January 17: A saint to help us fight the battles of our modern age

The scandals and sins of our modern age seem so, well, modern, that we might be tempted to think that the examples of people from past ages cannot help us. After all, how would the people who lived millennia ago been able to help us find solutions to problems like sexual promiscuity, consumerism, and mockery of all things Christian?

The saint celebrated by the Church on January 17, Saint Anthony the Great, could.

The Torment of Saint Anthony, Michelangelo,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anthony was born in Egypt in the year 251. Although Christianity was illegal in the Roman empire at the time, the persecution of Christians waxed and waned from time and place, so his wealthy Christian parents were able to safely raise him and his sister in the faith. When they died, Anthony was only a young man, although a very rich young man. Inspired by a few passages of the Gospels that were read at Mass and that God seemed to directly focus on him, he left everything behind to live in the desert. During the rest of his long life—he died at the age of 105—Anthony lived in extreme poverty, trained the Christian men who chose to follow him how to live lives of holy asceticism, fought demons, corresponded with emperors, survived possible martyrdom, converted crowds, performed miracles, and, to keep his hands busy, wove mats.

The image above, painted by a young Michelangelo many centuries after Anthony’s death, portrays one of the most famous stories of his life. As recounted by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria in his famous biography, Anthony soon learned that living in the desert was a true battle. Athanasius had already fought some famous battles with the Roman emperor when he, as bishop of Alexandria, refused to mouth the lies about Jesus Christ which are now known as the heresy of Arianism.

But the battles that Anthony faced as a young man were the same kind of battles faced by every young man and woman who has ever lived: the battles for purity and temperance. Just because Anthony lived in the desert, far away from elegant food, physical comforts, and lovely women, that didn’t mean the thoughts of them weren’t continually tempting him to run back to his former home. Anthony experienced these memories and imaginations as demons who continually taunted and tested him. Though Anthony had few visitors, even they reported that they could somehow see this battle occurring between Anthony and the devil. Obviously, Anthony ultimately won that battle and became a saint.

When Anthony was nearing the end of his life, the persecution of Christians erupted again in Egypt. Dressed in a sheepskin tunic—presumably a sign not only of his poverty but of the fact that he was a Christian monk—he entered the city to encourage the Christians living there to stand fast in their faith. Even the pagans were impressed with this amazing man from the desert. Why? Not only because his prayers resulted in miraculous healings in their midst or because of his great age. But because, having sought Jesus Christ for so long in silence, he was able to show even unbelievers the characteristics of God through his respectfulness, intelligence, charity, simplicity, and truth.

How did Anthony defeat the perennial human desire for sexual gratification, an unending yearning for more and more stuff, and the cowardice that leads us to abandon what we believe in when it threatens our comfort or even our life?

Anthony the Great,
Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut and Byblos,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The answer is shown in the tiny cross in Anthony’s hand in the Lebanese icon shown above. It is only the Cross of Jesus Christ that can help us, as it helped Anthony, discipline our unruly passions, be at peace with what God gives us, and speak truthfully and charitably about our faith to those who mistreat us. The Cross of Jesus Christ is the weapon of love that allows His followers to be victorious in every time and place.

Saint Anthony, help me remember to turn to the Cross of Christ in fighting my own spiritual battles.

To learn about other saints celebrated by the Church during the month of January, see this blog about saintly teachers.

The Proclamation of Christmas

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ

The Twenty-fifth Day of December,

when ages beyond number had run their course
from the creation of the world,

when God in the beginning created heaven and earth,
and formed man in his own likeness;

when century upon century had passed
since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood,
as a sign of covenant and peace;

in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith,
came out of Ur of the Chaldees;

in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses
in the Exodus from Egypt;

around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;

in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;

in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;

in the year seven hundred and fifty-two
since the foundation of the City of Rome;

in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,
the whole world being at peace,

JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence,
was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and when nine months had passed since his conception,
was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah,
and was made man:

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

See the USCCB’s liturgical calendar

December: A brief history of saints in the Church

Orioli, Pietro di Francesco degli; The Nativity with Saints; The National Gallery, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-nativity-with-saints-115777

When our Lord died, He did not formally establish a canon of sacred writings, explicitly define canon law, or establish a process for the canonization of saints. He didn’t even write a Gospel. He established a Church to do that. Why God decided to put human beings in charge of these important matters is a mystery, but He knew what He was doing, and, after all, He understands grace better than we do.

