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!

September is a month for Mary too

Our Lady of La Salette, Wikimedia Commons

May is the traditional month that Catholics particularly remember the Blessed Virgin Mary, but there are several lesser-known feasts associated with Mary in September that deserve our attention too. After all, these feasts teach us about God’s love for Mary and, by extension, for every Christian.

On September 8, the Church celebrates the nativity of Mary. Obviously, Mary’s birth (and the date on which it occurred) are not recorded in Scripture. Some apocryphal gospels—that is, early writings that relate stories about Jesus Christ but which were eventually excluded from the Bible—describe events surrounding the birth of Mary. Although the Church rejected these writings, those works indirectly pointed out the fact that Mary had a birthday, just like every other human descendant of Adam and Eve. Perhaps that is the reason that her birthday was celebrated in various areas for centuries until the pope himself added a litany and procession to its celebration in the Church in the late seventh century. The reason behind September 8 being chosen as the date is lost in time, but the practice of celebrating Mary’s birthday on the date of September 8 is very ancient.

On September 12, the Church calendar asks us to remember the Most Holy Name of Mary. Although this memorial was not added to the calendar until 1683 after a great battle in which Catholic forces were victorious, the idea of calling upon Mary’s name in time of need is not a new concept. After all, her name is the second word of a prayer that faithful Catholics recite daily: Hail Mary.

On September 15, the Church celebrates a memorial in Mary’s honor, under the title of Our Lady of Sorrows. The reason behind this date is rooted in an historical event. Some time after Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, discovered the relics of the True Cross in Jerusalem, two churches were built there: one on Calvary and one at the site of the Holy Sepulchre. These churches were dedicated on September 14. Just as the Church eventually decided that it made sense to universally commemorate Jesus’ triumph on the Cross on September 14, so it made sense to remember the woman who stood faithfully at the foot of that Cross on September 15.

There are two other notable feast days of the Blessed Mother in September, although they are not celebrated in the universal calendar of the Church. But both are related to Marian apparitions that have been approved by the Church.

On September 19, 1846, two French children were walking on a mountain when they encountered a weeping woman. From her words and appearance, they eventually recognized this woman as the Blessed Mother. In this apparition, which was eventually approved by the Church, Mary wept over the faithlessness of the people of France, who were notably failing to observe the Ten Commandments. She begged the children to tell French Catholics to observe Sunday as a day of rest, stop using the Lord’s name in vain, and repent of other sins. There are signs that the French people obeyed the instructions of Our Lady of La Salette, as she came to be called, and averted the punishments of God that she warned would otherwise result.

On September 24, probably in 1218 (the exact year is debated), our Blessed Mother appeared to Saint Peter Nolasco and encouraged him to establish a religious order with a unique purpose: ransoming slaves. At the time, Christians were being captured by Muslims in Spain and on ships at sea and were being forced into lives of slavery. Saint Peter became a priest and devoted his life to the difficult vocation of raising funds from Christians and entering Muslim lands to negotiate for the release of those Christian captives. The religious order he founded became known as the Mercedarians, and it was placed under the patronage of Mary under the title of Our Lady of Ransom.

What do these feasts teach us about the Mother of God? They remind us that Mary was just a human being, like every one of us, with a birthday and a date of death. They remind us that God knows her by name—as did the angel Gabriel, who greeted her and related God’s invitation for her to become the Mother of God—just as He knows us by name. These feasts remind us of Mary’s readiness to suffer and stay close to her Son, even in His blackest moments, as we do particularly every Lent and Good Friday. And they remind us that God in Heaven cares about our sins and our sufferings and is ready to send the Blessed Virgin Mary to encourage us or correct us when we need help, just as any good mother would do.

Is She Really a Saint?

Saint Augustine and Saint Monica, Wikimedia Commons

Christians believe in the communion of the saints. After all, that’s something we proclaim every Sunday during the Apostles’ Creed, and to be a Christian is to believe that at least some of the holy men and women who have preceded us in life are waiting for us in Heaven. But how can we know the names of those saints?

I previously blogged about the complicated question of whether or not the martyr Philomena is really a saint. I’ve also blogged about the history of the process of naming of saints here. But I am often asked a related question: how can I be sure that [insert name of a particular holy person] is really a saint?

This question could lead to a much deeper philosophical question about how we know things at all. Your knowledge of the color blue, your own name, whether or not there are cookies in your kitchen, and of the existence of God, for example, are different things. But let’s set those questions to one side.

Instead, let’s examine the lives of some of the more famous saints celebrated in the month of August. Assuming that certain men and women have been canonized or beatified by the Catholic Church, can ordinary Christians recognize the reasonableness of those decisions? Based on our understanding of God, our understanding of ordinary human nature, and our own natural reason, can we agree that it’s reasonable to believe that certain holy men and women are saints in Heaven?

