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.

What a Great Catholic Leader Looks Like

Blessed Charles the Good, Wikimedia Commons

How should a leader lead? That is, how should a president, elected representative, executive board member, office superior, or other leader behave, make decisions, and treat the people he or she governs, at least from a Christian perspective?

Unfortunately, today’s culture does not often use a Christian perspective in its understanding of leadership. Instead, our culture encourages us to judge our leaders by all the wrong metrics. For example, modern media gives us endless access to public leaders’ off-the-cuff remarks, daily physical appearance, family squabbles, and many other personal matters that do not really indicate whether those individuals’ leadership is good, bad, or indifferent.

The teaching of the Church also allows considerable leeway in how a leader can approach many issues. For example, there is no magic percentage of taxation that is always permitted or prohibited. There are some boundaries involving faith and morals which a Christian leader can never cross, but those boundaries apply to every other follower of Christ as well.

However, as Christians, we should hope that our leaders will pattern themselves after the perfect leader: the King of Kings Himself. Three of the saints who are celebrated in the month of March—Blessed Charles the Good on March 2; Saint Cunegund on March 3; and Saint Matilda of Saxony on March 14—show us what a good leader should look like, at least for a Christian leader.

The father of Blessed Charles the Good was both a king and a saint. Canute, king of Denmark, died a martyr during a rebellion, and his son, three-year-old Charles (1083-1127), was taken to the nearby court of Flanders (modern Belgium) for his safety. Charles became a knight in the service of his uncle, Robert II, count of Flanders, and accompanied him to free the Holy Land from Muslim control during a crusade. Charles returned home and married Margaret, the daughter of a French count. After his uncle and cousin died (and after fighting and defeating other claimants to the throne), Charles succeeded them to become count of Flanders.

Why is Charles known as Charles the Good? Because that’s what his subjects called him. Charles recognized that his great duty as a Christian leader was to establish peace, justice, and charity for the wellbeing of his people. He established laws that protected the helpless poor from the greedy rich, and he enforced those laws so sternly that the rich and powerful were afraid to break them. Interestingly, one of his compassionate and innovative decisions was to prohibit children from being taken away from their parents without their consent. During a time of famine, he distributed large quantities of food to the poor, ordered the planting of fast-growing crops, and punished nobles who attempted to hoard food and sell it at exorbitant prices. In the end, it was those greedy nobles who plotted his death and sent knights to murder him in a church in Bruges. But Charles died as he had lived, doing his best as a Christian leader to protect those who were poor.

Saint Cunegund (978-c. 1033) was the daughter of the count of Luxembourg and married Henry, duke of Bavaria. Both Henry and Cunegund were devout Catholics. Although some traditions say that they lived as brother and sister, it is perhaps more likely that they were simply unable to have children. Childlessness was surely painful for them, particularly since having an heir would have encouraged stability for their nation.

Henry was a duke when he married Cunegund, but he later became king of Germany, then king of Italy, and then Holy Roman Emperor. Cunegund was much more than merely the wife of an emperor; she was Henry’s closest advisor, participated in imperial councils, and provided generous endowments for monasteries of nuns from her own resources. She negotiated with the pope for privileges for certain cities, and some said that protection granted by the empress was stronger than the walls of the city itself. Cunegund was a true helpmate to her husband, but she was also a wise woman who set a high standard for faith and morals for an entire empire simply by the way she lived her life.

A year after Henry’s death, Cunegund put aside her crown and entered a Benedictine monastery that she had newly founded. She spent the rest of her life living humbly in that monastery.

Saint Matilda of Saxony (895-968) was also born into the German nobility and married Henry I, king of Germany. Like Cunegund, she was well-matched in her faith by her equally pious husband. Unlike Cunegund, Matilda was not childless. There may have been moments when she wished otherwise.