After Pentecost, the Catholic Church certainly wasn’t occupied with establishing a canonization process; it was occupied with the God-given task of spreading the Gospel. But it didn’t take long for Catholics to start honoring deceased Catholics, starting with the Twelve Apostles and other early leaders and continuing with the many martyrs under Roman persecution. The Church calendar of saints in December provides an excellent overview of the history of canonization, that is, the process the Church has developed over the millennia to name individuals as saints.

The Jewish Prophet Nahum is commemorated by the Church on December 1, followed by five other Jewish prophets—Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi, and Micah—throughout the month. All of these men not only inspired their Jewish countrymen to a greater faith in God, they predicted that God would come to save His people (whether or not they perfectly understood how He would do that). For example, read Nahum 1:15, Habakkuk, ch. 3, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Haggai 2:7, Malachi 3:1, and Micah 5:2-5. Although the Church does not recognize these Jewish men with the title of “saint”, it does recognize their prophetic witness to the God-Man, Jesus Christ, though they never met Him face to face.

Christian martyrs were the first ones to be recognized by their fellow Christians as holy men and women, but that didn’t start with the Roman emperor Nero’s official persecution of Christians which began in A.D. 64. After all, the great Saint Paul writes of his repeated brushes with death and persecution from Jewish opponents in his letters. But the greatest persecution of Christians clearly lasted over the two centuries between the time of the Emperor Nero’s prohibition and the Emperor Constantine’s edict which ended the persecution in the year 313.

The persecution of Christians was resumed several decades later by the Emperor Julian (often called “the Apostate” because he was raised Christian and became virulently anti-Catholic during his reign as emperor). One of the people martyred during Julian’s reign was Saint Bibiana (also spelled Viviana), who has been celebrated by the Church on December 2 for centuries. Bibiana came from a very wealthy family, saw her parents executed for their faith in Christ, and was deprived of the family wealth for refusing to worship the Roman gods. The local governor waited a few months, certain that experience of living in poverty would convince her to give up her faith. It didn’t. Bibiana was martyred in the year 361.

In time, the Church began to recognize the powerful witness of great Christian writers who could explain the faith to others. Generally called the Fathers and Mothers of the Church today, these men and women explained orthodox belief long before a universal catechism of Church teachings had been written. Though not all the Fathers and Mothers are considered saints by the Church today, most are. One of the last men to be considered a Father of the Church is Saint John of Damascus, who is commemorated by the Church on December 4. John was a monk and priest who explained, for example, that there is a difference between worship, which we owe to God alone, and veneration, which we offer to the saints.

On December 6, we celebrate a favorite saint of children: Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra from the fourth century. Nicholas is a rarity among early Church saints because he did not die as a martyr and was not a Father of the Church. But he and saints like him—most notably the bishop Saint Martin of Tours (celebrated last month on November 11)—helped Christians realize that one could be a saint of the Church without being a martyr and without having generated a paper trail of brilliant theological insights.

As monasticism spread throughout the Christian world, monks and nuns became great witnesses of holiness. For example, Saint John the Silent (December 7) was a monk and bishop known for (you guessed it) his ability to remain silent. Saint Romaric (December 8) was a wealthy man left it all behind to become a monk and later an abbot. Both men were so inspirational to those who knew them that the Church acclaimed them as saints.

But you don’t have to be a priest, vowed religious, theologian, or martyr to be a saint, as Saint Adelaide of Bellich (December 6) and Saint Juan Diego (December 9) prove. Adelaide was the queen of Italy when a powerful man poisoned her husband; she was literally rescued from being forced to marry the son of the man who killed her husband by another king, whom she did marry. It wasn’t the dramatic aspects of her life that made her saint however; it was the gracious, gentle way she lived her life as a wife, mother, and queen. On the other hand, Saint Juan Diego, while well-known as the recipient of a vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is not as well-known as a simple, holy man who spent the rest of his life telling people about that vision and encouraging them to draw close to the Mother of God.