Saint John Vianney, the nineteenth century priest of Ars-en-Dombes, France, is celebrated as saint by the Church on August 4. As a modern saint, we have many sources of information about him and his life. While John intentionally diverted attention away from details about himself—and the miracles that resulted from his prayers—the 230 villagers of Ars reported what they saw during the decades that he lived among them. Thousands of faithful Catholics traveled to Ars, generally to go to Confession with the famous priest. Even secular newspapers of the day wrote about him, and John received the award of the imperial cross from France’s secular government out of respect for his positive effects on the country. It was not difficult to acknowledge John to be a saint.

Saint Dominic de Guzman (feast day August 8), on the other hand, was born in 1170 in Spain. Although Dominic became the priestly founder of the Order of Preachers (often called the Dominicans after him) and traveled widely during his lifetime, he, like John, never wrote a biography. In fact, although the most famous Dominican—Saint Thomas Aquinas—was a prolific theological writer, Dominic himself appears to have left behind no theological works. However, he did found a religious order that has a unique charism which has inspired thousands of men and women to join the order over the past eight hundred years, and many of those men and women have become known as saints and blesseds. If you think it is a trivial thing to establish a religious order, just think about how hard it would be to establish, say, a business, particularly one that would still be around in eight centuries. Saint Dominic de Guzman is therefore also easy to recognize as a holy man and a saint.

Saint Lawrence the Deacon (August 10) died a martyr in the third century. Although his death occurred during a time of Roman persecution of the Church and although written records were lost or often nonexistent during that time, our certitude about Lawrence’s existence and even the year of his death is fairly high. That’s because he was executed just a few days after his famous boss: Pope Saint Sixtus II.

In the year 258, the Roman emperor Valerian sent his soldiers into the catacombs to execute the pope during the middle of Mass. Lawrence was not killed at that time, but that was only because the Romans wanted to confiscate any treasures that the Church possessed, and deacons were often placed in charge of sacred items. When Lawrence showed up a few days later with what he considered the treasure of the Church—the poor—the authorities were not amused. He was roasted slowly over a fire and famously quipped to the executioner to “turn me over because I am done on that side”.

Did that really happen? Actually, we have good reasons to believe that it did. After all, Roman soldiers executed a lot of people, and making jokes is not the typical way that people respond to torture. Lawrence’s response was memorable and quickly became popular news throughout Rome. The proof that Lawrence really did face his death with bravery and humor is shown in the remarkable number of conversions to the faith that occurred in the city of Rome after his martyrdom. The fact that so many people converted to the faith at that time, as well as the fact that a strong devotion to Lawrence can be traced back to the early centuries of the Church, strongly indicates that the story of his holy death is no mere story.

Saint Augustine of Hippo is celebrated by the Church on August 28. One of the most brilliant and prolific saints in the history of the Church, few people would argue against his holiness. Augustine’s biography, Confessions, is a remarkable and frank autobiography but also a spiritual classic. In this book, Augustine reveals the ugliness of his youthful sins, as well as his sins of the flesh and the intellect. Unlike modern autobiographies which are typically all about me, me, me, Augustine’s autobiography is certainly about Augustine, but also a lot about God.

But while describing his life, Augustine also discusses his friends and family, particularly his long-suffering mother, Monica, who is commemorated on August 27 in the Church’s calendar.

Being the mother of a saint does not earn you the right to be named a saint. (Sorry, moms.) But Augustine’s autobiography is an important document in the Church’s decision to honor Monica as a saint. In Confessions, Augustine explains how his mother raised him in the Catholic faith (though he rejected it), repeatedly invited him to be baptized (though he refused), followed him in his travels and gently confronted him with his sinful lifestyle (though he responded by running away to another city). She never stopped praying for him and loving him, even when he seemed so far away from God that a lesser woman might have given up hope. With the help of Monica’s tears and prayers, Augustine finally opened his heart to God. She died soon after his conversion, having “prayed” her son into the Church, becoming a model for every mother of a prodigal child since the fourth century. Her son’s miraculous conversion was no small miracle, either for her or for us.

Blessed Teresa Bracco, remembered by the Church on August 29, is not nearly so well-known as Augustine and Monica. In 1944, she was only a twenty-year-old woman living in a little village in Italy during World War II. German soldiers looted the countryside and entered her town. One of those German soldiers kidnapped Teresa, dragged her into the woods, and tried to rape her. She died during the attempt.

Those details alone would not be enough to canonize Teresa Bracco. Sadly, there have been many rape victims during wartime in the history of the world. But there is more to Teresa’s story than that.