Matilda also advised her husband and was generous in her support of monasteries. Two of her daughters married into other noble families, and one of her sons, Bruno, became bishop of Cologne, Germany, and is now considered a saint. But her eldest two sons, Otto and Henry, were in constant conflict after the death of their father, each wanting their father’s throne. Initially, Matilda supported her second son to succeed his father, thinking Henry would be better suited to be king. This favoritism caused even more trouble between the sons, although Otto was eventually named king. Otto and Henry later reconciled, at least outwardly. They also criticized their mother for her generosity with the poor and sent spies to spy on her. She patiently joked that at least her sons were united about something for once in their lives.

To put an end to their accusations, Matilda renounced her inheritance and retired to the country. But when multiple disasters occurred afterward in Germany, many people thought that this was due to God’s displeasure over the mistreatment of the widely loved Matilda. Her son Otto, encouraged by his wife, asked for his mother’s forgiveness, and Matilda was able to return to court. And she continued to help the poor, whether her sons liked it or not. Later in life, she retired to one of the monasteries that she had founded, where she died.

What does it mean to be a Christlike leader? These three saints remind us that while it is difficult for a leader not to be intoxicated by power or greedy for money, it is possible to be neither of those things. Sometimes being a good leader simply means ensuring just treatment of those under your control, helping those who need extra help, or patiently dealing with impatient people. That is how our Lord lived His life, and it’s what these three saints remind us to work toward in the month of March.

The Blessings of a Long Life

Methuselah, Wikimedia Commons

In the month of January, the Catholic Church remembers Saint Anthony the Great, who is considered the father of monasticism. Although he was not the first Catholic to leave the world behind and live in the desert, he is certainly considered the greatest of the early monastic leaders of the Church.

Many centuries later, the priest and future saint John of Kanti (1390-1473) was serving as a professor in Poland. Like Anthony, he also lived a life of prayer, fasting, and poverty. Perhaps out of jealousy over his academic achievements, people began to criticize the priest. They particularly warned John that his ascetic practices were too extreme and would lead to his premature death. John simply pointed out that the Fathers of the Church were famous not only for their holiness but for another reason: many of them lived very long lives.

In the Bible, we are told about the long lives of many great Jewish figures, with the clear implication that such people were greatly favored by God. For example, the Old Testament tells us that Abraham lived to be 175 years old and that Moses lived to be 120. Adam’s immediate descendants are recorded as having even longer lifespans; Methuselah, Adam’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson, lived to be 969 years old.

Why does the book of Genesis tell us that Adam and his descendants lived such long lives? There is debate over how to interpret these numbers. But Adam and the nine firstborn men of his line are all said to have lived well over 100 years, most over 900 years. That trend decreases sharply after Noah and the Flood. One simple interpretation is that the Bible is teaching us that human beings were designed to live longer lives, but the effect of sin since the Flood has dramatically reduced our lifespans.

God Himself says (in Gen. 6:3) “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” This is born out by the example of the “meekest of all men”, Moses, who died at the age of 120 years.

There have been many holy people—including the Holy Innocents who died for Christ at the hands of King Herod the Great—who died young. Our Lord Himself died around the age of thirty-three. So one cannot say that only those who live long lives are blessed by God.

But it is not easy to convince people today that some individuals did live very long lives, even in ancient times. It is not uncommon today to hear someone say that people of the past only lived to be sixty years old, or fifty or forty or some other low number. The idea that people of the past did not live to great ages is based on the high rate of infant mortality, number of deaths in childbirth, and other causes of death that we are so fortunate to have reduced in modern times. It is certainly true that these causes dramatically affected the average age of death in past centuries. But that doesn’t mean that no one lived past the age of sixty before the twentieth century. Psalm 90:10 points out that our lives are full of troubles, whether we live to be seventy or eighty years old, indicating that at least some people in the ancient world did reach those ages. Proof of that fact, as Saint John of Kanti knew, can be found in some of the great ascetic saints of the Church.

