Jesus Christ’s Grandparents

The Holy Family with Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, by Albrecht Dürer
All images are from Wikimedia Commons

Yes, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had grandparents. This should not surprise anyone. After all, every human baby has a mother and a father, and those parents have parents too. Since Jesus was born of a woman—like all of us—Jesus had grandparents.

A Jesse-Tree, Girolamo Genga

However, the only inerrant source of information about our Lord is the Bible, and the Bible only gives us the names of Saint Joseph’s ancestors. The father of Joseph is listed as Jacob in Matt 1:16 and Heli in Luke 3:23. This inconsistency is not an inconsistency since ancient genealogies sometimes omit generations, and ancient family trees were not kept for the same reason that many people today perform genealogical research. Instead, these genealogies were included by the evangelists to remind us that Jesus was descended through God’s Chosen People and that there were great men and women of faith in his lineage: Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Ruth, David, and Solomon.

Saints Anne and Joachim with Mary

But Mary, being a woman, must have had parents too, and Christians have been devoted to her parents for many centuries. Among Eastern Christians, devotion to Mary’s parents can be dated to at least the fourth century, when some early church buildings were built and named in their honor. In the Western Church, devotion to the parents of Mary has been more sporadic, probably because Church leaders have needed to crack down on legends about Mary and her parents that have grown in unhelpful ways or have been assumed to be fact.

Typically, these legends have arisen from a few extrabiblical books, particularly the Protoevangelium of James. The Protoevangelium of James is a second century writing that describes the conception and birth of Mary and the conception and birth of Jesus. While this book includes many of the details about Jesus’ birth which are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it also includes other stories and some odd passages. However the author received his information, it’s clear that the author of the Protoevangelium of James was trying to answer questions that had been left unanswered by the Gospels.

For example, this book claims that Mary’s parents were named Joachim and Anne. Maybe they were. In the absence of proof otherwise, it is certainly reasonable to follow this ancient tradition and refer to them as Saints Joachim and Anne.

According to the Protoevangelium of James, Joachim was a wealthy man, but he and Anne were childless. Grieved by this, he left his home to fast and pray for forty days and nights in the desert. In his absence, Anne grieved also and even endured taunting by her maid about her childlessness. An angel appeared to each of them individually, told them that the Lord had heard their prayers, and promised them a child. Both were overjoyed and hurried toward one another with their good news. They met at the city’s gate. (The following images portray some of the many artistic works showing us that happy moment.)

German; Wall group; Lapidary Work-Alabaster
Joachim und Anna an der Goldenen Pforte, Hans Fries
Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, Gil de Siloé, Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos
No. 6, Scenes from the Life of Joachim, Giotto
The Meeting of Joachim and Anne outside the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, Filippino Lipi

Nine months later, Anne proclaimed her own Magnificat of thanksgiving, just as Mary did at the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55). Anne did everything she could to make her home a sanctuary so that her long-awaited daughter would always remain pure. When Mary was three years old, Anne fulfilled a previous vow to dedicate this child to the service of God, and she left Mary at the Temple in Jerusalem in the care of the priests.

Whether or not this story bears any relation to Mary’s actual conception, birth, and childhood is unknown. But this portrayal does bear many similarities to other biblical stories. Joachim and Anne’s wealth and childlessness mirrors that of Abraham and Sarah. Just as Joachim and Anne learned about their future child from an angel, so did the parents of Samson, as well as Mary and Joseph. The unkind maid criticizing her mistress sounds much like the story of Sarah, the tormented future wife of Tobiah in the book of Tobit. Many details about Anne—including her similar name—are reminiscent of the story of childless Hannah and her son Samuel, as described in 1 Samuel.

In short, the author of the Protoevangelium of James wove together many miracle stories from the Old Testament to show that God had prepared the way for Mary to become holy, pure, and far greater than any one of her ancestors. Perhaps some of the details in this account are true. Perhaps not.

Either way, we can be certain of one thing. The Blessed Virgin Mary had only one goal in her earthly life and now has only one goal in Heaven: to lead people to her Son, Jesus Christ. These stories about Joachim and Anne could be useful to us as Christians insofar as we allow them to help us remain focused on that same goal. Like Joachim and Anne, we can pray, fast, and turn to God in our sorrow. When God hears our prayers and gives us our hearts’ desire, we can be thankful and continue to make sacrifices to Him, demonstrating that we know the source of all the blessings of our lives.

The story of Joachim and Anne also points to an important truth. To prepare Mary’s parents for the gift of a holy daughter—the woman who would crush the head of the ancient serpent (Gen 3:15) and undo the sin of Eve—it is highly likely that God would help them become the best possible parents for that holy child. Perhaps years of childlessness and suffering were necessary to help them understand the joy of being blessed by God. Also, although Mary’s body was conceived through ordinary marital relations, her soul was pure from the moment of conception. Having such a holy child would not be as easy as it sounds.

Unterweisung Mariens durch Joachim und Anna, Daniel Gran

Were Jesus’ grandparents alive when He was born? Did they play with Him as a baby, give Him presents, teach Him about His family history, or watch Him grow into a man? Probably not, since they are never mentioned in the Gospels. But they existed, and particularly on July 26, their feast day, we can ask them to help us love Jesus Christ with all our hearts, as they did.

Countries with a particular devotion to Saints Joachim and Anne include: Brazil, Canada, France, and Italy.

The Blood-stained Book of Saint Boniface

Statue of St. Boniface of Mainz
All images are from Wikimedia Commons

He was given the name of Winfrid at his baptism in about the year 680. Born in southern England and educated at a monastery school, Winfrid eventually chose to become a monk himself. His reputation as a teacher and scholar attracted many students to his school and led him to be chosen as the school’s director. Somewhat later, at the age of 30, he decided God was calling him to become a priest.

