More July Saints for the Movies

Saint Simeon Stylites; Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain.

As explained in a previous post, not all Catholic saints enjoyed peaceful, quiet lives. Several male saints commemorated in July also had life stories that would make them great subjects for the movies.

Saint Simeon Salus would seem a poor choice on the surface for a visual media like film because he spent almost thirty years living as a monk in the Sinai Desert in Egypt in the sixth century. It would be hard to turn that experience into an action picture. (Note that many Christian men and women had begun to live in the desert in the sixth century because of the inspirational example of Saint Anthony the Great. Anthony was not the first Christian hermit in the desert, but he was certainly the most famous.) But after decades of silent, penitential living, Simeon recognized that God was calling him to return to his native country of Syria and serve the needy. So he did. However, to avoid being treated as a living saint in the town, he humbly pretended to be very unintelligent. He was so successful that the people gave him the nickname “Salus”, which means “stupid”. One can imagine many humorous incidents occurred in Simeon’s life until his neighbors realized he was saintly, not stupid. He is commemorated by the Church on July 21.

Unlike Saint Simeon Salus, the biography of Saint Simeon the Stylite wouldn’t work as a comedy. This Simeon also lived a penitential life as a monk—in fifth century Turkey—but the penances he imposed upon himself were not funny or easy. He chose increasingly difficult places in which to live: first a hut, then a cave, and then on top of a small pillar. He also prayed for hours in difficult postures. This would seem flamboyant, rather than simple, if it wasn’t for the fact that he did all this in the middle of nowhere, and we only know about his penances because of the crowds who came to see him and to listen to him speak about God. All these penances, after all, were performed as an atonement for his own sins and those of others. That is, Simeon detached himself not only from sin but even from ordinary pleasures so that he could live entirely for God. And, one hopes, the people who came to see him went home resolved to let go of their own attachments to sinful pleasures too. His feast day is July 27.

If someone made a children’s movie about the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (also commemorated on July 27), it would sound like this: seven Christian men were walled up inside a cave during the days of the Roman empire, to execute them for their faithfulness to Christ. Two hundred years later, the cave was accidentally discovered and reopened, and the seven men miraculously woke up, Rip van Winkle style, from their long sleep.

A more realistic movie about these saints would follow the older tradition—rather than the later legend just described—that the seven men were martyred around the year 250 because they refused to renounce Christ and were buried in a cave near the city of Ephesus (modern Turkey). When their tomb was rediscovered in the year 479, inscriptions on the cave explained that they were martyrs. It appears that the inscription in the cave referred to the seven men as “sleeping in the Lord”, a not uncommon New Testament expression (for example, see Acts 7:60, 1 Cor. 15:6, 1 Thes. 4:13, 2 Pet. 3:4) to describe Christians who have died peaceful deaths. This may have led to the fanciful legend about their two-hundred-year-long sleep.

But only a believer could make a film about the life of Saint Sharbel Makhlouf (1828-1898), who is remembered by the Church on July 24. He was devout from an early age; his favorite book when he was a young man was The Imitation of Christ. (It is a spiritual classic; look it up.) Sharbel lived as a monk and then as a hermit, with only the barest necessities. But his profound love for God somehow attracted people to him even in his solitary life. He was so deeply devoted to our Lord’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament that he spent hours preparing before he celebrated each Mass. When he prayed, people sometimes saw him levitating above the ground. He suffered from paralysis at the end of his life, but he accepted his painful condition with great peace. Death has not slowed him down either. Blood has been found to flow from his incorrupt body on multiple occasions, and he is greatly loved by the Lebanese people for the miraculous healings that have occurred through his intercession.

Ultimately, none of these holy men would care about being featured in a movie—unless that movie helped its audience learn how to seek humility, self-discipline, courage, and a love for prayer for the sake of the God who loves us so much.

July Saints for the Movies

John Salmon / Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Quidenham, Norfolk – Windows

In an ordinary year, summer movies would be a hot topic for conversation. But as movie theater seats have been replaced by couches and recliners for many of us, the Catholic saints celebrated in July provide us with extraordinary biographies that would be fascinating if told through the movies.