Teresa was only nine years old when she saw a holy card of Saint Dominic Savio, an Italian boy who lived a holy life and died young. The holy card included Dominic’s famous quote: “Death rather than sin.” Teresa was so moved by that quote that she pasted the holy card over her bed and kept it there for years. She became the sort of devout, modest young woman that the other villagers noticed, precisely because she was so “different”. That is, she was prayerful, charitable, and an exemplary student, and she seemed to have a profound devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

When Teresa disappeared in August of 1944, villagers went looking for her, and they found her body in the woods. They realized not only that she had been assaulted but that she had vigorously tried to stop her attacker, so vigorously that the man had killed her with particular brutality. That’s when they recognized that Teresa was not just a typical twenty-year-old woman. Instead, having spent several years meditating on God’s love for her and His hatred of sin, she had become the sort of Catholic who was willing to die to try to stop someone from committing a sin. And that is a sign of holiness.

At the end of the month of August, on the 31st, the Church remembers two saints whom all Christians know by name: Saint Joseph of Arimathea and Saint Nicodemus. These two men are described in the Gospels. They were followers of the Lord, tried to defend Him during his trial, and even brought His body to Joseph’s tomb after His death. But how do we know that they are saints?

First, both men are described repeatedly in the Gospels by name. This indicates that it is likely that they were members of the early Christian community. They, just like the apostles, had personal stories to tell about their encounters with Jesus Christ, and they surely told them to other Christians.

Second, there are ancient traditions about the two men that have come down to us. According to one tradition, Joseph of Arimathea brought the chalice from the Last Supper—the Holy Grail—to England because he owned mines in England. One tradition about Saint Nicodemus says that he was martyred with Saint Stephen. Granted, the validity of these traditions is open to debate.

But Saints Joseph and Nicodemus are recognized by the Church as saints for the same reason as are all the other men and women in this list. That is, they were followers of Jesus Christ, but there was something profound and personal about the way they followed Him. They accepted whatever vocation that God had given them—as a priest, a religious founder, a deacon, a theologian, a mother, a young woman, or an older man—and they lived that vocation wholeheartedly, trusting in God to work big and small miracles through them.

Each of these saints of August reached a point in life where they had fulfilled their vocation, just as Saint Monica had done when she saw her wayward son fully converted. They recognized that the end had come and, as good and faithful servants, they entered into the joy of their Master in Heaven (Matt. 25:21). And that is why we call them saints.

Holy Popes of July

Saint Peter’s Basilica, Wikimedia Commons

July and August are hot months of the year for the northern hemisphere, and the summer heat always weighs more heavily on those people who are sick or older. That’s why August is traditionally (and somewhat bluntly) known as the “dying month” in Rome, at least in the years before air conditioning.

Since feast days for the saints are usually assigned to the date of death, it’s not surprising that there are more individual saints and blesseds on the Church’s calendar in those two months than in the other months of the year. But for some reason, the month of July beats out the month of August in one category: the number of holy popes. There are nine popes who are saints or blesseds in August, but ten in the Church’s calendar for July. Who were those men?

On July 3, we remember Pope Saint Leo II, who died in the year 683. Most Catholics have probably never heard of him, but the Church honors him particularly for two reasons. First, he condemned a heresy called Monothelitism which was spreading through the Church at the time and causing confusion. Second, he publicly recognized and condemned the fact that his predecessor, Pope Honorius (who is certainly not a saint of the Church) did not speak up against that heresy.

On July 7, Blessed Benedict XI (1240-1304) is remembered by the Church. Not only was Benedict a wise man, a great preacher, and a successful Church leader in many positions before his election, he was determined to live a humble, penitential life even as pope. Soon after becoming pope, his mother showed up to see him and was very elegantly dressed. Too elegantly dressed, the pope thought. Benedict insisted that she go home and change into more typical clothing before he would see her. His personal emphasis on moderation and simplicity was the hallmark of his unfortunately short reign.

On July 8, both Saint Adrian III (d. 885) and Blessed Eugene III (d. 1151) are listed on the calendar. Adrian reigned for only a year, but he was a strong leader who sought to protect Christians from a potential Muslim invasion of Europe. Eugene was a Cistercian monk before becoming pope and was a disciple of the influential Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Like Bernard, Eugene sought to reform abuses within the Church; for that reason, his reign was marked by outbreaks of violence, often from those whose financial success was based on perpetuating those abuses of Church power. But Eugene was a likeable, generous man who continued to live like a monk, even when he was pope.

On July 11, we remember an early pope: Pius I (d. 155). Records from the early days of the Church are sometimes sparse because the Roman empire did not only persecute Catholics by killing them, but it also destroyed their property, written records, and copies of Scripture. However, we know that Pius responded to curb multiple heresies that were spreading in the Church while he was pope and that he died a martyr for the faith.

