was widely known at the time as an artistic center. Benedetto later became known as a painter of miniatures. When the two young men entered the Dominican order and became friars, Guido took the name in religious life of Giovanni (John, in English).

Unfortunately, Italy was not a peaceful place in the early fifteenth century. More than one man claimed to be the pope, and disputes between the Church and civic leaders repeatedly caused unrest and violence. There was also an outbreak of the plague. For several years, Giovanni and the other members of his community were forced to move to various towns for their safety. But the Dominicans quickly recognized his talents and assigned him the task of decorating the various friaries and churches wherever he lived. The painting below is one of his early works, one of the few that have not been lost over time.

Blessing Redeemer (1423)

One of Giovanni’s assignments was to paint devotional images in the cells of the friars. How would you like to have the image below on the wall of your bedroom? Unsurprisingly, at least one of the convents decorated by Fra Angelico has been turned into an art museum.

The Transfiguration

Before long, Friar Giovanni had become a widely known and respected fresco artist, and other members of his community were members of his workshop, which created artworks as small as illuminated missals and as large as frescoes on church walls. While living in Florence, GIovanni painted one of his most famous works, the San Marco Altarpiece (below). Art historians often note its use of perspective and metaphor, but it is also contains Dominican themes and contemporary political symbols. The latter is not surprising since it was paid for by the wealthy and powerful Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder.

San Marco Altarpiece

Giovanni worked for popes as well. Near the end of his life, he completed one of his greatest achievements: the decoration of a chapel in the Vatican with scenes from the life of Saint Laurence (see one scene below). Even though Giovanni used gold and expensive colors (to please his wealthy patron), the image helps us see the Christian love of the poor, which Saint Laurence exemplified.

Saint Laurence distributing alms

All of his works can be admired by specialists for their artistic ability and their influence on future artists. But even those of us who are not art historians can admire the beauty and the atmosphere of peace and serenity that he conveys in his paintings. He was not nicknamed Fra Angelico (meaning, the angelic brother) simply because he sometimes painted images of the heavenly court or because he lived a virtuous life. His paintings seem to take you to a world where angels dwell.

However, as Blessed John of Fiesole, his extraordinary life followed the same path of every ordinary follower of Christ. He recognized God’s call to a particular vocation, learned from others how to live out that vocation, and slowly developed skills throughout his lifetime. It was probably just as difficult for him to obey his bosses (his Dominican superiors) and keep calm when reading the latest political news as it is for us today. But all his life prepared him for the same destination that awaits all of us: the day we face judgement before Jesus Christ. May we face that day with the same peace, serenity, and trust in God that we see in the works of Fra Angelico.

San Marco, Florence, The Day of Judgement
The self-portrait at the top of this article is taken from the painting above, which is called The Preaching of the Antichrist. It was painted by Luca Signorelli, who, according to tradition painted himself and his fellow painter, Fra Angelico, in the bottom left.

Saint Paul’s Conversion and the Eucharist

The Conversion of St. Paul,
Wikimedia Commons

Shocked by survey results showing that the majority of Catholics don’t understand Church teaching on the Eucharist, the US bishops launched a Eucharistic Revival in 2022. This will lead up to a nationwide eucharistic congress in July of 2024. For that reason, 2024 is the perfect year for us to try to develop a better grasp of the Catholic understanding of Jesus’ Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

Of course, the idea that the Son of God makes Himself present to us in the sacramental species of bread and wine is a marvelous mystery beyond our comprehension. But we should still try.

While every saint recognized by the Catholic Church has a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament (or he or she would not be declared a saint), few saints’ lives explain Catholic teaching on the Blessed Sacrament better than the great apostle, Saint Paul. His conversion is celebrated every year on January 25, making him one of the few saints with more than one feast day on the Church’s calendar. (His other feast day is June 29, which he shares with Saint Peter.)

Saul was a devout Jew, and he thought the claims of Christianity were blasphemous, so blasphemous that he asked for permission to hunt down Christians and take them to Jerusalem to be tried and condemned to death (see Acts 8:3). Chapter 9 of Acts describes Saul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus Christ as he was traveling on the road to Damascus. It explains how Saul was struck blind during the vision and had to be led into the city by his guards, as well as how a Christian follower named Ananias endangered his life (out of his obedience to Christ) by praying over the great persecutor of Christians. Instead of having Ananias arrested for praying in the name of Jesus, Saul was cured of his blindness and became a Christian.

But what does this experience have to do with Catholic teaching on the Eucharist?

