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.

Two Great Traveler Saints for July

Saints Thomas and James the Elder,
Alf van Beem, Wikimedia Commons

Before Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven, He gave His apostles their marching orders. He explicitly told them: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15)”. And so they did.

The Twelve obediently began preaching and traveling all over the known world, bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. But two of those apostles—Saints Thomas and James the Greater—are particularly known for their missionary journeys, and both are celebrated in the Church’s calendar in the month of July.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Saint Thomas is best known for his bold reactions to difficult situations. When Jesus asked His disciples to follow Him back to Jerusalem—where people had only recently wanted to kill Him—Thomas was ready to die too (John 11:16). When the other apostles tried to convince Thomas that Jesus had risen from the dead, Thomas responded with the first century equivalent of “Yeah, right.” (See John 20:24-25.) But as many Christians have subsequently pointed out, it was Thomas’ skepticism that provides us with proof that the risen Christ was bodily present to them, wounds and all, not merely a ghost or an hallucination.

That’s why it’s not hard to believe that Thomas was the member of the Twelve Apostles who managed to travel the greatest distance from Jerusalem. According to tradition, Thomas reached India, where he converted many people to the faith, built churches, and died a martyr. Some say his relics were brought back to Edessa (modern Turkey).

Other scholars scoff at this tradition, asking how Thomas could have crossed the Himalaya mountains. The answer is that he didn’t need to; the Romans had already established trade routes with India across the Indian Ocean. What about the “Gospel of Thomas”, an ancient document that purports to describe Thomas’ life? Although the Church dismissed this work as a gnostic writing more than fifteen hundred years ago, some of the details included in this work corroborate remarkably well with first century Indian history. While no one argues that violent repression of Christianity has decimated the Church in India more than once over the centuries, it’s not unreasonable to believe, as Indian Christians fervently do, that the tomb of the apostle Thomas has been in India since his death in the first century. Thomas’ feast day is July 3.

Tomb of Saint Thomas in Mylapore, India, Mathen Payyappilly Palakkappilly, Wikimedia Commons

Two of the Twelve Apostles were named James, which probably caused as much confusion to them as it does to us today. However, it is certain that the man whom we call Saint James the Greater was: 1) Saint John’s (probably older) brother, 2) the son of Zebedee, and 3) a fisherman. We are also certain that James the Greater was one of those three men whom Jesus decided to take with Him for key events—the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, His last moments of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane—along with Saints Peter and John.

On one occasion, Jesus called James and John “sons of thunder (Mark 3:17)”. Was that because James and John were such hotheads, or was it because their father, Zebedee, was none too pleased when his two sons walked away from the family business? We will never know.

This Saint James has long been called “the Greater”. That is not because we know that he was taller or older than the other James, but because he appears so much more often in the Gospels than the disciple known as James, the son of Alphaeus.

According to Acts 12:2, James the Greater was the first apostle to die. He was martyred by King Herod Agrippa I, simply because Herod wanted to placate the Jewish leaders who had become increasingly hostile to the early Church. Tradition says that his death occurred in the year 44 AD, only about a decade after the death of his Master.

Saint James the Greater, Peter Paul Rubens, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The famous painting of Saint James above identifies him as a martyr through the bright red cloak he is wearing. But other details in the painting point to another longstanding tradition associated with James the Greater.

