One of the advantages of reading about a few saints each day is that you learn about hundreds of saints in the course of a year. One of the disadvantages is that it becomes difficult to “see the forest for the trees”; that is, it’s hard to notice what similar saints teach us.
In the month of July, we celebrate some great saints who were also great leaders. They were holy men and women who did not live in a cloister or a desert, but in the middle of a very busy, powerful world. Their public decisions affected entire nations, and their personal example influenced all their countrymen.
For example, Saint Elizabeth of Portugal (1271-1336, feast day celebrated July 5 in the US) was a Spanish princess who was married to Denis, the king of Portugal, in an arranged marriage. She faithfully fulfilled her public duties as queen, and she was generous in personally serving the poor. But she privately suffered a great deal through her marriage. Her husband’s repeated unfaithfulness to his marriage vows caused scandal, and his illegitimate children caused resentment between their legitimate son and his father the king.
Saint Henry II (973-1024, feast day July 13) was the duke of Bavaria and became Holy Roman Emperor in 1014. His reign was spent in complicated political and military actions to improve the stability of the Holy Roman Empire. But he was personally devout and such a supporter of monasticism that he eventually told an abbot that he wanted to resign his office and take an oath of obedience, living as a simple monk.
Saint Olaf of Norway (d. 1030, feast day July 29) was also a fervent Catholic, and when he became king of Norway, he strongly encouraged the introduction of Christianity in his country. Many of his pagan countrymen resisted the Christian faith, just as strongly.
Clearly, being a powerful leader did not keep these saints from knowing great challenges in life, and God did not miraculously resolve their problems. But God did give them the grace to deal with their challenges in a holy way.
Saint Elizabeth, like the longsuffering mother of Saint Augustine, exemplified the virtue of patience. She did not overlook her husband’s failings, but she treated him with respect and charity for decades. At the end of his life, she cared for him personally, and her unfailing kindness finally moved her husband’s heart to repentance over his past infidelities before his death.
Saint Henry, as the Holy Roman Emperor, could have demanded that the abbot accept his request to renounce his title. But Henry knew the value of obedience from both sides—both as a leader and a follower—and he acquiesced when the abbot told him he would please God more by remaining emperor than by becoming a monk.
Saint Olaf died a martyr in battle, fighting for his vision of bringing the faith to all his countrymen. He chose to give up life rather than give up his faith, but in so doing, he planted the seeds of Christian faith in Norway.
All three of these saints show us that it is possible to live a life of holiness even when you are surrounded by power, pleasure, politics, and selfish people. The first step is not to change “power structures,” but to change yourself. Despite their wealth, they all cared for the poor. Despite their status, they all knew personal suffering. Despite the heavy weight of their responsibilities, they all witnessed to their love of God through prayer.
Even if our personal “kingdom” is one family, not an entire nation, we can strive to lead those around us through patience, humble obedience, and courage, even when we are humiliated or outnumbered.
June is traditionally known as the month of the Sacred Heart, but it could also be known as the month of martyrs because there are so many great witnesses to the faith on the Church’s calendar for June.
The month ends with the First Martyrs of Rome, the title given to the Christian men and women who died during the Roman emperor Nero’s persecution of the Church in Rome in the year 64. It is possible—perhaps even probable—that Nero ordered a fire to be started the city of Rome. He had not been shy about his desire for more imperial real estate, coincidentally right on the spot where the great fire started. Unfortunately, the fire got out of control and burned down two-thirds of the city, causing incredible damage and loss of life. To avoid a riot and possible assassination, Nero blamed the Christians, executing them in horrible ways for ghastly effect. He also issued a famous edict, which declared that Christians were traitors to the Roman Empire; this law was in effect for more than two hundred years and created many more martyrs, several celebrated in June.
The month of June also includes commemorations for men and women who died as martyrs in modern times. Blessed Jacques Berthieu was a French Jesuit priest who was a missionary to Madagascar and was killed in 1896 when pagan rebels resented his success in bringing people to Christ. In 1915, Blessed Ignazio Maloyan was the Armenian archbishop of Mardin, Turkey, when he and four hundred other Christians were marched into the desert and executed because they refused to convert to Islam. When Nazis chose to execute random citizens of a town in Poland in 1943, Blessed Marianna Biernacka offered her own life in exchange for her pregnant daughter-in-law’s.