The first similarity is that the Saul who traveled toward Damascus and the Saul who was miraculously healed looked exactly the same. After all, he was completely cured of his inability to see, with apparently no physical after effects. He did have witnesses—the soldiers who were with him—but they only heard a voice and didn’t see the vision that Saul claimed to have experienced.

Just as there were no outward signs of a transformation in Saul’s heart, so there are (usually) no outward signs of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see particularly CCC, 1373-1375) explains the Catholic teaching about the Eucharist, God’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament will always remain a mystery of faith, not something we can test with a microscope, telescope, or some other random scientific instrument. Occasionally, God does perform a eucharistic miracle that we can see or touch. But the proof of the miracle in Saul’s heart came later, for example when he changed his name to Paul so that he might better reach Gentiles with the Gospel message.

Many years after his conversion, probably around the year 60 A.D., Paul traveled to Jerusalem. He did this even though he knew that his life would be in danger from angry Jewish leaders. A riot even broke out when his enemies circulated a false rumor that he had brought a Gentile into the Temple. Knowing that his life hung in the balance, Paul tried to calm the outraged crowd by relating his Damascus conversion experience again (see Acts, chapters 21 and 22). He repeated the words that Christ said to him—”Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting”—along with Jesus’ instructions to go to Damascus.

Faced with the greatest opportunity of his life to preach the Gospel to Jews, Paul didn’t give his listeners a dry theology lesson. Instead, he shared a personal experience, his own encounter with Jesus Christ.

Every Catholic who has received the Blessed Sacrament should be able to do the same. Hopefully we can all describe the great peace we have experienced from time to time after receiving Communion at a Sunday Mass. We can explain how we went to a church to pray during a difficult time and felt God’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, bringing us wisdom, calm, clarity, a sense of fatherly comfort, or at least a new perspective on our problems. Fortunately, we do not need to travel to Syria to have an encounter with Jesus, as Paul did, because our Lord is as close as the nearest Catholic church.

Finally, all four Gospels include a description of the Last Supper. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke also describe what is commonly called the “institution narrative”, the sequence of events in which Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (probably written around 56 A.D.), he also recites the institution narrative, which he had not witnessed but which he had been taught. Paul relates that Jesus said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me (1 Cor 11:24).”

The words that Paul was taught to say as a Catholic priest in the first century are the same words that we hear at every Mass. His conversion event led him to recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God, but it was only through prayer, study, and being taught by others that he was able to accept the mystery of the Eucharist and share it.

Like Saint Paul, we can recognize that Jesus’ Presence in the Blessed Sacrament is an invisible gift that can transform our lives if we allow Him to do so. We can share our personal experiences of God’s peace through the sacrament with other people. We can humbly attempt to better understand Church teaching by reading the Catechism or other Catholic books about the Eucharist. And we can be thankful that we didn’t need to be struck blind to find out that God loves us and comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament at every Mass.

Charles de Foucauld: Not Your Typical Saint

Saint Charles de Foucauld,
Wikimedia Commons

On December 1, the Church remembers Saint Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). Charles was such an obvious candidate for canonization that it’s surprising that he was not beatified until 2005 and canonized until 2022.

After all, he was respected even by his Muslim neighbors when he died as a hermit in the African desert, and his writings have inspired many Catholics since his death. But Charles’ life was full of many twists and turns.

Charles Eugène, vicomte de Foucauld, was born in Strasbourg, France, and seemed to have all the advantages of life at the time of his birth. His family was wealthy, noble, and could trace its ancestry back to the Middle Ages. But his mother and father both died when he was only six years old, along with one of his grandmothers, and Charles and his younger sister were raised by their maternal grandparents. He was befriended by an older cousin, Marie Moitessier, when he was ten years old and remained close to her for the rest of his life. Marie was a devout young woman, and she recognized that Charles’ behavior as a child—his tendency to hide, frequent tantrums, and laziness in his studies—was merely a cover for his grief over the loss of his parents.

Although his grandparents meant well and raised Charles and his sister in the Catholic faith, they indulged the children as well. With little supervision or almost no discipline in his life, Charles lost his faith when he was an adolescent. Explanations for the Christian faith seemed to have no meaning to him, particularly after he had been exposed to secular philosophy through his voracious reading.

Entranced by the ongoing political struggle between France and Germany at the time, young Charles patriotically decided to pursue a military career. Although he had been expelled from one boarding school for laziness, he somehow managed to be admitted to a military academy. Since his grandfather had just died and left him his entire estate, Charles had plenty of money to spend on food and parties while he was at the academy. He did manage to graduate, but only as 333rd out of a class of 386.