The dramatic martyrdoms of sixteen French nuns who were executed during the French Revolution are a perfect example. Actually, Francis Poulenc already proved that by writing an opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, about them.

The basic story is very simple. Officials during the French Revolution executed a lot of people, for almost any reason or no reason at all, but the Catholic Church was a particular target. When sixteen nuns of the city of Compiegne were arrested and sentenced to be executed on July 17, 1794, it was nothing new or remarkable. Well, it wasn’t remarkable until these brave, faithful women marched, one by one, up to the guillotine with the peace and calm of Christ, as if they were renewing their religious vows rather than being brutally beheaded. Not only were the jaded onlookers in Paris moved by the sight, the Reign of Terror ended soon afterward, as if God had accepted their pure act of self-oblation and stopped the bloodshed Himself.

The life story of a saint commemorated on July 24 is less dramatic but contains a powerful object lesson. Saint Euphrasia (380-420) was related to the Roman emperor, but she grew up with her widowed mother in a convent in Egypt. When she reached the age of twelve, she was old enough to inherit her father’s considerable wealth, but she instead chose to give it all away and become a nun. Several years passed, and she began to be tempted by thoughts of the life she had left behind. Her superior was a wise woman, and she gave Euphrasia an interesting chore. She asked Euphrasia to move a pile of rocks from one place to another. When she was done, Euphrasia was ordered to move the same rocks back again. This happened several times, until Euphrasia recognized, through her acts of seemingly pointless obedience, that giving her life to Christ gave her greater joy than any amount of money or power. (The next time your boss or family member asks you to do something as stupid as moving rocks from one place to another and back again, remember Saint Euphrasia. Your chore will seem less pointless.)

If the life story of Saint Godelva, who died on July 30, 1070 in Gistel, Belgium, was made into a movie, it would be a tearjerker. Born into the nobility, she was married to a young nobleman when she was eighteen years old. But Godelva found out how bitterly she was hated by her mother-in-law even before the wedding reception was over. Her mother-in-law locked Godelva in a small room, and she later starved and mistreated the young woman for days, then months. When her mother-in-law won her husband over to her side, he too treated Godelva with cruelty. This abusive situation became publicly known, and the bishop tried to intervene, but not before Godelva’s husband ordered two servants to drown her in a pond. Everyone knew who was responsible for Godelva’s death, but of course it couldn’t be proved. However, that heartless husband remarried and eventually had children. One of his children, a girl, became blind. When numerous other people in the area claimed to be healed through Godelva’s intercession at the same pond where Godelva was murdered, he too prayed for his daughter’s healing at the site. The daughter’s miraculous healing is why this forgiving young woman is now known as Saint Godelva.

The biography of Saint Christina (1150-1224) would sound like outrageous fiction if there weren’t so many witnesses to tell us otherwise. She and her two sisters were young adult orphans living in Belgium when twenty-two-year-old Christina died. That is, everyone thought she died. During the funeral Mass, she not only suddenly sat up in the coffin, she flew out of it and (somehow) perched on the beams in the roof of the church. The priest finally convinced her to come down and explain what was going on. Christina said that she had truly died, but she had traveled to Heaven, Hell, and purgatory. She recognized friends and family members in all three places. Then, she said, God gave her a choice: come to Heaven now or go back to life on earth and do penance for sinners. Christina chose the latter, and for the remaining fifty-two years of her life, she did precisely that. She lived away from people, in part because she said she could smell their sins. She prayed in awkward positions as a penance. She did strange things, such as jump into a river in winter, climb trees, and escape under the mill race of a mill, which should have killed her. Any movie depicting her life would have to make a decision about her motivation: was she mentally unbalanced, merely pretending, or truly trying to humiliate herself as a penance to save souls? The Church would claim the latter. Christina begged for her food and lived alone for many years before she moved to a convent, where two women also considered holy women by the Church, Blessed Mary of Oignies and Saint Lutgardis, were convinced of Christina’s holiness. It’s not surprising that the title she’s most commonly remembered by today is Saint Christina the Astonishing. She’s commemorated on July 24.

