Remembering All of the Saints

Madonna and Child with Saints
Giovanni Bellini, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Who exactly do we remember on All Saints’ Day?

The official liturgical calendar of the Church, the Martyrologium Romanum, says that the Solemnity of All Saints commemorates all the saints who are in Heaven with Jesus Christ. The Martyrologium Romanum also reminds us that, even though we are still pilgrims on earth, some human beings are already in glory with God and all the angels. These men, women and children not only encourage us by the way they lived their lives, but they protect us with their prayers from Heaven.

Those holy people obviously include the saints we celebrate on other days of the Church’s calendar, and that list includes men, women, and children whose names are known only to God. But there are also several lesser-known saints who are celebrated on November 1 in the Church’s liturgical calendar, typically celebrated on that date because that’s the date that they passed away.

Interestingly, five saints on the calendar on All Saints’ Day provide a snapshot of Church history, as well as a reminder of what it takes to become a saint.

On practically any date of the calendar, the Church celebrates the death of a martyr from the early Church. Until the Roman emperor Constantine the Great permitted the practice of the Catholic faith in the Roman empire, persecution caused the death of many Christians over a period of almost three hundred years.  Saint Caesarius of Terracina is typical of these early martyrs. We don’t know much about him, except for his name and the fact that he was martyred on November 1 of an unknown year in Terracina, Italy.

While the reputation of sanctity among bishops has taken a beating in recent years, saintly bishops are ubiquitous in the Church’s calendar. Magnus of Milan (6th century Italy) is remembered on November 1, one of many Catholic bishops who lived and died such a holy life that his flock began calling him Saint Magnus after his death.

The medieval period produced many men and women who entered religious orders and inspired others with their holiness. Blessed Rainieri Arentino was a Franciscan friar who lived his life in the true spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi; Rainieri was particularly known for his love of poverty and his humility. He died in 1304 in modern Sansepolcro, Italy.

Proving saints from countries other than Italy do exist (unlike the three listed above), Blessed Nuño Álvares Pereira was born in Portugal and became a great general, as well as a husband and a father. But after his wife died, he left it all behind to become a Carmelite friar. He died in 1431 after living happily for many years as a Carmelite.

Blessed Rupert Mayer was born in 1876 in Germany and became a Jesuit priest. In time, he became known all over Germany for the parish missions he preached. During World War I, his bravery in serving his men as a chaplain became legendary; he even lost his left leg during a grenade attack. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Rupert continued to preach repeatedly and fearlessly against Nazism and was therefore repeatedly imprisoned. But he was considered a great German hero, and when he developed heart problems in a concentration camp, the Nazis sent him to be interned in a converted monastery. They were afraid that the famous man would die in the camp and be considered a martyr to the German people. After the Allies defeated Germany and liberated Nazi camps, Rupert was set free and returned to his parish church in Munich. Ever a man of action, he “died with his boots on”; he suffered a stroke while celebrating Mass soon after he was released.

All Saints’ Day is the perfect day to remember the unknown saints in Heaven, but the saints of November 1 also remind us that Heaven is full of real men and women who have given glory to God in the challenges of their own times, places, and cultures. A hundred years from now, what will the life story of a “typical” saint from the twenty-first century look like?

Making Sense of Church Feasts

The liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church is a complicated thing, with varying liturgical colors, two cycles of daily Mass readings, three cycles of Sunday Mass readings, and a four-week psalter for the Divine Office. Add in important dates related to the Son of God and commemorations of the saints, and it can start to seem incomprehensible.

But the hierarchy of dates related to our Lord and the saints is actually fairly easy to understand.

There are four categories of commemorations of Jesus Christ and the saints in the Church’s liturgical calendar: solemnities, feasts, memorials, and optional memorials.

The word solemnity comes from two Latin words which are added together and basically mean “annual celebration”, and it’s easy to see why the Church insists that we celebrate these dates every single year all over the world. For example, dates that commemorate important events in the life of Christ – from His Annunciation to Easter Sunday – deserve to be celebrated in a solemn manner every year. Some dates related to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, as well as dates on which we try to understand great mysteries, such as the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist, are also categorized as solemnities. Saint John the Baptist, the deaths of Saints Peter and Paul, and a commemoration of all the saints in Heaven are all celebrated as solemnities as well.

Although we can informally refer to any commemoration as a feast (as was done in the title of this blog), the Church currently uses the word feast in a very specific way. Feast days are ranked lower than solemnities but higher than memorials. Why?