A few years later, he was sent to Algeria. Charles fell in love with the desert and with the native people. However, he was also overweight, chronically tardy and lazy, and engaged in a very public affair with a Parisian dancer. He was dismissed and sent back to France, only to return to service soon afterward in Tunisia. He had discovered a love of geography, and, after returning to France again, he planned an expedition to Morocco, an area which was considered off-limits and dangerous to westerners at the time. Charles’ journey through the Sahara, with the aid of a Muslim guide, earned him the reputation of a great explorer, and his written account won him an award from the Geographical Society of Paris.

After his famous trip, Charles returned to Paris. He was twenty-eight years old, and his family had already placed legal restrictions on his inheritance to prevent him from continuing to spend all his money on his pleasures. They probably expected him to resume his dissipated life with even more wine, women, and song.

But the Hound of Heaven finally caught up with the passionate, intelligent young man. Charles’ adventures and mishaps had opened his mind to the truth and his heart to something other than his latest obsession. In characteristic fashion, Charles raced from the extreme of libertinism to a decision to become a Trappist monk. Few religious orders can come close to the asceticism practiced by the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as the Trappists.

Charles loved to pray, and he loved the Trappist life of poverty. But it wasn’t enough. He felt called to live more closely to the poor. He moved to Nazareth to serve a community of Poor Clares as a gardener and porter for several years. With the help of a French priest—who had been patiently directing the impulsive Charles for years—Charles was ordained a priest. Finally Charles believed he was ready for the vocation to which God was calling him: living as a hermit.

Taking the name of Charles of Jesus, he settled first in Beni Abbès, Algeria, and later in Tamanrasset, an oasis city in the mountains of Algeria. He set up his hermitage near the Tuareg people, an native ethnic group of Muslims. He learned their language and wrote a dictionary and book of grammar. He established friendships with his nomadic neighbors. He shared food and supplies with the needy who constantly came to his door. He became known and respected as a marabout, or holy guide, to the people of the region.

And he brought Jesus. When he established his hermitage, he knew that his tabernacle contained the only Presence of Jesus Christ in the Algerian desert. He spent hours each day adoring his Lord, interrupted only by his writing and his frequent visitors. The man who had been teased about being fat now ate so little that he lost his teeth and suffered the results of dietary deficiencies. And he waited for years, hoping for conversions from the native peoples which, sadly, did not come.

On December 1, 1916, tribal raiders broke into Charles’ hermitage and attempted to kidnap him for ransom. Soldiers arrived, however, whom the raiders shot and killed. Charles was accidentally shot as well. His Tuareg friends buried his body.

Since his death, Charles’ writings have inspired many to try to love as he loved. His witness has given birth to thirteen religious communities, five lay associations, two secular institutes, and one society of apostolic life. Through his writings and the story of his life, he continues to inspire Catholics all over the world.

While many Catholics have undergone profound conversions from a life of vice to a life of virtue—such as the famous Saint Augustine of Hippo—and later become saints, Charles is far from typical. Even after he abandoned a life devoted to pleasure, he struggled with obedience to his superiors. He was often carried away by his grand dreams. He seemed to fail in his goal to bring the Tuaregs to Christ. But Charles de Foucauld died to himself and to his own desires in order to let Christ live in him, and, in that, he was a perfectly typical saint.

Praying for the Poor Souls with Saint Gertrude the Great

Saint Gertrude of Helfta,
Wikimedia Commons

Each year on November 2, the Church invites us to pray for all the faithful departed who have not yet entered into Heaven. Now commonly called the poor souls in Purgatory, these are the baptized men, women, and children who have died, desire to spend eternity with God, and need to be purified of their faults before entering into Heaven. (Find out more in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1020-1060.)

How can Saint Gertrude the Great (c. 1256-c. 1302) help us pray for those who have already left this world, both those we know and those we don’t? Before we learn about Gertrude’s prayer, we should learn about her life.

Gertrude was five years old when she was sent to be educated by nuns in Eisleben, Germany. There is much we don’t know about her early years, such as her parents’ names and whether the nuns were members of the Benedictine order or the Cistercian order. But it was a common practice for noble families to send their children to monastic schools, and Gertrude appears to have enjoyed her life among the nuns. After all, she chose to stay and be professed as a nun herself when she grew up.