Unfortunately, as astonishing as all these women’s lives were, our secular world could never make an accurate film about their lives, precisely because it would not understand the motivation behind their decisions. If you don’t believe that there is such a thing as truth, why give your life for it? If you have the chance to be rich and powerful, why would you ever turn your back on it? If someone treats you cruelly, why would you ever forgive them? If other people are suffering for their supposed “sins”, what does that matter to you?

For those who don’t believe in God, Christians will always seem astonishing.

Celebrating Carmelite Saints in July

Discalced Carmelite Coat of Arms, see http://traditionalcarmelite.com/learn/carmelite-shield/

Around the ninth century B.C., the great prophet Elijah challenged four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to a spiritual duel on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings, ch. 18), a mountain range currently located in Israel. Inspired by Elijah’s faith centuries later, a group of Christian hermits settled on Mount Carmel. The exact date of this foundation is debated, but the hermits had become known as Carmelites when they moved to Europe in the twelfth century.

Following the example of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, the Carmelites became a mendicant order around that time. Just as each religious order has its own unique charism—Franciscans for poverty, Dominicans for preaching—the Carmelites place a particular emphasis in their spiritual life on contemplation and on the Blessed Mother. Because of that devotion to the Mother of God, the Church offers us an optional memorial in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16. But that’s not the only reason to think of the Carmelite order during the month of July.

Blessed John Soreth (1405-1471, celebrated on July 25) was the prior general of the Carmelites when he expanded the order to include women as well as the laity; before that time, the Carmelite order only included men. Blessed John’s decision opened the door for women to seek holiness in the Carmelite way of life. For that, we should be very grateful since some of the greatest female saints in the history of the Church, specifically Saints Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, not to mention Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, lived quiet but very holy lives as Carmelite nuns.

Saints Louis and Zelie Martin were not Carmelites, but they deserve to be remembered with Carmelite saints all the same. This devout couple brought nine children into the world and raised each one to become a citizen of Heaven. They experienced every parent’s nightmare of having four of those children die even before reaching the age of five. Their faith was apparently only strengthened by such profound suffering, since four of their surviving children became Carmelite nuns, and the fifth became a Visitandine nun. Although it was their daughter, Saint Therese of Lisieux, who became a Doctor of the Church, her writings about her childhood show that the Carmelite spirit of joy, trust, and detachment from the world was first taught to her by her parents. This couple is commemorated on July 12.

Though Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942) is not a well-known Carmelite saint, he should be. Titus was a brilliant man who was not only a priest, but knew several languages and had a PhD in philosophy. He was known all over the world, even outside his native Netherlands, traveling to America and Canada on a speaking tour in 1935. During World War II, he spoke out publicly against the racist anti-Jewish laws of the Nazis, and he encouraged Catholic newspapers to refuse to print Nazi propaganda. Unsurprisingly, the Gestapo began following him and finally sent him to the Dachau concentration camp in April, 1942. The Nazis starved and overworked all their prisoners, including Titus. Despite the brutality of the camp, Titus prayed for the camp’s guards and encouraged others to do the same. When his health deteriorated, the Nazis decided to perform medical experiments on him; he was executed when he was so ill that he was no longer useful for such experiments. He is remembered as a martyr on the Church calendar on the date of his death: July 26.

As these Carmelite memorials pass us by during the month of July, there’s one aspect of spiritual life for which our Blessed Mother and these saints can be particularly helpful: deepening our prayer life.

All you Carmelite saints, show me how to pray.

July: Old Testament Saints

From British Museum / Public domain; see Wikimedia Commons.

Catholics who can remember attending Mass before the 1960s will remember feast days in honor of great figures from the Old Testament. Did those disappear along with Saint Christopher?

No, they did not. Although the Vatican II revision of the liturgical calendar may have changed the precedence and order of many commemorations of saints, the Church’s high regard for great Jewish leaders did not disappear. The simpler calendar that we are all now familiar with still includes holy Jewish men for us to remember, particularly in July.