Our Lady of Guadalupe
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

An excellent example can be found in the celebration of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego in sixteenth century Mexico. This miraculous event is particularly important to the peoples of the Americas, so this date is counted as a feast in the US and many South and Central American countries. In Mexico, it is unsurprisingly celebrated as a solemnity, but it’s not even an optional memorial in England.

While there are no solemnities on the calendar in October, there are two feasts: the Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist (Oct. 18) and the Feast of the Apostle Saints Simon and Jude (Oct. 28). Since the Twelve Apostles are the “foundations” of the Church (see Rev. 21:14) and since we wouldn’t know much about our Lord and the apostles if it weren’t for the four evangelists, it makes sense to celebrate them with feasts.

Memorials also commemorate a saint, group of saints, dedication of a church, or mystery of the faith, but they are lower in rank in the hierarchy of the Church’s calendar. Memorials remind us of saints who are important to Catholics all over the world, such as Saint Therese of Lisieux (Oct. 1) and Saint Teresa of Jesus (Oct. 15), not just in France and Spain where those two women spent most of their lives, respectively. Conversely, the North American Martyrs (Oct. 19) are celebrated with a memorial in North America, but not in other parts of the world.

In a few instances, Catholic saints have been able to cross the Catholic-Protestant divide and be celebrated even outside the Catholic Church. For example, some non-Catholic churches celebrate the memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4) with the blessing of animals.

There are also many optional memorials in the Church’s calendar. This is just what it sounds like; the celebration of an optional memorial is optional, not required. If you attend Mass on Oct. 22, Pope Saint John Paul II may be remembered with extra prayers directed to his intercession, or maybe not.

Some days on the liturgical calendar include more than one optional memorial. For example, on Oct. 5, prayers at Mass may refer to the Polish nun Saint Faustina Kowalska or the American priest Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos – or neither. Additionally, every Saturday of the year can be celebrated as an optional memorial for the Blessed Virgin Mary – but not if there is a memorial, feast, or solemnity on that date for another reason, such as Holy Saturday, which would trump the optional memorial.

Although this sounds confusing, the hierarchy of solemnities, feasts, memorials, and optional memorials can help us recognize which saints or mysteries of the faith that the Church would like us to particularly remember on a given date. And that is the point of the liturgical calendar to begin with: to help us draw closer to God and the saints every day, every month, and every year, until we (hopefully) reach our destination, which is Heaven itself.

Lessons from the Saints for September

Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many lessons that we can learn from the lives of the saints of the month of September. Here are seven of those lessons.

Lesson #1: You don’t need so much “stuff” in your life

The famous Mother Teresa (feast day Sep. 5), known to the Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, founded the Missionaries of Charity to care for the poorest of the poor. But Teresa and every sister in her order lived lives of poverty too, and each one possesses only two habits: one blue-and-white sari to wear that day and one to wash for the next day.

What does that teach us? We need God in our lives, much more than all the things we think we need.

Lesson #2: Don’t let others’ opinions rule your life

The Jesuit missionary priest Saint Peter Claver (feast day Sep. 9) had become a well-known but controversial figure in Colombia because of the decades he spent caring for Africans who arrived in South America as slaves. He faced endless opposition for daring to treat African slaves as real human beings. During an epidemic, he cared for the sick of the city and caught the disease himself. In the aftermath of the epidemic, everyone forgot about him—until they found out he was dying. The whole city showed up to be blessed by the dying man and then came to his funeral.

Although people may forget about you, remember that God never forgets about you.

Lesson #3: There are hidden joys in suffering

Saint Catherine Fieschi (feast day Sep. 15) found herself married to a cruel and unfaithful man in late seventeenth century Genoa, Italy. After moping about her situation for years, she was given a great grace: one day God overwhelmed her with the knowledge of all that He had done for her, and she was brought to her knees in gratitude. She began to devote her time to prayer rather than complaining, and her husband eventually repented. The couple lived devoutly together for the rest of their lives.

Our sufferings—though seemingly interminable—really do bear unexpected fruit in God’s time.

Lesson #4: “Retreat” is sometimes the best option

Saint Cyprian (feast day Sep. 16) was the bishop of Carthage (modern Tunisia) in the third century. When he heard that the Roman authorities were coming to persecute Christians, he escaped from the city and went into hiding. Some Christians complained afterwards, blaming him for abandoning his flock, who were largely martyred during this bitter persecution. Cyprian vigorously responded by asking a valid question: who would lead the church in Carthage if the head of the church had been killed? Cyprian later returned to the city during a time of peace. Proving that he was no coward, when Roman soldiers showed up on his doorstep under a later persecution, he professed his faith and was executed immediately.