Although the Catholic faith had already spread in England in the early eighth century, there were many parts of Europe which were largely pagan. Winfrid believed that God was calling him to evangelize the unbelievers in Friesland, a region along the north sea coast of Europe, now known as the Netherlands and Germany. After convincing his abbot to give him permission to leave his abbey with a few companions, Winfrid traveled there by boat in the year 716. But almost immediately he realized that the time was not yet right to preach the Gospel to the Frisian people, and he returned home to England.

Two years later, he thought the time had come. But, having learned from his past experience, this time he traveled not east, but south. He arrived in Rome, met with Pope Saint Gregory II, and received papal permission to go to Friesland as a missionary. He also received a new (Latin) name from the pope: Boniface.

While Boniface was on his way to his mission, he learned that the pagan ruler of the Frisians had died, which seemed a good sign for evangelization. And it was. Since the dialect Boniface spoke in his native England closely resembled the dialect spoken in Friesland, Boniface was able to make himself—and the Gospel—understood. Now that he had the authority of the Church behind him, many people became Christians, which Boniface dutifully reported to the pope.

Saint Willibrord, Bishop of Utrecht
and Apostle to the Frisians

At first, Boniface worked under another missionary, Saint Willibrord, who had been serving in a nearby region for years. Willibrord wanted the talented Boniface to succeed him as bishop, but Boniface did not want to limit his efforts to just one area. So he returned to Rome. The pope agreed with Boniface, made him a bishop, and gave him jurisdiction over a large area.

With the new authority granted him by the pope, Boniface was ready for his greatest battle yet—with a tree. Pagans venerated and offered sacrifices to an ancient oak tree in the city of Hesse. Armed with an axe and with a large crowd watching, Boniface personally cut down Donar’s sacred oak. Soon after he started swinging, the huge tree cracked into four pieces. None of the dire punishments the pagans had predicted descended upon Boniface. With their pagan beliefs shaken, many unbelievers became Christian believers. When the church in Hesse seemed to be on solid footing, Boniface continued his travels from town to town, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Saint Boniface and Donar’s Sacred Oak

Eventually conversions were occurring so rapidly that Boniface needed more workers in his missionary vineyard in Friesland. He wrote to the monasteries of England for help, and both monks and nuns accepted his challenge. Many of those who served under Boniface eventually became canonized saints, such as Saints Lull, Eoban, Thecla, and Walburga, and monasteries began to be built in the area. The greatest of these was Fulda Abbey, which later became as famous as Saint Benedict’s Monte Cassino.

While Boniface is rightly honored as the Apostle of Germany, he also served as a Church leader in nearby France. Although French kings and the French people had embraced the Catholic faith for almost two hundred years before Boniface had even been born, the Church is always in need of reform. Boniface was invited to preside over synods in France, where his wisdom and leadership helped him establish better discipline among the French clergy and monks and bring a halt to lingering pagan practices.

By the year 753, Boniface was in his seventies and had been the bishop of Mainz for many years. He decided to retire as bishop and named his assistant, Saint Lull, to succeed him. But that did not mean Boniface was ready to stop teaching people about Jesus Christ. Instead, he gathered a group of followers to accompany him as he traveled to remote areas.

According to tradition, on June 5, 754, Boniface was reading a book when an armed group of bandits attacked their camp. Boniface told his companions not to fight back. He may have quickly realized that they were only bandits searching for treasure. (The only treasure that Boniface and his companions possessed were sacred vessels and books.) When one of the bandits attacked Boniface, Boniface tried to shield himself with his book. He was killed, as were all of his companions. All were acclaimed as martyrs.

Nailmark in the Ragyndrudis Codex

Boniface’s body was eventually translated to Fulda Abbey, where it has been venerated for centuries. The monks of Fulda have claimed that they possess the book Boniface was holding, stained with his blood and with marks of the fatal attack.

There are a handful of books from that time period that could have been that famous book, and modern scholars debate about which one is the right one. The Ragyndrudis Codex, for example, has a nailmark in it, although some point out that pagans often drove nails into Christian books for superstitious reasons.

Whether or not the actual book Saint Boniface was holding at the time of his martyrdom still exists or not, it is easy to identify portrayals of this saint in statues and paintings. He’s the one holding a book with a sword driven through it. After all, the symbolism of the book and the sword is perfect for Saint Boniface, who conquered the violence of the pagan world with the Word of God.

Statue of Saint Boniface in Mainz, Germany

The Good Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII
All images are from Wikimedia Commons

The life of Pope Saint John XXIII reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways and that sometimes God even has a sense of humor.

After all, the 261st pope did not come from a wealthy or noble background. Instead, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (1881-1963) was born on a farm in northern Italy. His parents were so poor that they couldn’t afford their own land and instead worked the fields of their landlord. But they worked hard enough at farming to keep a family of thirteen children fed, clothed, and healthy.

That hardworking, “do what needs to be done without complaining about it” attitude was clearly evident throughout Angelo’s life. He discerned a call to the priesthood when he was young and entered the seminary, but he obediently interrupted his studies for a year when he was called upon to serve in the Italian infantry. Although he was not considered an exceptional student in the seminary, he worked hard and earned a doctorate in canon law. During World War I, he was called back by the army and served as a medic and a military chaplain.

Young Father Angelo Roncalli

Many of the pivotal moments in Angelo’s life might appear to have been directed by random chance. Merely because he was a priest in Bergamo, he happened to be the one who was asked to assist the new bishop prepare for his installation Mass. The bishop took a liking to the friendly young priest and made him his secretary. As assistant to the bishop, Angelo learned about ecclesiastical matters and was asked to teach in the nearby seminary. When his bishop died in 1914, Angelo wrote a sympathetic biography about a man he had greatly respected.

His affection for his bishop apparently got the attention of Pope Benedict XV, who assigned Angelo to serve as the head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Italy. In this position, Angelo met many important Church leaders, and they met him.