On July 17, Pope Saint Leo IV (d. 855) is celebrated. When Leo was elected pope, the city of Rome had been repeatedly attacked by Muslim Arabs and was almost defenseless. Leo recognized that the safety of the people of Rome was a priority, so he ordered a new wall to be built around the city. He also fortified fifteen towers around Rome. This construction became known as the Leonine City in his honor. Not only did the people of Rome love Leo for his strong leadership and his dedication to protecting the city, they publicly recognized him as a miracle-worker through his prayers even during his lifetime.

On July 19, we remember Saint Symmachus (d. 514), who was physically attacked by the forces of an anti-pope soon after his election. After a violent and complicated political controversy, Symmachus was finally recognized as the true pope and was able to do what is typically expected of a pope: defend the teachings of the Church against the false teachings of the day.

On July 27, Pope Saint Celestine I (d. 432) is included in the Church’s calendar. Celestine was a strong leader who opposed the heretical teachings of Nestorius and Pelagius, and one of his writings became a founding document for early canon law.

On July 28, Saint Victor I (d. c. 199) is remembered. Although the Catholic Church was technically illegal in the Roman empire at the time, the persecution of Catholics appears to have abated during most of his reign. Victor was able to focus on trying to settle a serious problem that vexed the Church for centuries afterward: what is the proper date to celebrate Easter? Victor’s writings were praised by Saint Jerome of Stridon, a brilliant scholar who was not an easy man to impress. Although we don’t have all the details, it is clear from early records that Victor died as a martyr.

On July 29, we remember Blessed Urban II (d. 1099). Urban was a monk and then a cardinal before becoming pope, and he was elected during a particularly tumultuous time. Violence, feuding, and an anti-pope (who, of course, claimed to be the true pope) forced Urban to leave Rome. But even though his enemies forced him into debt and exile, Urban continued to act like a pope. He held councils and insisted on greater ecclesiastical discipline. When Christians living in the Holy Land were attacked, he called for a Crusade to protect Christians from Muslim violence. He even tried to make peace with the Orthodox Church and bring about a reconciliation soon before his death.

What do these ten popes teach us about the papacy and about holiness? Each man faced different challenges as pope based on circumstances outside his control, such as political unrest, power struggles, false teachings, and even simple disagreements between faithful Catholics. But each man impressed his contemporaries with his holiness, faithfulness, and dedication to leading the Church of Christ. For that, we can honor them in July.

Three “Ordinary” Saints of June

If you consider yourself to be an ordinary follower of Jesus Christ, you might find the descriptions of the lives of some of the most famous saints of the Church to be somewhat annoying. After all, your everyday life probably looks nothing like the daily life of Saint Louis IX, who was the king of France; Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was a Dominican priest; or even Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was an American wife, mother, and widow, but who also founded a religious order.

Contrary to what many people think, there are plenty of male and female saints whose lives primarily involved the same ordinary, mundane tasks that fill up our own days. These saints and blesseds faced arguments with their spouses, tried to settle fights between their children, and worried about their grandchildren. In the month of June alone, there are three such “ordinary” women who are honored by the Church for their lives of heroic virtue and their love for God and neighbor.

Clotilda was a faithful Catholic. When she married, she married for love. But her husband was not only not Catholic—he was not even interested. Clotilda gently tried to share her faith in Christ with her husband, and he tried to be respectful of hers, even learning a bit about it to please her.

After the birth of their first child, she begged him to have the baby baptized. He eventually agreed. But when the child died soon afterward, they were both devastated—and he was angry. So far as he could tell, there were no benefits to being a baptized Christian.

Saint Clotilda of France, Wikimedia Commons

Although this family situation may be all too ordinary, one aspect of their married life was not. Clotilda’s husband was Clovis (c. 466-511), king of the Franks. Despite Clotilda’s loving example, Clovis remained a pagan until one fateful day when he was leading (and losing) a battle against a great enemy. He decided, as a last resort, to ask “Clotilda’s God” to help him out. He won the battle, became a Catholic, and led his entire country of France into the faith.

Although she was a queen, Clotilda’s greatest struggles in life were the same struggles facing many women today. They were simply intensified by the power of her position. Siblings squabble from time to time; her sons fought one another on the battlefield, and two of them even killed their third brother’s sons in front of Clotilda in their fight for control of the kingdom. When those two sons were later about to face one another in battle, she spent the whole night praying for them; a storm arose the next day, and the battle was averted. Saint Clotilda died a widow after spending many years in a monastery in 545, but you can bet she spent a lot of that time praying for her children and grandchildren.

Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, Wikimedia Commons

Blessed Anna Maria Taigi (1760-1837) was twenty years old and was working as a housemaid in a nobleman’s house in Rome when she married Dominico, who was a butler. Theirs was not a fairy tale marriage either.