Clearly, there are times when retreating from the battle is the most Christ-like option.

Lesson #5: What you think are inspirations from God may not always be inspirations from God

The twelfth century Benedictine abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen (feast day Sep. 17) was brilliant, devout, and a strong leader. She also received mystical visions from the time she was a girl. Perhaps she was one of those saints who assume everyone receives such gifts because she didn’t tell anyone about them until the messages they contained began to alarm her. She immediately submitted them to the authorities, and the pope himself later approved them.

Remember that if you want to be holy, the inspirations, visions, or even simple insights you receive need to be judged by the Church (sometimes simply comparing them to something like the Catechism), rather than your own subjective opinion.

Lesson #6: You don’t have to be a straight A student for God to use you

If sanctity required a high IQ, Saint Joseph of Cupertino (feast day Sep. 18) would never have become a saint. He was such a poor student that he was only ordained a priest through a seeming miracle. Yet he was a deeply humble man, and humility is far more important to God than IQ points. This is proved by the fact that Joseph’s adult life was one long string of inexplicable miraculous events: levitation, healings, ecstasies, and feats of strength. His fellow Franciscan friars, far from showing Joseph off to get attention, basically forced him to live in solitude to avoid crowds of gawkers.

God showers gifts on people who love Him, not those who think they are smarter than others.

Lesson #7: God is patient with difficult people

Many, many saints of the Church are noted for their gentleness. Not so Saint Jerome of Stridon (feast day Sep. 30), the fourth century Doctor of the Church who became famous for using his wit and wisdom in devastating his opponents. Granted, Jerome’s opponents were generally those that he thought were speaking falsely about God or His Church, but if the Church wanted to appoint a patron saint of overly sensitive people with biting tongues, there is no candidate better than Saint Jerome.

The saints of September remind us that sanctity is often not what we think it is. Sanctity requires that we renounce our attachments to possessions. Sanctity teaches us to trust in God’s word more than the opinions of other people. If we are trying to be holy, we try to accept difficulties out of love. Holy people recognize the need to retreat from the fight sometimes and be ready for the next battle. Becoming holy means that we turn to the wisdom of the Church to evaluate our own ideas sometimes. Saints know that we are all fools compared to God. And being patient with difficult people is part of the battle for holiness. After all, sometimes we are difficult people.

Saint John Vianney and Philomena

Saint Jean-Marie Vianney
Andreas König, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/,
via Wikimedia Commons

When Saint John Vianney (whose feast day is August 4) attributed miracles to the intercession of the martyr Philomena, was it really her prayers that healed people, or was it due to Saint John’s prayers? Fr. George Rutler, in his charming book The Cure of Ars Today, delicately raises the question of whether Saint John was deflecting attention away from the power of his own prayers by crediting an early Church martyr instead. To answer that question, it would be helpful to examine the lives of both of these saints first.

Saint John Vianney (1786-1859) was a French priest who was famous during his own lifetime for spending many hours every day in the confessional and for his ability to read the consciences of his penitents. But despite the fact that he was well-known all over France, he strongly resisted secular fame, lived a strict and ascetic personal life, and rejected any insinuation that he might be responsible for the occasional miracles that seemed to result from his prayers for the sick and needy. Instead, he pointed to Saint Philomena. Who was Philomena?

On May 24, 1802, an examination of the catacomb of Saint Priscilla in Rome had unearthed a damaged inscription on a tomb. The broken skeleton of a teenage girl was found inside the tomb, and it appeared that the girl’s name was Philomena. The fact that a small vial (which had apparently contained blood) and a palm symbol were present on the tomb strongly indicated that she was a martyr. But no other information was found, and her relics were merely catalogued with those of many other Catholics buried in the catacombs. A few years later, a priest came across the relics of Philomena and said that he experienced a feeling of “great joy”. Convinced that Philomena was a powerful saint in Heaven, he had her relics enshrined in a parish church in Italy. Miracles followed. Saint John was not the only person in the early nineteenth century who became convinced of the power of Saint Philomena’s prayers, but he was certainly one of the most famous and the most vocal in encouraging others to seek her intercession.

