Saint Makers of the Month of May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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