From a purely intellectual perspective, Gertrude had good reasons to be happy at the Monastery of Helfta. Her teachers quickly realized she was an intelligent student. The convent library contained both religious works and secular writings, and she happily studied both as a young nun.

Gertrude made friends at the monastery too. One of the nuns in particular had befriended her when she was young, and that friendship became a friendship of equals when Gertrude grew up. But Saint Mechtilde of Helfta (c. 1241-c. 1298), as she is now known, was more than just a nun. She was a humble woman with a love of prayer, and she shared her mystical experiences with Gertrude. Unbeknownst to Mechtilde, Gertrude faithfully recorded all Mechtilde’s visions, though she only told Mechtilde about it near the end of her life. Mechtilde’s spiritual writings were later collected and published as The Book of Special Grace.

But one does not become a nun for the sake of making friends or reading books. One day when Gertrude was twenty-six years old and was praying, our Lord appeared and spoke to her. She called this pivotal moment her conversion, although the devout young nun was not living a life of sin. But it certainly converted her to a life of wholehearted love for Jesus Christ.

Gertrude set aside her study of secular works and devoted herself to the study of the Bible, the liturgy, the Fathers of the Church, and other great theologians. She received many visions, which she tried to understand with the mind of the Church. She wrote down her insights to share with her sisters, and she composed prayers that inspired the whole community.

The image of Saint Gertrude at the top of this article shows her with a book (representing her Scriptural studies and her own writings) and her rosary and crucifix (representing her love of God and prayer), with her monastery in the background. The depiction of Jesus Christ hidden in her heart reminds us of the details from one of her visions, but it also points to Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which she promoted almost four centuries before Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. One detail in this image—and in almost every image of Saint Gertrude—is apparently wrong. She is often shown holding a crozier, the shepherd’s crook that indicates the position of abbess. Gertrude was apparently not an abbess, but the woman who was her abbess was named Gertrude, which later led to confusion.

Many prayers are popularly attributed to Saint Gertrude. Some of them were written by her, but others were written by members of her community. If any of those prayers inspire us to pray more deeply to God, Gertrude and her nuns would not be concerned about who gets the credit for composing them.

But she really did write this famous prayer:

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal Church, for those in my own home and within my family. AMEN.

Some say that Gertrude taught that praying this prayer would release a thousand souls from Purgatory. Perhaps that’s the case when Gertrude prayed it. For the rest of us, it is enough to pray it as fervently as possible for those who can no longer pray for themselves and to trust that God hears us, particularly on All Souls’ Day.

The Miracles of Pope Saint John Paul II

Pope John Paul II, Yankee Stadium, 1979
Wikimedia Commons

He filled Yankee Stadium when he visited America in 1979. Five million people showed up when he led World Youth Day in 1995 in Manila in the Philippines. Is it possible to say anything new about a pope who has been personally seen by millions of people during one of the longest reigns in papal history?

Yes, there is much more to say about Pope Saint John Paul II. His gifts were remarkable, and his accomplishments were legendary. And some parts of his life story are certainly miraculous.

Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920. His mother died when he was eight years old, his brother died when he was twelve, and his father died when he was twenty-one. That left him, in 1941, alone in Kraków during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II.

During the occupation, the Nazis arrested and deported Jews and minorities to concentration camps, but they also killed all those who were educated or who might fight back. Universities were closed, and men were required to have a job or face deportation to the camps. Although Karol continued to study at home at night, by day he experienced the brutal conditions of working in a chemical factory and a limestone quarry. In one year alone, he was also struck and seriously injured by a tram on one occasion and a truck on another.

He had discerned that God was calling him to the priesthood, not an acting career. So, rather than sit around and wait for the end of the war, he risked his life by studying in an underground seminary. He was ordained after the end of the war, becoming a beloved priest to his people but facing constant persecution from the communist government. His natural gifts and hard work helped him rise in the Church hierarchy—aided by the need for priests since so many had been martyred during the war—and he soon learned how to effectively respond to government surveillance and personal threats. He was a cardinal when Pope John Paul I was elected, and he thought he had escaped the burden of the papacy. But when that pope died a month later, Karol appears to have recognized that his turn had finally come.

During his papacy, Pope John Paul II narrowly survived an assassination attempt. He faced resistance from members of his own hierarchy who saw him as an outsider. He was vilified by the secular media and Western intelligentsia who ridiculed faith, truth, God, and the pope. Before his death, he suffered a slow and very visible physical decline from Parkinson disease.