But this is not the first time that a holy (living) person has had a great devotion to a (deceased) saint of the Church and has directed all the credit for possible miracles toward that saint. For example, the humble Brother (now Saint) Andre Bessette (1845-1937) from Canada attributed the intercession of Saint Joseph for the many healing miracles that occurred when people asked for Andre’s prayers. A less well-known saint, Theodore of Sykeon in Turkey (d. 613), had a great devotion to the early Church martyr Saint George and was known as a miracle worker; Theodore’s prayers even healed the emperor’s son from leprosy on one occasion. Saint Gemma Galgani, a young woman who lived in nineteenth century Italy, claimed that Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (a saint from her own hometown) interceded for her miraculous cure from spinal tuberculosis. Which saint was responsible for those inexplicable events?

In some ways, to ask whether it was Saint John or Philomena who was the true miracle worker is a ridiculous question. As Fr. Rutler and any good Catholic could easily point out, the saints are just human beings have no supernatural power of their own. Our requests for help from any saint in Heaven rests on the simple fact that that saint is in Heaven, looking upon the face of God. As we Catholics have to explain to our Protestant brothers and sisters, we ask for the saints to help us precisely because they are closer to God than we are, not because they are gods themselves.

Perhaps the Church has already discovered the best way to settle this situation, as it does in every canonization process. The Church waits until after the death of a person and examines the “fruits” of that person’s life, both before and after death, before making a statement about whether the person was holy or not. Although the pope can waive the requirement for a miracle to raise a holy person from the rank of Venerable to Blessed and to Saint, the requirement is there for a reason. If, for example, a woman gave birth to her child, saw that her son was not breathing, and then prayed fervently and incessantly for a particular deceased bishop to intercede with God to save her child from death, and then if that child inexplicably woke up after not breathing for an hour, one would have good reason to believe that the bishop she called upon was already in Heaven. That’s what happened to Bonnie Engstrom, and that’s why we should have good reason to believe that Venerable Fulton Sheen will be named Blessed Fulton Sheen at some point.

Unfortunately, like Fulton Sheen, Philomena is not officially Saint Philomena in the eyes of the Church yet. That is, she is not listed in the Martyrologium Romanum, the official calendar of saints and blesseds in the Church. After all, it is difficult to be certain of her status as a martyr based solely on strong feelings, an image of a palm branch, and an empty vial.

But to focus on whether or not Philomena is a canonized saint is to miss an important question: why does God permit miracles to occur when we call upon the names of holy men and women in the first place? When God allows a baby to come back to life, a sick person to recover from a fatal illness, a teenager to get out of his hospital bed after a deadly accident, right after someone has begged for Saint John or Philomena or Fulton to beg the Lord for healing for their loved one, then He is teaching us important lessons about holiness. He is reminding us that death is not the end for a Christian and that saints still care about and love us even from Heaven. And perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is that we should want to walk in the footsteps of these holy men and women, lead holy lives, and beg the Lord to rain down miracles when we (God willing) get to Heaven.

Saint John Vianney and Philomena, pray for us!

Two great saints of July

Two of my favorite lesser-known saints are celebrated in July: Saint Christina the Astonishing and Blessed Titus Brandsma.

Saint Christina’s life story is, well, astonishing, and would make a great movie, as described here.

Many people know about great Carmelite saints such as Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, and Therese of Lisieux. But few know about Blessed Titus Brandsma, who is described here.

July Saints: What makes a great (Catholic) leader?

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, distributing alms,
Circle of Francesco Pittoni, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the advantages of reading about a few saints each day is that you learn about hundreds of saints in the course of a year. One of the disadvantages is that it becomes difficult to “see the forest for the trees”; that is, it’s hard to notice what similar saints teach us.

In the month of July, we celebrate some great saints who were also great leaders. They were holy men and women who did not live in a cloister or a desert, but in the middle of a very busy, powerful world. Their public decisions affected entire nations, and their personal example influenced all their countrymen.

For example, Saint Elizabeth of Portugal (1271-1336, feast day celebrated July 5 in the US) was a Spanish princess who was married to Denis, the king of Portugal, in an arranged marriage. She faithfully fulfilled her public duties as queen, and she was generous in personally serving the poor. But she privately suffered a great deal through her marriage. Her husband’s repeated unfaithfulness to his marriage vows caused scandal, and his illegitimate children caused resentment between their legitimate son and his father the king.

