January 17: A saint to help us fight the battles of our modern age

The scandals and sins of our modern age seem so, well, modern, that we might be tempted to think that the examples of people from past ages cannot help us. After all, how would the people who lived millennia ago been able to help us find solutions to problems like sexual promiscuity, consumerism, and mockery of all things Christian?

The saint celebrated by the Church on January 17, Saint Anthony the Great, could.

The Torment of Saint Anthony, Michelangelo,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anthony was born in Egypt in the year 251. Although Christianity was illegal in the Roman empire at the time, the persecution of Christians waxed and waned from time and place, so his wealthy Christian parents were able to safely raise him and his sister in the faith. When they died, Anthony was only a young man, although a very rich young man. Inspired by a few passages of the Gospels that were read at Mass and that God seemed to directly focus on him, he left everything behind to live in the desert. During the rest of his long life—he died at the age of 105—Anthony lived in extreme poverty, trained the Christian men who chose to follow him how to live lives of holy asceticism, fought demons, corresponded with emperors, survived possible martyrdom, converted crowds, performed miracles, and, to keep his hands busy, wove mats.

The image above, painted by a young Michelangelo many centuries after Anthony’s death, portrays one of the most famous stories of his life. As recounted by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria in his famous biography, Anthony soon learned that living in the desert was a true battle. Athanasius had already fought some famous battles with the Roman emperor when he, as bishop of Alexandria, refused to mouth the lies about Jesus Christ which are now known as the heresy of Arianism.

But the battles that Anthony faced as a young man were the same kind of battles faced by every young man and woman who has ever lived: the battles for purity and temperance. Just because Anthony lived in the desert, far away from elegant food, physical comforts, and lovely women, that didn’t mean the thoughts of them weren’t continually tempting him to run back to his former home. Anthony experienced these memories and imaginations as demons who continually taunted and tested him. Though Anthony had few visitors, even they reported that they could somehow see this battle occurring between Anthony and the devil. Obviously, Anthony ultimately won that battle and became a saint.

When Anthony was nearing the end of his life, the persecution of Christians erupted again in Egypt. Dressed in a sheepskin tunic—presumably a sign not only of his poverty but of the fact that he was a Christian monk—he entered the city to encourage the Christians living there to stand fast in their faith. Even the pagans were impressed with this amazing man from the desert. Why? Not only because his prayers resulted in miraculous healings in their midst or because of his great age. But because, having sought Jesus Christ for so long in silence, he was able to show even unbelievers the characteristics of God through his respectfulness, intelligence, charity, simplicity, and truth.

How did Anthony defeat the perennial human desire for sexual gratification, an unending yearning for more and more stuff, and the cowardice that leads us to abandon what we believe in when it threatens our comfort or even our life?

Anthony the Great,
Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut and Byblos,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The answer is shown in the tiny cross in Anthony’s hand in the Lebanese icon shown above. It is only the Cross of Jesus Christ that can help us, as it helped Anthony, discipline our unruly passions, be at peace with what God gives us, and speak truthfully and charitably about our faith to those who mistreat us. The Cross of Jesus Christ is the weapon of love that allows His followers to be victorious in every time and place.

Saint Anthony, help me remember to turn to the Cross of Christ in fighting my own spiritual battles.

To learn about other saints celebrated by the Church during the month of January, see this blog about saintly teachers.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cusco

January: A Month for Saintly Teachers

Does every diocese in the world celebrate Catholic Schools Week during the last week of January or just mine? It’s certainly the perfect time to do so. After all, the calendar of saints practically demands that we celebrate the teaching profession in late January.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Protector of the University of Cusco

For example, the Church’s official calendar of saints, the 2004 Martyrologium Romanum,[1] celebrates these holy men and women, one right after another:

  • January 23: Saint Marianne Cope (1838-1918) was the mother superior of a home and school for lepers on Molokai (USA).
  • January 24: Saint Francis de Sales was an influential French bishop whose excellent writings explaining the faith brought many Protestants back to the Church in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
  • January 25: One of the greatest saints in the history of the Church, Saint Paul the Apostle, whose writings have taught every Christian about Christ, celebrates his conversion to the faith on this date.
  • January 26: First century Saints Timothy and Titus show us the power of a great teacher; both of these men gave their lives to Christ as priests and evangelists because of the encouragement of Saint Paul.
  • January 27: Saint Angela Merici did the unthinkable in fifteenth century Italy when she, a mere woman, began teaching religion and other subjects to children.
  • January 28: Saint Thomas Aquinas’ achievements as a scholar and writer changed the worlds of Catholic theology and philosophy forever, and his personal brilliance has made him the patron of students hoping to emulate his phenomenal memory (particularly while taking tests).
  • January 29: Saint Gildas the Wise was a sixth century hermit and abbot who helped his monks grow in holiness and was one of the earliest British historians.
  • January 30: Saint Mucian Mary Wiaux (1841-1917) was a simple lay brother who was given the chore of teaching art to students at his order’s school; his students were profoundly affected by his prayerfulness, but also by the way that his gentleness and compassion as a teacher brought out the best in them.
  • January 31: Saint John Bosco was a nineteenth century priest who devoted his life to the care and education of boys in his native Italy and formed an order which spread all over the world.

Our modern world thinks of teaching as a career; the saints saw it as a vocation, a calling by God to help other people, particularly children, grow in wisdom. Far from today’s emphasis on education as a means of simple economic advancement or personal pride, the Catholic understanding of education sees something far more profound.

Saintly teachers certainly recognized that educating children in the fundamentals—teaching them to read and learn basic math skills—better enabled them to support themselves as adults, protect their own families, and become better citizens. But every culture has its own challenges for young people. The leper colony on Molokai, Hawaii, was a place without hope until Saint Damien de Veuster arrived, and the school that Saint Marianne founded with him enabled children with leprosy—children who could never leave that island—to learn about the world beyond the sea that surrounded them. Saint Angela Merici’s Italy was a world of warring cities and education only for the rich. She made it possible for girls to learn about God and building happy families. Saint John Bosco had learned magic tricks and gymnastics when he was young as a means of drawing other boys to Church to worship God; in the trying economic times of nineteenth century Italy, he brought boys into his group homes and schools so that they could become good Catholic men, rather than roaming the streets as unemployed pickpockets, thieves, and worse. Saint Mucian Wiaux was given the task of teaching art because he was a bit too gentle for more demanding subjects—some said he couldn’t control the classroom at times—but in small groups, through one-on-one instruction, he literally changed the lives of his students simply by showing them Christ-like love.

Every teacher worthy of the name should communicate truth; Jesus is, literally, the Truth. The wisdom, knowledge, and power of God literally poured out from Christ’s lips when He spoke in Galilee and Judea, and that same truth pours itself out when we draw close to Him. Saint Gildas’ treatise on the history of Britain in the sixth century is still studied today—there are no other historical accounts from that time period—but sometimes criticized because he wrote it with an axe to grind. His goal in writing? To convince his countrymen, like a prophet of the Old Testament, that their current problems were the results of their sins and failures to live as true Christians.

To say that Saint Thomas Aquinas communicated truth is a fact hardly worth mentioning. Although there are a few theological, philosophical, and moral issues that he supported in his writings that are not in keeping with current Church teaching (he didn’t see the necessity of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for example), in almost every other matter, Thomas’s writing is often put forward to precisely explain Church teaching. One simple example: we are still singing the hymn he wrote for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi seven centuries later. One could say that Saint Thomas’s life was devoted to communicating truths to lead people to Christ the Truth.

But ultimately, these saints knew that the greatest gift was Christ Himself, who told His apostles to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.”[2] Saints Paul, Timothy, and Titus were obedient to that command. Paul taught the good news of salvation through his missionary journeys, his personal example, and his letters. In his letters to Timothy and Titus, he teaches them how to do the same; tradition says that both men, like Paul, “died with their boots on”, engaged in evangelizing the world for Christ.

But today’s world is not unlike the world of Saint Francis de Sales, a world that has rejected the Church because it thinks it has better answers. January is the perfect month to both thank holy teachers for fulfilling their vocations to bring truth to those around them—and to remember that we are all still students who should be studying for our “final exam” before God Himself. All you saintly teachers, pray for us!

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Thomas_Aquinas,_Protector_of_the_University_of_Cusco.jpg

[1] Martyrologium Romanum, Editio Altera, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004 (note that this is available only in Latin).

[2] Mark 16:15.