The Church began to recognize many founders and members of religious orders from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries as saints. That includes the nun Saint Mary Joseph Rossello (December 8) and the missionary Saint Francis Xavier (December 3).

In the sixteenth century, the Church added a new title to some saints: Doctor of the Church. These saints were particularly known for their outstanding contribution to the teaching of the Church. This group includes Saint Peter Canisius (celebrated on December 21), who earned the title through his efforts to explain Catholic teachings during the particularly contentious time of the Protestant Revolt.

As the twentieth century gave birth to many Christian martyrs through Communism, Nazism, and other totalitarian regimes, the cycle has come back full circle. In that century, millions of men, women, and children were killed outright, imprisoned, and persecuted throughout their lives because they rejected the atheistic teachings of their own country’s government. But as the Church has shown time and again, there is not only one path to holiness. Who knows how the men and women of the twenty-first century will grow in holiness and become the future saints of the Church?

November 30: Become a saint like the great evangelizer, St. Andrew the Apostle

The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew
Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Churches sometimes name him “the first called”, reminding us that it was the future Saint Andrew the Apostle and “the other disciple” (almost universally assumed to be Saint John the Evangelist) who first followed Jesus (see John 1:40). How the world would have changed if Andrew hadn’t listened when John the Baptist pointed out a particular man and called him “the Lamb of God”! And what if Andrew hadn’t then followed that amazing man (who was not a mere man) and then introduced him to his brother, Peter?

Saint Andrew’s feast day on November 30 reminds us that everyone needs to be introduced to Jesus Christ. After we have said yes to Christ and acknowledged our need for a Savior, we need to share that relationship with others. Like Andrew, sometimes all we need to do is to tell our family members and friends that, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41), the One who can save us from sin, death, suffering, betrayal, loneliness, depression, and our own pride.

There is a very old Catholic tradition of praying a novena from Saint Andrew’s feast day until Christmas Day. By saying the following simple prayer fifteen times a day for the twenty-five days until Christmas, this prayer not only helps us prepare spiritually for the Birth of Christ (as opposed to being swept away in the purely secular and very busy event celebrated by our culture), it can also help us become a saint like Saint Andrew. That is, become a Catholic who is ready and willing to introduce a friend to Jesus Christ.

Hail, and blessed be the hour and moment at which the Son of God was born of a most pure Virgin at a stable at midnight in Bethlehem in the piercing cold. At that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, to hear my prayers and grant my desires. (Mention your intentions here.) Through Jesus Christ, His Most Blessed Mother, and dear Saint Joseph.

See also PrayMoreNovenas for help in praying this Christmas novena.

Saint Andrew the Apostle, show me how to become a saint.

November 23: Become a family of saints like St. Felicitas’ family

Saint Felicitatis and the heads of her seven sons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On this date, the Church commemorates Saint Felicitas, a Catholic woman who died a martyr and was buried in the Cemetery of Maximus in Rome during the early centuries of the Church. That much is fairly certain.

But there are other traditions associated with Saint Felicitas (also called Felicity). One tradition says that she was a wealthy widow in ancient Rome and that she had seven sons. When arrested for being Catholic, her sons all refused to renounce their faith and were beheaded in front of their mother, who was martyred last of all. Hence the image above, which vividly shows Felicitas proudly displaying the heads of her faithful sons. Some traditions even cite the names of the seven sons. Other traditions tell us that the martyrdoms of these eight faithful Catholics occurred in the year 165 under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

There are some who argue today that the tradition of the seven sons dying as martyrs with their mother is, at best, unproven, or at worst, a Catholic fiction based on the heroic story of Jewish faithfulness given in 2 Maccabees, chapter 7. In this passage of 2 Maccabees, a Jewish woman was forced to watch while her seven sons were killed for refusing to renounce their faith in the true God. Even the latest Martyrologium Romanum only lists Saint Felicitas as a martyr on November 23, omitting the sons.