For example, July 1 is the commemoration of first High Priest of God’s Chosen People, Aaron, Moses’ older brother. Although Aaron certainly hit a personal low when he helped the people create a golden calf to worship instead of God (Exo 32:21-24), nevertheless, he was the first High Priest. Other descriptions of Aaron in the book of Exodus are generally positive, though the poor man had the disadvantage of spending his life in the shadow of his gifted brother.

The Church recognizes the Prophet Elijah on July 20. How many people have had such profound trust in God that they were willing to ask Him for a public and miraculous event to disprove the existence of a pagan god? Yet that’s what Elijah did when he invited priests of Baal to a competition to prove to the Jewish audience that only God could miraculously light a fire in a water-soaked offering in broad daylight (1 Kings 18:20-40).

The Biblical book of Ezekiel records the visions and prophecies of one of the greatest Jewish prophets. The Prophet Ezekiel’s words provide us with some of the most famous images in the Old Testament: a valley of dry bones that God brings back to life through Ezekiel’s words and a vision of angels that are like “wheels within wheels”. Artists have done their best to try to show such a thing, but no one knows what he saw or what he meant by that. Presumably, what Ezekiel saw is so inexplicable to the physical world that words literally fail us. He’s commemorated on July 23.

The book of Ezra teaches how that brave Jewish leader led a remnant of the Chosen People back to the land of Judah after the Babylonian exile. After the Jews had spent several decades as slaves and servants of the people who had conquered them, Ezra led his people back to freedom. As may be imagined, the returning Jews had forgotten how to practice their faith while living their entire lives among pagans. Ezra (celebrated on July 13) had the unenviable task of telling them to make painful changes to their lifestyles if they wanted to be faithful to God.

All four of these men are still honored by the Church in part because they were “types” of Christ. That is, although they were imperfect men, they had faith in the one true God, and through their faithfulness, other people were led to the true God. As Christians, we can also see how each of these men acted as signposts, pointing forward in time to God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. What these four men did imperfectly, for the people of their time, Jesus accomplished perfectly.

For example, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the role of High Priest, as both priest and victim, on the Cross (see John 19:24; the High Priest wore a garment without a seam). Jesus proved the impotence of false gods by defeating death itself by rising from the dead (1 Cor 15:55). No sooner had Jesus died on the Cross than “dry bones” in nearby graves came back to life (see Matt 27:52-53). Jesus’ entire Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-7:29) explains how to rise from a life of slavery to sin to the freedom of being children of God.

Like Saint Christopher, these men are still honored by the Church as holy men. May they help us grow in holiness today.

April 2020: The Saints’ Secrets to Facing Calamities

Attributed to Joshua Benoliel. This file has been extracted from another file: ChildrensofFatima.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56150014

Since the COVID-19 virus has begun to spread globally, many Catholics have remembered the two young visionaries of Fatima in Portugal: Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto. Both died during the Spanish flu pandemic in the early twentieth century, so they are great intercessors to help us pray for an end to our own pandemic. But there’s much more that the saints can do besides praying for us from Heaven: we can learn from them while here on earth. More specifically, the saints from the month of April can teach us many lessons to help us respond to the problems that we’re currently facing.

People like to focus on the fact that Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), whose feast day is April 29, influenced the decisions of popes. But she was still only an unknown young woman living in her hometown when she began serving the sick. Catherine had no illusions that she would be safe from contracting the diseases of those she cared for, and she later told her followers that, while daily attending a woman with leprosy, she saw the signs of the disease on her own body. But she accepted this horrifying disease with peace before (according to her) God miraculously and completely healed her. We can thank God for that too, because sparing Catherine from an early death gave her time to deepen in her spiritual life. This not only blessed the people of her time through her personal example but has helped generations of future Catholics through the writings she left behind.