Saint Henry II (973-1024, feast day July 13) was the duke of Bavaria and became Holy Roman Emperor in 1014. His reign was spent in complicated political and military actions to improve the stability of the Holy Roman Empire. But he was personally devout and such a supporter of monasticism that he eventually told an abbot that he wanted to resign his office and take an oath of obedience, living as a simple monk.

Saint Olaf of Norway (d. 1030, feast day July 29) was also a fervent Catholic, and when he became king of Norway, he strongly encouraged the introduction of Christianity in his country. Many of his pagan countrymen resisted the Christian faith, just as strongly.

Clearly, being a powerful leader did not keep these saints from knowing great challenges in life, and God did not miraculously resolve their problems. But God did give them the grace to deal with their challenges in a holy way.

Saint Elizabeth, like the longsuffering mother of Saint Augustine, exemplified the virtue of patience. She did not overlook her husband’s failings, but she treated him with respect and charity for decades. At the end of his life, she cared for him personally, and her unfailing kindness finally moved her husband’s heart to repentance over his past infidelities before his death.

Saint Henry, as the Holy Roman Emperor, could have demanded that the abbot accept his request to renounce his title. But Henry knew the value of obedience from both sides—both as a leader and a follower—and he acquiesced when the abbot told him he would please God more by remaining emperor than by becoming a monk.

Saint Olaf died a martyr in battle, fighting for his vision of bringing the faith to all his countrymen. He chose to give up life rather than give up his faith, but in so doing, he planted the seeds of Christian faith in Norway.

All three of these saints show us that it is possible to live a life of holiness even when you are surrounded by power, pleasure, politics, and selfish people. The first step is not to change “power structures,” but to change yourself. Despite their wealth, they all cared for the poor. Despite their status, they all knew personal suffering. Despite the heavy weight of their responsibilities, they all witnessed to their love of God through prayer.

Even if our personal “kingdom” is one family, not an entire nation, we can strive to lead those around us through patience, humble obedience, and courage, even when we are humiliated or outnumbered.

Saints Elizabeth, Henry, and Olaf, pray for us!

Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor,
Axel Mauruszat, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

June: A Month for Martyrs

Saints Peter and Paul, El Greco, Wikimedia Commons

June is traditionally known as the month of the Sacred Heart, but it could also be known as the month of martyrs because there are so many great witnesses to the faith on the Church’s calendar for June.

The month ends with the First Martyrs of Rome, the title given to the Christian men and women who died during the Roman emperor Nero’s persecution of the Church in Rome in the year 64. It is possible—perhaps even probable—that Nero ordered a fire to be started the city of Rome. He had not been shy about his desire for more imperial real estate, coincidentally right on the spot where the great fire started. Unfortunately, the fire got out of control and burned down two-thirds of the city, causing incredible damage and loss of life. To avoid a riot and possible assassination, Nero blamed the Christians, executing them in horrible ways for ghastly effect. He also issued a famous edict, which declared that Christians were traitors to the Roman Empire; this law was in effect for more than two hundred years and created many more martyrs, several celebrated in June.

The month of June also includes commemorations for men and women who died as martyrs in modern times. Blessed Jacques Berthieu was a French Jesuit priest who was a missionary to Madagascar and was killed in 1896 when pagan rebels resented his success in bringing people to Christ. In 1915, Blessed Ignazio Maloyan was the Armenian archbishop of Mardin, Turkey, when he and four hundred other Christians were marched into the desert and executed because they refused to convert to Islam. When Nazis chose to execute random citizens of a town in Poland in 1943, Blessed Marianna Biernacka offered her own life in exchange for her pregnant daughter-in-law’s.

Most people have never heard of those saints, but many have heard of the following martyrs of June. The man commonly known as Saint Justin Martyr did not have the last name of “Martyr”: he was a second century philosopher who embraced Christianity and wrote convincingly about the truths of the faith. He was so convincing that he became dangerous, so he was executed in 165. Saint Boniface is considered the Apostle of Germany for his success in bringing so many Germans into the faith during the eighth century; he was attacked and killed in the year 754. Saints Thomas More and John Fischer were, respectively, the lord chancellor of England and the bishop of Rochester. They lost their titles and their lives when they refused to capitulate to King Henry VIII’s demands in 1535. Saint Charles Lwanga and his companions were killed in 1886 by an immoral, cruel Ugandan leader who resented conversions to Christianity in his household and country.