What keeps an orphaned twenty-one-year-old from turning to despair during a brutal war? How can a priest in a communist country keep his faith when he knows he could be arrested, tortured, and imprisoned at any moment for no reason at all? How does a world leader forgive insults without appearing weak?

Those were the dramatic challenges that John Paul faced and overcame, all through his faith in God. However, we must remember that John Paul’s survival through so many dangers are merely remarkable coincidences, not technically miraculous. After all, according to Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary, a miracle is: “A sensibly perceptible effect, surpassing at least the powers of visible nature, produced by God to witness to some truth or testify to someone’s sanctity.”

But the Vatican did approve two categorical miracles, events that can only be explained as as a testimony to the power of the late pope’s intercession.

In 2001, a French nun named Sister Marie Pierre was diagnosed with Parkinson disease. While her own health declined, she watched the pope publicly suffering from the same symptoms she was experiencing. This was so painful that she stopped watching the pope’s appearances on television. But two months after the pope had died, she prayed, asking for John Paul to intercede for her. The next day, she discovered that she had recovered the ability to write. Soon she realized—and the doctors concurred—that she was completely cured.

Three months after the French sister’s healing was approved by the Vatican, a fifty-year-old wife and mother from Costa Rica, Floribeth Mora Diaz, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain aneurysm. She was told that she would die within a month, and the doctors even sent her home to die. But Floribeth prayed for John Paul’s intercession for her healing, hoping to live for the sake of her children. On May 1, 2011, she watched the beatification ceremony for John Paul, and she woke up the next morning feeling healthy again. Repeated tests confirmed that she was inexplicably free of any sign of the deadly brain aneurysm.

Miracles really do happen. We can be thankful that God heard and answered the prayers of the late pope for these two suffering women. But we can also be thankful that He did not allow a tram, a truck, the secret police, or an assassin to keep us all from encountering a truly great Catholic man.

Padre Pio and the Wounds of Christ

Padre Pio, Wikimedia Commons

Most Catholics have heard of Padre Pio, and many of those Catholics know a lot about him.

They know that he was born Francesco Forgione in Pietrelcina, Italy, in 1887, that he became a Franciscan priest, that he received the stigmata, and that he had become internationally known as a holy man by the time of his death on September 23, 1968. But there are many facts that most people don’t know about the man now called Saint Pio of Pietrelcina.

People often forget that Francesco grew up in a peasant family during tough times. His father had to travel to America—like so many other Italians around the turn of the twentieth century—because of unemployment and economic instability in Italy. His parents, recognizing their son’s devotion, particularly needed money to provide for Pio’s education, which was essential if he was going to join the Franciscan order, which is what he believed God was calling him to do.

Even as a child, Pio suffered from constant medical problems. Vomiting, diarrhea, fever, migraines, insomnia, fainting—he experienced these conditions repeatedly throughout his life. After he entered the Capuchin Franciscan order as a young man, he was sent to different friaries, but each time he crossed the threshold of a new one, he became so ill that doctors often sent him home. His body temperature was recorded at 120°F and higher; for most people, a fever of 107°F is considered fatal.

In hindsight, some have proposed that there was a preternatural cause for Pio’s unusual symptoms; that is, the evil one recognized how many souls would be saved if this Italian teenager devoted his life to Jesus Christ as a priest and was trying to deter him. Padre Pio led many wandering souls back to Christ through the confessional during his lifetime, even though he sometimes seemed harsh with penitents who tried to skip over some of their sins during confession.

In 1925, Padre Pio started his first hospital in an abandoned convent with just a few beds and a small clinic. From that simple beginning, a large hospital gradually arose in San Giovanni Rotondo, all under Pio’s guidance. The hospital’s budget gradually rose too, which is why Pope Pius XII had to grant Pio a dispensation of his Franciscan vow of poverty. That was necessary so that the friar could oversee the administration of the hospital. But it was the experience of his own many illnesses that gave him such compassion for all who were sick.

One of the most famous aspects of Pio’s life is also one of the most misunderstood. From his earliest days as a Franciscan, other friars noticed inexplicable mystical phenomena occurring when Pio prayed. Many of his brother Franciscans later testified that they saw Pio levitate, fall into ecstasies, accurately predict future events, bilocate, and go without sleep and food (except for the Eucharist) for days at a time. In 1918, when he was only thirty-one years old, he received what is perhaps the most remarkable mystical gift: the stigmata, that is, the wounds of Christ.

Multiple medical doctors performed examinations of the wounds on Pio’s hands and feet for decades, but no natural cause could ever be determined. When Pio cut himself accidentally, for example, that wound would heal normally. So why didn’t his hands and feet do the same?