From at least the time of the Middle Ages, Spanish Christians have held that Saint James the Greater traveled to Spain, spread the Gospel there, and then returned to Jerusalem, where he died. Although there are significant arguments against this tradition, it would not have been impossible for James to travel to Spain, which was part of the Roman empire at the time, and back. Spanish Catholics have also believed for many centuries that Saint James’ relics were brought back to Spain after his death and are now located in the cathedral built in his honor, Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrimages are an ancient Christian tradition. In the thoroughly Christian culture of medieval Christendom, it was not uncommon for Catholics to undertake journeys to holy sites to thank God for favors granted, to request physical healings or spiritual blessings, to grow in their faith, and for many other reasons, pious or otherwise. In Spain, the tradition arose of making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The traditional pilgrimage route, currently called the Camino de Santiago, is 500 miles long and typically takes thirty days to hike on foot. To hike such a distance, one would be advised to bring a hat and carry a staff, as Saint James does in Rubens’ painting above. Saint James’ feast day is July 25.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we can be thankful that His apostles obeyed His command and traveled as far as they could to bring the Good News to people who had never heard it before. As we travel this summer—on pilgrimages or vacations or simple day trips—we can ask Saints Thomas and James to intercede for us, protect us on our journeys, and maybe even inspire us with some of their boldness in living and proclaiming our faith.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Yearofthedragon, Wikimedia Commons

Freedom, Faith, and Fearless Witness: Saints Thomas More and John Fisher

Saint Thomas More, Wikimedia Commons

There were many devout and faithful Catholics in England in the early sixteenth century. But when King Henry VIII declared himself to be the head of the Church in England, he forced every one of his citizens to make a decision about their faith. Option #1: Agree that the leader of your government is also the leader of your religion. Option #2: Refuse to agree with option #1, but be prepared for your government to retaliate against you.

Two great men, now acclaimed as saints of the Catholic Church, chose option #2. Although they paid for that decision with their lives, their words and actions can still teach us a great deal about how to respond when other people, particularly people in positions of authority, refuse to respect our God-given right to religious freedom.

Saint Thomas More (1478-1535) was born in London and grew up in a strict but loving home. His family were faithful Catholics, and he received a good education at school.

His teachers recognized Thomas’ intelligence and hard work. By the time he was an adult, his colleagues were calling him brilliant and eloquent, and some even called him a genius. Thomas became a highly-respected lawyer in London, then a member of Parliament, then a well-known poet and writer, and eventually Lord Chancellor of England. But what many people noticed first about Thomas was not his great intellect. Instead, they were impressed by his life of faith and virtue.

Thomas More was a friendly, humble, thoughtful man. He was uniformly kind and generous to everyone, but the people he invited to his dinner table were lively thinkers, not the rich and powerful men one was expected to fawn over for the sake of career advancement. He shrugged off insults and was honest in his business dealings.

He seriously considered a vocation to religious life as a young man but eventually decided to marry. He made sure his daughters were as well-educated as his son, made prayer a daily part of the life of his entire household, and paid attention to the needs of the poor. His decision to remarry almost immediately after his first wife’s death was probably more for the sake of his young children than for himself.

Saint John Fisher, Wikimedia Commons

Saint John Fisher (1469-1535) was also recognized for his intelligence from a young age, but, unlike Thomas, he did decide to become a priest. With the financial support of a countess and through his own hard work and initiative, he revitalized the University of Cambridge. When he was made bishop of Rochester, he simply added the heavy duties of administering a diocese to his service as chancellor of a university. John became widely known as a scholar, writer, and religious reformer, and despite the power of his prestigious positions, he lived a personally austere life.

When King Henry decided to try to divorce his legitimate wife to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, the political repercussions took years to play out. Thomas initially received the king’s permission to stand apart from this decision and to continue in his duties as lord chancellor, making no public statements about the issue. John, on the other hand, became one of the counsellors to Queen Catherine and successfully defended the validity of her marriage to the king. John was imprisoned twice for that reason and an attempt was made to poison him, almost certainly ordered by Boleyn.

But the king’s lust and pride ultimately led him to throw both men in prison. When they refused to give in to the king’s demands, they were both executed: John was beheaded on June 22 and Thomas on July 6.

What do the lives of these two men teach us about the value of religious freedom? They remind us that whatever our vocation—priest, president, checkout clerk, or grandmother—we all deserve the right to live that vocation, both in the way we worship and the way we live our lives outside of our place of worship.

In 2012, the US Catholic bishops instituted an annual event to remind Americans of the importance of religious freedom. They were (and still are) concerned about efforts made by some authorities to deprive people of faith of their freedom to practice that faith.