Angelo’s next three assignments were to sensitive posts, but not particularly flashy ones. After being made an archbishop, he was sent first as an apostolic visitator to Bulgaria. His job was to support the rights of Eastern rite Catholics, who were an overlooked minority in that country. Then he was sent to Istanbul to serve as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece, where relationships between Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims were (and are) often tense. After World War II, he was named nuncio of Paris, which was a particularly difficult post because his predecessor had collaborated with the Vichy (pro-Nazi) government. Since Angelo had quietly helped many Jews escape Nazi persecution during the war, he had the right credentials to unite and heal the post-war Church in France.

Angelo was not an exceptional diplomat or a theological expert, and he did not possess extensive political connections or great wealth. What he did have was an ability to put people at ease. Through his friendliness, sympathy, and sense of humor—all bounded by Christian virtue—he managed to improve the Church’s relationships with disparate and unfriendly factions throughout all his assignments.

He was named a cardinal and patriarch of Venice in 1953 as a recognition of his years of obedient service of the Church. He probably had no idea that his name would come up in the papal conclave of 1958. After all, he was seventy-six years old, which made him the oldest pope to be elected in more than two centuries when he was, surprisingly, named pope.

This humble Italian priest who had simply and obediently tried to complete whatever assignment he was given now began to surprise everyone. Even the name he chose was surprising. No pope had taken the name of John in five centuries because antipope Baldassare Cossa had called himself Pope John XXIII. But Angelo simply re-took the name of the beloved disciple, John, brushed aside that past scandal, and set his own agenda as pope.

Just as people all over the world were becoming more concerned about social justice, often in problematic ways, the new pope penned an encyclical on the topic: Mater et Magistra. After the Cuban missile crisis had sparked worldwide tension, he wrote Pacem in Terris, an optimistic encyclical that focused not on diplomacy but on the foundational beliefs that are required for any true peace: freedom, truth, justice, and love.

One of Pope John’s first acts was to declare that, for the first time in the history of the Church, the diocese of Rome would hold its own synod. Perhaps this was to help people get used to the idea before he called for an even greater meeting: the Second Vatican Council. By setting the stage for a positive, pastoral council to explain the Catholic Church to the modern world, Pope John hoped that Vatican II would respond to modern criticisms that the Catholic Church had been too focused on anathemas and prohibitions. Pope John demonstrated his own past experience in dealing with people of different faiths by inviting Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to serve as observers to the council. While Vatican II certainly caused upheaval in the Church—and there were those who manipulated it to suit their own personal agendas—Pope John’s great hope for the council was that it would bring about a “New Pentecost”, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that would bless the Church and the entire world.

Pope John XXIII, Opening Mass of the Second Vatican Council

During his brief pontificate, Pope John became widely loved for his fatherly manner and sense of humor. When he visited inmates at a prison in Rome, he quipped, “Since you could not come to me, I came to you.” He found an amusing way to convince a communist diplomat to allow a pope to bless him: “I know you are an atheist, but won’t you accept an old man’s blessing?” As a poor woman shyly tried to touch him during an audience, Pope John stopped, clasped her hand, and said, “There is no reason why you shouldn’t get as close [to me] as the king of Jordan did.”

When Pope John was dying slowly from cancer, two years before the conclusion of the council he had opened, he reminded those around him that, “Any day is a good day to die. My bags are packed.” After all, he didn’t believe in random chance any more than the rest of us should; he believed in Divine Providence. Pope John died on June 3, but the Church celebrates his feast day on October 11, the opening date of the Second Vatican Council.

As for the grandeur and power of the papacy, Saint Pope John XXIII demonstrated, once again, that he was the down-to-earth son of a farmer at his death. In his will, he left his total personal fortune to his family: approximately $20.

Canonization of Saint Pope John XXIII

Why Fátima Matters

Our Lady of Fátima
All images from Wikimedia Commons

In the year 1917, near the end of World War I, three Portuguese children claimed to have seen and heard the Blessed Mother. After the local bishop investigated the children’s statements, examined the messages they were given, and analyzed the descriptions provided by other witnesses, he declared the events worth of belief and permitted public devotions under the title of Our Lady of Fátima.

As is the case for all private revelations, Catholics are not obligated to practice this devotion or accept as true any or all its events. But there are many fascinating details about this story, details that raise interesting questions.

For example, the apparitions began when most of the world was still focused on World War I. The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary seem to have been timed to warn Christians about the unnoticed threat of the communist takeover of Russia and encourage Catholics to start praying for an end to this brutal and deadly regime. But how could anyone predict such a thing would happen before it even began?

Photograph taken of the crowd during the “Miracle of the Sun” on October 13, 1917

That’s why it’s hard to ignore what happened at Fátima.

As a reminder, the apparitions of the Blessed Mother to the three children at Fátima began on May 13, 1917, and ended on October 13, 1917. Although only the three children were present for the first apparition, the crowds increased in size each month. During the last event, somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 witnesses—including many skeptics—were present. Many people reported seeing a terrifying vision. As the three children were praying (and seeing a vision of the Holy Family), the crowds appeared to see the sun plummet toward the earth—toward them! Many believed it was the end of the world. But the sun rapidly returned to its proper place, and the vision ended. Then the rain clouds parted and, despite the fact that it had been raining heavily, the witnesses’ clothes and the surrounding ground were mysteriously dry.

A statue of the Angel of Peace, now also called the Guardian Angel of Portugal

As the children were interviewed, investigators discovered that their visions did not actually start in 1917. The children said that they had also been visited by an angel a year earlier. The angel had told them that he was the “Angel of Peace”, and he taught them how to pray, apparently preparing them for the future visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

During each of the apparitions, the children prayed the rosary with the Mother of God, who they said was incredibly beautiful and seemed to hover over a holm oak tree. Mary told them that God wanted to establish a devotion to her Immaculate Heart. She also showed them a terrifying vision of Hell and told them a secret which was not revealed until the year 2000.