But Catholics do not celebrate martyrs because we enjoy tales of blood and gore or because we have a vengeful streak. The Church celebrates martyrs because they are the ones who imitate Jesus Christ most perfectly: by laying down their lives for their friends as Christ did. Every one of these martyrs had a choice; they could have been less obviously Catholic in their daily lives, gone into hiding when things looked dangerous, or renounced their Christian faith when they were arrested. Instead, they laid down their lives for their friend, Jesus Christ.

Even the great Saints Peter and Paul could have lived quiet lives in obscurity and safety somewhere on the fringes of the Roman empire in the first century. Instead, they lived Christ-centered lives that regularly put their lives in danger. According to tradition, the two men were executed on the same date, though in different places in the city of Rome.

How many people have been drawn to the Christian faith because of the witness of the martyrs? Only God knows. But doesn’t their courage in the face of imminent death make it easier to face those little deaths we all die daily? For example, we can choose to turn to God in prayer instead of toward a distraction when things get tough; we can control our tempers and not yell back at an angry child; we can decide to not share a friend’s secrets; we can have the courage to admit our mistakes. Every martyr-saint started on the path to holiness by making small sacrifices like those in their everyday lives. We can do the same.

Saint Makers of the Month of May

Subleyras, Pierre Hubert; San Juan de Avila (c.1499-1569); Birmingham Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/san-juan-de-vila-c-14991569-33281

Proverbs 27:17 teaches us that, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another (RSV).” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the saints of the Church in the month of May. Some saints have a particular gift for inspiring other men and women to become saints.

Of course, there are many saints and blesseds commemorated in the month of May who encouraged others to become holy. The original apostles who preached the Gospel according to Jesus’ command—such as Saints Philip, James the Lesser, and Matthias—called their listeners to imitate the perfection of our Lord. Likewise, great preachers like Saint Bernardine of Siena, great thinkers like Saint Bede, and great popes like Saint Gregory VII drew people closer to Christ through their leadership. Abbots such as Saint Theodosius of Kiev directed the spiritual lives of their monks, and the Rule of Life created by Saint Pachomius the Great was incorporated in subsequent monastic orders and lived by many monks seeking holiness. Founders of religious orders such as Saint Peter Nolasco (Order of Our Lady of Ransom), Blessed John Martin Moye (Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence), and Saint Madeline Sophie Barat (Society of the Sacred Heart) inspired many men and women to follow them into religious life. One could even argue that martyrs—from Saint Flavia Domitilla in the second century to Saint Christopher Magallanes in the twentieth—helped other men and women face death with supernatural courage through their personal examples.

But there are two saints on the liturgical calendar in May who seemed to ignite the souls of men and women around them and encourage them to become not just better people, but holy people.

Saint John of Avila was born into a pious, Catholic family in Spain in 1499. As a young man, he recognized God’s call to become a priest, and he was still awaiting ordination when his parents died. He inherited their fortune—which he quickly gave away to the poor. As a newly ordained priest, he wanted to travel to the faraway New World as a missionary, but his bishop convinced him that he was needed in his homeland. The bishop was right. For forty years, John traveled all over his native Spain, preaching and re-evangelizing his countrymen. He brought many Catholics back to a better practice of their faith, but he also made some powerful enemies when he confronted the nobility about the Gospel command to care for the poor. They caused him to be imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, but only for a year.

But John also had friends. The founders of the Discalced Carmelite order, Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, consulted John for spiritual advice. The nobleman-turned-Jesuit priest Saint Francis Borgia was one of his friends, along with the Dominican mystical writer and priest Saint Louis of Granada, and Franciscan priest and reformer Saint Peter of Alcantara. One of John’s most famous penitents was Saint John of God, a former soldier who reformed his life and, under John’s direction, founded a group of men who cared for the sick, which later became a religious order. John of Avila was also such an expert on the Bible that Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church in 2012.

Statue of S. Philip Neri in facade of church Santa Maria Maddalena, Wikimedia Commons

Saint Philip Neri was born not long after Saint John of Avila, in the year 1515, but in a pious, Catholic family in Italy. As a young man, he went to live with a childless relative who, his family hoped, would make Philip his heir. But God touched Philip’s heart in a profound way, and he left everything behind, traveling to Rome on an inspiration, trusting solely in Divine Providence to show him what to do next. There, he spent two years as a tutor, living like a recluse, only to start all over again and simply walk the streets of Rome, inviting the people that he encountered to join him in serving the sick and visiting churches with him to pray. At his confessor’s urging, Philip sought out ordination as a priest, and he spent the rest of his life giving spiritual conferences, forming a community of priests known as the Oratory, and attracting many Catholics back to their faith through his joyful, friendly manner.

