Rejoicing in a busy calendar

St. Barbara Altarpiece
By Wilhelm Kalteysen – 3gEm1sQ389cbzg at Google Arts & Culture, Public Domain,

No one likes to look at a busy calendar; it can seem overwhelming. The Church’s liturgical calendar can seem that way too.

After Jesus Christ rose up into Heaven, the early Christians had to develop their own calendar of celebrations. Dates associated with our Lord, such as Easter, obviously came first. Over the centuries, as more and more men and women lived Christ-like lives, more and more saints were celebrated in local churches and then in the universal Church.

Protestantism rejected the whole idea of the “communion of saints” in the sixteenth century. In the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its understanding of saints, but the Church also made a more concerted effort to demonstrate the holiness and even the existence of these holy men and women to our separated brethren. Not only should saints encourage Catholics to live better lives, their lives should be encouraging to non-Catholics as well.

For example, we don’t have photographic evidence or detailed newspaper accounts of the martyrdoms of Saints Perpetua and Felicity because photography and newspapers did not exist in the year 203. But we do have ancient writings and other evidence demonstrating that these two young women really lived and died and that they have been venerated by Christians for many centuries. In their case, we have proof in the writings of fourth century Bishop Saint Augustine of Hippo, who had to remind his parishioners that The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, while valuable, should not be treated as if it were as sacred as the Gospels themselves. That’s how popular the biography of these two saints had become among faithful Christians.

From about the time of the Council of Trent to the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical calendar of saints and blesseds of the Church was periodically updated. But in 1969, Pope Paul VI issued Mysterii Paschalis, a motu proprio which reorganized the Roman Calendar. The pope pointed out that, over time, the calendar had become very complicated with many feasts, octaves, and vigils, which tended to divert the faithful (that is, you and me) “from the fundamental mysteries of our Redemption.” The changes he authorized were supposed to help us remain focused on “the whole mystery of Christ which [the Church] unfolds within the cycle of the year.”

I was unaware of how dramatic these changes were to the celebration of the saints until my book, Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year, was being edited. My publisher asked me to consider adding another appendix (after all, my book already had five appendices). It was suggested that a correlation table, showing the differences between the saints’ dates in the current Church calendar and the calendar from the 1962 Roman Missal, would help those who wished to participate in an Extraordinary Form Mass (also commonly called a Traditional Latin Mass). With the table—which I did create and add as Appendix 2—someone could follow along in the 1962 Roman Missal and still find the saint biography from my book if it were on a different date.

My correlation table is twelve pages long! Devotees of the Latin Mass have valid complaints that these changes to the calendar were not insignificant and did not respect longstanding devotion to particular saints. The greatest damage, however, was probably that some people were led to believe that particular saints had been “unsainted”.

That is not at all the case. All of the changes that were made from the 1962 Roman Missal to our current liturgical calendar can be characterized as due to one of five reasons.

  1. In a few cases, the date was simply renamed. “The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary” became “The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple” (with no change in date).
  2. In a few cases, dates and titles associated with an important saint were rearranged or dropped. Our Blessed Mother is no longer celebrated under the title of “The Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary” on October 11, but the “Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God” was added to January 1.
  3. In several situations, the saint’s date was changed, presumably for a good reason related to that saint or to another (more well-known) saint in the calendar. For example, Saint John of Kanty’s feast day was changed from October 20 to December 23, the date of his death.
  4. For the vast majority of the changes, the saint is still listed as a saint in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum, the latest complete liturgical calendar of the Church. But he or she is not given a solemnity, feast, memorial, or optional memorial at Mass. However, just because there is no memorial celebration for Saints Christopher and Barbara at Mass on their respective dates (along with the hundreds of other saints who were dropped from the calendar used at Mass), that doesn’t mean they’re not saints.
  5. There are thirty-seven saints that are listed in the 1962 Roman Missal who are not included in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum at all. While it’s impossible to guess at the particular reason for each saint, it is safe to make some guesses. It is probable that almost all of these lesser-known saints were removed because of a lack of certain evidence about their existence or because one saint had apparently been conflated into two saints over the centuries, with similar but different spellings. These omitted saints are: Marcellinus, Boniface, Venantius, Pudentiania, Cyrinus, Nabor, Nazarius, Modestus, Crescentia, the Seven Holy Brothers, companions of Timothy (unknown number), the Twelve Holy Brothers, Lucy, Geminianus, Thecla, Cyprian, Justina, Marcellus, Apuleius, Respicius, and Nymphna.

There were and are many benefits to these changes in the Church’s calendar. First and foremost was what the pope desired: that the celebration of the liturgy—which for most of us is the celebration of the Mass—would be focused on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. These changes also allowed the Church to make room for more recent saints, and the twentieth century certainly gave the Church innumerable saints, particularly as martyrs under Communist and Socialist governments.

We can hope that the twenty-first century will continue to keep the Church’s calendar busy with new saints—but we can also hope these future saints will make it into the calendar without losing their heads, as did Saint Barbara.

Patron Saints of December

Saint Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death (1888) by Ilya Repin

In ancient Rome, it was important to have a patron. That is, it was important to have a wealthy, powerful person to rely upon if you needed protection, money, a job, social contacts, or some other favor. The word “patron”, after all, comes from the Latin word for “father”. In that culture and time, becoming bankrupt meant you might have to sell yourself and your family into slavery, so it was important to have some sort of “father” who could bail you out of trouble.