There are many reasons to consider Pope Saint Pius V (1504-1572) one of our greatest popes. But as we remember him on April 30, perhaps we can focus on his strength and leadership in the face of a seemingly impossible problem: the imminent invasion of Europe by Muslims. We may remember the Battle of Lepanto as a great victory that saved Europe and Christianity from invasion, but the battle was far from an easy one. Virtually everyone in Europe thought they were outmanned and outgunned by Islamic forces, and when the Christians later claimed the victory was a miracle, that’s because it was. This victory was primarily the result of one man negotiating, pleading, and working for years to unite the many different and disorganized leaders of Christian nations to fight together and protect their people. That one man’s secret was his rock-solid faith in God. On the day of battle, Pius V united all of Christendom by asking them to pray for the intercession of the Blessed Mother, and the impossible became possible.

Saint Lidwina of Schiedam in Holland (1380-1433), while not a commonly known saint, shouldn’t be overlooked on her feast day, April 14. After a fall on the ice at the age of fifteen (depicted below), she suffered from many incurable and painful medical problems throughout her life. At the same time, God blessed her with visions and miracles. Modern studies point out that her symptoms sound a lot like multiple sclerosis, an unknown disease at the time, but the inexplicable nature of her condition led to vicious rumors that she was not sick but possessed by the devil. Lidwina could have been bitter or angry over her pain, her illness, and her social isolation; instead, she patiently waited for God to sort out truth from fiction. And, of course, He did, since she’s now considered a saint of the Church.

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=245090

Saint Francisco Marto’s feast day is April 4, the date of his death at the age of ten. Francisco and his sister aren’t considered saints merely because they saw apparitions; they were recognized as saints because of the holy, penitential way they lived and died during their short lives. Most particularly, Francisco took to heart the message he had heard and seen directly from Our Lady of Fatima, and he willingly accepted little penances, even while he was sick and dying, for his own salvation and for the sake of sinners.

Fear of contracting an illness, fear of a seemingly impossible situation, fear of isolation, and fear of death are not modern inventions. They’re as old as Adam and Eve. But our all-too-human fears of today deserve Christian responses, as the saints have taught us in the past. What all four of these saints possessed in abundance—and what the world will always lack—is what will help us face COVID-19 and every other calamity. That “something” is as simple and as profound as one little word: trust. When we place our trust in God—while humbly accepting the help provided by medicine, technology, and other people—we will not only know the secrets of the saints, we will know the peace that God gives to those who love Him.

Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?

James 2:5

March 2020: A Month for Martyrs

Wikimedia Commons, National Museum in Warsaw / Public domain

The above painting shows our Blessed Mother with two women who were also mothers: Saints Perpetua and Felicity. These two women, along with many other men and women, died during the first four centuries after the birth of Christ and are commemorated during the month of March. What can we, as Christians, learn from the martyrs this month?

How dangerous would it be for six people to present themselves at your local church and say they wanted to become Catholic? In the year 203, in the city of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), that was not a safe request. Although the law against being a Christian was not always enforced at every time and place in the Roman empire, at this time and in this place, it was.

During a roundup of Christians in Carthage, a group of four men and two women were only catechumens when they were arrested. One of the four men wrote an account of their arrest and imprisonment, and a witness later added a description of the deaths of all six. The account that has come down to us over the centuries is particularly moving, as it describes how one of the women, Perpetua, was visited by her father while she was in prison. Her father pleaded with her to renounce her faith in Christ, broke down in tears, and pointed out that her baby would never even know his own mother if she continued to persist in calling herself a follower of Jesus Christ. Perpetua loved her family, but she loved God too, and she knew that He deserved all her heart. She and her companions remained faithful throughout their imprisonment and were executed by being thrown into an arena with wild animals. The crowds in the amphitheater cheered while they were killed; Perpetua and Felicity were gored by a wild bull before being beheaded with their companions. The biography of Saint Perpetua and her companions was so widely-read by early Christians that Saint Augustine of Hippo later had to remind people that it was not part of Sacred Scripture. The feast day of this group of martyrs is March 7.

During the reign of the Roman emperor Valerian, the Roman empire was under attack by various armies. Valerian probably thought he was just being a good Roman, a good pagan, and a good emperor when he demanded that all citizens, even Christians, offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. Priscus, Malchus, and Alexander were Christian hermits living in the desert of Caesarea (modern Israel) when they heard about the persecution. In the year 260, they entered the nearby city to encourage the Christian faithful, proclaimed themselves to be Christians, and peacefully faced torture and martyrdom. They are remembered on March 28.