The children were kidnapped by the local mayor to prevent them from going to the site of the apparitions on August 13. Although the mayor’s cowardly act was perpetrated against mere children—and didn’t stop Mary from appearing later—it did serve one useful purpose. It proved that the children were telling the truth. All three were threatened with death and put in prison cells, yet they refused to recant their story.

L to R: Lúcia dos Santos, Francesco Marto, and Jacinta Marto

The effect of these visions on the devotion of the three young visionaries is unquestionable. Although Francesco and Jacinta Marto died a few years later from the Spanish flu, other people immediately noticed that the children had become more devoted to prayer and that they daily tried to make personal sacrifices for the sake of sinners. They are now canonized saints. Their cousin, Lúcia dos Santos, became a Carmelite nun, lived a long and blameless life, and died in 2005. None of them ever retracted their explanations of these events.

But Fátima changed the world, not just three people in Portugal.

The message given by Mary at Fátima was not a theological treatise. The Blessed Mother simply encouraged the children to pray the rosary. She also asked for the entire world to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. The vision of Hell that the children had seen was frightening, but it conveyed to them the seriousness of sin and the pain of eternal separation from God. Catholics all over the world were moved by the words and example of the children and responded with a renewed dedication to praying the rosary and offering up their sacrifices.

Statue of Our Lady at Fátima

In addition to the worldwide consecration, the Blessed Mother asked Catholics to receive Holy Communion on the first Saturday of the month for five months as a means of reparation. Why? As communism took control of Russia, churches were desecrated and closed, clergy and religious were killed, and the faithful were ordered to abandon their faith. Out of all the nations of the world, the Blessed Mother particularly mentioned Russia. She warned that if people failed to pray and offer reparations for these offenses against God, Russia’s “errors” (i.e., communism) would spread all over the world, leading to wars, martyrdoms, deaths, and the persecution of Christians. She also said that the pope would suffer greatly.

The Crown of the Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, with the bullet from Pope John Paul II’s assassination attempt

Decades later, Saint Pope John Paul II demonstrated that he believed in the veracity of these messages. The secret that was kept until the year 2000—sometimes called the Third Secret since the other two were revealed earlier—involved another vision. In this vision, an assassination attempt was made on a “man in white”, that is, the pope. After Pope John Paul was shot by a gunman in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, he recognized that the assassination attempt was predicted by the Fátima visions, and he believed that the Mother of God had saved his life. He had the bullet that nearly killed him placed in the crown of the Our Lady of Fátima’s statue in Portugal. And he consecrated the entire world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25, 1984.

But the Fátima apparitions blessed the world in yet one more way. While we human beings could not know in 1917 that the bloodiest century in the history of the world was upon us—a hundred years of world wars, civil wars, concentration camps, atomic bombs, and innumerable Christian martyrdoms—God did know. In His great love for us, He warned us of the imminent danger, gave us hope, and reminded us to pray and make sacrifices. He did all of this through apparitions of the gentle, humble Mother of God, who always leads us back to Jesus Christ, and, like a true mother, gives us hope when things seem hopeless.

The Hidden Saint Mark

Statue of Saint Mark the Evangelist, located in the colonnade of Saint Peter’s Square in Rome
All images used are from Wikimedia Commons

We call the Gospel of Mark the Gospel of Mark for a simple reason: the most ancient copies of that document are titled “According to Mark”. But what do we really know about the human author whom we call Saint Mark the Evangelist?

Like all the Gospel writers, Saint Mark is commonly portrayed in art (see images above) as either reading or writing the book that he wrote—though he wrote it with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course. While modern scholars may debate the authorship of some books of the New Testament, Mark is widely acknowledged as the human author of the book that bears his name.

While that Gospel teaches us many things about Jesus Christ, it does not tell us anything directly about its author or how he came to know so much about our Savior. Unlike Matthew and John, Mark does not appear in the list of the names of the Twelve apostles. Since the author of the Gospel of Luke is believed to be the same Luke who traveled with the Apostle Saint Paul, it is commonly suggested that Mark is the same John Mark who later traveled with Saints Paul and Barnabas (Acts 12:25), although that collaboration did not end well (see Acts 15:36-41). However, the mother of that same John Mark was named Mary, and she was apparently a supporter of the early Church. After all, when Saint Peter was miraculously released from prison by an angel, he came to her house to speak with the Christian community that was hiding there (Acts 12:12-17).

That Biblical connection between John Mark’s family and Peter is the reason that scholars have proposed an interesting theory about the source for the contents of the Gospel of Mark. According to this theory, Mark became a traveling companion and assistant to Peter. After Jesus’ Resurrection, Peter journeyed from place to place, telling of his personal experience of following Jesus Christ during our Lord’s three-year-long public ministry and bringing people to conversion. As his secretary, Mark wrote down Peter’s stories, which he had probably heard many, many times. Thus the Gospel of Saint Mark is, according to this theory, almost the Gospel of Saint Peter: that is, a compilation of the preaching of Saint Peter as arranged by Mark. This theory can be seen in a recent translation of the Gospel of Mark by Michael Pakaluk. Titled The Memoirs of Saint Peter, Pakaluk’s translation, with its urgent, blunt tone, makes it seem very plausible that the Gospel of Mark was indeed based on the words of a simple fisherman-turned-street preacher.

The Prophet Ezekiel, who lived in the sixth century BC, received many visions. In one of his most famous visions, he saw four fantastical creatures, living beings who had the form of men but who had wings and four faces. On each creature, one of its faces looked like a man, one looked like a lion, one looked like an ox, and one looked like an eagle. (See also the four living creatures described in Rev. 4:7-8.) For various reasons, each of the four Gospels have been associated with one of those four face shapes for many centuries.