The culture of ancient Rome may be long gone, but the idea of having a patron lives on in the Catholic tradition of patron saints. Almost every holy man and woman who has been declared a saint or blessed of the Church had some unique experience which caused them to be thought of as a source of help for those in similar circumstances.

Obviously, many saints would be considered patrons for clergymen. Saint Francis Xavier (feast day Dec. 3) is an excellent patron for evangelists; he brought tens of thousands of people into the Church in India, Japan, and many places in between. Saint Stephen (Dec. 26) was one of the first seven deacons of the Church and was the first martyr, so he is clearly the perfect patron for deacons and martyrs. Saint Flannan (Dec. 18) traveled as a missionary monk to Killaloe, Ireland, and became its first bishop, so he is obviously a heavenly protector for Killaloe, Ireland. But what about patrons for laypeople and our ordinary challenges?

Perhaps the most obvious patron saint in the month of December is Saint Nicholas (Dec. 6). However our secular world has created and embellished the mythical Santa Claus, its inspiration, Saint Nicholas, really existed. He was the bishop of the city of Myra in what is now Turkey, he lived through a time of persecution, he confessed his faith in Christ, and he was (somehow) released from prison instead of being executed. After all, local governors didn’t always kill every Christian they found. There are multiple ancient stories about Nicholas, all of which show him to be a protector of the innocent and those who are unjustly treated, including children.

Saint Lucy (Dec. 13) was a Christian virgin who died a martyr in Syracuse, Italy, around the year 304. Her name means light. Did her torturers really blind her before they killed her, in mockery of her name? Or did the story of her being blinded arise after her death? We’ll never know, but everyone with eye problems can ask Saint Lucy for her intercession all the same.

Bishop Saint Ambrose of Milan (Dec. 7) is a patron for beekeepers. Why? Because his writing was considered as sweet as honey. That’s also why he was later named a Doctor of the Church. Saint John the Apostle (Dec. 27) is considered a patron saint for those suffering from burns. Why? Because there is an ancient tradition that some unwise pagan tried to kill the beloved disciple by throwing him in a vat of boiling oil. Just as the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar failed to kill the faithful Jews Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (as is described in Daniel, chapter 3) by throwing them into a furnace, so Saint John escaped unharmed. Both Saints John and Ambrose are also excellent patrons for writers, for more obvious reasons.

Suffer from a bad temper or know someone who does? Saint Thomas Becket (Dec. 29) is the saint for you. He was a devout archbishop of Canterbury in England, and he placed the needs of the Church before his own, but some of the difficulties he faced were caused by his impulsive nature and aristocratic temper. Fortunately for him, being sent into exile and having the pope correct some of his mistakes taught him some humility before he died a martyr at the hands of assassins sent by the king of England.

Saint Adelaide of Burgundy (Dec. 16) is a powerful intercessor for those suffering from many modern marital problems. She was born into the nobility in the tenth century and married to the king of Italy when she was a teenager. Her husband died so suddenly that everyone suspected he’d been poisoned. The obvious candidate for his poisoner was a ruthless leader who then insisted that Adelaide marry his son. Unsurprisingly, she did not want to marry the son of her husband’s killer, and she was left in prison until the king of Germany literally came to her rescue. Adelaide then married the king who had saved her. But that king had sons by a previous marriage, and Adelaide spent the rest of her life in family squabbles between her son and her stepsons, squabbles which involved the entire country. Saint Adelaide therefore has great compassion for those involved in second marriages, for conflicts between children and stepchildren, and for women who’ve been physically abused.

A more modern saint, Marguerite d’Youville (Dec. 23) is another sympathetic saint for women. She was a wife and mother in eighteenth century Canada, but four of her six children died young, and her unfaithful husband died suddenly, leaving her with nothing but debts. She eventually became the founder of an order of religious sisters now known as the “Grey Nuns”, but she too knows the pain of family disunity and loss.

On Dec. 28, the Church remembers the young children who were executed under the orders of King Herod, who was afraid that the predicted newborn king would take his kingdom from him. These children were too young to understand that they were dying for the Messiah, but the Church believes that God honors them for their sacrifice in Heaven. We call them the Holy Innocents, and they are ideal patrons for the millions of unborn children who have died by abortion in the past several decades, children who are just as innocent as were the Jewish children who were slaughtered in Bethlehem centuries ago.

But the greatest patron for December is the One we celebrate every December 25. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who humbled Himself to be born on a winter night in a forgotten stable among animals, is the ultimate patron. There is no vocation, medical condition, family calamity, or injustice that we suffer that is unimportant to our Lord. He cares for us all. And His birth reminds everyone each Christmas that He knows our sufferings and is ready to share them, in every place, time, and family.

Remembering All of the Saints

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

Who exactly do we remember on All Saints’ Day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Sense of Church Feasts

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

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

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

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

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

Our Lady of Guadalupe
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from the Saints for September

Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
Kingkongphoto & from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson #3: There are hidden joys in suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson #7: God is patient with difficult people

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

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

Saint John Vianney and Philomena

Saint Jean-Marie Vianney
Andreas König, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint John Vianney and Philomena, pray for us!

Two great saints of July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June: A Month for Martyrs

Saints Peter and Paul, El Greco, Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Makers of the Month of May

Subleyras, Pierre Hubert; San Juan de Avila (c.1499-1569); Birmingham Museums Trust;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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