Most people have never heard of those saints, but many have heard of the following martyrs of June. The man commonly known as Saint Justin Martyr did not have the last name of “Martyr”: he was a second century philosopher who embraced Christianity and wrote convincingly about the truths of the faith. He was so convincing that he became dangerous, so he was executed in 165. Saint Boniface is considered the Apostle of Germany for his success in bringing so many Germans into the faith during the eighth century; he was attacked and killed in the year 754. Saints Thomas More and John Fischer were, respectively, the lord chancellor of England and the bishop of Rochester. They lost their titles and their lives when they refused to capitulate to King Henry VIII’s demands in 1535. Saint Charles Lwanga and his companions were killed in 1886 by an immoral, cruel Ugandan leader who resented conversions to Christianity in his household and country.
But Catholics do not celebrate martyrs because we enjoy tales of blood and gore or because we have a vengeful streak. The Church celebrates martyrs because they are the ones who imitate Jesus Christ most perfectly: by laying down their lives for their friends as Christ did. Every one of these martyrs had a choice; they could have been less obviously Catholic in their daily lives, gone into hiding when things looked dangerous, or renounced their Christian faith when they were arrested. Instead, they laid down their lives for their friend, Jesus Christ.
Even the great Saints Peter and Paul could have lived quiet lives in obscurity and safety somewhere on the fringes of the Roman empire in the first century. Instead, they lived Christ-centered lives that regularly put their lives in danger. According to tradition, the two men were executed on the same date, though in different places in the city of Rome.
How many people have been drawn to the Christian faith because of the witness of the martyrs? Only God knows. But doesn’t their courage in the face of imminent death make it easier to face those little deaths we all die daily? For example, we can choose to turn to God in prayer instead of toward a distraction when things get tough; we can control our tempers and not yell back at an angry child; we can decide to not share a friend’s secrets; we can have the courage to admit our mistakes. Every martyr-saint started on the path to holiness by making small sacrifices like those in their everyday lives. We can do the same.
Proverbs 27:17 teaches us that, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another (RSV).” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the saints of the Church in the month of May. Some saints have a particular gift for inspiring other men and women to become saints.
Of course, there are many saints and blesseds commemorated in the month of May who encouraged others to become holy. The original apostles who preached the Gospel according to Jesus’ command—such as Saints Philip, James the Lesser, and Matthias—called their listeners to imitate the perfection of our Lord. Likewise, great preachers like Saint Bernardine of Siena, great thinkers like Saint Bede, and great popes like Saint Gregory VII drew people closer to Christ through their leadership. Abbots such as Saint Theodosius of Kiev directed the spiritual lives of their monks, and the Rule of Life created by Saint Pachomius the Great was incorporated in subsequent monastic orders and lived by many monks seeking holiness. Founders of religious orders such as Saint Peter Nolasco (Order of Our Lady of Ransom), Blessed John Martin Moye (Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence), and Saint Madeline Sophie Barat (Society of the Sacred Heart) inspired many men and women to follow them into religious life. One could even argue that martyrs—from Saint Flavia Domitilla in the second century to Saint Christopher Magallanes in the twentieth—helped other men and women face death with supernatural courage through their personal examples.
But there are two saints on the liturgical calendar in May who seemed to ignite the souls of men and women around them and encourage them to become not just better people, but holy people.
Saint John of Avila was born into a pious, Catholic family in Spain in 1499. As a young man, he recognized God’s call to become a priest, and he was still awaiting ordination when his parents died. He inherited their fortune—which he quickly gave away to the poor. As a newly ordained priest, he wanted to travel to the faraway New World as a missionary, but his bishop convinced him that he was needed in his homeland. The bishop was right. For forty years, John traveled all over his native Spain, preaching and re-evangelizing his countrymen. He brought many Catholics back to a better practice of their faith, but he also made some powerful enemies when he confronted the nobility about the Gospel command to care for the poor. They caused him to be imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, but only for a year.