Anna Maria’s years of service in the gorgeous palace of a noble family had dampened her Christian devotion and enkindled in her an inordinate desire to be well-dressed and the talk of the town. Unsurprisingly, this not only earned her flattering compliments about her appearance, but a flirtation almost led her into adultery. Her shame over this serious sin caused her to repent, seek out a faithful priest for Confession and spiritual direction, and make dramatic changes to her life.

Dominico, however, was not delighted by his wife’s newfound interest in personal mortification and devotion. Biographers tend to characterize him as bad-tempered and cantankerous, and Anna Maria got to practice patience every day during the many years of their marriage. In time, Dominico’s temper softened somewhat.

Anna Maria and Dominico had seven children, although they lost two of those children when they were young. Regardless of their modest circumstances and the realities of a busy household, she made sure that her children knew their faith and lived it. Just like many mothers today, Anna Maria worked from home to supplement her husband’s income. Her needlework earned extra money for her family but also for the poor.

Over the years, Anna Maria became more than just repentant and devout. She became a true mystic; she could read consciences, seemed to know when people were in need of prayer, and received visions about important events before they happened. It’s no wonder that word got around the city of Rome, and important people—including noblemen, cardinals, and popes—showed up at her humble home for her spiritual advice and encouragement.

Blessed Marianna Biernacka, Wikimedia Commons

Blessed Marianna Biernacka (1888-1943) lived perhaps the most ordinary life of all three of these women. She was a wife and mother of six children in Poland. After her husband died, she moved into the home of one of her sons and helped care for her grandchildren.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II, underground groups committed periodic acts of resistance. After one such event, the Nazis responded by entering Marianna’s town and arresting two random citizens: her son and daughter-in-law, Anna. Anna happened to be pregnant. Both were condemned to be executed in retaliation for the recent violence.

Marianna begged and begged the soldiers to take her in place of her daughter-in-law. They finally agreed. After two weeks of imprisonment, Marianna and her son were executed. She was holding her rosary when she died by firing squad. Anna lived to be ninety-eight years old, and she recounted the heroic story of Marianna’s selflessness in saving the lives of both her and her unborn child.

Despite what we may think, it is generally the ordinary events of our daily lives that help each Catholic grow in virtue. Sometimes our everyday activities may give us the opportunity to gently share our faith with those who reject it, even if we are rejected again and again and again. Sometimes those events involves being patient with tired and difficult family members. Sometimes those events call upon us to perform a heroic act for the sake of those we love. However ordinary you think your life may be, it can be the life of a saint.

Easter Season and Incorruption

Saint Rita of Cascia’s tomb, which contains her incorrupt body,
Wikimedia Commons

It is fitting that we commemorate Saint Rita of Cascia on May 22. This is fitting not only because it’s the date of her death, but also because the date is situated deep in the heart of the season of Easter. Only in the light of Easter can we understand one of the many remarkable things about this remarkable saint.

Rita was born in Roccaporena, a suburb of Cascia in Italy, in the fourteenth century. Although she wanted to be a nun, her family married her off to a nobleman when she was twelve years old, a common practice at the time. Her husband soon proved himself to be bad-tempered, abusive, and unfaithful. But Rita, proving her sanctity and making her the patron of innumerable unhappy wives for centuries ever since, eventually brought her husband to repentance and conversion through her love of God and through eighteen years of Christ-like patience and kindness.

There are many great stories about how Rita handled her husband’s murder, her sons’ fatal illnesses, her initial rejection when she asked to enter a convent, and her mystical gifts after she became a nun. But it is often overlooked that her body has remained incorrupt since her death in 1457.

As Joan Carroll Cruz points out in her book, The Incorruptibles, people noticed a sweet perfume in the church when Rita’s body was exposed in the church in Cascia prior to her burial. Miracles through her intercession were also noted soon after her death, which is why her body was placed beneath an altar but was still clearly visible. More than a hundred years later, the pope ordered her body to be examined, and it was “found to be as perfect as it had been on the day of her death (Cruz, The Incorruptibles, TAN Books: 1977, p. 131).”

Talking about examining dead bodies just seems, well, wrong, but the point is that Saint Rita is not the only one. The bodies of many Christian saints have been been found to be incorrupt, to greater or lesser degrees, for millennia. The most famous examples include Saints Cecilia of Rome, Louis Bertrand, Francis Xavier, Bernadette Soubirous, Andrew Bobola, Catherine of Siena, Sharbel Makhluf, John of the Cross, and Josaphat of Polotsk. These and other amazing phenomena experienced by the saints are admirably catalogued in Deacon Albert E. Graham’s Compendium of the Miraculous (also by TAN Books).

All people know what happens to living things—plants, animals, and humans—when they die. Their bodies begin to decompose. Every human culture has some sort of funerary rites based on their theological beliefs and other factors. Even though civilizations may differ in how they dispose of their deceased loved ones, they all do something.