Unsurprisingly, they chose Saints Thomas More and John Fisher as patrons for this program. Both men were, as Thomas famously put it in his final words before his execution, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

During the upcoming Religious Freedom Week (June 22-29), we too can put God first in our lives. We can pray for our country and for those whose health, property, livelihoods, and consciences are being threatened because of their faith. We can become better informed about any action (or inaction) that endangers anyone’s religious freedom. And we can take action as these two great saints did, whatever our vocation happens to be, to stand up for the freedom to believe in God, worship Him, and behave like followers of Jesus Christ.

Saint Peregrine Laziosi and Cancer

Saint Peregrine Laziosi Shrine, Wikimedia Commons

Saint Peregrine Laziosi (1260-1345) did not write theological masterpieces like Saint Thomas Aquinas. He did not convert thousands of people in multiple countries like Saint Francis Xavier. He did not even become known as a miracle worker during his lifetime like Saint Martin de Porres. But most people today know someone—or many people—who have been diagnosed with cancer. For this reason, Peregrine has become a popular saint all over the world.

We don’t know much about Peregrine’s life. But we do know about two important events in his life, and to understand the first one, it will help to know a little Italian history.

During the Middle Ages, there was constant tension—and even sometimes outright violence—between secular leaders and the pope. Kings often wanted to leverage Church authority and money to advance their own political agendas, and popes often fought back. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, two powerful families controlled much of Italy, one taking the side of the pope, and the other taking the side of the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante included members of these families, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, in his famous work, Inferno.

Just as people in a region today may lean toward a particular political affiliation because of longstanding history, so cities in Italy generally sided with one or the other of these two families. The city of Forli often supported the Ghibellines and the emperor, which was considered an act of rebellion since Forli was located in the Papal States. At one point, the pope punished Forli by placing the city under an interdict, which meant, among other things, that the faithful in that city could not receive the sacraments.

Peregrine was born an only child to wealthy parents in Forli. Like a lot of young men in every time and place, he had strong opinions about the political issues of the day. The citizens (and eighteen-year-old Peregrine) were incensed about the interdict, so the pope sent a Servite priest to Forli to mediate with the residents. That priest was heckled and threatened by the citizens, and Peregrine even struck the priest in his face with his fist. But the priest calmly responded as Jesus had taught his followers to do (Matt 5:39, Luke 6:29), and he literally offered the teenager his other cheek as well.

This simple, humble act brought Peregrine to his knees, and he asked for the priest’s forgiveness. He later sought out the priest whom he had attacked and decided to join the man’s religious order. The priest was Philip Benizi, a brilliant and holy man who eventually became the superior of the Servite order and is now recognized as a saint.

Peregrine became just as devoted to God and peace as he previously been to politics and anger. He carefully followed the rule of life of the Servants of Mary and was zealous in trying to live a life of spiritual perfection and virtue. For example, as a personal penance, he remained standing as much as possible, never sitting down, a practice that he continued for thirty years.

He was also ordained a priest and served in the city of Siena for many years. Eventually, he was sent back to his hometown to establish a Servite community. He became well-known for his preaching in Forli, and he was effective at bringing fallen away Catholics back to the Church.

After years as a Servite priest, at the age of sixty, he was diagnosed with cancer in his foot. (Some sources instead say the cancer affected his leg.) The swelling became painful, smelly, ugly, and persistent, and his doctor finally said that the only possible treatment was amputation. Obviously, the surgery would be done without modern anesthesia (because such things did not exist at the time), and there was a serious risk that he would die during or after the surgery.

But Peregrine had spent his life trusting in God, and he prayed with great peace the night before the surgery was to take place. When he woke up, the cancer was completely and inexplicably gone. After this miracle, Peregrine became widely known for his personal holiness, and he lived to be eighty years old.