However, there is the ring of truth in this tradition. Although it was technically illegal to be a Catholic from the time of the Roman emperor Nero’s edict in the year 64 until the time of the Roman emperor Constantine’s edict in the year 313, there were many periods of time when that law was not enforced or not enforced often. Christianity has always appealed to people from all backgrounds, rich and poor, and there have been times when Christians even (quietly) held important positions in the Roman government despite the official prohibition. It would not be unthinkable that a wealthy woman would become a Christian, raise her children in the faith, dedicate her time and money to serve the needy, and then be arrested precisely because she had become a bit too publicly Catholic for comfort. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned during the time when Felicitas is presumed to have died, was a noble man and a good emperor. But Christians were still arrested and executed during his reign, sometimes because of persecution from local authorities and other times because of his edicts. Marcus Aurelius, like many other Roman emperors, found Christians inexplicably obstinate when they refused to do something that was seen as a simple but essential part of living in the Roman empire: offer worship to pagan gods.

Whether Saint Felicitas died alone or with her children, she died for Christ. Like all martyrs, we can ask for her help with our own problems, our own families, and our own spiritual battles as we try to become saints.

Saint Felicitas, show me how to help my family become saints.

November 16: Become a saint like St. Margaret of Scotland

Saint Margaret of Scotland
Anonymous; Unknown author, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons

Her life story as a young woman sounds so romantic it could be the plot-line for a Hollywood movie.

Saint Margaret of Scotland (c. 1045-1093) was the daughter of an exiled English king. When her father returned to England and then died, she and her mother tried to escape to the safety of Europe. But a storm forced the boat to land in Scotland, and the Scottish king, Malcolm III, gave them permission to stay in his kingdom.

Margaret had always been a devout girl, and she intended to become a nun. But as she spent her days in the Scottish court, her physical beauty and spiritual purity charmed Malcolm. He asked her to marry him, and she said yes.

But she wasn’t a Disney princess. She was a Catholic woman, so she didn’t abandon her duties to God in favor of her duties as queen. She prayed, served the poor, and financially supported the Church. She was a Catholic wife, so she gently helped her husband make wise decisions and live a more virtuous life. She was a Catholic mother, so she was personally involved in the education, particularly the religious education, of all eight of her children. As a Catholic queen, her leadership initiated a flowering of interest in the arts in Scotland, as well as interest in the Catholic faith. Her influence even led to a Church synod being held in Scotland to remedy problems specific to the country’s practice of the faith; that is, she “cleaned house” in the Catholic Church in Scotland, as well as in her own family.

In all of this, Saint Margaret was widely respected for her ability to lead others to greater holiness through her personal gentleness and through the beauty of the truth and the arts. May she help us to do the same with our own families today.

Saint Margaret of Scotland, help me and my family want to become saints.

Date correction for November saints

The blogs posted for the month of November will follow each saint’s feast day—except for Blesseds Luigi and Maria. Those were inadvertently posted on November 9. The feast date of this holy couple is November 25. I apologize for the confusion.

November 9: Become married saints like the Quattrochis

Blesseds Luigi Quattrochi and Maria Corsini Quattrochi
By unknown author – Ludmiła Grygiel, Świętość dwojga, Warszawa 2002, s. 14, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9537481

Luigi Quattrochi (1880-1951) married Maria Corsini (1884-1965) in Rome, Italy, in 1905. During their more than four decades of marriage, Luigi became a lawyer, and Maria became a professor of education. Together, they had four children.

When Pope John Paul II announced the beatification of this married couple, he declared that they had lived “an ordinary life in an extraordinary way”. What made Luigi and Maria, as individuals and as a couple, so remarkable that they were the first married couple to be declared blesseds at the same time?

Some might think it was because of their holy children. Three of their children entered religious life; one became a priest, one became a nun, and one became a monk. The fourth child lived such a holy life that she’s a candidate for beatification herself. But having devout children is not sufficient cause for beatification, even though it would be very difficult to imagine every single child in a family growing up to be a faithful Catholic without those children having had very faithful Catholic parents.