In the natural course of things, human bodies decay. Western culture turns to burial out of respect for the dead, though modern health and safety issues are also involved. Even the most famous ancient culture’s funeral rites—Egyptian mummification—shows the same recognition that living matter will decompose completely if you don’t do something about it.

But over the centuries, Catholics have found that the bodies of some holy men and women do not follow that natural course. (We must set to one side the issue of incorruptibility among Orthodox saints. Although incorruptibility has sometimes been used as a criteria for acclaiming a saint for the Orthodox, their process of recognizing saints is very different and not formalized in the same way as in the Catholic Church.) The most important question here is: Why does this happen?

Why is it that, outside the Christian faith, the “incorruptibles” do not exist? That is, this phenomena is not known or expected in other religions or in certain geographical regions or in other cultures. It seems to be a uniquely Christian phenomena. But it has been found from the earliest centuries (Saint Cecilia of Rome, d. 177) to the present (Saint Sharbel Makhluf, who died in1898, but his body remained incorrupt up to 1950).

Notably, the Catholic Church does not believe that incorruptibility is a measure of holiness. The body of Saint Therese of Lisieux, for example, one of the holiest saints in the history of the Church, was not found to be incorrupt. So one cannot say that an incorrupt body is directly related to the living person’s holiness and that those whose bodies are not incorrupt are somehow less holy in God’s sight.

But the existence of incorrupt saints at all can only be explained in one way: God’s miraculous intervention. For some reason, God permits the bodies of some of His beloved sons and daughters to remain intact after their deaths.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this intervention is the liturgical season that is still celebrated on Saint Rita’s feast day: Easter. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead on Easter Sunday. His Risen Body is now in Heaven, and He waits to see us when we, God willing, will join Him there. The incorruptibles, therefore, remind us of His Resurrection from the dead, as well as “the resurrection of the body” described in our Creed and which we can all look forward to when He comes again.

And perhaps that is the other reason that God permits this miraculous phenomena in the first place. Saints Rita, Cecilia, Bernadette, and all the others whose bodies have not decayed after death are lying in churches right now. They are waiting for the Second Coming, like a mighty army waiting to welcome their returning king. Are we ready and waiting for that day when it comes too? If not, shouldn’t we be?

Saint Margaret of Castello

Saint Margaret of Castello
Wikimedia Commons

When I wrote my first book about saints, I believed it was important for it to include every well-known saint and blessed, as well as many lesser-known ones. After all, it had annoyed me greatly as an adult convert to find out that some great saints had been omitted from the only saint book I owned. Granted, that gave me the happy opportunity to purchase more books about saints, but the inconvenience rankled me.

Unfortunately, I realized after publication of Saints that I had inadvertently omitted a holy young woman with a powerful life story: Saint Margaret of Castello. The only excuse I can offer is that I often confuse Saint Margaret with Saint Germain Cousin of Pibrac, whom I did include in my book. The biographies of both these women would be considered fairy tales or melodrama if they were not, sadly, true stories.

In 1287, Margaret was born to Parisio and Emilia, a noble couple living near Mercatello sul Metauro in Italy. It soon became obvious to her parents that the child had serious medical problems. Not only was she blind, but she had a severe curvature of her spine, she was abnormally short, and one of her legs was shorter than the other. Unkind tongues would call her a hunchback, a dwarf, and worse.

Her parents, though Christians, responded to her conditions with startling selfishness. They literally hid her from sight, claiming that their child was so ill that she was not expected to live, and they tried to avoid ever seeing their deformed daughter themselves. As nobility, they left that chore to their servants as much as possible. But when a visitor to their castle discovered six-year-old, blind Margaret walking through the halls and when that person began speaking about Margaret to others, her parents walled Margaret up in a room next to their chapel. While it was not uncommon at that time for holy men and women to decide to live in solitude in a room next to a church, it was an act of amazing cruelty on the part of her parents to condemn a young child to such isolation for a decade.

However, God supplied what Margaret lacked in her parents. A kindly maid gave her her name (since her parents did not appear to think to do so). A chaplain taught her about Christ, God’s love for her and for all men, and about bearing the sufferings of life. And everyone who took the time to stop and talk to the girl came away inspired by Margaret’s devotion, purity, kindness, and acceptance of trials. What Margaret may have lacked in her physical appearance, God supplied in abundance by pouring faith, hope, and charity in her soul. Though only a child, she forgave her parents and entered wholeheartedly into a vocation of time spent alone with God.

When Margaret was sixteen years old, her parents latched onto a new plan for their daughter: perhaps if they took her to a shrine located in a Franciscan church at another Italian city, now called Città di Castello, Margaret would be miraculously cured of all her deformities. After all, others had received miracles at that shrine, so why not Margaret? When they arrived at the church, it is assumed that her parents did indeed pray for her to be cured. But when that cure did not happen immediately, her parents left. They abandoned their blind, handicapped daughter in a strange city and went home, leaving her homeless, penniless, and alone. Once she realized that they had left her, Margaret was forced to live on the streets as a beggar.