The Gospel of Mark is associated with the symbol of a lion. You can see that lion in all of the images above, although the lion is hiding at Mark’s feet in the example on the right. Perhaps the symbol of a lion seemed appropriate because Mark’s telling of the life of Christ is so vivid and almost abrupt. Mark uses the word “immediately” more than thirty times in his short Gospel.

There are some writings that claim to describe the life and actions of Mark himself, although some are more reliable than others. According to an ancient tradition, Mark brought the Good News to Alexandria, Egypt, established a church there, and became the archbishop of the city. During a time of persecution, he was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. Tradition says that he died a martyr while being dragged through the city of Alexandria.

Several centuries later, also according to tradition, Mark’s relics were translated to the great city of Venice, where he has been called upon as a patron for the city—and against the city’s many floods—ever since.

In this lifetime, we will never know most of the personal details we would like to know about Saint Mark. Only God knows how and when Mark became a Christian, whether his Gospel is based on Peter’s testimony or not, and whether he ever personally met Jesus Christ. But many people have wondered whether Mark did include a cameo appearance of himself in one scene described in chapter 14 (verses 50-52).

After Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospel records that all the disciples ran away—all except for one young man who followed as the Lord was taken away. That young man was wearing only a linen cloth, and when the guards tried to arrest him too, they only managed to grab the linen cloth. The young man escaped but was left naked. This detail has reminded Christians ever since of a different man—named Adam—who was naked in a garden and who listened to a snake rather than God.

Perhaps young Mark was ashamed that he did not try harder to save his Lord from death. Perhaps he thought his written record of the life of Christ would help others to believe. Whatever motivation Mark had for writing his Gospel, we can simply thank God, on Mark’s feast day of April 25, that he did.

Saint Mark, brave missionary and evangelist, pray for us!

The Real Story of Saint Patrick

Statue of Saint Patrick at the footstep of Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo, Ireland
All images are from Wikimedia Commons

The great Saint Patrick of Ireland is a larger-than-life figure who is known by millions, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Some of the stories that are commonly told about him can seem more like fiction than fact. Is it possible to separate fanciful Irish tales from the real fifth-century man?

Quite a few stories about Patrick’s life can be trusted, not only because of the number of early biographies that were written about him, but also because Patrick wrote one himself. Granted, The Confession of Saint Patrick does not give us all the details about his life that we would like. That’s simply because Patrick did not write it like a modern autobiography. However, it teaches us quite a lot about this amazing saint.

Patricius was born into a Catholic family, perhaps around the year 389, in the Roman territory of Britain. His father was a deacon. Pirates raided his community—a common occurrence in that time and place—and kidnapped him, along with others. The pirates sold their captives to pagans in Ireland, and sixteen-year-old Patrick found himself alone, far from home, and apparently doomed to spend the rest of his life as a slave.

Like many teenaged boys, Patrick had not given much thought to his Catholic faith in the past. But suffering brought him to his knees, as he found himself continually praying to God for answers, wisdom, and help. Patrick’s love for God grew as he prayed during the six long years of his enslavement. Finally, he heard a voice in his sleep one night, a voice which told him to be brave and get ready to return to his homeland.

Patrick ran away from his master, traveled 200 miles on foot to the coast, and, by God’s grace, found a boat that took him back to Britain. But now he discovered he was simply the slave of another group of people. These men forced him to travel with them and starve with them as they wandered in the wilderness. When his captors angrily complained about Patrick’s God, who did not seem to be helping them, Patrick told them to trust in God—and a herd of pigs suddenly appeared, providing them with a source of food that lasted for days.

Eventually, Patrick was able to return to his family. He was happy at first, but he continued to have visions of the people he had left behind in Ireland. An inner call to rescue those people from ignorance of God became too strong, and he traveled to France, which was famous at the time for the devotion and holiness of its monks. Patrick lived as a monk for at least one decade, perhaps two. But then he was sent to Rome to ask permission to pursue his next great call: to serve the Irish people as a missionary. Pope Saint Celestine I ordained him a bishop and sent him back to Ireland.

Patrick being sent to Ireland by the pope

Patrick’s efforts to evangelize Ireland brought about massive conversions. During his decades in Ireland, he converted many pagans, built many churches, and established many monasteries. He also directly confronted the falsehoods of Druidic beliefs and personally evangelized Irish kings and chieftains.

Patrick preaching to the Irish kings

Did Patrick’s former slavemaster intentionally burn down his own house when he heard Patrick was coming? Did Patrick really chase all the snakes out of Ireland? Did he really use a shamrock to explain the Trinity (a theological approach which is now frowned upon and technically termed modalism)?

Those tales might be just tales. But Patrick’s actual accomplishments are far more remarkable than those minor details.

Patrick returned to Ireland as a grown man, but still a former slave. Even though he returned with Christian companions, he could have been enslaved again. However, no one apparently thought of trying such a thing with Patrick.

Those six painful years of slavery had prepared him for his return just as much as had his years of monastic life. From his time among the Irish people, Patrick had come to understand their language, their religion, and their government. He could therefore speak to the ordinary people about Christ, confront the Druids like a Christian Moses, and explain Christian theology to Irish leaders. Patrick successfully evangelized an entire people—converting a culture without destroying their world—before his death in 461, a remarkable accomplishment in the history of the Catholic Church.

But he did not do this alone. Patrick traveled the countryside of Ireland, going from town to town with companions. Those companions included, among others: an assistant bishop, a chamberlain, a sacristan, a bellringer, a chariot driver, a bodyguard, a cowherd, blacksmiths, masons, and embroideresses. This Catholic household supported Patrick as he evangelized, but it also helped him establish new Christian communities. The bellringer called people to hear him preach, since he had no church bells to call them. His chariot driver, Odran, gave his life for Patrick during an attack. His bodyguard was, obviously, a bodyguard, for Patrick was not naive about the dangers of confronting false gods and their followers.