Who were Philip’s friends? Saint Catherine dei Ricci was a Dominican tertiary, mystic, and stigmatist who was so known for her wisdom that three popes visited her and asked for her advice. She also corresponded with Philip and bilocated to see him on at least one occasion. Saint Luigi Scrosoppi was a priest and member of Philip’s Oratory who founded orphanages and a religious order to care for abandoned children. Saint Felix of Catalice was just a farmer before he became a Franciscan lay brother, but Philip thought highly of the humble man whose favorite topic of conversation was the praise of God. When Saint John Leonardi, the priest and scholar who founded the order of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God, found himself exiled from his native city, Philip gave him a place to live—and a pet cat. Like John of Avila, Saint Philip also had a famous penitent: Saint Camillus de Lellis, a former soldier and inveterate gambler who repented and also gave his life over to serving the sick and forming a religious order.

Did Saints John and Philip cause these men and women to become saints? Of course not. Both men would have vigorously objected to being named as “saint makers” and pointed out the obvious truth that God is the source of all good gifts, including sanctity. Many of these men and women were well on the way to sanctity before they met John or Philip.

But “iron sharpens iron”, and holy men and women encourage one another to grow in holiness, like runners encourage one another in a race. Although God alone is the true “saint maker”, Saints John of Avila and Philip Neri show us the value of surrounding ourselves with friends who will make us want to become saints.

Saints John of Avila and Philip Neri, pray for us!

Saints of the Month of May

Want to find out what my book about saints is like before you buy it? Search for a date in the month of May. I created short biographies of lesser-known saints and blesseds for every day in May, and none of them are included in my book.

Blessed Columba of Rieti (feast day May 20), for example, surprised me. I didn’t realize that there was a female saint so much like the famous Saint Catherine of Siena.

Help from the Saints in April

Saint Mary of Egypt, by Domenico Fetti, Wikimedia Commons

It is easy for the saints of the past to seem, well, out of date. After all, early Church martyrs and cloistered nuns didn’t have to deal with the problems we have today, right?

Wrong. With a little effort, it’s easy to find at least one saint commemorated by the Church every day of April* who has something to teach us about dealing with our modern problems.