Peregrine is certainly not the first or last saint to be diagnosed with cancer. From Saint Galla of Rome (sixth century) to Blessed Chiara Badano (twentieth century), many women and men have been diagnosed with cancer and have showed great peace and trustful surrender to God during their illnesses.

For example, two holy men—a martyr and an almost-martyr— who lived at about the same time but in different countries, were both told they had cancer. Blessed Edward Oldcorne (1561-1606) was an English priest who was forced to keep his vocation secret due to anti-Catholic persecution at the time. He was miraculously cured of throat cancer after a pilgrimage to Saint Winifred’s Shrine, but he was later arrested and tortured for the crime of being a priest. He died a martyr. On the other hand, Saint Joseph of Leonessa (1556-1612) was a Capuchin Franciscan priest. He traveled to Turkey to ransom Christians from slavery and brought many Muslims to the faith. For the crime of converting Muslims, he was tortured, but they eventually released him. He returned to Leonessa, Italy, where he later died of cancer.

Other holy men and women who have suffered with cancer include:

  • Saint Émilie (Marie Guillemette) de Rodat (1787-1852)
  • Saint Zelie (Marie-Azelie) Guerin Martin (1831-1877)
  • Blessed Maria Anna Sala (1829-1891)
  • Blessed Maddalena Caterina Morano (1847-1908)
  • Blessed Marie Leonie (Alodie-Virginie) Paradis (1840-1912)
  • Blessed Isidore of Saint Joseph de Loor (1881-1916)
  • Saint Marie Bertilla (Anne Frances) Boscardin (1888-1922)
  • Blessed Margarita María (María Pilar) López de Maturana Ortiz de Zárate (1884-1934)
  • Blessed Liduina (Elisa Angela) Meneguzzi (1901-1941)
  • Blessed Eustachius (Joseph) Kugler (1867-1946)
  • Blessed Pere Tarrés i Claret (1905-1950)
  • Saint Artemides Zatti (1880-1951)
  • Blessed Lucia of the Immaculate Conception (Maria) Ripamonti (1909-1954)
  • Blessed Charles Emmanuel Rodriguez Santiago (1918-1963)
  • Blessed Giovanni Schiavo (1903-1967)
  • Blessed Hanna Helena Chrzanowska (1902-1973)
  • Blessed Stefan Wyszyński (1901-1981)

While there are many effective treatments—and even cures—for cancers today, even the prospect of suffering from cancer can be frightening. For those who are suffering from cancer and those who care for them, Saint Peregrine can be both an inspiration to trust in God and an intercessor during difficulties. Even today, each person needs the wisdom of the Holy Spirit when making medical decisions and the grace of perseverance when undergoing treatments. Catholic practices such as making a pilgrimage to a shrine of Saint Peregrine (such as this one in Chicago) or praying a novena to Saint Peregrine can help us become more open to God when facing cancer.

After all, Saint Peregrine has no power on his own to save anyone from cancer; it is Jesus Christ who is our Divine Physician and our Savior. But the life story of Saint Peregrine can give us hope when things seem hard or hopeless. And asking for his intercession reminds us that there are saints in Heaven who are cheering us on until the day when God calls us from this world into the next.

Overlooked Mystics of April

Saint Catherine of Siena, Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous mystics in the history of the Church—Saint Catherine of Siena—is celebrated in the month of April. But there are three other canonized saints of April who have a great deal in common with the famous Saint Catherine (1347-1380).

All three of these overlooked saints died relatively young. All three were women who chose to remain virgins and to consecrate their lives to Christ. All three inspired many other Catholics during their lifetimes. And all three were mystics.

What does it mean to say that someone is a mystic? While the secular world may define a mystic in terms of esoteric or occult practices, Catholics prefer to use the term with respect to its root meaning, “a teacher of mysteries”. The mysteries in question are not Agatha Christie-style mysteries or magic-show mysteries, but mysteries of the Christian faith. The mysteries taught by Catholic mystics are the ones that a person can only learn by drawing so close to God that He reveals Himself in powerful and amazing ways.