The Bell of Saint Patrick

Patrick’s famous autobiography indicates another reason he was so successful as an evangelist: his knowledge of the Word of God. The Confession is full of phrases and passages from both the Old and New Testaments, passages that Patrick clearly knew by heart and relied upon both for his own prayer life and also to lead others to conversion. The Word of God, after all, is the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:15).

As described in my book, The Leaven of the Saints, Church history is full of stories about great saints who were so successful in evangelizing a particular people that they later became known as the Apostle to that people. People may argue about how the snakes really left Ireland. But no one can argue that Patrick is the Apostle of Ireland and one of the greatest apostles in the history of Christianity.

The Great Saint Patrick of Ireland

Fra Angelico, Artist and Saint

Possible portrait of Fra Angelico
All images used are from Wikimedia Commons

The world knows him as Fra Angelico, one of the greatest painters of the early Renaissance. The Catholic Church calls him Blessed John of Fiesole, a Dominican friar who was known not only for his artistic ability but also for his holiness.

We only know bits and pieces about most of his life story, particularly his childhood. Most sources agree that his father’s name was Pietro, that he was born in a small town in Italy, probably around the year 1387, and that he was given the name of Guido at his birth. According to tradition, when he and his brother Benedetto were young men, they were so inspired by the preaching of a famous Dominican priest that they decided to enter that order.

It appears that Guido and Benedetto had already received some training as artists, almost certainly at nearby Florence, which was widely known at the time as an artistic center. Benedetto later became known as a painter of miniatures. When the two young men entered the Dominican order and became friars, Guido took the name in religious life of Giovanni (John, in English).

Unfortunately, Italy was not a peaceful place in the early fifteenth century. More than one man claimed to be the pope, and disputes between the Church and civic leaders repeatedly caused unrest and violence. There was also an outbreak of the plague. For several years, Giovanni and the other members of his community were forced to move to various towns for their safety. But the Dominicans quickly recognized his talents and assigned him the task of decorating the various friaries and churches wherever he lived. The painting below is one of his early works, one of the few that have not been lost over time.

Blessing Redeemer (1423)

One of Giovanni’s assignments was to paint devotional images in the cells of the friars. How would you like to have the image below on the wall of your bedroom? Unsurprisingly, at least one of the convents decorated by Fra Angelico has been turned into an art museum.

The Transfiguration

Before long, Friar Giovanni had become a widely known and respected fresco artist, and other members of his community were members of his workshop, which created artworks as small as illuminated missals and as large as frescoes on church walls. While living in Florence, GIovanni painted one of his most famous works, the San Marco Altarpiece (below). Art historians often note its use of perspective and metaphor, but it is also contains Dominican themes and contemporary political symbols. The latter is not surprising since it was paid for by the wealthy and powerful Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder.

San Marco Altarpiece

Giovanni worked for popes as well. Near the end of his life, he completed one of his greatest achievements: the decoration of a chapel in the Vatican with scenes from the life of Saint Laurence (see one scene below). Even though Giovanni used gold and expensive colors (to please his wealthy patron), the image helps us see the Christian love of the poor, which Saint Laurence exemplified.

Saint Laurence distributing alms

All of his works can be admired by specialists for their artistic ability and their influence on future artists. But even those of us who are not art historians can admire the beauty and the atmosphere of peace and serenity that he conveys in his paintings. He was not nicknamed Fra Angelico (meaning, the angelic brother) simply because he sometimes painted images of the heavenly court or because he lived a virtuous life. His paintings seem to take you to a world where angels dwell.

However, as Blessed John of Fiesole, his extraordinary life followed the same path of every ordinary follower of Christ. He recognized God’s call to a particular vocation, learned from others how to live out that vocation, and slowly developed skills throughout his lifetime. It was probably just as difficult for him to obey his bosses (his Dominican superiors) and keep calm when reading the latest political news as it is for us today. But all his life prepared him for the same destination that awaits all of us: the day we face judgement before Jesus Christ. May we face that day with the same peace, serenity, and trust in God that we see in the works of Fra Angelico.

San Marco, Florence, The Day of Judgement
The self-portrait at the top of this article is taken from the painting above, which is called The Preaching of the Antichrist. It was painted by Luca Signorelli, who, according to tradition painted himself and his fellow painter, Fra Angelico, in the bottom left.

Saint Paul’s Conversion and the Eucharist

The Conversion of St. Paul,
Wikimedia Commons

Shocked by survey results showing that the majority of Catholics don’t understand Church teaching on the Eucharist, the US bishops launched a Eucharistic Revival in 2022. This will lead up to a nationwide eucharistic congress in July of 2024. For that reason, 2024 is the perfect year for us to try to develop a better grasp of the Catholic understanding of Jesus’ Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

Of course, the idea that the Son of God makes Himself present to us in the sacramental species of bread and wine is a marvelous mystery beyond our comprehension. But we should still try.

While every saint recognized by the Catholic Church has a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament (or he or she would not be declared a saint), few saints’ lives explain Catholic teaching on the Blessed Sacrament better than the great apostle, Saint Paul. His conversion is celebrated every year on January 25, making him one of the few saints with more than one feast day on the Church’s calendar. (His other feast day is June 29, which he shares with Saint Peter.)

Saul was a devout Jew, and he thought the claims of Christianity were blasphemous, so blasphemous that he asked for permission to hunt down Christians and take them to Jerusalem to be tried and condemned to death (see Acts 8:3). Chapter 9 of Acts describes Saul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus Christ as he was traveling on the road to Damascus. It explains how Saul was struck blind during the vision and had to be led into the city by his guards, as well as how a Christian follower named Ananias endangered his life (out of his obedience to Christ) by praying over the great persecutor of Christians. Instead of having Ananias arrested for praying in the name of Jesus, Saul was cured of his blindness and became a Christian.