Saint Anthony the Great (251-310) left his home to live in the Egyptian desert when he was a young man, and he lived to be 105 years old. His recipe for longevity included eating only bread and water (with a little salt) and only after sunset.

Saint Sabas (439-532) lived as a hermit in a cave in Turkey and mostly in solitude, although he also guided the disciples who gradually sought him out. He was ninety-one years old when he undertook a journey on foot. His mission was to ask the emperor to respond with mercy toward the people of a region who had recently rebelled against him. The emperor, recognizing Sabas’ great age, wisdom, and popularity, agreed to Sabas’ requests. Sabas died at the age of ninety-three.

Saint Theodosius the Cenobiarch (423-529) was inspired by the example of the ascetic Saint Simeon the Stylite; he left his family to become a pilgrim and later to live in solitude in a cave. Disciples flocked to him—despite his isolation and strict way of life—and he eventually had to build four separate churches to accommodate the different languages of all his monks. (Cenobiarch is his title, a title which means that he served as abbot over a group of men who lived in community.) At one point, the emperor sent Theodosius a heretical profession of faith and expected him to accept it; Theodosius sent him a fiery no in return. The emperor responded by continuing to persecute the faithful and banishing Theodosius. But the holy man outlived the emperor, returned to his monastery, and died at the age of 106.

Saint Alferius of La Cava (d. 1050) was a courtier who promised God he would become a monk if he recovered from a serious illness. After his recovery, Alferius kept that vow and became a monk at the Abbey of Cluny in France. Alferius later left to live alone as a hermit, but men sought out his wisdom and way of life. He eventually founded the great Abbey of the Holy Trinity of La Cava (La Trinità della Cava, Italy) and died at the age of 120.

But the winner of the longevity award for Christian ascetics has to be Saint Narcissus of Jerusalem (d. 215). Narcissus lived his entire life during the time when the Church was persecuted by the Roman Empire, yet he managed to reach the age of 100 before he was named bishop of Jerusalem. When he recognized that he wanted to spend more time in solitude, he left the city one day and did not come back. Two men succeeded him and served as bishop before Narcissus—still very much alive—returned to the city more than a decade later. Narcissus appointed a coadjutor bishop to help him with his duties, but he remained a strong leader during times of persecution until his death. He may have been 122 years old at his death, beating the great Moses by two years.

While the asceticism of these great saints may not be for everyone, it is easy to draw three conclusions from their example. First, these holy men show us that restricting food and other pleasures and replacing them with prayer, moderation, and solitude can be a recipe for a long life. Second, if we live lives of Christian self-control, others may be inspired to do the same. But most importantly, these holy men remind us that the most blessed life is one spent in the company of God.

Brilliant Mind, Holy Man: Saint Joseph Mary Tomasi

Saint Joseph Mary Tomasi, Wikimedia Commons

I once heard a priest mention in a homily that most heresies have been started by smart priests. The fourth century priest Arius, for example, was a brilliant man, but he was so brilliant that he thought he knew better than the Church. The result was the heresy of Arianism, which not only led innumerable Catholics away from a true understanding of Christ, but also led to decades of persecution and many martyrs.

It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Joseph Mary Tomasi is now considered a saint of the Church. (Note that his name is sometimes given by the Italian spelling, Guiseppe Maria Tomasi, and sometimes spelled Tommasi.) If you are born into a powerful family, are naturally gifted with a brilliant mind, receive an excellent education, and have all the money you could want, are you more likely to be a great saint or a great sinner? Sadly, there are many Christians who received such advantages and used them scandalously.

Joseph was born in 1649 in Sicily, and his father was a duke. His family members were exceptionally devout. His four older sisters became Benedictine nuns, his mother eventually entered a convent as an oblate, and his father wanted to leave the family title to Joseph and retire to religious life as well. But Joseph would not be deterred from his own religious vocation as a priest, and his father was stuck with remaining a powerful leader in the secular world.

