Great Women, Great Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February: A preview of the saints of the month

La Purificacion, Luis de Vargas,
Jl FilpoC, CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

There are thousands of saints in the calendar of the Catholic Church, which means that there are hundreds of saints every month. In my book about saints, I tried to make that number a bit more manageable by only including a few saints per day and limiting the descriptions of each one to a short biography. But if even that seems a bit overwhelming for you, here’s another way to help you focus on the saints in a regular but more limited fashion.

The Church’s calendar arranges the days in the liturgical calendar in the following order (from highest ranking to lowest ranking).

A solemnity is a celebration of a belief, event, or person of the greatest importance and with universal significance to the Church. Christmas is a solemnity.
A feast is a day of celebration that is of lesser importance than a solemnity but of greater importance than a memorial. The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is a feast day, as are all the days celebrating the Twelve Apostles.
A memorial is a day of celebration that is less significant than a feast or a solemnity. The most prominent saints, such as Saints Agatha and Polycarp, are remembered with memorials.
Optional memorials are, obviously, optional; a priest can choose to celebrate them at Mass or not. Many well known but less prominent saints, such as Saints Blaise and Ansgar, are remembered with optional memorials.

Why all these distinctions? If a saint is remembered with a memorial or feast, the life of that holy man or woman is of greater significance to the universal Church than the other saints of that day. Local churches may have their own adaptations. On February 8, for example, a priest in Italy may be more inclined to celebrate the optional memorial of Saint Jerome Emiliani, while a priest in Africa may be more inclined to celebrate the optional memorial of Saint Josephine Bakhita.

What does all this mean? If you find it difficult to remember to turn to the saints every day, try looking up just the following saints on their dates. Although all the saints are holy examples for us to learn from, it is not unfair to think of these as the greatest of the saints of February—and to turn to them for assistance this month.

DateTitleDescriptionType of Day in Liturgical Calendar
Feb. 2The Presentation of the LordCommemorates the date that Jesus was presented to His Father in the Temple as an infant.Feast
Feb. 3Saint BlaiseHe was the martyred bishop of Armenia (d. 316) and patron of throat ailments.Optional Memorial
Feb. 3Saint AnsgarNinth century monk and bishop who evangelized Sweden and Denmark.Optional Memorial
Feb. 5Saint AgathaVirgin-martyr who endured severe tortures before her death around the year 250.Memorial
Feb. 6Saint Paul Miki and CompanionsIn 1597, twenty-six Catholics were martyred together in Japan.Memorial
Feb. 8Saint Jerome EmilianiItalian priest who founded a religious order to care for orphans in the sixteenth century.Optional Memorial
Feb. 8Saint Josephine BakhitaRose from slavery in the Sudan to become a religious sister in Italy.Optional Memorial
Feb. 10Saint ScholasticaBenedictine nun and abbess from the sixth century who was also the twin sister of Saint Benedict.Memorial
Feb. 11Our Lady of LourdesCommemorates the apparition of the Blessed Mother to Saint Bernadette and the subsequent messages encouraging prayer and healing.Optional Memorial
Feb. 14Saints Cyril and MethodiusApostles to the Slavic peoples in the ninth century.Memorial
Feb. 17Seven Holy Founders of the Servite OrderCommemorates the seven holy men who founded a monastic order in the thirteenth century, calling themselves the “Servants of Mary”.Optional Memorial
Feb. 21Saint Peter DamianBenedictine abbot, cardinal, and Doctor of the Church who lived in the eleventh century.Optional Memorial
Feb. 22The Chair of Saint PeterCommemorates the role of Saint Peter, Vicar of Christ’s Church.Feast
Feb. 23Saint PolycarpBishop of Smyrna (Turkey) and Father of the Church who died a martyr in 107.Memorial
See my book for more details about these and other saints.

February 2020: Leap Day Saints

Gregorian calendar, 1582, Aloysius Lilius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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