A few decades later, in the year 303, the Roman emperor Diocletian unleashed one of the most bitter and violent persecutions that the Church ever faced. We know that a group of Christians living in Caesarea (modern Israel) died together in that year (and presumably on their feast day, March 24), but we only know the names of six of them: Agapius, Alexander, Dionysius, Pausis, Romulus, and Timolaus.

Although the Roman emperor Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity in the year 313, his co-emperor, Licinius, reversed that order in the part of the empire that he ruled in the year 320. Licinius was about to fight an unsuccessful war for control of the empire against Constantine, but his word was law in his own territory. So when the local ruler ordered the Roman army stationed in Sebaste, Armenia, to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, forty Christian soldiers of the Thunderstruck Legion refused. In the bitter cold, the men were ordered to strip off their clothes and lie on a frozen lake, with a huge bath of hot water waiting temptingly for them nearby. One man gave in, raced to the bath, and died instantly. Another soldier, seeing the bravery of the Christians, stepped forward to replace the dead man. All forty men are commemorated as martyrs on March 9.

In the year 339, Christians living in Alexandria, Egypt, were put to death because of the persecution of Christians ordered by the Roman emperor Constantius; their feast day is March 21. In the year 392 in the same city of Alexandria, a group of Christians were attacked and killed by a mob of pagans who were outraged that the Christians refused to worship the god Serapis; their feast day is March 17.

What do we learn from this random sampling of Christian martyrs who died together for their faith in the same month but centuries apart? Perhaps most obviously, we’re struck by the fortitude of these Catholic men and women, despite the incredible brutality inflicted upon them by their own rulers and neighbors for the crime of being Christian.

On the other hand, it may surprise some people to learn that the deaths of many of these martyrs was unexpected. While there were certainly times when persecution was so pervasive that becoming a martyr was a constant threat, many men and women probably entered the Church in hopes that the violence would pass them by. Arrest came for each of them on a seemingly ordinary day, when there were so many good things to live for. But, of course, there was a better world waiting for them than the one they left behind.

Perhaps one of the best lessons to take from the stories of the martyrs is given to us by the world of art. While the lovely painting of Saints Perpetua and Felicity in Heaven with the Blessed Mother shown above is gorgeous and inspires us to want to join them in the beauty of their new home, a more realistic image of martyrdom (below) provides a different sort of inspiration. It helps us remain thankful for the much smaller sufferings that we undergo in our daily lives and to ask the martyrs to help us face those pains with the peace of Christ.

Wikimedia Commons, Foxe’s Christian Martyrs, Foxe, John, 1516-1587 / No restrictions

February 2020: Leap Day Saints

Gregorian calendar, 1582, Aloysius Lilius

Once every four years, February 29 appears on our calendars, and we celebrate leap day. The Catholic Church’s official collection of saints, the Martyrologium Romanum, only lists four saints on this date.

This is surprising since the number of entries for a given date in the Martyrologium ranges anywhere from a half dozen to almost two dozen—and some of those entries include large numbers of martyrs. (Note that there have been many collections of Catholic saints issued over the centuries; the first Martyrologium Romanum dates to 1583, and the latest revision is dated 2004 and available only in Latin.)

On the other hand, since leap days occur only once every four years, it’s not surprising that there aren’t many saints celebrated on this date. The Martyrologium lists all four of these saints on February 28 as well as February 29, encouraging us not to overlook them.

Why are these saints listed on a date that only occurs once every four years? Because that’s the date on which they died.

Auguste Chapdelaine (1814-1856) was a French priest who was sent as a missionary to China. After being robbed on the way and then arrested briefly by the authorities, he finally met the Catholic faithful in his assigned city, Yaoshan. He was able to live among the Chinese people, serve them as their priest, and bring others to the faith for about two years. When the government began a widespread persecution of Christians, he was imprisoned again, this time on the false charge of encouraging an insurrection against the government. When he failed to recant or pay the hefty fine imposed upon him, he was tortured and imprisoned in an iron cage before finally being condemned to death. He died a martyr for the faith on leap day in 1856.