Although her parents’ abandonment of her must have been devastating, Margaret was a young woman of great faith. Her kindness, intelligence, piety, and complete acceptance of her poverty was eventually noticed by the faithful residents of Castello. For a time, she lived with several kind but poor families in the city, moving from home to home so that no one family was overly burdened. In time, the nuns of the convent of the city invited her to join them. However, it didn’t take long for the nuns to realize that Margaret was far more devoted to God and to radical simplicity and poverty than they were. Her holy example was a bit too much for them to handle, so they asked her to leave.

Margaret returned to Castello, where she, though blind and handicapped, cared for some of the children of the town while their parents were working, even teaching them about their faith. Margaret also became a third order Dominican, wearing a religious habit but remaining a laywoman. She lived quietly in Castello for the rest of her life, greatly loved by the residents of the town but unknown elsewhere until her death at the age of thirty-three.

It is hard to believe that, although she was acknowledged as Blessed Margaret by the Church in 1609, she was not canonized and given the title of saint until 2021, under Pope Francis. It was surely an easy decision for the pope, since miracles have occurred at her tomb since her death in 1320 and since devotion to Margaret’s intercession has continued unabated for seven hundred years. In our modern era of prenatal diagnoses, where disabled children like Margaret are all too often removed from our sight by abortion long before birth, her witness to the dignity of life is particularly needed now.

But the most inspirational thing about Saint Margaret of Castello is not that she lived, but how she lived. Being born with physical limitations does not make you a saint, but bearing those physical limitations with patience is a great first step. Suffering from persecution does not guarantee holiness; but forgiving those who reject you is essential. Being homeless does not automatically make you a holy person; but turning to God even in times of poverty is yet another way we show Him that we trust Him with everything.

We do not become saints simply by suffering; all human beings suffer. We become saints by bearing our sufferings as Jesus Christ did. Saint Margaret, by her intercession and her example, can help us learn to do that.

Many thanks to my friend Lisa, who kindly gave me this excellent short book about the holy young woman of Castello.

Growing in Virtue this Lent with the Saints

Photo by Rui Silva sj on Unsplash

Until my daughter began attending a Catholic high school, I thought I was a patient driver. After only one week braving stop-and-go traffic during rush hour on the beltway twice a day, I realized that I was not a patient driver at all. My patience had simply not been tested so regularly before.

As Lent approaches, we Catholics are tempted to fall back on the same penances that we’ve practiced in previous years, such as cutting back on our intake of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, or some other food or beverage. This may be a mature way of acknowledging that a desire for a particular item is out of control or unhealthy. Or it may be a sign of laziness.

The Church always recommends to us the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent. We should examine ourselves about those areas first. Do I have a habit of daily prayer? Am I fasting and abstaining from meat according to the Church’s Lenten rules and according to my age, health, and state of life? Am I financially supporting the Church and the needy?

But forty days is a perfect length of time to do more than that. Specifically, I can ask myself some questions: Is there a virtue I lack? Am I failing to act in love toward God and/or my neighbor on a regular basis in some way?

The easiest way to get an answer to that question is to ask members of your family or close friends what they think. They may even give you a list.

But there are other, perhaps gentler, ways to face your personal weaknesses during Lent and make some concrete resolutions to turn from vice to virtue. The forty-day period of Lent may be the perfect time for you to try to establish some holy habits that will last into the Easter season.

Personally, I find that reading about the saints every day helps me try to pattern my life after theirs. Otherwise, I am tempted to compare my life to the examples offered by TV shows, supermarket tabloids, and social media—which most of the time could be described as moral train wrecks—and think I’m doing pretty well in comparison. If I daily read about holy men and women, on the other hand, I not only have higher standards, but their example helps me follow in their footsteps. That’s why I wrote a book about them, after all.

Your local Catholic bookstore probably has a large assortment of Lenten books and booklets with reflections from great saints. Reading the words of a saint not only helps me see Lent through that saint’s eyes, it helps me recognize areas of my life where I am lacking in a virtue (or two or three). Similarly, reading a good biography or even historical novel of a saint, which is a not unreasonable goal for Lent, can help me appreciate both that saint’s gifts and challenges, and apply those lessons to my own life. The German-born author Louis de Wohl knew that well, which is exactly why he wrote so many historical novels about saints.

How to tackle your personal struggles with the help of the saints is the topic of Fr. Joseph Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems.[1] This book examines typical issues with which we all struggle, describes how saints faced those same problems, offers a short reflection and some approaches to try, and concludes with further reading options. You may not be facing all forty-seven topics covered in this book during Lent. After all, it’s not likely that you are struggling with difficulties in conceiving a child and old age at the same time (two different chapters in the book). But who doesn’t need some encouragement in the daily battle against impatience and gossip (two other chapter topics)?