Some might think the recognition of the holiness was due to their careers and public service. At the height of his career, Luigi was a prominent lawyer and attorney general of Italy. Maria was a noted public speaker and also very active in Catholic Action. (Several European nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were governed by anti-Catholic regimes; Catholic Action was a lay association that asserted the rights of Catholics to live and behave like Catholics, peacefully but without apology for being Catholic.) During World War II, Luigi and Maria lived under Fascist rule, and when they recognized the dangers of Fascism, they opposed it. They even took the difficult and unpopular step of housing Jewish refugees in their own home.

But some of their sufferings were much more personal. Maria was diagnosed with placenta praevia during her fourth pregnancy, and she was advised to have an abortion. The condition was not treatable at that time, and the doctors recommended aborting the child to save the mother’s life. When Luigi and Maria received this terrible news, they prayed. Then they asked the doctors to induce premature labor—and credited God’s grace and mercy when both mother and child safely survived.

Did this miracle occur because God had already drawn so close to the hearts of this loving couple? After all, they received Communion daily, prayed a family rosary, volunteered as scout leaders for their kids, and served the needy in their parish and community. While we cannot know why God chose to miraculously save their unborn child, we can know one thing about how Blesseds Luigi and Maria became holy: they did it together. That path to sanctity is one that every Catholic couple can try to follow.

Blesseds Luigi and Maria, help me to become a saint.

November 3: Become a saint like St. Martin de Porres

Saint Martin de Porres
CarlosVdeHabsburgo, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In a year when racial injustice and “colonialism” have become hot topics, there is no better saint for Election Day than Saint Martin de Porres.

Martin de Porres (1579-1639) was born the illegitimate child of a freed black slave and a Spanish knight in Lima, Peru. His father acknowledged that Martin and his sister were his children, but he virtually abandoned them and their mother when they were young. To learn a trade and support himself, Martin was apprenticed to a barber-surgeon, but he decided to enter the Dominican order as a lay brother when he was fifteen years old.

Martin was born in a poor family without an absent father and was a racial minority in a stratified society. What (or better, who) lifted Martin out of a potentially bitter, miserable life? It was God Himself.

Martin, as a faithful Catholic, knew that God loved him and had created him as a unique person in His own image. Nothing about the circumstances of his birth, life events, or even personal temperament were unknown to God, and none of those things could keep him from becoming a saint.

Because of his poverty, Martin knew that he needed to learn a trade, so he did. When he heard God’s call to become a vowed religious, his previous training as a barber-surgeon helped him care for the sick, and not only in the infirmary of his community, but also the poor of the greater community.

God gave Martin a naturally gentle disposition; this made him very approachable to those who found themselves in need of help. It is probably also the reason that the tenderhearted man established an animal shelter for cats and dogs, even though he had to locate it at his sister’s house since, as a Dominican, he had no private property of his own. His mixed race also opened doors for people of many ethnicities to see Martin as a sympathetic and understanding listener to their problems.

No fallen human being can become humble without the grace of God and a lot of effort, and everyone agrees that Martin was humble. Dominicans beg for money to support themselves, and Martin therefore had to beg money from people for the support of the community from time to time. But when his sister’s daughter needed a dowry so she could marry, Martin begged for her sake too, and he raised all that was needed in just a few days. Oh yes, and he somehow managed to beg enough financial support so that he could establish an orphanage and a hospital for the children in his city, something that literally would not have existed if he had been too proud to beg.

However stable or unstable your family of origin, however gentle or irascible your natural disposition, however lowly or exalted your opinion of yourself, Saint Martin de Porres teaches us that God can help you become a saint.

Saint Martin de Porres, help me become a saint.


Other resources on becoming a saint

Having All Saints’ Day fall on a Sunday has inspired many Catholic writers to write about how we can not only admire the saints but follow in their footsteps. Check out the following recent articles.

Fr. Charles Fox at Catholic World Report: Our vocation to holiness and the wonderful variety of the saints

Fr. Bevil Bramwell at The Catholic Thing: Faith — the Real Crisis

And Teresa Civantos Barber at Aleteia.org: 7 Books to inspire you on your journey to sainthood. (Her slideshow doesn’t include my book – I checked – but she does include a couple new books about saints that look great. My personal favorite is Butler’s Lives of the Saints, but be aware that there are multiple versions of Butler’s available today. Some are better than others. Read a sample before you invest in the pricier versions.)