But John also had friends. The founders of the Discalced Carmelite order, Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, consulted John for spiritual advice. The nobleman-turned-Jesuit priest Saint Francis Borgia was one of his friends, along with the Dominican mystical writer and priest Saint Louis of Granada, and Franciscan priest and reformer Saint Peter of Alcantara. One of John’s most famous penitents was Saint John of God, a former soldier who reformed his life and, under John’s direction, founded a group of men who cared for the sick, which later became a religious order. John of Avila was also such an expert on the Bible that Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church in 2012.
Saint Philip Neri was born not long after Saint John of Avila, in the year 1515, but in a pious, Catholic family in Italy. As a young man, he went to live with a childless relative who, his family hoped, would make Philip his heir. But God touched Philip’s heart in a profound way, and he left everything behind, traveling to Rome on an inspiration, trusting solely in Divine Providence to show him what to do next. There, he spent two years as a tutor, living like a recluse, only to start all over again and simply walk the streets of Rome, inviting the people that he encountered to join him in serving the sick and visiting churches with him to pray. At his confessor’s urging, Philip sought out ordination as a priest, and he spent the rest of his life giving spiritual conferences, forming a community of priests known as the Oratory, and attracting many Catholics back to their faith through his joyful, friendly manner.
Who were Philip’s friends? Saint Catherine dei Ricci was a Dominican tertiary, mystic, and stigmatist who was so known for her wisdom that three popes visited her and asked for her advice. She also corresponded with Philip and bilocated to see him on at least one occasion. Saint Luigi Scrosoppi was a priest and member of Philip’s Oratory who founded orphanages and a religious order to care for abandoned children. Saint Felix of Catalice was just a farmer before he became a Franciscan lay brother, but Philip thought highly of the humble man whose favorite topic of conversation was the praise of God. When Saint John Leonardi, the priest and scholar who founded the order of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God, found himself exiled from his native city, Philip gave him a place to live—and a pet cat. Like John of Avila, Saint Philip also had a famous penitent: Saint Camillus de Lellis, a former soldier and inveterate gambler who repented and also gave his life over to serving the sick and forming a religious order.
Did Saints John and Philip cause these men and women to become saints? Of course not. Both men would have vigorously objected to being named as “saint makers” and pointed out the obvious truth that God is the source of all good gifts, including sanctity. Many of these men and women were well on the way to sanctity before they met John or Philip.
But “iron sharpens iron”, and holy men and women encourage one another to grow in holiness, like runners encourage one another in a race. Although God alone is the true “saint maker”, Saints John of Avila and Philip Neri show us the value of surrounding ourselves with friends who will make us want to become saints.
Saints John of Avila and Philip Neri, pray for us!
Want to find out what my book about saints is like before you buy it? Search for a date in the month of May. I created short biographies of lesser-known saints and blesseds for every day in May, and none of them are included in my book.
Blessed Columba of Rieti (feast day May 20), for example, surprised me. I didn’t realize that there was a female saint so much like the famous Saint Catherine of Siena.
It is easy for the saints of the past to seem, well, out of date. After all, early Church martyrs and cloistered nuns didn’t have to deal with the problems we have today, right?
Wrong. With a little effort, it’s easy to find at least one saint commemorated by the Church every day of April* who has something to teach us about dealing with our modern problems.
Concerned about the women (and men) who are forced into a life of prostitution because of pornography? Pray for the intercession of Saint Mary of Egypt (d. 421), who lived as a prostitute for seventeen years before repenting and spending the rest of her life in the desert as a penitent and holy woman.
Ever been asked by your boss to do something impossible? Saint Francis of Paolo (d. 1507) had such a reputation as a miracleworker that the king of France asked him to come pray over him and heal him. (Francis managed to convince the king to be resigned to God’s will for his health.
Proving that sibling rivalry happens to saints too, Saint Richard of Wyche (d. 1253) only earned his brother’s resentment when he saved his family from debt. After their parents’ death, Richard was the one who threw himself into the hard work of recovering the family fortunes. His older brother grudgingly offered him the family title. Fortunately, Richard had very different plans for his life and disinterestedly left it all behind to become a priest and bishop.
