A New Blessed for the Knights

Richard Whitney / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Since my book only includes those who have been named saints or blesseds by the Church, I unfortunately had to omit Venerable Michael McGivney, the priest who founded the Knights of Columbus. But the Congregation of the Causes of Saints recently announced the beatification of this holy man; see the news article here.

But Michael McGivney isn’t about to be called “Blessed Michael McGivney” because a group he founded not only continued after his death, but expanded and currently serves the needy all over the globe. He’s being beatified because he lived a holy life.

For example, Michael’s father died when he was a young seminarian studying for the priesthood. He had to leave school to go to work so that he could support his mother and many siblings. When he was able to return to his studies and become a priest, he didn’t need anyone to tell him that fathers were important, including their ability to financially support their families. One of the perhaps lesser-known features of the Knights of Columbus is the life insurance they offer for fathers, in order to protect families like their founder’s from falling into poverty.

Venerable Michael McGivney, intercede for all the fathers I know,
that they might be holy men and good fathers.

More July Saints for the Movies

Saint Simeon Stylites; Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July Saints for the Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating Carmelite Saints in July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All you Carmelite saints, show me how to pray.

July: Old Testament Saints

From British Museum / Public domain; see Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why there is no Supplemental Calendar in my book about saints

Sister Maria Laura Mainetti. Public Domain.

In the June 28 entry of my book, Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year, the final saint biography and prayers for that day are followed by the recommendation to the reader to see the “Supplemental Calendar” in the book. However, as readers will quickly discover, there is no Supplemental Calendar.

Obviously, this is a typo, but the reason for the mistake makes for an interesting story.

When I submitted my manuscript about saints to Ignatius Press, I included many holy men and women who had not (yet) been canonized or beatified by the Church. Ignatius’ editors and I initially planned to put these men and women in a separate “Supplemental Calendar” of saints.

However, there are many books about the saints available today, and one of the unique things about my book is that the main calendar includes only those men and women who have been declared saints and blesseds by the Church. That is, all the saints in my book are either present in the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum, the latest official calendar of saints issued by the Vatican, or they have been formally declared saints or blesseds by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints since 2004. Since the final version of my book, without these extra holy men and women, was 548 pages long, it made sense to omit these “not yet” saints.

Some of the men and women who were omitted are unlikely to be formally canonized by the Church in the future. In some cases, that’s because too many centuries have passed since the person lived. One of my personal favorites in this category is Saint Macrina the Elder. She was the grandmother of Saint Basil the Great, but when she was a young mother, she and her husband raised their children in the woods, Swiss Family Robinson-style, to avoid certain death during the time of the Roman persecution of Christians. I have future plans to write a book about the saints I had to omit.

Of the fifty-nine men and women who were removed from my book when the Supplemental Calendar section was dropped, it’s just been announced that one of them—Blessed Charles de Foucauld—will be canonized a saint in the near future, as described here. And you can find the Vatican biography of Blessed Teresa Maria Pia Mestana, who is referred to in my book but not present, here.

Another holy woman that I had to omit from my book is Sister Maria Laura Mainetti. This Italian nun agreed to meet three teenage girls late at night in the woods because they told her that one of them was pregnant and in need of help. The three girls had become involved in the occult, and they stabbed Sister Laura to death as some sort of satanic pact. When they were arrested, the girls said that Sister Laura prayed for God to forgive them, even while they were killing her. The murder of Sister Laura occurred on June 6, 2000.

On June 16, 2020, at about the same time that Pope Francis declared Sister Laura a martyr for the faith, someone broke into Saint Elizabeth of the Hill Country Church in North Carolina. The thief or thieves took only the church’s tabernacle and all the hosts inside. While the person responsible may not have stolen the Blessed Sacrament for explicitly satanic purposes, removing the hosts and desecrating the church in this way was clearly a demonic act. Since, as of this writing, law enforcement is still looking for the culprit, asking Sister Laura for help would be a very reasonable thing to do, even if she is not (yet) considered a saint.

Sister Laura Mainetti, help us to forgive those who have committed this act of desecration,
and intercede for the restoration of the Blessed Sacrament to the Church.

June 2020: FAQs about “Saints”

Why did you write a book about saints?