But what does this experience have to do with Catholic teaching on the Eucharist?

The first similarity is that the Saul who traveled toward Damascus and the Saul who was miraculously healed looked exactly the same. After all, he was completely cured of his inability to see, with apparently no physical after effects. He did have witnesses—the soldiers who were with him—but they only heard a voice and didn’t see the vision that Saul claimed to have experienced.

Just as there were no outward signs of a transformation in Saul’s heart, so there are (usually) no outward signs of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see particularly CCC, 1373-1375) explains the Catholic teaching about the Eucharist, God’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament will always remain a mystery of faith, not something we can test with a microscope, telescope, or some other random scientific instrument. Occasionally, God does perform a eucharistic miracle that we can see or touch. But the proof of the miracle in Saul’s heart came later, for example when he changed his name to Paul so that he might better reach Gentiles with the Gospel message.

Many years after his conversion, probably around the year 60 A.D., Paul traveled to Jerusalem. He did this even though he knew that his life would be in danger from angry Jewish leaders. A riot even broke out when his enemies circulated a false rumor that he had brought a Gentile into the Temple. Knowing that his life hung in the balance, Paul tried to calm the outraged crowd by relating his Damascus conversion experience again (see Acts, chapters 21 and 22). He repeated the words that Christ said to him—”Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting”—along with Jesus’ instructions to go to Damascus.

Faced with the greatest opportunity of his life to preach the Gospel to Jews, Paul didn’t give his listeners a dry theology lesson. Instead, he shared a personal experience, his own encounter with Jesus Christ.

Every Catholic who has received the Blessed Sacrament should be able to do the same. Hopefully we can all describe the great peace we have experienced from time to time after receiving Communion at a Sunday Mass. We can explain how we went to a church to pray during a difficult time and felt God’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, bringing us wisdom, calm, clarity, a sense of fatherly comfort, or at least a new perspective on our problems. Fortunately, we do not need to travel to Syria to have an encounter with Jesus, as Paul did, because our Lord is as close as the nearest Catholic church.

Finally, all four Gospels include a description of the Last Supper. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke also describe what is commonly called the “institution narrative”, the sequence of events in which Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (probably written around 56 A.D.), he also recites the institution narrative, which he had not witnessed but which he had been taught. Paul relates that Jesus said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me (1 Cor 11:24).”

The words that Paul was taught to say as a Catholic priest in the first century are the same words that we hear at every Mass. His conversion event led him to recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God, but it was only through prayer, study, and being taught by others that he was able to accept the mystery of the Eucharist and share it.

Like Saint Paul, we can recognize that Jesus’ Presence in the Blessed Sacrament is an invisible gift that can transform our lives if we allow Him to do so. We can share our personal experiences of God’s peace through the sacrament with other people. We can humbly attempt to better understand Church teaching by reading the Catechism or other Catholic books about the Eucharist. And we can be thankful that we didn’t need to be struck blind to find out that God loves us and comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament at every Mass.

Charles de Foucauld: Not Your Typical Saint

Saint Charles de Foucauld,
Wikimedia Commons

On December 1, the Church remembers Saint Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). Charles was such an obvious candidate for canonization that it’s surprising that he was not beatified until 2005 and canonized until 2022.

After all, he was respected even by his Muslim neighbors when he died as a hermit in the African desert, and his writings have inspired many Catholics since his death. But Charles’ life was full of many twists and turns.

Charles Eugène, vicomte de Foucauld, was born in Strasbourg, France, and seemed to have all the advantages of life at the time of his birth. His family was wealthy, noble, and could trace its ancestry back to the Middle Ages. But his mother and father both died when he was only six years old, along with one of his grandmothers, and Charles and his younger sister were raised by their maternal grandparents. He was befriended by an older cousin, Marie Moitessier, when he was ten years old and remained close to her for the rest of his life. Marie was a devout young woman, and she recognized that Charles’ behavior as a child—his tendency to hide, frequent tantrums, and laziness in his studies—was merely a cover for his grief over the loss of his parents.

Although his grandparents meant well and raised Charles and his sister in the Catholic faith, they indulged the children as well. With little supervision or almost no discipline in his life, Charles lost his faith when he was an adolescent. Explanations for the Christian faith seemed to have no meaning to him, particularly after he had been exposed to secular philosophy through his voracious reading.

Entranced by the ongoing political struggle between France and Germany at the time, young Charles patriotically decided to pursue a military career. Although he had been expelled from one boarding school for laziness, he somehow managed to be admitted to a military academy. Since his grandfather had just died and left him his entire estate, Charles had plenty of money to spend on food and parties while he was at the academy. He did manage to graduate, but only as 333rd out of a class of 386.

A few years later, he was sent to Algeria. Charles fell in love with the desert and with the native people. However, he was also overweight, chronically tardy and lazy, and engaged in a very public affair with a Parisian dancer. He was dismissed and sent back to France, only to return to service soon afterward in Tunisia. He had discovered a love of geography, and, after returning to France again, he planned an expedition to Morocco, an area which was considered off-limits and dangerous to westerners at the time. Charles’ journey through the Sahara, with the aid of a Muslim guide, earned him the reputation of a great explorer, and his written account won him an award from the Geographical Society of Paris.

After his famous trip, Charles returned to Paris. He was twenty-eight years old, and his family had already placed legal restrictions on his inheritance to prevent him from continuing to spend all his money on his pleasures. They probably expected him to resume his dissipated life with even more wine, women, and song.