Joseph loved to pray, and he loved silence. He was also attracted to the Theatines, a relatively small religious order which had been founded in the sixteenth century. The Theatines had been established as a relatively austere order, and because of the structure of the order, it tended to attract intellectuals and members of the aristocracy. It was hoped that members would not only preach the Gospel but also set a high standard of moral uprightness and intellectual rigor among the clergy. It was the perfect choice for Joseph, and he entered the order as a novice in 1664.

His older sister, who has also been declared a Venerable by the Church, encouraged Joseph in his spiritual life, although she did so long distance from her convent. Joseph himself lived almost like a hermit. He studied (and mastered) many subjects, including philosophy, theology, and eastern languages. His Hebrew teacher, a prominent rabbi, eventually entered the Church because of Joseph’s prayers and personal witness.

After becoming a priest, Joseph wrote many scholarly works, some under a pseudonym out of humility. His writings were so influential within the Church that people called him the “prince of liturgists”.

What made his work so memorable? Through his careful and thorough scholarship, he translated ancient liturgical texts and made them available to his contemporaries to study, opening up a new field of research in sacred liturgy. His writing showed his excellent education and brilliance, but it also showed his piety. He did not study liturgical texts to make a name for himself or as a mere intellectual exercise, but out of his deep devotion and love for God.

Many people also came to him for spiritual direction; one of his penitents was a cardinal named Giovanni Albani. Before entering a conclave to elect a new pope, Joseph told Albani that Albani should accept any attempt to make him pope and that to do otherwise would be a mortal sin. When Albani was then named pope, he got even with his confessor. He promptly named Joseph a cardinal, although Joseph tried hard to escape the honor.

Even while living in Rome as a cardinal, Joseph lived an ascetic life, kept a simple household, patiently bore his own health problems, and personally instructed children in the catechism. He died less than a year after being named a cardinal, on January 1, 1713.

Of course, Joseph is often overlooked on his feast day because his date of death, January 1, is celebrated as New Year’s Day by the world and as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, by the Church. But a man who spent his life trying to avoid even the appearance of pride would not mind. Saint Joseph Tomasi’s entire life shows us that we should always work hard with whatever gifts God has given us—whether that be natural intelligence or fortune or powerful friends or none of the above—but always for God’s glory, not our own.

Three Reasons to Think about Mary in December

Allegory of the Immaculate Conception, Gregorio Vasquez de Arce y Ceballos, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When my book about saints was first released, I was interviewed by Michael O’Neill, better known as the creator and host of the EWTN television show, Miracle Hunter. Before our interview started, I mentioned to him that I was interested in his out-of-print book, 365 Days with Mary. He told me that he was working on a new version, which I am hoping will be released sooner rather than later.

Personally, I have found the Catholic liturgical year to be invaluable in keeping my days, months, and years focused on Jesus Christ. That’s why I was intrigued by the premise of his book. That is, could every single day of the year can be linked to a devotion related to the Blessed Mother? There is at least one website offering a calendar of Marian feast days for every day of the year, but I have been hoping that someone would thoroughly research the subject and determine the origins of all of those dates. Are they related to dates when Marian apparitions occurred? Historical sites and events? Theological controversies? All three of the major Marian feast days currently celebrated by the Church in December can be attributed to one of those three causes.

On December 8, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854 in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church also includes an explanation of this teaching (see nos. 490-493). Although this definition occurred relatively recently, Catholics have been celebrating local feasts in honor of Mary’s conception (although not her immaculate conception) for over a thousand years, and generally around the date of December 8. For centuries, theologians and saints argued about how to explain Mary’s conception in such a way that it would show proper honor to the Mother of God but without detracting in any way from the Son of God Himself. Finally, in the nineteenth century, the pope confirmed and explained this teaching. If this teaching seems complicated to you, a simple, visual explanation is shown at the top of this article. Steve Ray’s Footprints of God: Mary video also has a memorable visual explanation of the teaching, which can be found in this excerpt on YouTube.