Those who have suffered under a harsh teacher can ask Saint Isidore of Seville (d. 636) for help in forgiveness. Isidore’s older brother may have been a demanding teacher, but Isidore eventually learned to love learning—and became a Doctor of the Church.
Ever had to confront a friend with his sinful behavior? One of the friends of Saint Vincent Ferrer (d. 1419) was an anti-pope. Three men claimed to be the pope at the same time, which caused violence and confusion all over Christendom. When Vincent’s friend, anti-pope Benedict XIII, refused to stop calling himself the pope, Vincent had to publicly oppose him.
All those who hope for a revival of sacred music today can ask for the intercession of Blessed Notkar Balbulus (d. 912). Although his name sounds awkward to us and although he had a stutter, he composed beautiful music for Mass.
Those suffering from throat cancer can ask for the intercession of Blessed Edward Oldcorne (d. 1606). Edward was miraculously healed of cancer after a pilgrimage; he died a martyr in anti-Catholic England.
Trauma victims have a patroness in Saint Julie Billiart (d. 1816), who was paralyzed for decades after experiencing the traumatic experience of seeing someone shoot at her father. Her paralysis was later cured, but not until after she had begun her work as a founder of a religious teaching order.
The Holy Family of Nazareth is not the only holy family. Saint Waldetrudis (d. 688) can pray for holiness in our families; her parents, husband, sister, and four children are also saints.
Need comfort during any trial? Try reading and memorizing the Bible. Saint Terence was one member of a group of Catholics who were arrested during the third century because they were Christian; he recited passages from the Gospels to strengthen himself during interrogation.
Afraid of being ridiculed for being too devout? Ask Saint Gemma Galgani (d. 1903) to help. People made fun of her too, until the stigmata appeared on her hands and feet every Thursday night through Friday afternoon.
If you suffer from stubbornness, ask for the help of Saint Teresa of the Andes (d. 1920). Teresa worked hard to train her stubborn nature to obey God; she died a holy novice to the Carmelite order when she was only twenty years old.
Saint Caradoc of Wales (d. 1124), an English hermit, is an excellent patron for those who love animals as he did.
Those who love to build things (Lego projects or buildings) should turn to Saint Benedict (d. 1184). Following divine inspiration and with little training or help, he built a bridge to help travelers.
Concerned about a family member who is far from the Church? Blessed Cesar de Bus (d. 1607) is the perfect intercessor. He lived a wild life until the memory of a deceased friend and an image of the Blessed Mother brought him to a complete conversion.
If you are ever tempted to look down on a homeless person on the street, remember Saint Benedict Labre (d. 1783). He chose to be homeless so that he could make innumerable pilgrimages to holy sites and live only for God.
Do your kids think you are too strict? Saint Robert of Molesme (d. 1111) had a similar problem as abbot. Some of his monks were so resentful of the way he ordered monastic life that he left them to their own devices twice. (The pope ordered him to return and straighten them out.)
Our priests always need our prayers. Blessed Robert Moreau (d. 1794) was executed for merely being a priest during the French Revolution.
Pope Saint Leo IX (d. 1054) is an excellent person to remember when preparing oneself for death. After being imprisoned, his health deteriorated. At the end of his life, he asked to be taken to St. Peter’s Basilica and laid next to his coffin, as a reminder of the need to prepare to face God.
Difficult teenagers in your life? Saint Agnes of Montepulciano (d. 1317) was only fifteen years old when she was made abbess of a new convent. Ask her to intercede.
Need help defending the faith to others? Ask for the prayers of Saint Apollonius (d. 185). He was a Roman senator when he began studying philosophy and discovered Christianity. He gave an eloquent explanation of the faith—before he was executed.
If your family of origin is far from perfect, Saint Theodore of Sykeon (d. 613) is the saint for you. His mother never married and was apparently a prostitute who ran an inn. (Some say she repented and later lived a good Christian life.)
Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu (d. 1939) is yet another patroness for difficult adolescents. She was the kind of teen who would stubbornly criticize any request from a parent—but then go do what was asked. Her love for Christ softened her heart, and she died as a Trappist nun.
The legal profession needs prayers in every age; Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen (d. 1622) was a lawyer who gave up the profession because of rampant dishonesty and became a priest and martyr.