While it is easy for people today, Catholic or not, to claim that past reports of the stigmata simply hadn’t been scientifically investigated, Pio’s wounds certainly were. Doctors who examined Pio went away shrugging their shoulders, unable to explain where his wounds came from and why they wouldn’t heal. They also could not explain how Pio could survive on his self-imposed starvation diet, lose a cup of blood every day, and not even be anemic.

Saint Francis of Assisi is commonly accepted as the first person to have received the stigmata. This event occurred on September 17, 1224, two years before Francis died. Since that famous day, there have been many people who have claimed to receive the stigmata as well. While it is obvious that some have been liars or something worse (see Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s A Still, Small Voice), many others have claimed to receive the wounds of Christ and have lived holy lives. The table below lists men and women who have been canonized or beatified by the Church and who received these wounds, as verified by witnesses. Some, like Saint Rita of Cascia, received the marks of Jesus’ Crown of Thorns on their heads. Some, like Saint Catherine of Siena, could feel the wounds in their hands and feet, but they were not visible. Others, like Francis and Pio, bled from wounds that vividly remind every Catholic of Jesus Christ and His Crucifixion.

But the most important question to ask when considering the life of Saint Pio or any of these other holy men and women is: Why? Why would our Lord permit someone who loves Him to suffer so much?

To ask the question is to know the answer. The Lord loves us so profoundly that He chose to suffer and die on the Cross for us. Men and women like Pio, Francis, Rita, and Catherine learned to see suffering as a sign that they were drawing close to Christ, and they were able to rejoice, even in their pain, because of God’s presence in their souls.

While the rest of us may or may not receive amazing mystical gifts, we can trust that our Lord is present in our wounds and our trials, just as He was for Padre Pio.

Birth-DeathSaints and Blesseds Who Received the Stigmata
1181-1226Saint Francis of Assisi; founder of the Franciscan order; Italy.*
d. c. 1290Blessed Ida of Louvain; Cistercian nun; Belgium.
1242-1312Blessed Christina of Stommeln; Beguine nun, Germany.
1347-1380Saint Catherine of Siena; third order Dominican, Italy.*
1386-1457Saint Rita of Cascia; widow and Augustinian nun; Italy.*
1386-1480Blessed Elizabeth Achler; third order Franciscan; Switzerland.
1443-1503Blessed Maddalena Panattieri; Sisters of Penitence nun; Italy.
1449-1505Blessed Osanna Andreasi; Dominican Sisters of Penance nun; Italy.
1457-1530Blessed Stephana de Quinzani; third order Dominican; Italy.
1476-1544Blessed Lucy Broccadelli; third order Dominican; Italy.
1486-1547Blessed Catarina Mattei; third order Dominican; Italy.
1522-1590Saint Catherine de’ Ricci; third order Dominican; Italy.
1560-1640Blessed Maria of Jesus López de Rivas; Discalced Carmelite nun; Spain.
1606-1670Blessed Giovanna Maria Bonomo; Benedictine nun; Italy.
1613-1670Saint Charles of Sezze; Franciscan religious brother; Italy.
1660-1727Saint Veronica (Ursula) Giuliani; Capuchin Poor Clare nun; Italy.*
1715-1791Saint Maria Francesca of the Five Wounds of Jesus (Anna Maria) Gallo; third order Franciscan; Italy.
1774-1824Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich; Augustinian canoness regular; Germany.
1846-1878Saint Mary of Jesus Crucified Baouardy; Carmelite nun; Palestine.*
1878-1905Saint Gemma Galgani; laywoman; Italy,*
1882-1925Saint Anna Schäffer; laywoman; Germany.
1876-1926Saint Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan; Sisters of the Holy Family; India.
1880-1952Blessed Edvige Carboni; third order Franciscan; Italy.
1895-1961Blessed Elena Aiello; Minim Sister; Italy.
1887-1968Saint Pio (Francesco) Forgione; Capuchin Franciscan priest; Italy.*
1924-1980Blessed Maria Bolognesi; laywoman; Italy.
* These saints’ biographies are included in Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s Love for the Mother of God

Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe
(photo taken in 1939),
Wikimedia Commons

Each year, my pastor reminds us parishioners that Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe (1894-1941) continues to make sacrifices for our Blessed Mother, decades after he died. After all, since he is commemorated by the Church on the date of his death, August 14, the celebration of his feast day is always cut short by the celebration of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary the evening before. Of course, if you know anything about Maximilian Kolbe, you know that he would not mind that the Blessed Mother takes precedence over part of his feast day.