Saint Teresa of Los Andes, Wikimedia Commons

The woman now known as Saint Teresa of Los Andes (1900-1920) was given a long name at her birth—typical for a girl born into an upper class family in Santiago, Chile—Juana Enriqueta Josephina de Los Sagrados Corazones Fernández Solar. She was a devout girl and made serious efforts to grow in virtue even when she was young. On the other hand, she could be as stubborn and bad-tempered as any other typical child, and she enjoyed swimming, playing tennis, singing, and dancing.

At the age of nineteen, she entered the novitiate of a Carmelite convent in Los Andes. A little less than a year later, she had died of typhus.

But Teresa spent that short year of her life influencing others just as Saint Catherine of Siena had done. That is, she wrote letters. Teresa’s spiritual letters offered advice and encouragement to family and friends. She also shared her mystical experiences and deep devotion in her diary, a devotion so personal that she wrote that she could hear Mary’s voice speaking to her. Because her example and writings influenced others long after her death, she was eventually canonized and is celebrated on the date of her death, April 12.

Saint Bernadette Soubirous, Wikimedia Commons

Most Catholics have heard of Saint Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), the girl who received multiple visions of our Blessed Mother at a grotto in Massabielle, France. Born into poverty and suffering from poor health all her life, the visions of Our Lady of Lourdes made Bernadette famous, although she tried to avoid attention as much as possible.

The Sisters of Notre Dame of Nevers accepted young Bernadette into the order when she was twenty-two years old. Some allege the sisters accepted her primarily to protect her from endless pestering from the faithful about her visions, and they only allowed her to take her religious vows because it was thought she was near death.

But Bernadette was more than just a person who received visions of our Blessed Mother. Like Saint Catherine of Siena, Bernadette’s words had worldwide impact. Her humble retelling of her unexpected visions led to a greater devotion to Mary, a world-famous center for healing, and seventy medically-inexplicable healing miracles. At the same time, Bernadette was a simple young woman who patiently bore endless questioning from both those who adored her and those who vilified her, along with illness and pain. She suffered from chronic asthma from the time she was a child, and it was the asthma, along with tuberculosis of the bones and lungs, that ultimately caused her premature death. Her incorrupt body can be found in the convent in Nevers where she died on April 16, 1879.

Saint Gemma Galgani, Wikimedia Commons

The life story of Saint Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) may sound like a novel, but it is a true story.

Gemma was born in Lucca, Italy, and was one of eight children. Her mother died when she was seven years old, her father died when she was nineteen, and some of her siblings died young as well. Although she wanted to enter the Passionist order, she recognized that her continual poor health made that impossible and instead tried to model her life around Passionist spirituality. Gemma was a beautiful young woman, and she received proposals of marriage after her father’s death. But she instead chose to stay and care for her three younger siblings with the help of an aunt and work as a housekeeper.

As is obvious from her diary, Gemma was a woman of great faith in God. She was diagnosed with spinal meningitis when she was sixteen years old and was expected to die, but she inexplicably recovered. She attributed that miracle to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the intercession of two saints, Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (who died in Lucca) and Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque.

Like Saint Catherine of Siena, Gemma received the stigmata. She was seen to levitate and go into ecstasies while she was praying. She was both respected and mocked by citizens of her city for her piety. Gemma eventually contracted tuberculosis and died on April 11, during Holy Week.

These three devout young women show us that understanding and teaching others about the mysteries of God are not tasks restricted to theology professors. They demonstrate that people of all ages can face physical and emotional suffering with trust in God. And they remind us that mystical gifts come at a price: the price of wholehearted dedication to prayer.

For all these reasons, these overlooked mystics can be as inspirational to us in the twenty-first century as Saint Catherine was in the fourteenth. We can turn to their example of struggling with our weaknesses, patiently accepting our daily crosses, and making prayer a priority in our lives. And we too can hope to become mystics who love God so deeply that His Spirit spills into the lives of those around us.