Saint Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur (d. 1667) was a Franciscan tertiary who encouraged people to pray for one another and care for the poor. That recommendation is needed in every age.
We can always pray for priests who will celebrate Mass in a manner which is both beautiful and prayerful, just as did Saint Stephen of Perm (d. 1396).
Mothers everywhere can ask for the wisdom and humility of Saint Zita of Lucca (d. 1278), who lived her life as the housekeeper of a large household and brought peace and charity to all those who lived under the same roof with her.
Not comfortable with devotion to Mary? Ask for help from Saint Louis de Montfort (d. 1716), a French priest whose writings have inspired generations of Catholics with a greater love of the Blessed Mother.
Do you want a greater devotion to the Blessed Sacrament? Pray for the intercession of Saint Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), a Dominican tertiary who lived on Communion—and nothing else—for the final years of her life.
Don’t know what to do when life seems out of control? Follow the example of Pope Saint Pius V (d. 1572). While the future of Europe was hanging in the balance during the Battle of Lepanto, he prayed the rosary and encouraged others to do the same.
All you saints, pray for us!
* Note that Holy Week begins during the latter part of March and early part of April in 2021. Saints are therefore not commemorated by the Church in the liturgy on those dates.
The difference between reading a biography of a living famous person and reading the biography of a deceased saint is that you can reasonably hope to befriend the saint!
After all, our Lord has promised that those who love Him and keep his commandments can hope to spend eternity with Him, and the holy men and women whom we Catholics call saints and blesseds have done just that. The saints dwell with the Lord in Heaven, but like Olympic athletes sitting in the grandstand watching others compete, they cheer us on and help us finish the race of our lives, that is, the race to become holy. All we have to do is ask them.
One way to ask them for help and to make the saints a part of our lives is through holy cards. Just as we keep photos on our smart phones and in our wallets and purses to remind us of our loved ones, holy cards can help us remember the saints throughout the day. That is, we can keep saints’ holy cards around our homes as reminders. Reminders of what? That depends on what you need to remember.
For example, on the feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (March 7), you could put a holy card with their image on your kitchen table to help you remember to try to practice the virtue of fortitude. After those two women had been arrested in the year 203 in Carthage (now in Tunisia) with four other Christians, Perpetua’s father visited her in prison. He begged her, with tears in his eyes, to give up her Christian faith and reminded her that her young son would grow up without a mother if she continued to call herself a Christian. Perpetua knew that what her father said was true—but she also knew that Jesus Christ loved her and had died for her. So she accepted being condemned to death out of her love for Him.
Most of us have a collection of holy cards courtesy of various Catholic organizations who have sent them to us in hope of a charitable donation. If you’d like to create your own personal collection of holy cards of saints like Perpetua and Felicity, an excellent source of beautiful cards can be found at CatholicHolyCards.org. A smaller collection of beautiful, laminated cards can be found at PortraitsofSaints.com.
After Pope Francis proclaimed a Year of Saint Joseph in December 2020, many Catholics started thinking about the role of this saint in the life of the Church. A popular book by Father Donald Calloway walks you through a thirty-three-day consecration to Jesus’ foster father (whose feast day is March 19). If you don’t have thirty-three days, there are innumerable nine-day novenas to Saint Joseph available online that you can pray for any intention.
What is the purpose of praying a novena to a saint? Although we typically pray novenas because we have an urgent, serious petition that requires supernatural intervention right now, there’s another benefit to praying novenas and to the consecration offered by Father Calloway. Namely, by repeatedly asking for the intercession of a saint, one is almost forced to reflect upon the qualities of that saint. For example, meditating on the life of Saint Joseph, as recounted in the Gospels, reminds us that he was a truly wise man. After all, most of us would need help to understand a dream if an angel gave us direction about making a serious lifestyle change. That happened to Saint Joseph three times, and he didn’t need anyone’s advice or encouragement to decide what to do.