But what day of the year should be chosen for such a celebration? The month of December couldn’t be a better time. As we wait to celebrate the birth of Christ in Advent, we can remember that Mary needed a Savior, just like every other man and woman.

Pope Francis recently restored the commemoration of Our Lady of Loreto and made it an optional memorial in the universal calendar on December 10. Many faithful Catholics are familiar with the prayer called the Litany of Loreto, but there’s more to this celebration than a prayer.

The Basilica della Santa Casa is located in Loreto, Italy. According to tradition, this basilica contains the house in which the Blessed Mother lived in Nazareth. Some say the building was miraculously transported from Nazareth to Italy by angels; some say the house was relocated by a wealthy and aristocratic family with the last name of Angelos. If the latter explanation is true, it is easy to see how people came to believe the former. This Wikipedia page lays out arguments for and against theories about the house’s origin, and it also includes some photos of the lovely statue of Our Lady of Loreto and a beautiful marble screen that has been built around the house.

Why was this date restored to the calendar? Probably because pilgrims have been flocking to Loreto since the Middle Ages, perhaps earlier, and this feast day shows respect for the longstanding devotion of faithful Catholics. Why celebrate on December 10? Because the church in Loreto itself established that tradition. Why remember this date at all? Maybe because, while Wikipedia may scoff at reports of miracles at Loreto, ordinary Catholics do not.

On December 12, the Church celebrates the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. In North, South, and Central America, this is commemorated with greater emphasis than elsewhere in the world; it is a feast day in the US.

Most Catholics know the story of Guadalupe, how a peasant named Juan Diego encountered a beautiful woman, how that mysterious woman encouraged him to go to the bishop and ask for a church to be built, how the woman’s image was inexplicably imprinted on his cloak, and how millions of native Americans saw God’s love for them in this miraculous event and became Catholics. There are many other miracles associated with these visions, such as the blooming roses that the Lady pointed out to him—in December— and the fact that Juan’s cloak has survived both the passage of time and a bombing attempt. Since Saint Juan’s final vision of Mary occurred on December 12, 1531, this feast is celebrated on that date.

There are many dates related to the Virgin Mary in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. There are even Marian feast days in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Greek Orthodox Churches, the Greek Catholic Church, Anglican Churches, and Lutheran Churches, although not all are celebrated universally in those churches. But of all the Marian dates in December, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most notable—because it is the date that our Blessed Mother apparently chose herself.

Martyrs, Saints, or Both?

Saint Longinus
Saint Ignatius of Antioch
North American Martyrs

There are some martyrs of the Church who could easily have been canonized as saints even if they had died of old age in their beds, rather than being killed for their Catholic faith. Saint Maximiliam Kolbe (1894-1941), for example, was widely known as a spiritual powerhouse long before he died in a bunker in a Nazi concentration camp, having offered to die for the sake of another man.

There are many Catholic martyrs about whom we know very little except the dates of their deaths and the fact that they chose to die rather than to betray their faith in Christ. This is certainly true for many holy martyrs celebrated by the Church in October.

For example, we know that many men, women, and children died as martyrs in North Africa in the year 483. This occurred because Huneric, king of the Vandals, ordered that anyone who refused to accept Arian teachings, a heresy which he followed, would be put to death. We don’t know the names or ages of all those who died as martyrs for rejecting Arianism, and we don’t know how many were priests, bishops, monks, nuns, or laymen. We just know that some of the Catholics in North Africa survived, remembered the faithfulness of those who had been killed, and kept track of the fact that there were 4,996 of them. For many years, African Catholics remembered those martyrs annually on October 12, and eventually that date was added to the calendar of the universal Church.

But there are other martyrs who are celebrated in October. Ten of them are particularly memorable.