It is always encouraging to discover that canonized saints fought the exact same interior battles that we do. Having a hard time forgiving someone? Saint Francis de Sales had to forgive a man who tried to kill him. Struggling with anger? Blessed John Columbini was notorious for his bad temper—until he began reading a book about saints. Do you find yourself feeling judgmental about family members who aren’t practicing their faith well or at all? Saint Veronica Giuliani did too, which is why God allowed her to have a vision of her own heart—which looked to her like it was made of iron. She got the point.

In our personal pursuit of virtue, however, we must remember one very important point: it’s impossible. That is, it is literally impossible for any of us fallen human beings to even have a good thought, much less perform a great and holy act, without God’s grace. Left to our own devices, the only thing we do really well is sin. But with God’s grace, if we ask the great saints and blesseds of the Church to inspire and watch over us, they can show us how to grow in virtue. They can show us how to “put on the mind of Christ” (see 1 Cor. 2:9-16) and find areas of our lives that need work. They can show us how to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our daily struggles and how to discern truth and falsehood. The example of the saints can even help us grow in virtue so that we will spend eternity with God, surrounded by our friends, the saints, who led us into Heaven.


[1] Note that Fr. Esper has also written More Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems, which includes chapters on gambling, widowhood, and stubbornness, for example, but that book is out of print.

Great Women, Great Saints

Saint Brigid of Kildare
Patrick Joseph Tuohy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What does it take to be a great woman? Our culture seems to think that greatness requires an advanced degree from an Ivy League school, martial arts training, a flawless body, and/or loads of money. But the female saints that the Church celebrates in February offer a very different image of greatness.

Saint Brigid of Ireland (feast day of February 1) started out in life as a slave in fifth century Ireland to a Christian mother and a pagan father.

Saint Josephine Bakhita (feast day of February 8) also experienced life as a slave. She was kidnapped at the age of nine in nineteenth century Sudan and was brutally tortured and mistreated by her masters.

Saint Margaret of Cortona (feast day of February 22) was an abandoned single mom in thirteenth century Italy.

Saint Anne Line (feast day of February 27) was a Catholic widow in anti-Catholic England in the sixteenth century.

What do all these women have in common besides the fact that they all are commemorated in February? Although we might be tempted to pity them and their apparently miserable lives, they all show us that the weapons given us by Christ can make any life into a truly great one.

Saint Brigid was generous with the poor from the time she was a young child. She was so generous with possessions—including the possessions of other people—that both her parents were often bewildered. Did her angry father finally give her her freedom from slavery and let her become a nun because he thought that would stop her from giving away his possessions any more? Maybe. Or maybe her extraordinary generosity finally infected even her pagan father. Either way, it was Brigid’s heroic example of selflessness that inspired so many other women to give up everything they possessed and become nuns just like her. She founded multiple monasteries during her ninety years of life, and both men and women placed themselves under her wise governance.

Saint Josephine Bakhita could have been bitter about the mistreatment she endured as a slave. Instead, she learned about the Catholic faith from the Italian family that both bought her and freed her. Josephine discovered the power of one of Christianity’s greatest weapons—forgiveness— when she became a Catholic, and that helped her decide to become a religious sister. Josephine spent many years telling her life story, begging for donations to her order, and spreading the good news of freedom through forgiveness to those who had never heard such a countercultural message before.

Saint Margaret learned in the most vivid way possible that actions have consequences and that sinful actions have particularly painful consequences. She thought living with her boyfriend and having beautiful clothes would make her happy. When he was murdered, she was overwhelmed with grief, loneliness, but most importantly, repentance. In that moment of despair, she saw and felt God’s mercy envelop her, and she lived the rest of her life offering that mercy to others in need.

Saint Anne Line chose to do the unthinkable many times in her life. First, she chose to become a Catholic in anti-Catholic England in the sixteenth century, which led her Protestant family to disown her. Then she chose to marry a Catholic, who died in exile not long afterward, leaving her alone, but not poor. With the money and property she possessed, she decided to do something that was both dangerous and illegal: she chose to hide priests so that they could minister to other Catholics in secret. When Anne had been arrested and was brought before judges, they accused her of the “crime” of hiding a priest from the authorities. She fearlessly replied, “My lords, nothing grieves me more but that I could not receive a thousand more.” That answer, brave as it was, sealed her fate and cost her her life. But Anne had found the pearl of great price—the Catholic faith—and was ready to sell all that she had to keep that precious gift.

Patterning your life after the rich and famous does not make you great. But patterning your life after the life and teachings of Jesus Christ—through selflessness, forgiveness, repentance, and sacrifice—may make you more than great. It can make you into a saint.