Books can also help us understand the saints. Saint John Climacus (feast day March 30), a sixth century Egyptian monk and abbot, wrote a guide to prayer called The Ladder that’s still read today. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem was named a Doctor of the Church because of his writings, but few people know that the famous Saint Patrick, Bishop of Ireland, wrote a book called The Confession of Saint Patrick, a short autobiography of his life. The biography of a nineteenth-century Italian boy named Saint Dominic Savio (feast day March 9) was written by another saint: Saint John Bosco. Don Bosco inspired the young Savio to live a life of holiness and wrote about his heroic love for God after the boy died. There’s even a modern children’s biography that describes Saint Dominic’s life.
But if fiction is more your style than non-fiction, there are many good historical fiction novels that show us the lives of the saints in an exciting and generally accurate way. Louis de Wohl, for example, was a German-born Catholic writer who turned from secular subjects to Catholic novels later in his career. De Wohl’s book The Spearshows us a fictionalized but moving account of the death of our Savior through the eyes of the Roman centurion who witnessed the Crucifixion and was forever changed. Another witness to the Crucifixion was a man known to us as the Good Thief, or Saint Dismas (feast day March 25), who won paradise through his humility as he died next to our Lord on a cross.
Like Saint Dismas and all the other saints, we can hope that we too will be forever changed for the better by the time we reach the end of this Lenten season.
There are thousands of saints in the calendar of the Catholic Church, which means that there are hundreds of saints every month. In my book about saints, I tried to make that number a bit more manageable by only including a few saints per day and limiting the descriptions of each one to a short biography. But if even that seems a bit overwhelming for you, here’s another way to help you focus on the saints in a regular but more limited fashion.
The Church’s calendar arranges the days in the liturgical calendar in the following order (from highest ranking to lowest ranking).
A solemnity is a celebration of a belief, event, or person of the greatest importance and with universal significance to the Church. Christmas is a solemnity. A feast is a day of celebration that is of lesser importance than a solemnity but of greater importance than a memorial. The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is a feast day, as are all the days celebrating the Twelve Apostles. A memorial is a day of celebration that is less significant than a feast or a solemnity. The most prominent saints, such as Saints Agatha and Polycarp, are remembered with memorials. Optional memorials are, obviously, optional; a priest can choose to celebrate them at Mass or not. Many well known but less prominent saints, such as Saints Blaise and Ansgar, are remembered with optional memorials.
Why all these distinctions? If a saint is remembered with a memorial or feast, the life of that holy man or woman is of greater significance to the universal Church than the other saints of that day. Local churches may have their own adaptations. On February 8, for example, a priest in Italy may be more inclined to celebrate the optional memorial of Saint Jerome Emiliani, while a priest in Africa may be more inclined to celebrate the optional memorial of Saint Josephine Bakhita.
What does all this mean? If you find it difficult to remember to turn to the saints every day, try looking up just the following saints on their dates. Although all the saints are holy examples for us to learn from, it is not unfair to think of these as the greatest of the saints of February—and to turn to them for assistance this month.
Type of Day in Liturgical Calendar
The Presentation of the Lord
Commemorates the date that Jesus was presented to His Father in the Temple as an infant.
He was the martyred bishop of Armenia (d. 316) and patron of throat ailments.
Ninth century monk and bishop who evangelized Sweden and Denmark.
Virgin-martyr who endured severe tortures before her death around the year 250.
Saint Paul Miki and Companions
In 1597, twenty-six Catholics were martyred together in Japan.
Saint Jerome Emiliani
Italian priest who founded a religious order to care for orphans in the sixteenth century.
Saint Josephine Bakhita
Rose from slavery in the Sudan to become a religious sister in Italy.
Benedictine nun and abbess from the sixth century who was also the twin sister of Saint Benedict.
Our Lady of Lourdes
Commemorates the apparition of the Blessed Mother to Saint Bernadette and the subsequent messages encouraging prayer and healing.
Saints Cyril and Methodius
Apostles to the Slavic peoples in the ninth century.
Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order
Commemorates the seven holy men who founded a monastic order in the thirteenth century, calling themselves the “Servants of Mary”.
Saint Peter Damian
Benedictine abbot, cardinal, and Doctor of the Church who lived in the eleventh century.
The Chair of Saint Peter
Commemorates the role of Saint Peter, Vicar of Christ’s Church.
Bishop of Smyrna (Turkey) and Father of the Church who died a martyr in 107.
See my book for more details about these and other saints.
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.
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?
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.
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.