The centurion who stood at the foot of Jesus’ Cross on Good Friday and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54) is traditionally known by Catholics as Longinus. Tradition also says that Saint Longinus died a martyr in what is now Turkey, and he has been remembered on the Church calendar (currently on October 16) for many centuries. But would we have reason to believe Longinus is a saint in Heaven if he hadn’t died a martyr?

A centurion in the Roman army was a soldier in charge of 100 men, and when he became a Roman soldier, he swore an oath to serve both the Roman Empire and the Roman gods. While Longinus surely didn’t understand all the theological implications of Jesus Christ’s Passion as it transpired in front of him, he clearly recognized that there was something extraordinary about this crucified Man. Jesus’ actions and words were so unlike those of every other condemned criminal whom Longinus had helped to crucify in the past that he publicly blurted out a profession of faith (surely inspired by God, see 1 John 4:15). For his recognition of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his willingness to publicly proclaim it, Longinus shows us the faith of a saint.

Few writings from early Church leaders have been as influential as the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (c. 69-107). Ignatius was the bishop of the city of Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey) when the Roman emperor Trajan entered the city and demanded that everyone, including the Christians living there, publicly worship the pagan gods. Bishop Ignatius was arrested and brought before the emperor himself, and when Ignatius refused to renounce his faith in Christ, he was ordered to be brought to Rome for execution. The emperor thought it would be good “entertainment” for the people of Rome to watch a Catholic bishop be fed to wild lions in the Colosseum. As Ignatius traveled to Rome in chains, the Christians of each city came to greet him along the way.

If they thought they needed to encourage Ignatius, they were wrong; Ignatius encouraged them, and he wrote letters to the Christian communities of six cities afterward. In one of the most famous passages of his letters, Ignatius begs the Catholics of Rome to not use their influence with Roman leaders to try to save him from martyrdom. Instead, he expresses his willingness to be literally consumed by wild animals. Just as amazingly, he ties this description to our teaching about the Eucharist, which we consume. Ignatius’ letters indicate the traditional Catholic understanding of what is now called transubstantiation, which is why many non-Catholics have found themselves becoming Catholic after studying the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. For his theological depth as much as his fortitude in facing death, Ignatius is celebrated in the Church’s calendar on October 17.

The Jesuits of France sent many missionaries to the French colonies in North America in the seventeenth century. Eight of those missionaries died as martyrs in the New World and are celebrated together on October 19. All died particularly gruesome deaths and valiantly faced martyrdom, but one could argue that they could have been named saints even if they had not died at the hands of the native peoples they gave their lives to serve.

Imagine leaving a world of seventeenth-century conveniences—wagons, sailing ships, and printing presses, for example—and living among the members of a nomadic tribe, where comforts are few and where access to basic medical care and sometimes food is limited. Saint Noel Chabanel had volunteered to travel to North America to serve the native Hurons as a Catholic priest, but he found it very difficult to live as they did. Still, he remained at his assignment until his death.

On the other hand, Saint John de Brebeuf found that his previously poor health improved as he lived among the Hurons. He spent more than two decades among them, earned their respect, and wrote the first dictionary of their language. Saint Isaac Jogues lived among the Hurons but was captured and tortured by the Iroquois. He survived, returned to France to recover, and, rather than giving up, came back to North America to live among and serve the Hurons again, until he was killed.

All eight of these martyrs, just like the other Jesuit missionaries who came to North America in the seventeenth century, chose to live alongside the native peoples, share in their daily struggles, help those in need, and gently lead them to the Savior who teaches peace and forgiveness. Not only did the heroic deaths of these men lead to conversions among the native peoples, but less than ten years later, a little girl was born in a nearby Mohawk village. Through paths known only to God, these martyrs’ deaths apparently later gave birth to the “Lily of the Mohawks”, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.

All of these martyrs of October are recognized by the Church for their holy deaths, but they should also be recognized for their saintly lives.

Saints Longinus, Ignatius, and the North American martyrs, pray for us!