But the Hound of Heaven finally caught up with the passionate, intelligent young man. Charles’ adventures and mishaps had opened his mind to the truth and his heart to something other than his latest obsession. In characteristic fashion, Charles raced from the extreme of libertinism to a decision to become a Trappist monk. Few religious orders can come close to the asceticism practiced by the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as the Trappists.

Charles loved to pray, and he loved the Trappist life of poverty. But it wasn’t enough. He felt called to live more closely to the poor. He moved to Nazareth to serve a community of Poor Clares as a gardener and porter for several years. With the help of a French priest—who had been patiently directing the impulsive Charles for years—Charles was ordained a priest. Finally Charles believed he was ready for the vocation to which God was calling him: living as a hermit.

Taking the name of Charles of Jesus, he settled first in Beni Abbès, Algeria, and later in Tamanrasset, an oasis city in the mountains of Algeria. He set up his hermitage near the Tuareg people, an native ethnic group of Muslims. He learned their language and wrote a dictionary and book of grammar. He established friendships with his nomadic neighbors. He shared food and supplies with the needy who constantly came to his door. He became known and respected as a marabout, or holy guide, to the people of the region.

And he brought Jesus. When he established his hermitage, he knew that his tabernacle contained the only Presence of Jesus Christ in the Algerian desert. He spent hours each day adoring his Lord, interrupted only by his writing and his frequent visitors. The man who had been teased about being fat now ate so little that he lost his teeth and suffered the results of dietary deficiencies. And he waited for years, hoping for conversions from the native peoples which, sadly, did not come.

On December 1, 1916, tribal raiders broke into Charles’ hermitage and attempted to kidnap him for ransom. Soldiers arrived, however, whom the raiders shot and killed. Charles was accidentally shot as well. His Tuareg friends buried his body.

Since his death, Charles’ writings have inspired many to try to love as he loved. His witness has given birth to thirteen religious communities, five lay associations, two secular institutes, and one society of apostolic life. Through his writings and the story of his life, he continues to inspire Catholics all over the world.

While many Catholics have undergone profound conversions from a life of vice to a life of virtue—such as the famous Saint Augustine of Hippo—and later become saints, Charles is far from typical. Even after he abandoned a life devoted to pleasure, he struggled with obedience to his superiors. He was often carried away by his grand dreams. He seemed to fail in his goal to bring the Tuaregs to Christ. But Charles de Foucauld died to himself and to his own desires in order to let Christ live in him, and, in that, he was a perfectly typical saint.

Praying for the Poor Souls with Saint Gertrude the Great

Saint Gertrude of Helfta,
Wikimedia Commons

Each year on November 2, the Church invites us to pray for all the faithful departed who have not yet entered into Heaven. Now commonly called the poor souls in Purgatory, these are the baptized men, women, and children who have died, desire to spend eternity with God, and need to be purified of their faults before entering into Heaven. (Find out more in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1020-1060.)

How can Saint Gertrude the Great (c. 1256-c. 1302) help us pray for those who have already left this world, both those we know and those we don’t? Before we learn about Gertrude’s prayer, we should learn about her life.

Gertrude was five years old when she was sent to be educated by nuns in Eisleben, Germany. There is much we don’t know about her early years, such as her parents’ names and whether the nuns were members of the Benedictine order or the Cistercian order. But it was a common practice for noble families to send their children to monastic schools, and Gertrude appears to have enjoyed her life among the nuns. After all, she chose to stay and be professed as a nun herself when she grew up.

From a purely intellectual perspective, Gertrude had good reasons to be happy at the Monastery of Helfta. Her teachers quickly realized she was an intelligent student. The convent library contained both religious works and secular writings, and she happily studied both as a young nun.

Gertrude made friends at the monastery too. One of the nuns in particular had befriended her when she was young, and that friendship became a friendship of equals when Gertrude grew up. But Saint Mechtilde of Helfta (c. 1241-c. 1298), as she is now known, was more than just a nun. She was a humble woman with a love of prayer, and she shared her mystical experiences with Gertrude. Unbeknownst to Mechtilde, Gertrude faithfully recorded all Mechtilde’s visions, though she only told Mechtilde about it near the end of her life. Mechtilde’s spiritual writings were later collected and published as The Book of Special Grace.

But one does not become a nun for the sake of making friends or reading books. One day when Gertrude was twenty-six years old and was praying, our Lord appeared and spoke to her. She called this pivotal moment her conversion, although the devout young nun was not living a life of sin. But it certainly converted her to a life of wholehearted love for Jesus Christ.

Gertrude set aside her study of secular works and devoted herself to the study of the Bible, the liturgy, the Fathers of the Church, and other great theologians. She received many visions, which she tried to understand with the mind of the Church. She wrote down her insights to share with her sisters, and she composed prayers that inspired the whole community.

The image of Saint Gertrude at the top of this article shows her with a book (representing her Scriptural studies and her own writings) and her rosary and crucifix (representing her love of God and prayer), with her monastery in the background. The depiction of Jesus Christ hidden in her heart reminds us of the details from one of her visions, but it also points to Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which she promoted almost four centuries before Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. One detail in this image—and in almost every image of Saint Gertrude—is apparently wrong. She is often shown holding a crozier, the shepherd’s crook that indicates the position of abbess. Gertrude was apparently not an abbess, but the woman who was her abbess was named Gertrude, which later led to confusion.

Many prayers are popularly attributed to Saint Gertrude. Some of them were written by her, but others were written by members of her community. If any of those prayers inspire us to pray more deeply to God, Gertrude and her nuns would not be concerned about who gets the credit for composing them.

But she really did write this famous prayer:

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal Church, for those in my own home and within my family. AMEN.

Some say that Gertrude taught that praying this prayer would release a thousand souls from Purgatory. Perhaps that’s the case when Gertrude prayed it. For the rest of us, it is enough to pray it as fervently as possible for those who can no longer pray for themselves and to trust that God hears us, particularly on All Souls’ Day.