Long before him, Pope Hilary (sometimes called Hilarus or Hilarius) died of natural causes on this date in the year 468. He was the forty-sixth pope, and he is best remembered for building a church dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, whom he credited for his narrow escape from an attack instigated by supporters of the Monophysite heresy in 449. Hilary not only remembered Saint John’s intercession and protection; he remembered the dangers of this heresy and its supporters and formally condemned the heresy when he became pope.

The two other saints commemorated on this date are: Blessed Antonia of Florence (1400-1472), a wife, mother, widow, and later a Poor Clare nun; and Saint Oswald of Worcester (d. 992), who became archbishop of York but was best remembered for daily washing the feet of the poor.

But leap day means more to the Church than the celebration of a handful of saints. While we moderns tend to think of leap day as more of a scientific oddity than anything else, we forget that dates matter to us Catholics too. We also tend to believe that the accurate determination of the calendar is something that has only been made possible by modern science.

But that’s wrong. A major reform the calendar was ordered by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., under the advice of prominent mathematicians and astronomers of the time. The Roman Empire changed the calendar—now called the Julian calendar after him—so that the calendar would more accurately match the sun’s behavior. Failing to properly calculate the length of the year had gradually allowed the calendar to creep away from the true date. The date on the calendar that should have been the shortest day of the year, for example, wasn’t the shortest day of the year.

This caused all sorts of problems in the ancient world. Politicians adjusted the calendar as they saw fit to extend their time in office, ordinary people living away from big cities couldn’t accurately know the correct date, and intermediate adjustments to the calendar had only made things worse. The Julian calendar fixed all that.

Well, it fixed the problem for a while. By the sixteenth century, the calendar had slowly shifted again, all because it takes the earth 365.2422 days to travel around the sun, not 365.25 days. During the pontificate of Pope Gregory XIII, this problem had become so pronounced that ten erroneous days needed to be removed from the calendar. There was also a minor adjustment made to leap days; only centurial years that are multiples of four (i.e., the years 2000, 2400, 2800, etc.) include leap days as a result of the Gregorian calendar. While there were certainly pragmatic reasons for Pope Gregory to make this pronouncement in the year 1582—such as international stability, agricultural calculations, and basic communication between communities—there was a much more important reason.

As the Baltimore Catechism teaches us, “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” That is, although it’s certainly good for farmers to know the correct date so they can plant crops, the Church cares about the calendar primarily because human beings need to have accurate knowledge of earthly time so that they can be better prepared for Heaven. After all, in the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the entry for Time simply says, “See Eternal Life.” As Catholics, we care about the calendar because God has called us to know, love, and serve Him every single day of our lives, in preparation for the last day of our lives. And for some holy men and women, that great day occurred on a leap day.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cusco

January: A Month for Saintly Teachers

Does every diocese in the world celebrate Catholic Schools Week during the last week of January or just mine? It’s certainly the perfect time to do so. After all, the calendar of saints practically demands that we celebrate the teaching profession in late January.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cusco

For example, the Church’s official calendar of saints, the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum,[1] celebrates these holy men and women, one right after another:

  • January 23: Saint Marianne Cope (1838-1918) was the mother superior of a home and school for lepers on Molokai (USA).
  • January 24: Saint Francis de Sales was an influential French bishop whose excellent writings explaining the faith brought many Protestants back to the Church in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
  • January 25: One of the greatest saints in the history of the Church, Saint Paul the Apostle, whose writings have taught every Christian about Christ, celebrates his conversion to the faith on this date.
  • January 26: First century Saints Timothy and Titus show us the power of a great teacher; both of these men gave their lives to Christ as priests and evangelists because of the encouragement of Saint Paul.
  • January 27: Saint Angela Merici did the unthinkable in fifteenth century Italy when she, a mere woman, began teaching religion and other subjects to children.
  • January 28: Saint Thomas Aquinas’ achievements as a scholar and writer changed the worlds of Catholic theology and philosophy forever, and his personal brilliance has made him the patron of students hoping to emulate his phenomenal memory (particularly while taking tests).
  • January 29: Saint Gildas the Wise was a sixth century hermit and abbot who helped his monks grow in holiness and was one of the earliest British historians.
  • January 30: Saint Mucian Mary Wiaux (1841-1917) was a simple lay brother who was given the chore of teaching art to students at his order’s school; his students were profoundly affected by his prayerfulness, but also by the way that his gentleness and compassion as a teacher brought out the best in them.
  • January 31: Saint John Bosco was a nineteenth century priest who devoted his life to the care and education of boys in his native Italy and formed an order which spread all over the world.

Our modern world thinks of teaching as a career; the saints saw it as a vocation, a calling by God to help other people, particularly children, grow in wisdom. Far from today’s emphasis on education as a means of simple economic advancement or personal pride, the Catholic understanding of education sees something far more profound.

Saintly teachers certainly recognized that educating children in the fundamentals—teaching them to read and learn basic math skills—better enabled them to support themselves as adults, protect their own families, and become better citizens. But every culture has its own challenges for young people. The leper colony on Molokai, Hawaii, was a place without hope until Saint Damien de Veuster arrived, and the school that Saint Marianne founded with him enabled children with leprosy—children who could never leave that island—to learn about the world beyond the sea that surrounded them. Saint Angela Merici’s Italy was a world of warring cities and education only for the rich. She made it possible for girls to learn about God and building happy families. Saint John Bosco had learned magic tricks and gymnastics when he was young as a means of drawing other boys to Church to worship God; in the trying economic times of nineteenth century Italy, he brought boys into his group homes and schools so that they could become good Catholic men, rather than roaming the streets as unemployed pickpockets, thieves, and worse. Saint Mucian Wiaux was given the task of teaching art because he was a bit too gentle for more demanding subjects—some said he couldn’t control the classroom at times—but in small groups, through one-on-one instruction, he literally changed the lives of his students simply by showing them Christ-like love.

Every teacher worthy of the name should communicate truth; Jesus is, literally, the Truth. The wisdom, knowledge, and power of God literally poured out from Christ’s lips when He spoke in Galilee and Judea, and that same truth pours itself out when we draw close to Him. Saint Gildas’ treatise on the history of Britain in the sixth century is still studied today—there are no other historical accounts from that time period—but sometimes criticized because he wrote it with an axe to grind. His goal in writing? To convince his countrymen, like a prophet of the Old Testament, that their current problems were the results of their sins and failures to live as true Christians.

To say that Saint Thomas Aquinas communicated truth is a fact hardly worth mentioning. Although there are a few theological, philosophical, and moral issues that he supported in his writings that are not in keeping with current Church teaching (he didn’t see the necessity of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for example), in almost every other matter, Thomas’s writing is often put forward to precisely explain Church teaching. One simple example: we are still singing the hymn he wrote for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi seven centuries later. One could say that Saint Thomas’s life was devoted to communicating truths to lead people to Christ the Truth.

But ultimately, these saints knew that the greatest gift was Christ Himself, who told His apostles to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.”[2] Saints Paul, Timothy, and Titus were obedient to that command. Paul taught the good news of salvation through his missionary journeys, his personal example, and his letters. In his letters to Timothy and Titus, he teaches them how to do the same; tradition says that both men, like Paul, “died with their boots on”, engaged in evangelizing the world for Christ.

But today’s world is not unlike the world of Saint Francis de Sales, a world that has rejected the Church because it thinks it has better answers. January is the perfect month to both thank holy teachers for fulfilling their vocations to bring truth to those around them—and to remember that we are all still students who should be studying for our “final exam” before God Himself. All you saintly teachers, pray for us!


Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Thomas_Aquinas,_Protector_of_the_University_of_Cusco.jpg

[1] Martyrologium Romanum, Editio Altera, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004 (note that this is available only in Latin).

[2] Mark 16:15.