For those who need a reminder, Saint Maximilian was a priest who died as a martyr in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. But there is much more to his biography than his martyrdom, and a great deal of his life story relates to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Although Maximilian was pious from a young age, he was a typical boy and sometimes misbehaved. His mischievous activities got him in trouble so many times that on one occasion his exasperated mother wondered out loud what would ever become of him if he didn’t change his ways. Stung by the criticism, Maximilian turned to Mary that night in his prayers, and he asked for her heavenly help.

Amazingly, Mary appeared to him. She offered him two crowns, one white and the other red, and told him to choose between them. Proving that Maximilian was always a bit of an overachiever, he chose both, signifying his desire for a life of purity as well as martyrdom.

Maximilian was only thirteen years old when he attended a retreat led by Conventual Franciscans, and he was so moved by what he heard that he decided to enter that order. By the time he was a young man, his superiors had noticed his obvious intelligence and leadership ability, and they sent him to Rome to complete his studies. Even Rome was sometimes chaotic during World War I, but Maximilian earned a couple of doctoral degrees and was ordained a priest while in the Eternal City. He was also inspired to organize a group that he called the Militia of the Immaculata. Maximilian’s plan was to create an “army” of Catholics devoted to praying for the conversion of sinners and those who considered themselves enemies of the Church. All the prayers of his pious army would be directed to God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Shortly after his ordination, Maximilian became ill with tuberculosis, an illness that forced him to stop his work as a seminary professor in Poland for a few years. But as soon as he had recovered from that potentially fatal condition, he jumped into another aggressive plan for the sake of Mary: he wanted to create entire cities devoted to promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother.

And so he did. In just a few years, Maximilian had established multiple communities that he called “Cities of the Immaculata.” Hundreds of friars under his direction printed materials which encouraged Marian devotion among the faithful. His cities started in Poland and spread all the way to Japan. At one point, the daily newspaper he had started reached a million Catholics.

But in 1939 the Nazi army invaded and occupied Poland. Maximilian and his friars were arrested, yet they were released a few months later. During the war, the buildings housing his printing apostolate also became a home for people from all religions and countries who had been displaced by the war.

On February 17, 1941, just hours after he had completed a comprehensive essay explaining the relationship between the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, Maximilian was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. He had been in the camp for only five months when he quietly offered to take the place of another man who had been condemned to death. He died a martyr of charity, saving one man’s life and gently preparing his three companions to meet their Maker in peace while they all slowly starved to death.

What does the life of Saint Maximilian Kolbe teach us? Among other things, his life is proof that, by God’s grace, the saints can profoundly affect the lives of people who live long after them.

Maximilian told others about his childhood dream of the two crowns, but it wasn’t until after his martyrdom that this prediction was proved true. While Maximilian’s initial inspiration for his Militia of the Immaculata occurred in 1917, it wasn’t until decades later that his public association of the faithful began to spread all over the world. One of the Marian cities he established was located in Nagasaki, Japan, and no one has been able to explain how Kolbe’s community survived the explosion of a nuclear bomb, a miracle which occurred four years after his death. His writings about the Blessed Mother, particularly his final essay, are still being studied and might eventually cause him to be named a Doctor of the Church. As is obvious with the greatest saints, God often allows His “favorites” to inspire others to desire greater holiness, even many years into the future.

How can we love the Mother of God with the heart of Saint Maximilian Kolbe? Just as he did, we can ask for her help from Heaven when we don’t know what to do. We can look for ways to encourage others to turn to her in prayer. And we can give all the credit for any good we do to God, through the intercession of the gentle and motherly Virgin Mary.

The Mistakes We Make about the Saints

Image from a medieval copy of
The Golden Legend

As I’ve been talking to people about my new book, I’ve noticed five mistakes that Catholics commonly make when they talk about the saints. And I can explain and debunk those errors using only saints who are celebrated in one week in the Church’s calendar during July.

The first common error is to assume that canonized saints are simply lucky people who happened to be born with superior spiritual gifts. According to this way of thinking, the only people who become saints are those who loved God and prayer almost from birth, were born into perfect, devout homes, and received natural gifts that made it easy for them to become holy.