I knew almost nothing about the saints when I became a Catholic as a young adult. But I quickly learned that good biographies of their lives helped me figure out how to live my life as a follower of Christ. Just like you and me, holy men and women of the past faced difficult relationships, indecision, bad health, and even epidemics.

Initially, I collected biographies from many books just to help me pray, but when my collection had become a book in itself, I decided to offer it to others, with the help of the wonderful people at Ignatius Press.

How did you choose the saints in your book?

Every author who writes a book about inspirational men and women has the difficult task of deciding which ones to leave out and which ones to leave in; I decided that only those men and women who have been declared saints and blesseds by the Catholic Church would be included in mine. The Church’s latest official list of saints and blesseds is called the Martyrologium Romanum (Roman Martyrology); it was last revised in 2004 and is only available in Latin. All the individuals in my book are present in the Martyrologium Romanum or have been officially declared saints or blesseds by the Church since 2004.

Although there are dozens or hundreds of saints listed for each day of the year in the Martyrologium Romanum, I selected anywhere from two to several saints for each day. All the most well-known saints are included, but almost every day also includes a martyr-saint,[1] and every pope who has been declared a saint or blessed is present.

Who are your favorite saints?

That’s like asking, “Which of your children is your favorite?” I try not to play favorites with my children, with my friends, or with the saints.

However, I have found Saints Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, and Therese of Lisieux most helpful in my prayer life; Saint Louis de Montfort most helpful in understanding the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the Doctors of the Church (whom I hope to write a separate book about someday) most helpful in understanding the truths of the faith.

Why have I never heard of the saints on your blog?

The best-known saints are described in my book; my daily blogs give short biographies of lesser-known saints and blesseds who are not in my book. The blogs give you an idea of the format of my book, but they also show you that there have been inspiring and holy Catholic men and women of all ages, from many countries, and from many different time periods—even though most of us have never heard of them.

[1] There are only a few days of the year where no martyr is listed in the Martyrologium Romanum.

Saint of the Day

May 14: Saint Erembert

If you enjoy this daily blog of lesser-known saints, see my book, which contains short biographies of saints for every day of the year.

Saint Erembert (d. c. 672) was a Benedictine monk when the king of France nominated him as bishop of Toulouse. One event in his life has survived over the centuries.

He had traveled to his hometown to visit his brother when a fire threatened to destroy the town. Erembert prostrated himself outside the church and prayed. A wind diverted the flames, and the city was saved. His brother and his two nephews were so inspired by Erembert’s holy example that they also entered a Benedictine monastery and donated the family estates to it.

Saint Erembert, show me how to trust God with everything in my prayers.

Saint of the Day

May 13: Saint Servatius

If you enjoy this daily blog of lesser-known saints, see my book, which contains short biographies of saints for every day of the year.

Saint Servatius lived in the fourth century and became the bishop of Tongres in modern Belgium. When Saint Athanasius, the famous archbishop who spoke out against the Arian heresy, was banished, Servatius not only wrote against Arianism but also sheltered Athanasius during his banishment. Servatius predicted that the Huns would invade the area—which they did several decades later—and he went on a pilgrimage to Rome to beg for the protection of his people.

Servatius was greatly revered for his faithfulness and holiness during the middle ages, and several relics of his were venerated during that time.

Saint Servatius, help me to stand up for those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

Saint of the Day

May 12: Blessed Jane of Portugal

If you enjoy this daily blog of lesser-known saints, see my book, which contains short biographies of saints for every day of the year.

Blessed Jane (d. 1490) was a princess of Portugal at her birth, and when her brother and mother died, she seemed to be the likely heir to her father’s throne. Despite her royalty, she lived the life of an ascetic—praying two hours late each night, wearing a hair shirt as a penance, and devoting herself to the practice of her faith.

Her father refused her repeated requests to join religious life until a successful expedition against invaders—and a younger brother and heir—made it possible. She immediately distributed all her personal possessions and left for a Dominican priory. Her family refused to let her take vows for a long time and kept trying to arrange politically expedient marriages for her, but she ultimately achieved her heart’s desire of living as a simple nun in the house and performed the same lowly tasks as every other member. She died at the age of thirty-eight and was perhaps poisoned by a disgruntled woman whom Jane had rebuked for her scandalous life.

Blessed Jane, show me how to rid my life of things that separate me from God.