DateSaint
April 1Concerned about the women (and men) who are forced into a life of prostitution because of pornography? Pray for the intercession of Saint Mary of Egypt (d. 421), who lived as a prostitute for seventeen years before repenting and spending the rest of her life in the desert as a penitent and holy woman.
2Ever been asked by your boss to do something impossible? Saint Francis of Paolo (d. 1507) had such a reputation as a miracleworker that the king of France asked him to come pray over him and heal him. (Francis managed to convince the king to be resigned to God’s will for his health.
3Proving that sibling rivalry happens to saints too, Saint Richard of Wyche (d. 1253) only earned his brother’s resentment when he saved his family from debt. After their parents’ death, Richard was the one who threw himself into the hard work of recovering the family fortunes. His older brother grudgingly offered him the family title. Fortunately, Richard had very different plans for his life and disinterestedly left it all behind to become a priest and bishop.
4Those who have suffered under a harsh teacher can ask Saint Isidore of Seville (d. 636) for help in forgiveness. Isidore’s older brother may have been a demanding teacher, but Isidore eventually learned to love learning—and became a Doctor of the Church.
5Ever had to confront a friend with his sinful behavior? One of the friends of Saint Vincent Ferrer (d. 1419) was an anti-pope. Three men claimed to be the pope at the same time, which caused violence and confusion all over Christendom. When Vincent’s friend, anti-pope Benedict XIII, refused to stop calling himself the pope, Vincent had to publicly oppose him.
6All those who hope for a revival of sacred music today can ask for the intercession of Blessed Notkar Balbulus (d. 912). Although his name sounds awkward to us and although he had a stutter, he composed beautiful music for Mass.
7Those suffering from throat cancer can ask for the intercession of Blessed Edward Oldcorne (d. 1606). Edward was miraculously healed of cancer after a pilgrimage; he died a martyr in anti-Catholic England.
8Trauma victims have a patroness in Saint Julie Billiart (d. 1816), who was paralyzed for decades after experiencing the traumatic experience of seeing someone shoot at her father. Her paralysis was later cured, but not until after she had begun her work as a founder of a religious teaching order.
9The Holy Family of Nazareth is not the only holy family. Saint Waldetrudis (d. 688) can pray for holiness in our families; her parents, husband, sister, and four children are also saints.
10Need comfort during any trial? Try reading and memorizing the Bible. Saint Terence was one member of a group of Catholics who were arrested during the third century because they were Christian; he recited passages from the Gospels to strengthen himself during interrogation.
11Afraid of being ridiculed for being too devout? Ask Saint Gemma Galgani (d. 1903) to help. People made fun of her too, until the stigmata appeared on her hands and feet every Thursday night through Friday afternoon.
12If you suffer from stubbornness, ask for the help of Saint Teresa of the Andes (d. 1920). Teresa worked hard to train her stubborn nature to obey God; she died a holy novice to the Carmelite order when she was only twenty years old.
13Saint Caradoc of Wales (d. 1124), an English hermit, is an excellent patron for those who love animals as he did.
14Those who love to build things (Lego projects or buildings) should turn to Saint Benedict (d. 1184). Following divine inspiration and with little training or help, he built a bridge to help travelers.
15Concerned about a family member who is far from the Church? Blessed Cesar de Bus (d. 1607) is the perfect intercessor. He lived a wild life until the memory of a deceased friend and an image of the Blessed Mother brought him to a complete conversion.
16If you are ever tempted to look down on a homeless person on the street, remember Saint Benedict Labre (d. 1783). He chose to be homeless so that he could make innumerable pilgrimages to holy sites and live only for God.
17Do your kids think you are too strict? Saint Robert of Molesme (d. 1111) had a similar problem as abbot. Some of his monks were so resentful of the way he ordered monastic life that he left them to their own devices twice. (The pope ordered him to return and straighten them out.)
18Our priests always need our prayers. Blessed Robert Moreau (d. 1794) was executed for merely being a priest during the French Revolution.
19Pope Saint Leo IX (d. 1054) is an excellent person to remember when preparing oneself for death. After being imprisoned, his health deteriorated. At the end of his life, he asked to be taken to St. Peter’s Basilica and laid next to his coffin, as a reminder of the need to prepare to face God.
20Difficult teenagers in your life? Saint Agnes of Montepulciano (d. 1317) was only fifteen years old when she was made abbess of a new convent. Ask her to intercede.
21Need help defending the faith to others? Ask for the prayers of Saint Apollonius (d. 185). He was a Roman senator when he began studying philosophy and discovered Christianity. He gave an eloquent explanation of the faith—before he was executed.
22If your family of origin is far from perfect, Saint Theodore of Sykeon (d. 613) is the saint for you. His mother never married and was apparently a prostitute who ran an inn. (Some say she repented and later lived a good Christian life.)
23Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu (d. 1939) is yet another patroness for difficult adolescents. She was the kind of teen who would stubbornly criticize any request from a parent—but then go do what was asked. Her love for Christ softened her heart, and she died as a Trappist nun.
24The legal profession needs prayers in every age; Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen (d. 1622) was a lawyer who gave up the profession because of rampant dishonesty and became a priest and martyr.
25Saint Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur (d. 1667) was a Franciscan tertiary who encouraged people to pray for one another and care for the poor. That recommendation is needed in every age.
26We can always pray for priests who will celebrate Mass in a manner which is both beautiful and prayerful, just as did Saint Stephen of Perm (d. 1396).
27Mothers everywhere can ask for the wisdom and humility of Saint Zita of Lucca (d. 1278), who lived her life as the housekeeper of a large household and brought peace and charity to all those who lived under the same roof with her.
28Not comfortable with devotion to Mary? Ask for help from Saint Louis de Montfort (d. 1716), a French priest whose writings have inspired generations of Catholics with a greater love of the Blessed Mother.
29Do you want a greater devotion to the Blessed Sacrament? Pray for the intercession of Saint Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), a Dominican tertiary who lived on Communion—and nothing else—for the final years of her life.
30Don’t know what to do when life seems out of control? Follow the example of Pope Saint Pius V (d. 1572). While the future of Europe was hanging in the balance during the Battle of Lepanto, he prayed the rosary and encouraged others to do the same.

All you saints, pray for us!

* Note that Holy Week begins during the latter part of March and early part of April in 2021. Saints are therefore not commemorated by the Church in the liturgy on those dates.