Saint Camillus de Lellis

But that’s wrong. There have been plenty of saints who were public sinners. Saint Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614), whose feast day is celebrated on July 18 in the US, was a 6’ 6” tall Italian who became a soldier when he was only seventeen years old. For years, he indulged in all the worst addictions associated with his profession: gambling, drinking, and fighting. It wasn’t until he was seriously injured in battle and until he had literally gambled away the shirt off his back that his life hit rock bottom. But by God’s grace, his poverty brought him face to face with God, and he repented. Camillus spent the rest of his life caring for the sick, and he and his followers eventually became an entire religious order. But no one, particularly the young Camillus himself, thought he would end up as a saint.

Another common mistake is to be mesmerized by the miracles described in some saints’ lives. While there have been many holy men and women who developed reputations as healers, prophets, stigmatists, and mystics over the centuries, we should not let ourselves be so fascinated by these signs and wonders that we act as if miracles alone are proof of sanctity. There have been many saints who never performed a public miracle during their lifetimes.

Saints Louis and Zelie Martin

For example, look at Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, a nineteenth century French married couple who are celebrated jointly on July 12. What did they do that made them worthy of veneration by the universal Church? They practiced their faith. They taught their children to do the same. They turned toward God, rather than away from Him, when sickness and death touched their family. How unremarkable—but also remarkable! Even their daughter, the famous Doctor of the Church, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, was not considered a wonder worker at the time of her death.

On the other hand, some people veer in the opposite direction and seem embarrassed to acknowledge that miracles occur at all. After all, miracles can seem terribly unscientific to our modern world. But sometimes God does permit miracles in the lives of saints, perhaps as a way of keeping us from overlooking some of His favorite people.

Saint Francis Solano

Saint Francis Solano (1549-1610, feast day July 14) was born in Spain and became a Franciscan priest. He was a spiritual advisor to Saint Teresa of Avila and was known as an excellent preacher before he was sent to Lima, Peru, as a missionary. You might think that it would be difficult to preach the Gospel to people who speak many different languages and dialects, and Francis did work hard to learn their languages so that he could communicate with the native peoples. But he was so gifted in preaching to different tribes that it astonished both Spaniards and Peruvians. Witnesses were also dumbfounded by his (accurate) predictions of future events. Francis’ gifts of tongues and prophesies, combined with his Christlike love for the Peruvian people, helped him make bring many people to the faith.

The fourth common error about saints is the assumption that ordinary people, people like you and me, aren’t called to become saints at all. Maybe priests, nuns, and hermits receive such a call, but not ordinary members of the laity. Blessed Charles Emmanuel Rodriguez Santiago (1918-1963, feast day July 13), often called Charlie or Carlos, disproves that idea.

Blessed Charles Emmanuel Rodriguez Santiago

Charlie was born in Puerto Rico, suffered a serious illness while he was in high school, and had to drop out. But he was a voracious reader and taught himself about the Catholic faith, particularly the liturgy. Charlie, a mere layman, eventually founded magazines and led discussion groups dedicated to liturgical renewal—years before the Second Vatican Council—all while battling the health problems that finally took his life.

The final common error we make about saints is to ignore any stories about their lives that don’t sound like modern biographies.

Blessed Jacobus is depicted to the left in this Crucifixion scene.

On July 13, the Church celebrates Blessed Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230-1298), who was a Dominican preacher, theology professor, archbishop of Genoa, Italy, and author of The Golden Legend. Although often overlooked today, The Golden Legend was one of the most famous sources for saint biographies and descriptions of important Church feast days for many centuries. Why is it ignored now? As Butler’s Lives of the Saints[1]rather bluntly describes The Golden Legend:

“From the point of view of history it is entirely uncritical and worthless …But as a book of devotion, of edification, it is a superb work of art.”

The Golden Legend was never intended to be a modern historical biography; it was intended to introduce medieval Catholics to the saints in a way that would help them grow in their faith and love of God. It was highly successful for many generations of Catholics for that reason, even though its style and lack of historicity make it less approachable to us today.

Think about the last time you watched a movie about the life of a famous person. Did the show alter any details about person’s life? Of course it did. Storytellers often adapt a story to better communicate the key truths that they want their audience to learn. Blessed Jacobus also adapted his saint biographies to educate his readers about sanctity—and about how every Christian should live out the faith during their ordinary and sometimes extraordinary difficulties. 

The real truth about the saints is simply that they loved God. Whether they were rich or poor, successful or struggling, educated or illiterate, gifted or addicted, they gave everything over to Him. And He made them saints—just as He is ready to do for each one of us.

All images in this article can be found in Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Herbert J. Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Complete Edition, volume III (Notre Dame, Indiana: Christian Classics, 1956), 92.